bandwidth and electricity are the same but also different

Electricity is ultimately a scare resource (burning coal, collecting sunlight), with the complication that it is being produced all the time so there are good reasons to try to offload usage to non-peak hours, as opposed to just reducing usage entirely.

Bandwidth is beguilingly similar to electricity, in that people access the internet via this huge network of wires, and there are similar peak usage problems.

Another similarity between electricity and bandwith is that non-usage can be wasteful--there has to be slack to accommodate burst and peak usage, but for the most part if communications infrastructure isn't being used to its full capacity it is being wasted; it's like building a six-lane highway that no one drives on.  Similarly, particularly with fossil fuels, if power is generated but not used it just means that the fuel used to generate it was wasted.  But there is a difference, in that electricity generation can be ramped up and down, while the amount of bandwidth available on given infrastructure remains fixed. (That's not to say that an individual user can't buy more bandwidth on demand, meaning that increased usage could cost an individual ISP more in, for example, transit costs; it's just that the total global bandwidth available remains fixed until someone installs more stuff, in the same sense that road capacity remains the same until more roads are built.) Also I suppose it doesn't matter too much if more solar or wind power is generated at a given moment than can be used--especially if it can be usefully stored in batteries or by pushing water uphill.

However I think drawing too many conclusions from the similarities between electricity and bandwith can lead to problems, because ultimately electricity is a scarce resource that is used up, while bandwith is mostly just a congestion problem. The idea situation is that all communications infrastructure would be used to just-below its peak capacity at all times.  (Similarly it would be great, if impossible, if people's road trips were evenly distributed throughout the day--no rush hours or event congestion.) But there's no reason not to use as much bandwidth as is available--to the extent there can be waste the waste comes about from building unnecessary infrastructure.  This seems very different than electricity where it always makes sense to try to reduce usage.

So, a per-bit metering system for bandwidth would likely be a bad policy because it would discourage usage all the time, but it makes no sense to discourage usage unless there is actual congestion.  Thus while it might make sense to use pricing or other means to try to smooth out bandwidth usage or even to reduce it overall when infrastructure is nearing capacity, unlike with electricity encouraging "conservation" does not always make sense--instead you often want to encourage use of the infrastructure, and the best way to do this might be a metered price of zero.

Assorted Free Speech Takes

So I don’t have to try to tweet all this, here are my various takes on the free speech controversies that have been welling up lately.

These are my personal (and provisional and subject to change) opinions and I don’t speak for my employer or any organization I belong to.

  • I am almost but not quite a free speech absolutist when it comes to the government: prior restraint is bad. “Hate speech” is not an exception to the First Amendment. I think the ACLU’s suit against WMATA is correct. If the government is going to sell advertising space (which it doesn’t have to do and probably shouldn’t) in public places then under current law it needs to sell ads to NAMBLA and Nazis, and in any circumstance must accept “political” ads.



  • The settled law that viewpoint-neutral time, place, or manner restrictions on speech are legal is correct. This is true even though people will get tricky and try to characterize viewpoint discrimination as viewpoint-neutral. A rule that leads to fact-specific arguments in situations like and occasional abuses is better than doing away with time, place, or manner restrictions. Based on reading the briefs and looking at the facts as they were known and presented to the court I believe ACLU was wrong in challenging the right of Charlottesville to move the Nazi demonstration to a different public park, and the judge was wrong in his decision, and that the events bear that out.


  • Major online platforms should afford everyone due process. Whether something is a “major” online platform depends on the specifics of the market and the availability of alternatives. They should be required to have clear content policies in advance, they should be required to give notice for any content that they wish to take down (unless it is per se illegal, see above), they should permit people and opportunity to export their content (again, unless it is per se illegal) and they should give people an opportunity to challenge the “charges” against them before a neutral decision-maker and have their content reinstated if victorious. (Maybe something like Hal's idea would work, though I don't think it's the right approach for ISPs.)


  • If a platform is an actual monopoly (probably whether a natural monopoly or otherwise) then it should be subject to common carrier rules of some kind. This is a heightened version of the above, and it does not require them to carry per se illegal speech, but it would put some restrictions on their ability to decline to carry content even for reasons that are delineated in advance, and limit their discretion in individual cases. Some kind of restrictions that go beyond what the government would be permitted to ban may be permitted for some, but not all common carriers of this kind—for example with infrastructure-type services common carriage should be strongest.


  • The best way to avoid the abuse of power is to prevent accumulations of power. To the greatest extent possible would should avoid having any single platform having the ability to remove someone from the internet, which might mean breaking up, or restricting the size or conduct of some companies, even if they've done nothing "wrong" to achieve their position. Although if a natural monopoly exists we should deal with that fact instead of idly wishing for more competition.


  • This is not really a "platform" issue but one of to what extent businesses should have the right to decline to do business with someone for any reason.  We already prevent discrimination based on protected categories (mostly immutable characteristics) but should we go further?  Obviously I think in some cases the answer is yes.  The reason to talk about "platforms" is that they tend to be more closely speech-related so these issues are more salient than they would be, for instance, in the case of a gas station.


  • In general, unions are very good and the best way to protect workers from arbitrary management. But even non-unionized companies should afford due process rights to employees, who should be able to challenge terminations. Due process must always be available to avoid pretextual termination or ones depending on falsified or no evidence. Believing and advocating hateful things, even outside the workplace, should be grounds for termination, but those kinds of things need to be spelled out, in advance, though not to the same level of precision that First Amendment exceptions need to be spelled out. For example, it would be ok to fire someone for denying the Holocaust (or the Holodomor or similar events). It would be ok to fire someone for believing in racial supremacy or gender-related pseudoscience. It should not be ok to fire someone for being a libertarian or a socialist or a supporter of the divine right of kings. Believing in things that are just generally stupid should not be grounds for termination. However companies should have the ability to buy someone out in such a circumstance, again under some clear pre-set rules.
Source: my brain

Letter of Recommendation: Detroit Techno

The radical act of Detroit’s techno rebels was that they entered an inhuman network of machinery and found a voice within it — which aligns them with a different Detroit legacy. The city’s first independent black autoworkers’ organization was called the Dodge Revolutionary Union Movement — or DRUM. Members chanted the word while marching, as though keeping a beat.



But a rack of lamb is not the Roman Empire.

“And yet, I think it was a better description of the market than they had, because the least of the market is the food.”

"What is it then?" Hardesty asked, though he already knew.

"Buying and selling, faces, the color, the light, the stories that breed within it, its spirit. Where else would you find all these clear lights strung so high and gleaming in the cold?" she asked, indicating the chains of electric bulbs over the stalls. "Harry Penn got a telegram from Craig Binky, that said, ‘How can you cover the market and not mention food?' Imagine, they send telegrams between two offices on the same square. Harry Penn cabled back, 'Eating assassinates the spirit.' 

"I like to eat," she said. "In fact, I'm hungry right now. But a rack of lamb is not the Roman Empire."

Mark Helprin, Winter's Tale.

This pretty much sums up how I feel about food writing.

Comments in the mp3 available here.

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“What do you listen to when you’re at home?”

Brian Wilson pauses for two seconds. “I listen to a record called ‘Be My Baby,’ by the Ronettes.

[H]e often brings up “Be My Baby,” and the song’s ability to “make emotions through sound.” You sense that this is where Wilson really lives: in emotions triggered by sound. The more the book makes that clear, the better it gets.

You will read of Wilson, at a party in the mid-1970s, drunk on chocolate liqueur, commandeering the turntable and playing the song’s drum intro ten times, until told to stop; “then I played it ten more times,” he remembers. (In Peter Ames Carlin’s Catch A Wave: The Rise, Fall & Redemption of the Beach Boys’ Brian Wilson, published in 2006, the engineer Steve Desper tells of making a tape loop for Wilson consisting of only “Be My Baby”’s chorus, and leaving Wilson at home to listen to it. “I must have been gone for about four hours,” Desper told Carlin. “And when I came back, he was still listening to that loop over and over, in some kind of a trance.”) In describing his reaction to the song upon first hearing it, he remembers shooting a BB gun, as a boy, at a man in a bean field sitting on a motorcycle; pop!—the man fell off his motorcycle. It was like that, he explains: “Be My Baby” was the BB pellet, shot by someone crouching out of sight; Wilson was the motorcyclist, unaware of what was going to happen to him.

Be My Baby.