Yesterday I wrote about the depressing lack of engineers and scientists in government. Part of my point was that more than ever we are facing problems caused by and solvable with science and engineering. A sampling of stories from yesterday / this morning is the perfect illustration.
The New York Times provided an interesting juxtaposition. One front page story was about the De Blasio administration looking at Sweden as a model for reducing traffic accidents in New York City. The other was about scientists warning that ocean levels are likely to rise much faster than anticipated due to a more rapid melting of the West Antarctica ice sheet. It is the perfect example of how we are caught up in dealing with immediate tangible problems while continuing to punt a massive problem that is threatening not just New York but entire regions down the road.
As if to further illustrate how ridiculous the discrepancy between the threat and our political ability to address it has become there were two more related stories in the New York Times. In the science section, there is a piece on the increasing rains that are affecting many parts of the world as the atmosphere warms up and carries more humidity. In the meantime Washington can’t even pass the seemingly uncontroversial Energy Efficiency bill, that until recently had decent bipartisan support.
When I sit down with our kids to talk about the future I keep coming back to two issues of central importance: keeping the Internet open and tackling climate change. Both are longterm plays. The former will help move us forward as a species, the latter has the potential to throw us far back.
… to come to the aid of their country. Here is a supremely depressing chart from Businessweek showing the professional backgrounds of the members of Congress
The largest groups in both the House and the Senate are lawyers (yellow) followed by business people (green). On the other extreme there is 1 lone engineer in the Senate and even worse only 2 engineers in the House. There are no scientists in the Senate and 2 in the House.
This is a huge problem at a time when many of the issues we confront have their origin (and likely also their solution) in technology and science. I don’t have a chart on the judiciary but we face a similar challenge there. Now I don’t mean to suggest that lawyers and business people can’t learn about technology and science if they wanted to — but the approach to many issues suggests that they aren’t taking the time to do so.
The most recent doozy comes from the judiciary where the appeals court for the Federal Circuit has just declared APIs copyrightable. This was an appeal by Oracle against the decision by Judge Alsup, who took the time to learn how to code, finding that APIs are a system or method of operation which is explicitly not copyrightable. Unfortunately the next place this decision can be appealed to is the Supreme Court, which seems to have no grounding whatsoever in science or engineering.
So what are we to do? We need more candidates with an engineering or science background. That will take time. In the meantime, we need engineers and scientists to speak out on the issues and to contact their existing representatives to help educate them.
I am co-hosting an event on May 14 at the BuzzFeed offices with folks from Represent.us / United Republic and others backing the American Anti-corruption Act. We will be discussing the rationale behind the Act and how the campaign plans to pass it via ballot initiative in cities, counties, states, and eventually federally. We are getting together from 6:30 to 8:30pm, and food and drink will be served. If you are interested please email me so that I can get your name added to the list (firstname at usv).
Just as a reminder as to why I am supporting this cause: we have an incredible fragmentation of attention happening (eg, in 1 minute 100 hours of video are uploaded to Youtube). This means that the political discourse is increasingly dominated by viral soundbites and by whoever has the money to buy attention through campaign advertising. That in turn has vastly increased the influence of special interests through lobbyists and through a revolving door between regulatory agencies and lobbying groups.
The American Anticorruption Act is a step in the direction of returning to a government of the people, by the people, for the people. So if that sounds like something you might want to support, please get in touch with me about the May 14th event.
I was hoping not to write about the Government Shutdown and the looming debt ceiling. But with us entering the second week of this madness it is becoming hard to ignore and my European friends are beginning to send concerned or enraged emails. So here are my current views.
1. I may be in the minority here but I believe the financial markets would not completely seize up on a technical default by the government. It wouldn’t be pretty but I think enough folks understand the difference between the government not being able to pay versus being deadlocked on paying. So: let’s not panic.
2. At this point it seems pretty clear that this is a case of a small minority blocking a clear majority. Only one third of Americans support defunding or delaying the Affordable Care Act. Even the Republican leadership seems apparently concerned at this point that they don’t have the votes to block so Speaker Boehner is now the one not letting a vote actually proceed. Given what I said in #1 above I am supportive of the majority standing firm here.
3. We absolutely must figure out a way to fix the underlying problems that have hollowed out our democracy and brought us into the realm of the banana republic. There are two key points here:
(a) Getting money out of politics. Now would be a great time to support one of my favorite efforts here, Represent.us which promotes the Anti-corruption Act. If you need any more evidence, read this New York Times report on the Koch brothers financial support for the attempt to defund the Affordable Care Act.
(b) We need to do away with the gerrymandered districts and go back to ones that make geographic sense. As long as seats are deemed safe all the voting action goes into the primaries
Both of these should be of interest to anyone who believes in democracy independently of their political believes. I would love to see a much more widespread engagement of the Internet generation around both of these crucial issues. Now would seem to be as good a time as any for companies such as Google, Yahoo, Facebook, Twitter, etc. to donate massive free advertising towards restoring democracy.
Germany elected its national parliament yesterday and the results are quite interesting. Angela Merkel’s party the CDU/CSU added substantial gains going from 33.8% in 2009 to 41.5% of the public vote now. That is almost the largest majority for any German chancellor (since Konrad Adenauer). These gains were aided by the collapse of Germany’s historic third party, the FDP which went from 14.6% in 2009 to 4.8% now which, if confirmed, means the party will no longer be represented in the German parliament which has a 5% minimum threshold!
The three other parties which will make it into Parliament are the SPD with a slight gain, the Left and the Green party. The Pirate Party had small gains from 2.0% to 2.2% but fell far short of the 5% hurdle. On the other hand the brand new AfD which stands for Alternative for Germany (just formed earlier this year) almost made it into parliament achieving 4.7% of the vote. The AfD’s primary policy platform was a push back against the Eurozone asking for more public votes and the ability of countries to exit the Euro.
All in all the results reflect an interesting dichotomy. With gains for the large parties there is a kind of “flight to safety” and clearly the majority of German don’t want any big experimentation with the EU. A small minority though disagrees so strongly that they would back an entirely unproven party. The existing smaller parties provided neither got clobbered as a result.
I have so many thoughts buzzing around my head about surveillance and what is happening with the NSA and Edward Snowden that it’s hard to know where to start. So I have attempted to condense things down into the most important points as I see them:
First, let me unequivocally state that I am personally grateful to Snowden for exposing the extent of surveillance itself and maybe even more importantly the ridiculousness that is the legal framework within which it is conducted.
Second, Snowden’s choice of leaking the information from Hong Kong and his current travel to Russia (and potentially on to Ecuador or Iceland) is not a sideshow. We have created a legal situation where his presumption that he would *not* get a fair trial in the US seems right which is a huge problem for our democracy in an of itself.
Third, I believe there is a legitimate debate to be had about the costs and potential benefits of different types of network analysis (and I am intentionally avoiding the word surveillance which is already loaded). There is *no* argument though for carrying any such analysis out through a Kafkaesque maze of secret organizations, secret courts and secret committees (Kafka is one of my favorite authors and “Before the Law" comes to mind).
Fourth, I fear that the use of strong cryptography by citizens is *not* the answer. This will lead us further down the path of a spy-versus-spy society. It will be a potent argument for government to double down on its own secrecy. Instead, I believe we need to find a way forward in the opposite direction where we as citizens embrace transparency and expect the same from our government.
Fifth, I am deeply disappointed in President Obama’s handling of the Snowden case, the Bradley Manning trial, and the underlying secrecy of government overall. I am at fault here too having voted for Obama again in the most recent election even though I am distinctly not in a swing state and could have voted for a third party candidate or not voted at all.
Sixth, nominally the argument made by government for secrecy is to fight terrorism. There are other things that we could and should be doing that would help including dissolving Guantanamo and dramatically reducing our use of drones. Also, we should be strengthening not hollowing out our democracy as a the prime response to terrorism.
By the way, I am not saying that any of this will be easy and that there won’t be setbacks along the way. But if ever there was a time to speak up on these issues it would seem to be now.
I think it is super important in the current debate about government surveillance to separate two different arguments. First, I have stated and continue to believe that large scale secret programs without supervision and without checks and balances are unacceptable for a democracy. The potential for abuse and the cost in terms of a loss of rights (eg having a fair trial) are simply too large.
Second, we should, however, not make the mistake of applying what Taleb would call a turkey argument to the severity of threat of terrorism: the turkey believes for a long time that the farmer doesn’t pose a threat. For instance, this piece in the Atlantic points out that from 1999 to 2010, about 3,000 people in the US were killed by terrorists compared to 364,000 by gun violence. True. But a single nuclear bomb detonated in Times Square would dramatically shift that balance. And there are very likely people out there in the world trying to figure out how to do just that.
So the debate we need to have as a society is what kind of more limited and properly supervised programs we are willing to accept to try to prevent such an event from occurring. The answer may still be only a very restricted set but we should not be kidding ourselves about the severity of the threat based on a false reading of statistics.
The scale of the protests against government in Turkey is significant with over 200 demonstrations in 67 cities. Social media has played an important role in making the rest of the world aware of the scale of the protests and more importantly of the aggressive government response which has involved mass arrests and excessive use of tear gas and water cannons.
It is not surprising that the Turkish Prime Minister, who initially replied saying that the opinions of the protestors will simply be ignored, is now calling social media a menace to society, directing his ire aTwitter in particular. A politician railing against social media wouldn’t be so bad if the Turkish government didn’t apparently try to actively disrupt access to the cell phone networks (this is an *unconfirmed* report — still points to an important potential choke point).
What is most significant is that all of this is happening in a democracy. This is important because it speaks to the current debate about how technology is not inherently liberating but can also be used for oppression (I have not yet read “The New Digital Age" but will now do so given Assange’s critique). That debate is just as relevant for the US and other democracies. We are going to need more than “don’t be evil” we will have to know how to “be good.”
I am an immigrant (from Germany). I work in tech (as an investor and previously as an entrepreneur). I support comprehensive immigration reform. That part is pretty simple — it would be hypocritical to argue that something that I have benefitted from tremendously should be less accessible to others. But I have largely chosen to stay out of this particular fight because the arguments on both sides have been too narrow with a lot of needlessly heated rhetoric.
I am quite convinced that the actual impact here will be less than people expect it to be in either direction. The reason is that there are other forces at work that are a lot stronger. Graduate students from places like India and China are returning to their home countries in far greater numbers not only because we have made it harder to stay post 9/11 but also because those countries have rapidly growing domestic economies which offer a lot of opportunity. On the other end of the spectrum of the labor market the far bigger deal is the pressure of technology on wages. I have written about this extensively.
The twin forces of globalization and technology will have far more impact on our economy and society than the changes we are making to immigration law.
Our elected representatives are busy at work coming up with misguided laws. Leading the charge once again is Lamar Smith, this time proposing to replace peer review of NSF grants with congressional criteria (Congress of course is not exactly known for its scientists). Now that is not to say that we shouldn’t look into how NSF funding works and propose changes to it. For instance, with crowdfunding platforms for science like Mircoryza emerging, it would be interesting to see if these can be used to make the NSF process more transparent and even route some NSF money through these types of platforms.
Another misguided effort comes from a state senator in California who is proposing to require registration of 3D printers because they could be used to print guns. This comes on the heels of the US government requiring a website to remove the files for a 3D printable gun. Why is this misguided even though I have been calling in general for more regulation of gun ownership? Because regulation should be about making it harder on the margin to obtain high performance weapons for the average person, not a one off weapon for the determined. It is the same reason why locking your front door makes sense even though you have a large glass window next to it.
I am somewhat hopeful that neither one of these will go anywhere. Still the rate at which legislation like this gets suggested or actually introduced is a good argument for having shorter sessions or otherwise limiting how many bills lawmakers can propose!