Archive for the ‘Uncategorized’ Category.

Canadian Authoritarianism: Prosecuting People With the Wrong Opinions

This comes to us from that bastion of freedom called Canada, where half of Americans wanted to run when Trump got elected.

It’s like something out of George Orwell’s 1984**.

Canada’s Competition Bureau, an arm’s length agency funded by Prime Minister Justin Trudeau’s government to the tune of almost $50 million annually, investigated three organizations accused of denying mainstream climate science for over a year, following a complaint from an environmental group.

The bureau discontinued its 14-month probe in June, citing “available evidence, the assessment of the facts in this case, and to ensure the effective allocation of limited resources”, according to Josephine A.L. Palumbo, Deputy Commissioner of Competition, Deceptive Marketing Practices Directorate.

But it will re-open its investigation should it receive relevant new information from the public.

The complaint was filed by Ecojustice on behalf of six “prominent” Canadians, including former Ontario NDP leader and UN ambassador Stephen Lewis.

It accused three groups, Friends of Science, the International Climate Science Coalition, and the Heartland Institute of making false and misleading claims about climate change, including that the sun is the main driver of climate change, not carbon dioxide, and that carbon dioxide is not a pollutant.

When it launched its complaint in December, 2015, Ecojustice told the National Observer it would press the Commissioner of Competition to refer the matter to the Attorney-General of Canada for “criminal charges against the denier groups”.

**I presume the author is referring to the general understanding of what 1984 was about, rather than Hillary Clinton's revisionist opinion that 1984 was a cautionary tale about the danger of not having enough respect for government authority figures.

Wow. Thanks Capitalism!

Why Wind Power Does Not Greatly Reduce Fossil Fuel Use

The problem with wind power is that electric utilities have to be prepared at any time for their power production to just stop on short notice.  So they must keep fossil fuel plants on hot standby, meaning they are basically burning fuel but not producing any power.  Storage technologies and the use of relatively fast-start plants like gas turbines mitigates this problem a bit but does not come close to eliminating it.  This is why wind power simply as a source contributing to the grid makes very little sense.  Here is Kent Hawkins of Master Resource going into a lot more depth:

How do electricity systems accommodate the nature of wind and solar? They do this by having redundant capacity almost equalling the renewable capacities as shown in Figures 5 and 6 for two jurisdictions that have heavily invested in wind and solar – Germany and Ontario, Canada.

Pt I Fig 5

Figure 5 – Duplicate capacity requirements for Germany in 2015.

Source: See note 4, sub point a.

 

Part 1 Fig 6

Figure 6 – Duplicate capacity requirements for Ontario, Canada, in 2018

Source: Ontario Power Authority[5]

In both figures, the left-hand columns are peak demand requirements and include all the dispatchable capacity that is required to reliably meet demand and provide operating reserve. In the right-hand columns, if you look very carefully, you can see the capacity credit for wind by the slight reduction in “Peak Demand + Op Reserve.” In summary, when wind and solar are added, the other generation plants are not displaced, and, relative to requirements, wind and solar are virtually all duplicate capacity.

Wind might make more sense in niche applications where it is coupled into some kind of production process that can run intermittently and have its product stored.  I think T Boone Pickens suggested having wind produce hydrogen from water, for example, and then store the hydrogen as fuel.  This makes more sense because the total power output of a wind plant over a year can be predicted with far more certainty than the power output at any given minute of a day.  This is one reason why the #1 historic use of windpower outside of transportation has been to pump water -- because the point is to fill the tank once a week or drain the field over a month's time and not to make absolutely sure the field is draining at 10:52 am.  The intermittent power is stored in the form of water that has been moved from one place to another.

My Favorite Convenience Tech: The Disney Magic Band

Before discussing the Disney Magic Band, I got to thinking about this from this article linked by Tyler Cowen:

The syringe slides in between the thumb and index finger. Then, with a click, a microchip is injected in the employee’s hand. Another “cyborg” is created.

What could pass for a dystopian vision of the workplace is almost routine at the Swedish startup hub Epicenter. The company offers to implant its workers and startup members with microchips the size of grains of rice that function as swipe cards: to open doors, operate printers, or buy smoothies with a wave of the hand.

The injections have become so popular that workers at Epicenter hold parties for those willing to get implanted.

“The biggest benefit I think is convenience,” said Patrick Mesterton, co-founder and CEO of Epicenter. As a demonstration, he unlocks a door by merely waving near it. “It basically replaces a lot of things you have, other communication devices, whether it be credit cards or keys.”

If you are like me, your immediate reaction is "Yuk, I can't imagine doing this."  But my second reaction is that there is really a step change in convenience here that folks who have not tried it may be underestimating.

The reason I know this is from my experience with the Disney Magic Band, a waterproof bracelet about the size of a small watch.  Here is an example, which includes my awesome customized tiger striping I painted on the basic orange band:

At Disneyworld, this band acts as

  • Your room key, activating the electronic locks on your room
  • Your credit card and wallet, with the ability to pay for anything anywhere in the parks and affiliated stores and hotels with a touch to the reader at every register (most require a 4-digit PIN number to be entered as well)
  • Your park entrance ticket
  • Your restaurant reservation
  • Your ride reservation (Fastpass)

One can easily navigate a multiday trip through Disneyworld without a wallet or keys and just this on your wrist.  It is pretty compelling.

Intelligence Failure, December 15, 1944

I love these US Army intelligence maps from Western Europe on December 15 and then on December 16, 1944 (before and after the German invasion).  A useful lesson for folks who do not greet all intelligence reports with a lot of skepticism.

Bad Timing Award

Guess where I am supposed to fly on Saturday?

Update: This will totally paint me as a geek, but does this remind anyone of the Romulan plasma torpedos in the Star Trek episode "Balance of Terror"?

Markets in Not Quite Everything: IP Address Shortage

I migrated my server and in the process lost a block of 10 dedicated IP addresses I had.  So I tried to sign up for the 10 addresses again, and got this:

Due to the global shortage of IPv4 addresses, we are now required to request justification for dedicated IP address requests. Each dedicated server comes with 4 dedicated IP addresses, in addition to the primary shared IP address. Additional IP addresses must be requested in blocks of 4 IPs ($16.00/month for each block of 4). Please be aware, at this time, the only acceptable justification for a dedicated IP address we can accept is for use with an SSL certificate. You will need to provide at a copy of the certificate(s) which will be installed, however, we do not need to install the certificate for you.

Obviously IPv6 is meant to relieve this but it is still a minority of Internet traffic.

Beautiful Video, But It Gives Me the Shakes Just Looking At It

The Emergence of Traffic Jams

This is something I have long suspected.  A short unexpected braking from one care propagates into a small traffic jam.   Reminds me of waves propagating in a flowing fluid.  Does traffic have a Reynolds number?

via Twisted Sifter

Federal Lands Footprint

Courtesy of the House Committee on Natural Resources comes this map of Federal "footprint", land either owned by the Feds or under some sort of Federal designation that has substantial impacts on property use.

federal-footprint

You can click the map to enlarge it or else just go to the map with layers here.   Click the details button in the upper left to see the legend.  Beware, the map is pretty slow to function for me.  You might find an alternative that works better here.  You won't find a lot of private land west of Denver.

For much of the 19th century, the US had a sensible land policy that promoted homesteading and outright private purchases of Federal land.  Then this policy stopped, and what we have now is most of the land west of Denver managed by special interests who will fight tooth and nail to keep the land out of private hands and in their own control.

Are We Really Going to Sell Socialism in This Country Based on the Fact that the Middle Class is Getting Rich?

I present, the shrinking American middle class.  2/3 of the losses were because they moved to "rich".

um-isnt-this-good-news

via Reason

I will add to this that even our poor are materially better off than the poor in European socialist / 3rd way countries. Here is the absolute well-being by income percentile of the US vs. Bernie Sander's beloved Denmark.

click to enlarge

My Wife Loves Me

Bought me this bad boy at Costco.

click to enlarge

Flashback: My Favorite Past Pumpkin Effort

Pumpkin1   Pumpkin2

I traced a world map on the pumpkin, and then thinned the pumpkin skin in the land masses without cutting all the way through.  Since there are no holes, you will need an electric light to illuminate it.

Great Wealth is Bad Only When It Comes from Cronyism Instead of Creating Consumer Value

I book marked this long ago when I was in Europe and forgot to blog it.  From the Washington Post

You might be used to hearing criticisms of inequality, but economists actually debate this point. Some argue that inequality can propel growth: They say that since the rich are able to save the most, they can actually afford to finance more business activity, or that the kinds of taxes and redistributive programs that are typically used to spread out wealth are inefficient.

Other economists argue that inequality is a drag on growth. They say it prevents the poor from acquiring the collateral necessary to take out loans to start businesses, or get the education and training necessary for a dynamic economy. Others say inequality leads to political instability that can be economically damaging.

A new study that has been accepted by the Journal of Comparative Economics helps resolve this debate. Using an inventive new way to measure billionaire wealth, Sutirtha Bagchi of Villanova University and Jan Svejnar of Columbia University find that it’s not the level of inequality that matters for growth so much as the reason that inequality happened in the first place.

Specifically, when billionaires get their wealth because of political connections, that wealth inequality tends to drag on the broader economy, the study finds. But when billionaires get their wealth through the market — through business activities that are not related to the government — it does not.

Arizona Near Last in Local Food Consumption -- Good!

Our local fishwrap laments:

The local food movement in Arizona needs just that – movement.

While some shoppers enjoy spending their Saturday mornings at local farmers markets, new research indicates Arizona lacks per-capita sales in the local food industry.

The 2015 Locavore Index found that of the 50 states and Washington, D.C., Arizona has the second lowest per-capita sales for local foods.

Here is a scoop for you:  We live in the middle of the freaking Sonoran desert.   It is a terrible place to grow most foods.  In fact, it is an environmentally awful place to grow food.   Local food folks somehow have gotten locked into transportation costs as the key driver of food sustainability that they want to focus on, but transportation costs are 10% or less of most food costs.  A small savings on transportation is absolutely dwarfed, from a productivity and resource use standpoint, by the productivity of the soil and the fit of the climate with whatever is being grown.

Here is one way to think of it -- yes, locally grown food may not have to be transported very far, but every drop of water for food grown here in the Phoenix area has to be brought hundreds of miles from declining reservoirs to grow that food.

The movement seems to imply that locally grown food is more healthy.  Why?  Why is an Arizona tomato healthier than a California tomato?

Finally, the micro-trade-protectionism is pretty funny:

If local Arizonans start buying more local food, the economy may benefit as well.

When buying local grown food, “the money stays here in the local economy, as opposed to buying something in a national chain,” said R.J. Johnson, a sales representative for Blue Sky Organic Farms in Litchfield Park. “You buy something locally, 75 percent of that money stays here in town.”

This is so economically ignorant as to be beyond belief.  If more people are growing food here locally (something that is likely a fairly unproductive task given our climate), what productive tasks are they giving up.  And this is a national effort -- are they really with a straight face telling every single state that they should buy more locally so their money stays at home?  Isn't that just one big zero sum game (actually a negative sum game because you lose benefits of specialization and comparative advantage).

Thanks Nevada for This Taxi Line

You gotta love crony capitalism.  Bowing to the demands of taxi companies, Uber is banned in Las Vegas.  As a result, this is me and many others standing in a taxi line waiting for a non-existent taxi.

no-taxi

 

My son** tells me that it was way worse when the club shows ended at 4AM.   Never since I was in pre-Uber Paris have I had so much trouble finding a damn cab.  Fortunately the weather was under 100F so walking was a fairly nice option.

Why Greek History Reminds Me of California and Illinois

From the WSJ, an article on how politicians who tried to point out the unsustainability of Greek finances years ago where not only ignored, but villified and marginalized.  Sort of like in places like California and Illinois.

In the past quarter century, Greece has had a handful of reformist politicians who foresaw the problems that are now threatening the nation with bankruptcy.

Their reform proposals were fought by their colleagues in parliament and savaged by the media and labor unions. They invariably found themselves sidelined....

Tassos Giannitsis is no stranger to this kind of war: His tenure as labor minister was more short lived, and the battles against him even more visceral. Mr. Giannitsis in 2001, again in the Pasok government led by Mr. Simitis, put forward a comprehensive proposal to reform the pension system.

Trade unions, opposition parties and Pasok itself unleashed menace on Mr. Giannitsis.

“Giannitsis was annihilated after his pension-reform proposals. There are few precedents for this kind of universal attack on a politician,” said Loukas Tsoukalis, a prominent economics professor here.

Mr. Giannitsis’s proposals, which would have reduced the pension levels Greeks receive and made the system overall more sustainable given the country’s demographic and labor-force trends, were never taken to parliament.

“From the fridge to the bin!” said the front page of newspaper To Vima on April 28, 2001, as the frozen pension-reform plan was scrapped for good.

“When I told my colleagues in the cabinet about the reforms I was proposing—which mind you were not the toughest available—the attitude I got was that I was spoiling the party,” Mr. Giannitsis said in an interview.

“They were, like, ‘everything is going great right now, why are you bothering us with a problem that may implode in a decade?’”

There are many other examples.

 

Brink Lindsey Proposes a Growth Plan with Appeal Across The Political Spectrum

It turns out that small government libertarians like myself and large-government progressives actually have something in common -- we both fear accumulations of unaccountable power.  We just find such power in different places.  Progressives fear the accumulation of power in large corporations and moneyed individuals.  Libertarians fear government power.

I won't try to take Caplan's ideological Turing test today, but will just speak from my own perspective.  I wonder how Progressives can ignore that government has guns and prisons while corporations just have the ability to sell you something or hire you (though perhaps not on the terms you prefer).  When pressed to explain why the Left is more comfortable with government power, their explanations (to my taste) depend too much on assumptions that competent versions of "their guy" pull the levers of power, and that power itself and the vagaries of government incentives will not corrupt this guy.

On the other hand, progressives ask me all the time, "how can you trust corporations so much" and then list off a justifiably long list of examples of them acting poorly.  This, I think, is where the real difference comes in, and where the confusion often comes int he public discourse.  I will answer that I don't trust anyone, government or corporations.  What I trust are the incentives and the accountability enforced in a market where a) consumers can take their money elsewhere if they get bad products or services; b) employees can take their labor elsewhere if they are treated poorly; and c) entrepreneurs can make a fortune identifying shortcomings in incumbent businesses and offering consumers and/or employees a better deal.

Unfortunately, when a person or organization finds itself very successful in this game, there is a natural tendency to want to protect their winning position.  But nothing in the market can stop a challenge from a better product or service, so successful entities tend to turn to the government (which has a monopoly on guns and prisons and asset seizures and the like) for protection against upstart challengers.  If successful, these restrictions tend to hobble growth and innovation -- imagine if IBM had successfully used government influence to halt the PC revolution or if AT&T had blocked the growth of cell phones.

This dynamic is at the heart of Brink Lindsey's new white paper at Cato (pdf).   As has been his wont in several past works, Lindsey is looking for proposals that bridge the gap between Left and Right.  So, rather than stake out the 98th salvo in an area where there seems to be a hopeless ideological divide (e.g. minimum wage or low-skill immigration), he focuses on four areas one could imagine building a broad coalition.  Lindsey focuses on attempts by successful incumbents to use government to cement their position and calls them "regressive regulation" because they tend to benefit the already-successful at the expense of everyone else.

In the following sections, I examine four major examples of regressive regulation: (a) excessive monopoly privileges granted under copyright and patent law; (b) protection of incumbent service providers under occupational licensing; (c) restrictions on high-skilled immigration; and (d) artificial scarcity created by land-use regulation. In all four examples, current government policy works to create explicit barriers to entry. In the first two cases, the restriction is on entry into a product market: businesses are not allowed to sell products that are deemed to infringe on a copyright or patent, and individuals are not allowed to sell their services without a license. In the other two cases, actual physical entry into a geographic area is being limited: on the one hand, immigration into the country; on the other, the development and purchase or rental of real estate.

One can immediately see how this might appeal across ideologies.  Libertarians and market Conservatives will like the reduction in regulation and government scope.  Progressives should like the elimination of government actions that primarily help the wealthy and powerful.**

I said "cross ideologies" above rather than bi-partisan because things get messy when actual politics intrude.  All of these protected constituencies wield a lot of political influence across both parties -- that is why the regressive regulation exists in the first place.  And they all have finally honed stories about how these restrictions that prevent new competition and business models are really there to protect the little people (just watch the battles between Uber and the taxi cartels and you will see what I mean).

Never-the-less, this strikes me as a pretty good list.  For whatever barriers there may be, it is a hell of a lot easier to picture a bipartisan agreement on any of these issues than on, say, low-skill immigration.  I haven't finished reading to the end -- I have to get on now with my day job -- so I have yet to see if there are any concrete proposals that look promising.

 

**The ideological problem here, of course, is that libertarians think that these restrictions are the primary way in which the wealthy unfairly benefit while most Progressives would (I suppose) see it as a side issue given that they believe that even the free-est of market capitalism is inherently unfair.

Reminder: My Novel BMOC is Free On Kindle for a Few More Days

BMOCIn honor of an anniversary of sorts for the book, I have done a substantial edit on both the printed and Kindle editions of my first novel "BMOC" and it is now on sale through Monday for the low, low price of $0.

Go and grab a copy.

Congress Almost Always Rewards Failed Government Agencies. Here is Why

One can build a very good predictive model of government agency behavior if one assumes the main purpose of the agency is to maximize its budget and staff count.  Yes, many in the organization are there because they support the agency's public mission (e.g. protecting the environment at the EPA), but I can tell you from long experience that preservation of their staff and budget will almost always come ahead of their public mission if push comes to shove.

The way, then, to punish an agency is to take away some staff and budget.  Nothing else will get their attention.  Unfortunately, in most scandals where an agency proves itself to be incompetent or corrupt or both (e.g. IRS, the VA, more recently with OPM and their data breaches) the tendency is to believe the "fix" involves sending the agency more resources.  Certainly the agency and its supporters will scream "lack of resources" as an excuse for any problem.

And that is how nearly every failing government agency is rewarded for their failure, rather than punished.  Which is why our agencies fail so much.

Note that organizations in the private world are not immune to similar incentives.  A company's marketing staff will work hard to get more people and resources for marketing, and in good times their staff and budget may balloon.  The difference is that in the private world, there is competition.  Other companies are trying to sell similar products and services.  And if the marketing department is screwing up a lot, or those resources spent on it are not being used productively, the company is going to lose sales and thus resources.  To survive, massive changes will be made, including likely some deep cuts and large restructurings in marketing.

It is frustrating to work in corporations that seem to lurch from growth periods to cutbacks in an endless cycle.  But it beats the alternative where the organization always grows and never is forced to confront the value of how it spends its resources.

The Government's One Cost Advantage: It Can Exempt Itself from Regulation

Greg Patterson brings us this example from the AZ legislature, but this sort of thing is ubiquitous:

Just before I got to the Legislature, there was a big move to regulate day care facilities.  Naturally, the government has a role in establishing basic health and safety standards for facilities that take care of young children, so I thought it was a good move.

Then a funny thing happened.  The Legislature established one set of standards for private day care facilities and a different (lower) set of standards for public or non-profit day care facilities.  Some Legislators dared to ask why the health and safety rules would be different depending on what type of entity owned the facility.  After all, if a rule is really in place to keep a child healthy and safe, why should a publicly owned facility be exempt or have a lower standard?

The answer, of course, is that there's no reason for publicly owned facilities to have a different regulatory regime than private facilities and that these bills were really just disguised attempts to ensure that private day cares couldn't compete with public ones

We are facing something similar in my world.  As you may know, my company operates government parks and campgrounds on a concession basis (which means we get no government money, we are paid by the user fees of visitors).  This makes sense because we can do it less expensively and usually better than the government agency.

Recently, the Obama Administration has imposed an executive order that we concessionaires on Federal lands have to pay a $10.10 minimum wage.  Since most of our costs are labor, this is causing us to have a to raise fees to customers substantially to offset the higher costs.

In response to these fee increases, the US Forest Service in California is in the process of taking back traditionally concession-run campgrounds to run themselves, in-house.  Their justification is that they can do it cheaper.   Part of this is just poor government accounting -- because many costs (risk management/insurance, capital assets, interest on investments) don't hit their budgets but show up on other parts of the government's books, what appears to be lower costs is actually just costs that are hidden.  But their main cost savings is that since the Federal government is exempt from labor law and this new executive order, the Forest Service can staff the park with volunteers.  They are allowed to pay a minimum wage of ... zero!

This is just incredibly hypocritical, to say with one statement that private companies need to pay campground workers more and with the very next action take over the campground and staff it with people making nothing.

Geeky Reflections -- Simulated Annealing

When I was an undergrad, my interest was in interfacing microcomputers with mechanical devices.  Most of what we did would be labelled "robotics" today, or at least proto-robotics (e.g. ripping the ultrasonic rangefinder out of a Polaroid camera, putting it on a stepper motor, and trying to paint a radar image of the room on a computer screen).

In doing this, we were playing around with S-100 bus computers (PC's were a bit in the future at that point) and I got interested in brute force approaches to solving the traveling salesman problem.  The way this is done is to establish some random points in x,y space and then connect them with a random path and measure the length of that path.  The initial random path is obviously going to be a terrible solution.  So you have the computer randomly flip flop two segments, and then you see if the resulting total distance is reduced.  If it is, then you keep the change and try another.

This will lead to a much shorter path, but often will not lead to the optimally shortest path.  The reason is that the result can get stuck in a local minimum that is not the optimum.  Essentially, to break out of this, you have to allow the solution to get worse first before it can get better.

The approach I was playing with was called simulated annealing.  Everything I said above is the same in this approach, but sometimes you let the program accept flip-flopped segments that yield a worse (ie longer) rather than better path.  The allowed amount worse is governed by a "temperature" that is slowly lowered.  Initially, at high temperatures, the solution can jump into most any solution, better or worse.  But as the "temperature" is lowered, the allowed amount of jumping into worse solutions is reduced.  Essentially, the system is much, much more likely than the previous approach to settle closer to the actual optimum.  This is roughly an analog of how annealing works in metals.  The code is ridiculously simple.   I don't remember it being much more than 100 lines in Pascal.

Anyway, if you lived through the above without falling asleep, the payoff is this site.  After 30 years of pretty much never thinking about simulated annealing again, I found Todd Schneider's blog which has a great visual overview of solving the travelling salesman problem with simulated annealing.  If you really want to visually see it work, go to the customizable examples at the bottom and set the iterations per map draw for about 100.  Then watch.  It really does look a bit like a large excited molecule slowly cooling.  Here is an example below but check out his site.

0e1ca854cbc30f33abc46108f2ba38f2.640x640x42

Chart Humor

From here.  Given how often this happens in the media, it almost is not even funny.

unnamed

My Favorite Personal Pumpkin Effort

Pumpkin1   Pumpkin2

I traced a world map on the pumpkin, and then thinned the pumpkin skin in the land masses without cutting all the way through.  Since there are no holes, you will need an electric light to illuminate it.

Is the Forest Service Requiring Permits for Photography? Yes and No.

A follow-up to this article is here.

The news has been zooming around the Internet that the US Forest Service (USFS) is going to require permits to take pictures on public lands.   It was the first I had heard of this, which is odd in one sense because I actually operate tens of thousands of acres of US Forest Service lands, and in fact operate the ones with the most visitation (on the other hand, we are often the last to hear anything from the USFS).

So, knowing that the Internet can be a huge game of "telephone" where messages quickly get garbled, I went to the regulation itself.  As usual, that did not help much, because it is so freaking hard to parse.  Reading between the lines, here is what I think is going on:

  • The regulations don't apply to all USFS lands, but to the federally-designated wilderness areas they manage.  Even this is confusing, since the permitting authority does not apply just to wilderness areas, but to anywhere in the USFS.   But even the wilderness areas constitute a lot of land, and often the most scenic.
  • Apparently, the regulations have been in place for 4 years and this is just an extension and clarification
  • Ostensibly, the regulations apply only to commercial filming, but how the USFS is going to distinguish between a commercial photographer and well-equipped amateur, I have no idea.  The distinction seems to lie in what the photography will be used for, and since this use happens long after the individuals have left the land, I am not sure how the USFS will figure this out.  Is the US Government going to start suing magazines for nature pictures, claiming a copyright on the scenery?  What happens if I take it for my own use, then discover I have an awesome picture and decide to sell it.  It is hard to write laws that depend on reading people's minds in determining if an act is legal.

The Federal Wilderness Act gives the government a lot of power to limit uses in a designated wilderness area.  Motorized vehicles and tools are banned, as were bicycles more recently.  My company operates in only one wilderness area, a canoe run at the Juniper Springs recreation area in Florida.  If a tree falls across the stream, we have to float down in canoes and take it out with hand axes.  We have to open and inspect coolers of those going down the run to make sure no banned items are in them.  In other words, wilderness areas definitely have a higher level of restrictions than the average public land.

As to the First Amendment issues, well folks like Ken White at Popehat have taught me that it is very very dangerous for the uniformed (ie me) to pontificate on complex First Amendment issues.  I am sure the USFS would say that they are not interfering with free expression, just banning a use that could be dangerous in the wilderness.  There are a few problems with this:

  • The USFS hasn't explained why taking pictures threatens the natural operation of ecosystems
  • The USFS has undermined their own argument by making exceptions based on the purpose of the filming.  Apparently only commercial filming hurts ecosystems, not amateur photography.  And apparently commercial filming that has positive messages about the USFS are OK too.  Its just commercial filming that goes into a beer company ad that hurts ecosystems.  You see the problem.  If it's the use itself that is the problem, then the USFS should be banning the use altogether.  By banning some photography but not all based on the content and use of that photography, that strikes me as a first amendment issue.The best parallel I can think of is in Venezuela.  There, the government claimed a paper shortage required it to shut down certain printing to conserve paper, and then proceeded to shut down only the newspapers it did not like.  I suppose it could claim that it was not censoring anyone, just taking steps to deal with the newsprint shortage.  Similarly the USFS claims it is not limiting anyone's first amendment rights, it is just protecting the wilderness form a dangerous use.

A few years ago, the USFS tried to reverse an expensive mistake it had made.  The US government issues lifetime senior passes that allow free entry and half off camping for seniors.  This is an expensive giveaway, paid for by taxpayers.  But the USFS had gone further, requiring that concessionaires like our company also accept the pass and give half off to seniors.  While giving half off to seniors at government-run campgrounds had to be funded by taxpayers, concessionaires only have use fees to fund operations.  So to give half off to seniors, prices have to be raised to everyone else.  The senior discount requirement was raising prices (and still does) $4-$5 a night for every other camper.

Well, long story short (too late!) the US Forest Service folded under the organized pressure of senior groups.  And my guess is that they will do so again here.  Unlike with the National Park Service which has a clear mandate and strong public support, few people get misty-eyed about the USFS, which means they are always sensitive to bad news that might hurt them in the next budget fight.

PS -- Is someone going to go back and bill Ansel Adams' estate?  Isn't he exactly the sort of commercial nature photographer that this rule is aimed at?

Update:  I have talked to a number of people in the know on this.  Apparently what began as a desire merely to stop high impact filming in the wilderness -- full Hollywood movie sets with catering trucks, etc. -- has gotten taken over by a large group in the USFS that is at best skeptical and at worst hostile to commercial activity.  They would explain these rules, at least in private, by saying that anything commercial is by definition antithetical to the very concept of wilderness that they hold in their heads, and that thus all commercial activity needs to be banned in the wilderness because it is inherently corrupting.