Congress: instead of breaking the Internet how about fixing child identity theft?

Updated on Friday, February 24, 2017

Child Identity Theft; A Lot of Questions Need to Be Answered, But the Most Important One is

According the the Carnegie Mellon CyLab one in ten – 10% – of children in the US have had their identity stolen. Most likely this is related to the relative ease with which social security numbers can be predicted.

As a parent this makes one want to start checking credit reports, but according to a Today Show segment on the topic “Advice for concerned parents on this point is nuanced. Both the FTC and the Identity Theft Resource Center say parents should not check their kids' credit reports on an annual basis.” Kids shouldn’t have credit reports, and if they do then checking them obsessively might do more harm than good by damaging their credit rating.

WTF?

It doesn’t seem that complicated to me. How about at birth or when the child’s social security number is generated placing an automatic block on it until their 18th birthday? There should also be a process to register existing children with the credit rating agencies until automatic registration kicks in. Would this for some reason be difficult or controversial?

Also, is there a great reason for social security numbers to be short and based on states and birth years? I guess there’s a Y2K level problem to update every computer system, but converting SSNs to UUIDs sounds like a great stimulus program to me.

Apparently Representative Jim Langevin has introduced legislation to try and fix the problem for foster children. Which is great, but why just for one special group? If 10% of children (or anything like this number) really are affected then this is a pressing issue that should be getting a lot more attention.

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Occupy Intellectual Ventures

Updated on Thursday, November 12, 2015

Send them a troll. Now.

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The startup costs are too damned high

Updated on Friday, February 24, 2017

Startup Legal and Technology Costs

The Startup Genome people have launched a complicated tool to benchmark your Startup against others.

I’ve developed a simpler model. It used to be you spent too much money on Sun and Oracle. Now it’s fighting off patent trolls.

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Episode Four

Updated on Friday, February 24, 2017

President Barack Obama meets with staff to discuss ongoing efforts to find a balanced approach to the debt limit and deficit reduction, in the Oval Office, July 11, 2011. (Official White House Photo by Pete Souza)

I became a US Citizen in 2010 so I didn’t get to vote in the last presidential election. If I had been able to vote it would absolutely have been for Obama. I was captivated by the promise of a transformational presidency. I should have known better and I was completely mistaken.

The outcome of the debt ceiling negotiation is motivating me to write about this now, but it’s really just the final straw. Well, not quite a straw, it’s unconscionable that an increase in tax revenue isn’t part of the deal. And how was the conversation boxed into subtle differences in where to cut trillions of dollars rather than why? It’s hard to think of a better way to increase unemployment and decrease growth.

Reasonable people can disagree on the budget. What really bothers me is that Obama has failed so comprehensively to rectify the damage that Bush did to America’s reputation and moral authority. If you want to spread democracy and freedom it would seem to me that the most powerful tool is providing a shining example and an inspiration. America has often played this role – never perfectly but the imperfections have historically been an embarrassment. Now, increasingly, they’re a source of pride: celebrating assassinations, brushing torture under the carpet, a war on whistleblowers and increased use of ‘state secrets’ to brush aside inconvenient due process.

On torture in particular Obama’s “…belief that we need to look forward as opposed to looking backwards.” kills me. It’s not a defense I feel I could use to fight a speeding ticket. It’s a complete abrogation of responsibility.

It also really bothers me that Obama can’t just come out as supporting gay Americans having he same rights as the rest of us.

All this leaves me with a large problem in 2012. Even though I live in California and therefore have a worthless vote I still take my electoral responsibility seriously. I just don’t think I can vote for this guy, even if he’s better than the alternative.

Obama: please don’t run in 2012. I need a new hope.

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High-Frequency Trading

Updated on Friday, February 24, 2017

Fibre optic cable

Algorithmic trading is getting a little out of hand:

“For high-frequency trading firms that use powerful computers to pop in and out of positions in milliseconds, so-called collocation, or "colo," is a pricey necessity. That's because trade times are approaching the speed of light, and the only way to make light reach its destination quicker is to shorten the trip.” smartmoney.com

This kind of trading accounts for an estimated 70% of US market volume. It’s completely disconnected from any kind of intrinsic value and only creates a benefit for the HFT firms and the exchanges that pocket the fees and exorbitant server hosting fees.

It’s like installing an ATM skimmer on the capital markets.

I think we need some way to enforce a hold period to discourage this business model. It could be an actual window that forces you to hold stock for a few days before selling (actually a few minutes might help), more likely a tax or fee that is prohibitively high at the millisecond turnover rate but ramps down to nothing after a week. 

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Legislative Service

Updated on Sunday, May 16, 2021

congress

Churchill said “Democracy is the worst form of government, except for all those other forms that have been tried from time to time.” and since then we seem to have given up trying to find a better one. Twiddling with the mechanics of voting doesn’t count.

My idea: Legislative Service. This is modeled on Jury Service only instead of judging a person you’re asked to judge a proposed bill. In your typical bicameral system of government the Legislative Service would replace the upper house. The Senate in the US, The House of Lords in the UK.

In a US version 101 citizens would be randomly drafted for each bill. The pros and cons of the bill would be presented in an adversarial environment, much like a jury trial. The citizen legislators would then vote anonymously and either pass the bill or send it back to the House of Representatives. The President would retain the right to veto a bill.

Such a system would castrate the malign influence of money and lobbyists in the political system. It would also improve engagement as more citizens take part or talk to friends and family who have served.

You would still have professional legislators who would be responsible to their constituents. They’d just have a harder time adding pork and returning favors. Each bill would need to be palatable to a majority of average citizens.

Possible objections:

People dodge jury service all the time. Wouldn’t you end up with a similar problem? I don’t think so. Legislative Jury would be far more prestigious.

Isn’t the average voter too stupid to understand complex legislation? You are the average voter. In any case, the adversarial system would give both sides a chance to both argue and explain. Expert witnesses could be called. Ballot measures that are voted on by the entire electorate suffer from this problem as money is spent to over-simplify and obfuscate. In Legislative Service you’re taking a representative sample of the electorate and giving them the time and help needed to make a serious judgment.

It’s unconstitutional! This would require a constitutional amendment.

What about knee-jerk legislation? Tyranny of the Majority? Hopefully this system would help to put a brake on hasty and ill-thought through bills. The President would retain veto power and the Supreme Court would be able to annul unconstitutional decisions and so sufficient checks and balances would remain in the system.

Of course getting rid of The Senate isn’t going to happen overnight. I can think of a couple of ways to start moving in the right direction.

Firstly, this plan is just as applicable at the state level. My state, California, is a mess and this proposal could help. There are rumblings about holding a constitutional convention and if this happens I want us to ditch ballot initiatives and replace the State Senate with Legislative Service.

Secondly, and more plausibly, what about setting up Legislative Service as a non-profit to look at each bill and vote on it but without the actual power of preventing bad bills from being enacted? A sort of non-partisan citizen think tank. If any of my billionaire readers are interested get in touch.

I’ve been mulling the idea of Legislative Service for quite some time, but especially following the atrocious reform of the British House of Lords in 1999 resulting in an upper house composed of appointed peers, a handful of hereditary peers and a few bishops. This threw the independent oversight baby out with the unelected toffs bathwater. Since 1999 I’ve lived in California and my revulsion for the US political climate keeps growing. Serious change is needed. I think Legislative Service is it.

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Thinking about the UK referendum on AV

Updated on Thursday, November 12, 2015

I just got my postal ballot for the UK referendum on switching from the current first-past-the-post system to the alternative vote (AV). I’m going to think out loud about which way to go.

Each campaign has a handy top three list. The yes campaign says:

MPs working harder to earn - and keep - our support: Your next MP would have to aim to get more than 50% of the vote to be sure of winning. At present they can be handed power with just one vote in three.  They’ll need to work harder to win - and keep - your support.

I’m not sure anyone campaigns to get less than 50%. Because AV means that the candidates with the least support are the first votes to be redistributed this inevitably means campaigning to capture votes from the fringes. It’s also a bit of a misdirection. Just because you end up with 50% of the vote after x rounds of redistribution doesn’t mean that you have the wholehearted support of 50% of your constituents.

A bigger say on who your local MP is: Ranking candidates gives you more say - in who comes first and who comes last. If your favourite doesn’t win, you can still have a say. It’s as easy as 1,2,3…

It is appealing to be able to vote your conscience and then vote reality. But as you’re still ending up with a single MP you’re not getting proportional representation (that would be STV or similar schemes) and there is always going to be a winner. Maybe better to have the courage of your convictions and actually make the hard choices involved in picking a single candidate to vote for.

Let’s say that you favor green policies and so want to send a signal by voting for the Green party. Green candidate off the table you’d vote for Labor. Under FPTP your vote for Green risks dividing the Labor vote and allowing a Conservative candidate in. Under AV you can happily vote Green #1, Labor #2 safe in the knowledge that your vote is going to be redistributed. You’re sending a signal either way, but the signal that involves a candidate losing their seat because their policies were not green enough seems like the stronger one, even if it’s more painful in the short term.

Tackling the ‘jobs for life' culture: Too many MPs have their ‘safe seats’ for life. Force complacent politicians to sit up and listen, and reach out to the communities they seek to represent.

To the extent that this is a problem it would seem that term limits would be the answer. AV will still produce plenty of safe seats. Very bad choice of a third argument.

The no campaign says:

AV is costly: The change to AV will cost up to an additional £250 million. Local councils would have to waste money on costly electronic vote counting machines and expensive voter education campaigns. With ordinary families facing tough times can we really afford to spend a quarter of a billion pounds of taxpayers' money bringing in a new voting system? Schools and hospitals, or the Alternative Vote – that's the choice in this referendum.

Even if you take this number at face value it would be a small price to pay for better governance. Silly first argument.

AV is complex and unfair: The winner should be the candidate that comes first, but under AV the candidate who comes second or third can actually be elected. That’s why it is used by just three countries in the world – Fiji, Australia and Papua New Guinea. Voters should decide who the best candidate is, not the voting system. We can't afford to let the politicians off the hook by introducing a loser's charter.

How I hate the ‘something culture’ and ‘whatever charter’ lingo. AV isn’t particularly complex. In fact, because you don’t narrow your choice down to one it’s actually less complex than FPTP in terms of the reasoning that goes into your ballot choice rather than the trivial mechanics of actually voting. I think it is unfair though, more on this below.

AV is a politician's fix: AV leads to more hung parliaments, backroom deals and broken promises like the Lib Dem tuition fees U-turn. Instead of the voters choosing the government, politicians would hold power. Under AV, the only vote that really counts is Nick Clegg's. We can't afford to let the politicians decide who runs our country.

Reading the Jenkins' Commission report and looking at examples like Australia this doesn’t seem to be particularly true. The current coalition is the result of FPTP. Australia doesn’t have hung parliaments very often. In fact, AV can lead to larger swings in favor of one party.

My experience of AV in San Francisco is that I often ended up just voting for one candidate. I had a single preference and really didn’t care to rank a second choice (especially in the cases where AV was bizarrely used for two candidate races). This would be possible in the proposed UK system as well.

I think the real flaw in AV is that votes for least popular candidates are the ones that get redistributed, providing a second, third and even fourth vote. This seems fundamentally unfair and unsound. There is no perfect voting system but providing greater influence for minority views seems like a worse trade off than underrepresenting them.

Maybe instead of carving up the vote it would be better to carve up the parties?

I’ll be voting no.

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Intelligence Squared Two-Party Debate

Updated on Monday, February 15, 2021

On Tuesday Intelligence Squared US held a debate on the proposition that “The Two-Party System Is Making America Ungovernable”. David Brooks and Arianna Huffington argued for the motion, Zev Chafets and P.J. O’Rourke against. I’ve included the video of the debate at the end of this post.

I argued for the two-party system to be broken up last year - Republicans and Democrats: Too big to succeed.

Chafets and O’Rourke won the debate in terms of swing (scoring is based on a vote before and after the debate) but the final break down was 50% in favor, 40% against and 10% undecided.

Huffington started with a somewhat lame opening argument, claiming that we’re somehow at a unique junction in history where our problems really need fixing:

“so while the two-party system might have been okay during the ordinary times, we’re not living in ordinary times right now.”

Overall, she focused too much on current issues rather than the systematic functioning (or not) of government.

O’Rourke, as one might expect, was amusing in refuting the proposition but the thrust of his argument is that nobody could do a better job, the public isn’t that interested, the system is broken but why bother trying to fix it:

“I would simply concede the debate if I were able to imagine some other political party or independent candidate – left, right, or fanatically middle-of-the-road – who would do a better job.”

For a free market demagogue like O’Rourke this is incredible. This is like claiming in 2007 that AltaVista and Yahoo! while not perfect are as good as search is likely to get so why would we need Google?

Brooks really got to what I see as the nub of the issue. He argued that politics is full of good people who want to to the right thing being made into worse people by having to conform to brutal tribal party affiliations:

“But they’re in a tribal mentality in what – what they can achieve is severely limited by the tribal sort of Tutsi versus Hutu nature of our politics of the current two-party system.”

This brings Romney’s desperate distancing from the individual mandate to mind.

Also from Brooks:

“The University of Maryland had a very interesting study where they took Tea Party people, they took liberals, and they said, “Here’s our budget problem, you deal with it.” And the Tea Party people acknowledged that they had to raise taxes, and the people on the far left acknowledged some spending had to be cut. They could all do it. But the two-party system can’t do it.”

Finally Chafets cited the US being in the 90th percentile of the World Bank’s Index of Governability as some sort of argument in favor of the status quo. I guess it depends on your definition of governability – being able to reliably elect a government versus having that government actually represent the interests of the electorate once in office.

Here’s the video:

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Response to GGNRA Draft Dog Management Plan

Updated on Friday, February 24, 2017

On Friday the National Park Service published their GGNRA Draft Dog Management Plan which is now open for public comment until April 14, 2011. The Golden Gate National Recreation Area encompasses over eighty thousand acres of Marin, San Francisco and San Mateo counties. In San Francisco GGNRA managed lands include Baker Beach, Crissy Field, Fort Funston and Ocean Beach. If you care one way or the other about dog access to the GGNRA please take the time to review the plan and send in your feedback. I’ve reproduced my comments in full below.

My family lives in San Francisco and owns a dog. Many of the places we regularly go for walks are in the GGNRA. I fully accept that dogs can cause trouble and even danger and that there should be areas in the park that are free of dogs. Dog owners are a large user group though and I’m concerned that the NPS is going too far. If you walk your dog in the GGNRA here’s why you should be concerned:

The plan significantly curtails off-leash dog walking. For example, Fort Funston could go from this (red shaded area is off-leash, click for larger version):

Fort Funstong - Current Dog Access

To this (yellow shaded area is off-leash):

Fort Funston - NPS Proposed Dog Access

Worse than any of the proposed immediate changes is that the new off-leash is different from the old off-leash. The plan creates ‘Regulated Off-Leash Areas’ or ROLAs. A key part of the ROLA definition (PDF) is:

“ROLA areas are subject to adaptive management as identified in each alternative. Subject to monitoring, an area can be changed from ROLA to on-leash or no dogs if compliance is not achieved.”

In other words, despite the two thousand plus page dog management plan we’re being asked to accept that the NPS can revoke access in the future without further consultation. The ‘adaptive management’ described in the plan would use NPS maintained statistics to downgrade off-leash to on-leash to no dogs at all and explicitly rules out ever moving any area in the opposite direction.

Here are the comments I’ve submitted to the NPS (comment ID: 457979-38106/85):

General Comments

My family owns a dog and lives in San Francisco. We visit the GGNRA at least once a week. The Draft Dog Management Plan would reduce our enjoyment and use of the park considerably.

In the plan the enabling legislation for the GGNRA is quoted: “In order to preserve for public use and enjoyment certain areas of Marin and San Francisco counties, California, possessing outstanding natural, historic, scenic and recreational values and in order to provide for the maintenance of needed recreational open space necessary to urban environment and planning, the Golden Gate National Recreation Area is hereby established”. The plan also discusses the long history of off-leash dog access before and after the creation of the park.

Because open space is so limited in San Francisco, and because the GGNRA controls the entire coastline I strongly support continued access to provide reasonable exercise and recreation for dogs and their owners.

I’m very concerned about the tone of the plan and some of the specific provisions.

The objectives listed in the executive summary all relate to controlling, reducing and restricting dog access. Given the park’s charter to provide ‘public use and enjoyment’ and ‘needed recreation open space’ an important objective should be to preserve sufficient space for off-leash dog access.

The plan exhaustively lists real and theoretical issues related to dog access however there is no comparable section discussing issues with prohibiting or restricting dog access. These include wasting limited park resources on restricting responsible dog owners rather than cautioning the irresponsible, forcing dog owners to travel further to take their dogs for a reasonable walk and increasing the likelihood of aggression by concentrating dogs in increasingly small designated areas.     

The plan also continually discusses dog access in the context of park-wide regulations preventing any off-leash dog walking. San Francisco donated properties to the GGNRA on the proviso that traditional recreation would be maintained. The tone suggests that leash-free access was a mistake, and that the park service is begrudgingly fulfilling the park’s mission only when forced to do so. I’d have much more confidence in the process if the plan started from the position of accepting a variety of recreational activities, including off-leash dog walking, and then attempted to balance the varied needs of visitors, culture and wildlife from there.

Given this I find the adaptive management provision of the regulated off-leash areas (ROLAs) to be unacceptable. This provides the NPS with a mechanism to further erode dog access to on-leash only and even to prohibit dogs entirely without further consultation. The plan further states that under no circumstances will the reverse be true – once dogs are banned the park will never consider opening up access again. This is a far greater threat to preserving the park for future generations than any amount of dog access.

Rather than penalizing the vast majority of responsible dog owners the Dog Management Plan should focus on enforcing existing rules and regulations.

Below I discuss the proposed plan for the sites we visit regularly:

Fort Funston

The preferred alternative is far too restrictive. When the closed section of trail to the north of Fort Funston is open again there should be off-leash access for the full length of the beach and alongside trails so that a loop can be made down the sand ladder and then returning via the central or northern access trails. Of all the GGNRA sites Funston would seem to be the best candidate for Alternative A – maintaining current access – especially if the preferred alternative is selected for restricting most of Ocean Beach. We visit Fort Funston weekly, rain or shine, and given how heavily the area is used I’m surprised at how rare it is to encounter any problems.

Crissy Field

The preferred alternative is a good balance. When the east beach is busy there can be far too many dogs and people competing for space. For this reason we usually visit Crissy field when the weather is too severe to walk on an ocean facing beach and so it tends to be just dog walkers anyway.

Ocean Beach

The preferred alternative is reasonable, provided that Fort Funston is not overly restricted (see above).

Marin Headlands / Rodeo Beach

The preferred alternative massively reduces the trail available for hikers with a dog. We often complete the loop up the coastal trail to Hill 88 and then down Wolf Ridge / Miwok to return to Rodeo Beach. The trails are rarely crowded and a well behaved dog has no more impact than a person. The Hill 88 loop should be kept open to off-leash dogs. The preferred alternative for Rodeo Beach is acceptable.

--

Update January 17, 2011: KQED has a Forum segment on the dog management plan at 9am PST today. Join the discussion or access the audio archive here.

Update February 2, 2011: Sign up for this Facebook page: Save Off-Leash Dog Walking Areas in the SF Bay Area.

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We can’t fix politics without fixing 24-hour news

Updated on Wednesday, October 12, 2016

Take a moment to watch Brian Kilmeade and Janet Jackson below.

Brian Kilmeade

Janet Jackson

The wardrobe ‘malfunction’ resulted in the FCC attempting to impose a $550,000 fine (eventually overturned on appeal). Kilmeade’s “Not all Muslims are terrorists, but all terrorists are Muslims”, a genuine obscenity, resulted in a half hearted apology.

We’ve learned very painfully that throwing out Glass-Steagall was a horrible mistake. We need to learn a similar lesson about the Fairness Doctrine.

The current political climate is driven by unbalanced vitriol from both the left and the right. The Fairness Doctrine was eviscerated because of a belief that there was sufficient competition in broadcast media so that all sides of an issue could get fair time. But when you watch a news network that matches your political affiliation this just isn’t the case. If you’re in the news business then there should be some standards, including fairly presenting both sides of an issue and at the very least not repeating lies and insinuations with the authority of mass media.

24-hour news stations are especially bad because most days there just isn’t that much news. This leaves a choice between repeating the news that exists which is boring, or making stuff up which is a lot more fun. Unfortunately It’s also corrosive.

The FCC should be empowered and required to levy substantial fines where news outlets engage in factually incorrect reporting, where a reasonable amount of due diligence (or the slightest familiarity with terrorism) could have a prevented the error. This would reign in some of the worst, and also benefit from generating its own news coverage. We also need to consider brining back the Fairness Doctrine for any news outlet above a threshold audience size – print, television, radio or online.

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