too good for government work

ink and color drawing by Chen Hongshou (1598-1652)

“Of all the millions of people, nine of ten hold no official position: how could all of them be High-minded Men?”

So observed Meng Lou, a scholar-recluse, quoted in the mid-seventh-century Chinese text, “Accounts of Reclusion and Disengagement.”  In Chinese history, refusing to take up an official position in the government bureaucracy was celebrated as “an exuberant expression of individualistic endeavor and freedom from worldly taint and constraint.”  These highly respected persons were known under a variety of names:

Hidden Men (yinshi; i.e., men-in-reclusion), Disengaged Persons (yimin), Disengaged Scholars (yishi), Overlooked Persons (yimin #2), Scholars-at-Home (chushi), High-minded Men (gaoshi), Lofty and Disengaged (gaoyi), Lofty Recluses (gaoyin), Remote Ones (youren), Hidden Ones (yinzhe), Hidden Princely Men (yin junzi), Men of the Cliffs and Caves (yanxue zhi shi), Sojourners Who Prize Escape (jiadun ke), Scholars Who Fly to Withdrawal (feidun zhi shi), or Summoned Scholars (zhengshi; i.e., men who receive an imperial summons to court but decline appointment).[*]

But John the covert bureaucrat understands the truth:

The wisdom of hermits isn’t austere. It is practical and rooted deeply in practice. A practice that is embedded in the Dharma but expressed in the daily working of a hard, cold and sometimes lonely life. In that way the practice of the hermits is not so far from our own practice at times.

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[*] Meng Lou quote from Jin shu, Yinyi zhuan, 94.2443, trans. in Berkowitz, Alan J. (2000), Patterns of disengagement: the practice and portrayal of reclusion in early medieval China (Stanford, Calif: Stanford University Press) pp. 1, 198.  The second and third quotations are from id., pp. xi, xii.

early U.S. telephone competition

The expiration of Bell telephone patents in 1894 and 1895 unleashed vigorous competition in the early U.S. telephone industry.  On Jan. 1, 1894, telephones in the U.S. numbered 266 thousand, and the Bell System operated 89% of them.  On Jan. 1, 1908, the number of telephones had increased to 6.1 million, and the Bell System telephone share had fallen to 50%. On an inflation-adjusted basis, Bell System telephone-service revenue per telephone fell about 50%.  That decrease probably was mainly due to price reductions.[1]  From 1894 to 1907, the growth of the telephone industry, the fall in Bell System telephone share, and the reduction in service prices all are associated with intense competition to provide telephone service.  That competition propelled the U.S. to world leadership in telephone industry development.

In its 1909 Annual Report, AT&T argued that competition among telephone companies is pointless.  AT&T declared:

Competition certainly had no effect on Bell revenue, was of no benefit to the public, compelled all to pay two subscriptions instead of one for complete service, besides all the other disadvantages of dual exchange systems [two separate telephone systems serving the same area][2]

The report included a chart comparing a group of cities with competition between Bell and independents and a group of “comparable cities” with only Bell service.  The chart displayed the reduction in Bell revenue per telephone and the growth in telephones per hundred persons from Jan. 1, 1894 to Jan. 1, 1909.  The trajectories of revenue reduction and telephone growth were similar for both groups of cities.  AT&T interpreted the chart to support its claim that competition had no effect.

chart showing early development of telephone competition, from AT&T Annual Report, 1909
AT&T’s comparison of fixed groups of cities obscures the spatial dimension of competition.  AT&T did not specify what cities were included in each group.  They must have been subsets of the cities that had telephone service on Jan. 1, 1894.  The set of cities and towns that had telephone service on Jan. 1, 1909 was much larger.  A central dimension of competition was competition to extend service to unserved areas.  These charts do not show the effects of that dimension of competition.  International comparisons of teledensity indicate that U.S. local telephone competition effectively extended telephone service to unserved areas.

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Data: AT&T / Bell System telephone network, telephone use, and service revenue statistics, 1891 to 1937 (Excel version)


[1] Exchange conversations per phone fell about 25% from 1893 to 1907, while toll conversations per phone fell little.  In areas with flat-rate local service, the number of exchange conversations per phone did not affect revenue.  The 1909 AT&T report (p. 29), describing similar data, declared “reduction of operating expenses of about one-half bought about a reduction in cost to the public of exchange service of over one-half.”

[2] AT&T Annual Report, 1909, p. 25.

application-specific communication protocols

intense conversation

The Internet’s communication protocols separate diverse physical communication channels from  a wide variety of communications applications.  That separation encapsulates complexity and fosters incremental innovation.  It has been a hugely productive communicative structure.

A variety of communication content, however, remains closely bound to particular communication protocols.  Consider, for example, physical-layer protocols for the transmission of the classical Chinese text, The Scripture and Instructions on the Elixirs of the Nine Tripods of the Yellow Thearch (Huangdi jiuding shendan jingjue).  This text, from roughly two millennium ago, claims to describe a way to eternal life.  In addition, the text describes a specific physical-layer protocol for its own transmission:

As a [token of an] oath, a golden human figurine weighing nine ounces and a golden figurine of a fish weighing three ounces are thrown into an eastward-flowing stream.  Both figurines should be provided by the one receiving the Way [the text plus oral instructions].  Beside the stream, in a place unfrequented by other people, a seat [or altar, zuo] for the Mystic Woman should be set up.  Burn incense and announce to those on high:  “I intend to transmit to so-and-so the Way of long life.”  Place the scripture on the elixirs on a table, and place the seat next to it.  When you are ready to transmit the Way, face north and prostrate yourself for an hour; if the sky remains clear and there is no wind, the transmission may proceed.  At the transmission, master and disciple together sip the blood of a white chicken as a covenant.[1]

The text describe instructions for wondrous elixirs.  If those instructions are valued, so too should be the text’s instructions for its own transmission.  Put differently, not transmitting the text according to its instructions would explain failures of elixirs made according to the text’s instructions.[2]

The significance of communications protocols for applications isn’t just a matter of ancient superstition.  Even in our age of convergence and multi-platform content, who hasn’t heard, “It’s not what you said, but how you said it!”


[1] Quoted in Campany, Robert Ford (2009) Making transcendents: ascetics and social memory in early medieval China (Honolulu: University of Hawai’i Press) p. 97.

[2] Ge Hong‘s Inner Chapters (c. 320), which promotes alchemy, explains the failure of an alchemical book thus:

When Liu De, Xiang’s father, came into possession of this book while in charge of the case of Liu An, he did not have it properly transmitted to him by a teacher.  And so when Liu Xiang, who had no understanding of the arts of the Dao in the first place, happened to encounter this book, he assumed that its meaning was conveyed exclusively on the surface of the paper on which it was written, and that is why his attempt to fabricate gold [based on it] failed.

Quoted in id. p. 99.

a century of U.S. federal communications regulation

On this day, a century ago, the U.S. Congress established federal communication regulation under the Mann-Elkins Act.  The Mann-Elkins Act, enacted on June 18, 1910, extended the authority of the Interstate Commerce Commission to interstate communications.  Central principles of communications common carrier regulation thus have roots in the Interstate Commerce Commission’s regulation of railroads.

The communications industry has grown to offer mind-boggling marvels.  Anyone with Internet access has access to a huge repository of knowledge and human creations, a word press that does color photographs and video at no extra charge, and worldwide text, photo, and video distribution.  You can carry around a small device that allows you to communicate by voice or video with billions of persons around the world.  It can store all the music you could ever hear, and many movies, too.  It knows your location, offers you any map you want, and tells you local information that interests you. What’s truly unbelievable is now real.

However you look at it, a century of communications industry regulation and communications industry development has produced results worth celebrating.  Celebrate a century of federal communications regulation by studying data on telephone companies that the Interstate Commerce Commission collected in 1917. Even better, celebrate a century of federal communications regulation by being grateful for dedicated, hard-working, and public-spirited federal communications regulators.

Note: The text of the Mann-Elkins Act, 36 Stat 539 (1910), is available online in this fine collection of early U.S. Statutes at Large.  The Mann-Elkins Act is in volume 36, Part 1, text page 539 (pdf file page 568).