The Curse of Bigness

 

TIMEMagazine19Oct1925
A portrait of Louis Brandeis on the cover of Time magazine on October 19, 1925.

Before he was an associate justice on the Supreme Court of the United States from 1916 to 1939, Louis Brandeis was a progressive lawyer fighting the big monopolies, or trusts, of Gilded Age America. He termed the corrosive effect on democracy of unrestrained business practices “The Curse of Bigness”, and after he joined the Supreme Court he maintained his interest in restraining business interests from trampling the rights of ordinary citizens.

Now President Biden has appointed Lina Khan to the chair of the Federal Trade Commission, and her appointment signals a return to the principles of Louis Brandeis. Lina Khan is an antitrust lawyer and legal scholar who, as a student at Yale Law School in 2017, wrote an article called Amazon’s Antitrust Paradox. The article drew widespread attention for her ideas about how the conventional wisdom of the past 50 or so years regarding regulation of the marketplace based on consumer prices no longer applied in the age of Amazon, a company willing to engage in predatory pricing and use vertical integration in order to stifle competition and monopolize the marketplace.

A profile of Lina Khan in Time from October 17, 2019.

 

Prior to Ms. Khan’s appointment, another antitrust lawyer and legal scholar, Tim Wu, joined the Biden administration as a Special Assistant to the President for Technology and Competition Policy on the National Economic Council. Mr. Wu is known for helping to write the first network neutrality rules in work for the Federal Communications Commission in 2006. In 2018, he wrote The Curse of Bigness: Antitrust in the New Gilded Age, a book which paid homage to Louis Brandeis and his antitrust work of the Progressive Era.

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A Climate Strike protester with an anti Bezos sign in London on February 14, 2020. Photo by Flickr user Socialist Appeal.

With these two people now in key positions in the federal government, perhaps efforts to rein in, or even bust up, big technology companies such as Amazon, Google, Apple, Facebook, and Microsoft, will finally be undertaken seriously and with persistence. In the past, these Big Five technology companies have largely escaped with slaps on the wrist after fitful investigations into their practices.


Supreme Court Justice Ruth Bader Ginsburg answered questions from Brandeis University students at an event in January 2016 commemorating the 100th anniversary of Louis Brandeis being nominated to the Supreme Court by President Woodrow Wilson.

 

As Louis Brandeis understood, and as is apparent from the writings of both Lina Khan and Tim Wu, setting regulatory boundaries for these behemoth businesses not only ensures they act fairly in the marketplace, but protects democracy from their tendency to squash individual liberties when they conflict with their self-interest. And the bigger and less competitive these companies become, the more their self-interest consumes everything in their vicinity, like a beast that can’t stop growing and must swallow anything in its way.
— Techly


An unofficial remix of the 2021 songs “Bezos I” and “Bezos II”, written and performed by Bo Burnham for his album and Netflix special, Bo Burnham:Inside. Warning: foul language.

 

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Vaccination Nation

 

“What made eradication possible was a really good vaccine and political support. There was a real incentive to do it. You don’t ask a cow if it wants to be vaccinated. You just do it.”
— Ron DeHaven, former CEO of the American Veterinary Medical Association, speaking about the eradication of rinderpest, a cattle disease related to the measles virus.

Rinderpest and smallpox are the only two infectious diseases that have been eradicated around the world. Smallpox is the only disease to be eradicated that infects only people. Eradication of other infectious diseases, like COVID-19 for one, is unlikely because there are alternate hosts in the animal population, and while it may be feasible to vaccinate domesticated animals such as cows to the point of herd immunity, it is unrealistic to think the same can be done for wild animals.


Ruins of 19th-Century Smallpox Hospital - Roosevelt Island - New York City - USA - 01 (41147019525)
Ruins of the Smallpox Hospital built in the 19th century on Roosevelt Island in New York City. Photo by Flickr user Adam Jones.

Cows have another favorable trait in reaching herd immunity besides being easily available for their shots, which is that they don’t subscribe to bizarre, illogical, and unscientific conspiracy theories egging them on to refuse vaccinations, if that was a possibility for them. Rinderpest, like its cousin infecting humans, the measles virus, is among the most contagious diseases on the planet, and the more contagious a disease is, the higher the percentage of a susceptible population must be vaccinated in order to achieve herd immunity. For measles and rinderpest, that’s over 90 percent.

Smallpox is – was – in the middle of the scale as far as its contagious qualities, but among the deadliest at around 30 percent fatalities. Influenza, with notable exceptions throughout history, such as the 1918-19 Spanish Flu outbreak, is at the lower end of the scale for both contagiousness and deadliness. COVID-19, like the other Severe Acute Respiratory Syndrome (SARS) viruses to which it’s related, is higher up the scale for contagiousness than the annual flu, but it is nowhere near as deadly as smallpox, though deadliness as always is strongly affected by a victim’s socioeconomic circumstances. The poor, as always in any affliction, die in droves, while the better off have access to the best care and are less likely to be infected in the first place.

One by one through the nineteenth and twentieth centuries, diseases that had killed hundreds of millions over thousands of years were brought under control with vaccines and other public health measures, such as better sanitation. There have always been people of skeptical of the effectiveness of vaccines or suspicious of the motives of the medical people, often affiliated in one way or another with a government entity, who administered the vaccines. The difference in then from now is that before about 1980 evidence of a world without vaccines was still readily available to everyone, rich and poor, living in the industrialized northern hemisphere or in the largely agricultural southern hemisphere.



In 1947, when the threat of disfigurement or death from smallpox was still very real to everyone, the citizens of New York City lined up for blocks to receive vaccinations in order to stem a possible outbreak.

 

Today, people in richer countries no longer see the effects of smallpox at all, and rarely do they see the effects of less disfiguring, less deadly diseases like measles. If COVID-19 were to leave visible scars on those who suffered and survived, instead of just the internal scars it does leave, one wonders if at least some of the people ready to dismiss the seriousness of the disease and the severity of the outbreak would be as obstinate about complying with public health measures.

If there were still children crippled by polio in every neighborhood, would there still be people who are more willing to believe an insane theory about vaccines they read in their Facebook “news” feeds than the scientific fact of once rampaging infections brought to heel in the past two hundred years? No doubt there will always be some hard cases who can’t be reached through reason, no matter what. The amount of the U.S. population vaccinated against COVID-19 is currently about 43 percent, and it needs to be over 70 percent to reach herd immunity. It will be best to cross that threshold before cold weather sets in again, forcing people back indoors. If it’s not, then COVID-19, a disease that will likely never be eradicated, only controlled, could surge once more, making this summer of relative freedom appear in retrospect like a fool’s paradise.
— Vita

 

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The Strategy

 

For industries teetering on the edge of irrelevance, the strategy to remain relevant has always been the same – deny their activities have caused a problem, debunk evidence of harm, and claim they are only giving the people what they want, thus shifting blame onto consumers. From the tobacco industry to the fossil fuel extractors and the pesticide and herbicide manufacturers, they all follow the same script as evidence mounts that the products they once touted as a boon to humanity turn out to be poisonous. Poisonous to mind and body. Poisonous to people, to animals, and to the planet.

What do we want? A planet to live on. -Melbourneclimatestrike IMG 5142 (48764419478)
The Melbourne Global climate strike on Sep. 20, 2019, was attended by over 100,000 people, making it the largest climate protest in Australia to date, and rivaling the anti-war protests in 2003 and the Vietnam Moratorium in 1970. Photo by Flickr user Takver.

 

Add to the list of peddlers of poison for profit agribusiness and its processed foods, along with animal confinement operations and massive applications of fertilizers that deplete the soil instead of enriching it, ultimately leaching into the water every creature needs for survival. Give the people what they want. In entertainment, give the people gossipy reality television shows in the evening and mean-spirited confrontation programming in the daytime.

Social media companies give people information dressed up as news when it is nothing more than pandering to what they want to hear. If giving the people what they want absolves purveyors of poison from responsibility for their actions as they go about making money, then hardly anyone is responsible for anything. A sociopath is concerned only with what he or she wants, and whether the pursuit of those wants interferes with the rights and needs of others is material only to the extent that those others can obstruct the sociopath in achieving their desired end. That’s the society of imagined meritocracy and capitalism of “looking out for number one” that giving the people what they want instead of what they need has created.


The new Ford F150 Lightning battery-powered pickup truck is a step in the right direction of redressing these hypocritical imbalances in an energy hungry society. The original F150, the gasoline-powered one, has been the best selling vehicle in the United States for over three decades. The gas-powered pickup truck will still be available alongside the battery-powered version, but the investment Ford made in developing the Lightning was not insignificant. They could have developed a different vehicle altogether as their flagship entry into the battery-powered market. Putting that investment into a version of their biggest breadwinner, the F150 truck for the masses, is a big step toward making use of electric vehicles common.


A scene from the 1970 film Little Big Man, directed by Arthur Penn. Chief Dan George played Old Lodge Skins, and Dustin Hoffman portrayed the picaresque title character.

 

The development of the Lightning could do for electric vehicles what Ford’s innovation with the Model T did for internal combustion engine passenger vehicles over 100 years ago, namely make a new technology accessible to everyday people. Electric vehicle models have until now been popular only in niche markets, whether that’s more well off people with a need for sportiness driving a Tesla, or people whose need for merely getting around town could be met by a Chevy Volt. If the Lightning becomes as popular today as the Model T did in its day, then it could go a long way toward redressing the climate imbalances kicked off in large part by its predecessor.
— Ed.

 

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Hello, Sports Fans

 

The finale of the National Football League season comes next Sunday with the Super Bowl contest between the Tampa Bay Buccaneers and Kansas City Chiefs at Raymond James Stadium in Tampa, Florida, and it marks the end of a season when relatively few fans attended games in person due to coronavirus social distancing restrictions observed by the league’s teams. Attendance at this Super Bowl will be limited to 22,000 fans, in a stadium that can seat over 65,000. For hard core fans used to watching the games in person rather than on television, it must have been a peculiar season.

Crowd in Polo Grounds grandstand; Cubs at Giants - final game (baseball) LCCN2014682317
Crowd in the Polo Grounds grandstand for the final game of the 1908 baseball season, watching the visiting Chicago Cubs play the New York Giants. Library of Congress photo from Bain News Service.

 

To be at a stadium or ballpark for a game is to experience something beyond the game alone, which really can be viewed more intelligibly on a television screen or computer monitor from the comfort of home. The sports fanatic can spend hundreds of dollars for the experience, counting ticket price, parking, concessions, and other sundry expenses, and still the sports fan prefers bearing those costs instead of staying home to watch the game for free or at very little cost. One hundred years ago, there were no such contrasting choices.

At the beginning of 1921, there was no broadcast medium at all involved in bringing sporting events to the masses. In the United States, radio broadcasts of sports began later that year, with the airing of a boxing match on April 11 in Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania, and a baseball game on August 21 from Forbes Field in Pittsburgh. In both cases, the broadcasting station was KDKA in Pittsburgh. On October 8, KDKA broadcast a college football game. The first American television broadcast of sports didn’t occur until May 17, 1939, when NBC covered a college baseball game in New York City. Hard core sports fans didn’t get to listen to a sports talk radio show until New York’s WNBC started airing one in March 1964.

One hundred years ago, people either bought tickets to see sporting events or read about them the next day in a newspaper. Talking about sports was a first hand endeavor limited to friends, family, neighbors, and co-workers. Now there are several options besides buying tickets for vicariously experiencing athletic contests, and with sports talk radio and television shows and social media, there are many options for sports fans to gab on and on about their obsessions to familiars and strangers alike, both near and far.



One of the subplots from a 1995 episode of Seinfeld involving Patrick Warburton as David Puddy, the boyfriend of Elaine Benes, played by Julia Louis-Dreyfus. Michael Richards played Cosmo Kramer, and Jerry Seinfeld played a fictional version of himself.

 

Social norms of public appearance and behavior loosened after World War II and particularly in the ’60s and ’70s, resulting in sports fans changing over the 50 years from the ’30s to the ’80s from men (they were overwhelmingly men in the stands) who attended the games largely in suits and ties, to people who wore casual clothing, often comprised of the merchandised parts of their favorite team’s uniform. Some went shirtless and painted themselves in their team’s colors. In the 1950s, only little boys and some working class adults wore baseball caps regularly. Now, almost everyone wears one at least occasionally, and many of the caps bear team logos at a price. No one has to grow up anymore (or wants to), and sports merchandisers, who had very little business at all before the 1970s, are counting money in the billions each year now, even without sports fans filling the stands.
— Vita

 

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Sing a New Song

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A white-crowned sparrow in Sacramento, California, in January 2017. Photo by ADJ82.

Researchers studying white-crowned sparrows (Zonotrichia leucophrys) in the San Francisco area this past spring during California’s coronavirus shutdown found that the males had changed their song, presumably because it was easier for them to make themselves heard on account of the drop in human-caused noise. The birds no longer had to trill high and loud to pierce through the cacophony. The researchers noted that the calmer, quieter environment allowed the males to use a wider range of sounds in their calls, increasing their chances of mating success since the females find the wider range, with more low frequency notes, more appealing. The white-crowned sparrows in the Bay Area benefited from the reduction in human activity, and there have been similar stories from around the world this past year of animals enjoying a world less in conflict with people.


A video from The Cornell Lab of Ornithology of a male white-crowned sparrow singing.


Eaux Claires is a social activist group in Eau Claire, Wisconsin, that also hosts an annual music festival. This video of the singer, Feist, covering the Yusuf/Cat Stevens song “Trouble”, was filmed on November 1, 2020, as part of the group’s efforts to encourage people – particularly young people – to vote in the November 3rd election.

The political events of the past week in the United States herald a calmer, quieter environment to come, one in which everyone can be heard, not just those who tweet the loudest in ALL CAPS on social media, sowing hatred and tumult. Through the majority of their votes, Americans elected to step back from the brink of authoritarianism. While a disturbing number of their fellow citizens voted their support for climate destruction, white supremacy, and a sneering contempt for the rights of women and minorities, thankfully a greater number turned out to vote in favor of progress down the road of reason and empathy, not continuing on a death march. Those voters, many of them young people voting for the first time, have given all of us another chance to sing a new song.


“Oh Very Young”, a 1974 song by Yusuf/Cat Stevens. The haunting backup vocal was performed by Suzanne Lynch.


Yusuf Islam/Cat Stevens performs “Oh Very Young” in December 2008.

— Izzy

Song of the white-crowned sparrow as recorded by Jonathan Jongsma for the Xeno-canto Foundation in April 2012 in the Palo Alto Baylands Nature Preserve, California.

 

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The Web

 

“Near the Day of Purification, there will be cobwebs spun back and forth in the sky.” — a Hopi Prophecy

Elon Musk’s SpaceX has sent hundreds of internet communications satellites into low Earth orbit, and has plans to launch thousands more such satellites in the near future. Other companies, among them Jeff Bezos’s Amazon, have similar plans. Within the span of several years, the number of satellites launched into orbit could double from the amount that have been launched since the beginning of the Space Age in 1957. The clutter could interfere with astronomers’ observations and measurements, and even with casual enjoyment of the night sky by lay people.

 

A fleet of East Indiamen at sea
“A Fleet of East Indiamen at Sea”, an 1803 painting by Nicholas Pocock (1740-1821).

There are terrestrial alternatives to webbing near Earth space with tens of thousands of satellites in order to get internet service to rural communities around the world. in the United States, rural electric cooperatives have worked steadily for years to overcome infrastructure and regulatory obstacles to provide internet service along the last mile to their members. It is the big telecommunications and cable television companies, with their friends in big government, that have often made operations difficult for alternative internet service providers. Even when the local governments of towns and small cities try to cooperate with small internet service providers, their efforts are often undercut and overruled by larger government entities working at the behest of large corporations that will brook no competition.

Now comes SpaceX’s Starlink and Amazon’s Project Kuiper, backed by their founders’ deep pockets and enabled by their existing links to big government, links that will only strengthen and deepen as the companies take over near Earth space and provide launching and communications services to government agencies. The partnership with government may even prove to be the primary consideration for both companies, and providing internet service to private individuals a secondary, though lucrative consideration. The partnership could develop into a Space Age equivalent of the British East India Company’s close association with the British Empire, which saw the two entities merging in so many areas public and private that eventually one could hardly tell where one left off and the other began.



In addition to the Space Age, the modern era has come to be known as the Information Age. The internet via the world wide web has become the chief vector of information in these times and, as many have often observed, information is power. In the days when the British East India Company held sway along with equivalent companies sanctioned by other European powers, trade goods from far off lands were the valued currency that governments sought to procure and protect. Governments guarded the trade routes to and from the far off lands as well as the lands themselves. Over time, the various East India Companies adopted their own paramilitary arms to protect their interests. Similar relationships could develop in the coming years as companies seek the help of government in protecting their interests in space in return for providing essential services.

Why should SpaceX, for instance, invest hundreds of billions of dollars in the infrastructure needed to establish colonies in space with the potential for enormous profitability in the long run without being assured tens of billions of dollars in government contracts in the short term and the perpetual cash cow of providing internet service to billions of people every day? Look up in the night sky for answers and soon enough you’re likely to see the winking reflections off tens of thousands of satellites, glinting like dew along the strands of a spider’s web.
— Techly



The last scene of the 1982 meditative documentary Koyaanisqatsi, directed by Godfrey Reggio, with cinematography by Ron Fricke and music by Philip Glass.

 

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Soothsayer Day

 

“A Republic, if you can keep it.”
— Benjamin Franklin, in reply to a question about what sort of government the delegates to the 1787 Constitutional Convention had settled on.

February 2 is the day some people, primarily in North America, attempt to divine the next six weeks of weather by observing groundhogs who briefly exit from winter hibernation in their burrows. If it’s a sunny day, the groundhog will see his or her shadow and, counter intuitively, those watching the animal will pronounce six more weeks of wintry weather. On a cloudy day, with no shadows in sight, the prediction is for an early start of spring weather. People in some parts of Europe have a similar tradition involving different animals, such as badgers in Germany and hedgehogs in Britain.


Emerged from hibernation in February, groundhog takes leaves to line the burrow nest or toilet chamber DSCN0900
Emerging briefly from hibernation in February 2014, a groundhog takes leaves to line its burrow nest or toilet chamber. Photo by Ladycamera.

This is all silliness, of course, with no proof of accuracy, but it is mostly harmless except for possibly obnoxious intrusions on the lives of peace loving groundhogs. In ancient Rome, prognostication using animals took a more deadly turn. All sorts of animals – chickens, sheep, and goats among them – were confined until the day they were sacrificed for the purpose of having a kind of priest called a haruspex examine the dead animal’s entrails for signs of the future. This was deadly serious business, not only for the sacrificial animals, but for the generals and politicians who often did not make a move unless the signs from the entrails were auspicious.

There is no record proving the consistent accuracy of haruspicy (divination by the inspection of entrails), just as there is no record for the accuracy of groundhogs at predicting the weather based on the presence or absence of cloud cover on a particular day. Nonetheless, people have been wasting their time and efforts on these methods of divination for millennia. The ancient method, haruspicy, was a nasty business all around, while Groundhog Day observations cause little harm and are of no consequence.


The Danish National Symphony Orchestra performs a suite of themes from Ennio Morricone’s music for the 1968 Sergio Leone film Once Upon a Time in the West. Tuva Semmingsen performs the vocals that were sung by Edda Dell’Orso on the original soundtrack recording.

 

What about reading the signs of the times, such as looking at newspapers to follow developments in the republic called the United States of America? What about a Senate majority of Republicans who vote to exclude witnesses in the impeachment trial of a corrupt president? What about a Republican state legislator in Montana who maintains that the Constitution of the United States sanctions the shooting and imprisonment of Socialists, merely for being Socialists? What about the chortling lunatics cheering on Orange Julius as he threatens and demeans his opponents at his demented pep rallies? And what about those same cheering, jeering lunatics threatening violence if their Chosen One is removed from office either by impeachment or by the results of an election?

Those signs and others are easy enough to read for anyone paying attention to developments in order to honor the obligations of an informed citizen. There are those citizens, however, who are too lazy to pay attention. Very well; they should continue in their laziness and stay home on Election Day in nine months, rather than show up and vote for the incumbent president simply because the wolf is not yet at their door. And then there are those voters, more culpable in the decay of the republic than anyone else, who are interested only in the health of their financial portfolio, and who are deaf and blind to the cries and despair of anyone shut out of the bounty and suffering under the oppression of the oligarchy. The signs now point toward a Tyranny by Corporate Oligarchy, and if citizens continue to choose it by doing nothing, then after Election Day in November there will be no going back and we will have gotten the government we deserve.


— Vita


For those who can’t get enough of the sound of the loss of the republic, here it is on the theremin. Katica Illényi performs with the Győr Philharmonic Orchestra in Budapest, Hungary.

 

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Like Talking to a Brick Wall

 


The First Continental Congress of the American Colonies sent a petition to King George III on October 25, 1774, requesting he redress their grievances against the British Parliament related to the Coercive Acts passed in response to the Boston Tea Party of December 16, 1773. The king ignored the petition, and consequently the colonists’ march toward revolution picked up momentum over the next year, resulting in the beginning of hostilities in the spring of 1775. Petitions were the primary recourse of the American Colonists in dealing with their British rulers across the Atlantic Ocean since they had no official representation in Parliament, hence the slogan “No taxation without representation.”

The nation’s founders regarded the right to petition the government as so essential to a free society that they included it in the First Amendment, adopted in 1791. They made the right explicit despite the reality that citizens of the United States, unlike colonists under the British Empire, had official representation in the government. James Madison, who was largely responsible for drafting the Bill of Rights, understood that while the people had representation in government, their representatives may not be responsive to the wishes of all the people, and that therefore the people required another, independent outlet “for a redress of grievances.”



The unresponsiveness of government representatives to the people has rarely appeared as evident as it does now, when it seems representatives are responsive mostly to the wishes of corporate contributors to their election campaigns. Polls do not necessarily give lawmakers an accurate idea of how some of their constituents are feeling about issues because responding to pollsters is a passive response to a pollster’s sometimes tailored questions. Poll sample sizes are also often ludicrously small on account of the expense and difficulty of polling. Pollsters claim they conduct their surveys based on well-researched principles in order to achieve accurate representation from small sample sizes, but there are plenty of examples to cite in demonstrating that taking polls is as much art as it is science, and not at all infallible. For one example, look at how inaccurate the polling was in several key Rust Belt states in the weeks before the November 2016 presidential election.


Mrs Emmeline Pankhurst, Leader of the Women's Suffragette movement, is arrested outside Buckingham Palace while trying to present a petition to King George V in May 1914. Q81486
Emmeline Pankhurst, leader of the Woman’s Suffragette movement in England, arrested outside Buckingham Palace in London while trying to present a petition to King George V in May 1914. Photo from the British Imperial War Museum.


Signing a petition is an active measure taken by citizens numbering in the thousands or millions, as opposed to a select few hundreds or thousands responding passively to a pollster. Citizens mostly seek out petitions on their own initiative, or are made aware of them by friends or family, or by reading the news. The relative ease of signing a petition online, compared to signing one circulated door to door, does not discount that people are participating in the political process instead of waiting for someone to ask their opinion. The distinction is not a small one. Yes, physical participation in a protest weighs far more than signing an online petition in getting the attention of government leaders and the society at large, but an online petition nonetheless demonstrates that the people signing it are paying attention. Numbers have always given weight to petitions, and in the internet age it is possible for millions of people to make their wishes known to their representatives within days of a petition’s first appearance.

The petitions currently circulating urging United States House of Representatives legislators to impeach the occupant of the Oval Office are an excellent demonstration of the need of the people for an outlet to make their wishes known to their government. To anyone paying attention honestly to developments originating from the White House since January 2017, it has long been obvious that impeachment and conviction of the current president would be necessary sooner or later to uphold the rule of law. The nation’s legislators, however, always conscious of political calculations and of the interests of their big money donors, have been dragging their feet to avoid having to put themselves on the line in upholding the oath they took to preserve and defend the Constitution.

Captain Queeg, the character played by Humphrey Bogart in the 1954 film The Caine Mutiny, was obviously unstable, but nonetheless discharging him from his command was quite difficult because the captain of a vessel at sea is by necessity an autocrat whose authority is fully backed by a nation’s institutions. For all that, Captain Queeg was not a corrupt grifter with contempt for democratic institutions and a sneering disregard for the norms of civil discourse, and in comparison to the offenses of the current president, Queeg’s official transgressions were minor.

In other words, members of Congress have a constitutional duty to impeach this president for high crimes and misdemeanors he has engaged in too obviously for them to ignore any longer. Whether he will be convicted in the Republican-controlled Senate is anyone’s guess at this point. It probably depends on whether political calculations indicate to at least a few key Republican senators that the time has come at last to throw the president over the side, at which point many of the rest will scramble to get on board.

If millions of American people had waited politely for a pollster to ask them if impeachment was necessary, instead of taking matters into their own hands and petitioning their representatives, Congress might still be dithering, possibly all the way up to Election Day 2020. The current president may not get convicted in the Senate and removed from office before then, but it’s important that public hearings in Congress shine a light long enough and brightly enough on the corrupt and unethical practices of his administration that even the most disengaged voters will have to listen. A brick wall, no matter who constructed it, can keep people from hearing their government at work as well as keep government leaders from hearing the people, but now that representatives have finally listened to people engaged enough to petition them, it’s important that the rest of the populace listen honestly to the arguments for impeachment, and honest engagement requires more than checking an often lopsided Facebook news feed, a far sloppier way of exercising one’s civic duty than signing an online petition.
— Vita

 

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Why We Can’t Have Nice Things

 


Private companies have been making their electric scooters available for riders to share in cities around the United States and in Europe over the past two years, and the results are a mixed bag. Riders appear to appreciate the service, even if some of them don’t show that appreciation in how they ride or park the e-scooters. City governments appear to like that the service fills gaps in their often inadequate public mass transit services, even though they are learning that more regulation is required of e-scooter companies to rein in their sometimes arrogant disregard for city ordinances and of inconsiderate riders whose behavior can be a public nuisance. Members of the public who have no personal need for the e-scooters are largely tolerant of their presence in their cities, but in many places they are finding their patience tested by the problems mentioned above.

 


The technology behind e-scooters and smartphones or, in some places, simple cellular phones, makes the business model of sharing e-scooters in a city possible. An e-scooter rigged for sharing has a Global Positioning System (GPS) module and an inexpensive, basic cellular connection for small amounts of data transfer to communicate its exact position and condition. A lithium ion battery provides power. A rider needs to use the internet application provided by the company for use on a smartphone to unlock the e-scooter and provide for payment for the service. Some localities insist as a condition for operating in their city that e-scooter companies make the service available to people without a data connection on a simple cellular phone. One of the ideas behind the service, after all, is to provide a low cost transportation option for poor people.


Lime e-scooters, Masarykovo nádraží
Lime e-scooters parked next to a subway entrance at Masaryk train station in Prague, Czech Republic. Photo by Martin2035.


The problems arise because, like all private services which take advantage of the public commons, there are abuses. The private companies either do not seek out and pay for permission to park their e-scooters on public property or they may not hold up their end of agreements they have with cities that allow their operations. Since the e-scooters do not belong to them, some riders are unconcerned about how they use them or park them. Equipment abuse is the lookout of the company operating the service, but the abuse of the commons caused by careless parking is a public nuisance at best, a menace at worst. Crime problems have arisen mostly from overnight vandalism of the equipment and from the dangers to workers who must go out at night to find and maintain the equipment.

Bringing e-scooters into cities is a good idea on its surface, and they solve a mobility problem for some poor people or for commuters without cars who find using them more appealing than walking or biking. But with the problems their presence and use are causing by abuse of the commons, it would be better if cities improved their mass transit systems instead. For one thing, e-scooters are not as ecologically benign overall as people may assume, and certainly not in comparison to mass transit options. For another, solving the problems encountered during the initial rollout of e-scooter sharing programs would appear to take up public resources in the form of tighter regulation and consequent enforcement. Wouldn’t it be easier in that case to regulate a comparatively smaller number of mass transit units and operators rather than thousands or tens of thousands of e-scooter units and operators strewn all over a city?

E-scooter sharing programs may last only a year or two more if the current abuses continue, and that’s a shame because many decent people who appreciate the services and have a dearth of other options would probably like to see them continue. Unfortunately this business model appears to go against human nature in that where the commons are concerned, there are always enough bad faith users around to take unfair or inconsiderate advantage of the situation and eventually push the public at large to demand an end to it for everyone. In the words of James Madison, “If men were angels, no government would be necessary.”
— Techly

 

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Between Friends

 


Where were you when the Allies stormed the beaches of Normandy on June 6, 1944? Were you only a glimmering in your parents’ brains?

 


Where were you when the Battle of Khe Sanh began on January 21, 1968? Were you nursing the bone spurs in your heels that would eventually earn you a medical deferment from the draft? Or were you awaiting a pilot’s commission in the Texas Air National Guard?


Refugee child drawing
A drawing made by a refugee child, formerly resident in Pristina, Kosovo, depicting his horrific experiences in the Kosovo War in 1999. The drawing was taped to a wall in the Brazda refugee center in Macedonia. Photo from the U.S. Department of State and NATO.


Where were you when the United States and its allies launched the invasion of Iraq on March 20, 2003, beginning an unnecessary war that would spiral the entire region into chaos? Were you looking under furniture for weapons of mass destruction, something you would joke about later?

Where were you when the world learned in April 2004 that American soldiers had been torturing prisoners at Abu Ghraib prison? Were you throwing a few “bad apples” under the bus, rather than acknowledging a culture of cruelty encouraged from the top down in the chain of command? Or were you busy making the first year of your daytime television talk show a success? Or were you occupied with creating an illusion of yourself as a successful and hard-nosed, but fair, businessman on the first year of your television reality show that was more fiction than reality?

Dire Straits performs “The Man’s Too Strong” in concert at Wembley Arena in London, England in June 1985 during their Brothers in Arms tour.

Where were you in 2008 after conservatives had used the wedge issue of gay marriage four years earlier to whip up the ire of homophobic reactionaries and send them to the polls in just enough numbers to make it possible for the Republican candidate to steal another presidential election? Were you getting married? What does your friend, the Republican presidential candidate, have to say about that now? Is he against gay marriage only when it suits political expediency?

Where were you in August 2016 when the Turks made their first incursion into the Kurdish zone of Syria, where the Kurds had been America’s ally in the fight against the Islamic State in Syria (ISIS)? Were you listening to what the Russians had to say about your Democratic opponent in the presidential election, a practice you appear to have made into a habit since then as you extort other countries to get them to investigate your political rivals?

And where were all three of you when the brains were being passed out? It’s nice for people to have friends, but some friends are not worth having, such as a narcissistic sociopath or a war criminal, both of whom have proven time and again they look out only for themselves, and maybe their cronies as well. And in the sense of cronyism, a crony is not a true friend. And a friend may be a “sweet man” in private, but that shouldn’t shut out all the harm he’s caused in the world. Millions of Iraqis and Kurds may reflect on the old saying that “with friends like these, who needs enemies?”



— Vita



David Gilmour, best known as the lead guitarist for Pink Floyd, performs the Pink Floyd song “Coming Back to Life” with a new band backing him in a concert at Pompeii, Italy in July 2016.

 

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