Thursday, December 31, 2009

Chicago defends its title: Best political town in the US

Perhaps you are ignorant, and believe that DC or even New York have more interesting political cultures than Chicago. This isn't really forgivable, but I'll let it slide, since it's New Years Eve. Let me simply make the case, based on this article by Fran Spielman in the Sun-Times over the weekend.

In Chicago in 2009, Mayor Daley reached 20 years as mayor of the city his father had governed for 21, marking the imminent demise of his father's title as longest-serving mayor in the city's history. Despite running the city so ruthlessly that he's never once had a serious challenger since being elected in the first place, it's still possible for reporters to write sentences like, "[Richard M. Daley] responded by showcasing a political resiliency that has long been underestimated." If you run any other city in America for two straight decades, and never once face serious electoral opposition, nobody will underestimate your political resiliency. But such is the mark that his father left on the city (titles of books about him include "American Pharaoh", "Boss", "Himself!", "Clout" and "The Last Boss") that Richie may never fully emerge in his own right, despite being a fairly fascinating character himself.

In Chicago in 2009, the City privatized its parking meters for the next 75 years, earning $1.5 billion and blowing it all almost immediately to shore up a massive budget deficit. The City's Inspector General concluded, shortly after the deal went through, that taxpayers would have been nearly $1 billion better off over the 75 years, had the City retained the rights to the meters.

In Chicago in 2009, a 14-year-old talked his way into a police uniform and even got to drive a squad car, before it was discovered he was a) 14 years old and b) not a member of the police force. Daley was not pleased with this development.

In Chicago in 2009, the head of the city's schools left to become US Secretary of Education, triggering a cabinet shuffle involving the head of the city's transit agency and the Aviation Commissioner, which preceded another cabinet shuffle involving a dozen of the mayor's top advisers and commissioners.

In Chicago in 2009, Al Sanchez, the former head of the outrageously clout-heavy Streets and Sanitation department and the nearly-equally-clout heavy Hispanic Democratic Organization (Southeast) was convicted of hiring fraud. Two weeks ago, a judge ordered the case be retried, ensuring embarrassing testimony will be replayed.

In Chicago in 2009, police officers marched around City Hall chanting "Daley sucks!" during the International Olympic Committee's final visit to the city before giving the Olympics to Rio. The cops were mad because Daley rescinded a promised 16% pay increase (that they had already been critical of for being too small) as a result of the ongoing budget crisis.

In Chicago in 2009, the mayor's nephew was forced to drop out of a deal involving $68 million in city pension funds, following a wave of federal subpoenas. Daley publicly criticized the nephew, an event entirely without precedent among the Daley family.

In Chicago in 2009, the International Olympic Committee, after having extracted from Daley a promise to guarantee basically any expense the games incurred in Chicago (which he'd earlier, repeatedly, promised taxpayers he wouldn't grant), gave the games to Rio de Janeiro instead.

In Chicago in 2009, a well-connected alderman under investigation for accepting $40,000 in shady payments from a developer (yawn), agreed to wear a wire, which has just begun to yield indictments.

In Chicago in 2009, the President of the Board of Education was found shot in the head beside the Chicago River, an apparent suicide. It's not clear why he would have killed himself, but he had been subpoenaed by a federal grand jury following a scandal regarding admissions to elite city high schools (like my alma mater, whose principal - my old principal! - was forced to testify.)

In Chicago in 2009, Oprah announced she was leaving the city in 2010, and Michael Jordan was inducted into the Basketball Hall of Fame.

Wednesday, December 30, 2009

Up in the Air

If you haven't seen it, you really should. There's a lot to like about it, but I've noticed that the critical consensus has focused on the slickness of it, the vacuum-packaging. Many critics see this as an aesthetic flaw, but I think it's one of the elements that makes the movie so insightful.

Up in the Air is about the late 2000s in a way that few movies are ever "about" the era in which they're made. Plenty of movies get made about epochs after they're over, but more often than not, they're nostalgia pieces that use the scenery and images of the time as pure eye-candy. Many other movies get made at a certain point in time, and make no attempt to disguise their origin in that time, but never really attempt to capture anything essential about it.

The mechanically warm quality of Up in the Air is absolutely essential, as it's a story about travelers moving through environments that have been created in labs to simulate coziness. At one point, George Clooney's main character, Ryan Bingham, points out how, when he swipes his credit card to pick up his ticket at the airport, the system prompts the agent behind the counter to say, "Welcome back, Mr. Bingham" - as though he's a regular she's seen dozens of times before, even if they're total strangers.

The movie is constantly noticing the ways in which our environments are created and designed, rather than allowed merely to come into being. It does this without judgment: not only does Ryan prefer his environments mass-produced, the movie almost convinces you to see the wisdom of his approach. After dozens of elegiac shots of airport windows and hotel rooms far more inviting than his own apartment, you begin to see the beauty in the everyday.

Of course, the plot of this movie centers around Ryan's job, which is to travel around the country firing people. Any movie "of the moment" has to engage fully with the economic realities of life in the worst depression since the Great Depression, and this one does so, but there's so much more going on here. Anyone can make a movie about a recession, after all, but it's much harder to tell a story about a time that perfectly captures that time, right in the midst of that time.

Tuesday, December 29, 2009

Glenn Greenwald doesn't want to tax the rich

I'm going to give Glenn the benefit of the doubt, and engage with him on the substance of his recent post about why the Senate health care bill should be rejected by progressives. He spends most of the post pretending that the only progressives who support the (Senate) health care bill work for the New Republic, and that their only defense of the bill is that its opponents are unserious lefty hippies. This is insulting and obviously untrue - to take just one example, Ezra Klein (who I'm sure Greenwald dislikes, but who doesn't he dislike?) has written tens of thousands of highly substantive words making the progressive case for the health care bill.

Anyway, the main point Greenwald's post makes is that today's Cadillac plans will be tomorrow's Chevy plans. As health care costs rise, this tax will hit more and more middle-class people, who'll be subjected to a seriously increased tax burden, and what looked at first like a tax on the rich will become a tax on the middle class, a la the AMT.

MIT economist Jon Gruber responds (a day ahead of Glenn's post) by arguing that what looks like a tax isn't actually a tax, it's an incentive to restructure the health insurance market in a way that keeps costs low - most employers will, he asserts, switch to plans that cost less than the threshold that triggers the tax, and pass the savings on to their employees. This seems a bit naive to me, but he claims something similar happened in the late 90s, when health insurance premiums stopped rising and wages started to go up, in real terms, for the first time in a while. When premiums started to rise again, real wages fell.

The other point he makes is that this new tax simply offsets a tremendous loophole in existing tax law. Right now, an employee's wages get taxed, but her insurance premium paid by her employer doesn't. In other words, if she makes $50,000, she pays taxes on that. But if her employer also pays $25,000 a year for her insurance, that never gets taxed. If another company pays the exact same wages, but only buys a $15,000 a year health plan, then the existing law is giving the first company a massive tax break, only because the first company didn't do a very good job of shopping around for efficient insurance plans. That doesn't sound like the right system of incentives to me, nor does it sound like a very progressive situation.

Gruber sums up the argument better than I ever could:
So in the end, we have a policy that provides the necessary financing to pay for subsidies to low-income families; induces employers to buy more cost-effective health insurance, lowering U.S. health-care spending; offsets a bias in our tax system that favors more expensive insurance; and raises wages by $223 billion over 10 years. To put a twist on an old saying: The Senate assessment on high-cost insurance plans doesn't walk like a tax or talk like a tax -- because it is not a tax. It is an innovative way of financing the health reform we so desperately need.

We talk about politics like we're all morons

This is hardly an original insight, but it's particularly disturbing when the top story in the day's New York Times contains such aggressive stupidity:
In one of her Sunday appearances, Ms. Napolitano had said the system worked once the attempted bombing occurred, meaning that the government responded by increasing security and alerting other planes. 
But on another show, she did not make clear she was referring only to what happened after the incident, making it sound as if the system as a whole worked — an incongruous conclusion given that the suspect was allowed to fly to the United States on a valid visa without extra screening even though he was listed in a terrorism database, bought a one-way ticket with cash and checked no luggage.
Why does the Paper of Record think this is important enough to spend several paragraphs on (including 2 before this quote, and one after)? It's pretty obvious that Napolitano does not actually believe that the system as a whole worked - she explicitly was talking about the reaction to the attack, not the procedures that allowed it to happen.

Over the course of multiple live interviews, the Secretary at one point might have misspoken (they refuse to quote her appearance on the second show, noting only that she "[made] it sound as if the system as a whole worked", and of course she didn't misspeak at all on the first show) and now we're spending two days talking about it, and we're probably not done yet. In whose paranoid imagination does this constitute news, let alone news of such importance that it merits five paragraphs in the New York Times story of the day?

But it gets worse:
The visual contrast of a president on vacation while there was anxiety about air travel also drew fire. Although aides issued statements describing conference calls with counterterrorism advisers, pictures of passengers enduring tougher airport screening were juxtaposed with reports of the president picnicking at the beach and playing sports.
Are. You. Fucking. Kidding. Me.

An asshole tries to light a bomb in his crotch on Christmas, and the President is supposed to drop everything what, exactly? I thought the whole point of fighting terror was that it wasn't supposed to dictate how we live our lives, but now some marginal schmuck gets through airport security in Amsterdam, and it's supposed to be a Grave National Crisis? This isn't Katrina, where a whole city was wiped out and the President partied on: nobody was injured, it took days to determine for sure that al Qaeda was even involved, and the guy's trying to spend a few relaxing Christmas hours with his family. How is this a problem?

The more noxious aspect of this allegation is that it reveals how thoroughly some people want us to capitulate to terrorists, and drop everything in response to their slightest provocation. Rep. Peter King, for instance, is quoted as saying "We’re now, what, 72 hours into this and the president’s not spoken, the vice president’s not spoken, the attorney general’s not spoken and Janet Napolitano has now told two different stories in two days."

Obviously, this would be a different type of story had the bomb actually gone off, but it didn't, and the entire executive branch getting in front of news cameras and reassuring the public isn't likely to make us all calmer about the whole situation; quite the opposite. What we need to do is treat these incidents with extreme, and quiet, seriousness that ensures public safety while not handing al Qaeda massive propaganda victories every time they try to mount an operation.

Friday, September 18, 2009

Thank God, at least the National Review cares about the poor

What the Left really cares about, these readers tell me, is setting up a Vanguard Party — comprised of them, of course — which will tell the rest of us, including the t.m.s ["toiling masses"], how to live, and whack us if we don't obey.
Which is why the Left is telling the "toiling masses" who they can and cannot marry, what form of health insurance they can have (or more likely, not have) and what they can and cannot put into their bodies.

And of course, thank God for the Right, which is currently embarking on one of the biggest plans to give health care to the poor this country has ever seen; which didn't spend the last 8 years establishing a police state that criminalized dissent; which hasn't spent the last 30 years throwing more people in jail per capita for minor drug possession (of which they were themselves guilty, in substantial numbers).

The media continues to make the case for its own demise

Once again, conservatives attack health care reform, and once again, a major media outlet (Reuters, this time) impassively transcribes their attack and calls it "news", without actually asking them any questions:
"The idea that the healthcare plan takes away choice and freedom, people see their liberties at risk," said Tony Perkins, president of the Family Research Council, the conservative Christian lobby group organizing the summit of self-styled "values voters."
The Family Research Council also claims "Obamacare" will lead to federal funding for abortion -- an allegation hotly disputed by the president and his supporters -- and Perkins told Reuters on the sidelines of the conference that this issue went "beyond the ranks of the pro-life movement."
Those 10 words, enclosed in em-dashes, are the only stabs at reportorial skepticism in the entire piece. At no point was the question asked, "How do subsidies for health insurance 'take away choice and freedom', or put 'liberties at risk'?" This is basically the entirety of the conservative attack on health care reform, and nobody ever bothers to ask them for specifics or details.

Wednesday, September 9, 2009

Aaaaaand we win.

Sorry, Republicans. You put up a good fight there, with your....well, ok, you put up a shitty fight, with your death panels and your townhall disruptions and your childish disruptionism (epitomized so perfectly by this joker tonight).

But you played the hand you were dealt: you couldn't defend the current indefensible system that sends thousands of people to their unnecessary deaths every year. And you couldn't endorse the Democratic proposals in the House and Senate, because you'd be handing the Democrats a victory they'd spend the next two decades beating you over the head with. The only way you could win, politically, would be if nothing passed, or at least nothing very big. So, you threw every turd you had against the wall, hoping some of it would splatter far enough when it hit that it'd cover some Democrats, and that the resulting chaos would somehow keep the Dems from passing important legislation that would help America.

Well, it didn't work, and President Obama's speech tonight (God, I'll never get tired of typing those words) just made your victory impossible. Now, all you can do is fight over the details, but you've lost the big game: as Obama mentioned, about 80% of the proposed reform is uncontroversial and will have no trouble passing through Congress. The remaining 20% was just explained and defended very well by a charismatic media rock-star President, and you looked like 218 childish, petulant (white, male) teenagers who were mad that Dad wasn't letting you drive the Mercedes anymore.

Have fun in the political wilderness you spent the last decade working so hard to earn for yourselves. Come back when you have some big-boy and big-girl ideas about how to fix the country.

Tuesday, September 8, 2009

Right where he wants us

This is either going to look really stupid or really prescient, starting tomorrow, but I feel comfortable saying that Obama's going to win big on health care reform. The end game begins with his speech to a joint session of Congress tomorrow, and the end game ends when he signs a $1 trillion+, massive expansion of coverage, some form of public option, iterative overhaul of health care reform.

Why do I feel so confident? Partly because the Baucus Bill being circulated was always going to be the worst-case scenario (i.e., there's no way nothing will get passed, so something has to, and the Baucus-led Gang of Six was expected to, and has, produced the least-objectionable bill out of any of the relevant Congressional committees.) And it turns out that the Baucus Bill, which will only be improved (from a liberal perspective) isn't even that bad. $900 billion and a massive expansion of coverage would have been an overwhelming victory for the Left in any of the last several decades.

But even more than that, I'm confident because I've been here before. All through the campaign, the same pattern repeated itself: Obama campaign ignores the day-to-day; looks distant and absent from the political arena; conservatives win short-term victory after short-term victory; liberals get more and more anxious with Obama; and then, boom! When it actually matters - on primary days, late in the Fall of 2008 and then on November 4th - the plan that the Obama folks carefully prepared, above the shrieking din of the daily press riot, comes to glorious, victorious fruition. And the exact same thing is happening now: it couldn't matter less what happens in August of an off-year. But it does matter what happens now, and all the way up until a bill, the bill, is voted on.

And so now, to pardon the sports analogy, we have the star player coming off the bench, his team maybe down a point or two but still very much in it without the help of the greatest player in his generation, getting ready to play for an arena that will determine the fate of his entire career, his legacy, and we should be worried that he's not gonna pull it out? When the Bulls were down by 2 at the end of the 3rd quarter, did anyone say, "Sure, they've got Michael Jordan coming off the bench, but it's too late - they're fucked?"

Or did they say, "It's over - you've got to be leading by more than that when MJ gets back in the game."

Thursday, September 3, 2009

I didn't know this, but apparently I'm lost

According to the State of Israel, anyway. This seems like a bad idea for an ad campaign - "Hey, half-breeds! It's not too late to atone for your parents' evil race-mixing ways and become really Jewish!" In particular, it seems like a bad idea for a state that pretty explicitly acknowledges its racial/religious-supremacist ideology, and uses that ideology to commit war crimes and illegally occupy territory.

I'm not particularly anti-Israel. I think Middle Eastern politics and history are too complicated for me to really be "anti-" anyone, since at this point everybody involved has a complex history and set of circumstances they're reacting to. And Israel does a lot of things right, much more so than basically any other state in the Middle East, with a few small potential exceptions. But it clearly has a "dark" side, one that's just as anti-Democratic, racist and frightening as any other state in the region, and ads like this make that unfortunate aspect of Israel quite clear.

Monday, August 31, 2009

A band of hearty, hardy, heart-y gentlemen

Not that any of you conceivably cares at all, but my fantasy football team for 2009 is as follows:

QB - Jay Cutler (woooooooooo!)
RBs - Brandon Jacobs, Larry Johnson
WRs - Roddy White, Kevin Walter, Steve Breaston
TE - Greg Olsen (wooooo!)
W/R/T - Visanthe Shiancoe
Bench - Chad Pennington, Michael Crabtree, Correll Buckhalter, Anthony Fasano

K - Jason Hanson
Bench - Josh Brown

Defense - Pittsburgh
Bench - Seattle

Sunday, August 30, 2009

Is America in decline?

Typical of a lot of the recent wave of America's-days-are-numbered articles is this piece in San Francisco Magazine, about the growing number of Indian immigrants who've built up Silicon Valley into the capital of the world's high-tech industries, and are now moving back home to make India the next dominant player. This article is perhaps more measured than most, but it still harbors most of the same problematic, unexamined assumptions that plague the genre.

To begin with, it doesn't really address the real reason for America's ascent and descent. Briefly: we have, by far, the world's largest economy. We have the world's third-largest population. Given those two factors alone, you'd expect us to be in the global driver's seat, and neither of them is going to change anytime soon.

Even with the rise of India and China, does it make any sense at all to think that a country with a GDP the size of Japan+China+Germany+France is going to cease being highly, highly relevant? That a country with 300 million relatively well-educated, prosperous consumers is going to stop driving global demand? That such a country, which boasts (for the well-off) one of the highest standards of living in the world, along with some of the most desirable living spaces on the planet, will stop attracting foreign tourists, immigrants and job-seekers?

The foundation of most of this "India/China is the new America" worrying somehow assumes that, in the future, people will stop wanting to live in New York and San Francisco and Los Angeles and Chicago, and instead want to live in Mumbai and Bangalore and Beijing and Shenzhen. For people who grow up in India and China, that's a reasonable assumption, but having visited one of those countries (and supposedly the easier one for an English-speaker to get around in) I can tell you it's still a pretty huge leap to make for a non-native.

So why does it feel like "America's moment" is passing? Well, because it is. Our days of being the only dominant economic power in the world are coming close to their end - but is that a bad thing? Much of China and India remain desperately poor places, where human suffering and misery is vast and at a level nearly unimaginable in most of the United States. Safe water and sanitary living conditions are far from the norm for millions and millions of people in these countries. So wouldn't it be a good thing if they built more companies that started raking in some of that juicy foreign currency that could help them provide basic services to the poorest among them?

And as China and India become more middle-class and moneyed, isn't that a good thing from an American perspective? Millions and millions more consumers for our companies, our culture and our values. Millions fewer poor, unemployed young men for whom radicalism appears to offer the only way out of grinding poverty. Eventually, a higher standard of living that puts an end to the sweatshops and Dickensian factories, and reduces the salary gap that makes it so attractive to outsource American jobs.

But more than anything else, the rise of the Indian and Chinese economies simply means less suffering for millions of people, and frankly, thank God for that.

Saturday, August 29, 2009

Apparently, CIA officers hate America (or at least, are pretty meh about it)

Chris Hayes has a fantastic article in the Nation, and you should go read it.

Done? Good. There's not much I can add to it, but there is one idea I wanted to focus on a bit: This notion that oversight of the CIA (and FBI, and NSA, and the rest of the apparatus of the National Security State) is a bad idea, because it will "demoralize" the secret services, make them too hesitant and timid, and put us at risk of attack.

Richard Clarke nails it in the piece:
"What bothers me," he says, "is the CIA's tendency whenever they're criticized to say, If you do your job, if you do oversight seriously--which Congress almost never does--then we'll pout. Some of us, many, will not just pout; we'll retire early. Our morale will be hurt." And if morale is hurt and the agencies are gutted, they argue, the country will be exposed to attack. In other words: "If you, Congress, do oversight, then we'll all die. Can you imagine FEMA or the agricultural department saying we're all going to retire if you conduct oversight?" Clarke asks in disbelief.
First of all, these are people that we expect to risk their lives for their country, when circumstances compel. But we think so little of them that we can't say, "Hey, you should stop torturing people" without worrying that these fragile little violets will get all sad, and stop giving a shit if their country gets obliterated by a terrorist-planted nuclear weapon?

Second of all, these are professionals. Professionals in every other occupation on the planet expect their superiors to oversee their work, so what makes our spies so different?

Third of all, it's been pretty clear for a while now that we don't actually have a particularly effective intelligence community. Which is not to say that they haven't stopped many thousands of evil plots against us, or learned reams and reams of valuable information. But we pay more for their services every year than our next several competitors combined, and have for the last couple of decades. And yet, we routinely get outmaneuvered by every other intelligence service we ever deal with. If we didn't have all our fancy spy satellites and wiretaps and other whiz-bang gadgetry, we probably wouldn't be able to tell you who the Chancellor of Germany was. So maybe it wouldn't be the worst thing in the world if we shook these guys up a little bit.

Does "political capital" make sense?

Back when I was on my high school debate team (so young and innocent, falling asleep every night to visions of nuclear warfare sparked by an ill-timed revision of Native American blood-quantum policy), one of the ideas we fixed on time after time was that of "political capital": the thought that a President has a limited and discrete amount of influence over Congress and the broader political debate. The more... things a President does, the more political capital he or she uses up, until none remains and no further action is possible.

Now that I'm a few years out of high school debate, most of the formulations on which we used to rely appear overly simplistic and not particularly applicable to the real world. Not so "political capital": Google News records over 900 mentions of it in just the last month. Last week, the New York Times argued that Afghanistan could derail the Obama Presidency by sucking away his political capital, and noted:
George W. Bush learned first-hand how political capital can slip away when an overseas war loses popular backing. With Iraq in flames, Mr. Bush found little support for his second-term domestic agenda of overhauling Social Security and liberalizing immigration laws. L.B.J. managed to create Medicare and enact landmark civil rights legislation but some historians have argued that the Great Society ultimately stalled because of Vietnam.
Just like in high school debate, this reading of events massively oversimplifies reality and, in so doing, totally fails to explain anything helpful. Yes, Iraq (among other things) probably made it much harder for Bush to impose his domestic agenda on the country. But that's not because he expended too much political capital in order to fight the war; it's because the war was perceived as a disaster for which he was entirely responsible, and the litany of failures, scandals and corruption that dogged his presidency made it hard for the public to trust him when he tried to reform the White House easter egg hunt, let alone such political third rails as Social Security and immigration.

The LBJ comparison is somewhat more helpful, since Johnson inherited a conflict that ultimately sucked all the oxygen out of the room and made it impossible for him to enact what would have been fairly popular social reforms (popular in the long run at least, if not immediately). Of course, Vietnam was as divisive as it was in large part because of the draft, whereas a small fraction of Americans today are directly impacted by military service in their family.

But the real stupidity of the "political capital" concept is that it attempts to explain an extremely complex system by focusing on only its most trivial, horse-racey elements. If the idea made any sense at all, we'd not only already have single-payer health care reform, we'd have EFCA and a more robust stimulus and aggressive MPG requirements and the entire state of Nevada would be one massive solar farm. Why? Because who can you possibly imagine with more political capital than a young, charismatic, attractive, articulate, hyper-intelligent and beloved President taking office immediately after one of the most unpopular administrations in American history? A President who raised jaw-dropping amounts of money during his election campaign, who mobilized entire swaths of the electorate that had never been engaged before, and who presumably has more resources to lend to vulnerable members of Congress than any President since George Washington? A President who has a large majority in the House, and 60 fucking Democratic votes in the Senate? Oh, and also he's the first black President, and the media treats him like a cross between Bono and Jesus. Who could possibly have more fucking political capital than that guy?

And yet, we don't have health care reform, and the best we're likely to do is a weak public option. We don't have EFCA, and won't. We might get decent environmental legislation, but I'm not holding my breath.

And why not? Because the world is way more complex than one simple-minded idea. Because there are a million tiny little factors that matter in the real world, like Teddy Kennedy (RIP) being too sick to come to work, and they don't fit neatly into this one overarching artificial construct.

Monday, August 24, 2009


Wikipedia is full of such ridiculously interesting tidbits. For example, did you know that in pre-Victorian England, there was a class of beggars called "Abraham-men" who went around pretending to be escapees from the insane asylum at Bedlam? They got their name from the ward they pretended to have escaped from, the Abraham ward:
The author of O Per Se O (1612) reported that Abram-men made marks on their arms with 'burnt paper, piss and gunpowder' to show they had been in Bedlam Hospital: "some dance, but keep no measure; others leap up and down". The phrase Abraham-men also appears as a disguise for Edgar in King Lear (1604-05) and John Fletcher's Beggar's Bush. They were called anticks or God's minstrels, and later Poor Toms, from the popular song "Tom of Bedlam". John Aubrey the antiquary said they were common before the English Civil War, and wore a badge of tin on their left arms, an ox horn around their necks, a long staff and fantastical clothing.
It's not just that every detail of these guys (and I assume they were all men) is beyond hilarious (they wore urine, gunpowder, burnt paper and, apocryphally, a tin badge, an ox horn and "fantastical clothing" and carried long staffs: isn't that kind of overdoing it?). But what an obscure fucking subject, and Wikipedia not only has a wealth of information on it, including a link to an outside source, but it's 100% free! And it costs Wikipedia next to nothing to generate and host all this information, so there's practically speaking no limit on the amount of information it can have on just this one type of pre-Victorian crazy person.

It's truly a wondrous age in which we live.

Sunday, August 23, 2009

You should go see Inglourious Basterds

I don't want to say too much about the movie itself, since I've read so many reviews of it that give away little bits of the joy the movie offers (and really, movie critics who give away twists of films they're reviewing ought to face some sort of punishment; that shit happens all the time, and I can't count how many great scenes in movies have been ruined because a show-off critic just couldn't help him- or herself). But I will say that Basterds has to rank up there with the best Tarantino has done so far. He makes entertaining movies that are more fun, more fucking delightful and mesmerizing, than anyone else, and by that measuring stick, Basterds is as good as he's done. Pulp Fiction is my favorite Tarantino, but I'm really not sure that Basterds isn't just as strong (time will have to tell, since I just got out of a showing and am still a little buzzed from the experience).

I should also point out that if you're worried about seeing this because you think it's too gruesome, don't be; there is some gore, because that's the kind of director Tarantino is, but there's probably a lot less than you're expecting, and unless you're really, really squeamish, you're denying yourself a fantastic moviegoing experience by not going to see this.

One last point: if you're going to see it, see it in a movie theater. This isn't just a movie about World War 2, it's a movie about movies, and waiting for it to come out on DVD is just fucking wrong. Plus, I'm thinking it looks a lot better on a big screen, sounds a lot better on a big sound system, and is a lot better when seen with dozens of other souls in the room.

A theory of fantasy football

I'm about to put together my fantasy team for this season, and this will be the first time I've really given much thought to it, so I'm still pretty new and uninformed about how it works. I've come up with what I think is the optimal way to build a team, but if anyone reads this who actually knows what works, I'd appreciate it if you'd leave some better advice in the comments. I'm laying this out to see if anyone knows of a better approach, or a serious problem with this one:

Since there's not really any interaction between the different players on your team, it makes sense to focus your attention on the positions that typically result in the most points. Not sure what the best order is here, but it seems likely to be the case that this reflects the major skill positions (QB, WR, RB, CB, etc). So it should be the case that there's an ordering of positions that makes the most sense - i.e., you want to draft a QB first, then a RB, then a WR, whatever.

There are probably also an extremely small number of players who, irrespective of their actual positions, tend to rack up a lot of points, so if there's an opportunity to get one, they should be gotten.

From there, since FF is about making predictions, you should focus on 1) individual player skill; 2) fitness of a player to their team (a fantastic WR isn't going to get you much if he has Rex Grossman throwing to him, sadly); 3) strength of opposition (but I'd expect that this is so hard to predict that it should be the last thing to be taken into account.)

A good starting place would also seem to be something like, which appears to just straight-up rank players by their FF scores (I presume based on last season). Is this site to be trusted? It's the official NFL site, so...I wonder.

We need more, and better, filters

The problem of information is no longer too little access; it's now too much. As more content is generated in ever-diminishing sizes (from books to magazines to newspapers to blogs to texts to tweets to...?), and as more of it gets put online and made instantly available, the existence of information in usable form becomes more and more useless. What good is the latest awesome article on global warming, if I never see it because it gets buried beneath a thousand new RSS items a day?

While this might be a pretty obvious idea, it has yet to really become a mainstream feature of most major information-consumption tools:
  • Google Reader will either show me every new item, or only those from an individual feed or feeds, but it won't actively filter anything out (or add to my feeds). The result is thousands of feeds of seemingly equal importance, when in reality I only want to read a small number of them.
  • Facebook shows me every update from every one of my friends, but unless I want to spend forever sorting all my friends into groups and explicitly telling it who I want to see updates from, I'll see everything from everyone. My best friend's pictures of his new apartment are, to Facebook, just as worthy of presentation as an inane application invite from someone I barely know. Since Facebook is, to me, primarily useful as a way of finding out what's going on in my friend's lives, this lack of a filter has rendered the site entirely useless for me, and as a result I never use it.
  • Twitter just shows me every tweet from everyone I follow, ordered chronologically. If one tweet has been retweeted a million times, and another one has never been retweeted, Twitter won't make the distinction. The result is that Twitter seems to be tough to scale beyond a few dozen follows at once; I don't know how people who follow hundreds or thousands of others manage to keep up.
  • Gmail, and every other email client, only understands how to order my inbox by recency. Thank god for the personal-level indicators (two arrows for emails sent only to me, one for emails cc'ed to me), but there's got to be more that could be done here.
The point of a filter is to make information useful. I can learn more about what's going on in the world from one minute scanning the front page of Google News (which I work on) than I could from an hour with Reader, Twitter or Facebook. Until those services take advantage of the power of filters, they'll be little more than dumb interfaces for random blobs of text.

Is this an empty life?

What's the point of everything? That's a pretty classic question, asked as long as people have existed, and I doubt there's ever really been a great answer to it. And the mere fact that it's been asked for all of human history probably means that the answer to my question is the same as it always has been: no more and no less so than anyone else's.

Our culture (and here I refer actually to the very specific subcultures I inhabit, thinking in no way that my experience is representative of any larger American gestalt) emphasizes the importance of certain types of achievement, either in one's career or one's social life (or ideally, both). One can be a doctor or a civil rights lawyer or a humanitarian, and directly and positively impact dozens, hundreds, thousands of lives. One can create art, and inspire and touch and motivate and provoke an audience. One can start a family, have a ton of friends, build a long and successful relationship, or spend every night and weekend in a glorious worship of Bacchus.

But what if one doesn't do very many of those things? What if one's career is relatively unimportant and unimpactful; if one has a very small social circle and interacts with that circle irregularly at best; if one has no children and no party life (but does, at least, have a partner to share important things with)?

I don't think that makes one (at this point, obviously: me) a failure, but it does create an empty feeling, a sense of pointlessness. Exacerbated by all the people on the planet, or even in my neighborhood, who seem to have a point.

But at such depths of self-pity, I begin to remember that the universe is billions of years old, that the Earth is just a few less billions of years old. That multicellular life on Earth has existed for a billion years, that humanity has existed for 200,000 years and that 175,000 of those years were the age of the neanderthals (all credits Wikipedia).

In other words, if I live to be 100 my entire lifetime, compared to that of the universe, will be roughly equivalent to 30 seconds of my own life. If the universe were a person, I would be born, grow up, live, love, learn and die all in less time than it takes that person to download a new episode of Weeds.

This is to say nothing of the billions of lives that have already been lived, and will be lived, by other humans on this earth. Which is in turn to say nothing of the potential billions more lives that have been lived by sentient beings on other worlds about which we know nothing. Which is itself nothing compared to the trillions of lives that have been lived by non-humans on this, and other, worlds.

In other words, my existence will be meaningless, no matter what I do. It will be over in the time it takes the universe to visit the bathroom, but with much less impact. And if that's the case, why does it matter what I do with my fantastically short time to exist? The best I could possibly do would still be utter insignificance, and futile emptiness, even if it might "feel" better. Likewise, the worst I could possibly do would still be insignificant (and so in a sense I have no free will, since I have no ability to impact the universe, but that's another discussion).

This might be a bit of a downer to someone else, but to me it's uplifting. The pressure's off. While it would still obviously be better to do something than nothing, to improve the planet for others in some way (rather than make it worse, or have no impact at all), the stakes are low. I'm not supposed to feel much different than I do, because all of our existences are empty, pointless and fleeting. That being the case, we should seek to enjoy our time as much as possible, to live in the moment (since we can live nowhere else) and to spend as little time as possible worrying about our significance, because we have none.


Monday, August 3, 2009

California's struggles don't implicate the "blue state" model

Ross Douthat and David Leonhardt pile on poor, sickly California today in the NYT. Douthat uses California as his chief example of the "blue state basket case[s]" while Leonhardt argues that "liberals have yet to really grapple with" the implications of California's failure. This follows Joel Kotkin's piece, "The Blue-State Meltdown," last month, and the Economist's cover contrasting California's struggles with Texas' successes.

The Kotkin piece is relatively impressively-argued, though it goes dramatically off the rails by the end. The "Chicago model" of patronage/machine politics has been gutted in the last few decades, as anyone who knows anything about the city will tell you, and that's been accomplished largely by a liberal consensus that's moved past the stale and increasingly-irrelevant ethnic politics that characterized the city for most of the 20th century. People like Obama and Axelrod actually represent the newest iteration of the movement that has seen Chicago go from the capital of the Rust Belt in the 70s - a bigger Cleveland, in many ways - to one of the most vibrant, entrepreneurial and green big cities in the country. Kotkin writes this off to gentrification alone, which has certainly taken its toll - whole neighborhoods have entirely changed character, and the city has become much less affordable - but while the Chicago story is complicated, it would be impossible to live there and think the city even remotely a "failure".

I'd also like to point out that, while blue states certainly have their troubles, the economies of the red states don't exactly represent a way forward - heavily tilted towards agriculture which basically exists entirely due to federal subsidies, they comprise about 94 million people in a country of over 300 million. Using outdated 2004 figures (no time to do the current math), 79% of the states that receive more than they give the federal government in taxes voted for Bush in 2000. 69% of those that give more than they receive voted for Gore.

But this post wasn't supposed to be about Kotkin, it was supposed to be about Douthat and Leonhardt and the general tendency to assume that California's problems represent a failure of blue-state economics. In reality, the opposite is true: the chief cause of California's problems represents one of the conservative anti-tax movement's holiest of holies, Proposition 13. Prop 13 severely restricted property tax receipts for California, to the extent that the income tax in California provides nearly half of state revenue. As a result, the California budget gets hit hard in even the mildest economic downturn, let alone in one of the worst economic catastrophes to hit the country in generations.

But that's not all Prop 13 does. It also requires legislators to pass tax increases by a 2/3 supermajority (in addition to a previous requirement that budgets be passed by a 2/3 vote), which makes it practically impossible to raise taxes by even a penny. Conservative Republicans are therefore given a stranglehold over the state budget, California's "blue" reputation notwithstanding. Their intransigence and irresponsibility is what has brought California to this precipice, and the opportunism of a Republican governor intent on using this crisis to do even more damage to California's social contract threatens to push us over the brink.

In short, to blame California's problems on its "blue" economic model is to willfully ignore every salient fact of California's present condition. Republicans hold the purse strings hostage, and now Republicans and their friends in the conservative media gloat that California can't pay for its liberal policies. That makes about as much sense as blaming Obama for George Bush's economic collapse. Oh, wait...

Sunday, August 2, 2009

Happy Sunday

Sitting in one of my new favorite cafes in the Bay Area, with "Irina's" netbook (downloading Ubuntu Netbook Remix), 1300 pages of the complete Bone, Kemper's pop and delicious mochas...finished the (interesting parts of the) Nation yesterday and read a ton of the Economist today...savoring the plane tickets we bought for Bali yesterday...seeing Phish on Wednesday with Joel, saw a cool opening at the YBCA yesterday with Irina, Lenny and Luba.

My life just might be egregiously comfortable. What the hell kind of dues did I ever pay (or, scary thought, will I at some point have to pay) for all this?

I need to blog more, if only because I kind of like typing on this thing.

Friday, July 17, 2009

This can't be the whole story

Slate published a potentially-interesting article asking 6 of the "Most Important Questions...About the CIA's Targeted Killing Program". I label it "potentially" interesting because it appears, to me, to have a gaping blind spot, ignoring the most obvious and "important" question of all. It's one that almost all the coverage of the story that I've seen seems to ignore, as well (although to be fair, I haven't had the time to read a ton about this yet, so maybe this is getting asked somewhere.)

But not only does it fail to ask the question, it goes so far as to note that the answer is obvious to "even the daftest political observers". I suppose being called "daft" by Slate is a badge of honor, but I'd prefer it if they actually addressed the question, rather than assuming its irrelevance.

The question in question is, "Why is this a big deal?"

Note that this isn't the same as asking, "Was this program illegal?" I think it probably was basically illegal, but the CIA does illegal stuff all the time. In fact, it has a whole branch of operators whose entire purpose is to perform tasks in such a way that the United States can't be identified as behind them. Sure, sometimes there are political and not legal reasons for that, but you'd have to be totally insane to think that everything the CIA did, while attempting to be as covert as possible about it, was ok under national or international law.

But getting back to the original question, why wouldn't this be a big deal? Well, for starters, because we already do this openly! Predator drones launch missiles targeted at individual al Qaeda leaders in Afghanistan and Pakistan all the time! If the only difference between that program and this one is that this one is done with bullets instead of missiles, by people on the ground instead of in a trailer in Nevada, well, it's hard to see what the big deal is. And so far, that appears to be the only difference.

Why is this relevant? Well, the whole reason this story is blowing up right now is because VP Cheney allegedly ordered the CIA not to disclose the very existence of this program to Congress. Now, that is flagrantly and obviously illegal, even to a guy accustomed to shooting his friends in the face with a shotgun, and I don't think he would've done that to protect a program that was so minimally different from what we already openly acknowledge doing, and that was never even operational. Not to mention, I find it hard to believe that such a program would, upon discovery by CIA Director Panetta, be shut down immediately and rushed into a briefing to Congress the very next day.

So what else don't we know about this program? Because this can't be everything.

Wednesday, July 15, 2009

Should liberals opt into the public plan, even if they already have insurance?

Yesterday, the 3 House committees responsible for health reform released a joint bill - the American Affordable Healthy Choices Act - that probably represents the most liberal version of whatever health reform legislation the country ultimately receives. Notably, it includes a public option, though one that the Congressional Budget Office expects to enroll only 10 million Americans by 2019.

So I've been wondering: do liberals who believe in some form of single-payer have an ethical obligation to enroll in the public plan, regardless of whether they already have health insurance, and in particular, regardless of how good that insurance is? I'm tempted to say yes, since the whole point of the public option is to compete with private insurers. If we believe that the country should have one dominant public insurer, it would seem hypocritical not to enroll in it when it comes into existence.

So now my question is: since I already have employer-provided health insurance, if I enroll in the public plan, will I have to pay my premiums out-of-pocket?

Friday, July 10, 2009

Why it doesn't matter that you can't run Photoshop on ChromeOS today

The more I read about ChromeOS, the more excited I get about it. I think there's a lot of potential, but I keep hearing one argument against its significance that I'd like to address.

"I'm not interested in ChromeOS, since it won't be able to handle heavy-duty programs like Photoshop."

That might be true today, but it won't be true forever (or even for long). Here's why:

The first computers were programmed by directly writing instructions to the CPU - take this bit here, do this to it, send it there, etc - and all of that coding was done by hand, which is extremely difficult and tedious work. Even today, if you want to write fast code, that's what you do - write directly to the metal (typically using an assembly language, which is basically semi-readable machine code).

But what most people who want something pretty fast (like Photoshop) do is write in C/C++, which gets compiled into that same machine code. It runs a bit slower than if it had been written directly in machine code or assembly, but the tradeoff is it's insanely easier to write and debug. And as compilers get better, it becomes almost as fast as straight machine code.

It wasn't always that way, however, and when C came along, it wasn't nearly as fast as assembly; and when C++ came along, it wasn't nearly as fast as C.

Eventually, Java was introduced, and for years, the C/C++ folks argued that nobody who wanted to write a powerful application would ever do it in Java, because it would be too slow. That's because everything in Java has to get run inside of a virtual machine, which sits on top of your actual machine, and so it just adds this other layer of stuff that has to get executed. Initially, that made Java really slow. But the virtual machines got better and better, and today, Java is basically as fast as C/C++, and many high-performance applications are written in Java.

It's important to note that minor speed differences remain among all these languages, but those differences are completely overwhelmed by how much faster CPUs, hard drives, RAM, graphics cards, etc are. So it's still true that running a virtual machine beneath a Java app is slower than if you didn't need the VM at all, but the speed penalty is at this point extremely small (I'm sure there are language pedants on both sides of the C++/Java divide who would take issue with this, but for this discussion, I think it's a fair point to make).

And so today, faced with a new layer of abstraction - Javascript running in a browser written in C++ on top of a kernel, also written in C++ - people are saying, "No way could you write a web app that would perform as well as a C/C++/Java app." And today, that's true.

There's really only one main reason for that (plus a few small implementation quirks): browsers, which can be thought of as the new Java virtual machines in this story, are slow, and both HTML and Javascript aren't considered "fast" or even particularly pleasant to program in. But that's changing: HTML5 is a substantial improvement on HTML, and Javascript is becoming more and more powerful every day. And browsers - Chrome, Safari, Firefox and even Internet Explorer - are getting faster and faster at running HTML/Javascript apps. In a few years, they'll be fast enough that the performance of web apps will only be a little worse than that of C/C++/Java apps. And CPUs, and every other piece of hardware, will be faster, so it won't matter that much.

In addition, there are a number of projects that already aim to make it even easier to write high-performance code for the web - nativeclient and O3D being just two (Googley) examples.

So yeah, as of right now, you can't and wouldn't want to run Photoshop in a browser. But by the time ChromeOS ships next year, that may be less true. And a year or two after that? Mmhm.

Called it

I just want to point out that my very first post on this blog, over a year ago, is made way more relevant and credible with the introduction of ChromeOS. I cannot wait for that little number to make it onto one of my machines!

Tuesday, June 30, 2009

An even better parking meter

Chicago recently privatized its parking meters, ripping out the old coin-operated ones that stood at each space with a smaller number of centralized, coin-and-credit card-fed boxes that print out receipts to put in your windshield. I think they could have done a much better job:

First, instead of paper receipts, regular parkers should have little RFID badges, perhaps that plug into cigarette lighters to recharge. This way, meter maids can just walk down a street and tell without even looking if a car has gone over its limit.

But the real benefit of the RFID badges would be that they'd make for a much more interesting, targeted payment system. For one thing, you could enable people to pay for parking remotely. Instead of having to walk to their cars to feed the meter every 2 hours, they could do it online or over the phone.

But part of the reason you wouldn't want this functionality would be that you don't want people to hog spots all day. So, in exchange, you'd raise the prices, perhaps substantially. (They should probably be generally much higher than they are now anyway). That would both raise more money, and enhance the quality of life for people who frequently don't have any choice but to park in a metered spot for a long time.

Now, this type of thing often has the unfortunate side effect of making life a lot more expensive for the poor and lower-middle class, so you could create a variable pricing system tied in part to individual income, deduced from the state income tax receipts. You could also make the pricing somewhat dynamic, based on demand.

This idea has a number of potential pitfalls, but it would a) raise more money; b) make parking much more convenient for people; c) be much better calibrated to individual income levels; d) make enforcement much easier and e) generate boatloads of interesting and useful data about who parks where and when.

Monday, June 29, 2009

Is $18 a better price than free for culture?

I'm in Chicago for the next few weeks, and yesterday I briefly walked through Renzo Piano's new $300 million Modern Wing of the Art Institute. It's easily one of the most gorgeous spaces I've ever been in, a fabulous complement to an already-great museum, and it somehow manages to make Millenium Park even more stunning than it had been. As part of the effort to pay for it, however, the Art Institute had to raise its admission price, from $12 to $18.

The Art Institute is a world-class museum, in a world-class space, at a world-class location, and by some measures, $18 is a more than fair price for access to its collection of thousands of pieces that represent some of the finest artistic creations in human history. In addition, it's free for any resident of Chicago that checks out a pass from any library in the city. It's free for the entire month of February. It's free Thursday and Friday nights in the summer. And it's free on sporadic other days throughout the year.

All of which is wonderful, and of course $300 million doesn't come cheap these days, so money must be raised somewhere. Why not on the backs of tourists and the middle and upper classes, who can afford to pay $18 per person for the privilege of visiting whenever they like, and enjoying smaller crowds when they do?

The problem I have is that too many Chicagoans have no experience of, or connection to, the Art Institute. For them, downtown is a rare destination, or merely a place of business to which they're not welcome, unless a floor needs mopping or a bathroom, cleaning. The city needs to make more of an effort to bring its citizens together at temples of culture and learning, such as the Art Institute.

Part of this has to include reforming admission fees for museums, and making it more economically attractive for families living far away from downtown to make the trek. As this intriguing article from the American Association of Museums (from 2007, alas, so it's a bit out of date) points out, high admission fees represent a real barrier for poor and lower-income families, but the revenue from these fees make up only 5% of the operating budget for the average American art museum.

These families are kept away in part because of the perception that a trip to the museum is expensive, even when that's not necessarily the case. In 2006, the Art Institute switched from a "suggested" $12 donation to a mandatory one, but didn't see much change in visitor demographics (although the data wasn't fully in at the time of writing). Although one could argue that this indicates price isn't the real obstacle for families, since they weren't coming even though it was free to do so, I would disagree. In my experience, there's long been the perception that the Art Institute is an expensive place to go, and I wouldn't be at all surprised if many families were unaware that, before 2006, the AI was actually "free".

Families are also kept away in part because, even if the museum itself is free, the trip is definitely not. Imagine you're a family of four living an hour's train ride away from the Art Institute. Even if you think a visit would be valuable for your family, you have to pay for two train rides for each person (these days, that's $18 altogether); you have to pay for food ($10-15 at the very rock bottom); and you have to go far out of your way, which might be pretty difficult for working families. Even if the desire to visit the museum is there, getting there and paying for everything else is tough.

I think one solution might be "Neighborhood Days": instead of having free evenings during the summer, reach out to neighborhood organizations. Use the money you budget towards a free day (plus corporate/city/philanthropic sponsorship, natch) to pay for buses to take kids and their parents from their neighborhood into the AI. Have some guided tours, and let them explore on their own a bit. Give them dinner. If the parents can't make it, have some chaperones present too. Rotate from neighborhood to neighborhood every week. It's basically a field trip program, but no longer in a school context. If you do it often enough, you might get some kids and parents hooked who wouldn't otherwise have visited the museum. Offer participants free semi-membership, so they can come back whenever they want.

True, it'd be a bit expensive. But we're talking about a museum with $300 million to drop on a new building, and more besides to buy incredible works of art from around the world. Buy one fewer Matisse in the next few years, and use that money to get thousands more kids and their parents from underserved neighborhoods to visit the museum.

Wednesday, June 24, 2009

Trust me, you won't have to become a vegan

Irina and I saw Food, Inc. over the weekend, and I really, really recommend it. The wall between what we eat, and what we know about what we eat, has never in human history been so high or so rarely-penetrated, and that's a real problem. I was a little nervous going into it, because I like what I eat and didn't want to learn that it was all awful and disgusting and I was going to have to become a vegan.

That didn't happen - and even if it did, being an adult means knowing things that are important to know, even if one doesn't want to. I walked out with the sense that it's important to eat more pure foods, like fresh fruits and vegetables, ideally organic but that's not always an option (and it's certainly expensive). Not exactly rocket science, and I knew it already, but sometimes knowing something to be true, and understanding the real truth of it (and the implications of that truth) are different things.

That's even more true when it comes to agriculture policy, which for me was the real importance of this movie. While it'd be great if I ate more fruits and vegetables, that'll only make me healthier, and have a very marginal impact on a handful of the companies and farmers that feed me. What would have a tremendous impact is if we rethought the way we subsidize food, and made it as inexpensive as possible to eat a healthy, balanced diet instead of one loaded with corn byproducts, heavy on cheap, industrial meat and washed down with 6 liters of Coke that cost the same as three heads of broccoli.

Sunday, June 21, 2009

This is why I love sports

Going into today, the US was in dead-last place in its group of 4 teams in the Confederations Cup - it had lost to Brazil and Italy, and was playing Egypt. It was the only one of the 4 teams that had yet to win a game, and had only scored 1 goal - on a penalty kick. During the ESPN intro for the Italy-Brazil game, the announcers ripped (rightly) into the US side, noting that they had as much chance of advancing as Jon and Kate did of staying together. They joked that it would take longer to explain the convoluted scenario in which the US advanced than it would to play the 90-minute games. They aired an interview from yesterday with Oguchi Onyewu, one of the US defenders, where they asked him all kinds of questions about what went wrong (and to his credit, he took the questions fairly and answered introspectively and thoughtfully).

45 minutes later, Brazil was up 3-0 (all 3 Brazilian goals came in the space of 15 minutes, and the last was a shameful own goal) and the US was up 1-0. All of a sudden, what had seemed like a ridiculous long-shot was 2 US goals away from a reality, and that second half of the US-Egypt game got WAY more interesting! Michael Bradley got a nice feed from Landon Donovan in the box, and then they were 1 goal away. And kick from Donovan (I think), Clint Dempsey got a diving header to find the back of the net, I started screaming, got that rush of excited happiness that you only get when your team comes from behind to win, and MAN. Do I love sports sometimes.

I also thought it was a great sign that, as evidenced in the pre-game, the US sports media was now treating the US men's soccer team like a real side, equals with the great teams of the world. They'd lost, after all, to the two greatest national teams in men's soccer (not necessarily the best teams from each country's history, but Brazil and Italy are perennially the titans of world soccer). A few years ago, the questions would have assumed that the US would have lost those games; now, they assume only that the US enters international competition with the expectation of success.

Saturday, June 20, 2009

This has to already exist, right?

Is there a good way to see what movies are playing near me?

Now, obviously, there are like a zillion different services that do this. But here's what I want:
  • Work only from a list of my favorite theaters. Because in practice, I only care about what's playing at the X theaters that it's remotely convenient for me to get to (and geographic distance is NOT THE SAME THING AS THIS, since I don't own a car)
  • Email me every week with new releases - tell me synopsis, a few reviews, RottenTomatoes score, showtimes at theaters on my list, trailers, IMDB info.
  • Ask me: "What do you want to see tonight?" Let me respond with a genre (Comedy, horror); a level of quality (RT score would suffice); some set of attributes (foreign film, oscar winner, re-release, "classic", color/black-and-white, etc); or a time (What's playing at 9pm tonight?); in addition to film title and theater.
  • When I go to the front page, just show me what's playing today at my favorite theaters, along with one-sentence synopsis and showtimes for each.
I'm just whining because it's always kind of a pain to figure out what looks good on a given night, and this seems like a problem the Internet was fucking designed to solve.

How does this end?

Riots in Iran protesting the stolen election continued for the 8th straight day today. The crowds are staying large, the Basij are staying brutal but not massacring large numbers, the army is holding back, communications with the outside world remain spotty and, as always, it remains unclear what happens next.

These days of street protest, countered by helicopters spraying a chemical agent on demonstrators, by Basij militiamen beating people with electric batons, and by Revolutionary Guard shooting into crowds and killing dozens of people, are fatally damaging the credibility of the Iranian regime. Even if they come out of this still in control, it's hard to see Ahmadinejad or Khamenei making a public appearance in any large city without drawing throngs of opposition protesters. Their legitimacy, and particuarly Khamenei's, is on the line, and the best outcome for them is that they don't lose it altogether.

But one of Andrew Sullivan's commentators makes an excellent point: what can the regime do? They've closed off communications with the outside world, but they can't keep that up forever. They're committing violence against the demonstrators, and losing their moral authority as a result, but they're not stopping anything. The more they clamp down, the more resistance they'll encounter. But if they ease up, the opposition will have a better time finding its voice. They're stuck, and they probably know it, and they have everything to lose, and all that makes them very dangerous. And for a regime brought into being in part due to protests against the killing of protesters, the use of force could as easily backfire as succeed.

And while I'm at it, Andrew Sullivan's done an amazing job of chronicling these events over the last several days. He's become the clearinghouse for information being generated by individuals all across Iran, and the world really, and he's demonstrating the power of new, user-generated media. The historically unprecedented amount of information that's leaked out from what a supposedly closed society during this upheaval is going to be studied for a long time to come, and this is one of the events that will forever mark the establishment of the Internet as a force for journalistic excellence.

Wednesday, June 17, 2009

I really wish this story were true

This morning, I saw this article at Bloomberg, about two Japanese men arrested in Italy, attempting to cross the Swiss border by train, with $134 billion in US Treasury Bonds. The men were carrying enough US government debt to make them our 4th-largest creditor, just behind Russia ($138 billion). They were carrying 249 $500 million notes, and 10 $1 billion notes, in a suitcase with a false bottom. Turns out the notes were fake, but how fucking awesome (not to mention scary) would it be if they were real?

A glorious cacophony for a monotone age

I came across this article today in a conservative online publication ("The American Thinker" - what a terrible name), called "Why Liberals Bleed". It's by a formerly-liberal psychotherapist in Berkeley, who's contemplating buying a gun. The article itself isn't particularly remarkable, nor is the subject (Guns good! Liberals weak! Berkeley silly!) What struck me were some of the comments, but really, they're not remarkable either.

One of the things I really don't like about the Internet is how easy it becomes to only hear what you want to hear. RSS feeds, personalized sections and selected individuals to follow on Twitter all contribute to an environment where only one set of perspectives gets filtered to each individual. What's great is that it can be a completely different set for everyone, but the problem is that we tend to pick only those voices that don't challenge us. (At least I do, but I don't think I'm alone.)

Which brings me back to the article above and its comments: nothing about either were well argued or well written, but reading such a chorus of similar opinions so vastly different from my own was a bit unsettling. It made me aware of how infrequently I hear from that side of the room.

It makes me realize that there's a real need for a publication, print or online, that brings together a sharp set of dissenting voices, and makes for compelling reading by people of widely divergent viewpoints. To be clear, I don't mean a publication that features lame watered-down forced moderation; I mean the exact opposite, with writers who loathe everything the other writers stand for, but can't stop reading each other because they're so good at what they do. I guess that could be accomplished with a good set of different RSS feeds, but I think there's a real place for an actual such publication.

(Disclaimer: I work on Google News, which aims to do something similar to what I described above - bring together voices from across the spectrum of whatever issue is under discussion.)

Tuesday, June 16, 2009

What to do about Iran

While it appears that the unrest in Iran continues, it seems to have died down a bit from previous days. It's beginning to seem possible for an armchair analyst to make some predictions about what's going to happen.

Before guessing about the future, let's correct the record about the present: the temptation to use the word "revolution" has to be ignored. The protesters in Iran aren't trying to overthrow a government; they're trying to get their votes counted. The candidate they support isn't some wild-eyed radical; he's a former prime minister who's been a fixture in Iranian politics for a long time. He was an early supporter of the nuclear program and the taking of American hostages in 1979, and was a protege of the founding theocrat of modern Iran.

It's also worth pointing out that, for the moment, President Obama is taking exactly the right course of action. Anything he says in praise of the opposition will be seized upon and exploited by Ahmadinejad's supporters, and will help discredit Mousavi as just a Western puppet. Imagine what would have happened in 2008 if bin Laden had endorsed Obama, and you get a sense of how much good the President is doing by keeping relatively quiet.

Now, when paroxysms of anger hit the streets, they usually follow one of three distinct paths: they escalate; they simmer; or they die out (or get crushed). At the moment, it appears that the protests are getting smaller, not larger, and the Iranian government is doing relatively little to inflame them. True, they've killed some protesters and continue to suppress contact with the outside world, but there haven't been any large-scale clashes, and they've mostly had the Basij militia commit some small-bore acts of violence and vandalism. Bad all around, but not the kind of attempt to crush the protesters that either succeeds, or fails spectacularly.

This would all seem to suggest that the resistance will neither be crushed, nor explode into something that takes down the regime (which isn't even something the protesters want). It's possible it could die out over time, especially if some large chunk of the protesters are mollified by the Guardian Council investigation and recount. I don't think they will be, directly, but if the regime continues to make similar minor concessions, and bides its time until the anger in the streets mostly subsides, I think they could ride this out. The key test of this strategy will come over the next few days: if the rallies keep getting smaller, the diminution will feed on itself. On the other hand, if something major or at least iconic transpires, to give new life to the protests, that would be dangerous. A few days of protests is one thing; a few weeks is an entirely different story.

But for now, let's operate under the assumption that the regime doesn't do anything dramatic, that protests continue to dwindle, and that a few weeks from now, the anger in the streets will be replaced with a far more benign opposition to Ahmadinejad. In that scenario, how should the United States deal with Iran?

First, by attempting to engage with Ahmedinejad (and, perhaps, with Ayatollah Khomeini, who's really in charge) and offering an easing of international sanctions in return for IAEA inspections of Iran's nuclear facilities. An Ahmedinejad weakened by days or weeks of mass protest in support of a candidate who pledged to create better relationships with the West should be more willing to make a deal.

Second, by making clear that the United States has no problem with Iran's development of nuclear technology, so long as it exists under international supervision and acts consistent with its obligations under the Nuclear Non-Proliferation Treaty (NPT) to which it's a signatory.

Third, by organizing a regional security conference to which Iran would be a key invitee. It's important to remember that Iran is bordered by Iraq on one side, and Afghanistan on another, and Pakistan (where America is bombing Taliban targets semi-covertly) on yet another. Iran has a real (and justified) feeling of American encirclement, and its efforts to develop a nuclear weapon are in large part due to the rational supposition that, were it to possess such a device, it wouldn't be next on the invasion list.

Ultimately, the reality is that there's not a lot that the United States can do to positively impact Iran's internal affairs. We're too high-profile, and too much of a villain, to be able to take that approach. We need to soften our image, establish what relationships we can, and largely stay out of the way of Iranians interested in solving their own problems. As the events of the last week demonstrate amply, Iran is the opposite of a monolithic society, and the elements more favorable to a less hostile engagement with the West are, at the moment, on the ascent. The best thing we can do for them is not make them look like our puppets.

Monday, June 15, 2009

Fuck Yeah.

This is what a revolutionary looks like.

Barack's busy day

Iran, Health Care, Israel. And I think he's doing a great job on all three. Man, what a difference from the last 8 years...

Obama makes the case for Obamacare

Today, President Obama gave a speech to the American Medical Association (video here; transcript here). I was very impressed with it, and want to highlight a few key points:
If we fail to act, one out of every five dollars we earn will be spent on health care within a decade. And in 30 years, it will be about one out of every three -- a trend that will mean lost jobs, lower take-home pay, shuttered businesses, and a lower standard of living for all Americans.

And if we fail to act, federal spending on Medicaid and Medicare will grow over the coming decades by an amount almost equal to the amount our government currently spends on our nation's defense. It will, in fact, eventually grow larger than what our government spends on anything else today. It's a scenario that will swamp our federal and state budgets, and impose a vicious choice of either unprecedented tax hikes, or overwhelming deficits, or drastic cuts in our federal and state budgets.
I hadn't heard some of these stats before, and I think they make the case for action better than almost anything else. As expensive as some form of universal health care will be, we can't afford not to do it.
[Electronic medical records] will reduce medical errors, it's estimated, that lead to 100,000 lives lost unnecessarily in our hospitals every year.
I really have a hard time believing this statistic. I've heard some variant of it before - and this CBS piece presents a compelling scenario in which electronic records would literally be life-saving - but Obama's overselling a bit here. Electronic records not only won't stop every simple accident from occurring, but it's not hard to imagine mixups occurring specifically due to electronic records: what happens if a system is down, or there's a typo somewhere, for example? Still, I think the basic point is valid, even if 100,000 is a bit inflated.
Despite what some have suggested, the reason we have these spiraling costs is not simply because we've got an aging population; demographics do account for part of rising costs because older, sicker societies pay more on health care than younger, healthier ones, and there's nothing intrinsically wrong in us taking better care of ourselves. But what accounts for the bulk of our costs is the nature of our health care delivery system itself -- a system where we spend vast amounts of money on things that aren't necessarily making our people any healthier; a system that automatically equates more expensive care with better care.

Now, a recent article in the New Yorker, for example, showed how McAllen, Texas, is spending twice as much as El Paso County -- twice as much -- not because people in McAllen, Texas, are sicker than they are in El Paso; not because they're getting better care or getting better outcomes. It's simply because they're using more treatments -- treatments that, in some cases, they don't really need; treatments that, in some cases, can actually do people harm by raising the risk of infection or medical error.

And the problem is this pattern is repeating itself across America. One Dartmouth study shows that you're less likely -- you're no less likely to die from a heart attack and other ailments in a higher-spending area than in a lower-spending one.
Right on, Barack! He's referring to this article that I posted about recently, and I only heard about it because Obama had been passing it around the West Wing, so it's no surprise to see it in this speech. But still, I was skeptical that the specific issues raised in the article would get as much attention as they did in this speech, and that's great to see.
Now, if you don't like your health care coverage or you don't have any insurance at all, you'll have a chance, under what we've proposed, to take part in what we're calling a Health Insurance Exchange. This exchange will allow you to one-stop shop for a health care plan, compare benefits and prices, and choose a plan that's best for you and your family -- the same way, by the way, that federal employees can do, from a postal worker to a member of Congress.


And I believe one of these options needs to be a public option that will give people a broader range of choices -- (applause) -- and inject competition into the health care market so that force -- so that we can force waste out of the system and keep the insurance companies honest. (Applause.)
I'm really glad to see this in the speech, as well. The AMA isn't a public option-friendly organization, and in order to actually get a public option passed, Obama's going to have to make the case for it, and do so to hostile audiences like this one.
Indeed, it's because I'm confident in our ability to give people the ability to get insurance at an affordable rate that I'm open to a system where every American bears responsibility for owning health insurance -- (applause) -- so long as we provide a hardship waiver for those who still can't afford it as we move towards this system.
This is excellent! His plan during the campaign famously didn't mandate that individuals have health insurance, which I and many others on the left found to be one of its biggest weaknesses. And while I'd prefer that, instead of a "hardship waiver", we just provided care for free to those who couldn't afford it (a la Medicaid), I'm glad to see movement here.
Let me give you an example of what I'm talking about. We need to end the practice of denying coverage on the basis of preexisting conditions. (Applause.) The days of cherry-picking who to cover and who to deny, those days are over. (Applause.) I know you see it in your practices, and how incredibly painful and frustrating it is -- you want to give somebody care and you find out that the insurance companies are wiggling out of paying.
Awesome. Fuck that pre-existing bullshit. Cover everyone for everything they need.
Now, there are already voices saying the numbers don't add up. They're wrong. Here's why. Making health care affordable for all Americans will cost somewhere on the order of $1 trillion over the next 10 years.


That said, let me explain how we will cover the price tag. First, as part of the budget that was passed a few months ago, we put aside $635 billion over 10 years in what we're calling a Health Reserve Fund. Over half of that amount -- more than $300 billion -- will come from raising revenue by doing things like modestly limiting the tax deductions the wealthiest Americans can take to the same level that it was at the end of the Reagan years


But we can't just raise revenues. We're also going to have to make spending cuts, in part by examining inefficiencies in our current Medicare program. There are going to be robust debates about where these cuts should be made, and I welcome that debate. But here's where I think these cuts should be made.

First, we should end overpayments to Medicare Advantage. (Applause.) Today, we're paying Medicare Advantage plans much more than we pay for traditional Medicare services. Now, this is a good deal for insurance companies. It's a subsidy to insurance companies. It's not a good deal for you. It's not a good deal for the American people. And by the way, it doesn't follow free market principles, for those who are always talking about free market principles. That's why we need to introduce competitive bidding into the Medicare Advantage program, a program under which private insurance companies are offering Medicare coverage. That alone will save $177 billion over the next decade, just that one step. (Applause.)

Second, we need to use Medicare reimbursements to reduce preventable hospital readmissions. Right now, almost 20 percent of Medicare patients discharged from hospitals are readmitted within a month, often because they're not getting the comprehensive care that they need. ... That will save us $25 billion over the next decade.

Third, we need to introduce generic biologic drugs into the marketplace. (Applause.) These are drugs used to treat illnesses like anemia. But right now, there is no pathway at the FDA for approving generic versions of these drugs. Creating such a pathway will save us billions of dollars. We can save another roughly $30 billion by getting a better deal for our poorer seniors while asking our well-off seniors to pay a little more for their drugs.

So that's the bulk of what's in the Health Reserve Fund. I've also proposed saving another $313 billion in Medicare and Medicaid spending in several other ways. One way is by adjusting Medicare payments to reflect new advances and productivity gains in our economy. Right now, Medicare payments are rising each year by more than they should. These adjustments will create incentives for providers to deliver care more efficiently, and save us roughly $109 billion in the process.

Another way we can achieve savings is by reducing payments to hospitals for treating uninsured people. ... But if we put in a system where people have coverage and the number of uninsured people goes down with our reforms, the amount we pay hospitals to treat uninsured people should go down, as well. Reducing these payments gradually, as more and more people have coverage, will save us over $106 billion. And we'll make sure the difference goes to the hospitals that need it most.

We can also save about $75 billion through more efficient purchasing of prescription drugs. And we can save about $1 billion more by rooting out waste, abuse, fraud throughout our health care system so that no one is charging more for a service than it's worth or charging a dime for a service that they don't provide.


Now, for those of you who took out your pencil and paper -- (laughter) -- altogether, these savings mean that we've put about $950 billion on the table -- and that doesn't count some of the long-term savings that we think will come about from reform -- from medical IT, for example, or increased investment in prevention.
Not bad. The big knock on the recent health care proposals is that there wasn't any good way to fund most of it. And while there's a decent amount of hand-waving here, the distance between what we'll be paying, and what we can afford, looks reasonably small (especially considering the long-term benefits).

My great-uncle Roger died recently

And my uncle Jeff has done an outstanding job of eulogizing him.

My grandmother, Audrey, moved from England to the United States with my grandfather, Bernie, just after World War 2. Ever since, Audrey's kids and grandkids haven't had much interaction with the rest of her family, save for occasional trips across the pond in either direction.

As a result, I never knew Roger, and have only met a handful of the rest of my grandmother's family. Which is sad, because reading Jeff's account, I'd very much like to get to know that side of my own family better.

But it's also amazing to me, the difference between my grandmother and myself. If I'd have lived through what she did, I'd never stop telling anyone who'd listen about it. In contrast, Audrey has only ever briefly discussed the subject with me, and doesn't ever seem to be too excited to go into it. Which is perhaps because, unlike me, she's known real hardship first-hand, and that kind of thing is always much more exciting and glamorous in one's imagination than in reality.

The voice in my head is more eloquent than the one in my throat

I was walking over to Building 40 to get lunch this afternoon, and my iPhone died, so I was forced to listen only to myself think for a few minutes. My life has become so media-saturated that that's actually a fairly unusual circumstance, and after a bit, I decided to see what would happen if I just started talking out loud.

One thing that I noticed was that I had a hard time exactly translating the thoughts in my head into words. I'd get the gist out, but in my head, perfectly-formed phrases and subtle insights bounce just out of my grasp, uncatchable by my voice.

I realized that this might be due, in part, to the fact that I've done a lot of self-censoring over the years; that not everything I think ever gets said (and probably most of it doesn't). Over time, that mechanism probably became somewhat automatic and so now, even when I want to turn it off, it's not quite so easy.

In addition, there's probably inevitably some lossiness in the translation between media - thought to speech and thought to text - just like how some English phrases don't have French equivalents, and vice-versa.

Which all means that most people are probably more eloquent in their heads than they are when they speak, and one shouldn't be quick to assume something about a person's relative level of intelligence, based solely on their ability to efficiently funnel their thoughts to their throat.

Sunday, June 14, 2009

The Internet covers Iran

The disputed Iranian election and its aftermath over the last few days are a pretty major story, of course. But one aspect that I find interesting is how well the various parts of the Internets are doing at helping us understand what's been going on.

One claim often made by entrenched members of the media establishment is that, without them, we'll lose our ability to get coverage of events in foreign countries - "When I went to Baghdad, I didn't see a Huffington Post bureau or a Google bureau", in the words of NYT editor Bill Keller (near the end of this clip):

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True enough, but that of course kind of misses the point. First, it's not like the (American) mainstream media does a spectacular job of covering world events already - CNN, for instance, has been a massive disappointment in covering the Iran story, even if they're playing catch-up now.

Second, one of the strengths of the Internet is precisely the ability it gives to anyone to speak about something. If what they have to say is interesting or useful, it gets linked to and spreads, and the result is the mass dissemination of dozens of different takes on a given story, as opposed to the suffocating uniformity of the MSM - is the difference between ABC, CNN or MSNBC really that great? And how about the Washington Post vs the NYT? There are some differences, but nothing remotely like what happens on the Internet. And the result is that a lot of great, otherwise-obscure, information comes to light.

For example, Juan Cole's amazing posts that draw on his enormous expertise in the region. On the Internet, he gets to write as much as he wants about the subject that is his passion. If he were on TV, he'd get a 2-minute interview where he'd get to regurgitate the most basic parts of his theses. He'd do better with an editorial in a newspaper, but not much better - a few hundred words on one day, and that'd be it. But on his blog, he gets to go into detail about the specific irregularities that appeared in the voting patterns disclosed by Iran's Interior Ministry, which provide extremely compelling evidence that the election results were rigged. The next day, he put up a post challenging the assumption that Ahmedinajad's victory was only a surprise because Western reporters were spending too much time in upper-class parts of the country.

(I'd also like to mention Jim Cowie's post analyzing, and debunking, the claim that Iran's Internet access was cut off from the outside world during and after the election, which goes into a level of detail you'd just never find in any mass media outlet.)

Finally, the Internet enables entirely new forms of communication to arise and spread. For example, the challenger has a Twitter account, which he's used to communicate within Iran and, most especially, to get his message out.

But as cool and sexy as Twitter is, for Iran, blogs appear to be the chief method of expressing revolutionary dissent:

IRAN: A Nation Of Bloggers from ayrakus on Vimeo.