Switchback: Talking Tech (August 1)

Aug 01, 2014

The team from The Switch discussed everything from the latest political tech news to the gadgets you’re eyeing.

Welcome to this week's Switchback! I don't know about you guys, but I'm pretty much ready to:

First things first: I thought it'd be fun to start off with a chat about Uber and Lyft's massive lobbying disadvantage vis-a-vis the taxi lobby, which is 3500 to 1. What do you guys think accounts for that discrepancy? How can the taxi industry be spending so much and yet still be fighting rideshare companies to a seeming standstill?

It seems to me that it's the strongest example of user experience being the most important part of a product or service, right? Uber and Lyft solve a problem -- making it way easier to get cabs in places where you may not always be able to. So they can lobby all they want, but until big taxi companies make it as easy to hail a cab, they're always going to have a fight on their hands. 

Something Nancy Scola's mentioned to me as an aside is that maybe Uber and Lyft don't need to spend as much because technology and data helps them decide where best to allocate their resources. Could be.

I just suspect that Uber and Lyft might be funneling all their money into lawyers' fees. And hiring other lobbyists to do their lobbying for them.

One caveat here is, as Emily Badger mentions in the linked piece, that the taxi folks are spending on a wider range of issues than just ride share. Keep in mind that rideshare et al lack a dedicated labor force, and so the issues that they're tackling are smaller in scope. But I do think it speaks to a more targeted approach. Rideshare/Uber interests are focusing on cities that (a) would be profitable and (b) they're being resisted, so they're covering a smaller universe. And, frankly, they're just smaller. But what I'm really interested in seeing are the numbers from next year. 

Another topic ripe for discussion: That time the Director of the CIA apologized for members of his agency searching computers being used by Senate investigators involved in a probe of the CIA's use of harsh interrogation tactics on terrorism suspects. What do you think the appropriate response is here? How can it be squared with his earlier denials?  

Two things. This seems about as worse, but perhaps not much more, than James Clapper lying to Congress. I guess that's a way of saying that I don't expect much to happen as a result, particularly since the Justice Department said it wasn't going to investigate.

Which brings me to the second thing: There's been an interesting discussion playing out about the power of the presidency for the past few years (read my former professor Matt Dickinson's take on it here). While some believe that the presidency is a weak office (and I would generally agree) in relation to Congress and the courts, the executive branch as a whole enjoys a great deal of latitude to take actions it can simply apologize for later.

I have to question the basis of that Sunlight Foundation report. The "3,500-to-1" figure is apparently based on spending from 1990 to the present. That's an immensely flawed dataset - Uber was founded in 2009.

Hmm, could be. Good eye. Here's the relevant part of the Sunlight Foundation's post:

While this imbalance in campaign spending, calculated from data between 1990 and present maintained by the National Institute on Money in State Politics, may seem staggering, it also understates the advantage the taxi companies have. Insurers are also fiercely opposing companies like Uber that allow customers to hail rides via their smartphones.

Well, that does seem like a bit of an issue. I'm going to dig into that a bit. 

When it comes to buying things like computers from them, any reactions?

I admit I wasn't aware that this was a thing, so I can't speak to the question of whether their goods are of a high quality, etc.

But I would generally say that you shouldn't buy a tech product that you're going to use every day without some sort of risk-free, hands-on period. In some cases, that means haunting your local Best Buy or Staples. In other cases, that means having a risk-free return period in which to mail things back. You should always be able to do that, regardless of where you buy.

Yeah, that's what I'm saying. This assertion that it "understates the advantage" is also garbage, because the 3,500-to-1 figure actually *overstates* the difference in lobbying spending. Really sloppy.

If one were to craft a bitcoin wedding ring...how would one go about doing so?

Well, I guess first you find some memory with some crypocurrency stored on it then mold it around your finger? 

But if you wanted to make something more traditional, you can use good ol' American currency. No, seriously -- you can make a ring out of an old silver quarter

Should, I should now feel a lot better about bad OKCupid dates, right? 

Yes -- although as Brian points out, you might feel a little worse about OKCupid's business practices... 

There are good OKCupid dates?

Actually, of the five weddings I've been to in the past few years, four met on OKCupid. So there must be some good dates. All the OKC marriages are still going strong, so they can't *all* have been based on lies.

Back when I was on the market I had a handful of pretty well, okay, OKCupid dates. But met the future husband IRL. 

When will there be a new iPhone already? My employer refuses to upgrade me until then.

In the fall, probably October or late September. They're actually pretty regular about these things, you know. 


I think Uber and Lyft have something as powerful, if not more so, than a well-financed lobbying effort, and that's popular support. The public, in general, appears to be welcoming the emergence of the "sharing economy" and sympathize with its goal of disrupting entrenched service industries, like hospitality and transportation. Whatever gains a politician may make from taxi lobby money, they could lose in overall public opinion.

I wondered if you guys are keeping up with Bruce Kushnick's research into Verizon;s "title shopping" when it comes to their FiOS service. While they vehemently oppose Title II at the FCC, they invoke it at the state level to get the right-of-way permissions.. See http://www.huffingtonpost.com/bruce-kushnick/the-title-ii-services-to_b_5610557.html

Passing this along without real vetting, but it does seem like a point worth digging into. On first read it does seem like they're leaving themselves some wiggle room -- they're operating under Title II because they're a common carrier, even if they're not using that authority to build Title II services (which, I know, makes the brain hurt) -- but that is, admittedly, a very quick read. Worth a closer one. 


So much of the juicy stuff when it comes to broadband is happening on the state level. I do worry that a lot of it goes overlooked. 

Yeah, I've been following it. The Verge had a really fantastic feature on this, too.

In some ways, what Verizon is doing is not inconsistent. Any rational business would want to get away with as much as it can under the current rules while arguing against those same rules in a separate rulemaking process. One is an activity taking place within an established regulatory regime; the other is activity designed to shape a future regulatory regime.

That said, however, the "take-as-much-as-you-can-but-don't-give-an-inch" approach to playing this game should strike most consumers as pretty galling.

FYI folks, Wonkblog's Emily Badger is reaching out to the Sunlight Foundation to get to the bottom of that Uber/Lyft analysis. Thanks for bringing that to our attention.

It's a new month, so new crap on Netflix. What should I be watching?

So much 80s and 90s goodness. Both the Mighty Ducks movies, which were partially filmed in my hometown of Bloomington, Minn.  Spice World. All of the Rockys.

The Cable Guy -- which would make even that one Comcast rep seem reasonable is also up and the new Cosmos will be streaming in about a week. But I plan on losing this weekend the the new season of The Killing. 

Wait, the new season of the Killing starts this weekend? That's very exciting. It's one of my favorite shows of recent years, even if it often makes you want to throw a shoe at the screen. 


So who wants to talk patent reform? The House Judiciary committee had a hearing on the future of Patent Office this week. Nothing especially newsworthy but it was interesting to hear that the USPTO is expanding a program that lets law students act as pretend, pro bono patent lawyers to help make the system more accessible. 

Speaking of patents -- as Brian has noted patent examiners are overworked. But it turns out that dozens of paralegals who were supposed to be helping on patent appeals were literally paid to surf the web.

Nancy, you wrote about how much trouble the USPTO is having even getting a boss. How much is that hampering the work that they're doing?

It's a great question. The deputy director, Michelle Lee, is running the agency on a day to day basis and she is, it seems, fairly aggressive about doing what the agency can reduce the backlog, so on and so forth. But what people tell me is that there is more that a Senate-confirmed director could do to work with the relevant union and otherwise figure out where bottlenecks exist, and then fix them. 

Nancy, is there any sense for who or what comes next after that Johnson & Johnson guy took himself out of the running?

He was "unvolunteered," it seems, but what I'm hearing is that with the clock running out on the Obama presidency, the odds of getting someone confirmed for the job are diminishing. It's an interesting dynamic: the job is pretty important and kinda obscure, making it something that someone does out of a sense of service more than anything else, I think. In reporting that piece on the fight over Johnson I heard again and again that for the sort of patent lawyer who would fill the job it would entail a very serious pay cut. Of course, that's true for a lot of government posts, but this one seems to be one where likely candidates might find that that greatly outweighs the appeal of the job. 

Shorter version: unless the White House decides to nominate deputy director Michelle Lee, it's a good chance we won't have a confirmed director under Obama. 

Sorry I couldn't make it!

We had a blast! Might even make the get togethers a more regular occurrence... 

If we did, how often would people want us to do these happy hours? I'm thinking maybe every six months or so? I wouldn't want to tire people out.

Another interesting story this week was ICANN's response to the writs of attachment issued by U.S. Courts that seek to have ICANN transfer control of the country code top level domains (ccTLDs) of Iran, Syria and North Korea to plaintiffs in various legal actions. In a Circle ID article Philip Corwin looks at the implications for the proposed transfer of the IANA functions to the global multistakeholder community. Corwin concludes it's opened a legal "can of worms". http://www.circleid.com/posts/20140730_icanns_ir_response_opens_legal_can_of_worms/

Thanks for this. It's going in my Instapaper.

Should I forget about any smartphone other than an iPhone synching with my iMac? I can't get my Galaxy S3 to synch. The Windows 8 phone doesn't even synch with Office for Mac. Synching calendars and contacts are my priorities.

Syncing across platforms can be tricky, but contacts and calendars shouldn't be too hard. You might try moving all of your information to a Gmail account, which should get along better with your S3. 

Brian, this morning you wrote about how Bitcoin advocates are distancing themselves from the word "currency."

Apart from making Bitcoin that much harder for reporters to explain to people, how can that change the perception of Bitcoin to the general public?

So, to be clear, Bitcoin advocates are distancing themselves from a very particular definition of currency, which is the one used by Florida state law stipulating that "currency" is basically synonymous with the U.S. dollar and foreign-backed notes.

The reason they're doing that is because officials are accusing a guy of being an illegal money transmitter. So, the bitcoin advocates say, how can you be an illegal money transmitter if the stuff you're trading in isn't even considered money by the law?

All fair enough. But it raises questions about how Bitcoin advocates have explained what Bitcoin is to people so far, and what they need to do in the next stage of its life. To date, describing Bitcoin as a kind of virtual currency all the time has probably done a lot to crystallize that impression in people's minds. But Bitcoin can theoretically be used for all kinds of transactions: Enforcing contracts, storing keys to your house or car, sending messages. There's almost no limit to what you can use Bitcoin for as a way of exchanging things. So to describe Bitcoin as a "currency" is really a kind of incomplete definition.

Also, we've hit the 5 minute warning. I won't call it the lightning round, because I know that stresses some of you out. 

I'm just saying that if you have some thoughts to share, you may want to consider doing that nowish.

I tried it a couple years ago because I liked the physical keyboard on the Blackberry. The guys at the AT&T store laughed (with me, not at me) and said "see you tomorrow" knowing I'd be bringing it back. They were right.

Trying to get things made by different manufacturers is a bane of modern existence, to be sure. The problem is that companies have no incentive to make it easier -- in fact, the monetary incentive is really to make it as difficult as possible, so that you'll give in and buy everything from them. 

Well folks, that's all we have time for today.

See you next week and thanks for chatting!

In This Chat
Brian Fung
Andrea Peterson
Hayley Tsukayama
Nancy Scola
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