Diatribes of Jay

This is a blog of essays on public policy. It shuns ideology and applies facts, logic and math to economic, social and political problems. It has a subject-matter index, a list of recent posts, and permalinks at the ends of posts. Comments are moderated and may take time to appear. Note: Profile updated 4/7/12

24 August 2013

Our Solar Array

[Note: The cost section of the following post was revised on 12/23/13 to correct two important errors and add one useful piece of information. First, our power company pays us for all the energy our array produces, not just the excess energy that we don’t use ourselves. Second, there were errors in calculating the power company’s profit on sales to us. Third, the post now provides our calculated lifetime cost per kilowatt-hour of our little retail array’s electric energy, namely, 4.8¢ per kWh.]

[For reasons why we should not try to “punish” Assad, at least for now, click here. For comment on Assad’s personal and individual responsibility, click here. For an index to other posts on energy and energy policy, click here.]

The look, sound and feel
A little bit of Einstein
The array itself, and how it works
Becoming a paid power producer
Watching the array work online
Why we became generators

[Note: You can magnify any photo or figure on this
page by double-clicking on it.]

The look, sound and feel

Beautiful, isn’t it? Elegant, functional and clean. No noise. No rotary motion. No smoke, fumes, smell, pollution or global warming. Just quiet, clean, unobtrusive power, straight from our Sun.

There are no moving parts because everything is solid state—even the inverters that convert the solar panels’ direct current (DC) into the alternating current (AC) that people’s homes use. The atoms, molecules and crystal structure of the panels and inverters do all the work, at the microscopic level. Forget about rotating generators and oily engines belching smoke; solar arrays don’t use them.

A little bit of Einstein

As our electric meter runs backwards and our power company pays us for our investment, I like to think about Albert Einstein. No, he didn’t discover the “photoelectric effect” that makes solar panels work. But he got the Nobel Prize for his 1905 paper explaining how it works.

Back in 1905, that was no mean feat. Not long before, Lord Rutherford had explained the atom as like a tiny solar system, with the nucleus as the Sun and electrons like little planets revolving around it.

But experiments soon discovered that subatomic reality is more complicated. Electrons aren’t like little planets at all. Sometimes they act like matter, and sometimes they act like waves. The same is true of light. It acts in many ways like a very high-frequency electromagnetic wave. But it also acts like a “photon,” a little packet of massless energy that sometimes works just like a particle.

So Einstein explained that a little photon of light, at just the right energy, can dislodge an electron from its atom. The electron, now homeless, has nowhere to go but into wires arranged to collect it, and ultimately into your TV or computer.

This happens only in semiconductors, because electrons in them are kind of a collective phenomenon—a product of the entire crystal structure. You might say that electrons in semiconductors act like a community, sort of like people who cooperate to generate, use and share clean energy. Although non-sentient (as far as we know), these little particle-waves are good examples for us.

But you didn’t start reading this post to get a lesson in physics or morality. You’re reading, no doubt, to find out what it’s like to own a solar array. Stay with me.

The array itself, and how it works

Figure 1
Figure 2
Figure 3

Figures 1 and 2 show the array from the front and back. The angle of the support racks provides maximum power throughout the year at our latitude. As your array moves closer to the Equator, its angle would approach the horizontal.

The little boxes that you see behind each panel are the solid-state inverters, which convert each panel’s output from DC to AC. You can also see an array circuit-breaker box at the rear, on the right-hand support.

These particular inverters report their performance by WiFi in real time, over the Internet. So I and their manufacturer can see what each one is doing 24/7/365, without leaving our desks. Because the inverters are entirely solid state, they make no noise whatsoever, not even a little buzzing.

Figure 3 shows our metering and junction boxes. The box on the left is our usual mechanical meter, which every home has. The next box to the right is a special (second) circuit breaker box for the array. (Power companies do like their belts with suspenders!) The third box is a cutoff switch, clearly labeled. The fourth and final box, on the right, contains a digital meter showing how much power our power company (PNM, or Public Service Company of New Mexico) is crediting us with producing.

The brown vertical conduit on the left brings power from, and takes our array’s power to, the grid. The second, smaller brown vertical conduit, immediately to its right, connects with our house’s main circuit-breaker panel on the other side of the house. (We put our array on this side of the house to shield it from the gale-force northwesterly winds that sometimes rip through our valley.) The still-smaller vertical gray conduit at the right goes to the array, and the fatter vertical gray tube to its right contains the site map (required by law), which shows electricians where everything is. (We do have to get those boxes and conduits painted the same color!)

Becoming a paid power producer

Video 1 shows what happens when the array is off and you turn it on by throwing the cutoff switch from “off” to “on.” There’s a five-minute delay, required by law, before the inverters start to transfer power. During that delay, the meter ambles along to the right, showing our house’s normal “resting” power drain. That drain most likely comes from all those little transformers (always running!) that charge our mobile devices, all the TV and stereo stuff awaiting commands from our remotes, and maybe a refrigerator or two.

But all of a sudden the meter starts to run backwards, to the left, at several times the speed it was running forward just moments before. That’s when the array kicks in. Now we are generating power to put back into the grid for other folks to use. And PNM is paying us for it. (I had an audio track explaining what was going on in real time, but it disappeared twice on uploading to Google. So I gave up.)

In other words, we don’t pay the power company. It pays us. So we gain on two accounts. First, we get checks monthly for any power that our array generates over what we use. Second, we don’t have any electric bill at all, so we save (at a higher rate) on every kilowatt-hour that we otherwise would have used. And we have the immense satisfaction of knowing that our clean power is cutting someone else’s use of coal—the dirtiest fuel known—which still provides over 80% of the electric energy in Northern New Mexico.

Watching the array work online

Figure 4
Figure 5

Figures 4 and 5 are screen shots of the Web pages that our inverters generate and transmit over the Internet. Figure 4 shows the total power output of our array, in kilowatts, varying as the sun passes across the sky. (The time, in days, appears on the lower x-axis.)

The little dips in output during the day represent clouds passing between the sun and the array. They reduce, but don’t kill, the array’s power.

Figure 5 shows the energy output of each panel, with total output at the side. The right side of both Figures 4 and 5 shows the historical output of the whole array for the past few days.

Not every inverter does this, but the inverters we are using do. They are products of a company called enphase Energy, which provides a special WiFi-like network to transmit system data though our power lines to our WiFi access point and the Web. Using the network, enphase Energy can monitor the performance of each panel and inverter in our array online and alert us by e-mail to any problems. And so can we.


You thought I’d never get to this, didn’t you? Well, I almost didn’t. Our contractor, Amenergy in Santa Fe, initially wanted the terms of our deal to be secret. But once the array was in and we became satisfied customers, they graciously consented to my sharing the cost terms on my blog.

The all-inclusive cost our array, including siting, concrete pads, racks, panels, electrical conduits and equipment, an extra meter and junction box, permitting, and helping with state and federal tax credits, was $37,335. After our 10% state and 30% federal tax credits, which we will take next year, the net expense will be $22,401—about what a good compact car would cost.

In addition to our tax credits, the array gives us three direct financial benefits. First, by generating our own power and using less electricity from the grid, we save all the money we would otherwise pay for electricity, including future charges at presumably higher residential retail rates. Second, for every kilowatt-hour of energy that we generate, including energy we use ourselves, our power company pays us a “renewable energy certificate” (REC) credit of 4 cents. Our current contract continues that rate for eight years. Finally, for every kilowatt-hour that we use to charge an electric car, rather than to buy gasoline for a 30 MPG small car, we save at the much higher rate of about 36 cents.

The 4¢ per kWh REC credit is worth some discussion. For our own solar energy that we use ourselves, we don’t pay the power company at all, by virtue of so-called “net metering.” Instead, we receive the REC credit. So the power company loses money (4¢) on every kilowatt-hour that our array generates and that we use ourselves. It pays us.

But every kilowatt-hour that our array generates that we don’t use ourselves the power company can sell to our neighbors at the going rate of 11¢ to 12¢ per kWh. It still pays us the REC credit of 4¢ per kWh, so its gross profit is, say, 7¢ on a sale of 11¢ or 7/11 = 63.6%.

That's not a bad profit for a regulated public utility! It’s the same as the profit made on energy from natural gas or coal, which costs the company about 4¢ per kWh to generate. (Actually, if the company sells our excess energy to our neighbors, it makes a higher profit because its distribution costs are lower than from a remote power plant.)

There are three good reasons for the company paying us outright for energy we generate and use ourselves. First, by helping us amortize the cost of our array, the power company reduces its generation requirements and therefore its need for future capital investment. Second, we, not the company, bear the cost of maintaining the array. Third, our array helps reduce pollution and global warming from fossil fuel plants.

Anyway, for energy that our array generates and that we don’t use ourselves, the company makes a generous profit. Its gross profit is as high as from conventional means of generating electricity.

The REC credit is good for us, too. It reduces our personal payback period. Without even considering the energy-cost savings of an electric car, Amenergy estimates that we will recover the cost of the array (after tax credits) in 13.25 years. Thereafter, the electricity from our array will be absolutely free for as long as the array lasts.

The makers of the solar panels and inverters warrant their products for 25 years. Even if the panels last only that long, they will provide us with about twelve years of free power. But if they continue to perform as solid state devices, obeying the laws of physics rather than the precautions of lawyers and accountants, they should last for a century, at steadily declining output, until their output drops to about one-third of initial power. We think that almost 87 years of free power is not a bad legacy for our heirs and successors.

There are very good reasons why we can expect our array to continue generating power (at the characteristic slowly declining rate of all solar PV panels) for a century or more. You can read those reasons here.

Because virtually all of the cost of solar photovoltaic power comes from amortized initial capital cost, the key factor for evaluating the economics of solar photovoltaic power is the total installed cost of plant per watt of nominal power production. Since our array generates 6.24 nominal kilowatts, that cost for us is $37,335 / 6,240 = $5.98 per watt, without accounting for the federal and state tax credits. (Note that this cost is not the cost of electric energy, but the cost of plant capacity. In order to get the cost of energy, you have to do some calculation.)

Our total-installed-capacity cost of about $6 per watt is pretty typical for small-scale, high-quality residential arrays like ours. That figure lets us calculate the amortized cost of solar energy for our array over its projected useful life. If we run the array for a century—by which time its output will have dropped to about a third of the initial level, and it will have produced the equivalent of 66 years of full-power output—our amortized cost of power will be 4.8¢ per kWh (extrapolated from this table).

That’s a generating cost, using a small-scale residential-retail array, not much higher than generating cost of our huge (and hugely polluting) coal-fired power plant at Four Corners, which I estimate as 4¢ per kWh. When you consider the 50% costs of distribution and profit, which our solar array doesn’t incur because it’s right next to our home, our little array, for us, beats the fully-loaded cost of convention fossil-fuel power by at least 1.2¢ per kWh. And of course its cost is much lower than the price we would have to pay our power company for conventional power (11¢ to 12¢ per kWh).

For large-scale commercial arrays, the cost advantages of solar PV energy are much bigger. Big arrays benefit from immense economies of scale.

As I’ve explained at length in another post, the total-cost-per-watt parameter is the product of the cost per watt of making the solar panels and something I call the “turnkey factor.” Today the industry state of the art for the solar panels, by themselves, is about 50 cents per watt. So in our case, all the other stuff, including rack, concrete pads, the labor of installation, connecting equipment and permitting, amounts to over twelve times the bare cost of the basic device that Einstein explained. That means the “turnkey factor” is over 12—quite high. Clearly there is a lot of room for further economies in this industry that have nothing to do with the photoelectric effect.

Large commercial arrays do a lot better. There the total installed cost is between $2 and $4 per Watt. As a result, over the projected working lives of the solar panels, commercial arrays can produce power at an amortized cost of between 1.6 and 3.2 cents per kilowatt-hour. That’s cheaper than electric energy produced by any conventional means, except perhaps hydroelectric power.

Why we became generators

So why did we install our array? There are so many reasons that it’s hard to know where to begin. First, there are the cost benefits. We won’t pay much, if at all, for electricity from now on, and the power company will pay us for the excess we produce. When we get our electric car, our savings per kilowatt hour will jump from about 11 cents to about 36 cents for energy used to charge the car. Once we’ve reached payback, we’ll get about twelve years of warranted power, and probably a whole century, for nothing. During that century, out panels will have produced energy equivalent to 66 years of full (initial) power output.

So if nothing strange or unexpected happens to our array, it will produce over half a century’s worth of free power after our payback period. And that’s not counting whatever payment we receive from the power company for contributing to the grid. That free, nonpolluting power is our legacy to our heirs and your grandkids.

Our array is well protected against any foreseeable damage. About the only thing that realistically could damage or destroy it is a tornado (rare in New Mexico) or baseball-sized hail. Our homeowners’ insurance protects the array against those risks (and vandalism), just as it protects our house. The coverage comes under a feature of our State Farm insurance policy called “dwelling extension,” which automatically covers up to 10% of the limit on our house.

But those are just the beginnings of our reasons for going solar. As an ex-physicist and a technophile, I have lusted for an electric car most of my life. But I can’t stomach driving on coal, an horrendous fuel that is ruining the planet on which we evolved with sulfur dioxide, acid rain, mercury pollution, and particulate-induced asthma, not to mention global warming. Now my wife and I can drive on the sun, not coal, and we can save about 36 cents for each kilowatt-hour of charging in doing so. That’s about three three times as much per kilowatt-hour as the money I save by not buying power from the grid.

The more we drive on electricity, the more quickly we will pay off our array. Unfortunately, I can’t provide a good numerical estimate because it depends on how much we drive our electric car. As a retired blogger, I don’t drive a lot, even now. My 2009 Hyundai Elantra has less than 7,000 miles on it, or less than 2,000 miles a year. (My wife, who does most of the shopping, drives a bit more.) The average not-yet-retired Joe or Mary, who drives a lot more than we do, will reduce his or her solar payback period big time.

But I guess the strongest reason for feeling good about our solar array comes from my background as an ex-physicist. I’ve known about the photoelectric effect ever since I first studied quantum mechanics, around 1966. Our species has known about it since well before Einstein’s 1905 paper that won the Nobel Prize. But it’s taken us over a century to put it to practical use.

This is a big, big deal, comparable to primitive Man’s discovery of fire.

Now our family and guests can enjoy free power from the same source that energizes all life on Earth: our Sun. We can enjoy it without noise, fuss, smoke, smog, pollution, global warming, anticipated cost increases, scarcity and panics, or the political struggles that characterize oil and gasoline and even natural gas. And the solar panels we used were made right here in the United States, thereby advancing my Trade Policy for One.

Footnote 1: In a previous post, I analyzed the so-called “linear warranty” of LG solar panels, which is precisely the same. As I noted in another previous post, the slow degradation of power from solar panels depends not on the manufacturer, but on physics. Although makers limit their legal liability to 25 years now, there is no reason why solar panels should not last a century, with power degrading slowing to about one-third of its initial (nominal value). Over that century, the panels would then deliver energy equivalent to 66 years of full-power operation. If our panels do that, we will get over half a century of absolutely free, full-power-equivalent operation, after our 13.25-year payback period. Can we all say “think long term ”?

Syria: Don’t Do it, Mr. President!

Last night on the PBS News Hour, President Obama said he has not yet decided whether to “punish” Syrian Butcher Bashar al-Assad with a “surgical strike” for killing about a thousand of his own people, mostly civilians, with chemical weapons. My advice, for what it’s worth, is “don’t do it.”

That same PBS News Hour later aired a three way debate on the issue. All three participants were distinguished, articulate, highly knowledgeable, and passionate in asserting their points of view. It was one of the best debates I have even seen on TV on any subject. Kudos to PBS for airing it.

Although all three debaters were highly skilled, the “do-nothing” position, at least for now, had the best arguments. Professor John Mearsheimer at the University of Chicago was its exponent.

As readers of this blog know, doing nothing is hardly ever a course of “action” I recommend. Somehow, it seems un-American.

But in this case, it’s the right course, at least for now. A “surgical strike” would be worse than doing nothing because it would accomplish nothing and might well be counterproductive. There are three reasons why.

First, the President has already telegraphed the punch by announcing our internal discussions. Worse yet, since the President wants “legal cover” for his action, he will invariably wait until he has at least a few partners in his “coalition of the willing.” Lining up those partners will take a few days or weeks, by which time Assad could have every important asset of his military hidden or buried under ground. You can’t have an effective “surgical strike” on a body warned in advance and in full armor.

Second, geopolitical conditions make the situation even worse. We have no reasonable prospect for improving conditions in Syria. The civil war there is in part a sectarian battle within Islam, in part a struggle for freedom from a cruel and barbaric tyrant, and in part a war by jihadis intent on establishing an Islamic Caliphate there, or at least reducing Syria to a law-and-civilization-free zone like Waziristan and most of Somalia and Yemen.

The strongest forces among the rebels are the jihadis, who, in the President’s gross understatement, don’t share our values. We have no “partner for democracy” or “partner for peace” there, let alone a partner for victory. We don’t even have a Hamid Karzai, feckless as he is.

Third, the legal justification for a strike, and therefore its legitimacy, is questionable at best. We have not been attacked. Nor is there any reasonable prospect of our being attacked by Syria. So neither self-defense nor the fig-leaf of “pre-emption” that Dubya used to enmire us in Iraq is credible. The whole world—including neutral countries and even some of our allies—would view our strike as just another attempt by a clueless behemoth to intervene clumsily where it has no business.

Our direct interests in Syria are weak and abstract. We abhor the killing. We detest Assad and everything he stands for. We don’t like to see the region awash in Syrian refugees and destabilized. We fear negative long-term consequences for our ally, Israel. And we’d like to see the nonproliferation and nonuse regime for chemical weapons enforced more robustly. But short of full-scale military intervention, we have no reason to believe that anything we can do would improve any of these shameful and dangerous facts. And our recent attempts at full-scale intervention, in Iraq and Afghanistan, have hardly been unqualified successes.

Last night the President asserted that we might “punish” Assad to deter further use of chemical weapons, or his loss of control over them and possible consequent use against us. That’s a rationale worthy of Dubya.

Remember Dubya's puerile plea that “we have to fight them over there so we don’t have to fight them here”? We shot our wad with that sort of speculative pre-emption in Iraq. Saddam’s WMD turned out to be a paranoid fantasy, and our international credibility took its biggest hit since Vietnam.

The simple, stark fact is that Assad has not threatened the United States and is no conceivable threat to us. He can’t even win a civil war against a ragtag bunch of jihadi rebels, with the financial and military backing of Iran and Russia. Whether in allegedly current or “pre-emptive” self-defense, an attack on Assad’s forces would have no international legitimacy. It would only strengthen our reputation as a rogue nation bent on proving its “exceptionalism” with irrational use of force.

But if the worst happened, and some of Assad’s chemical weapons actually got used against us, the entire situation would change. We would have right, law, and the world’s sympathy on our side.

So we should hold our fire for now. But, publicly or privately, we should warn Assad that, should we ever trace to Syria the use of chemical weapons against us, anywhere in the world, we will come after him personally with everything we’ve got. We will use our entire air force, our cruise missiles, our drones, our ninjas, and our conventional and even nuclear bunker-busters to kill him, along with anyone who happens to be near him when the strike comes.

And we will not announce those attacks in advance. Instead, we make them in surprise and silence. We will do so at any time after the moment that we determine, to our own satisfaction and in secret, that any chemical weapons used against us had their origin in Syria.

Carrying our such a threat would be legal, legitimate retaliation. It would be perceived as legitimate, as long as we had good evidence that the weapons had come from Syria. And with the elements of surprise and maximum force, it would be effective.

No one raised a peep when we killed bin Laden. The entire world viewed our assassination as legitimate retaliation for one of human history’s greatest crimes. In contrast, a “limited surgical strike” today, with confessedly no objective of removing Assad, lacks basic human legitimacy, as well as any hope of effectiveness. It might only embolden both Assad and his backers Iran and Russia.

Assad loses assets, forces and people on the ground every day in the two-year-old civil war that he is waging on his own people. A feeble surgical strike, destroying some equipment, buildings and hapless bystanders, wouldn’t even get his attention. But a credible threat to go after him personally, even though contingent, would impose the same sort of personal responsibility on him, in advance, that the Judgment at Nuremburg did in retrospect.

P.S. There is one from of “strike” that might actually do some good. Even if Assad hid or buried most of his armor and aircraft, we could still crater his runways and destroy his control towers and other air-command infrastructure. We could probably do that without significance losses to our own forces.

But craters can be filled, and towers and other infrastructure rebuilt. With resources that the Assad regime probably possesses, these things could be done in days, not weeks.

Therefore, to be effective, this strategy would be nothing like a single “surgical strike.” It would require an extended air campaign of at least weeks, most likely months.

I would support such a campaign, for (mostly humanitarian) reasons that I’ve explained in an earlier post. It is shameful for the world to stand idly by while Assad slaughters his own civilians in large numbers, whatever the kinds of weapons he uses.

But we should be honest with ourselves and our allies what this strategy would mean. First, it would be tantamount to establishing a “no fly zone,” at least temporarily. That’s something the President has said he will not do. Second, with each week of extension, it would increase the risk of significant losses to our forces and greater involvement in the war. Third, it would increase the probability of regime change in Syria. And finally, in so doing, it would increase the risk of eventual jihadi rule or a collapse of the Syrian state into chaos.

There are no riskless options in Syria. If the President wishes to minimize both military and domestic political risk (have you noticed how quickly John Boehner seems to have morphed from warmonger to peacenik?), the best option is that described above. Pass on this alarm, but be ready to make a quick, hard, silent surprise strike, at Assad himself, if the fire ever reaches us.

P.P.S. Some readers may be wondering how the United States could hold Assad personally responsible if some rogue Syrian general or jihadist enemy got ahold of his chemical weapons and used them against us.

Easy. In law there is a practical notion of “but for” cause. In either instance, Assad’s making and keeping chemical weapons would be a “but for” cause of the attacks against us. But for those weapons’ existence and availability, there could be no such chemical attack. Their existence and availability would be the sine qua non.

Futhermore, Assad’s making and keeping those weapons is a clear legal wrong. Syria has signed a treaty to that effect.

The treaty has only weak mechanisms for enforcement, but that’s the fault of the lawyers and diplomats. They need to do a better job next time. Nothing in their lapse excuses Assad from doing something that his nation has solemnly promised not to do, with the most formal kind of promise that nations ever make: a treaty. As absolute dictator of what is left of Syria, he is personally responsible.

But his personal responsibility goes even beyond that. Syria is collapsing as a viable state, due primarily to Assad’s inability to govern it by any means other than slaughtering his own people. A collapsing state makes it far more likely that his weapons will be stolen or diverted and used against third parties like us. Therefore his legal wrongs would be not just a “but for” cause of any such attack, but a substantial contributing cause.

In law, morality and common sense, Assad would have started a chain of events without which such an attack could not occur. And would have done so for the vilest of motives, in such a way as to vastly increase the risk. Keeping chemical weapons for use against his own people in a last-resort act of cowardly desperation is not something even the international community should countenance, let alone a third party (like us or Israel) harmed as a result.

Rather than retaliate collectively against the Syrian people, we or any other such third party could and should hold Assad personally accountable. That is the lesson of Nuremburg. It is also the indirect lesson of Dubya’s ghastly moral and practical blunder: invading and occupying two foreign nations for about a decade in order to stop a few hundred terrorists.


17 August 2013

Strange Sympathies

How do you get a Yankee Jew to sympathize—really sympathize—with Muslims, even radical Islamists? You kill hundreds of them just for exercising their human rights to protest their treatment, and just for trying to participate, in their own awkward way, in what purports to be a democracy. You start to turn Egypt into Syria.

History is so ironic. Millennia ago, Moses led the Jews, as slaves, out of Pharaoh’s land to go their own way. His story became a biblical legend, a large part of the Old Testament. Eventually it inspired African-Americans, themselves slaves, to find their own way to relative freedom in America. They recalled the plight and ultimate triumph of Moses, singing “Let my people go!”

Now a son of Africa and America, of Kenya and Kansas, sits in the White House. He objects to the new, self-appointed Pharaoh killing his own people, mostly at random, to enforce “order and security.” Our President cancels military exercises with Egypt and says that military aid is under review. And well he should!

The new Pharaoh, Abdel Fattah Saeed Hussein Khalil el-Sisi, calls himself a general. He says he is only bringing order and security to Egypt. He says he has the people on his side. But he uses the same brutal methods that Pharaoh used millennia ago. The only difference is the modern weapons.

Who are we as a species? What distinguishes us? Is it our brains? our opposable thumbs? our weapons? our recently-acquired ability to extinguish ourselves, which we almost demonstrated conclusively in October 1962?

Or is it our empathy? Without empathy and the cooperation it facilitates, we would be nothing. We are not as strong as elephants or gorillas, as well equipped for battle as lions, or as capable of individual flight as ducks. But we are the dominant species on this planet because we cooperate. And we can cooperate only because we empathize.

Al-Sisi and the Muslim Brotherhood both need to ken these simple points.

Who are our species’ iconic leaders? Caesar? The Kaiser? Hitler? Stalin? Mao? Pol Pot? Bashar al-Assad?

Or are they Mahatma Gandhi, Martin Luther King, Jr., and Nelson Mandela? Whom do we remember better, two millennia later, Caesar or Jesus?

When Jesus advised, “Love thy enemy” and “Turn the other cheek!” he was not oblivious to danger. He was not a stupid man. But he bet on the bystanders.

The thing about bystanders is that they don’t like injustice, let alone unnecessary, wanton killing. And over the long run, the bystanders usually prevail.

In the last century, the bystanders have made a lot of history. They freed India. They stopped and still remember the Holocaust. They helped end Apartheid. They got African-Americans a decent semblance of first-class citizenship. They got one elected to the world’s most powerful office. And they will never yield, as long as they can see clearly who has empathy and who has not.

Empathy and personal responsibility forbid murder. Human life is so fragile. Nelson Mandela spent 28 years in prison. It would have been so easy to kill him during all those years.

Can you imagine what a mess South Africa would be if someone had? God forbid that someone would even think of killing Mohamed Morsi.

Fortunately, al-Sisi has not been dumb enough to do that. But who knows whether one of many victims of senseless Army violence, now numbering over 700, might have become an Egyptian Mandela? Who knows what human potential Egypt lost in this week’s orgy of killing? Who knows whether a man (or woman!) who could have quelled the senseless violence with self-evident empathy, wisdom and justice, just like Mandela, now lies a corpse somewhere in a mosque used as a makeshift morgue?

Ironies abound. Ayman al-Zawahiri, now Al Qaeda Central’s leader, recently caused us to close embassies throughout the Middle East. He did so merely by communicating a threat to a co-conspirator in the Arabian Peninsula. That communication could have been a test of our intelligence, just like our signal to the Japanese feigning a bad water condenser on Midway Island during World War II.

But the Muslim Brotherhood is not Al Qaeda. Its members are not the al-Zawahiris of the world. Those violent extremists left Egypt (and other places) to wage a quixotic and disastrous war against human civilization and history’s most powerful nation. The Brotherhood’s members are the ones who stayed home, in Egypt, working quietly to build an Egyptian movement and a political party to resist tyranny.

They daily risked arrest, torture and execution to fight the Mubarak tyranny quietly at home. Now that they (and others) have nearly achieved that goal, the secularists who were incidental beneficiaries of their decades of labor are ready to offer them as human sacrifices. What ingratitude!

So today, after coming so close to leadership and after blowing their main chance through overreaching and incompetence, the Brotherhood appears to be the focus of ethnic cleansing in their own homeland.

They might not be ready for unrestrained national leadership, but surely they don’t deserve that. They deserve an Egypt, and a world, that recognizes their decades of sacrifice to fight tyranny and gives them a peaceful second chance—albeit with no guarantee of power, let alone success.

We Yanks are much maligned, on all sides. But at least we are consistent. Before Dubya led us to invade and occupy two foreign nations to fight a few hundred terrorists, the last big war we fought was in Bosnia. We fought on the side of the Bosnian Muslims, to prevent them from becoming the victims of ethnic cleansing and genocide.

We stood against the Rape of Sarajevo and the massacre of 8,000 Muslim boys. Now we must stand with Muslims again, against the massacre of innocent civilians on a thin pretext of provocation.

You might say we were powerful bystanders. We still are. Now is the time to exercise our power, before Egypt spins out of control.

Sure, we have important security interests in Israel. But we have even more vital security interests in general stability in the Middle East. That, in turn, requires a stable Egypt, the most populous Arabic, Islamic nation on our planet.

We Yanks don’t like violence and killing. We are convinced, based on voluminous scientific and historical evidence, that it leads not to stability or order, but to more conflict, violence and killing. That’s why the aftermath of our own Civil War is still impairing our government’s ability to act, over 148 years after the war ended with the South’s ostensible surrender. The South has fought a rear-guard action ever since. It is doing so today with Senate holds and filibusters.

Do Egyptians want a century and half of disorder, conflict and even chaos? I hope not. And so the faction in Egypt that captures our Yankee imagination will be the one that follows the teachings of Gandhi, King and Mandela, not the one that uses weapons we have provided to commit mayhem and murder.

As the President considers how to shape and downsize our military aid to Egypt, he should think about ordinary people. Maybe we should give Egypt’s Army more kevlar vests and helmets, so that its soldiers and police can dare to stand their ground without firing live ammunition into largely innocent crowds. Maybe we should hold the heavy weaponry until the Egyptian Army shows more nuanced operation, professionalism and self-restraint.

Before we ship any more heavy hardware, we should be absolutely certain that el-Sisi will not become al-Assad. At the moment, that outcome is hardly assured. Our reported suspension in delivery of four F-16s was a proper response, and a good start.

We should not worry that the Russians (or the Chinese) will step in with substitutes for our military supply. Not one whit. The Egyptian Army has used our equipment, supplies and spares for decades. It has trained with our supplies and with us. Its officers have gone to our war colleges, whose lessons of restraint they are now wantonly ignoring.

You do not replace an entire infrastructure of equipment, parts, spares, training and cooperation like that without immense economic, social and practical losses. Just ask the Iraqis how well our own “replacement” of Russian/Soviet electrical equipment went during the early years of our occupation. The intermittent and unreliable third-world power system that resulted was one of the many utterly incompetent aspects of our early occupation. It was a significant motivator for the Sunni uprising leading to low-level civil war in Iraq. That uprising ended only when the Anbar Awakening decided that Al Qaeda’s blowing Muslims up at marketplaces, weddings and funerals was even worse than our incompetent and unbalanced occupation.

Make no mistake about it. Our long supply chain and long relationship with Egypt’s Army gives us leverage aplenty. We should use it.

But we should not use it in an ineffective grand gesture, forcing Egypt to go “cold turkey” (pardon the expression). Instead, we should ratchet up the pressure, slowly, thoughtfully, relentlessly, and inexorably, so as to get al-Sisi’s attention and remind him constantly how much he and his generals depend on us. We want him to know and understand how awful a multi-decade headache any attempt to switch to another military supplier would be.

In any event, all sides in the Egyptian conflict need to understand a simple truth. Bargaining is better than mayhem. This is something that Egyptians ought to know.

It’s depressing to see a nation so skilled at bargaining in commerce resorting to raw force and mayhem when it comes to politics. We Yanks should do everything we possibly can to stop the tide of violence before it turns into a flood.

The world does not need another Syria in the otherwise promising twenty-first century, let alone in the volatile Middle East. And we do not need to see Arabs, who invented algebra, algorithms and the number system now used worldwide, acting like savages and butchering their own people.


12 August 2013

Dog-Day Food for Thought: Who Has the Best Alphabet?

The riddle of national productivity
The invented alphabets
Hangul and English
Conclusion: why it matters


The summer dog days are here again. As oppressive heat overtakes us—if not overcomes us—childish squabbling becomes the global norm. It has captured not only our Congress and our political parties, but Egypt and our relationship with Russia. It has devastated Syria.

A new scientific study confirms the obvious: heat increases human conflict. So as global warming heats us up, expect more of the same.

In the meantime, let’s take a break from incessant, unproductive conflict. Let’s think about larger issues, like the things that make us human.

One of those things is language. Every nation and culture has it. All but the most primitive tribes have ways of writing it down. Although similar in general purpose, our various ways of writing are self-evidently not the same.

The electronic age has largely deconstructed the old Tower of Babel. A lone blogger like me can collect representative samples of the world’s various alphabets in a few hours, all at his desk. Just forty years ago, that simple task would have taken days or weeks pouring over musty tomes in libraries.

Not only that. The under-appreciated miracle of Google Translate allows anyone, anywhere, to translate anything written by anyone anywhere else. The translations are hardly precise or idiomatic. But they get the point across. So we seem to have breached the great barrier of language that long has divided nations into warring tribes. Can mutual understanding be far behind?

As differences in language cease to divide us, they raise a whole new set of questions. Language and writing are the bases of all human learning and abstract thought. They are therefore the foundation of science, our understanding of ourselves and our Universe, and the innovation that some day may take us to the stars. Is one language better than another? Is one system of writing? And, if so, which one is best?

We native speakers of English take great pride in our tongue. We know that it’s everybody’s favorite second language. We also know that our particular variant of the Roman alphabet is simple and easy to learn, as is our mostly declensionless grammar. (Our spelling is another matter!)

But do we English speakers really have the world’s best alphabet and system of writing? Or are they only second best? And if so, who has the best? If these mere questions surprise you, the tentative answers may surprise you even more.

The riddle of national productivity

Before we get to the core questions of this essay, let’s look at another riddle, seemingly unrelated. The Internet has made both Mark Twain’s damn lies and statistics almost universally available. So nearly all educated people can rattle off the ranking of the world’s top four national economies: USA, China, Japan and Germany. The Web even makes it easy to go much further down the list.

But productivity depends on people, so population ought to matter. Suppose we rank GDP figures on a per-capita basis. Then an entirely different list emerges. On that list, China no longer ranks second. Instead, it ranks 123d. South Korea slips from 15th on an absolute basis to 44th per capita, but it still beats China by a considerable margin.

Both nations are Asian. In fact, South Korea’s writing and culture are in some ways derivatives of China’s. Both have long histories. Both have emerged recently (in the last century) from poverty and disorder.

South Korea’s recent history has been even more insecure than China’s. It includes a geographic and cultural split wrought by war, horrible devastation of both north and south, and the continuing threat of another devastating war, which has lasted now for 60 years.

In contrast, China has been stable and peaceful for all that time. Yet South Korea’s per-capita productivity easily trumps China’s. The only Asian nations or regions that beat South Korea are small city-states like Hong-Kong and Singapore, plus the giants Taiwan and Japan. If Taiwan were included in greater China, there would be only three, and only one (Japan) larger than a city-state.

More to the point, South Korea’s industry and innovation are light years ahead of China’s. In ancient times, China invented printing, gunpowder and noodles—three of the most important innovations in human history. Yet I, who have made a career of studying innovation, cannot think of a single important modern invention that the world owes to China.

Nor can I think of a single modern high-technology industry—except for rare-earth-metal mining and possibly solar panels based on silicon—in which China enjoys unchallenged global supremacy. And the two exceptions derive, respectively, from China’s natural resources and cheap labor, not innovation.

In contrast, tiny South Korea is now supreme in LCD screens, is challenging Japan for supremacy in automobiles, and is likely to become supreme soon in electronic memory chips. (Full disclosure: my wife and I both drive Hyundais and love them.)

How can this pipsqueak country, divided and under constant threat of invasion and war, be beating the productive pants off the world’s most populous nation, with one of humanity’s oldest and most venerable cultures? What’s going on here?

Yankee ideologues will, of course, point to ideology. South Korea has been capitalist since before the Korean War, while China took the capitalist road only some thirty years ago, when Deng Xiaoping came to power. And China, some still insist, is Communist in some ways, as it continues to describe its ruling party.

But those answers, I think, are a bit glib. Korea, like China, was still organizing itself in the early 1980s. It was not on anyone’s list of rising economic powers. Today its postwar “economic miracle” is exemplary, analogous to Japan’s. It also just happens to be near the top of the list in per-capita Internet penetration.

More important, there are other Asian nations that were and are both capitalist and unencumbered by South Korea’s sad legacy of national division and war. They include Thailand, Malaysia and Indonesia, among others, which respectively rank 116th, 78th, and 158th in per-capita GDP, far behind South Korea. South Korea has passed them in industry and innovation like a meteor. What gives?

The invented alphabets

As we try to answer that question, we return to the theme of this essay: who’s got the best alphabet. In that respect, Korea (as a whole, both north and south) is nearly unique. It’s one of only three cultures in the world today with alphabets created out of whole cloth.

The world has a number of alphabets. In addition to numerous variations of the Roman alphabet, there are (in alphabetical order) Arabic, Cyrillic, Greek, Hangul, Hebrew, Hiragana, Katakana, Sanscrit, Tamil and Thai. To complete the list, we should include Chinese characters—known in China as hantsu and in Japan as kanji, even though some consider them the antithesis of an alphabet.

Of all these human alphabets, the origins of most are lost in the mists of time and human social evolution. As far as we know, they weren’t invented; they just evolved.

In contrast, four alphabets still in modern use were most definitely invented, and for specific purposes. Again in alphabetical order, they are Cyrillic , Hangul (the Korean alphabet) and the two Japanese syllabaries, Hiragana and Katakana. [You may have to add Russian, Korean and Japanese to your browser’s language list in order to view the linked pages.]

We don’t know precisely who invented the Japanese syllabaries. They may have evolved like the Chinese characters. But we do know the names of the individual inventors of the Cyrillic and Hangul alphabets, and we know the purposes for which all four alphabets were developed.

All arose out of nationalism and cultural pride. The inventors all wanted a unique system of writing for their own people, adapted to their tongue, spoken language and other unique characteristics.

But there the similarities in origin cease. The monk St. Cyril, who invented the Cyrillic alphabet, had only one purpose in mind: creating an alphabet suitable for Slavic languages. He was not particularly original. Except for some letters unique to Slavic languages, he borrowed most of his letters from Roman, Greek and Hebrew. This table shows roughly how.

In contrast, the other three invented alphabets (Hangul, Hiragana and Katakana) had a second purpose: simplification. Both Korea and Japan were satellites of China, and their scholars all used Chinese characters. But the alphabetic inventors saw those characters as too many, varied and complex. They were (and are!) so difficult to learn as to impair children’s easy acquisition of written language. So they set out to devise an alphabet (or two, in Japan’s case) to make reading and writing simpler.

In Japan’s case, the invention of two alphabets underscored the need for simplification. One alphabet—katakana—is used exclusively for foreign words, just like pinyin in China. It recognizes the need for a phonetic alphabet for names and words that have no corresponding Chinese characters.

But the other Japanese alphabet goes even further. The Japanese use Hiragana exclusively for Japanese names and words. Children use it before they acquire enough kanji to read. Many subway signs use it so that children can ride the subways and get around Japan’s crowded cities without adult assistance. (Japanese children do not have full command of kanji—enough to read a newspaper—until they graduate from the equivalent of our high school at about age 16.)

Like Hiragana, Hangul was intended to express the Korean language in a unique form of writing. But unlike Hiragana, Hangul is much simpler. Not only does it have only 40 letters, as compared to Hiragana’s 46. The forms and shapes of its letter are masterpieces of simplicity.

To see the difference, you have only to compare the two alphabets visually. A mere glance convinces that, while Hiragana was devised in part for the sake of art, Hangul was made for use. With a few exceptions, Hangul’s letters are all simple geometric shapes, lines and circles, with no embellishments or complexity. A person with absolutely no artistic skill can write them easily.

Hangul and English

How does the Hangul alphabet compare with our English one? As it turns out, pretty well.

English’s version of the Roman alphabet wins on number of letters (26 versus 40), and the number of strokes for the most complicated letters (four for E, M and W versus nine for ㄻ,ㄼ and ㄾ). But Hangul has a larger number of straight lines and fewer complex curves, thus increasing the ease of writing and recognition. And Hangul has no analogue to our lower- and upper-case lettering, which increases the practical complexity of our English alphabet considerably, if not by as much as a factor of two.

Insofar as geometric simplicity and ease of writing and reading are concerned, the English alphabet and Hangul are hard to compare by viewing the letters alone. If children could choose for themselves, based solely on the letters, either choice would be rational. The only thing massively favoring the English alphabet, it seems, is that English has come to dominate the world as everybody’s favorite second language.

Yet Hangul may, as a system of writing, have a decisive advantage in human cognition, which has nothing to do with the form and number of the letters themselves. The advantage is the way it groups its letters in normal writing.

Hangul letters don’t appear in straight lines, as in every other alphabetic writing system. Instead, they appear in two-dimensional groups of two or more letters, which give foreigners the same general impression as Chinese characters.

But Hangul writing is far from Chinese characters. It’s a phonetic alphabetic language, not an ideographic one. And it differs from every other alphabetic language on the planet in a crucial respect: its two-dimensional, rather than linear, arrangement of letters into words and word formants.

Why is this important? Because of the way the human mind and eye work together to spot patterns.

Human pattern recognition is both astounding and limited. Most readers of this post are familiar with a simple test of human pattern recognition in English text. You take a passage of proper English, keep the first and last letters of each word fixed, and then garble all the letters of every word in between, at random. For most of us, the resulting garbled text is easy to read. In fact, we can read it with little, if any, reduction in speed. Only people with various forms of dyslexia have trouble.

But the limits on our visual perception are equally astounding. One is the number of dots or other identical symbols that, if arranged in a line, we can count at a glance. For most of us, accurate counting requires a string of five of fewer symbols. As the number increases beyond five, at-a-glance counting becomes erratic. (You can verify this point by having a colleague type a random number of letters into the password field of any website, and then trying to call out the number of dots that result, in less than a second.)

This simple experiment suggests that human visual pattern recognition is limited for symbols arranged in a line. But that’s exactly what most alphabetic languages do. Both words and sentences sprawl out in a straight line, the more complex the longer. In this respect, right-to-left reading languages, like Arabic and Hebrew, are no different from left-to-right reading languages like English and Russian.

But there is more. A simple experiment shows that pattern recognition is easier and quicker when symbols are arranged (at small scale) in two dimensions rather than one.

In the Japanese game of Sudoku, the object is to arrange integers from one to nine—without duplication—in nine vertical columns, nine horizontal rows, and nine squares of nine places each. The puzzle contains enough integers at random places on the grid to insure a unique solution. Once you’ve solved that puzzle, you can verify the correctness of your solution either by consulting the answers in the puzzle book, or simply by verifying that each column, row and box contains all nine integers without repetition.

If you verify your solution the second way, you will discover an interesting phenomenon. Checking the boxes is much easier and quicker than checking the columns or rows. In fact, you can often check a box for all integers one through nine at a mere glance, just as you can count up to five dots in a line, but (usually) no more. You simply can’t do that with the columns or rows. (For them, I usually check both ways, counting down and then counting up, because experience has taught me that otherwise my eyes can deceive me.)

What does all this mean? It appears to mean that, from the perspective of human visual perception, Hangul is the planet’s most efficient alphabetic language. Not only do its letters rival the simplicity of the English alphabet in form. Its small-scale two-dimensional grouping of letters appears to optimize the speed and efficiency of human pattern recognition. In other words, the best alphabet on the planet may be Korea’s.

Conclusion: why it matters

In a previous essay, I analyzed our planet’s worst and most complex “alphabet,” namely China’s ideographs, or “hantsu.” It takes about 1,600 of them to read a newspaper. Scholars and professionals have to learn and know 3,000. High-school hantsu can have up to fourteen strokes, and obscure characters used by scholars and professionals up to twenty-four. (In comparison, the most complex letters of the English alphabet are E, M and W, with four strokes each.) And learners of hantsu must learn to write all these strokes by rote, in order, and each in the correct direction, by the numbers, as they learn to write.

So if you multiply the maximum number of strokes by the numbers of characters you must learn to recognize and write, English’s “complexity factor” is 4 x 26 = 104, while Chinese’s is 14 x 1,600 = 22,400 for ordinary people and 24 x 3,000 = 72,000 for scholars and professionals. That’s an increase of over two or close to three orders of magnitude (powers of ten) in complexity!

This complexity has more than the direct and obvious effect. It interacts with the process of human maturation and brain development in complex ways. A child in an alphabetic culture can read and write any word in the language (although perhaps not fully understand its meaning) by the age of seven. A Chinese child doesn’t develop a full written vocabulary until he or she acquires the 1,600 or so mandatory characters, by about age 16. This delay in complete acquisition of reading and writing skill has enormous implications for maturation and brain development.

A Chinese scholar or professional doesn’t have a full written vocabulary until much later in life. So in China and its satellite cultures, the term “lifelong learning” applies literally to learning to spell.

The effect of these differences on ideation and abstract thinking—on science, engineering, and innovation, which require both—is likely to be profound. There may also be social and cultural side-effects: the enormous amount of wrote learning (including the order of strokes) needed to acquire written language may tend to promote conformity and suppress creativity.

The self-evident simplicity and visually efficient organization of written Hangul work the other way. They promote easy and efficient writing and reading and quick written-language acquisition, early in the human cycle of maturation and brain development. After that, the two-dimensional organization of Hangul syllables and words may promote more efficient reading and writing—and thinking—for the rest of a person’s life.

Could having the world’s best alphabet be responsible, at least in part, for South Korea’s meteoric rise in industry, technology and science? Could China’s much more cumbersome development derive from its more cumbersome writing system, despite its huge population and equally impressive work ethic?

These speculations are just hypotheses. They beg for further study, especially now that we have instruments to observe the human brain in operation in real time.

But intuition and common sense suggest that the answers to both questions may be “yes.” In a global culture where language barriers are falling by the minute, it is appropriate both to compare these vital aspects of national culture and to improve and simplify them, just as Korea’s King Sejong did in inventing Hangul out of whole cloth in 1446.

St. Cyril’s Borrowing*

Borrowed FromNumberLetters
Uniquely Slavic8ж,ч,щ,ь,ы,ъ,ю,я

*Notes: These letters are not the ones actually invented by St. Cyril, but the ones that resulted from modernization and simplification of the alphabet during the early years of Communism. The modern variant letters ё (which is not used in normal print) and й are excluded.

Footnote: The incongruity and sheer caprice of English spelling is best illustrated by a joke attributed to George Bernard Shaw. What does “gheiti” spell? Scroll down for the answer.


It spells “fish.” Just take the “gh” from “enough,” the “ei” from “forfeit,” and the “ti” from any word ending in “-tion,” such as “nation.”


06 August 2013

Jeff Bezos and the Pope

Gay rights and humility
Accepting criticism
Honest product reviews and their larger meaning
The neglected value of knowledge and experience
The Fourth Estate

Gay rights and humility

Jeff Bezos was raised a Texan, by a grandfather who was a scientist turned rancher. Yet he has at least two things in common with Pope Francis.

First, like the Pope with his humble, probing question, “Who am I to judge?” Bezos has recognized the humanity of gays. Last year he personally gave $2.5 million to help pass a referendum on gay marriage in his present home state of Washington.

Second, like the Pope—and despite running a huge corporate empire that rivals the Vatican’s in size—Bezos has his share of humility. He didn’t make that contribution out of ego-driven religious or ideological conviction. He made it because an employee asked him to. Two days after receiving her e-mail, he wrote back, “[T]his is right for so many reasons. We’re in for $2.5 million.”

Accepting criticism

Bezos is one of the hardest-charging CEO’s in American business. He has had to be in the low-margin business of selling books and records, where Amazon.com got its start. Like the late Steve Jobs, he focuses ruthlessly on improving the customer experience.

Yet Bezos is amenable to criticism. He doesn’t just pretend to listen. He changes his ways.

When employees and observers complained that temperatures in his firm’s warehouses reached 100 degrees, he allotted money for air conditioning. When he began to hear criticism of Amazon’s membership in the American Legislative Executive Council (ALEC), a right-wing business lobbying group, he quit. He did so later than other major firms, perhaps because ALEC supported the so-called “Amazon exemption” from sales taxes on Internet sales—a vital advantage in Amazon’s low-margin sales business. But he did it.

The most amusing example of Bezos’ capacity for change came during his firm’s early start-up days. Employees were still packing books for shipment on the floor; yet sales were increasing exponentially. So were employees’ hours, including Bezos’. Everyone was so focused on increasing production that Bezos suggested getting knee pads to do the packing. Then an employee suggested the obvious: getting tables. Bezos said later that he “thought it was the most brilliant idea I had ever heard in my life.”

Honest product reviews and their larger meaning

But Bezos’ most important example of humility and capacity for change had nothing to do with employee relations or politics. It’s the foundation and cornerstone of Amazon’s business success: letting customers criticize the very products that Amazon sells.

Well-meaning, self-appointed advisors warned Bezos not to do it. How can you sell things if you point out their bad features, as well as the good?

Allowing negative product reviews goes against every canon of salesmanship from time immemorial. Praise the product to the skies. Sell sex, excitement and fun, not the product. Let the buyer discover its defects and disadvantages for herself, if she can, usually after purchase. Once buyer’s remorse sets in, you’ve got your money. Take it and run.

That philosophy is older than ancient Rome. We have it in Latin: “caveat emptor,” or “let the buyer beware.”

Bezos challenged this bit of ancient wisdom and won big. Now virtually every online vendor, from Lowe’s and Home Depot to Best Buy, offers unedited customer reviews, both negative and positive, online. But none of them has Amazon.com’s software or huge database of reviews. Bezos’ humble vision gave his firm a commanding lead.

It’s hard to understand why this fundamental innovation in salesmanship has gotten so little comment. Today many of us take it for granted. But it’s a radical change in the culture of salesmanship and self-promotion that made America what it is today.

It’s also an exercise in honesty, humility and trusting the wisdom of the crowd, the common person. Isn’t that what democracy is supposed to be like?

My own experience verifies what a powerful tool of business honest negative reviews can be. I never paid much attention to Amazon.com, the bookseller. I don’t buy that many books, and I’m old enough to have accumulated my collection of CD’s in stores. So I missed the chance to invest in Amazon when its stock’s price-earnings ratio was less than astronomical.

But when Amazon started selling electronic equipment, small appliances and hardware—things that work (or don’t)—I began to pay attention. Reading the online reviews, I could accomplish in mere hours the equivalent of days of in-person shopping, coping with “out of stock” and having to deal with ignorant and ill-informed salespeople.

I could get my product advice straight from the horse’s mouth: people who had bought the product and liked it or didn’t. I could avoid my own buyer’s remorse by reading the complaints of people who had felt it themselves. And, with a little help from Google and the Internet, I could compare products as if shopping a major city like New York, all without ever leaving my desk.

Now I do nearly all my shopping on line, and I start with Amazon.

All these benefits, to me and to Amazon’s exploding business, arose out of two admirable human qualities: humility and honesty. So when I heard the Pope’s wonderfully human question about gays (“Who am I to judge?”), I thought of Amazon and Bezos.

The neglected value of knowledge and experience

Yet another ingredient of Amazon’s reviews is as important as the reviewers’ honesty and Bezos’ humility in letting them pan his products. It’s experience and real knowledge.

The product reviews on Amazon’s Website are useful for one reason only. The people who write them have bought and used the products. The most useful reviews are those of writers who wait until they’ve used the product for months, or until it fails in some way.

Two things enforce this discipline of practical knowledge and experience. First, Amazon does what it can with its software to allow only actual purchasers to write reviews. Second, the crowd itself enforces the rules. Commenters flame, blame and shame people who use Amazon’s Webite to complain (or to praise) in the abstract, or to lambaste Amazon’s own services or damage in transit. And rightly so.

Would it were so in politics! The average online comment on political stories is an exercise in abstract and groundless opinion, usually without a single fact. When called on this, some commenters reveal an inability to distinguish facts from opinions and abstractions.

And the ignorance in cyberspace is boundless. I have seen online comments expressing surprise and disbelief that Cuba was ever a US colony. I have read numerous comments insisting, or strongly implying, that the engineers who design solar-energy arrays don’t know the sun doesn’t shine at night. Is there a way to limit comments to writers who actually have relevant knowledge or experience?

The Fourth Estate

And so we come to Jeff Bezos’ recent personal purchase of The Washington Post.

Why The Washington Post? Bezos now lives and built his empire in Washington State, not Washington, D.C. Surely he knows the difference.

Once upon a time, we Yanks had three national newspapers of international repute: The Washington Post, the New York Times, and the Wall Street Journal. Now we have only one that actually deserves that status.

Only one of the three relentlessly (and sometimes ruthlessly) finds fault in high places and speaks truth to power. Only one of the three ever brought down a sitting US president through sheer investigative reporting (on the Watergate Scandal). Only one (before Bezos’ purchase) was still owned by a family imbued with the true zeal and mission of the Fourth Estate.

The New York Times’ soul escaped to heaven when Arthur Ochs Sulzberger died. Actually, it fled a bit earlier, when Sulzberger, in apparent senility, appointed an advertising executive to run a news business.

In contrast, The Washington Post’s Graham family lived the Fourth Estate’s values. Its legendary publisher, Katharine Graham, personally made all the hard decisions to proceed with the reporting on the Watergate Scandal that brought down Richard Nixon for gross abuse of power. And she made them under intense and relentless pressure from a rogue Chief Executive and his minions.

The New York Times and Wall Street Journal are sycophants and ass-lickers in comparison. Both were located at the epicenter of the Crash of 2008. But neither has done serious, hard hitting investigative reporting on its causes to this date.

If Richard Nixon had been Wall Street and had ruled from Manhattan, he might still be in office, like Robert Mugabe. Despite a pretense to journalism, the two newspapers that live on Manhattan refuse to bite the hand that feeds them and most of the Island.

The Wall Street Journal is even worse. Its current owner (indirectly) is Rupert Murdoch, who (if there really is such a thing) closely resembles the Antichrist. Antichrist ownership of a newspaper ostensibly devoted to serving the public is not a happy combination, whether for grammar, organization, or “balance” in reporting.

So The Washington Post is not just the best example of a real newspaper among our national rags. It is the only one.

The Washington Post also differs from the other two in another respect. It’s the only one that has not gone to a subscription model. So it’s not only the sole remaining guardian of the public interest. It’s the only one whose hard-hitting reporting people anywhere can read for free.

Don’t get me wrong. I understand the financial pressures the Internet has put on newspapers. And I can easily afford the subscription fees. After all, I subscribe to Consumer Reports and Morningstar, among others. I even let them charge my credit card annually.

But these are very specialized services. They are not the Fourth Estate. There is something fundamentally incongruous about putting news behind a pay wall.

In the old days, when news came on dead trees, the newsboy would shout the headlines on the streets of major cities. And you could read them, and most of the major stories, at newsstands or through the glass windows in newspaper vending machines. If a particular story interested you, you could read it all by paying a quarter (or in the really old days, a dime) for that particular issue. News was not free, but important news was damn close.

Today, you have to commit yourself to a single publisher by paying a hundred or so dollars a year for a subscription. At that price, most ordinary working folks are not going to buy more than one subscription. So news readers become “locked into” a single source of news, and news becomes a monopoly.

Right now the New York Times and the Wall Street Journal are competing to become national monopolists in online paid news. Their “markets” are a bit different: the Times is a more general newspaper, while the WSJ focuses more on business, finance and commerce. But both cover politics and government, especially on their editorial pages.

In contrast, The Washington Post has kept faith with the ideals of the Fourth Estate. Anyone, anywhere, worldwide can read its hard-hitting reporting, for free, online. It’s no accident that the legendary Graham family continued with this model, despite the growing red ink. It’s what journalism is all about: informing the public.

The post you are reading is a good example of the enormous benefits of free news. Although I admired him, I knew next to nothing about Jeff Bezos, the man, before sitting down to write. In a half-hour, with a single Google search, I was able to uncover and read in-depth articles about him from Time/Business, Business Insider, The Nation, and the Wall Street Journalall for free.

That’s the kind of access to information that the Internet promises. And that’s what newspapers like the New York Times and the Wall Street Journal undermine with their subscription models, even if they confine the pay wall to “fresh” news. They are balkanizing the Internet. Their financial survival comes at the risk of the Fourth Estate’s demise.

Enter Jeff Bezos. Two obvious goals underlie his acquisition of The Washington Post with his personal fortune. First, he wants to insure the survival and independence of the sole remaining truly independent (and hard hitting) national newspaper in our democracy. (I hope he also means to continue the Graham family’s inestimable tradition of fierce independence, if not its actual editorial control.)

Second, with his humility, willingness to respond to criticism, and long Internet experience, maybe he can square the circle. Maybe he can solve the riddle of “monetizing” news without putting it behind a pay wall, thus creating mini-monopolies incompatible with the Fourth Estate and accelerating the already frightening trend of people relying on a single source for all their news.

Maybe Bezos can also find some way to make online reader comments on news as interesting and useful as the product reviews on Amazon.com. Maybe he can impose some requirement—analogous to the actual-purchase requirement for product reviews—that commenters have some discernible knowledge or experience on the topics on which they write. Maybe he and his programmers can create an algorithm to insure that each online comment contains a least one, single, solitary verifiable fact.

Maybe, in so doing, he can save our democracy and our nation’s collective ability to think. Imagine that: computers imposing intellectual discipline on a lazy populace raised to “express itself,” no matter how inane or baseless its opinions. Godspeed.

Footnote: I’m not sure why the Wall Street Journal article on Bezos was available without subscription. WSJ editorials are generally free, in order to “spread the gospel” of muscular capitalism. Maybe the Bezos biography fell into that category. The article was almost two years old when I accessed it, so maybe it fell into a category of “old” news outside the pay wall.