by Dana Blankenhorn
  Volume VIII, No. XVI

This Week's Clue: Science vs. Politics

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This Week's Clue: Science vs. Politics
SSP (Shameless Self Promotion)
SP (Shameless Promotion)
The Walled Garden Syndrome
The Carrier Credibility Crisis
Clued-in, Clueless

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For the Week of April 19, 2004

There is little scientific debate over the proposition that the Bush Administration has perverted science to political ends. The only serious debate is a political one.

Scientists are always reluctant to speak on politically sensitive topics, but when 60 members of the Union of Concerned Scientists sign a statement to the effect that perversion has taken place, anyone involved in science or technology sits up and takes notice. When the President's science advisor responded, it was a political response, not a scientific refutation. His conclusion, "and I am a lifelong Democrat," is your Clue

The perversion of science for political ends has real consequences. Name an Italian scientist after Galileo. What happened in the 17th century was that scientific leadership passed north, to the Protestant lands of northern Europe.

The same thing is happening today, although Bush is not wholly to blame for that. Fewer American-born kids care for science. Bill Gates has to beg for programmers. Universities depend on foreign-born grad students. We can fault the Administration for making it harder for these people to get visas, however. And we have to ask ourselves what we're training our kids to do, work for Bill Gates or the heirs of Sam Walton. Right now the Waltons are winning.

The choice between Microsoft and Wal-Mart is important to think about, because it remains within our control. Jobs at Microsoft pay well. They are middle class. Jobs at Wal-Mart do not pay well. They are lower class. A society of Wal-Mart employees is a lower-class society.

Policies that encourage the growth of Wal-Mart but discourage the growth of technology companies like Microsoft have long-term consequences. They create a three-tier class system - owners, the middle class, and Wal-Mart employees.

The time has come for a free and open debate about what kind of society we want to leave our children, and what we must do now to make that society happen.

I think it starts with education, with honest education based on scientific principles, rather than perverted (as it often is) by the demands of politicians or (worse) clergy. There is a struggle going on, whether you like it or not, and if it's lost here it will go on elsewhere.

Things like Always-On will happen. The question is whether the software, hardware, systems, and integration will happen here or in Asia. The answer depends on our keeping society open not just to entrepreneurship, but to engineering, to science, and to free inquiry as well. Even if China's government is putting the results of inquiry into the service of the state, in a mercantilist system, that doesn't mean the inquiry itself isn't free, and the market itself isn't competitive - it is. That's one direction in which the world can go.

If you want it to go in another direction, you have to fight for that direction every day. I fight for it with my pen (or more accurately my typewriter). How do you fight for it?


Shameless Self-Promotion

I work as a business analyst with Progressive Strategies, a New York research firm that has the ear of the world's top technology companies.

My last book, "The Blankenhorn Effect" won the Computer/Internet category in the 2003 Independent Publisher (IPPY) awards .

You have my permission to forward this newsletter widely. And if you have trouble subscribing let me know. Remember: it's journalism that keeps the Clues coming...


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Takes on the News

The Walled Garden Syndrome

Publishers have figured out something important about information. The value of information depends in large part on its scarcity.

So while information wants to be free, the people who create information instinctively resist the necessity.

Right now Web journalism is losing an historic struggle to the Walled Garden. Google News can't even keep up with the list of American newspapers that now require registration. Beyond registration, increasing numbers of sites are only distributing key analysis to paid "members" - go look at the little "I" icons on ESPN.

This trend has come to us from Europe, where most major newspapers like The Times and The Independent keep everything but their headlines behind walled gardens. At the same time the owners of these papers lobby incessantly to have the BBC site closed down, or at least restricted, claiming it is "unfair competition."

One result has been that important news stories are being distributed by e-mail (which is itself a wall of sorts). On the Dave Farber list we frequently see articles that live behind firewalls. Readers who can go there grab the articles, turn them into text files, then distribute them to the list for comment. This process of "jumping the firewall" could easily be seen as "piracy" by a publishing establishment imbued with the same spirit as the music industry. This despite the fact that the spirit of the DMCA is based on a lie - music sales aren't down because of piracy, but because of bad music and limited catalogues.

Once again, the spin wins over the facts.

The potential damage can easily be seen in the area of business news. Business news has real economic value, and thus the temptation is enormous to keep it hidden, as Reuters is now doing . But the free market depends heavily on the wide, free dissemination of information. That's what makes markets transparent. To the extent that investors don't know the news, or have barriers thrust between them and the news, they will cease investing, and markets will suffer.

The best answer to this, on the part of Google, would be to throw open its News site to blogs. Right now sites that use blogging, or sites run by individuals, are not spidered by the site that is becoming the world's open news bazaar. Adding blogging results would not only increase the amount of information available to casual users, but would allow people who throw stuff over the firewall access to a wider audience. It could also force some news organizations to open up, even if only in the way the New York Times has.

After all, if a news story isn't heard, it didn't make a sound.


The Carrier Credibility Crisis

Have you looked at your phone bill lately?

If it's like mine it has more junk fees than an airline ticket. A few years ago I was paying $60/month for two lines. Now I'm paying $110/month for one. Junk fees, so-called taxes and non-taxes that are called taxes by the phone company, have doubled my regular per-line charge, and then I have to pay $50/month for DSL service.

The Bells blame "regulators" and "taxes" for all this, but MSNBC reports that in the case of coming DSL surcharges you should not take that at face value. Motley Fool makes the same charge, regarding your regular phone bill. "Aside from the 'monthly charges' line, the entries seem designed to obfuscate as much as enlighten. On the one hand, the telephone companies argue that the line items help show customers where the money they pay is going. On the other hand, the names of the line-item charges lead many consumers to think these charges are fixed and government-mandated.

"They aren't. Federal law permits imposing 'just and reasonable' surcharges to fund their mandates. But the surcharges permitted are not capped, nor does the FCC actively monitor whether they are in fact 'reasonable.'"

What the Bells are making up in short-term income, they're losing in long-term credibility. They are creating a credibility crisis.

Ironically they are doing this just as they face the greatest opportunity they've had in decades. If you run a home network, especially a wireless network, the best deal for managing it comes from your phone company.

As I have studied residential gateways, I have been surprised to learn that the ones you can get direct from your phone company are, in fact, much better values than anything you can get off-the-shelf.

There are several reasons for this:

  • The best gateways, like one I'm testing from Netopia, are mainly going to be available only through the phone company channel;
  • Phone companies demand that what they install works, and don't mind paying more for equipment that meets the demand, while retailers want low prices on brand names; and
  • The software behind the gateway, controlled by the phone company, actually provides the most value.

When I talked to Netopia recently the company was despairing of getting retail shelf space. Retailers want a broad line and a low price, I was told. At the time they were running a "Netopia Store," where you could comparison shop for some of the new products, but a recent visit to the site showed the store is no longer operating.

The problem with letting price and product depth define retail choices is that stores wind up offering poor quality. This is not much of a problem in the PC world, or even in computer electronics, where quality is not really much of an issue. In the world of 802.11 gateways, however, it is an issue.

And you can't tell the difference between two gateways just by looking at them, or even by reading the literature. You have to install them, and live with them a while. That's when you see the value.

I've had the Netopia gateway here for over a week, and it hasn't failed me yet. The computer has failed several times (mainly because of PC applications interfering with the operating system), and I even got a virus that forced me to re-install Windows so the gateway could operate on a remote machine. But the Netopia software itself caused no problems -- and it took just minutes to install. Even the wireless.

Now on to the second point. Netopia is offering carriers a version of its server software called NetOctopus for Broadband. This stuff will let phone company people diagnose troubles with your network remotely, fix it remotely, even update your service remotely.

Not only that, the software will let your phone company up-sell you important, valuable services. Services like parental control (Netopia is already offering this to Linksys customers), maybe Voice Over IP, VPN tunnels, even low-latency QoS for gaming. For starters.

I can't review this stuff, because I just have the gateway -- my ISP is not connected to Netopia in any way, and thus they don't have this great back-office software. But once a carrier makes a deal with a gateway company -- any gateway company -- customers will be getting this.

Will Netopia win those deals? I don't know. So far, the only such deal to be signed in North America was in Canada, and Siemens won it.

But the executive at Bell Canada who announced the deal also said something telling. She said only 20-30% of her broadband customers were likely to take it. The difference between that and the number of multi-PC broadband customers her company has is called a credibility gap. It's measured in dollars.


What do you call a political system where all money and power is inherited, and where taxes lie exclusively on wages and the other earnings of the lower classes?

In my political science education it was called feudalism. Feudalism was the way society organized itself throughout the Middle Ages. Most of the struggles of the Renaissance and Reformation were aimed at ending feudal privileges. The success of the Englightenment n overthrowing feudal systems was based on the promise of technological change. Feudalism and change don't mix.

In other words Feudalism, like Communism, finally collapsed of its own internal contradictions. (A good fictional account of these contradictions is given in the 1632 series, by Eric Flint, which starts with a bunch of West Virginia miners in the late 1990s being transported to the center of 17th century Germany. There's a large fan site devoted to the concept.)

What got me thinking about this subject was the Bush Administration.

Think about it. No taxes on inherited wealth, no matter how large the pile. Significantly lower taxes on the fruits of investment than on the fruits of labor. Vastly increased wealth for the upper 1/10th of 1% of the people (the Fortunate 300,000), increased poverty and distress for the rest. And power held in a rather kingly, even absolutist way, by a man who inherited everything he has -- including political power.

What else do you call it?

The bottom line, for me, is it doesn't work. History proves it doesn't work. And it falls in a very, very nasty way -- violently.

In a feudal system, of course, what power isn't held by the Lords is held by the Church. One might argue we're fighting a feudal system in Iraq, so how can we be turning into one ourselves? Then you look at the veto Christian churches are insisting upon, over the teaching of science, and what women do after they're raped or seduced, and in my mind the comparison becomes, if nothing else, clearer.

That's often the way of it, unfortunately. The power of liberty didn't increase in America during World War II, nor during the Civil War. When the society itself is under dire, imminent threat, it can't. And it often changes in the direction of just the people we're fighting. Japanese internment camps in 1942 that could, had the war gone the other way, have easily turned into death camps. Forced conscription, a draft, which felt to my Irish ancestors in the 1860s much like slavery, so that they rioted against it.

Perhaps this is all just a temporary reflection of the times we're living in. But it's no way to live. And in the end, the powers in this world that reject this direction entirely will have a much easier time creating economic prosperity, and technology excellence.


Clued-in, Clueless

Clued-in is IBM buying Daksh of India for $150-200 million. Even more Clued-in is likely to be what Daksh's owners do with that money.

Clueless are those ignoring the housing bubble. Rising gas prices forces interest rates up, rising interest rates force housing prices down, and the whole economy can go pop.


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