seeking knowledge and laughter, putting a bullseye on inaccuracy

james fallows

Businesses Need Anti-Monopoly Policies from Government

A James Fallows article in The Atlantic, "Made in America, Again, reminds us of the paramount importance of government policy with regard to monopoly and market power. Any one or a few massive market players can ruin the market for innovation and small business, which is one of the reasons government should seriously focus on preventing any one or a few entities from growing too large.

When Liam Casey took me through his Highway1 incubator for hardware start-ups in San Francisco, I spoke with 10 (mainly) young entrepreneurs who each hoped to set up a small hardware company somewhere in the United States. Not one of them volunteered tax or regulatory concerns as playing big parts in his or her go/no-go decisions. What they did want was a streamlined system to get their products into customers’ hands. To that end, they were concerned with things like the structure of retail distribution, especially the huge investment in inventory required to get their products carried in big-box stores. “Boring-seeming practical details make a big difference for these start-ups,” James Manyika told me. “If I am a small manufacturer doing something interesting, my chances are much better if I happen to be in physical proximity to a larger company, or to a network of experienced people who can help me get to scale.”

Good Computer Habits

What if your hard drive crashed right now or someone broke in and stole it? Where would you be? I would be greatly annoyed, but I wouldn't lose anything because I have multiple backup strategies and use secure passwords at every opportunity.

I know people who have lost everything and yet still do not do a proper job of backing up, even though the cost is less than $5/month at most.

So if this describes you also, take a few minutes to read this excellent article by James Fallows and be better prepared for the inevitable problems you will have eventually.

If you are using the same password on multiple different web sites, especially if any of them have your credit card or banking information, you are inviting a massive headache and weeks of frustration.

I have long been a LastPass user and Fallows recommends it in his article. Take a look - it's free for most uses (you have to pay $1/month to use it on your mobile device but free for your laptop and desktop computers).

Be smart, backup and secure your data before you lose it (again).

Learning to Love the New Media

I have long been discouraged by how easy some (Fox News) are able to spread lies and disinformation. How does one counter the rampant disinformation and misinformation in modern America? Obama is a Muslim Socialist from Kenya... Saddam Hussein attacked the US on 9/11... Our taxes have never been higher and we are taxed to death... Scientists are divided over global warming... and so on.

And how do we usually respond to this all-too-common conventional bullshit? By trying to use actual facts and logic as though anyone cares about those things. I think James Fallows, from a recent article in The Atlantic, offers an alternative approach.

“But what if the answer to a false narrative isn’t fact?,” Denton says. “Or Habermas? Maybe the answer to a flawed narrative is a different narrative. You change the story.” Which is what, he said, Jon Stewart and Stephen Colbert have done. They don’t “fact-check” Fox News, or try to rebut it directly, or fight on its own terms. They change the story not by distorting reality—their strength is their reliance on fact—or creating a fictitious narrative, but by presenting the facts in a way that makes them register in a way they hadn’t before.

I'm going to keep this in mind and try to come up with some better narratives.

The Battle for America's Future: Inches

James Fallows, one of my favorite writers, penned "How America Can Rise Again" in the Jan/Feb issue of The Atlantic. Having recently returned from three years in China, he asks if America is borked (it appears to be) and how we can fix it.

This snippet captures an interesting generational point of view:

“When I was growing up, these bridges and roads and dams were a source of real national pride and achievement,” Stephen Flynn, the president of the Center for National Policy in Washington, who was born in 1960, told me. “My daughter was 6 when the World Trade Center towers went down, 8 when lights went off on the East Coast, 10 when a major U.S. city drowned—I saw things built, and she’s seen them fall apart.” America is supposed to be the permanent country of the New, but a lot of it just looks old.

When I think of the space program, Challenger is more "real" to me than Neil Armstrong's moon walk. That said, anytime I think about these issues, I remind myself that every generation thinks history is coming to an end and things are worse presently than before. We tend to forget that science has kicked Polio's ass as we fixate on the lack of a cure of AIDS or cancer.

Ultimately, we need to wrestle with how many resources we want to put into being the best damn country on the planet. Clearly, we would rather imagine we are awesome at health care than actually be awesome at it. This is also true of broadband, the key utility of the future. To a certain extent, it is childish to focus so keenly on comparing ourselves to international peers - something I think Fallows deals with smartly:

But whatever their popularity or utility in other places at other times, falling-behind concerns seem too common in America now. As I have thought about why overreliance on this device increasingly bothers me, I have realized that it’s because my latest stretch out of the country has left me less and less interested in whether China or some other country is “overtaking” America. The question that matters is not whether America is “falling behind” but instead something like John Winthrop’s original question of whether it is falling short—or even falling apart. This is not the mainstream American position now, so let me explain.

First is the simple reality that one kind of “decline” is inevitable and therefore not worth worrying about. China has about four times as many people as America does. Someday its economy will be larger than ours. Fine! A generation ago, its people produced, on average, about one-sixteenth as much as Americans did; now they produce about one sixth. That change is a huge achievement for China—and a plus rather than a minus for everyone else, because a business-minded China is more benign than a miserable or rebellious one. When the Chinese produce one-quarter as much as Americans per capita, as will happen barring catastrophe, their economy will become the world’s largest. This will be good for them but will not mean “falling behind” for us.

We will do well when others do well. If China falls into turmoil, we will likely suffer more than if China surpasses us in a variety of measures. As long as people want to move here (and we continue encouraging immigration - which is how we continue to get the best scientists in the world), we will be fine.

Though we previously only found the will to invest in science when we were scared shitless of the Soviets, we can choose to invest in science again even without a boogeyman (though we could also justify it because a few Islamic terrorists have returned the right-wing to the bed-wetting tendencies it exhibited during the Cold War). Unfortunately, the larger problem we have is that our political system is failing us. The sound bite society naively believes government must shrink and operate like a business. This naive view totally fails to recognize that government and business have fundamentally different aims and that America thrived when government acted like government and businesses acted like businesses.

Today the economically important technologies include genomic knowledge, information technologies like the Internet, and the geospatial information, from the GPS network, that is built into everything from dashboard navigators to the climate-change-monitoring systems that measure the size of glaciers or extent of forests. Private companies now create the jobs and wealth in each field, but public funds paid for the original scientific breakthroughs and provided early markets.

It couldn’t have been otherwise, Atkinson says. The scale of investment was too vast. The uncertainty of payoff was too great. The risk that profits and benefits would go to competitors who hadn’t made the initial investment was too high. The difference between promising and dead-end technologies was too hard to predict—especially decades ago, when work in all these fields began. So each started as a public program: the Internet by the Pentagon, the Human Genome Project by the National Institutes of Health, and the GPS network by the Air Force, which still operates it. The government could not have created Google, but Google could not have existed without government efforts to establish the Internet long before the company’s founders were born.

Unfortunately, this naive view is vastly overrepresented in both our media and government by loud voices that are amplified by corporations all too happy to foment conflict to maximize their advertising revenues. Add to this our political system, described smartly as thus:

In their book on effective government, William Eggers and John O’Leary quote a former deputy mayor of Los Angeles, Michael Keeley, on why the city is out of control. “Think of city government as a big bus,” he told them. “The bus is divided into different sections with different constituencies: labor, the city council, the mayor, interest groups, and contractors. Every seat is equipped with a brake, so lots of people can stop the bus anytime. The problem is that this makes the bus undrivable.”

What do we do about it? We need to fight for inches. To use a football metaphor, our history focuses on improbably massive touchdown runs and successful hail-mary passes. But that is a disservice to how change happens. Change happens in the inches (as my friend Jim Baller, recently reminded me) - as noted by Al Pacino:

So we need to educate ourself, our friends, and our neighbors. We need to organize. We need to win an inch.

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