Monday, November 23. 2009
In late 1961, Ayn Rand gave a speech entitled “America’s Persecuted Minority: Big Business.” Her speech began with these words:
“If a small group of men were always regarded as guilty, in any clash with any other group, regardless of the issues or circumstances involved, would you call it persecution? If this group were always made to pay for the sins, errors, or failures of any other group, would you call that persecution? If this group had to live under a silent reign of terror, under special laws, from which all other groups were immune, laws which the accused could not grasp or define in advance and which the accuser could interpret in any way he pleased—would you call that persecution? If this group were penalized, not for its faults, but for its virtues, not for its incompetence, but for its ability, not for its failure, but for its achievements—would you call that persecution?
However true those words were in 1961, they could not be more spot on than today. The persecution of big business has been institutionalized in our media, schools, and public discourse. And the charges Rand enunciated—making businesspeople pay for others’ sins, treating their guilt as a foregone conclusion, applying vaguely defined laws to them alone, and punishing them for their achievements—are more applicable today than ever.
Let me recount some of the ways. We vilify the captains of the oil, coal, and nuclear power industries. Never mind that they provide abundant energy for transportation, manufacturing, and our homes, schools, and hospitals. The party line is that they are destroying the earth. Only by relying on inefficient and unreliable forms of energy such as windmills, solar cells, and geothermal power can we avert disaster. Oxcarts, anyone?
We promote “green” technology—a strange mix of primitive technologies (that, ironically, only the wealthy can afford on a practical scale) and nature worship. We mandate a transition to electric cars that only the ideologically motivated want. We build windmills and solar panels that put our power requirements at the mercy of the weather. The essence of the green movement is that our great industrialists have done more harm than good, and we would all be better off if we returned to the natural state from which we came. Ah, the good old days—when the average lifespan was 30 years.
No industry is spared our wrath. The banking industry is required to provide mortgages to people who can’t afford them. When banks that make bad loans inevitably fail, it’s the bankers’ fault. But not to worry: the government will take over the banks and cover their losses so that the practice of giving out bad loans can continue.
Then there is the target du jour, the health insurance industry. When I hear people discussing health insurance I often find myself wondering if they have the slightest inkling of how the insurance business is supposed to work. It’s a very simple concept. Customers pay low recurring fees for insurance against unlikely but very expensive catastrophes. We have strayed so far from the original model, however, that it’s hard to see what it has to do with today’s health insurance business. Health insurance executives are now expected to insure everyone against everything. When there is no buyer-seller dynamic, prices become terribly distorted. To wit, many people feel that it would be perfectly reasonable for health insurance companies to pay out more than they take in.
You know it is persecution when businesspeople are thrown in prison for crimes that few people would consider more than misdemeanors. Michael Milken was indicted on 98 counts of racketeering and fraud. It sounds like Milken—who donated huge sums to medical and education causes—is a very bad man. But consider this: he was sent to prison based on a plea bargain in which he admitted to six felonies that are about as nefarious as turning in your homework a day late. For example, Milken pleaded guilty to sending confirmation slips through the mail that failed to disclose that a commission was included in the price. And the sixth charge was conspiracy to commit the other five.
Don’t get me wrong. I’m not saying that there aren’t any crooked businesspeople. There’s no doubt that Bernard Madoff committed fraud.
But it’s also wrong to falsely accuse people just because they are successful. They might have done something right.
Monday, November 16. 2009
I’ve known Dewayne Hendricks for years as a fellow wireless entrepreneur but only recently had a chance to meet up. Just back from Saipan, he was on his way to speak at an IEEE conference at Southern Illinois University in Carbondale, Illinois. My son and I met Dewayne at Flaco’s Cocina where we talked about the FCC, entrepreneurial spirit, Buckminster Fuller, and ham radio.
Dewayne exudes two things that are in short supply these days—enthusiasm for technology and high performance standards. (Actually, high standards are always in short supply.) He’s spent much of the past 30 years trekking the globe, bringing broadband Internet access to users in developing countries (such as Mongolia and the Kingdom of Tonga), rural areas (such as Indian reservations), and other challenging locations (the Northern Mariana Islands). Think of Dewayne as a wireless IMF (Impossible Missions Force) agent.
Dewayne first came to SIU for a chance to interact with futurist Buckminster Fuller at Fuller’s World Game. Fuller invented the geodesic dome (the world’s first geodesic dome greenhouse can be visited at Shaw’s Garden in St. Louis) and wrote the book Operating Manual for Spaceship Earth. Dewayne ended up as Assistant Director of SIU’s computer center and is proud to call Fuller and Paul Baran (co-inventor of packet switched networks) his mentors.
Like my son and I, Dewayne got hooked on amateur (ham) radio as a teenager. While he pursues new technologies, Dewayne (callsign: WA8DZP) feels that too many hams are only interested in operating and not enough are interested in pushing the technology envelope. He was involved in early efforts to grow the use of spread spectrum in amateur radio, but encountered resistance. That reminds me of the CDMA debate during the early 1990s. When Qualcomm proposed that mobile phone operators use code division multiple access (based on spread spectrum) they were accused of technology fraud. Now there are 500 million users defying the laws of physics...
I was particularly struck by Dewayne’s take on amateur radio’s digital/packet data/Internet capabilities. Hams used to lead the adoption of new technologies; now they are playing with stuff that’s light years behind the commercial sector.
Which brings me to an idea. In order for amateur radio to grow, it needs to attract more young people. One way to do that might be to build a global broadband/mobile amateur radio Internet access network using spread spectrum technology. Perhaps the first steps would be to form a group to study the applications that are likely to appeal to young people; determine what is technologically feasible; and recommend changes to amateur radio service spread spectrum rules.
If that sounds like a wireless Mission: Impossible, then we better call Dewayne Hendricks.
Friday, November 13. 2009
Book Review: The Cult of the Amateur, by Andrew Keen
Andrew Keen sounds the alarm: the Internet is being used to spread false information, cheat artists and authors, steal our identities, destroy our reputations, violate our privacy, and lower our standards. He’s right about all of that. As a society, we need more discussion of the Internet’s corrupting influence, and we need to update some laws to reflect the new online reality.
However, Keen is wrong about two crucial points, and it detracts from the value of an otherwise impassioned and clearly-written book.
Web 2.0 is the Internet after the bubble. It’s a brave new world in which everyone is always connected, everyone has access to the world’s information, and everyone gets to participate. And it’s what Keen calls “The great seduction,” because it’s debasing our culture.
Keen is right that our children spend too much time online. He’s right that the Internet is teeming with false information. He’s right that it’s wrong to illegally redistribute digital music just because it’s easy to do. And he’s right that people we meet on the Internet often are not who they pretend to be.
To hear Keen tell it, however, the Old Media offers all of the virtues that Web 2.0 lacks: trained journalists, qualified experts, fact-checking, a clear line between reporting and editorializing, and ethical standards with teeth. For example, Keen points to Thomas Friedman of the New York Times and Robert Fisk of the Independent in the UK as bona fide experts on the Middle East. Reasonable people might disagree about whether Friedman is as knowledgeable as he is opinionated. But Robert Fisk is well known for his bias against Israel and his belief that journalists should advocate rather than just report the news.
Ironically, Keen uses the example of doctored photos submitted by Reuters photographer Adnan Hajj during the last war between Israel and Lebanon. Keen wants us to remember that Hajj was fired for violating Reuters’ ethical standards. He seems oblivious to the fact that Internet-based citizen-journalists (such as Charles Johnson) have discovered and exposed a series of faux photos, memos, and stories that got past the Old Media’s vaunted gatekeepers.
To wit, the circulation of major daily newspapers is dropping like a rock not just because the Internet is timelier and less expensive, but because consumers are tired of shoddy reporting and editorializing that starts on Page One.
There is one other thing missing from Keen’s analysis: caveat emptor. Sure, there are people selling bad stuff on the Internet, just as there have always been swindlers. We will never enjoy total protection against fraud and deception—unless we are willing to start giving away our freedoms. Personal responsibility has to be factored into the equation.
Keen is right about the dangers of Web 2.0. Instead of trying to revive the Old Media or regulate ourselves to death, however, we need to push for higher standards and update laws where necessary.
Thursday, November 5. 2009
About 15 years ago we hosted Steven K. Roberts when he passed through Chicago with his Behemoth, a computer and communications-laden recumbent bicycle. Steven is a life-long high-tech nomad, though on this trip he was soft pedaling Behemoth—transporting it cross country via truck, that is.
An image invoked by Steven during dinner at the Akai Hana restaurant in Wilmette, Illinois has stuck with me all of these years. We were talking about the bottlenecks to acquiring knowledge. Steven said “I wish there was a vacuum cleaner attachment for my brain so I can just suck in the information.”
And that brings me to the topic of this post: my reading philosophy. I don’t mean reading philosophers (though I’ve done my share of that), I mean my philosophy about reading. We already have a vacuum cleaner attachment for our brains—two of them, in fact—but it takes some thought and practice to get the most out of them.
Here are some of the things I’ve learned as a life-long, voracious reader:
Read the great books ASAP – Get your hands on Britannica’s Great Books of the Western World and read the entire set. Seriously. You can often find used sets for a fraction of the price of a new set at used book sales. (Don’t worry, the greatest books ever written haven’t changed much over the last 50 years.)
What can you expect to get out of reading the Great Books? You will acquire a wonderful foundation of knowledge. You will exercise your brain. And you will develop the discipline to be a Great Reader.
I recommend ignoring Britannica’s “reading plan” and attacking the set in chronological order. I don’t think it’s necessary to work through all of the geometry and mathematics, however. If you read every day, you should complete the set in less than five years. (I did it in 4.33 years.)
Take Evelyn Wood Reading Dynamics – I took the class about 20 years ago and it was well worth the fee. Most people can read faster and comprehend more just by learning good reading habits. Don’t “speak” the words in your mind and keep your eyes moving. A capable instructor can show you how to get more out of reading.
Work on more than one book at a time – I discovered that when I am reading and start to feel tired I can switch books and catch a second wind. These days I tend to work on 2-4 books at the same time. This approach works best with books in different genres or at least on different topics, however.
Read a variety of books – The quest for knowledge should be as broad as it is deep. I mainly read non-fiction, but it’s important to read an occasional novel. The more I read the more connections I see between what I’m currently reading and things I learned in the past. In the quest for knowledge, the sum of the parts is greater than the whole.
Be an empathetic reader, but limit your patience – I give every author a fair chance to convince me—even if the thesis of a book seems to contradict what I believe. However, my time is valuable and I won’t finish a book just because I started it. If I think a book is weak, I might switch to fast-scan mode, harvesting what little value I can find. I rarely pick books that turn out to be totally worthless, but it happens once in a while, and the sooner I stop reading them the less time will be wasted.
Start reading at 4:00 am daily – OK, it’s not for everyone. I only need 5-6 hours of sleep per night. I get the most reading done (about 2.5 hours on average) by starting before other family members get up. Life is too short to get to every book I want to read, but by starting early each day I can read 100 books per year.
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