Friday, February 18, 2005

What are the Real Sides in Politics?

What disappoints me most about politics today is that it's government by polls and publicity. Mix that with all the apathy and ignorance, and we've got McGovernment. Little about it is good for you, but it doesn't take any effort, and so it is what we keep buying.

During the last year, we've had a chance to visit all of FDR's homes: Hyde Park, Campobello Island, Warm Springs. We were struck by a few things: a) how frugally he lived -- all the properties were in nice places, but far from extravagant, at least by today's standards (most large cities have upscale residential developments full of houses nicer than Hyde Park); b) how much impact an intelligent, passionate and committed leader could have; and, c) what a luxury he had in that mass communications was in its infancy.

I've gotten involved in several volunteer and community organizations since retiring early. One kind has leaders who are like FDR -- they have a vision and integrity, and care little what the masses think. They pursue their vision disregarding criticism, and remold the rest of the team to execute the goal. When an organization has a lot of history and tradition, the change brings turmoil, loss of membership and strife. But if the leader has a good vision, and the fortitude to stick with it, magical things happen.

Other organizations have leaders who bend to the will of the loudest voices in the masses, because the leader's primary objective is to be liked. The consequence is mediocrity. Maybe worse than that -- you get a system that can be manipulated by the powerful few for their own benefit.

My feeling is that there isn't really and Right or Left wing of politics in this country. It's really like a giant pick-up football game where the team captains alternate choosing members for their side. Except that it's not the captain that chooses the sides, it's the sides that choose the captain. The players in this game aren't the public -- they are the big hitters who want to tilt the table in their favor. At the end of the day, they laugh at all of us who argue things on a liberal-conservative spectrum. Each of the big hitters has become attached to one side or the other because it has been economically good for them, not for philosophical reasons.

In this scenario, the public is nothing more than an annoying actor of the game, kind of like the dice in Monopoly (you have to roll and the outcome isn't certain). Every once in a while, the public gets to choose which side is in power. The TV show West Wing has a thread running through it right now that makes this point: There is a noble, honest candidate named Santos who wants to tell the public who he really is, and what he really believes. A member of the sitting President's senior staff, John Lyman, has resigned from the President's staff to run the campaign for Santos. Lyman's advice has consistently been that Santos should withhold his passions and instead focus on doing what it takes to get elected. "Let's get you elected first, then you can govern," Josh advises. Santo is balking, and I suspect the story line is going to lead to making the point that a passionate, committed, and honorable person can be elected to the Presidency, and not have a lot of strings attached (to the big hitters).

Every American should be watching this show. It does have a fairy tale quality to it, but fairy tales can inspire dreams and passion.

I'll take that over apathy any day.

Tuesday, February 8, 2005

Investing in the Stock Market

Lots has been written about the bursting of the tech bubble in 2000. I've read a few of those books since the start of the New Year. I think most of them are by the same people who in 1995 were saying we were in a New Economy, and you had to get on the train or get left behind. Writing a book about the train wreck is just one last gasp of hucksterism.

Here’s what I think happened in 10 simple points:
  1. The creation of 401(k) plans during the Reagan presidency redirected a massive amount of capital into the stock market. I worked for a global telecommunications company at the time, and I remember an interesting meeting with one of our clients, who was a major name in the finance world. She said that her firm was actually having a great deal of challenge trying to find appropriate investments for the billions of new investment dollars pouring into their mutual funds from the 401(k) accounts. All this money needed to be invested, causing exactly what microeconomics predicts: as the demand for investment instruments exceeded the supply, the prices of the available instruments were bid up. That is, stock prices went up because all the mutual funds were buying from the same pool of available stocks.
  2. The people dumping money into the 401(k) plans were oblivious to the fact that prices were going up because they were dumping more money into the market, and instead rejoiced that the Dow and the Nasdaq indexes seemed to keep climbing, making their mutual funds share prices to go up in response. Their net worth grew at double digit annual rates, and everyone who could started maximizing their IRAs and 401(k) contributions.
  3. Consumers began taking note of the amount of wealth appearing in their “retirement” portfolios, and, feeling pretty well off, went on a consumer spending spree of epic scale. Many of those purchases were made on credit, but heck, their net worth still looked pretty good.
  4. New companies began being formed for the sole purpose of getting to the stage where an Initial Public Offering (IPO) of their stock could be brought to market. Most any company with a good story could get venture funding with this goal in mind. Any company that could tie its products to Internet technology was golden. The new status symbol wasn’t a Rolex watch or a BMW, it was to be one of few who get on the “friends and family” lists and therefore have the opportunity to buy a new stock at the initial offering price. This is where the main scam begins:
  5. The investment bankers and the owners of the company would deliberately underprice the initial offering of the stock. The textbook purpose of a stock offering is to raise capital for the company to operate with, and the company then hopefully generates an operating return for the shareholders.

    But during those bizarro days, the object was to bring out the IPO at a share price high enough to get sufficient capitalization for the company to stay alive for a little while, but low enough to leave a lot of room for the share price to be bid up. For example, let’s say a new company thinks it will need to spend $10million to get to a point of being cash flow positive (able to fund its ongoing operations from the sale of its products). It might then sell 1 million shares to its underwriters for $10/share. The underwriters are usually one or more of the big investment banks. This is the one and only transaction that puts any money in the treasury of the company.

    At that point, the underwriters own all the shares, except the fraction retained by the original investors and founders. The underwriters set a public offering price to a number large enough to give them a nice profit as they sell off their shares to the market.

    Let’s say they pick $11 for this stock. So for all the shares they sell, they make $1 per share. To make sure they sell these shares as quickly as possible, they will have spent weeks going around the country with the management doing a “dog & pony show” to pre-sell the stock to as many investors as possible. So on the day of the IPO, the underwriters will likely sell every single share of stock they bought from the company for a tidy profit.

    Now the company has its $10 million and the underwriters their $1 million profit. But we’re still not done. While some of those initial shares went to the folks on the “friends and family” list, a lot of the rest went to secondary sellers who don’t really want to hold the stock as an investment. If the stock has been hyped up successfully in the days leading up to the IPO, the demand will be high, and those secondary sellers will start taking bids from all the mutual funds and individual investors who want in on the stock. It was not unheard of for a stock to get bid up 5 to 10 times its offering prices THE FIRST DAY.

    Let’s say that in the case of this stock, the price went to $50 on the first trading day. Seems like the company is leaving a lot of money on the table. Why didn’t they make the underwriter pay closer to $50 for the stock? After all, if $10million was enough to get going, wouldn’t $50million be better? The answer is simple: everyone is in on the scam! The company’s management, the initial investors, the underwriters and the even the secondary sellers all benefit from having the stock price run up the first days. If the company took in $50million in capitalization, the management and initial investors would need to actually invest that money in operations to generate a return. That’s a lot of pressure, and it would take time. But by underpricing the stock and letting the market bid it up, the management, underwriters, friends & family all see their money multiply immediately. Sure the management probably has some vesting schedule on their options that makes them wait for their payoff, but they were still going to get a pot of money in a few months -- if the could continue to tell a good story prior to the money running out.
  6. The crazy thing is that an insanely overpriced stock like this one would still attract buyers for a long time. As long as the company was still in its development stage, and not expected to generate a profit in the near future, folks were willing to believe the dream (or “drink the Kool-Aid” in a macabre reference to the Jim Jones-led tragedy in Guyana a couple of decades ago), and want to buy in so as not to miss the presumed rocket ship growth yet to come. This was the bubble starting to grow.
  7. There was that time of fantasy were everyone in America thought they were an investing genius because their 401(k) continued to multiply, and they began playing the stock market with some after-tax money and making some bucks there too. The Bricks and Mortar retailing world was crumbling before their eyes, and they thrilled to be riding the wave into the future.

    To sit on the sidelines investing in CDs and dividend-paying stock was seen to be falling behind. The public began to feel it was more risky to hold cash and CDs than it was to hold stocks. I believe that at this point, we went into the mode of a two-currency system. One currency was American greenback dollars, and the other was equities. You held wealth in dollars only long enough to make a purchase (of more stocks, a house, fancy car, etc). Otherwise you held your wealth in equities. The trouble was that folks forgot that there is no government backing behind stocks like there is cash and bank deposits. The more subtle problem was that they didn’t realize that there was rampant inflation in equity prices (the supply/demand phenomenon).
  8. Then in 1999 and 2000, many of those thousands of IPO funded startup had burned through their initial money, and had not yet reached a self-sustaining economic state. In a market that experienced 99% good news and optimism over the past decade, this wave of failures were a shock. The savvy investors who had always seen this as a bubble had started getting out beforehand ended the 20th century as very wealthy folks (look up the legend of Joseph Kennedy deciding to get out of the market in early 1929 after getting a stock tip from his shoeshine boy).

    For the ordinary American who never understood why stock prices went up in the first place, the first big hits took some the smile off their faces. Nonetheless, most stuck with a market that had returned 20% annual growth. After all, they could recoup a 30% loss in value in 18 months, right? Most didn’t understand the math there either: the 70% they were left with had to generate a 43% return to get back to their original level. A 50% loss required 100% growth to get back to the original point. Still, they thought, it could happen.
  9. Then some of the really big companies started to fail. Enron and Worldcom were the pins that finally burst the bubble. Nonetheless, many people rode their portfolios to 20% or less of the peak value because they felt it just had to come back. After all, this kind of thing had never happened to them.
  10. But it’s happened before. A wise person once said that those who ignore history are doomed to relive the past. My father, who was a young man during the Depression, had warned me repeatedly over the past 20 years that “those damn Republicans” were dismantling all the controls and safeguards that had been erected by FDR in the aftermath of the depression.

He was right.

Sunday, February 6, 2005

God vs Evolution

I don’t really see this as an either/or proposition.

The no-God people say evolution and natural processes explain everything about how our universe is today. Okay, then let’s imagine running the timeline of our universe backwards and see what happens:
  • The current age of mammals (and insects) starts when an asteroid hits the earth and wipes out the bulk of the large lizard population. Before that...
  • Dinosaurs are the result of a continuous cycle of mutation and evolution which begins with the first living and reproducing cells emerging in the primordial sea. Before that...
  • The earth coalesces from matter circling our young star, the Sun. While there were still big pieces of stuff flying around the solar system, perhaps one of them hit the soft earth and tossed off a chunk that became our Moon. Or maybe the Moon coalesced independently. Other planets formed. Too bad for Mercury and Venus – they’re too close and too hot and it doesn’t look like any life emerged (I’m still holding out hope for Venus as the sun cools). The gas giants weren’t quite big enough to fuse into stars, and not warm enough to support anything we understand as life. Mars may have had its “time in the sun” (sorry) as the sun was cooling, but when its core temperature dropped and the magnetic field was lost, the atmosphere was swept away, all the water froze, and whatever life was there died. Or maybe they migrated to next warmer planet, Earth. Before that...
  • The Big Bang occurs, and matter is sprayed from a single mother particle into the void, creating our universe and everything in it. Before that?

There are still a few unanswered questions, don’t you think?

  • What caused the Big Bang to occur?
  • Has it only happened once, or has our universe exploded, contracted, and exploded again many times?
  • Are there other mother particles out there? Do they all explode at the same time, or are explosions and implosions going on all the time?
  • Is there a higher realm of existence where entities ‘live’ which can control these Big Bangs?
  • When we smash atoms in a linear accelerator (or a nuclear bomb), are we causing big bangs for the entities which live in a universe where quarks are planets and neutrinos are suns?

I don’t pretend to have answers to any of those questions, nor do I believe does anyone else. So I’m willing to leave room for the existence of beings of another realm that have a direct impact on our world. Not in minute detail (“your every hair has a number”), but close enough to step in with a broad brush as they desire.

Imagine a universe with only two dimensions and whose inhabitants were simple geometric shapes. Circles and squares and triangles wander around interacting with each other, completely unaware that their 2D universe coexists with universes of different numbers of dimensions. One day, a 3D universe intersects their 2D universe, and a sphere passes through right in front of a square and a star. What would they see? Perhaps first a point would appear which then turned into an expanding circle. Just as quickly, the circle contracted back to a point then disappeared. They would never say “hey, I bet that was a sphere” because they have no way of imagining a 3D object. They would probably say, "wasn't that a strangle circle?"

But maybe this wasn’t the first time a 3D object had passed through their 2D universe. Maybe it happened a few times before and a few of the more mystical 2D creatures began to suspect that the sphere wasn’t just a funny circle, but maybe something ‘supernatural.’ Over time, all kinds of mythology might develop as to the composition and purpose of the ethereal visitors.

And maybe the 3D creatures figured out how to communicate with the 2D creatures when the intersection occurred. The first communications would be simple. As the 3D’ers learned how to cause physical events in the 2D world, they might try to help them, or maybe exploit them. Later, as the 3D creatures got better at communications, they would learn to be more helpful (or manipulative). The physical interactions could get more sophisticated, even to the point to a sustained presence in the 2D world, appearing as a 2D creature.

So I’m not sure what God is. Neither is anyone else. But one working model for me is that God is an entity (or class of entities) of a universe which has dominion over ours. He knows how to interact with our universe. In the early days of Man, the interactions were crude. We were simple, and maybe God was just learning how to work the levers on his space/time machine. So we got lots of rules and extreme punishment. The interactions were like a parent talking to a toddler.

But then at least once, He made a projection into our space/time to interact with us in a more peer-to-peer manner, just like our sphere visiting the 2D universe. The advice we got then was more sophisticated, like a wise old sage talking to a young adult.

Personally, I think it was great advice.


Originally published February 6, 2005

Evolution vs Creation; Evolution vs Intelligent Design; Creation vs Intelligent Design…

At least part of the problem seems to be that the word evolution is so loaded with emotion and confusion that there is no space to bring a religious component into the picture. So here’s an attempt to define evolution in a way that which perhaps creates some room for God.

My definition of evolution is that it is the collection of changes which happen to living organisms in an ecosystem in response to changes in the ecosystem and mutations of the organisms.

It’s the mutation category which most people think of when evolution is the topic. As a result of some damage to the DNA passed from the progenitors to the offspring, the offspring has a combination of traits which gives it a distinct advantage or disadvantage over its relatives. If the mutation is disadvantageous, the offspring is itself unlikely to reproduce and the effect of the mutation is lost. Otherwise the mutation is retained in that individual’s DNA, and may be passed on to its offspring (or perhaps emerge generations later). If the new traits give the individual a competitive advantage, it may provide for higher survival rates of it and its offspring (and broader access to reproductive partners), and gradually a population of individuals sharing this advantageous trait emerge. In successive generations, the DNA pool contains more and more mutations, and in aggregate they improve the reproductive and survival success of that line of individuals. Eventually the changes from the original species become so great that a different species emerges. This is the process which causes green slime to eventually become H. sapiens. It takes thousands or millions of generations for this to happen. That’s a long time for humans, but not quite so long for bacteria (only minutes elapse between generations). Nonetheless, it happens pretty slowly, and few of us get the opportunity to observe its results.

In business, you sometimes hear people say that evolutionary change isn’t fast enough, something revolutionary needs to happen. Those folks are thinking of evolution in terms of cumulative mutations. They miss the far faster and more dramatic form of evolution: the catastrophic change of environment. We know about the dinosaurs being wiped out by a dramatic change in the planet’s climate, perhaps caused by an asteroid strike. But not every reptile was eradicated, and not every mammal appeared after this event. When the climate changed, populations of species which could survive in the new environment carried on, and the rest died. Species which had the best bodies and brains for the old environment might just barely hang on in the new environment, and species that were marginal in the old environment might find that the sudden disappearance of their prime predators and competitors created a Garden of Eden for them. In one fell swoop, the planet went from domination by cold blooded lizards to warm blooded mammals. Of course, the change wasn’t really this binary. There are lots of organisms on Earth besides mammals and lizards. Some plants died out, and others filled their niche. Insects and bacteria and millions of other species survived, although the relative population sizes may have changed.

This kind of evolution is violent and sudden. Winners become losers and visa versa. The total population of individual organisms plummets, and the populations of those organisms better suited for the new environment begin taking over. This kind of evolution happens right before us. In fact, humanity causes a great number of the environmental catastrophes which drive these evolutionary changes. Here’s some examples:

When farmers spray their fields with insecticides, they kill large numbers of the target ‘pests,’ but not quite all. They also kill many of the predators who would otherwise kill those pests, as well as many other insects, some of whom may have been beneficial to the crops. Many of the population of target pests who survived the spraying did so because they were lucky enough to have a genetic makeup that made them resistant to the insecticide. The accumulation of mutations they had perhaps were never apparent or even useful before the farmer took his sprayer through the field, but on that day it was the key to their survival. If both male and female populations survived (because the necessarily mutations were expressed in both genders) they would happily go about procreating new generations of their species, many of whom would carry the mutation. Eventually, the population of this pest would approach that which it would have been had the pesticide not been sprayed at all. The reaction of the farmer is change pesticides. Same thing happens, except now the pest species has become resistant to both pesticides.

We do the same kind of thing when we take antibiotics, which are just pesticides for bacteria. Our body is a greenhouse for bacteria, most of which are harmless. And many of the bacteria which cause sickness can be defeated by a healthy immune system. But when we get sick, we want to feel better – right now. So we go the doctor and beg for antibiotics. The antibiotics are like a meteor strike to the population of bacteria in our body. Some species are wiped out altogether, some are weeded down to their lucky resistant members, and resistant specie now have the whole body to infect without any competition. If we’re lucky, the bad bacteria were part of the first group, and the bacteria who repopulate our body are the harmless kind.

But chances are, there were some bad guys who were resistant to the antibiotic. Perhaps we beat them down enough that they no longer cause a harmful infection, but the species did survive, and these particular members are resistant to this particular antibiotic. Our immune system may have them under control temporarily, but if we take ill for another reason, this population of bad guys can explode, and we might infect someone else. Now the resistant population is loose, and the antibiotic is no longer effective. With luck, the medical community has another antibiotic which beats down the population of bad guys. But eventually we get back to the same place. It’s just like the farmers with their insect pests.

Some agricultural experts have been saying that its time to just let pests and predators reach a natural balance. Sure some crops will be lost to the pests, but the theory is that the money saved in pesticides and application costs (e.g. fuel for the tractors) more than offset the loss of yield. But this isn’t just about saving money in one particular year. If we keep using more and more radical pest population control measures, the pest populations will just keep getting resistant to more things, until we have nothing acceptable left to kill them. Sure we can find yet one more way to kill the pests, but perhaps it creates genetic damage to the crops which results in undesirable effects on the animals that consume it. Maybe the next wave of a “mad cow” like disease will flow from cattle eating genetically damaged corn.

The “miracle drug” antibiotics of 50 years ago are all but worthless in western countries today. The species of bacteria they were developed to kill have become resistant, and now third and fourth generation antibiotics must be used. Where do you think the most resistant bacteria live? It’s not in cesspools and nasty ponds – it’s in major hospitals. Those rooms and their contents are constantly cleaned with antibacterial solutions to keep down infection. But you can’t kill all the bacteria all the time because some lucky few will have a mutated resistance. The bacteria which live in hospitals have survived the best we have to throw at them. If your body gets infected by one, there may be no antibiotic left which can beat it. If your immune system loses the battle, you die.

Yep, evolution is definitely going on all around us. H. Sapiens is enjoying what may well be the latter half of its time of domination. The catastrophe that changes the balance may well be of our own making.

When Jesus said, “blessed are the meek, for they shall inherit the Earth (Mt 5:5),” he may have been talking about the bacteria and cockroaches.

Saturday, February 5, 2005

The Third Wave

Originally published February 5, 2005

We're almost at the tipping point when the tried-and-true circuit switched telephone network gets replaced by packet technologies. While there are a few significant technical hurdles to be worked out, it could be the regulatory issues that get in the way. That's another way of saying that the folks in the telecom world who currently have all the power and money have not yet been satisfied that they will remain in power after the technological change.

Almost all of the technologies issues have been solved except one: variable packet latency. Here's the best way I've come up with describe what this means...

"Movies" on film are captured as a sequence of still frames. Film is typically shot at 24 frames per second (fps). As long as the projector showing the film plays it back at 24 fps, we accept it as a continuously moving image. But if the projector slowed down, or stopped for just a fraction of a second, it would break the illusion.

The same thing goes on with digital music devices, such as a CD player or an iPod. The music is sampled and stored in digital frames, and must be played back at the original sampling rate to sound natural. We have probably all experienced a CD skipping (in spite of read-ahead caching and error retry logic).

The circuit switched telephone network works much like the pathway between the music recording studio and your iPod. The sounds entering the phone network are sampled (at 8KHz) and converted to digital packets that are sent to the other end of the call. There it is converted back into analog sound so you can hear. One of the design criteria for the telephone network was that these 8KHz x 8 bit samples (hence the 64Kbps 'bearer' channel) get pushed through the network with a minimum of delay, and no varience in the interval between sample arrival times. Because of this, voice conversations through the telephone network has achieved ever increasing fidelity (e.g. the Sprint "Pin Drop" ad campaign).

But that audio quality has a cost. A wireline telephone call has 64Kbps of network capacity assigned in each direction (full duplex), even if neither party is speaking. There are some techniques to lessen the waste, but they can cause degregation in the audio quality. When you rip a CD to MP3 files, you make the same kinds of choices: high fidelity and big file, or a small file and less fidelity.

The issue with voice calls over a packet network isn't so much about the bandwidth required as it is the variability of packet arrival times. After all, many people have internet connections in their homes that exceed 100Kbps, much more than is needed to maintain circuit switched quality. But herein lies the fundamental difference between a circuit switched network and a packet network. As noted above, a circuit switched network guarantees constant packet arrival times by reserving 100% of the capacity needed for the duration of the call. A packet network consumes bandwidth only when it has a packet to transmit/forward. Each switch in the packet network waits for a packet to arrive, makes forwarding decisions, and retransmits the packet. This takes time, and the amount of time it takes can vary based on things like the number of other packets that it has to deal with at that moment in time.

When the packets are full of computer-to-computer communications, they can be delayed or even lost, and the software on each each (eg the TCP in TCP/IP) can recover without any loss. But if those packets contain sampled voice from a telephone call, variances and losses are like bad splices in that movie that's been shown 1,000 times. It doesn't take very much of this to be annoying.

But this problem will be solved. Quality of Sevice (QoS) protocols and algorithms along with faster switches and transmission media will be applied so that the latency variability can be kept below our threshhold of detectability.
The biggest obstacle will be about the power and money.

The breakup of AT&T and the emergence of competitive telephone companies started an evolutionary change (I'll write about evolution in another entry) that has not yet completely played out. Economists talk about "natural monopolies" when describing industries in which the cost of the infrastructure is so expensive that once a single company makes the investment, there is no economic reason for additional companies to jump into the fray. The traditional examples are utilities like the water/sewer services and the telephone service. In many countries, these agencies are operated by the national government.

When MCI won the regulatory battle to gain permission to compete with AT&T for long distance service, it invalidated the argument that telephone service was a natural monopoly, and eventually led to decision to break up AT&T. But there was a nasty problem to be solved. In exchange for its monopoly status AT&T was ordered to sell its services at "cost + a reasonable profit", and it was up to the regulators to approve the rates AT&T could charge. But AT&T argued, reasonably, that it cost a lot of money to run telephones out to the rural areas of the country, and if they charged those people the true cost, none would have a phone. So the FCC (which was set up on the model of the ICC, which was created to reign in the railroad barons) said AT&T could charge a premium for long distance service, which was viewed as a luxury, and use that premium to subsidize the cost of rural telephone service.

In the breakup of AT&T, the long distance service was separated from the local service company. To make sure the local companies still had the money to provide local service in rural areas, the FCC allowed the local companies to charge a "common carrier access fee" to the long distance companies. This was the mechanism used to transfer the long distance premium to the local phone companies.

When the data networks, like Tymnet, Telenet and CompuServe, started showing up in the early 1980s, the local companies felt they should be treated like a long-distance carrier and be required to pay the same access fee. Arguments were made to the FCC, led by CompuServe, and an exception was granted for data networks that remains in force.

As long as the data network carries only data, the phone companies could begrudgenly tolerate this. But with Voice over IP (VoIP) technology quickly gaining ground, the local companies again have a reasonable argument for ending the exemption. The trouble is that the telephone industry is reconsolidating.

When a regulated industry is cut loose to full competition, it seems a predictable cycle takes place. First there are many many little startups which appear to compete for a piece of the pie. Most don't make it, and the industry settles down to maybe ten players who are viable at the existing price levels. A problem with these capital intensive industries is that they have high fixed costs, but yet must maintain some growth capacity to take away market share from the others. The more companies who are competing, the more aggregate surplus there is in the industry. That surplus leads to price competition as the ten companies try to fill their "empty seats" -- as is the case with the airline industry. Only a few of those companies will have the capital available to survive a protracted price war, and the industy will probably resolve down to an oligopoly of three very large players. It happened that way with the auto industry (which was never regulated but is definitely capital intensive), and you can see it heading that way with the airlines.

AT&T is gone except as a brand name. AT&T Wireless is owned by Cingular (which is owned by SBC and BellSouth), and the rest of AT&T was just purchased by SBC. Quest, or someone else, is likely to buy MCI, which is what's left of the old MCI and Worldcom. All this consolidation is confusing the long-distance, local, and internet economics, and therefore the degree to which each component should be regulated. Do land-line common carrier access charges make any sense when many people in rural areas can get VoIP service via their cable TV vendor?
One would have to predict that we entering a time when local phone companies, long distance companies, and cable TV companies all get thrown into a big Cuisinart, and then poured out into three viable companies. Anyone want to guess what the names will be?