A Little Privacy

Securing data from prying eyes is pretty much a solved problem. PGP is just as good as ever. So all you need to do to receive communications securely from another person is to create a PGP Private/Public key pair, broadcast your public key (hint — it’s shorter) to anyone who might want to contact you, and then decrypt incoming messages using your private key on the way in.

This only addresses security. Authentication is a separate issue, possibly just as important, and if anything harder to address (because it involves trusting third parties), and I won’t deal with this. Privacy is plenty to deal with right now.

So we’ve heard that secure communications providers are shutting down or destroying their servers rather than surrender to demands from the US government (NSA, FBI, CIA? We don’t know which branch or branches because they’re not allowed to say — lovely, huh?). What demands might these service providers be concerned about?

  • Surrender private keys (why would they even have these)
  • Install malware on their servers or on users’ machines (why would a secure email provider install any software on its users’ machines?)
  • Help surveil users (e.g. notify government agency when a specific user addresses his/her mail)
  • Monitor metadata (e.g. while the body of an email might be encrypted, the header information has to be plaintext).

Can you think of other things?

There’s a recent thriller (you probably haven’t heard of it — it tanked at the box office) starring John Cusack called Numbers Station. The idea is that the CIA maintains a network of shortwave broadcast stations that send out encrypted messages to sleeper agents. To do this they need a specially trained cryptographer and a network of highly fortified shortwave transmitters. Or something. It’s a stupid, stupid premise. (But not as bad as 2012.)

Let’s suppose we want to communicate with field agents securely. Well, before leaving HQ our field agent creates a private/public key pair and leaves the public key behind. He/she secretes the private key on his/her person (committing it to memory is probably impossible, so it might be in a tiny subcutaneous LED projector!) and then goes on his/her merry way, having told his/her handlers to post messages on usenet using his/her public key. There’s no other step required.

Now, how do we handle authentication? Hey, I said this wasn’t about authentication! In any event, same way we handle it using any other less secure communication channel. Perhaps authentic messages are agreed to end with “Signed Bob” or “The peanut walks by night”. Doesn’t matter — we’re talking about security not authentication.

How does Double Secret Agent VII find the publicly posted messages on usenet? Any number of ways. Perhaps they’re in messages entitled “but I like wesley” on alt.wesley.crusher.die.die.die. Perhaps they’re embedded in the comment tags of PNG images posted on alt.sex.donkeys. It doesn’t matter.

Heck, you could just use mailinator. Want to email Double Secret Agent VII? Send an email to [email protected] and use the correct key. Done.

The beauty of the usenet example is that thousands of people will be downloading the message accidentally as a matter of course, and the message will be automatically distributed to thousands of servers whether anyone reads it or not. I really don’t know how PRISM, et al, would help against a determined, competent opponent communicating this way. This is probably why PGP had the US Government so riled up back in the 90s.

So, what about losing track of Agent VII? Simple. You’re Control (or whatever). If a communications channel is compromised (e.g. Kaos figures out you’re posting messages as EXIF data in pornographic images and deletes them or posts confusing spam) then Agent VII can use the Control’s public key to phone home. It’s not complicated.

So, here’s my modest suggestion for creating a secure replacement for email that everyone can use, and which can be gradually migrated to.

  1. set up a standard mail server.
  2. configure it to bounce any email that appears not to be encrypted using PGP with a message saying “if you want to contact [email protected] then use [email protected]’s public key to encrypt the message and provide your own public key so a secure response can be sent” and provide a link to a web page for securely sending such emails if the person doesn’t want to.
  3. outgoing emails are decorated with a public key for securely replying to the sender.
  4. account holders can have any number of handles (“email addresses”) associated with a given public key. They can access their email simply by asking for it. (Either there’s no passwords or everyone has the same password.)
  5. the server holds public keys so it can send the messages in item 2 (and provide a convenient system for sending the messages).
  6. Provide a simple to use web-based client for the service (which does all its encryption / decryption client-side) and provide links to a number of alternative open source clients. Make all the clients as transparent as possible.
  7. Provide a web-based client that deals only in encrypted data. (I.e. requires the user to manually extract and decrypt incoming messages, and encrypt outgoing messages.)
  8. Pay for all of this by charging a small amount (say $0.01) for each message sent to a user. (This is Bill Gates’s proposed solution to spam from way back, and if we’re going to migrate off email, we might as well cash in that idea.) Any profits could be donated to MSF, or the campaign to drown Jenny McCarthy in cat vomit.

Now, practically speaking, we could use passwords simply to prevent nuisance denial of service attacks, but we’d have absolutely no problem giving those passwords to anyone who showed up to our office in a sufficiently impressive suit, or driving a big enough SUV.

So, this gives us a pretty secure email system that is fairly interoperable with existing email systems (modulo requiring users “outside” the system to opt into using it, at least to contact its users) and which doesn’t hold any private information or keys at all. Heck, it can simply expose all of its data to Google. (Indeed, it could keep its code repositories exposed so that suspicious users could review changes to its codebase.) Now, it can’t be used with idiotic services that send you your login details, but you can either use another email service (e.g. gmail or mailinator) for those or implement a cryptographic bridge (e.g. if you subscribe using an email address prefixed with “insecure-” then it might do the encryption serverside for you.

Note that as described, the system doesn’t conceal metadata. So if [email protected] sends [email protected] orders to assassinate that pesky reporter, the fact that such a communication occurred (if not its content) is stored on the server. Of course, you could use the web client to anonymously send and/or receive the message, and use Tor to avoid leaving too much of a trace of having done that, but it’s kind of inconvenient, so normal people won’t do it very often. A normal person wants an email client that Just Works (this can provide that) and to exchange email with other people (this can get you there).

The proposed system provides end-to-end encryption of message content without the server needing to store any private keys and would allow all key components of the system to run in the browser (and thus have openly inspectable runtime code that could be monitored for changes). But it won’t stop the NSA from hitting you with a $5 wrench until you tell them where you keep your private key.

Effectively the Same Nonsense

There is no god and that’s the simple truth. If every trace of any single religion died out and nothing were passed on, it would never be created exactly that way again. There might be some other nonsense in its place, but not that exact nonsense. If all of science were wiped out, it would still be true and someone would find a way to figure it all out again.

Penn Gillette in God No! Signs You May Already Be An Atheist via Daringfireball

Far be it from me to dismiss a pithy argument against all religions, but this is actually a very bad argument. So, since Christmas is approaching, here’s an argument showing that Religion actually represents an underlying truth just as Science does. What that truth actually is remains open to debate, of course.

Math: What Exactly Do We Mean By “Exactly The Same”?

Please note: I was a lousy student, and all of this was a long time ago, so beware!

One of the more mind-blowing Math courses I did back in college was on Universal Algebra which turns out to be, in essence, a reformulation of Category Theory, itself kind of pretty much the same thing as Topos Theory. Are you getting my drift?

Universal Algebra is mathematics applied to mathematics, all done with diagrams. (Proofs in Universal Algebra tend to consist of turning one diagram into another diagram by erasing or adding an element at a time using set rules.) But the underlying principle is that there are equivalences between mathematical concepts that are exact. For example, you can demonstrate equivalences (isomorphisms) between objects in different theoretical frameworks (e.g. a fundamental shape in Topology turns out to be equivalent to a certain kind of group in Group Theory), and once you demonstrate these kind of equivalences, other equivalences fall out. E.g. the fundamental theorem of groups (which defines every possible type of group) impacts Topology (what possible shapes might there be?).

Demonstrating these equivalences is actually not as horribly complicated as you might think; it’s a bit like Object Oriented Programming, where the complexity lives below the level of abstraction you deal with — that’s the whole point of it. It’s something that makes perfect sense to advanced undergraduate students of Math. And it is this “metamathematics” that allowed, for example, Fermat’s Last Theorem to finally be proven. You have an intractable problem, but you realize it’s similar to another more tractable problem in another field, so instead of solving the first problem, you carefully determine if the problem you think you can solve is in fact, fundamentally, the same problem. And then you solve that problem.

Now, Mathematical Principles are pretty damn immutable. In support of Penn’s statement, we have some pretty compelling real world examples of multiple researchers solving a problem independently and reaching effectively the same solution (modulo the kinds of mathematical equivalences discussed above). Newton and Leibnitz, for example, both invented (discovered?) Calculus independently using different approaches. But to accept that two theories are “exactly the same” you need to understand and accept the fairly abstruse arguments that are used to demonstrate these equivalences.

To put this a completely different way, we could rebuild math from scratch and come out with something that looks very different from what we’ve got, but which is exactly the same using these arguments. For a simple, concrete example – most of the math you know is probably built on top of counting, i.e. measuring quantity. But you can replace the axioms that give us counting numbers with different (looking) axioms that are about order or containment and end up with a functionally identical but very different looking bunch of “knowledge”. In fact the ancient Greeks built their math on top of geometry (length and area) and proved things entirely using geometry rather than algebra. We can prove their results are equivalent to results in algebra, but it’s kind of complicated. And we can prove there is some degree of infinity number of different ways we could represent the same theory, so the chances that two independent formulations of math would end up looking “exactly” the same in the naive sense is zero.

Summary: we can demonstrate, via many “natural experiments”, that science will come out “exactly” the same way, for a complicated mathematical definition of “exactly” that will make most people’s eyes glaze over. But, in common sense terms, no two scientific descriptions of the same underlying truth arrived at independently will be “exactly” the same for definitions of “exactly” that “average” people understand. (Actually, the best definition would probably be “makes exactly the same predictions”, but that’s pretty complex just on its own.)

Anthropology: The Punchline

The “founding fathers of modern Anthropology” (Claude Levi-Strauss and James George Frazer) both made their reputations in large part by finding equivalences between religions. You know, like the “guy who died and came back to life” myth. Or the “guy born of a virgin mother” myth. Or the “great flood that killed everyone except that guy” myth. Or how about the “bearded guy in the sky who throws lightning bolts” myth? Or the “dead people live forever in the sky” myth. Or the “dead people live in the underworld” myth. And the “there are spirits in the woods” myth. And on and on. In fact, there’s almost no human religious belief which, upon analysis, doesn’t turn out to be equivalent to a whole lot of other independently derived human religious beliefs. This includes the religious beliefs of previously uncontacted tribes with no written records living in the Papua New Guinea highlands — clearly a better “natural experiment” of Penn’s thesis than, say, Newton and Leibnitz.

Summary: we can demonstrate, via many — even better — “natural experiments”, that religions will come out “exactly” the same way, for a not very complicated definition of “exactly” that most people would understand. (It’s probably worth noting that many religious people are deluded into thinking their religion is unique and original, and are hostile to this line of argument. E.g. Many Christians definitely do not like to be told that the “born of a virgin” myth was all the rage in religions predating Christ’s purported birth.)

Conclusion: You Can’t Prove a Negative and Trying To is Perilous

It should not be a surprise to discover that different religious beliefs have the same kinds of equivalences as scientific theories or bodies of math. All are human behaviors, after all. It’s the underlying reasons that are in question. Are religions, like science, an approximate representation of an underlying truth, or are they, as atheists might argue, simply a reflection of human beings coming to terms with pretty much universal experiences of being human (birth, death, love, loss, hunger, uncertainty, and so on)?

But, in the end, the argument that Penn is making is actually an argument that religion points to an underlying truth. Oops.

  • We [tacitly] assume that if, starting from nothing, if a body of “knowledge” derived from world comes out “exactly” the same, it’s based on “truth”. If not, not.
  • Starting from nothing, science will come out “exactly” the same — therefore it’s true.
  • Starting from nothing, religion will come out “different” — therefore it’s not true.
  • But, arguing from natural experiment, I demonstrate that, starting from nothing, religion actually comes out “exactly” the same.
  • Ergo: religion is true.
  • And we can go further and argue that the mathematical definition of “exactly” is really weird and no-one, least of all religious people, will accept it.
  • Ergo: science is false.

Because Penn’s argument relies on the initial, unspoken, assumption, it’s a very bad argument because it actually enables the opposing argument. Luckily, I don’t accept his premise. And with that, I’ll go back to being my kind of atheist — someone who thinks of Religion and, say, Astrology, in much the same light.

 

Dropbox: Deduplication with Privacy

There’s been a bit of a scare regarding Dropbox related to the possible use of deduplication to determine who has copies of “illegal” files and then the use of warrants to identify infringing Dropbox users and basically hose them.

The problem

When you store a file on Dropbox it will be hashed (more-or-less uniquely identified by scanning its content) and then the hash and the file’s size will be used to determine if the file already exists on Dropbox’s server (i.e. if your ripped copy of Avatar matches someone else’s it will have the same hash value and the exact same file size). If so, rather than uploading the file your account will simply get a new file entry pointing at the existing file. “Upload” is instant, Dropbox saves money on storage, everybody wins.

But, suppose James Cameron uploads a ripped copy of Avatar to Dropbox and notices that this 3GB MP4 file uploaded instantly. He now knows someone else has such a file on Dropbox which is reasonable cause to suspect that piracy is happening and, in theory, he can require Dropbox to tell him everyone who has a copy of that file in their account.

Hence the scare.

The obvious solution to this problem is to not knowingly store illegally duplicated files in your Dropbox account or to encrypt them using your own unique key if you do.

But it’s quite possible that any of us might accidentally put an illegal file — or perhaps a file normal people consider “fair use” but the MPAA (say) might not consider legal — in your Dropbox account. E.g. I might rip Avatar using Handbrake so I can watch it on my iPhone, and this might create an identical file to your handbraked copy of Avatar, and according to the MPAA we might both be horrible criminals who deserve the gas chamber and given that Congress only cares about people who provide large campaign donations…

A possible solution

I’ve proposed this solution on both HackerNews and DropBox’s forums. It’s not perfect — maybe someone can refine it.

I imagine Dropbox has a list of files with unique ids, sizes, and hash values, and every user has a list of files with their own personal path (where they think it is and what they think it’s called) along with the unique id of the actual underlying file. This is the heart of the problem.

Instead of storing the unique id of the underlying file in the user’s file table, Dropbox needs to store a number offset by a hash value generated client-size from the user’s password and the user’s name for the file (i.e. something that will be different for each user and each file and not replicable with data stored in Dropbox’s own database).

Note that if the user’s password is changed then every file id will need to be changed accordingly, which is definitely a downside. (And if you forget your password then your files cannot be recovered.)

Also note that presumably someone like the MPAA could simply obtain a warrant and wait for people to access an “illegal” file, but this is surely going to be a much slower and more difficult process than simply doing a query on the entire database and sending out threatening letters to everyone in the result list.

Thing is, this isn’t technically complex  to implement and could be a user preference. Would you prefer privacy with the risk of losing all your files if your password is lost? Given that you will probably have multiple backups of all your Dropbox files, it’s actually not a big problem. (In fact, if you consider the case where you are forced to reset your Dropbox password and thus Dropbox forgets you own all your files — re-uploading them from one of your computers will be instantaneous for all the files you previously had uploaded owing to deduplication.)

Edit: another problem with my proposed solution is that you can lose track of files (e.g. you can’t maintain an accurate reference count). This is probably not as big an issue as it might seem since Dropbox already retains files for a month after a non-paying user deletes them and forever for paying users. Presumably it retains copies of files left by users who stop using the service.

Final Note: I have no affiliation with Dropbox (although I do use the product) and have no stake in it. If you’d like to try Dropbox and give me more space to store potentially illegal files, please use this link.

Thoughts on Nuclear Power

An objective comparison might indeed suggest that a well-designed and vigorously regulated nuclear power plant poses less danger than, say, a coal-fired plant of comparable size. Such a comparison, however, ignores the fact that the regulation of nuclear power in the U.S. still relies on wand-waving.

Elizabeth Kolbert, The Future of Nuclear Energy Around the World (New Yorker)

As the Fukushima nuclear power plant’s woes fade from public consciousness, I’m reconsidering my stance on nuclear power. Before Fukushima I had pretty much signed on with the “it’s better than coal” point of view along with many “environmentalists”. The general equation went like this:

Coal (cons)

  • Produces greenhouse gases
  • Mining coal sucks (and kills quite a lot of people)
  • Transporting coal sucks (and kills a few people)

Nuclear Power (cons)

  • Nuclear Power plants can melt down and create gigantic clouds of radiation
  • We don’t know what to do with nuclear waste (but we’ll figure it out)
  • Nuclear power plants may lead to proliferation of nuclear weapons (but we’re just talking about countries which have them already, right?)

The first con under nuclear power plants had been largely dealt with by engineering — or so we thought. You can’t, or shouldn’t, argue against nuclear power based on the performance of past power plants since we’re not going to build past power plants. Right? So, assuming our current reactor designs are safe, then nuclear power plants are safe.

Once in a thousand years

A commonly bandied about term in electrical engineering is MTBF, or mean time between failures. Most electronics exhibit a certain pattern of failure, which is that their failure rate is highest when they’re first switched on, and then remains very small but essentially constant for the rest of their lifetime. Often, electronic devices are factory-tested for immediate failure and if they survive that they are expected to be very reliable from that point on, but have a certain (essentially fixed) chance of failing per-unit-time over their lives.

When we talk about floods, earthquakes, and so forth, it tends to be in terms such as “one in a hundred year” or “one in a thousand year” incident. The idea here is that we can somehow gauge the probability of an event exceeding some specific measure in a given year (e.g. the amount by which a river will overflow its banks or the Richter scale value of an earthquake). It’s worth bearing in mind that accurate measurement of such events has, in general, been going on for no more than 150 years, so the idea that we have any historical basis for determining what a “one in a thousand year” event might look like is pretty laughable. How many weeks do you think you’d need to measure “rainfall”, say, in order to be able to gauge what a “one in one thousand week” rainfall value would be? (Ah, but rainfall is seasonal and earthquakes aren’t… Are you sure? Are you quite sure?)

When nuclear experts talk about one in a thousand year events they’re generally talking completely outside their area of expertise. Nuclear engineering is kind of complicated; so is meteorology; so is seismology. Even more disconcertingly, the way phrases like “one in a thousand year event” are bandied about, we’re led to believe that this means that we’re safe for a thousand years, or that the odds of something bad happening this year are less than one in a thousand. Something like that.

Even if the US nuclear industry does make power plants with a one in one thousand chance of catastrophic failure within a given calendar year, there are 104 nuclear power plants in the USA. This gives us a 9.9% chance of having a catastrophic failure each year, and that’s just based on the stuff we expect.

But nuclear power plants aren’t laboratory experiments. They’re factories built by companies to make money in a regulatory environment devised by a government. Engineering estimates of quality generally assume that things are built to spec, and competently maintained and operated. For-profit companies are notorious for cutting corners, and — in the nuclear industry, as elsewhere — are frequently caught doing so.

And human beings can of course do things we can’t predict. In her 2003 piece Indian Point Blank, Kolbert mentions, among other things, that after many nuclear power plants failed to protect themselves against mock terrorist attacks (despite having advance notice) the nuclear lobby responded by demanding easier tests. The same article discusses the fictional quality of nuclear evacuation plans because people outside an evacuation zone will inevitably flee, blocking the path of the people who most need to flee. (The Japanese must have been thrilled by the US telling people in a 50 mile radius of Fukushima to evacuate when the government was saying 20 miles.)

Incidentally, the Union of Concerned Scientists quotes a study by Sandia (part of DARPA, so not tree-huggers) in 1982 that a core meltdown and radiological release from one of Indian Point’s two reactors could cause 50,000 near term deaths, and so on.

So, exactly how does one predict a one in one thousand year risk for corporate negligence, successful lobbying to reduce safeguards, or terrorist attacks?

Nuclear Waste

The most glaring problem for nuclear power is nuclear waste. We have no particularly good way to store it in the short term (and, in fact, the greatest and most probable danger at Fukushima was always posed by the spent fuel rods which aren’t in a sturdy containment chamber but simply stacked in a pool of water). And we haven’t got a good idea what to do with it in the long term. In a recent Diane Riehm show, Ken Belson (the NY Times’ nuclear correspondent) described Yucca Mountain as having been chosen by “the finest geologists in the US Senate”.

As with all of the worst problems posed by nuclear power, the issues involve people.

Economics

Perhaps the biggest obstacle to nuclear power is that it simply doesn’t make economic sense. The curious thing about proponents of nuclear power is that they’re happy to argue economics until you mention one thing: you can’t insure a nuclear power plant. If we should look to markets for guidance, the markets have spoken: we cannot find an upper bound on the risk posed by a nuclear power plant, so we can’t insure one. If you want to argue that markets are, or can be, irrational — I’ll happily accept that. But then don’t come back and argue price, because the price of nuclear power assumes a massive — apparently infinite — government subsidy.

To put it in another way — when you pay for coal power you’re paying, in part, for the life insurance or hazard pay of coal miners and the liability insurance of coal-fired power plants. Yes, coal may kill people, but you’re compensating the dead when you pay for the power it gives you. When you pay for nuclear power, you’re hoping nothing bad happens, and if it does you (or your descendants) will pay more tax to cover it. If it can be covered.

I can’t really sum up any more eloquently than Elizabeth Kolbert:

As the disaster in Japan illustrates, so starkly and so tragically, people have a hard time planning for events that they don’t want to imagine happening. But these are precisely the events that must be taken into account in a realistic assessment of risk. We’ve more or less pretended that our nuclear plants are safe, and so far we have got away with it. The Japanese have not.

Elizabeth Kolbert, The Future of Nuclear Energy Around the World (New Yorker)

 

The Case Against PBS (and NPR)

The new Republican House Majority is, among other things, trying to cut off all government funding for public broadcasting. I don’t know how exactly how much money is involved, but I believe that in budgetary terms it’s approximately nothing. The reason behind this move is quite transparent — PBS and NPR are perceived as having a liberal bias (as Stephen Colbert says, “the truth has a liberal bias”) and thus, in this time of fiscal emergency, we shouldn’t be spending taxpayer money to subsidize it.

It doesn’t help that NPR does, of course, have a liberal bias. (In fact pretty much all news organizations have a liberal bias because, in general, educated and informed people have a liberal bias.) But let’s stick to the point: NPR does, no question, have a liberal bias — especially in a country where a progressive tax system is considered some kind of communist plot.

No-one, of course, has suggested that the obvious solution to NPR’s liberal bias would be to fully fund it with public money, the way the BBC, say, works. (Of course, the BBC has a liberal bias too, right?) I think proper public broadcasting is sorely needed in the US but (a) it’s never going to happen, and (b) we have many, many bigger fish to fry. So, to quote the Cat in the Hat, so so so…

Speaking as a latte-swilling, compact-fluourescent-lightbulb-installing, Carbon-tax-loving, iPad-browsing, Democrat-voting, Toyota-driving pro-animal-rights liberal-but-the-locals-think-I’m-socialist: I agree with the Republicans on this one.

Government funding of PBS and NPR is nothing more than a subsidy for the rich. How did I reach this conclusion? Scientifically of course!

Exhibit 1: the only way to watch Sesame Street is in High Def.

Sesame Street (which runs at a healthy profit, thanks) isn’t shot in the standard definition “safe area”. In other words, when they’re supposedly teaching your kids to count to 7, if you’re watching Sesame Street on a standard definition TV you can probably only see five and a half things. Leave aside that I’m pretty sure Sesame Street is next-to-useless for teaching kids to count (it used to be useful for other things, but that stuff is harder to measure so it got stripped out).

So for a decent Sesame Street viewing experience I need cable or satellite TV (with a high-def decoder)* and high def TVs. But if I get an el-cheapo cable subscription I can watch Nickelodeon which isn’t adapted to standard def by sticking it against a piece of wood and banging nails through it, and actually has some content.

* Note: correction. You can of course get PBS over-the-air for free on a high-def TV. But almost no-one watches TV this way or is going to switch over to antenna just for PBS, and for time-shifting etc. you need an entire high-def food chain (e.g. high-def DVR).

Our local PBS affiliate basically rotates 5-10 episodes of Sesame Street for months on end, despite having a back-catalog of hundreds of episodes. And bear in mind that the latest episodes of Sesame Street are built out of hopelessly outdated, recycled content. It’s great that my kids are learning about photography in terms of sending film off to get developed. That’s damn useful.

I’m also sick of Sesame Street being sold to me for $20 for a 43 minute DVD full of unskippable ads explaining how great it is that my money is going to education programs in India. I hope all those kids have high def TVs and film cameras.

And, by the way, the best way to watch PBS kids’ shows is Netflix, because most of the corporate sponsorship gets stripped out and you can watch it on demand. (Of course you also realize that a typical run for a PBS kids’ show is 5 episodes, vs. 20+ for a Nick show.)

Exhibit 2: the best NPR experience is XM Satellite Radio.

The only way to listen to NPR without getting week-long fund-raising drives (for those of you not living in the US, these involve huge amounts of advertising along with lengthy and tedious interruptions to scheduled programming) is to subscribe to satellite radio. (I nearly subscribed just for that.)

As an aside: our local public radio station (APR) plays nothing but music from 9am to 3pm, making it useless to me during the day. If I want to listen to music there’s Pandora and iPods. We don’t need radio stations for music any more. I used to donate to APR, but stopped when I switched to listening to a Birmingham station (WBHM, which we barely receive). When APR called me during fund raising, I politely told them I switched stations. When they asked why, I said I didn’t want music all day and they hung up on me.

I love All Things Considered, Fresh Air, This American Life, On Point (which we don’t get here), Wait Wait Don’t Tell Me, and a bunch of other NPR shows. But I have no doubt these programs will survive without public funding. I similarly have no doubt that many avid listeners would cheerfully pay for them (e.g. the only complaints about the paid This American Life App are that it sucks as an app), and I’d prefer honest advertising over mealy-mouthed sponsorship statements. (Apparently, “It’s not advertising if there’s no call to action“.)

Exhibit 3: There’s this thing called the Internet. Look into it.

You may recall that PBS and NPR were products of the Johnson administration. TV and Radio were the happening media back then. We didn’t get a network of publicly-funded newspapers. Well, that was then this is now — we don’t need public TV or Radio.

There are arguments that public broadcasting is necessary for local coverage. I suspect that local coverage will work just fine without it. Heck, replace each local public broadcasting affiliate with a Facebook page. Done. I’m really not sure that PBS and NPR shouldn’t just be turned into one big website anyway.

The one big problem left for us city folk (if you generously categorize Tuscaloosa as a city) is what to listen to in the car if you refuse to pay for satellite radio. (A quick check revealed that the amount of money we’re talking about saving is not nearly enough to buy everyone in the US an XM Satellite subscription. Oh well.) The answer is podcasts. Glad I settled that.

As for the folks living in rural [insert state here, I’ll go with Alaska] who don’t have access to broadband — stop voting Republican.