The Last Sane Man on Earth


“You hear the applause at the end of the routine, the people are actually applauding themselves. What I’m saying is not necessarily funny. It’s what you don’t hear that’s funny, and the audience supplies that. It presumes a certain intelligence on the part of your audience, and I think they appreciate that.”
— Bob Newhart speaking in an interview on National Public Radio’s Morning Edition in May 2014.


Happy 90th birthday to comedian and actor Bob Newhart, who was born in Oak Park, Illinois, a suburb outside Chicago, on September 5, 1929. Anyone who has ever enjoyed Mr. Newhart’s comedy knows he doesn’t talk down to his audience, and neither does he go way over their heads. His best friend, another comedian and actor, Don Rickles, placed Mr. Newhart’s appeal best when he nicknamed him “Charlie Everybody”.

Newhart show cast 1977
A June 1977 publicity photo of the cast of The Bob Newhart Show. Standing, from left: Bill Daily (Howard Borden), Marcia Wallace (Carol Kester), Peter Bonerz (Jerry Robinson). Seated, from left: Bob Newhart (Bob Hartley), Suzanne Pleshette (Emily Hartley).

Bob Newhart portrayed Major Major Major Major in the 1970 film Catch-22, adapted by Buck Henry from Joseph Heller’s novel, and directed by Mike Nichols. Norman Fell portrayed Major Major’s orderly, Sergeant Towser.

Bob Newhart has made a career of understatement and staying sane while quirky characters and peculiar events swirl around him, and his style allows his audience to come along with him rather than merely spectate. His straight man “Charlie Everybody” reactions heighten the comedy by letting absurdity seep in and speak for itself, and that requires a delicate sense of timing and a feeling for the oddity in everyday life, a talent he has that is neither as easy to come by nor as simple to share as he makes it seem. Hi, Bob, and happy birthday! Thanks for helping us laugh, and feel good, too, remembering the first is a passing reaction to an event or situation, while the second lingers with us long after the laughter fades.

— Ed.

Bob Newhart remembers his best friend, Don Rickles, in this August 2017 interview with Conan O’Brien. Don Rickles died in April 2017, and the two had been friends since their days as entertainers in Las Vegas in the 1960s. Seated on the couch with Mr. Newhart is Peter Bonerz, one of his co-stars from The Bob Newhart Show and, earlier, from Catch-22. Warning: foul language.


We’ll Take That As a Yes


Last week the United States Congress voted to repeal new Federal Communications Commission rules which would have required that internet service providers (ISPs) notify their customers of the data they collect on them for their own commercial purposes unrelated to providing the service, and that customers had to specifically opt-in to the practice. The FCC voted 3 to 2 in favor of the new rules in October 2016, and they would have gone into effect on March 2 of this year had the FCC not stayed it on March 1 under new chairman Ajit Pai. Outgoing FCC chairman Tom Wheeler pushed for the new rules in order to spell out consumer privacy protections in relationship to ISPs, something which he and two of the other commissioners felt was inadequately addressed in Section 222 of the Telecommunications Act of 1996.


The Telecommunications Act goes back to 1934, when the original law went into effect creating the FCC and granting it the authority to regulate telecommunications companies as common carriers, which is to say the same as utilities. Section 222 of that law pertained to how the carriers could use their customers’ personal information, and it required them to keep the information confidential except as required by law or by consent of the customer. Congress has amended the Act periodically to reflect changes in technology, with the last major revision in 1996.

Common carrier or not is the logical puzzle in question. Substitute “Section 222” for Catch-22 to relish the flavor of the ISP regulatory mess.


Since the advent of widespread consumer internet service in the 1990s, there has been a regulatory battle over whether ISPs should be considered common carriers, and thus subject to oversight by the FCC under the Telecommunications Act. Since some providers, such as AT&T and Verizon, were also telephone companies, they were already partially subject to FCC oversight. It wasn’t until early 2015 with the FCC’s Open Internet Rules that all ISPs were brought under the same set of regulations as common carriers and bound by the consumer privacy protections of Section 222.


Previously the only regulatory oversight of some ISPs on behalf of consumer privacy came from the Federal Trade Commission, and it was limited to holding the companies accountable to the terms of their own privacy policies. The FTC does not regulate consumer privacy regarding the actions of common carriers. It does regulate consumer privacy regarding the actions of so-called edge providers that offer services by voluntary subscription, like Facebook, and of websites in general, but again only by holding them to their own privacy policies, as invasive as they may be. Since the implementation of the FCC’s Open Internet Rules in 2015, all ISPs must adhere to the more restrictive regulations applied to common carriers.


The 1970 film adaptation of Joseph Heller’s brilliant Catch-22 lays out a problem in logic. It does not attempt to explicate it, because that would be impossible and probably unhealthy.


Still, Chairman Wheeler and others felt that the language of Section 222 did not go far enough in spelling out consumer privacy protection in the internet age. Originally written in 1934 when the capacity of a common carrier to sweep up vast amounts of customer data was not even a pipe dream, and inadequately addressed in the major 1996 revision of the law, Section 222 did not explicitly deny ISPs the ability to sell customer data because the ISPs could interpret “with the approval of the customer” in Section (c)(1) to mean they could consider customers opted-in unless they stated otherwise. Being passive and silent rather than active and vocal has always been considered assent or approval, especially by sneaky people with an agenda, and it is a prevalent practice on the internet. That is a trick of the interactive internet age that no one foresaw in 1934, and apparently not even in 1996. In 2002, Democratic Senator Paul Wellstone of Minnesota introduced a bill which would have changed “the approval of the customer” to “the affirmative written consent of the customer.” The bill went nowhere.


Without legislation from Congress to clarify things in the new regulatory environment, Chairman Wheeler felt obliged to take up the slack by adopting Broadband Consumer Privacy Rules in October 2106. As already noted, the vote was 3 to 2. The 3 ayes came from Chairman Wheeler and the two other Democrats on the Commission board. The 2 nays came from the Republicans on the board, including Ajit Pai, now the new Chairman. When the new Republican Congress and President came to Washington, Chairman Pai stayed the new Privacy Rules before they could take effect, and Republican Senator Jeff Flake of Arizona introduced a bill to repeal the Rules and also prevent the FCC from making similar rules in the future.

That’s an android in the center, but it could just as well be you, an internet service customer, caught between government regulators and telecommunications providers.


The rest is history. We are returning to the regulatory environment of the past year and a half after the FCC ruled all ISPs were common carriers, but before it adopted new Privacy Rules to clarify the difference between “approval” and “consent” of customers. Now ISPs, though they are common carriers, have a gray area to navigate in Section 222 of the Telecommunications Act, and their claim that they will still be regulated by the FTC is disingenuous at best, considering the FTC does not regulate common carriers. It should be understandable now why ISPs lobbied to repeal the new Privacy Rules. Citing their own privacy policies in which they claim they never have and never will sell customer data, and which had been enforced by the FTC (they glide over the part about FTC regulation no longer applying to them as common carriers), they claimed the FCC was unnecessarily complicating the regulatory environment. They say they shouldn’t be held to stricter privacy standards than companies like Google and Facebook, thereby putting them at a competitive disadvantage. Except for the part about competitive disadvantage not being applicable to monopolistic utilities that are regulated in the public interest, that’s a fair point. Instead of raising the privacy bar for everyone, however, they and their mostly Republican allies in Congress and in the new FCC prefer to lower the bar, serving corporate interests instead of consumers. Trust us, they say. Uh-huh.
― Techly


You Are What You Eat


The garden catalog dreambooks are starting to arrive in the mailboxes of home gardeners as 2016 ends and 2017 begins. Those gardeners who have ordered from online companies in the past and haven’t unsubscribed from their email list are receiving notices in their inboxes. Winter is the time to sit indoors in warmth and comfort and look over the seeds and plants on offer, either by scrolling through websites or paging through catalogs.


Some garden suppliers tout their seeds as being “not GE” or “non-GMO,” by which they mean the seeds are not Genetically Engineered or produced from Genetically Modified Organisms. Of course they’re not, since those kinds of seeds are available only to commercial growers, not to home gardeners. A different, though somewhat related, concern some gardeners have is whether the money they are spending on seeds will ultimately line the pockets of Monsanto and a few other large agribusinesses because those companies hold the patents on thousands of seed varieties.

World War II poster from the
Office for Emergency Management

Home gardeners can allay their concerns on both counts by doing a little research on their suppliers. The GMO concern is easier to dismiss than the one regarding the ultimate source of the seed. The best thing is to rely on suppliers of heirloom varieties or on open source suppliers who create and share new varieties without taking out a patent.

Deposit Seed Co Victory Garden Catalog 1944 - Flickr - USDAgov
Deposit Seed Co. Victory Garden Catalog 1944;
poster from the USDA National Agricultural Library

A much larger concern for everyone, gardeners and non-gardeners alike, is the prevalence of GMO foods in supermarkets and restaurants. Gardeners at least can sidestep that by growing as much of their own food as possible. Everyone else needs to watch what they buy in the stores, and that is where labels stating “not GE” or “non-GMO” are most helpful since agribusiness has successfully fought off attempts to label some foods as “GE” or “GMO.” Agribusiness executives apparently believe, not without reason, that as the general public becomes better informed about these products it might come to view such labels with the same alarm as a skull and crossbones. Not good for business.


To cite the most prominent example of GMO products, there are the Roundup Ready crops of corn, soybeans, and cotton, which today constitute upwards of 90% of the supply grown in the United States. No one eats cotton, though as Joseph Heller portrayed with the character of the amoral capitalist, Milo Minderbinder, in his marvelous satirical novel Catch-22, it is not too farfetched to think of someone like that trying to convince people to eat cotton if he senses a profit in it. For the corn and soybeans that we do eat, and in prodigious amounts if we eat a lot of processed foods, where they are ubiquitous, the federal government has mandated supposedly safe levels of Roundup. Frankenfoods, indeed.

Lastly, gardeners who care about the fertility of their soil as well as their own health and the health and vitality of the plants they grow for food would do well to avoid using herbicides in their home garden. No matter what, there will always be weeds wherever gardeners and farmers cultivate fertile conditions for favored plants. Scientists have not yet discovered any weeds growing in the sterility of the Moon.
– Izzy