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 then...free 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):

The Daily Show With Jon StewartMon - Thurs 11p / 10c
End Times
Daily Show
Full Episodes
Political HumorNewt Gingrich Unedited Interview

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.

Thursday, June 11, 2009

This is such a beautiful, true paragraph

De Botton not only captures the longing inherent to modern life, but he explains, with stunning accuracy, the ways that longing becomes encoded in specific objects and places. "[N]o quayside can ever appear entirely banal, because people will always be minuscule compared to the great oceans," he writes, "and the mention of faraway ports will hence always bear a confused promise of lives unfolding there which may be more vivid than the ones we know here, a romantic charge clinging to names like Yokohama, Alexandria and Tunis -- places which in reality cannot be exempt from tedium and compromise, but which are distant enough to support for a time certain confused daydreams of happiness."
From Salon's review of Alain de Botton's The Pleasures and Sorrows of Work.

Tuesday, June 9, 2009

The New Yorker has an excellent article by Atul Gawande, about why health care in the US is so expensive. So excellent, in fact, that President Obama made it required reading for his staff.

I don't know what specifically Obama liked about it, but I think it does a great job of explaining what "regional difference in cost of health care" looks like, and (possibly) why it happens in the first place. I worry, however, that the subtle nuances Gawande gets to explore at length in a few thousand words for the New Yorker will get totally ignored when the discussion shifts to newspaper articles and op-eds, YouTube videos and TV commercials. You can see this beginning in the NYT piece:
"There is too much uncertainty about the Dartmouth study to use it as a basis for public policy," said Senator John Kerry, Democrat of Massachusetts. "Researchers can’t explain why some areas of the country spend more on health care than others. There are many reasons spending could vary: higher costs of living, sicker people or more teaching hospitals."

Sure, but this conveniently sidesteps the real issue: overprescription of medicines and procedures, which is both expensive and, quite probably, harmful to patient health. Fix the overprescription problem and you save a substantial amount of money, everywhere across the country, while improving patient health outcomes. It's too intriguing an avenue of exploration to not use as a basis for public policy.

It seems a little unlikely that what Gawande calls for - a series of government-incented local experiments into how best to remove the profit motive from doctor decision-making - will be forthcoming. Nothing like it really appears in the latest draft bill from the Senate, although it's too early for this one article to have had that kind of dramatic impact on the legislative process. And it's not like the Senate is where we should look for innovation. As this really interesting process piece from the NYT notes, the Senate (to steal from the NBA) is where craven happens:
Some House Democrats I talked to have already begun to wonder audibly why they’re the ones who always have to surrender in Emanuel’s middle-of-the-night negotiating sessions. They accuse Reid and his lieutenants of repeatedly placating Republicans to avoid a filibuster, rather than taking a stand on principle now and then. Why not force centrist Democrats to vote against their party and let Republicans filibuster the agenda on national television?

The health care ad I'd like to see

Blank screen, a la Mac/PC ads. 2 people walk in, from the left and right.

LEFT: Hi. I'm a public health insurance plan.

RIGHT: And I'm a private health insurance plan.

LEFT: I cost you less money, and don't leave 46 million Americans uninsured.

RIGHT: And I'm the efficient, free-market solution.

LEFT: I cover more procedures, and won't deny you coverage for a pre-existing condition.

RIGHT: And I'm the efficient, free-market solution.

LEFT: I don't make you call me from your hospital bed, to make sure your life-saving procedure can be approved.

RIGHT: And I'm the efficient, free-market solution.

LEFT: I spend almost no money on administration, meaning you get lower rates, and more care for your dollar.

RIGHT: And...I'm the efficient, free-market solution?

Call your Congressional representative, and tell them that you've had enough: It's time to give Americans real health care we can all afford.

Monday, June 8, 2009

Obama's presidency is about to begin

I'm just about to start reading this, but one or two paragraphs in and it's already dawned on me that Barack Obama has yet to actually be President.

I started to think this during a conversation with my friend Lenny yesterday - we were debating Obama's Cairo speech, and his various accomplishments to date. Lenny was pretty pleased so far, and I was much more skeptical (though somewhat optimistic). We both had our reasons, but ultimately, the picture is too unfinished.

I have a problem with Obama's failure to really stand up for gay rights, his decision to continue to abuse the State Secrets privilege and his mishandling of the bank bailouts.

Lenny saw the Cairo speech as a dramatic and impressive reframing of the War on Terror. He thinks the bailouts and the civil liberties issues are strategic decisions to not waste political capital on the small issues, when what really matters is health care.

I totally agree that if Obama manages to get meaningful health care reform through Congress, every capitulation, trade-off and half-measure he's employed so far, or will ever employ, will be secondary. Health care will be the measure of his Presidency. If he can get it, not only will his legacy be secured, but he'll accrue so much goodwill from the public, from liberal interest groups and probably from Congress, that he'll be able to get whatever else he wants. If he can't get it, he'll be badly wounded, and the cornerstone around which he based his campaign will be lost, leaving the rest of his edifice in precarious shape.

Health care really is the game. It's everything, and it's just about to get started. Judging the Obama Presidency without knowing what happens in the next year is like judging the FDR Presidency without knowing how WW2 ended (which, of course, he didn't.)

Because of the above, the temptation will be strong to claim a half-victory as a full one. But that won't cut it. What counts as a real win for Obama? To me, it's: affordable and universal coverage, with a public option and a dramatically reduced role for insurance companies, or at least an empowered counterweight to their influence.

P.S. I really hope nothing in that long NYT article makes a really elegant case against any of the above :) One of the perils of having an actual job is not being able to read everything I'd like to...

Thursday, June 4, 2009

Is the enemy us? Or is we the solution?

How to interpret the above video? It's obvious what it depicts: ignorant young American Jews in Jerusalem, with strong convictions entirely unjustified by any actual knowledge (I could watch, over and over and over, the part where the poli sci major who claims to "know [her] shit" fails to recognize the name of the Prime Minister of Israel [though of course she can be forgiven, since he's only been a major figure in Israeli politics for literally her entire lifetime.])

But what does it mean (,man)? At first, I reacted pretty strongly to it: it's hard to watch people who look like me, sound like me and have so much in common with me (or at least my background) say such noxious shit. And I began to think that it hinted at a larger truth: that my generation, coming of age and becoming politically relevant for the first time in our lives, was more ignorant and reactionary than I'd previously realized.

But as I talked it over with Irina and Eric, who pushed back somewhat strongly against my hastily-drawn conclusions (which were really the worst kind of Friedmanesque talk-to-the-cab-driver-and-conclude-something-moronic-about-the-World-Today delusions) I started to think something different.

In particular, while it's apparently not too difficult to find young American Jews in Jerusalem who'll say stupid shit at 2am to a guy with a video camera, it's also not too difficult to find many more young American Jews who'd disagree with everything they say. Not only does it appear that young Jews are less attached to the notion of a Jewish State in Israel than they once were, they also appear to be, as they long have been, overwhelmingly liberal, Democratic and anti-hardliner.

What is definitely true is that my generation is losing the luxury of having its opinions not matter. We're getting old enough to not just vote, but contribute to causes, enlist in armies, pressure our governments and work to achieve what we believe. Our ignorance about the world around us is now just as salient a fact, just as impactful, as our lack of ignorance: whatever we know, or think we know, will necessarily help shape our reality. The world isn't going to wait for us to learn remedial Middle Eastern Affairs before it begins to expect to hear what we have to say. Let's just hope the voice that we find is more eloquent than any of the voices in that video.

Wednesday, June 3, 2009

Two amazing gadgets

I want both of these things. Now. I want to not be typing this post, but rather playing with these beautiful looking toys (I mean, functional tools for today's information economy!)

First up, the Palm Pre. Looks gorgeous, and Javascript apps are exciting. A number of cool UI innovations (like keeping apps open in cards, and allowing seamless switching between them) make it seem pretty neat. All in all, when my AT&T contract is up, as it should be soon, I'll be seriously considering getting one (my iPhone is kinda busted up at this point, so it's time :) I'm probably gonna go with an Android phone - gotta support the home team, and I'm genuinely excited about the app possibilities - but the Pre is gonna get a serious look.

But what's really got me excited is the CrunchPad. And in particular, it's the bottom image on that page (and also the "couch computing" picture). That is what reading on the Internet should be like. That looks so much nicer as an experience than the best laptop I've seen. I worry that the battery life is going to be terrible, since it'll be driving that huge, beautiful display, but since I'd imagine a lot of its use will be in the home, that might not be such a big deal.

Tuesday, June 2, 2009

It's hard to laugh at what used to be funny

Conan O'Brien debuted as the host of the Tonight Show last night. I've been watching Conan since early high school, probably only a year or two after he got his own show, and I used to adore him. My best friends and I worshiped Conan, much like we did the Simpsons: because they were hilarious, but also because they took risks with their mainstream platforms.

This is before the Internet became the entertainment fixture it is today, and so it literally was a different age, in some ways more similar to the Major Network era of the 50s and 60s (ABC, CBS, NBC and nobody else) than to the media landscape of today. True, there was cable, but that really only meant that the number of corporate-controlled outlets for entertainment was somewhat larger; it didn't mean anything was really different.

(To give you an idea of what I mean: I was watching a few episodes from the first season of the Simpsons the other night, and in the audio commentary of one, they mentioned that FOX flagged their use of the word "groin" as being potentially offensive. Imagining, in this post-Family Guy/South Park world, that the word "groin" was problematic so recently really makes me marvel at how quickly social mores can change.)

Anyway, what we loved about Conan back then was that he used his mainstream platform to make a different kind of show. He had recurring characters like the Masturbating Bear, for instance, which was just a guy in a bear costume pounding away at his crotch while wearing a diaper. Or the Potato Judge: an actual potato that fought in Vietnam and came back home to administer some hard-edge justice in a court of law (like sentencing a kid to life in prison for stealing a bicycle). Conan couldn't be compared to anything else on television back then.

Except for the Simpsons, and Monty Python reruns. The Simpsons was also totally different: an animated show that didn't talk down to anyone, that wasn't afraid to be totally absurd ("McBain to base: Under attack by commie Nazis!"), and that, quite often, wasn't funny (it's not a risk if it never fails...) All of the above applies equally to Monty Python, which I have to believe laid the groundwork for the Simpsons and Conan (who used to write for the Simpsons, of course).

And the thing about a risky, groundbreaking show is that, a few years down the line when the ground has been thoroughly broken and what was once risky is now tame and cliche (or worse), it just isn't as funny. Watching Conan last night, I smiled a few times, and maybe laughed out loud once. And watching these early Simpsons episodes (and I know it gets better after the first season, so I still have hope) I'm more amused than rendered helpless with glee, as I once was.

I'll always love Conan, the Simpsons and Python for being there, taking risks and doing something truly different just when my sense of humor was being forged. I can't think of a better time to grow up than during the golden age of one of the greatest TV comedies of all time (if not the greatest). But, as I inevitably rewatch those shows over and over, I'm sad to think that what once provoked laughter will now only inspire bemused smiles.

Monday, June 1, 2009

When is it right to do wrong?

The murder of George Tiller is, to me, an obvious and reprehensible crime. But what's intriguing is that not everyone sees it that way (and not just the person who pulled the trigger). Which got me thinking about something I've always wondered: what separates legitimate resistance to a societal evil, from an evil crime committed against a legitimate societal practice?

Put differently, why is George Tiller's murderer a criminal, and John Brown a martyr? Tiller's killer murdered one person out of religious conviction, and was presumably convinced he was saving lives. Brown and his men killed a dozen people out of religious conviction, in an attempt to end slavery.

To a lot of people, merely asking that question is offensive - slavery is an unquestionable evil, but abortion is a woman's legitimate right should she choose it. I believe both of those things, but I wonder about what history will believe. I'm pretty sure the slavery question is settled, but abortion is still a fluid and controversial issue, and the people who oppose it consider it a form of genocide.

While I'm confident that abortion isn't evil, and should be permitted - safe, legal and rare - a lot of practices that didn't seem barbaric at the time come to look that way in hindsight. It's possible that we'll one day look upon abortion clinics (and slaughterhouses, in our vegetarian potential future) the way we currently do human sacrifice or cannibalism.