Oil and Us: Friedman gets it right (for once)

Thomas Friedman of the New York Times  today on the matter.  While I don’t think much of some of his other opinions I found this piece by Thomas Friedman of the New York Times very much aligned to my own thinking.  At some point or another we will have to come to terms with actually conserving energy.  In the meantime, however, there is a game going on, and the world consumer is a participant, whether we like it or not.  Things you can do to not play include these:

  • Don’t travel
  • Telecommute
  • Don’t use air conditioning
  • Live in a house or apartment with good insulation

It was about 29°C outside and 23° inside my home office as I wrote this post.  Here’s a little piece of humor I alluded to earlier: we have two gas guzzling cars, but how much does it matter if you don’t drive them?  That first bullet is hard for me and for our family, with relatives and friends so far away.  My recollection is that an efficient airplane gets you about 20-30 passenger miles per gallon of fuel.  As I travel to New Hampshire this week that will be a round trip distance of over 7,500 miles, which equates to about 250 gallons of fuel.  Put another way, I normally use about 13 gallons of fuel per month in my car, and so one plane trip to the United States is greater than my entire year’s use of gasoline.  This is one of five trips I’ll make across the pond this year, nevermind those we’ve caused relatives to make.  I’m as bad as the next person, I suppose.

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What is the difference between a Democrat and a Republican?

The administration has reached a deal with the House and the Senate to extend its domestic spying powers.  Something the administration insisted upon was language that forgave service providers for having betrayed their customers’ trust by revealing what was thought to be privileged information without a warrant.  The administration argues that they need the power to catch terrorists.  However, the controls that are put in place, not only in law but in our Constitution are there to protect us, and not terrorists.  Richard Nixon was a big fan of domestic spying and famously abused the NSA’s capabilities for his own political purposes.  We see today that corrupt governments all over the world abuse their positions.  By definition the power of a sovereign overwhelms individuals.  This was recognized as far back as the Magna Carta, but furthered through the writing of our own Constitution and Bill of Rights, which enumerated the power of government, and reserved all other powers to the States or the people.  Today’s Supreme Court has nearly lost sight of that for fear that we might be attacked by terrorists.  There are worse things than being attacked by terrorists.  Kit Bond, a leading House Republican said last week, “When the government tells you to do something I think you all recognize that is something you need to do.”  That is dictatorship, not democracy.

But it gets worse.  By forgiving the service providers, the Congress has said that it is okay to break the law if you’re a big enough company with powerful enough lobbyist, so long as you do it with the blessing of the current government.  “We’ll clean up your mess.”  That says that laws only matter to individuals and organizations that cannot afford to pay.

Republican Congress passing the extension of such intrusive laws would have been expected, as President Bush pretty much had his way with them.  With the Democrats, the calculus is very different.  First, they do not want to be labeled soft on terrorism, for fear they’ll alienate their right flank.  Furthermore, while the press is reporting that the Democrats don’t want to make this a campaign issue, what they really don’t want is for a President Obama to have to have to address the matter.  And so they’ve all but adopted the Republican position.

Not so nearly unrelated as you might think, Social Security is the 3rd rail of politics, and yet as everyone knows the fund will run out of money, and is desperate need of restructuring.  If the Republicans attempt to do it, they get beat over the head by folks such as the AARP and others for trying to remake it in a way they would like.  Just as it took Nixon to go to China, it will take the Democrats to restructure Social Security.  And yet they won’t for fear of giving up one of the best potential campaign issues.  Thus nothing happens, no matter who is in office.

I expect principled leadership.  In both houses of Congress I see none. Government has to be about more than just the Abortion Battle and the Gulf War.  It has to be about understanding the liberties we Americans had (I really can’t say “have”) and protecting, or restoring, them.  The people who landed in Jamestown sought freedom from established orthodoxy.  Were they alive today they would turn over in their graves to see what we have recreated.

So, what is the difference between a Democrat and a Republican in reality?  Answer: not much.

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Off To New Hampshire

Many of us are geeks.  We like to think that just because we have a good idea other people will like it as well.  We’re particularly bad at user interface design and understanding the underlying economic drivers for technology.  As a case and point, why is it that IPv6 hasn’t taken IPv4’s place, even thought it has been in existence for nearly fifteen years and solves a real problem of address space shortage?  The answer can be found, I believe, in economics, which is to say that the motivations have not been there to spend the money to get people to move from one system to the other.

On Tuesday I am off to New Hampshire via Boston to attend the Workshop on Economics of Information Security (WEIS).  In past conferences, WEIS has covered such topics as when to disclose vulnerabilities, the economics of the insurance industry and cyberthreat insurance, digital media protection mechanisms, and the risks of new technology introduction.  One past paper that I particularly enjoyed discussed the risks of homo- versus heterogeneity in an enterprise.  It has long been an axiom that if you wanted to protect yourself from systemic failure you used redundant systems that are built using different methods.  In airplanes the rule is meant to keep passengers alive (although Airbus has flouted this idea, according to the Telegraph).

Cyberthreat insurance people take this to the extreme by not particularly liking even the idea of interoperability.  Their logic goes that any interoperating system can continue a cascading failure, and that is potentially true.  Of course, while an insurance salesman might want you to not have an accident, his management need some accidents to prove that insurance is necessary.  The extreme case of a cascading failure, however, has insurance people shaking in their boots.  They get away with insuring households and businesses against losses by (a) applying a reserve and (b) knowing that a fire or other natural accident can only cause so much damage in a local area.  In the case of a computer virus, they have no reason to believe that there is any locality, and so the policies tend to be very restrictive.

I have a few economic questions of my own to ask.  What will it take to motivate the adoption by a service provider  of a new authentication mechanism that would provide benefit to OTHER service providers?  In other words, how will service providers serve the common good?  In general, by the way, they do.  They recognize rightly that if they don’t cooperate on their own they will be made to do so under far less favorable terms.  But here is something new, and not old.  Introduction of new technology and new ways to cooperate is not exactly what they’re all looking for.  I am.  If we can find improved methods of authentication for end users we can surely reduce the value a PC represents to a criminal.

Of course this means we have to create a new authentication mechanism that actually does improve matters, but as my favorite theoreticians say, let’s assume that’s true, nevermind reality.  What then has to happen for the mechanism to be adopted by consumers and providers alike?

Going back to that earlier question of what will it take for IPv6 to get deployed, in this year’s WEIS Jean Camp, Hillary Elmore, and Brandon Stephens have produced a paper that puts the question into a formal economics context.  While the work is neither the beginning nor the end of the discussion, it is a very good continuation.

You can soon expect a post that discusses the outcome of this year’s conference.

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The Hazards of Coffee

Christine got turned off of coffee when she was a young girl.  Her grandmother served it, and so that’s what she drank, but she didn’t like it, and still doesn’t.  I, on the other hand, am a Coffee Achiever.  But I can only achieve so much.  As many of you know, I like a half cup of coffee and a whole lot of milk.  Usually, there’s a lot of hand movement to demonstrate only this much coffee and THAT MUCH milk.  In Switzerland I’ve achieved Coffee Nirvana in two ways: first, the regional favorite is something called a Schale (a bowl).  In Schwiezertütsch that means “a half a cup of coffee and a whole lot of milk.”

Second, I’ve gotten addicted to Illy moka coffee that I make using one of those octagonal espresso brewers.  I remember percolators from years ago, and the coffee never really did thrill me.  But these octagonal thingies are better than the french press I’ve been using for eons.  The only problem is that there is no automatic “off” button.  You put it on the flame (or electric burner if you must), and then wait about seven minutes for it begin to boil, at which point you snap the thing off the heat so that you don’t burn the beans (something Starbucks does with stunning consistency).

I discovered Illy when we were in a villa in Roccastrada, Italy last summer, and after a week I learned how to properly brew the stuff AND that I am not 17 anymore, and two cups of that stuff will keep me awake for two days.  So that is hazard number one.

Hazard number two happened yesterday.  I made myself a reasonably good cup of coffee, went into my office, sat down at my desk, and knocked the coffee all over two disk drives, a computer, numerous power cords, my MacOS Leopard Install disk, the wall, the curtains, and the carpet.  I spent the next two hours cleaning, and nothing is quite right.  The Leopard disk was most easily dealt with because it got rinsed and placed in the drying rack.  Christine probably knew something was amiss when she saw a DVD in the dish rack.

This spill (if you can call it that) was above my daughter’s pay grade.  I couldn’t have hit more targets if I had tried.

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How the U.S. Bureaucracy Breaks Down Abroad

There’s a lot you don’t think about when you live in America.  Taxes are what they are.  You can usually even do them yourself.  If you want a passport, you go to the post office and apply.  If you want to donate to a charity you go to their web page and donate.  But if you’re not a U.S. resident, things get a little more tricky.  For one thing, that donation you wanted to make has a form that only lists states without an option for countries.  This happened to me when Bill Cosby called for everyone to donate $8 to the U.S. National Slavery Museum (although I notice that they’ve now fixed this little problem by moving to PayPal).

When a child is born normally you don’t need to do anything, except perhaps sign the Social Security application.  For us it was another matter.  We had to first get an international birth certificate, then get a foreign births registration, and then get a Social Security card and a passport.  All of this was necessary for our taxes and for Joanna to be able to travel to the United States.  As an American she has to enter the U.S. on a U.S. passport.

And of course anyone who has seen the Borne Identity thinks they know what the U.S. Consulate in Zürich looks like.  Well surprise!  It looks nothing like what you see in the movies.  It’s a little hole in the wall with a very SMALL waiting room and no place to change the diaper of a four month old baby, which is how old she was when we did all of this.

But it got even sillier.  We brought the required pictures for her, and the chargé d’affairres informed us that we couldn’t use pictures that were printed my handy dandy little Canon.  Instead we had to go and get professional photos.  And the hits just keep on coming.  The picture of a new born child is not all that identifying.

And of course then there’s me.  With the mad rush for passports thanks to inane policies of the Bush Administration, if I need to get a new passport, which I will soon, it means I will have to park it in Switzerland for whatever period of time it takes for that passport to make it all the way to the States, sit in some pile, and make it all the way back to Switzerland.  Probably some weeks.  This doesn’t seem like a lot, for most people, but Switzerland is a small country, and work sometimes requires me to travel.

You may like to invest your money in mutual funds.  Hopefully that’s protected you from some of the downturn that has occurred lately.  As expatriates, however, we are generally excluded from buying new mutual funds thanks to a lack of clarity as to how they are regulated outside of a state.

Want to use Quicken?  Forget it.  Quicken is not usable for foreign currencies, and so you end up doing kludges like treating foreign bank accounts as mutual funds with each unit priced in dollars.  Did I mention that because we have foreign accounts we have to file yet more paperwork?  Hopefully gnucash will be more usable in the future than it was in the past.

When we actually do come back to the States, we’ll have to deal with yet more paperwork to bring in our cars (if we can at all) and even some of that California wine we brought across.

The thing about paperwork is that perhaps in each instance there is a goal that someone could argue is legitimate.  For instance, in my daughter’s case, the government is trying to protect against kidnapped children.  But a picture really won’t help, and yet it’s required.  And if they want one, they should make it easy for citizens to comply.  The paperwork for bank accounts is meant to address tax evasion through offshore accounts.  In the case where someone lives in the States, that makes sense.  But does it really make sense for those of us who live abroad?

Well, as it turns out, many of us pay taxes to the United States even though we don’t live there.  Yes, my daughter will be cursed with this when she is old enough, just because she is American.  I don’t mind paying some taxes, actually.  America is my home country.  But I expect representation in return, and really all I want is civility out of our civil workers and some intelligence about when and how to apply rules that involve paperwork.

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