My First Hackathon

This past weekend, I went to the Washington Post’s Election Hackathon. I hadn’t been to one before, but my friend Oscar had the idea that it would be a good way to possibly get a little more exposure for If nothing else, we’d get a nice portfolio piece.

And we did indeed: Check out Oscar’s piece on its creation and some ideas for going forward. It was a good example for how quickly you can get a site together using Treb, the framework we built for mojoLive.

We didn’t win, partially as there were some really awesome ideas done by others at the hackathon, but partially because we misjudged the criteria for the site and provided something potentially useful but stopped early to polish it rather than really digging into the APIs to uncover some insights. With only a few hours of designer assistance from Kevin, the polish worked well, but the judges went for incomplete ideas with potential. As the Musketeer with the occasional appellation “product guy,” ultimately that’s my fault. On the other hand, I got to dust off some programming chops that had been put on the shelf while I pursued funding at mojoLive and gladhanded for clients for the Musketeers.


We did get selected to present our app. You can totally identify Oscar, right?

One other note: Oscar will expand on it, but I think we did demonstrate good principles if you’re going to design something to be responsive: keep the design clean with simple boxes and rows that could reflow rather than try to replicate the report-ish layout that websites have aspired to since the 90s and that are the bane of the nonprofit world. The site still looks good on a desktop browser, but it also works really well on an iPhone.

Design for your medium, people. Don’t try to force it to be something it’s not. And as “product guy” I will take a little credit for that part.

In Favor of Network Neutrality Regulations

I just posted the following as a public comment to the FCC’s proposed rulemaking to ensure neutrality of internet network services: Unless and until broadband providers are forced to provide real competition by providing best-service sharing of the last mile infrastructure at cost to competitors with separate divisions to handle technical service, there can be no real competition in broadband services. Each technology has its own local, government-created monopolist who has extracted rents from the American public through the value of a government-enforced monopoly on last mile infrastructure for that given technology.

Since each technology effectively creates a new tier of service (DSL at the bottom, Cable in the middle, and, where not blocked from negotiating a new franchise with a locality by pressure from an existing monopolist, fiber at the top), the competition among them is not apples-to-apples. Beyond the limit for DSL, only cable and fiber can even service some areas. Satellite can only provide download speeds and the nature of network applications make the POTS (Plain Old Telephone Service)-based outbound channel unsuitable for the kinds of interactive applications expected by consumers. These, quite frankly, are apples-to-oranges “competition”, no matter what certain network providers would like the FCC to believe.

Until Congress moves to undo the harm it did to broadband competition, the FCC has no choice but to issue reasonable regulations to ensure that any packet of IP information is treated the same as any other packet, with appropriate exceptions for calls on wireless telephone networks and emergency information, or for packet-neutral limitations on individual use for purposes of quality-of-service assurance.

The FCC must do this to support existing legislation designed to guard against fraudulent advertising. “Internet service” inherently assumes that all services are equally available at the access levels sold to the consumer. This means that a broadband provider may advertise 5 megabit download speeds as long as all internet-protocol-based services receive that 5 megabit capability from the broadband provider. Anything else may be electronic network access, but it is not “internet” access and should be forbidden starting on these grounds. Additionally, such regulation should enforce transparency so consumers know exactly what restrictions and realistic expectations of service they may be purchasing.

The broadband providers should not be prevented from creating alternate, private, non-internet networks to which they may sell access and manage under any terms they see fit. But if they are to sell “internet” access, they must abide by the principles that caused the Internet to win out over the private networks such as CompuServe, AOL, or Prodigy in the early 1990s.

These regulations themselves should be as simple and neutral as possible to ensure a level playing field for all entrants to the internet service or provider market. Additionally, the FCC should recommend legislation to Congress establishing ways to: 1) either break up local last-mile technology monopolies or enforce equality of access and equality of cost so competing providers are not second-class citizens on a given technology, 2) ensure standardized and rapid franchise agreements for new entrants with new or existing broadband technology, and 3) ensure any limitations on service are clearly communicated to consumers so they may know what they can reasonably expect from the service in day-to-day operation, as well as any quality-of-service actions the access provider may undertake.

Above all, any regulations should ensure that no provider may, under cover of “network quality of service management,” manage their network in a way that favors a service owned or somehow affiliated with themselves over a competing service unaffiliated with that provider, nor may they impede access to any legal service with whom they may have a dispute or with whom they disagree.

Norman Borlaug, RIP

The father of the Green Revolution has died. It’s worth noting that by focusing on technology instead of politics, Norman Borlaug probably saved more lives than Hitler and Stalin and Pol Pot snuffed out.

A single act of creation usually does more good than a thousand regulations enforced by ten thousand police or imposed by a million soldiers.

Adventures in Corporate Happytalk

One big misconception–especially among conservatives–is that being pro-free-market means being pro-business, especially pro-big-business. While I feel somewhat bad for people working at a bad company, I have no vested interest in who makes the cars or food or computers I like, except insofar as I like one product or set of products better than another. If Apple suddenly started making unusable crap and Microsoft suddenly started making intuitive, reliable products, I’d sell my stock in Apple and switch.

But even in the darkest days of Apple’s mismanagement, I never clamored to force my fellow citizens at the point of a gun to subsidize my preferred platform. Of course, Apple couldn’t claim to be “too big to fail” at that point, and therefore there wouldn’t be enough pain from its passing to cause politicians to sense any vote-buying opportunities, I mean, uh, statesman-like behavior for the good of the people…right.

But AIG has now been bailed out not once, but twice. Let’s quit prevaricating around the bush and get to the happytalk:

Edward Liddy, who was installed as AIG chairman and CEO after the government’s September rescue, said in a statement Monday that the new deal establishes “a durable capital structure” for the company.

“Today’s actions send a strong signal to our policyholders, business partners and counterparties that AIG is on the road to recovery.”

Dude, I know you think you’re being clever by convincing investors to stay with you, but two bailouts where men with guns demand money from the aforementioned assembly-line worker to give it to you and buy shares in your company to ensure any losses you have can be made up by future gun-toting raids on some struggling family’s income, but seriously, two bailouts in a row means “AIG is terminal and either it should go into chapter 11 restructuring or, if that’s not legally possible like it isn’t for some financial institutions, its operations should be wound down in an orderly fashion and its assets sold off in a fire sale.”

The reason free market types (as opposed to simple whores for big business) oppose such bailouts is that the worst thing you can do is socialize losses. Socialism is a bad idea only partially because the profit motive is subverted by redistributing profits to people who had no role in their creation. Mainly it’s a bad idea because it ensures that people who had no role in a firm’s losses are made to make up for them. That way inefficient companies *cough*Amtrak*cough* are permitted to continue limping along, sucking away capital from people with much more useful ideas on how to generate wealth, becoming a bigger sink hole as time goes on, and making everybody poorer. Politicians and bureaucrats are no more immune than anyone else to the sunk-cost fallacy–and are perhaps even more prone to it than people with a history of having to make good losses or go out of business.

That’s why market-types often drive True Believers in socialism nuts by calling anything that socializes losses “socialism”. The key failure of corporatism, fascism, socialism, and communism is the socialization of losses. In short, unless businesses are allowed to fail, everybody suffers, not just a few. That’s why it’s a Bad Idea. So to us, the differences among various state-controlled economies are less telling than their similarities.

Next up to the trough is General Motors, who is basically holding its workers hostage to politicians in exchange for men with guns to come collectin’ from you and me to make sure its management and investors don’t suffer more than they already have. The problem is that GM makes cars few if any people want to buy. This problem won’t be solved by shoveling more money down their pit. The Volt seems like a nice idea; I’m betting there are some better-managed companies out there who could do something with it (and come up with a less ugly design).

I’m sorry about the automakers, but I notice they weren’t clamoring to bail out me and mine when the tech bubble burst. You were talking about a similar level of wealth being lost and market declines of about the same amount, yet aside from the easy-credit policies that made the real estate and financial bubbles possible, you didn’t see a lot of political action to save As a result, we have some strong companies like Amazon going nicely, and others even now being allowed to go gently into that good night.

Those auto-making jobs are going to go away for a while. Provide subsistance-level assistance to those families if you want, but they are no more guaranteed to stay in Michigan, et. al. any more than the “Duke of Partnership Data” (real example) jobs were guaranteed to stay in Silicon Valley. Yet the tech sector survives. Smaller than it was, sure, but it’s here and providing jobs. If we keep letting the Big Two-and-a-Half waste everybody else’s money, then eventually lots of other people will be made poorer for the sake of some jobs that could have been replaced (I hear there are other companies making cars in the US who might fill in the gap, so don’t whine about manufacturing jobs being unavailable–if you’re that concerned, get Hopey McChangeypants to give them all $40K of relocation assistance; it’d be cheaper).

But at least GM isn’t telling me their requested bailout means they’re doing Just Grrrrrrrreat!™