Mr. Sandman's Sandbox

The musings of a Deaf Californian on life, politics, religion, sex, and other unmentionables. This blog is not guaranteed to lead to bon mots appropriate for dinner-table conversation; make of it what you will.

Location: Los Angeles, California, United States

Sunday, June 18, 2006

Neutrality, Privacy, and "the Internets"

This week promises to be a big one where the Internet is concerned, what with the impending vote on internet neutrality and now possible action on the Financial Data Protection Act. Both are bad, in my opinion. "Internet neutrality" is a rather poor title for something that actually will impact a lot of us. Ostensibly, the companies (telecoms) that facilitate the internet (like AT&T, for example) want to start charging some companies a bit more (the specifics haven't been laid out, as of yet) for the right to route their webpages, videos, and other materials to viewers/customers. On the face of it, it makes sense: with streaming video, advertising, and all kinds of enhanced material being pushed by large companies, who wouldn't agree to an extra fee here and there? But the problem is, this starts down a slippery slope. The majority of us pay for the privilege to hook up to the internet at home (unless you work for a college or other company that allows you to log-in from home, and even then your company/school pays, and you probably pay somehow down the line anyway). Right now you can choose how to access the web-- via dial-up, cable, wireless, or some other method of broadband. You pay for this service. What the telecoms propose to do is to tack on another charge for users on both ends (commercial/public/non-profit and the public at large) depending on what material you want to view or use, and from which webpage/website. You might pay just a dollar or so more, or you might have to fork over quite a bit. The same is true for website owners/developers, whether corporate or just an individual at home.

To use a couple of analogies, picture this:

Many of you have used toll roads or toll booths. Under the new rules, the internet would become a virtual toll road. You'd pay access just to get on the toll road itself (paying for dial-up or DSL/wireless). You'd then pay a toll for whichever lane (website/page) you wanted to use, all the time hoping that the "owner" of the lane (the website/page owner) paid the toll, too. There's no guarantee that the "fast" lane will be any better or different than the "slow" lane.

Another analogy: without the level playing field offered currently ("internet neutrality"), you could be out on the road to get a burger. But instead of being able to go to your favorite burger palace, you find that McDonald's paid for all the roads to lead directly to them. To wit, it would be as if instead of being able to go to Google, Yahoo! steered all the traffic to their search engine. Whoever has the most bucks available to pay off the tollkeepers gets to decide what you want to see.

I mentioned cable earlier. Right now, a lot of you who have cable have probably grumbled at one time or another about being beholden to whichever company has a monopoly in your area, such as Adelphia. Instead of being able to pick and choose which channels you might want or which ones you know you'll see, you have a choice between basic cable and expanded cable, with all the channels bundled together. Without net neutrality, you could end up in the same situation, where one or two or just a handful of companies decide exactly what you get to see. Not only that, but the website owners also have to pay too, so even if you wanted all the "channels," you might not have access to them. Also, it's possible that not all "channels" would be available.

These are just a few analogies out of many-- the bottom line is you already have monopolies in many areas of daily life-- why would you want our gummint to allow a few companies to become the tollkeepers for the internet? There's quite a few companies banded against the dismantling of Internet Neutrality, including the odd bedfellows of and the Christian Coalition. That's because this has the potential to limit access to free speech. There's no guarantee that in the future, there won't be limits imposed by corporations, or from anywhere on the political spectrum. Right now, the Senate is poised to consider the matter this week, on Thursday, June 22.

It's obvious part of the problem is that quite a number of companies, including the telephone companies and other communications corporations want to have the potential to offer movies and TV over the internet. I'm sure that on their own, companies will work out deals with content providers and charge users fees for movies and shows provided online-- what they essentially want is to reproduce the cable industry online. Where the danger is is in the fact that once you start setting up such a system, where does it stop? Who has to pay what, and how?

Personally, I'm against the dismantling of the current system, at least until there's been far more debate. I don't trust our representatives, who already are well known for giving preferential treatment and a share of their time to those who pay (sounds familiar, eh? Our gummint could use its own version of "net neutrality"-- next area of reform-- our elected officials) to consider the public good-- a good number of them are more likely to consider corporate chief's wishes instead. So for now, I'm for net neutrality. If you too want things to remain as they are for now, I urge you to contact your Senators before the 22nd and urge them to maintain net neutrality.

As far as privacy goes, I'm very jealous of my own privacy-- I'm careful to shield my social security number, my banking information, my credit card number, and everything else related to my personal and financial matters as much as possible. I think there needs to be a balance between the public's right to access and the public's right to privacy. Unfortunately, as early as this week, the Financial Data Protection Act is coming up for consideration. This piece of legislation would override current credit-freeze laws here in California and 17 other states, and would limit rights for victims of I.D. theft. Considering the spate of stories in recent years about stolen information, including the recent loss of a laptop with tons of data on our veterans and current service members, you'd think our gummint would want to do everything they could to protect our information.

Currently, the "credit freeze" allows an individual to place a "freeze" on their credit files-- thus creating a barrier where people and companies wanting to access their credit history first have to ask permission. The Financial Data Protection Act would limit such freezes only to those who are already victims of I.D. theft. Additionally, businesses currently must inform customers if the data they possess is compromised; under the Financial Data Protection Act's provisions, a new, weaker disclosure rule would leave it up to the companies themselves to decide if the risk was great enough to bother notifying you. David Lazarus over at the San Francisco Chronicle has a good column on this in today's paper.

Personally, I find this frightening-- it weakens consumer protections, rides roughshod over current state laws, and does nothing to make things easier or life safer. I plan to contact my representatives about this, and I encourage you to do the same. The internet has long been lauded as a "frontier"-- unfortunately, here comes the gummint, ready to regulate everything, and not neccessarily for the best.

Friday, June 16, 2006

Is Greed Really "Good"?

Despite Gordon Gekko's pronouncement that "Greed... is good. Greed is right. Greed works," a clear-headed look at how our politicians and policymakers treat economics, wealth, and class demonstrates (to me at least) that greed isn't all that "good."

"Wall Street" came out nearly 20 years ago, yet a lot of what the film epitomized is still with us today. Witness Gekko's commentary on wealth:
The richest one percent of this country owns half our country's wealth, five trillion dollars. One third of that comes from hard work, two thirds comes from inheritance, interest on interest accumulating to widows and idiot sons and what I do, stock and real estate speculation. It's bullshit. You got ninety percent of the American public out there with little or no net worth..."
While I have nothing against hard work, I do feel that salaries and our present tax system are quite inequitable. I find it amusing when I take on-line polls that ask if I consider myself "am member of the investor class." With the exception of two people, no one I know invests, or owns anything of worth beyond their homes and cars. In fact, more and more people I know are juggling bills and credit card debt in the struggle to maintain and expand their dreams. While some are obviously living beyond their means (I'm beginning to understand how many recent college graduates are racking up debt: drinking in the clubs every weekend puts a real dent in your wallet!), others are being as frugal as possible and still coming out shortchanged more often than not.

Yet our gummint prefers to ignore the majority of the people in this country, and instead shower its fiscal largesse on tax cuts for the rich. One of the people that tax money is being returned to is Lee Raymond, the retiring Exxon Oil executive, who received a $400 million farewell (which includes personal security, the use of a company jet, and other lovely perks). He earned over $69 million last year, which comes to over $190K a day.

A couple months back, during the uproar over the fiscal debacle at CSD, quite a to-do was made over Ben Soukup's total compensation package of over $850K. A friend and I worked it out-- Soukup made in two weeks what my friend made in an entire year.

These salaries are just in the business world-- there's also the entertainment and sports worlds, where actors command multi-million dollar incomes from one movie, and sports figures (who are really just entertainers, when you think about it), are signed to multi-million dollar contracts even before they've done anything (not to mention working the same length of time the average teacher does in this country-- maybe 8-9 months out of the year. Somehow I think our teachers, who are teaching and training the next generation, deserve a wee bit more than someone who plays a game and performs before an audience for two hours 3-4 days a week).

Regardless of who you are or what you do, are such high salaries good? Are they all that necessary? What does all that money buy, anyway?

An article on last month provided some answers. "What a Huge CEO Salary Would Buy You" uses examples of actual corporate leaders. For example, Barry Diller, the head of HSN (Home Shopping Network), made enough last year that his income would buy every person in Los Angeles and New York a $20 keychain digital camera that is advertised for sale on HSN.

I don't need a keychain digital camera, thank you, but I'm sure that that money could be put to far better use. When corporate America is shedding jobs, cutting back support for health care coverage, and allowing its boards to reward top executives with obscene profits, something's out of whack.

So how is our gummint helping to resolve this? You might think that a dollop of common sense would lead our "leaders" to the conclusion that perhaps the middle and working classes need some sort of economic relief to even the playing board just a little bit? Nope. Last week, despite all the problems this country faces, we had efforts by our Republican-controlled Congress to eliminate the estate tax. Fortunately, it was defeated. The Republicans like to call it the "death tax." Funny, but I don't see dead people being taxed. You can't tax a dead person. You CAN tax estates, and that's what it really is- an inheritance tax. It's not even being levied for the majority of people in this country, either: "According to the most recent statistics available from the Internal Revenue Service, 1.17 percent of people who died in 2002 left a taxable estate." If only 1.17% will be subject to the levy of the estate tax, it hardly seems fair to call it a "death tax," does it?

The majority party in our Republican-controlled Congress apparently has no shame, but when "[o]ver the past 25 years the median US family income has gone up 18 percent. For the top one percent, however, it has gone up 200 percent," something's wrong. In the meantime, tax refunds are going disproportionately to the wealthy, our jobs are going overseas, and our national socioeconomic fabric is slowly unraveling. For an interesting (and sobering) view of the gradual dismantling of the middle class, take a look at this interview with Barbara Ehrenreich, the author of Nickel and Dimed: On (Not) Getting By in America. She concludes by stating that yes, there is indeed a class war in this country-- not the kind of class war conservatives sneer is being pushed by Democrats and progressives, but the kind of class war the conservative majority in our Republican-controlled Congress is foisting on the rest of the nation.

I agree-- let's forget Gordon Gekko and his ilk. Let's turn to the advice of another fictional cultural icon, Howard Beale, and shout: "I'M MAD AS HELL, AND I'M NOT GONNA TAKE IT ANYMORE!"

Thursday, June 15, 2006

Rare Praise

If you stuck around with this blog long enough, you know I am NOT a fan of the current occupants of the White House and OEOB. I spend enough spare time away from the newspapers, websites, blogs, and the like watching "The West Wing" and fantasizing about our "real" president: Jed Bartlet. Of course-- silly me, what a fantasy life.

But today, Bush/Smirk had one of his rare moments where he said/did something I am either neutral about or agree on (and they are rare enough that I can count them on one hand, and blog about them *grin*). He intends to designate the northwestern portion of the Hawai'ian Islands as a marine sanctuary; this from a guy who says the evidence for global warming isn't in (in spite of increasing agreement that global warming is happening).

You think maybe he's been possessed by the ghost of Teddy Roosevelt? Me too. But whatever his reasons for doing so, I'll take it. Granted, it's not a major shift; these islands are unpopulated, there was minimal fishing going on anyway, it doesn't actually become formally designated for a while, and there's tons of other problems that could be fixed in terms of our parks, preserves, and the environment. For example, the National Park Service has been facing large cuts the last few years, and it's starting to show. For Bush to take uninhabited, comparatively unmolested territory and create a new marine sanctuary isn't a 180-degree turnabout; I'll give him far more credit once he actually assumes responsible stewardship for our natural heritage. But for now, I'll offer a small amount of rare praise, and welcome, in the 90th year of the National Antiquities Act, the newest marine sanctuary-- the Northwestern Hawai'ian Islands.

Friday, June 09, 2006

Do As We Do, Not As We Say

One thing that frustrates me when I read the news is how our nation's official policies have changed so much the last few years. Granted, our gummint hasn't always been angels, and there have been plenty of times in the past when we've done things that are not in our long-term (or even in our short-term!) best interests. But it seems like it's gotten worse of late.

Exhibit A is the announcement earlier this week that the Pentagon plans to omit from its detainee policies central portions of the Geneva Conventions related to "humiliating and degrading treatment." This means, of course, that our gummint and the Pentagon are effectively saying that despite Abu Ghraib and Guantanamo, there isn't anything wrong in their eyes with how the U.S. treats its prisoners and detainees. At heart, it's a big "fuck you" to the rest of the world; anyone want to bet this won't come back to haunt us eventually?

If this happened elsewhere in another nation, there would be an outcry on Capitol Hill, and among the punditry everywhere; folks would be tut-tutting over the abandonment of such a integral international accord, one that has its origins in the 19th century and intertwined with the history of the International Red Cross. Nearly every nation on the planet is a signatory, including all but one member of the United Nations (the exception is Nauru). Such a compact is not enforced easily-- there's a mutual understanding that regardless of conflicts and disputes, than the Conventions (there have been four major ones, the last one drafted in 1949) will be honored and respected. When a powerful nation such as the United States thumbs its nose at such a document, it becomes easier now that the taboo has been broken for some other nation in the future to say, "Well, if they did it, so can we," and follow suit.

Sadly, this has already happened to an extent with Bush's "doctrine" emphasizing the right to conduct pre-emptive wars-- a U.S. policy shift that occurred conveniently in the fall of 2002, as the gummint began its ramp-up to the Iraq War the following spring in March 2003. In February 2003, and again this recent March 2006, North Korea has declared that it too possessed the right to conduct pre-emptive attacks, all in the name of preserving its sovereignty. There have been rumblings by Iran about conducting such pre-emptive strikes, and even though the leader now is Olmert, statements by people like Netanyahu saying that Israel should attack Iran don't leave me feeling comfortable at all (Here's one analysis of the consequences of such a Israel-Iran conflict). Thus, Smirk's insistence on flouting international law by pushing a unilateral military policy has opened a Pandora's Box that I don't think will be closed anytime soon.

The tendency of this gummint to do whatever it wants and shout, "My way or the highway" is starting to have repercussions; in March, the U.N. ignored U.S. objections and approved a new Human Rights Council. If all the influence the U.S. is going to wield in the future is money and economic power, other nations are going to start ignoring us more and more; despite our past fiscal hegemony, we aren't a creditor nation any longer, and that comes with its own set of consequences.

War is a nasty business, there's no doubt about that. But by denying or sweeping under the rug such things as the Geneva Conventions, Abu Ghraib, and Haditha* (WARNING: Both links have graphic pictures; if you can't handle it, don't click), it makes it that much easier for other nations to start doing as we do, and not as we say.

*[for a good overall look at Corporate Media and independent reporting of Haditha, check out this blog entry at Amygdala.]

Tuesday, June 06, 2006

6.6.06 at 6:06

Since everyone else is having fun with the date today, I thought I'd take it a step further and post at 6:06 p.m. *wink*

All the hysteria about numerology, demonology, and the Book of Revelations aside, I thought I'd take a break from Gallaudet, politics, my state of un/underemployment, and life in general and share with you this cool website I found a while back. If you're an interior decorator, an aspiring design major, or just someone who appreciates quirkiness, check out these 3-D painted rooms.

In a similar vein, you may have seen examples of these before, but I love some of these pavement drawings by Julian Beever-- they're not exactly your typical chalk drawings! Perhaps the artist is related to Bert from Mary Poppins. Who knows...?