Telcos prevent customer satisfaction

Last week’s WSJ reported that “Several large telephone and cable companies are starting to make it harder for consumers to use the Internet for phone calls or swapping video files.” Surely, the best strategy that a business can take when faced with booming customer demand is to reduce what it offers to customers.
The incumbent telcos and content companies have the same problem — they’d rather protect their obsolete business models than to see what customers want now and provide it.

Sxore skepticism

Pesonal digital identity is on the wrong side of the network effect. It’s a chicken and egg problem. Individuals don’t pick a digital identity solution, just like they don’t pick an ignition system. It’s plumbing that’s provided by the tool vendor. There isn’t end user demand for it.
Meanwhile, social software tool vendors haven’t felt enough incentive to use a third party digital id system. The path of least resistance for a tool vendor is to implement its own internal single signin system. SixApart has TypeKey. Blogger has its own login system. Yahoo just merged Flickr’s login system.
Sxore is an attempt to stimulate end-user demand by providing a a solution to a real problem — comment spam. Sxore is a cross-application comment system with capchas, moderation, whitelist and blacklist features. The idea is that if a user signs up to comment on one blog, they’ll be able to comment on other blogs. Sxore will work with WordPress and MovableType, so someone who likes it can use on their own blog.
This would have been brilliant 18 months ago, before the major tool vendors and projects added anti-spam features. Today, end-users will tempted to follow the path of least resistance, which is to use the features that come with their tool. Perhaps one opening is open source projects interested in some Sxore features. But there’s no evidence on the Sxore site that Sxip is offering code.
The handiest — and maybe the creepiest — feature is the ability to follow comments for an individual user. Sxore creates an RSS feed for each user. Presumably you can follow comments made by that user across different blogs. So, if you think someone has good ideas about blog visualizations, you get to read what they also think about President Bush.

Low morale at homeland security

According to a syndicated NYT story run in the Houston Chronicle, only 3 percent of employees at the Department of Homeland Security said they are confident that personnel decisions are “based on merit.” … “Only 12 percent of the more than 10,000 employees who returned a government questionnaire said they felt strongly that they are “encouraged to come up with new and better ways of doing things.”
“In each instance and many others, the responses of the Homeland Security employees were less favorable than those of all the other departments and agencies surveyed by the federal Office of Personnel Management, a new study by an outside research organization shows.”
The article didn’t cite the survey. The results look ominous for terrorism prevention and disaster readiness.

The Control of Nature

Rising Tide talks about the consequences of a disastrous engineering decision to control the Mississippi by means of levees alone, ignoring spillways and reservoirs to take overflow. The flood control contributed to the severity of the 1927 Great Flood. But John Barry’s book doesn’t cover the broader consequences of Mississippi flood control.
The Control of Nature, a 1990 book by by John McPhee, tells part of that story. McPhee writes about the massive project to prevent the Mississippi from jumping over to the Atchafalaya River, which has a steeper and shorter path to the sea. In the process, he describes how flood control prevents the replenishment of soil. Without the floods, the land sinks, and coastal wetlands are lost to the sea.
The Atchafalaya story is one of three stories in McPhee’s book about efforts to control nature. In Hiemaey, Iceland, residents pumped cold seawater on a volcanic lava flow, and diverted enough of the flow to save their town.
In the third story, McPhee writes about the efforts Los Angeles County to prevent the San Gabriel mountains from sliding into the valley. The County builds debris dams to catch the overflow, and carts it away. Some of the debris is ground and taken to the beaches, since the interruption of the mountain’s erosion prevents the natural replenishment of beach sand.
There is a recurring cycle of fire on the dry, steep, rocky mountainsides, followed by debris slides. The current fires in the San Gabriel foothills will likely be followed by debris slides that destroy houses in the foothills.
Many residents are newcomers who don’t remember the debris slide five or ten years ago, and don’t know about the risk. But even geologists at California State Politechnic University and county workers who clean up after debris slides live in the foothills. The risk of a catastrophe in two or five or ten years is not enough to scare them away from the clean air and quiet of the mountainside canyons.
McPhee’s zoom-out geologic time perspective lends a philosophical air to these stories, although he does not turn explicitly to philosophy, psychology, or politics. In all of these cases, nature is going to win out in geologic time. The Mississippi River is going to keep jumping beds, as it has every few thousand years. The volcanos are going to keep erupting and building mountains. And the San Gabriel Mountains are going to keep on rising, and keep on eroding into fans in the valley.
Through some combination of intelligence, persistence, hubris, and psychological blindness to risks, humans keep building defenses, and rebuilding.

How to play the press like a fiddle

This is from an interview in Grist with Chris Mooney, author of the Republican War on Science. The interview has a great quote about the way that “he said/she said” journalism leaves the press open to puppetry by interested parties. The quote applies to any topic, not just the abuse of science. (I haven’t read Mooney’s book, so I don’t have an opinion on it).

Here’s my real fear when it comes to the press. Suppose there’s some mainstream scientific view that you want to set up a think tank to challenge — to undermine, to controversialize. Suppose further that you have a lot of money, as well as an interested and politically influential constituency on board with your agenda. In this situation, it seems to me that as long as you are clever enough, you should be able to set your political machine in motion and then sit back and watch the national media do the rest of your work for you. The press will help you create precisely the controversy that lies at the heart of your political and public relations strategy — and not only that. It will do a far better job than the best PR firm, and its services will be entirely free of charge.

Asterisk VOIP application links new immigrants with 2nd generation translators

Over at Worldchanging, Emily Gertz reports on a social VOIP application that lets Chinese immigrants use their mobile phone to find an available English-speaking volunteer. The Guides help new immigrants with school registration and other practical puzzles of American life. The software uses ad hoc conference calling to patch together the caller, the volunteer, and a third party such as a local business or government agency.

Google and the long-tail lobby

On the Google blog, Senior Policy Council Andrew McLaughlin announces that Google has hired a lobbyist, Alan Davidson of CDT and is setting to work lobbying on behalf of net neutrality and fair use.
It will be great to have Google’s help to break the grip of mass media and monopoly communications over laws that protect their obsolete business models. Today, the US economy is hobbled by the power of incumbent industries to buy the law and protect themselves against disruptive competition. The only way this can change is for businesses that make money from the long tail to invest in buying the law back.
Citizen engagement is helpful — one of the benefits of fair use, community broadband, net neutrality, and other digital rights positions is that we have end users aka voters on our side. But if consumers stand alone against industry, things go hard in DC these days. When a powerful industry is supported by citizens, that’s a winning combination. When a politician hears from an industry lobby supported by citizens in his district, that helps him make the right decision.
Over the last decade, the telecom and content industries have done a better job than the tech industry at protecting their interest in DC. Telecom, cable, and broadcast have been heavily regulated for many decades. This has made these industries very good at lobbying — better at lobbying than innovating. So they use their lobby skills to defeat the innovators.
There’s a lot of money to be made in the long tail, and companies like Google and Intel are helping to protect that interest. Hopefully Google realizes that this won’t be trivially easy and will take a while. The blog post is very cool — it represents a major shift from the secretive world of DC lobbying. Participating in a public conversation can only help getting the word out about the value of the freedom to connect and create.
Google and Intel aren’t always necessarily on the side of public interest — Google’s business model has some privacy risks, and Intel has serious investments in DRM. But their investments in protecting connectivity and peer content help protect digital freedom and the public sphere.

Rising Tide: The Great Mississippi Flood of 1927

I found this superb work of history from the song. Aaron Neville’s lament about the 1927 flood became a radio refrain following the New Orleans flood (and led to more diverse New Orleans music over at WWOZ). The song was written by Randy Newman, and the lyrics allude to the history that John Barry tells about human causes and social consequences of natural disaster.
“The river has busted through clear down to Plaquemines”
The Plaquemines Parish flooding in 1927 was manmade. A clique of bankers decided to protect New Orleans from flooding by breaking the levee south of New Orleans and inundate St. Bernard and Plaquemines parish, home to muskrat trappers and bootleggers. The city leaders promised to reimburse the people they flooded out, but they didn’t. They manipulated the laws and courts so people reporting damages had no recourse. In the aftermath, disgust with Louisiana’s traditional elite helped bring Huey Long to power.
President Coolidge came down in a railroad train
With a little fat man with a note-pad in his hand
The president say, ”Little fat man isn’t it a shame
What the river has done to this poor farmer’s land.”
The “little fat man” is Herbert Hoover, an engineer-turned-politico whose leadership of flood relief logistics helped win Hoover the presidency. Coolidge never did tour the flooded region, but the condescension toward the poorest flood victims was historically accurate.
In Mississippi, local aristocrats refused to allow black people to be evacuated since they feared that their source of labor would never return. Instead, the black residents lived for months on top of the 8-foot-wide levee, trapped between the river and the flood. Men were forced to work without pay on levy repair and cleanup. After the floodwaters drained, many black people did leave for Chicago and other northern towns; the flood was one of the causes of the great African-American migration.
Hoover promised black leaders that he’d redistribute land to poor sharecroppers if elected, but he lied. Barry presents the evidence and the timeline of the betrayal, and argues that disillusion with these broken promises helped shift black voters from the Republican to the Democratic party.
The flood itself was made more severe by the flood control system, which used levees to contain the river, but left out spillways and reservoirs to divert floodwaters. Barry tells the story of the hubristic 19th century engineers who designed the system, and the bureaucratic incompetence and infighting that led to the system’s poor design. However, Barry doesn’t go as far as The Control of Nature, by John McPhee, and other books about the unintended consequences of the Mississippi levees.
Rising Tide is a masterful work of history that combines dramatic stories of heroism, villainy, conflict and suspense with social, political, and economic context. The book’s stories portray how the historical characters are shaped by their circumstances, and how their choices affect the course of history.
One imperfection is the author’s attraction to the heroic myths of 19th century self-made men and deep south aristocrats. Barry is a former football coach, and admires competitive, commanding masculine power. He typically admires his heroes’ height and physical strength, and is suprised when a character is short or not physically fit. Barry does not worship power uncritically. He holds his “great men” to an ethical standard; he honors LeRoy Percy’s opposition to the Klan, and criticizes LeRoy and his son Will for putting greed ahead of humanitarian rescue. In his admiration of machismo, Barry misses some of the ways that Southern aristocracy and engineering hubris contributed to their own failures.