Category Archives: Opinion

Netflix Fail Confirmation? Not so simple, but maybe

Some months ago I wrote about our miserable experience with Netflix. Constant freaking buffering through our admittedly old Roku box.

We tried a number of things to improve performance, including a new N-type router, but the same behavior persisted until we learned to go with the flow, sort of.

Instead of reloading the network, or reloading the stream, the best thing to do was wait: We would start a stream, it would play for a few minutes, grind to a halt, then reload and eventually drop from 4 dots of throughtput to 2 stars. It would then buffer some more and after a couple of minutes, it would work. Usually.

Sylvester Stallone would be grainier. So would Denise Richards. But the show would go on.

This all started happening late last year. At first I thought it was perhaps interference from all the routers in our building and the ones surrounding it. Or a microwave or cordless phone on the other side of the wall.

But the more I diagnosed the cause, it seemed to all come back to the fact that Netflix used to seamlessly adjust the screen resolution based on the amount of available bandwidth, but it was now insisting on running in HD. Despite the fact that Verizon cannot deliver more than 3Mb per second to our house over DSL.

Which is fine. I get HD when I stream on my computer. Barely. But the Roku fails and that seems to be a failure of either Netflix to properly adjust the resolution or Roku to transmit the information.

In any case, as much as I loathe Verizon, they didn’t seem to be particularly to blame here. My bandwidth tests show occasionally erratic bandwidth, but more often not delivery of what I was paying for. And my stream, while far from faultless, wasn’t constantly buffering. It was, in fact, constantly adjusting stream rates so I had a picture. Sometimes really sharp, sometimes pixilated. Usually with inane local banter.

I wrote about this here some months ago (February), mainly my attempt to work out what was going on. And it seemed to make the most sense that Netflix was trying to force the ISPs to provide more bandwidth (Netflix consumers 70 percent of the streaming video volume, and insane amount of total internet use every day) at lower cost. Those that did, had reasonable throughput. Those that wanted to charge Netflix for that throughput, namely Comcast and Verizon, saw throughput drop.

In recent weeks, Netflix started to send an error message to customers saying that the buffering was Verizon’s fault. This caused Verizon to go to court, and before it showed any evidence Netflix withdrew the error message.

Which makes this rather long and somewhat technical story of interest, since it seems to muster numbers that show that the Comcast and Verizon problems for Netflix were actually caused by Netflix. Sort of like I said in February.

As the story concludes, it is based on the available numbers, and those may not be all the numbers.  Netflix may actually have good reasons to be negotiating with Comcast and Verizon this way. And it seems likely that there will eventually be a better way to handle the sharing of routes of pipes, called “peerage,” in the future.

For now, we’re stuck with this mess. And I don’t think it unreasonable for Netflix to try to push Comcast and Verizon into better service. These monopolistic giants are a burden to us all, and we would be better off with a different system.

Verizon signed a franchise agreement with the city of New York in 2007 that said it would provide universal fiber optic (FIOS) service throughout New York City by the end of June 2014. Uh oh.

It turns out that FIOS installation is really expensive. Verizon got slammed by our two big storms, Irene and Sandy, but the fact is they’re giving up on FIOS. Having no competition, they can sit on their decaying DSL system, invest less and milk their exclusive franchise until someone sues them for failure to deliver. Which will mean a fine, a cost of doing business, in the future, and leave large parts of New York City a tech black hole, and yet a cash cow, for the phone company.

I want my video now. And if Netflix is messing up my stream, they’re playing with fire. The problem is they have the extinguisher: No video.




Climate Change: We Can Fix That.

In last Saturday’s Wall Street Journal, a member of the British House of Lords, Matt Ridley, published a long essay decrying the climate change doomsdayers, namely ecologists who saw time running out with no fix in site. His point was that humans are explorers, inventors, and problem solvers. We are a species capable of transforming problems into solutions, doom into wonder, and we’re working on it right now.

7108618-0-largeRidley sees the doomsdayers as pessimistic and unrealistically stuck on what look like limits (of natural resources, of breathable air and drinkable water) when, in fact, we’ve always (as a species) busted through those limits because of our ingenuity and resourcefulness. This is a reassuring argument, one that also makes some common sense. There are certainly inventions and innovations that will change the world in ways that we can’t imagine today.

Ridley’s goal, he says, is to get ecologists and economists to work together to create innovation that would improve the environment. Sure, why not?

The issue here isn’t Ridley’s somewhat Pollyannaish view of our ability to solve things. Ridley’s argument seems to mostly turn on an optimistic reading of human’s interactions with our planet and its natural order. Where some see excessive nitrogen run-off from farm fields contributing to suffocating algal blooms in our waterways, Ridley sees more carbon-storing green! Our forests and fields are more productive, lusher, able to filter more CO2 because of fertilizer runoff. Okay. Kind of crazy, maybe kind of right. There is also evidence that increased temperatures caused by increased plant growth will outweigh any gains. So maybe not right, but provocative.

It should be noted that there are some serious attacks on the credibility of Ridley and his book, the Rational Optimist, which matter greatly in terms of his credibility as a writer and idea guy.

Even so, I think it is well worth it for scientists and economists to sit down and work on the gains that stand to be made by innovation and technology. Why not? But also (of course) they should work on putting a price on resources that (Ridley acknowledges) cause collateral harm to people and the environment through pollution, and which are also finite resources, like oil and coal. Such a price, in the form of a tax perhaps (but there are other approaches), could be a way to promote conservation, subsidize less harmful energy sources so that they may reach scale and economic viability, and/or to fund research that allows other forms of efficiency to help us make more of what we have, with less pollution and environmental impact.

This is the sort of innovation I would think economists would welcome, generally, but which usually these days runs into a brick wall of political opposition. Nobody wants new taxes, of course, but shouldn’t such economic innovations be on the table? Ridley doesn’t mention them, so we don’t know where he stands.

We do know that in the US a sizeable percentage of climate change deniers oppose the funding of innovations that might address climate issues because, they argue, whatever climate change is happening is not man-made. (In Oklahoma recently a first-of-its-kind bill passed that charges people who install their own solar and wind power generators a fee for connecting into the grid to distribute excess power they generate.) The deniers see the movement to address climate issues as the work of busybody activists who want to appropriate their goods (in cash, in resources) in order to fix what they believe we haven’t put asunder. Their argument seems to be that if we didn’t break the environment we shouldn’t try to fix it. In other words, we should not pursue the innovation and invention and economic incentive that might solve things because we didn’t cause the problem.

Climate change worriers often counter this argument by pointing out the vast number of scholars who believe that some significant part of the undeniable climate change has been caused by industrialization and the CO2 buildup in the atmosphere. Such a consensus is convincing to me, but I don’t blame skeptics for wanting to think about it more. There is certainly some chance that the changes haven’t been man-made, at least not all of them, and that climate change is cyclical, that greenhouse effects are offset to some extent by other impacts, or whatever. There are many theories and avenues of inquiry and argument available, and all should be explored so we better understand what’s going on. But when it comes to addressing climate change issues that doesn’t matter.

What strikes me, and what Ridley (perhaps inadvertently) makes clear, is that it doesn’t matter what is causing climate change and other pressures on earth (he spends a fair amount of time on agriculture and other issues, too). Temperatures are rising and so are sea levels (and so is population), and as innovators and inventors and pioneers, humans should be and for the most part are aggressively trying to find solutions to these problems.

So yeah, get economists and ecologists in the same room, but let’s also get obstructionist politicians who represent the short-term interests of the energy industry out of the way. They represent the real problem, using the straw man argument against anthropogenic climate change as a reason to support outdated energy policies that cost us as a society and civilization ecologically and economically. Let’s let humankind do what it does best, and get to solving the problems.

A Democratic Evening: Last Night’s Food Coop General Meeting

parkslopefoodcoopfrontI’ve been a member of the Park Slope Food Coop since 1999, that’s 15 years this November. Some people hate the coop, some people mock it, but I will tell you that it is an incredible institution, a piece of bedrock that joins disparate communities across NYC because, well, the produce and the prices are incredible.

This comes at a cost. Every member is required to work a shift every four weeks. A shift’s length varies a little depending on the duty, but the standard is two hours and forty five minutes. This can be a problem for those with regular work hours and kids, so I certainly don’t blame anyone for not being a member. But because every member is responsible for a work shift, being a member really brings with it a sense of community. We’re all equally invested in the institution.

That community is large and democratic. There is paid staff, but the coop’s policies are the result of a governance system that allows any member to make proposals and shepherd them to a vote of the members at the monthly general meeting. Despite my enthusiasm for the coop and my admiration for its system of governance, I’d never been to a general meeting before last night.

Some of that had to do with circumstances. There were other community things I tended to that seemed to require me more than the coop did. It was doing just fine without me sitting through a three-hour meeting. And  while one of the inducements to attend the meeting is work-slot credit, you get to skip a shift twice a year if you attend two meetings, I really like working  my shift.

Plus, the big issues that have come up all seemed to have popular support for my side of things. Yes to grass-raised beef from local farmers. Yes to good beer. No to bottled water. Good riddance to plastic shopping bags. Condemning Israel by banning the seven products imported from there was an overreach. But then, a couple of years ago, the environmental committee proposed banning the plastic bags in the produce and bulk aisles that people put food in, and I wasn’t sure what to think.

It would not be reader friendly to go through the backs and forths, the political wrangling, the discussions and arguments that ensued. Better to watch the excellent local sausage makers put together that fine smoked kielbasa in the meat case, if you want to have fun, but please trust me that a lot of smart people spent a lot of time trying to figure out what to do about the coop’s plastic bag use, which is now limited to what are called roll bags, those thin things you put a lot of loose or wet items into.

It’s an issue. The coop uses 2.5 million roll bags a  year. But the majority of these bags are used to buy local fruits and vegetables and bulk products that regular grocery stores don’t sell. Is it better to sell more local and bulk products? We all agree yes. Will we sell less if folks have to bring their own bags? It seems like yes is the answer.

The fantastic thing about the general meeting I attended tonight is that ideas were discussed. The environmental committee made their case with a very slick video, and then people talked about the proposal (and the video—not everyone appreciated its slickness).

There were some points that were hard to understand, and some people repeated something that had been said previously, but by letting 40 or so people speak directly to the meeting about the proposal many aspects of it were described, defined and evaluated. People had ideas that either supported the proposal  or not. (UPDATE: A writer at Slate and coop member, who hyphenates co-op (no doubt correctly), live blogged the event. Snarkier and sometimes funnier details are there.) Hmm, I realize I didn’t say what it was that the environmental committee was actually proposing.

After all the discussion and negotiation, and while they had started with the idea of a phase out of bag use, what they actually proposed was that the roll bags could remain, but that if you used them it would cost you 20 cents per bag.

That’s what we were voting on.

There was some discussion about whether the plastic roll bags made a greater or lesser environmental impact than the alternatives (primarily washing and reusing heavier plastic bags), but mostly everyone agreed that reducing the use of plastics was a good thing.

What ended up being the biggest point of contention was the 20 cents per bag tax. Some of this was a little silly. How would a checkout person know whether your plastic bag was new or used? Some members worried that such a tax would unfairly impact the poorest members of the coop, while others pointed out that the poor are fully capable of living without plastic bags.

The tax clearly violated the coop’s historical markup of all items sold, which is 21 percent of the wholesale price. Each roll bag costs a fraction of a cent, and one speaker said the markup of 2500 percent would be a cruel tax for some.

Everyone who spoke was in favor of reduced use of plastics, but how do we get there? To cut to the end, we voted against the tax on plastic roll bags. For the time being, until a different proposal passes, we will have plastic roll bags at the coop.

I voted against the proposal because the idea of the tax seemed at odds with the way we do things. And better to decide the real issue here than end up with a half-measure that violates the general operational principles of the coop.

So we’re left with this:

If the plastic roll bags are a problem, as the plastic shopping bags were, we should not provide them. Not providing them would still create problems for the unwrapped fruits, vegetables and bulk items, but that’s a problem that each member would have to solve. Maybe some would move to more packaged foods, which would be too bad, but probably most would reuse their plastic bags as best they could depending on their situation. At least the coop would be acting based on its principles.

Or perhaps those plastic roll bags aren’t a problem. Maybe their benefits outweigh the environmental costs. At least if they’re used prudently, and reused as much as possible (which many people already do).

Neither of those options was up for a vote, and so the proposal failed. The irony is that the tax would have reduced bag usage, everybody’s goal.

We know this because the Metropolitan Transit Authority, which runs New York’s subways and buses and commuter trains began last year to charge riders $1 every time they took a new Metro Card rather than reusing their old one. The goal was to reduce printing costs and litter in stations. What has happened, however, is that millions of cards were reused, over and over, and so fewer odd balances (because  you received a percentage bonus on your refills, you might end up with a difficult to use or refund amount less than the cost of a fare) were abandoned on old cards.

So many odd balances were abandoned that revenue from abandoned cards dropped from $95M in 2012 to $52M in 2013. (Don’t worry about the MTA. They expected to save $6M a year in printing costs from printing fewer cards, and that $1 surcharge replaces the abandoned odd balances nicely.)

Money talks. But as last night’s vote showed, it shouldn’t always have the final word.


Compensating the One Percent

Reading the NY Times today, I came across this piece by N. Gregory Mankiw, in which he argues that we are not outraged by the oversized compensation of superstars like Robert Downey Jr. and E.L. James and LeBron James (not related, presumably) because we can see the impact that their singular talents bring to their enterprises, like Iron Man and 50 Shades of Grey.

He then points to the outsized contributions of others, like Steve Jobs, to make the point that superstars exist in fields other than entertainment. Then he cites a survey showing that privately held companies pay their CEOs just as lavishly as publicly held companies, suggesting that the reason CEOs are paid so much is not because of lax board oversight, inadequate regulartion and cronyism, but because CEOs are just that valuable.

FInally, he says, the top one percent pays an effective Federal tax rate of 34 percent of their $400,000+ incomes, while the middle fifth in the income distribution paid just 12 percent, demonstrating thei elite’s greater contribution to society. He likens them to the Avengers, though not out of altruism to they contribute more than their share to advance the public good.

Mankiw’s argument seems to be that because Robert Downey is able to command a huge salary, which seems fair because of the somewhat transparent economics of his relationship with his producers and studio, that other high earners are equally justified earning enormously high salaries. As if a CFO at Yahoo is as hard to replace as LeBron James. And that these high salaries are good for society, since as individuals they collectively pay a higher rate of tax than the rest of us.

This seems to me like a public relations argument. The problem with income inequality is that life and work dynamics are broken. We have more people than there are jobs for them, which forces wages down for those who are easily replaced in whatever job they have. The scandal is that someone can work full time and not be able to afford a basic life, including health care and a nice home and the basic things, like food, without government support like WIC and the earned income tax credit.

While in many cases their employer is booking huge profits, paying scant corporate taxes, and the CEO is taking outsized compensation for engineering the fruits of employee labor away from the employee and to the benefit of stockholders, fund managers and inside executives and their friends.

Talented people deserve to make all the money they can, but it is surely our job as a society to set rules that recognize that the amount of payment a person is able to command is not an absolute measure of their worth. And that our system of laws and taxes doesn’t assist corporate interests make bigger and more concentrating profits while failing to compensate their workers a living wage. In fact, salary/income isn’t anything close to an absolute measure. Our society has set up all sorts of incentives and rewards that accrue to the some and are for the most part unavailable to the rest.

Discussing how this all works and figuring out how to pay to implement the societal support and service we all value (health care, Social Security, police, fire department, food inspections, flight controllers, parks and wild lands, education standards and support, tax collection) is our great challenge today.

Mankiw’s piece seems to be an attempt to foreclose all such talk, and convince us all to applaud the contributions the wealthy make.  The point isn’t that this is totally untrue, but in a system that is clearly out of balance, we need to figure out what services we need and value, and then figure out how to fairly derive revenues to pay for them.

That’s the conversation that needs to be pushed forward.

FWIW, back of the envelope:

A self-employed person who makes $450,000 would pay $150,000 Federal tax and about $15,000 in FICA. State and local taxes vary, so let’s ignore them. Net: $285,000. (Holds onto 63 percent)

A self-employed person who makes $51,000, the median US income, would (according to Mankiw) pay about $6,000 in tax and $7,000 in FICA. Net: $38,000. (Holds onto 74 percent)

(Click to enlarge chart)



Verizon May Suck A Lot, Or Only A Little Less Than A Lot. But I Think Netflix is the Problem.

This story at arstechnica lays out some ambiguous broadband stats from Netflix about various ISP’s deliverance of our video feeds to our house.

In my house we’ve noticed in recent months that we can rarely watch Netflix, delivered through our first generation Roku, even after I moved the router into the same room (about 20 feet apart).

And that comes after years of perfectly fine service. Somehow the system is getting worse.

At first, the chart in the article suggests that Verizon (and Comcast) are throttling performance, but the evidence for that doesn’t seem to exist (though Verizon’s recent net neutrality victory is grist for the throttling mill, and a warning of what could happen if our internet pipes aren’t protected from pipe-holder taxation.)

What I know for sure is that Netflix relentlessly tries to deliver a HD signal into my house. My HD TV loves that, but my contract with Verizon is for a fairly modest bandwidth (3mb down, 1mb up, the max their system can somewhat reliably deliver). Whenever we watch Netflix, we have to set the program up and then wait either a long or an interminable amount of time for Netflix to figure out that we don’t have the throughput to handle the signal they want us to have. Once we go from HD four dots to two dots, based on their evaluation, we can watch our TV, usually without problem.

But this transition always takes a stupid amount of time. WE DON’T HAVE THE BANDWIDTH FOR HD, we scream, but Netflix can spend scores of minutes trying to pump the HD our way. And does not seem to memorize our settings, nor allow us to set our own (gimme gimme gimme two dots!)

Tonight we waited nearly a half hour (doing other things, too, we’re not hopeless) waiting for Netflix to tamp down our usage rate so we could watch our show, and then quit because it didn’t happen.

Netflix used to tamp down bandwidth rates with great agility. I’ve read articles about how they maximized flexibility, and valued their ability to reduce their bandwidth footprint, but that no longer seems to be the case. I want to blame Verizon for this, since they offer fairly crappy service on my block, but I think the greater problem is that Netflix for some reason no longer values that elastic delivery.

They want to deliver HD even if you’re not capable of receiving it, and that’s screwing up my watching of Season 5 of Breaking Bad. I dislike Verizon, but it seems that Netflix is the one who can fix this problem.

Update: It looks like Netflix agrees the problem isn’t Verizon.

Update (February 22): It looks like Ars Technica now thinks the problem is Verizon, demanding substantial peering payments.

Health Care in France: Not perfect, but. . . .

A first person account of the expensive French health-care system, which seems to work exactly the way Medicare works, only better because it is bigger.

The key points:

  • Everyone gets basic care as part of the package they pay for with taxes.
    Above a certain level of coverage, people pay for extra insurance to suit their situations.
    Employers sometimes provide this secondary level of coverage.
    Care is rationed so the system can sustain itself, but care is privileged according to urgency of need.
    Care is designed to more efficiently and effective use facilities, lowering cost.
    Patients must be told the cost, in advance, of all procedures that cost more than 70 euros.
    All costs are transparent.
    The French spend a lot of their GDP on caring for the society, including health care.
  • This seems so much smarter than allowing insurance companies into the part of a process in which we all implicitly share the risk. That is, the overall health costs from cradle to grave of everyone is known. We don’t know how the costs will be distributed to each family and each individual, but we know the total, which is why we spread the risk. The collective cost of the total, or rather our slice of it, should be our individual cost.

    Insurance companies know this. But they provide a service that adds little to no value to the process, and increases the cost. They make a profit, which is an additional tax we pay, and for what?

    How do we know that they increase costs without adding value? Medicare delivers similar services and costs much less.

    I’m sure that things aren’t always perfect in the French health-care system, bring your own towels, but doesn’t it make sense to craft a system that carves out wasteful players and improves our understanding of our individual health needs can be addressed with quality and at the lowest cost?

    Something Dry But Important.

    The FCC’s net neutrality rules were overturned this week. Yawn. But this is a big deal. The gist is that with net neutrality rules in effect the phone and cable companies who deliver the internet into our homes are required to treat all the info coming from the internet the same. Whether it is my personal website, Facebook, Netflix or Comcast’s own Video On Demand service, the information has to flow unimpeded through the same pipes. As it were.

    Without net neutrality, which is no longer the law of the land, Comcast could charge Netflix extra to deliver it’s stream into your house, for instance. Or, if your internet provider didn’t like what I had to say, it could block my personal site.

    One of the greatest and most important attributes of the internet has been its status as an open sandbox or playground, available to all who have something to say. Without it, as this very clear article makes plain, our internet would look a lot more like our cable TV service. That is, unresponsive and expensive and pretty awful.

    It is in all our interests to let the politicians who work for us so that they know that we want them to re assert our rights to net neutrality.