Thursday, June 04, 2015

Federally Recorded Blessings

I'm not the biggest fan of the federal government. I don't mean that in any revolutionary kind of way, but I don't like the scope of what they do and what they have their hands in. And that feeling has persisted across administrations, and is irrespective of the party in charge.

That's the backdrop to the letter I got from The Federal Government telling me that I would be contacted by Federal Agents - honest to goodness G-Men - in the coming weeks.

Those who know me might expect my Constitutional-federalist, libertarian, individualist hackles raised. Off to the law I would go, to decipher exactly what minimal statutory and constitutional authority these privacy-flouting Census agents actually had. My answers would be kept narrowly within the boundaries allowed by our Constitution, the text of the relevant statutes, the presiding SCOTUS jurisprudence (if I felt it was well reasoned), the Anglo-American common law tradition, and the Holy Bible. Basically, I'd be like a clichéd POW in a movie: Name, Rank and Serial Number only. And really, aren't Census agents just wanna-be ATFE agents that even the Federal Government wouldn't trust with a gun?

If that's what you thought, then you're wrong. Even I'm not that cranky. My hackles were kept firmly in place. Data are useful, and while I wasn't about to spill every last secret I wanted to keep private, the scope of the household survey data seemed reasonable. Also, I didn't want to be a jerk to some Census worker whom I knew was probably a contractor looking to pick up some extra income (and in all seriousness, I would hope I wouldn't be a jerk even if they were actual ATFE agents).

However, I proceeded to lose the letter. Not because of any latent AnCap reflexes, but just out of sheer laziness/disorganization.

No matter, the Census agent proceeded to show up at my home. It (truly) wasn't a good time to talk, but made myself available to talk in the coming days on the phone in the late afternoon. She gave me another copy of the letter (which I lost), and politely asked me to review it so that I would be more ready for the conversation.

A few days later, she called at nearly the exact time I said would be most convenient for me. I settled in for the grilling, not really sure what was going to happen or how long it would take, but genuinely wanting to help.

There were a few standard demographic questions up front, and then it got right down into the business of defining my household. And not just who was in it.

"How many rooms does your home have?"
"How many of these rooms are bedrooms?"
"How many full baths?"
Etc. Nothing too interesting*. But then,
"Does your home have a permanent heat source?"

A little later...

"Does your home have air conditioning?"

In central North Carolina? Of course! "Yes."

As the questions kept coming, and they came in detail, I stopped thinking about my home as something altogether ordinary-
"Does your home have any windows boarded up?"
-and instead saw it as an extraordinary blessing.
"How often do you feel unsafe in the area within half a block around your home?"
In my subdivision? "Never."

As the survey went on, I started thinking of the people that gave answers that were different from mine.
"In the last twelve months, have you gone without hot water?"
"In the last twelve months, have you ever been uncomfortably cold for more than a day?"
"In the last twelve months, have you lost electricity for more than a day?"
About the only question I could answer in an unfortunate way was that I had seen (or likely seen) a roach in our house at some point before, although I wasn't really certain.

Those questions kept popping up in my head for a few days. This morning, I got into my car, and it started like it pretty much always does. I drove to my job that pays enough for all my material needs, and a great many other things. I have a wife that I love, and that loves me. I have the world's best Beagle. I have supportive family and friends. I'm writing this on my desktop PC, though there are at least four other devices in the house I could write it on.

Monday was Memorial Day. We have the blessing of a day off to go to the beach, grill burgers, buy a car, and just maybe spare a thought for the unspeakably great sacrifice of those who died in terror and pain at a young age for the safety of others.

Today, and every other day, I can be thankful that the Creator of all existence sacrificed for me personally to reconcile me to Him**.

It's almost out-of-fashion to tell people to count their blessings. Indeed, sometimes it's pious and insensitive to demand it of others. But I was put in a position to have my blessings smack me unexpectedly across my face (from a Fed, no less), and I'm thankful for it.
Our church recently changed their order of service to collect offerings during the service, as opposed to simply having boxes at the rear of the church for deposits. I think it's a great move. It is a mysterious and sacred part of worship to offer back to the one who has everything, and provides everything. And we conclude the offertory by singing the classic Doxology. While it's easy to fall into habit or sentimentality with more liturgical elements of a worship service, it's beautiful truth whenever we take the time to pay attention.

Praise God, from whom all blessings flow

* What a giveaway. As if having multiple full bathrooms is anything but astonishing compared to the historical norms of humanity.
** For myself and countless others. But as it is rightly said, if it had only been for me or any other single person, He still would have.

Tuesday, May 19, 2015

David Cameron's new Tory Majority Wants to Toss Freedom in the Bin

Cameron's rhetoric is almost worse than the actual policy change.

Doug Mataconis at Outside the Beltway outlines the proposed shift in focus on "extremism."
Cameron will tell the NSC: “For too long, we have been a passively tolerant society, saying to our citizens: as long as you obey the law, we will leave you alone. It’s often meant we have stood neutral between different values. And that’s helped foster a narrative of extremism and grievance."
He is directly rejecting the very notion of a secular, liberal state. And I don't mean secular or liberal in the very narrow, partisan way, but in the broad outline of how western political society is arranged. Maybe it's a privilege I take for granted, but I would have hoped it understood that a just state DOES leave alone all law abiding people. That a just state seeks first to secure the natural rights of the people, and DOES maintain neutrality in the issues of mind and conscience, seeking not to bind people in those matters (though here I am certainly more American, which is technically more secular than other western states). I would have hoped that disagreement from these broad principles of liberalism are rare, and that most of the squabbling of the day is fighting over a pretty narrow ground in the grand scheme of things. Small details where small differences in values can produce tensions.

And yet, here is a (somewhat) head of state, a chief legislator, feeling the freedom to not even pretend to respect such foundational principles. If a major party leader in a major western state can be so outwardly dismissive of the root of state protected personal freedom and autonomy, then it is pretty troubling.

The gains in wealth, opportunity, freedom and equality brought about by liberal government over the last few hundred years are an anomaly in historical terms. They're nothing to take for granted.

Monday, March 23, 2015

Loving the Haters

Hang around Twitter long enough, and you'll see some pretty vicious hatred. Usually it's not from someone you follow, but instead is retweeted by someone seeking to shame the hater. And when it comes to the most bitter of partisan and culture wars, I get the feeling that large swaths of people on either side would not actually be disheartened to hear of their ideological foes being swallowed up by the earth in a single, cataclysmic act.

The hatred is usually justified as being a response to hate itself. Such objects of hatred are usually identified as part of a movement: patriarchy/feminism, gamergate/anti-gamergate, Democrats/Republicans, etc. Their gatherings, protests and hashtags are closely screened for any offense, and when the norms of the group are crossed, the virality magnifies the offense.

No identifiable group seems particularly immune, Christians included. And not just those from some disaffected, detached corner of the internet, but people I've known and loved and worshipped with. Often the target is some enemy of the country, or even a domestic political opponent.

I am also not immune. I may have had the grace of restraint to often hide it away inside, but it's been there before (and maybe I haven't hidden it well sometimes - I'm too scared to trawl back through my social media posts for evidence).

Nothing about this is new. The good 'ole days were as hateful on balance. In some ways, maybe better, and in some obvious ways, much worse. But in all times, people are very, very capable of hating, and doing so with a self-flattering indignation when the target is themselves identified as a hater.

So to many, there is no problem. Hate the haters, the world says. But that's not what Christ said, and what he said is as radical as it was when it was offered thousands of years ago: love your enemies.

You have heard that it was said, 'You shall love your neighbor and hate your enemy,' But I say to you, Love your enemies and pray for those who persecute you, so that you may be sons of your Father who is in heaven. For he makes his sun rise on the evil and on the good, and sends rain on the just and the unjust. For if you love those who love you, what reward do you have? Do not even the tax collectors do the same? And if you greet only your brothers, what more are you doing than others? Do not even the Gentiles do the same? You therefore must be perfect, as your heavenly Father is perfect.
-Matthew 5:43-48 (ESV)

It's said enough to be cliché, but it's obviously not practiced very much.

So who do you hate? What person or group of people get your blood boiling to the point where you no longer care about their welfare? Or that you actively imagine their destruction? Or that you even actively work towards their destruction?

I don't believe this is a call to pacficism or resignation to evil. I still believe in actively pursuing justice, in protecting the weak from the strong, and in speaking truth to power. But all that can be done in love.

So, who do you hate?

How do you feel when someone mocks your beliefs? Love them.

How do you feel when someone blasphemes the Lord? Love them.

How do you feel when someone twists your words and beliefs into untruth and ugliness? Love them.

How do you feel when someone is caught on camera making racist statements? Love them.

How do you feel when someone acts indifferently and dangerously in traffic? Love them.

How do you feel when someone puts you down to make themselves feel better? Love them.

How do you feel when someone brings shame to the Church when they fall from a position of prominence because of their personal sin? Love them.

How do you feel when an official makes a thoroughly bad call that unfairly costs your team the game? Love them.

How do you feel when a politician moves the country away from protecting and defending the values you identify as critical to good and just governance? Love them.

How do you feel when someone carries out extreme acts of violence against helpless and innocent people? Love them.

How do you feel when people acting on behalf of your nation or state or city torment and torture captive people? Love them.

It becomes harder and harder the more you think of extreme examples. But there is no limiting principle to the commandment. No balancing. No, "Yeah, but, what about..."

It's frankly impossible. Except with grace.

Pray for the grace to love haters. I know I need it. You probably do too.

Saturday, March 14, 2015

Introducing: 33 Packs a Day

I have finally completed the story I've been writing with my wife for some time now. I got the idea in 2013, and worked off-and-on for a while, getting her help to add some needed humanity to it.

It tells the story of Seran Barzani, who came to America in the 1980s with her father from Iraqi Kurdistan to escape the violence there. In the midst of her busy life, she decides to take time to engage in political protest against a city government that was betraying the principles of liberty she had thought her family had fled to.

In the process, she catches the attention of an ambitious and career-focused agent of the Department of Homeland Security.

33 Packs a Day on Smashwords

It is available for purchase immediately, and is currently being reviewed for inclusion into the Smashwords premium catalog, which will distribute it to retailers of eBooks everywhere, including iBooks, B&N's Nook and others.

Thursday, November 20, 2014

Could your typical Ivy League student stand hearing a performance of The Wall?

I was on a Pink Floyd binge at work yesterday, getting through Meddle, DSOTM and Wish You Were Here, and finally, The Wall (apologies if I skipped your favorite album).  Music is an important way for me to shield myself from distractions, and their music is usually pretty contemplative.

But listening to The Wall (aside: not my favorite album of theirs), I had a strange thought: could this album be handled maturely by today's hyper-sensitive campus activist type?  Maybe it's unfair to call them the "typical" Ivy League student, though their thinking seems to pervade the Very Serious Universities, Ivy or not (links on links on links on links).

If you don't know, the pseudo-autobiographical concept album tells the story of a musician named Pink, who having been battered by a lifetime of failed relationships, pressures of the music industry, and the failings of all authorities in his life, retreats into himself and erects emotional barriers between himself and all loved ones (hence: The Wall).  While in retreat, a new, ghastly version of his personality emerges.  One that uses his platform to argue a horrendous, racist, homophobic, jack-booted crackdown on all the freaks he identifies around him.  This character's cringe-inducing outbursts are presented plainly, and without apology, until the time of his eventual emotional recovery.

It's quite clear, in the context of the album, that neither Roger Waters (lead singer and main songwriter of the album) nor the band are presenting this view as correct or laudable.  Whether it's a believable transformation or not hardly matters.  It is clear that the band is not promoting stormtroopers rounding up all the undesirables.

And yet, handling this kind of context seems increasingly challenging.  Trigger warnings are placed on works of classic literature for their period-realistic use of racist language, even when the racism is cast in a negative light.  Discussions of controversial topics spawn alternative events and safe-spaces, because students just can't handle hearing discomfiting things said.

I mean, could you imagine the reaction upon hearing the following from the song "In the Flesh"?
So you thought you might like to go to the show
To feel the warm thrill of confusion, that space cadet glow
I've got some bad news for you, Sunshine,
Pink isn't well, he stayed back at the hotel
And he's sent us along as a surrogate band
We're gonna find out where you fans really stand
Are there any queers in the theatre tonight?
Get 'em up against the wall!
Now there's one in the spotlight, he don't look right to me!
Get 'em up against the wall!
Now that one looks Jewish!  And that one's a coon!
Who let all of this riff-raff into the room?
There's one smoking a joint!
And another with spots!
If I had my way, I'd have all of you shot!
There'd be protests and vigils and concerned reflection by craven administrators.  Not because someone performed a song advocating these views.  But because someone presented these views as views that exist.  And that's one of the more frightening implications of this new climate on campus.  How do you deal with the world as it is, if you can't even discuss the horrors that are there?  There's not a topic of any controversy (and so, hardly any topic at all) that will not cause someone some offense, and maybe extreme discomfort.

Of course, when the state and its agents (as would be the case in public universities, not the Ivy League) are empowered to protect people from speech, it will eventually be the political majority that decides what speech is protected and what's speech from which people should be protected.  And that doesn't sound like a very liberal solution.  In the unchallenged enclave of academia, they are insulated from having their own views silenced, because the powers have found their views legitimate.  But they may not like it if this approach to free speech "balancing" were adopted more broadly (as is happening across the world in purportedly liberal democracies).

In the end, Pink tears down his wall after painful reflection.  And we hear the story of the people who were trying to reach him.  They're identified as the "bleeding hearts and artists", which are the people whom the campus left would seem to identify with.  Instead of cracking down on Pink in his worst moments, they try to reach him through the Wall, with their love:

All alone, or in two's,
The ones who really love you
Walk up and down outside the wall.
Some hand in hand
And some gathered together in bands.
The bleeding hearts and artists
Make their stand.
And when they've given you their all
Some stagger and fall, after all it's not easy
Banging your heart against some mad bugger's wall.

Wednesday, November 19, 2014

My Network Neutrality Paper of Eight Years Ago

Back when I was fresh out of school, and unsure of what I was going to do, I wrote this paper as part of an internship application to the John Locke Foundation.  I'm reproducing it here mainly as evidence that the push-back against strong new regulations (or rather, of applying really old regulations to new technology) is not some recent, anti-Obama fervor.

Looking back, the prose is kinda horrifying at times.  That first sentence in particular is extra-stuffed.  So I'm not trying to show off by sharing.  In fact, I know it must have been bad, because I never heard back.  Oh well, being an Engineer has been pretty great.

I've also noticed a bit of a miss in the analysis, as I've annotated below (Update: I've since heard about this story, which highlights that no, basically what I said in the original paper was how Netflix was operating - they simply chose a different transit provider).  In all, though, I think it still captures the issue pretty well.  One big miss was the rise of wireless broadband, which in retrospect should have been pretty obvious, but is only mentioned in passing.  But its growth in the marketplace only strengthens the point of the paper.
Network Neutrality
John Covil
                        As the ubiquity of the Internet becomes more complete in modern life, new policy issues arise as many people form different opinions as to just what the Internet should be.  There is currently very heated debate on the subject of so called ‘Network Neutrality’.  The concept is born out of very old regulatory laws, and the discussion is hampered by a lack of understanding of some or all of the key issues surrounding it.  When talking of network neutrality, people are generally referring to the principle that transmission of data across the Internet is content neutral.  That is, data is treated the same as it traverses the Internet regardless of the application, source, or destination.  One must consider both the technical and regulatory aspects of the Internet when making policy decisions on a neutrality stance.
            First of all, the concept that most people have about the Internet is shaped only by their experiences sitting at their PCs, and not by an understanding of how the Internet actually behaves.  The Internet is, of course, a network of networks.  These networks allow computers to communicate for a variety of purposes.  Instead of one single, vast connection of individual computers, the Internet is best described as an interconnection of autonomous systems.  Each network is maintained by an individual or individuals as part of some institution.  One network does not have control over another network.  Harmony is achieved through adherence to commonly accepted industry standards.  So instead of an Internet that is sent down from on high as a free and open land for the mutual benefit of all mankind, the real Internet is one that is controlled at great expense by private institutions, corporations, municipalities, universities, &c.  The connections between these networks are provided by Internet Service Providers (ISPs), which are often tiered to two or three levels, and owned and operated by telecommunications companies at great expense in terms of equipment and labor.
            Important for understanding the behavior of the Internet with regards to neutrality is an understanding of the way the Internet is abstracted.  A model was developed which divides networks up into seven (sometimes five) layers.  The behavior of a network at each layer is governed by different protocols.  The data is sent in packets, and as each data packet is constructed, the data from the higher layer is encapsulated (and ignored) by the layer below it.  The top four layers are governed by the end systems.  The bottom three are governed by the media that moves and routes the data through the Internet.  The way the Internet currently behaves, the routers that perform the yeoman’s work in moving data only operate up to layer three.  This is the Internet Protocol (IP) layer.  Devices operating at the IP layer keep routing tables, which tell the device which IP address to forward packets to, based on the destination address (or range of addresses).  Therefore, much of the Internet traffic is managed with no concern at all as to what application is actually being used.  Also, packets are forwarded on a ‘best effort’ basis.  Due to the transient nature of routing tables, and some attempts at congestion avoidance, packets transmitted from one source to the same destination, for the same application, may not take the same path.  Therefore, they may arrive out of order.  All of this means that the Internet, operating as it does now, cannot offer any effective kind of Quality of Service (QoS) guarantees.  This has a tremendous impact on the future of the Internet as a potentially new way to deliver entertainment. 
 Telecommunications companies are looking to compete with the cable companies by offering high-definition quality television over the Internet (IPTV).  With the Internet as it is now, this is effectively impossible.  While in some small instances, high quality, live broadcasts have been transmitted over the Internet, ‘toll quality’ television would require more QoS guarantees.  The early days of the Internet did not create a need for separate treatment of data based on the application (though the protocols were designed with that purpose in mind).  But now, there are an increasing number of interactive and bandwidth intensive applications that require more speed and lower latency (time it takes data to go from sender to receiver) than simple data transfers.  While some attempts have been made at implementing differentiated services, near-future rollout of IPTV would require a fundamental shift in the way the Internet operates.  Live television places immense demands on network resources for low jitter.  Jitter (in this context) occurs when information arrives with a greatly varying amount of time.  To put it simply, if you’re displaying the first set of frames of a television broadcast, you need to have the second set of frames there in time to show them when necessary, whether or not frame set two arrived before frame set three.  Jitter is a result of high latency, and aggravated by out-of-order packet delivery.  Some secondary network protocols, like Asynchronous Transfer Mode (ATM), guarantee in-order packet delivery for teleconferencing applications, but usually at the expense of other qualities of service, and they would be impractical to implement on the scale needed for IPTV.  So overcoming the challenges posed by transmitting television across IP networks requires treating IPTV traffic differently than other traffic.  This violates the concept of network neutrality. 
Controversy over the elimination of neutrality is a fairly recent phenomenon.  The format of the IP layer of network packets actually includes eight bits for differentiated service.  By flagging certain packets as higher priority, they can move to the front of queues and buffers, and face much less traffic and congestion problems across a given network.  While this possibility has always been in place, as a general rule, networks did not treat data this way.  The principles of neutrality have been largely followed, although in recent years many residential ISPs have been blocking or throttling traffic corresponding to illegal file transfer, or transfers with the BitTorrent protocol.  What is causing the most commotion now, is that telecommunications companies want to charge for different levels of service to content providers.  The fear is that the free and open Internet that we know and love today will vanish overnight.  As a technical matter, these fears are unwarranted.  While the Internet has been largely content neutral up to this point, the fact is that each network is autonomous.  Routing to other networks are handled by ‘exterior’ routing protocols.  If one network does not like the way a neighboring network, it can simply adjust its traffic around the problematic network [in practice, this hasn't always been the case for home consumers, as seen with the infamous fight between Comcast and Netflix but may be even when people don't see it that way].  What’s contributing to the emotion is the scale of the proposed change, and legal history surrounding the telecommunications industry.
The current controversy is magnified by the lack of options for ‘last mile’ broadband to the home.  A few corporations have invested large amounts of money in stringing high speed Internet to the home, most notably Verizon.  Verizon is rolling out a fiber optic network all the way to the home in many areas.  They are leading the charge for charging for differentiated services to make IPTV possible, and to recoup costs in investments to the home.  As noted, operation of these networks is not free, and they are the property of their respective owners.  The argument that a corporation should be able to do what they want with what they own is met with charges of monopolization.  The problem is that the monopolization was a result of regulation.  The Telecommunications Act of 1996 categorized ISPs as providing either Information Services (IS) or Telecommunications Services (TS).  Cable based ISPs were categorized as IS providers, while DSL providers (usually the old telecommunications companies) were categorized as TS providers.  While IS providers don’t face much regulation, TS providers were required to ‘unbundle’ services, as they always had with common carrier laws.  This put the telecommunications companies at an unfair disadvantage, as they had to open up their networks to other users.  Investment in last-mile wiring has suffered as a result.  However, it has not been dead.  Even in the face of such regulation, Verizon has stepped in to begin wiring fiber to the home.  This is in areas where DSL options already exist.  So even with current regulation, last-mile monopolies are not set in stone.  If unbundling regulations were repealed, and there were no pro net neutrality regulations added, the last-mile marketplace would be opened considerably, and even more companies would invest in the last mile.  However, by adding regulations, as the pro net neutrality supporters are want to do, they will actually remove incentive for last-mile investment, and further cement the monopoly of the cable and telecommunications providers [emphasis added 11/19/14].  While the Internet would remain as content neutral as it is today, Verizon would have little reason to continue its fiber rollout, and consumers would face, at most, three or four broadband service options: cable, DSL, wireless and fiber.
Net neutrality proponents want to throw bad policy after bad, by proposing new regulations to make up for the problems caused by old regulations.  Deregulation of the broadband industry would result in more options for the consumer, along with an increase in the ability of the Internet to carry entertainment.  Fears of stifling unwanted content are based on the old idea where a consumer has one or two broadband choices.  With more competition in the last mile, even without content neutrality, the consumers will demand and receive access to all of their old favorite websites.  It is important that we don’t fall prey to the rash appeals of the Internet content providers, and we take a stoic, reasoned look at the telecommunications policy that will have an increasingly large impact on all our lives.

Friday, January 17, 2014

What the Carolina Way SHOULD Be

Hear no evil, see no evil, proceed?

Jon Sanders has an excellent write-up on the latest on the academic scandal at UNC.  It's well-worth reading the whole thing.  As a husband, brother-in-law and good friend of UNC graduates, I appreciate his interest in strengthening the university, and the whole system of collegiate athletics, by steering them back to serving the real interests of the athletes, the other students, the faculty, and the citizens as a whole.