Monday, October 13, 2014

Discovering Color at Age 57


I've been seeing these sunsets for 35 years... but not really.
Severely color-blind from birth, in the last few weeks I have gained the ability to see more (by no means all) colors.  I can't imagine that my writing skills are up to this task, but I feel the need to try to explain what it has been like.

I've always been interested in the possibility of treating my color-blindness, and had tried a half-dozen technologies before.  Some, like the high-tech Enchroma lenses, simply didn't do very much for me, probably because my color blindness is too severe.  Others, using tinted glassses, only worked a little bit, and only on the brightest of sunny days; I coudn't wear them in low light.  And some required contact lenses, to which I could never adjust.  In any case, all such technologies must be used nearly full time for several weeks before the brain rewires itself, and I never got that far.

Recently, however, the good folks at Harrisville Eye Care set me up with a pair of glasses that used a much lighter tint, which is apparently what I needed.  I can wear them indoors in relatively low light, which means I was finally able to wear them long enough to start to see a major effect.

That effect was just beginning to kick in, the week before last, when my wife and I went on a road trip, starting in Chicago, where my granddaughters live.  They quickly sat me down to watch The Wizard of Oz with them.  Now, I'm only red-green color-blind; I can see blues and yellows just fine.  So I knew to expect colors when Dorothy opened the door after arriving in Oz.  But really, I didn't know.  Munchkinland was a riot of unexpected beauty.  I managed to cry quietly, without (I think) the girls noticing.

I've always enjoyed movies, but now I want to rewatch any that are noted for their use of color.

Emboldened by that experience, we took a trip to the Art Institute of Chicago.  I have largely avoided art museums all my life, because they tend to be very frustrating.  Many impressionist paintings were simply incomprehensible blurs to me.  But this time was different.  Some of them were still inscrutable, but others were a revelation.  I stood for fifteen minutes just staring at Seurat's "A Sunday on La Grande Jatte."  My artist daughter gleefully guided me around, explaining colors to me, while the other three grandparents took the children to exhibits like the Thorne Rooms.

After 57 years on this planet, I suddenly like art museums.

From Chicago we drove to northern New York, where Trina's parents live.  On the drive there, Trina pointed out the trees changing color, but I was able to see only a bit of difference there.  I figured it was too subtle, and that I was still too color blind to appreciate autumn.

Trina's parents live in a cabin on a hill with a view westward over Trout Lake.  It's famous for its sunsets, of which I have seen hundreds over the years.  I've always loved sunsets, and I was eager to see what my new glasses might add.  Well before the sun began to set, I settled in on the couch, where I could simply look to the right to see the show.

Of course, I got wrapped up in working on my computer, and lost track of time as the sunset got under way.   I didn't look up until my father-in-law casually said, to no one in particular, "nice sunset."  I turned my head to the right, and my entire world changed.

I beheld a fiery sky, not just with more colors than I'd seen before, but extending far further in every direction than I'd ever imagined.  I immediately gasped so loudly that everyone in the house wanted to know what was wrong.  My jaw dropped and my hand clamped over my face, but I wasn't actually thinking anything.  The usual constant chatter of consciousness was simply gone, and for perhaps a few seconds, as the tears poured down my face, I was nothing but pure sensation, swimming in a sea of unfathomable beauty.

After seeing thousands of sunsets, I had finally seen a sunset.

Most surprising, though, was what happened after that.  My first conscious thought, emerging from that sea of bliss, was completely unexpected:  "Perhaps there really is a God."

If you know me, and my long history with religion, you know that this wasn't a casual thought.  In high school I stepped beyond my Jewish background and immersed myself in other religions -- a fundamentalist Christian prayer group, a Nichiren Buddhist sect, and the Bahai faith, for starters.  Then in college, I majored in comparative religions, with a particular interest in Zen Buddhism.  I was almost the textbook definition of an agnostic.  But over the years, cynicism and rationalism took over, and by the time Osama bin Laden and George W. Bush began demonstrating their competing visions of God's will, I was calling myself an atheist.  But in that one instant of beauty, I again became an agnostic.  I don't think I ever truly understood the concept of gratuitous beauty as evidence for the existence of God.

A few days later, we drove to Pittsburgh.  My color vision was clearly continuing to improve, because now I could see more colors in the trees.  I was beginning to learn to let go and simply experience the colors, rather than constantly trying to name them and test the limits of my perception.  I found I was much better at enjoying the colors than analyzing them, and I spent less time naming them and more time appreciating them.

In Pittsburgh, we went with our friends Tom and Cheryl to the Phipps Conservatory, where every flower with any shade of red in it was a revelation to me.  They seemed to bask in the reflected wonder as I saw things in flowers I had never seen before -- at least once being startled enough to gasp aloud once again.  Tom said he'd never seen someone so literally following his bliss.

After years of disinterest, I found myself thinking I might enjoy gardening.

I was in Pittsburgh for a celebration of the 25th anniversary of CMU's School of Computer Science, and it was there that I went next.  Even as I listened to the (very interesting) professional talks, I was aware of a growing sense of pervasive beauty all around me.  Even a pile of garbage was more interesting with my newfound color sense, but people in particular were visual miracles.

I found myself staring at people's lips.  They were vivid and defining in a way they never had been before, even without makeup.  Women wearing lipstick drew my eyes irresistably.  For that matter, I was also seeing blush and most other kinds of makeup for the first time.  (With my natural vision, I can't see much more than blue eye shadow.)  It took a concerted effort not to stare like a creep.

After years of fascination, I found women more beautiful than I had ever imagined.

And red hair!  In college, at one point, I was talking with my best friend of the last two years, and the topic of nicknames came up.  "Well, people have always called me Red, of course," he said.  "Why?" I asked.  He looked at me strangely and said, "because I have flaming red hair."  "You do?"  I asked.  But now I could identify many people as redheads, all by myself, and some of them stood out like lightbulbs from across the room.

I expected the drive home from Pittsburgh to be anticlimactic, but it wasn't.  My color vision had improved to the point where the fall colors were visible enough for me to stare at them, smiling, for hours.

I don't want to overstate what has happened to me.  I'm still very color blind, just not as bad as before.  (To be technical:  I see 11 more of the Ishahara images.)  And there are negatives, too:  the glasses only work well at a certain distance -- too close or too far and the effect is sometimes lost.  Most alarmingly, the glasses play havoc with my depth perception.  Staircases have become a real hazard, and I managed to smash myself in the face with a car door because I misread its position.  I'm not complaining, not by a long shot, simply warning anyone else who might go down this road.

Most important to me, however, is a newfound motivation.  If I, at 57, can experience this much change in my color perception, how much good could it do a color-blind preschooler?  And how might we build on glasses such as these to give an even greater boost to color perception, perhaps even for those with normal color vision?  I am determined to answer these questions if I possibly can.  But not while the sun is setting.

Wednesday, June 18, 2014

Welcome to the Post-American Internet. Please Have Your (Virtual) Papers Ready for Inspection

The Internet, as is well known, was almost entirely an American invention.  Funded by the US Department of Defense, the early ARPAnet was three years old when the first non-US node was added in 1972.  America has dominated the Internet ever since, but less so every year.  We are fast approaching a tipping point, where no single country is dominant.  The changes this transition brings will call into question several core beliefs about the nature of the Internet itself.

When the newly-commercialized Internet exploded into public consciousness in the mid-1990's, there was no shortage of sages eager to explain the nature of the net, and how it would affect society.  The fundamental qualities of the Internet were seen largely through American eyes, with the assumption that the Internet would change global society far more than that society would change the Internet.  Although this was correct in some regards, the changes have happened in both directions.

The most common political assertion about the Internet was that it would, by its very nature, advance the cause of liberty worldwide.  As John Gilmore famously wrote (and as was later attributed to several others), "The Net interprets censorship as damage and routes around it."  This reflects a key technical aspect of the Internet's design, a distributed structure intended to survive a major nuclear war.  Libertarian prophets gleefully predicted that the Internet would enable a flowering of American-style freedom around the world, and many found libertarianism a natural fit with the Internet age.

Much of this is correct, as far as it goes; the Internet's architecture does, on balance, tend to discourage censorship and facilitate liberty.  However, there's a big difference between resilience and invulnerability.  John Gilmore would have been more accurate if he'd said that the net tries to route around censorship.  While the early Internet promoted free speech and facilitated political dissent, the enemies of those freedoms were studying the Internet, understanding its limitations, and plotting their countermeasures.  Gradually but steadily, national and economic interests are becoming more effective counterweights to the Internet's predisposition towards liberty, and those counterweights are pushing even America itself in the wrong direction.

Seen through the eyes of American ideals, optimism, and exceptionalism, the opponents of Internet freedom were simply reactionaries, fighting a doomed rearguard battle.  After all, the network was designed to survive a nuclear war by dynamically rerouting data; what hope did the censors have?  Like America's military and cultural exports, the Internet was another tool destined to turn the whole world into America, or something like it.

The first strong hint that this might not be true was China's announcement, in 1998, that it was building what would come to be known as the Great Firewall of China.  For the most part, Internet seers -- myself included -- laughed at this public commitment to an impossible goal.  But with sufficient investment -- and five years of work -- China built a remarkably effective firewall that today keeps most of the population -- all but the most motivated and sophisticated -- from accessing Internet sites the government doesn't like.  They were able to do this in large part by using the power of the government to regulate International data connections and requiring that they all go through the firewall.  The Internet interprets censorship as a bug and routes around it, but the Chinese government interprets free speech as a bug and blocks it, by forcing the Internet to use a non-standard architecture (effectively a single routing path).

Other examples abound, if you look for them.  In the 90's we believed that the Internet would create a wonderfully level playing field, allowing entrepreneurs in the most remote corner of the earth to sell things directly to first world consumers.  Instead, a few oligopolistic players such as Amazon have become ubiquitous middlemen, with market-making power.  The distributed nature of the net was supposed to open up diverse sources of connectivity, breaking up the near-monopolies of telecom companies -- also not precisely what actually happened.

Most dishearteningly, however, while the cyberlibertarians were carrying on about the inherent freedoms of the net and the need to protect user privacy -- very American ideals, to be sure -- the American government itself, in the form of the NSA, was undermining those ideals to a breathtaking degree.  Any attempt to sell non-Americans on the principle that America's ideals should rule the Internet has to face the reality of America's actions.

As China has molded the Internet to its own ideals, other countries are doing so with varying degrees of success.  Iran, for example, is unlikely to match China's Great Firewall without a great deal more control of its international connectivity, and a substantial increase in its technical expertise, but there's no reason they can't do this eventually.  (For that matter, China could sell them the technology and the service.)   I fear that we will soon see some countries making good on the oft-made threat (even in the US) to require strong proof of identity to use the Internet.  It will be hard to implement, but so was the Great Firewall; it awaits only a sufficiently motivated and sophisticated government.

My greatest fear, however, is a race to the bottom.  Now that China has walled itself off, other countries are trying to imitate it.  If a few countries manage to require ID's, others will race to follow, perhaps even the US.  The Internet surprised human society in the 1990's, bursting upon it like a tsunami, sweeping away many repressive ideals in its wake.  But that wave was a one-time phenomenon.  It is easy to imagine that over time, just as governments rebuild after a tsunami, they will "fix the damage" caused by the Internet's first wave.  In the end, we'll be lucky if the  Internet looks like America in America, let alone anywhere else.

Sunday, January 12, 2014

Another Hidden Downside to Travel

Very few of us are immune from the occasional game of "what-if."  How might my life have differed had I turned right instead of left, bought a house in the city instead of the suburbs, chosen pottery over banking, or Cindy over Susie?   But of course you can't ever go back.

Psychologists say that, in most situations involving humans making choices, increasing the number of options will decrease the ultimate satisfaction of the person making the choice.  Perhaps the knowledge of alternatives makes it almost inevitable that we will be too aware of the imperfections of our choices.  In this sense, we perhaps should envy the student who attends the first college he visits, the worker who takes the first job he finds, or the bride and groom in an arranged marriage.  (Or at least the lucky ones.)

No matter how our choices work out, we ultimately play the game of "what-if."  And if we aren't happy with the answer - if it makes us miserable, melancholy, or just plain restless -- we may find ourselves imagining making major changes in our lives.  But more often than not we don't actually change careers, divorce and remarry, sell houses, or even replace large items such as cars on a whim.  Most restlessness is held in check by our attachments and our routines. We shy away from the biggest changes, and try to divert our restlessness with fads, fandom, or fashion.  We can't ever live an alternate version of our own lives.

The next best thing would appear to be travel.  But you can easily return knowing additional ways in which your life is less than perfect.

Travel takes us to alternate universes.  The home of your cousin in New York has unmistakable differences from your life in suburban Chicago, or your uncle's Iowa pig farm, and yet these differences pale in comparison to Tokyo, Beijing, or Kinshasha, let alone Yosemite Valley or Antarctica.  The more you travel, the more universes you will have seen.  But, if you believe the psychologists, you may find it increasingly difficult to be satisfied with any one of them.  You will always be aware that some things are better elsewhere, and that there's even more that you haven't seen.  Your list of destinations grows faster than your ability to visit them.

Imagine a perfect world, completely at peace, in whatever serves as your vision of Utopia.  Now imagine that you could go and live in that near-perfect universe at a small and simple price:  you could never again have your two favorite foods.  To me, this is the nightmarish "World without Pizza and Ice Cream."  Almost anyone would make that tradeoff -- world peace alone is probably worth giving up pizza -- but how many people could be completely content with that choice?  I know that for the rest of my life,  Ben and Jerry would haunt my dreams.

That's what travel does to you.  You go to new places, and you encounter new things -- new people, new attitudes, new foods, new art, and new music.  It's a wonderful experience, but when you go home there are new things to miss, new absences in your less than perfect life.  In South Africa, they sell a wonderful kind of biscuit called rusks, without which my life had previously seemed quite complete, but which I now seek, usually in vain, in imported food stores at home.

Travel expands your horizons, your knowledge of the world, your understanding of humanity and history, and your appreciation of the arts.  But it may not make you happy.  People who live all their lives in a small village are probably, on average, more content than those of us who keep forgetting what time zone we're in.  The things you miss specifically provoke a more intense desire than the more abstract knowledge of things you've never encountered.  I miss rusks far more than I am bothered by the knowledge of how many foreign foods I've never even tried.

For my part, my affinities are scattered about the globe.  When I stay too long at home, I begin to miss very specific things -- the theatre and restaurants in London and New York, the scenery in Africa and California, the museums in Washington and Paris, or the omnipresent history in Rome and Jerusalem.   But if I moved to Yosemite, I'd miss the ocean, and if I moved to Hawaii I'd miss snow.  And when I stay too long on the road, I miss the stability and comfort of home.

It isn't just that our lives are too finite to see and enjoy it all; it's that the more we see and do, the less likely we are to ever be completely satisfied anywhere.  The more you travel, the more easily you can imagine better places than wherever you are.  At least, that's how it works on Earth, but... hmmm... perhaps things might be better on some other world?


Saturday, October 5, 2013

RIP Secure Email

Last month, as you may know, two American providers of secure email services exited the business.   In announcing his company's "corporate suicide," Lavabit's founder said:
"I feel you deserve to know what's going on – the first amendment is supposed to guarantee me the freedom to speak out in situations like this," Levison wrote. "Unfortunately, Congress has passed laws that say otherwise. As things currently stand, I cannot share my experiences over the last six weeks, even though I have twice made the appropriate requests."
This kind of language has stimulated a wide round of hand-wringing at this latest example of the assault on privacy.  Many have suggested that a key to email privacy, in the new world order, is to avoid using service providers that have any physical ties to the United States.  But is this kind of extreme reaction justified?

I'll argue that it isn't, not because the problem isn't real but because there are no useful solutions.  I have no doubt that it's a horror show out there; in fact, I believe that the situation is far worse than the most doom-and-gloom commentators have been saying it is.  Those commentators fear that privacy is in mortal peril, but I would argue that privacy is no more endangered than a week-old roadkill carcass.  It's been dead long enough that you really should have noticed by now that it's beyond further harm, and is best spoken of only in the past tense.

For starters, email never was private to begin with.  The earliest email systems were only as secure as the administrative login on a mainframe.  Networked email was even less secure, vulnerable as it was in transit to eavesdropping and alteration.  While there have been occasional developments that seemed to move the momentum back towards privacy, such as S/MIME, PGP, and services like Hushmail, Silent Circle, and Lavabit, it must be said that these have been almost complete failures.  Their security improvements have always been offset by reduced convenience, a fatal tradeoff on today's Internet.  As I've often said, users want security at any price, so long as it's free.  And when a service like Lavabit was finally getting a bit of traction on the technical side, it was totally subverted by the hidden hand of the security state.

We can and should continue to assert the need for a secure email system, but we ought to recognize that, with few exceptions, we've never had one.  Email as we know it simply should not be used for genuinely sensitive information.  Instant messaging, when used with suitable transport encryption and no message retention, is a rather better bet for would-be conspirators, but not for anyone who wants to keep records.

It seems likely to me, however, that the essence of email service includes qualities that are fundamentally incompatible with security in today's world.  Email users are accustomed to being able to communicate easily with anyone, to retain messages for as long as they like, and to allow company monitoring of corporate email.  Each of these requirements is a significant roadblock to true privacy.

Nor should you get your hopes too high about the nationality of a provider.  It is probably true today that you could use a service in another country without the US government being able to see your data -- if you are lucky enough to choose a country that doesn't have any secret arrangements with the US.   But even then, as more people do that, how long will it take before it's made illegal to use services outside the reach of US pressure?

There are still ways to communicate secretly.  If you're planning a corporate takeover, an extramarital affair, or a heinous act of terrorism, you can find ways to use the various communication tools of the modern age to protect your plans from prying eyes.  It's just that you have to work much harder to do it, so you aren't likely to do so over small matters, which means that minor embarassments will be revealed far more often that major crimes.  (And, tragically, every evidence of strong privacy will be seen as suggestive of a possible crime.)

Email is like a crowded train station.  Most of what you say won't get noticed by anyone else, but you never know if you're standing next to a listening device or a human eavesdropper.  I'm afraid that either we shall all be living our lives in a state of constant fear, or we will have to dispense with secrets altogether.   The best response to the loss of privacy may be the growth of tolerance, so that fewer secrets will need to be kept in the first place.

Wednesday, June 5, 2013

CPSR: Can't Prolong Sadness, Really

Last month brought the official dissolution of Computer Professionals for Social Responsibility.  The initial reaction to this event, for those of us who cared about it, was of course sadness.  It marked the end of an era, of nearly 30 years of activism, education, and outreach.  As one who served on the CPSR Board for many years, and as President briefly, it feels a bit like an old friend has died.

But the truth is that current realities call for different kinds of organizations, and that CPSR lived longer than we had any reason to expect.  CPSR was founded in the early 1980's, one of many organizations born in reaction to the Reagan-era military build up and, most particularly, the Strategic Defense Initiative, commonly known as the "Star Wars" program.  The goals of that program were so far beyond the technology of the time that it struck fear into the hearts of most knowledgeable computer scientists.  As the program was initially construed, a single bug in a staggeringly complex program could easily have cost millions of lives, even as the program gave policy makers a false sense of security about the survivability of nuclear war.  It was flat-out terrifying to many of us

Most of the organizations that formed in that era found themselves winding down after the Reagan-Bush years, and certainly not surviving to the Millennium.  CPSR was different.  At its founding, it was the only organization focused specifically on the impact of computers on society.  As Star Wars faded, CPSR turned toward issues such as electronic privacy, computerized voting, participatory design, and online government.

In fact, there were so many topics of interest that CPSR could not contain them.  Several organizations that began their lives as spinoffs from CPSR continue today, such as the Electronic Privacy Information Center (EPIC) and the 21st Century Project.  Other organizations that were not CPSR spinoffs, such as the Electronic Frontier Foundation (EFF), nonetheless diverted substantial energies from CPSR.  Over time, then, CPSR became the home for worries about the smaller issues related the role of computers in society, as the larger ones spun off to specialized groups.  

The capabilities of the Internet, and the general Millennial temperament, seem to favor more highly-focused organizations, rather than catch-alls such as CPSR.  It seems likely to me that social action groups will be more effective with such specialization, which makes the death of CPSR both more understandable and less lamentable.  But that doesn't mean that nothing is being lost.

CPSR, as a general-purpose organization, provided a social nexus for people concerned about multiple computer/society issues to exchange ideas and devise new strategies.  It's not clear to me where this is happening today, if anywhere.

But perhaps the worst aspect of CPSR's demise is that it leaves some "lesser" issues orphaned.  Sure, issues about privacy and liberty will be addressed by EPIC and EFF, but what of the issues with no such specialized organizations?  How will computing professionals organize themselve to address those issues?

Two issues, in particular, are of concern to me.  First is the question of electronic voting.  Electronic voting machines have an enorous potential to subvert democracy.   While there are individuals addressing the issue, without CPSR, I see no organizational home for them.  Second, and most ironically, is the role of computers in weapon systems and the military.  The issue which gave birth to CPSR is one of the most regretable orphans in the wake of its demise.

CPSR had a good run, and I can't shed too many tears at its end.  It was a 1980's style organization (some would say 1960's) fundamentally ill-suited to 21st century realities.  But now, as computer technologists, it is all of our responsibility to consider the social consequences of the rapidly-advancing technology we continue to build, and to create new organizations for new concerns.

Fortunately, I see signs that this is exactly what's happening.  I'm encouraged by the fact that, even as CPSR has been fading away, the importance of social responsibility has become an important part of a growing number of computer science programs.

CPSR was both too general, in the sense of trying to cover too many issues, and too exclusive, as if there could ever be computing professionals -- or even computer users, which is virtually all of us -- who do not have a moral obligation to worry about the consequences of new technologies.  In the absence of CPSR, each of us has an individual obligation to be a computer professional for social responsibility.

Sunday, May 26, 2013

Tax the Internet!

Depending on whose numbers you believe, the Internet now constitutes about 2% of the global economy, or 3.8% of developed nations' economies, and its growth rate may still be exponential.

It took the Internet more than four decades to go from zero to two percent of the world economy. If, as I suspect, it's still growing along the same exponential curve that most Internet measurements have followed, a decade from now it could account for a third to a half of all global economic activity. The taboo on taxing it is worth revisiting, and several states are now doing so.

Believe it or not, the original reason why most people favored not taxing the Internet was a desire to foster its growth -- either through the direct economic savings of not being taxed, or by sparing it the potential regulatory complexities of a new kind of international commerce. Back then I thought, and still believe, that this was a very good idea, but times have changed. The Internet no longer needs special tax treatment to thrive.

There are of course complexities that stem from the nature of Internet commerce. But the sheer size of the Internet economy, two decades after its commercialization, suggests that it's past time to confront the complexities of its taxation.

I am not arguing (here) that taxes should be higher or lower overall, but simply that they will be increasingly unbalanced and unfair if they are only imposed on an exponentially shrinking portion of the economy.

The mechanics of Internet taxation will be tricky, to say the least, but current tax codes aren't exactly simple, either. It seems to me that Internet taxation could be made tractable by beginning with a few core principles, such as:

1. All mechanisms should be designed for feasibility and simplicity of implementation. This will dictate certain architectural decisions, such as seller-side tax collection, and it will also work to minimize bureaucracy and wasted time.

2. The introduction of Internet taxation should minimize disruption to existing government revenues. This means that when possible, revenue from taxing particular Internet actions should go to the jurisdiction of the seller that received the revenue. For example, in the USA, sales tax from Internet transactions should be directed to the buyer's state of residence. The seller's venue can be taxed in other ways, but without residence-based sales tax, tax revenue would tend to drain away from populous jurisdictions that don't host Internet services.

3. Internet taxes should be as uniform as possible across all tax jurisdictions. For example, although the state that receives sales tax should be determined by the buyer's residence, the amount of the tax should be decided more globally if possible. The economic distortions at such places as the Massachusetts/New Hampshire or San Diego/Tijuana borders serves no useful purpose and would probably be even worse if applied to Internet taxes.

4. National tax regimes should complement each other whenever possible. Rules should be written with reciprocity in mind. It isn't reasonable to expect a small merchant in Haiti to deliver tax collections to every taxing domain on the planet, but it is certainly reasonable to expect a large multinational vendor to do so, at least for jurisdictions where it conducts business.

Having said that, what exactly can reasonably be taxed? The easiest case is basic Internet access, which is already often taxed locally at the "last mile." This is an appropriate offset for the local infrastructure costs, and satellite services could be treated in the same way -- the local folks can see the dishes and enforce the rules. A uniform sales tax rate would avoid competition between jurisdictions, and would be almost a necessity for a value added tax.

Internet advertising is currently largely untaxed. Taxing it might slow the growth of Internet advertising, but few people would shed a tear for that, and it could be a large source of revenue if exponential growth continues. This could be addressed as a sales tax on the transaction in which the advertising is purchased, but the taxing jurisdiction might be near-impossible to work out, and would be an undeserved windfall for a few jurisdictions. It would be much more tractable if the advertising delivery agent (e.g. Google) collected and reported geographic information to facilitate the distribution of taxes to the domain of the "eyeballs."

However, it should be noted that there are a lot of poorly-thought-out proposals for taxing aspects of the Internet that would be implausible to tax. A "click tax" sounds promising until you realize that someone could write a program that just sits around raising someone's taxes. An email tax would get buried in technical and regulational complexity, given the difficulty of sorting out the true identity of a sender or receiver. Taxes on social networking success are slightly more plausible, where there's a single entity to perform identification and reporting, but it still isn't clear which activities it would make sense to tax.

Finally, there is a strong case to be made for particularly taxing the most bandwidth-hungry applications, and plowing the proceeds back into infrastructure upgrades. Video-heavy services such as YouTube and Skype might reasonably be expected to contribute to the continued upgrade of infrastructure that their services help make necessary.

I certainly don't claim to have all the answers, but if the role of the Internet in our economy is still growing exponentially, then it's surely time to open a discussion around the topic of how it might make sense to tax the Internet.

Wednesday, January 2, 2013

Betraying My Oldest Friend


Every now and then, you say or do something that you can't take back, and it changes your life forever.  Sometimes it's a good thing, like having a child.  But when it's a betrayal of something you love, you will carry the regret to your grave.




For me the archetype of such betrayal is Winston Smith, in Orwell's 1984. Imprisoned by the all-powerful government, he has already endured countless tortures, but clings to the notion that he has never betrayed Julia, the love of his life.  To break this last shred of autonomy, his torturers confront him with his deepest fear, being eaten alive by rats.  Facing this horror he begs, "Don't do it to me, do it to Julia."   As his torturers understand, those nine words can never be taken back, and when he is reunited with Julia -- who has had a similar experience -- the knowledge of their mutual betrayal dooms their relationship.

I  have twice in my life been conscious of such a life-changing betrayal.  I regret them both, but would still repeat them if I could.  Both may sound trivial to many readers, but my regret is painfully real and deep.




The first was over a quarter century in the past.  I have always been a baseball fan, a fanatic partisan of the New York Mets, who I fell in love with as the perennial doormats of the National League.  In the American League, however, I found a second favorite, the team of all my relatives, the accursed Boston Red Sox.  For two decades, I rooted for both, confident -- in the era before interleague play --  that they would never face each other, which could only happen if both somehow met in the World Series.

In 1986, as any baseball fan can tell you, that actually happened.  I was over the moon, saying (and believing) that I would love every minute of the Series, no matter which of my two favorite teams won.   I held onto that belief until the final inning of the sixth game, with the Red Sox an out away from breaking their famous curse, when Bill Buckner committed perhaps the most famous error in baseball history.  At the very worst moment in nearly a century of suffering for Red Sox fans, I jumped to my feet and cheered myself hoarse.

I can say that it was inevitable, and that anyone would cheer their favorite team over their second favorite.  But I found I could never call myself a Red Sox fan again.  I had betrayed them as surely as Winston betrayed Julia.



My second great betrayal happened just this week.  To understand it, you should know that I was a bit of a prodigy as a child.  I was reading adult books at the age of 2, and had more or less finished high school by the end of third grade.  Books have always been my best friend.  For 53 of my 55 years, I don't think there has been a single day when I haven't spent at least an hour reading; even hiking the Appalachian Trail, I endured considerable extra weight rather than do without books.

The emergence of e-books has left me wary and conflicted.  The logic of e-books is obvious, especially to someone like me, who is away from home travelling more often than not.   Depending on the length of my trip, I typically carry 10 to 30 pounds of reading material, and I have a bad back, so switching to e-books would appear a no-brainer.

But I couldn't do it.  Books have been my most faithful friends since about the time I was toilet trained.  To cast them aside for the hottest, sleekest new model seemed unthinkable, and as shallow and faithless as casting aside my wife of 35 years for a similarly hot, sleek new model.  (Of course, Amazon doesn't sell the latter for under $100, but I digress.)

But every time I travelled, I found myself gazing at the lightly-loaded and paper-free modern travellers with more envy than when I gazed at... ok, that's enough of that analogy.  I even experimented with reading a couple of books on my smartphone, where the tiny screen allowed me to pretend I'd tried e-books and found them wanting.

Then, a few weeks ago, I got an iPad for work purposes, and, after some dithering, decided to give e-books "one more try."  I was only a few chapters into my first e-book, Walter Isaacson's magnificent biography of Steve Jobs,  when I realized there was no going back.  

Then, within a day or so of that realization, I went out to lunch at an Ann Arbor deli that happened to be a few doors down  from Nicola's Books, one of our last remaining independent book stores.  Walking towards the deli, I saw Nicola's and instantly found myself struggling to fight off tears.  I love independent bookstores almost as much as I love books themselves, and I felt like I'd put a knife into Nicola's heart.

I doubt I can ever go back.  Carrying so much less baggage when I travel, buying each book the moment I decide to start reading it, and beginning to reduce the miles of bookshelves that fill my house -- these are unarguably good things, and I can no more regret this decision than I can regret cheering for the Mets in 1986, or than Winston Smith could regret betraying Julia to avoid the worst death he could imagine.  

But we can regret the consequences even if we can't regret the choice.   Winston Smith didn't want to lose Julia, and I didn't want the Red Sox to lose, or the independent bookstores to vanish.  Sometimes, betraying something you love is the unavoidable cost of a greater good.  But I don't expect ever to get over it; 26 years later, I still feel guilty every time I look a Red Sox fan in the eye.