yet more a la carte

Matt and I have gone back and forth about this before, and I’d be lying if I said I felt completely confident in my response to the licenses-for-parks metaphor.  But I do feel confident that he’s wrong about this:

[...] Once the cable company has built the infrastructure to deliver cable to your house and given you the box, it doesn’t cost them any more money to give you 100 channels rather than 10. To be sure, building infrastructure capable of delivering more channels costs more money. But once the infrastructure’s built, it can deliver what it can deliver and there are no incremental savings to achieve by not using all the capacity. I think it’s completely true that cable television has become a questionable value proposition—it’s extremely expensive and though the infrastructure to deliver hundreds of channels to the home is impressive, it’s not actually useful since nobody watches that many channels. What we actually need is faster broadband internet. But the infrastructure’s already built. Refusing to use it doesn’t reduce the suppliers’ costs and wouldn’t save customers any money.

Two things. First, the cable company buys its content from various aggregators and producers of video product. I’m sure that the terms of these purchases vary considerably, and to some degree must be tied to consumer demand for that content. But there is marginal cost to adding a new channel even if there isn’t marginal cost to distributing it. There’s necessarily cross-subsidization going on, which means some viewers are getting a raw deal. Probably most of them, I’d argue: given the lack of choice in the market, there are strong incentives for the cable company to add new channels in order to widen their customer base; they can simply add the new features to their existing customers’ tabs. iTunes, Amazon and Netflix can be understood to be competing with cable and satellite largely on the basis of offering a non-venti option to consumers (to borrow Matt’s analogy) and they’re having a lot of success with it because many people rightly intuit that they’re not consuming $100 worth of video product every month.

Second, nearly all cable systems are now or soon will be digital, which means they’re packet-switched, which means that, to varying degrees, broadband capacity and video capacity are fungible. The actual details are, I’m sure, quite convoluted and complex, and we’re not going to be able to hash them out here without help from someone who understands the relative merits of different versions of DOCSIS. But it’s safe to say that there is one copper conductor entering your house that handles both internet and TV, and that the portion allocated to each can be changed through configuration choices made by your cable vendor.

the primal mud run

me, exhausted and covered in mud

Somehow Charles talked me into doing the Primal Mud Run on Saturday. It’s true that I’ve been adopting more of his crazed fitness strategies over the last year, but this was still an entirely new thing for me.  I’m not a very good runner, and making my 5k debut with an event that also involved mud and obstacles was daunting.  Today I’m sore and my lungs seem to still be reconfiguring themselves to a level of functional ambition they had never before considered. But I’m glad I did it.

One part was particularly interesting. The most unpleasant obstacle involved wading into a very cold pond and swimming under some barrels.  You know how when you hit your thumb with a hammer or burn your hand on the stove, and say “Ow!”, there’s some sense of volition tied to the exclamation? I mean, it’s not a deliberate act, exactly, saying “ow”.  But you could suppress it if you wanted to.

Well, each time I came up from under those barrels I was surprised to hear myself emit a sort of pathetic howl/whimper, not dissimilar to the ones tough-minded Jack Bauer might have drawn from a sinister interrogation subject.  It was just completely automatic and beyond my control. It’s always interesting and horrifying when you discover some new thing your body does without asking your permission. I trudged through the rest of the event in a kind of animal stupor, and when I was done Charles had to show me where I’d left my jacket.

But this was all pathetic and ludicrous. A hundred yards away, trucks were selling beer and barbecue sandwiches. Other participants were running in halloween costumes, tutus and thrift-store suit jackets.

All of which just goes to show that I would have made a terrible Marine. And the next time you hear me speculating about strategies for surviving the collapse of civilization, you should probably roll your eyes even harder than you normally would’ve.

UPDATE: Charles found some photos.

if I can pester you about just one obscure topic we talk about at work…

Let it be this one.

As is probably obvious, I think there are good reasons to be excited about information technology’s capacity to improve governance. For the small stuff, it already has — I can get a new recycling bin delivered just by visiting a website!

But for the really big stuff — like keeping track of how we award multi-million dollar contracts, or how we regulate polluters, or how we track the political influence economy — there are significant barriers to applying automated analysis. A lack of usable corporate identifiers is among the biggest of these problems. Citizens are expected to have trackable identifiers for their cars, and firearms, and selves. I have to surrender my SSN to a private entity just to see if I’m allowed to buy a new phone!

But for companies, the situation is quite different. Corporate registrations are held by states, which face bad incentives around making this data usable both because inaccessible registration information makes the state more attractive to registrants, and because states collect substantial sums for use of the data. Meanwhile, the federal government is wrapped in a nightmare tangle of purpose-built ID fiefdoms and one overarching public-private partnership that supplies identifier data that’s both unacceptably restricted and of unacceptably poor quality.

Attempts to improve the situation will no doubt be met with much gnashing of virtual teeth: competitiveness! Privacy! Personhood! None of these hold much water, though: not only has relevant tax return information (which would go a long way toward solving this problem) been completely public at various times in our nation’s history, but other countries impose a disclosure burden adequate to resolve the problem while still enjoying vibrant, competitive economies.

Anyway, my colleagues make this case more rigorously and persuasively both at this microsite and in this blog post (about the overall problem) and this one (about the technical considerations behind our presentation). I hope you’ll give it all a look.