Monday, December 31, 2007


One of the things I was particularly struck by while traveling in South Africa a few weeks ago was the contrast between it and its neighbor Zimbabwe. OK, I admit that it's hard not to see the contrast. And I admit that observing that Zimbabwe is an unmitigated tragedy (or that it didn't have to be) makes "stating the obvious" a rather startling demonstration of understatement. And I think the blame for all of Zimbabwe's many problems rests squarely upon Mugabe.

It's interesting that even in South Africa people I met shake their heads when speaking of Zimbabwe and Mugabe. I think they see what could have happened in their country. I think that Rhodesia (I'm using that name deliberately) and South Africa represent a rarity in political systems: a controlled experiment. Here were two countries with very similar initial conditions - white rule, strong self-reliant/self-sustaining economies (at least by African standards), and the potential for great wealth. Yet they had dramatically different outcomes for what can only be attributed to political strategies. South Africa sought reconciliation; Zimbabwe, retribution.

I can understand the desire for wealth redistribution, and how that can lead to a desire for land transfer. (I don't believe that forced redistribution is in fact morally justifiable; I am just saying that I can see why people might believe it to be so.) But sadly, people often confuse what is morally justifiable with what actually will achieve the desired ends. In the case of Zimbabwe, while chasing the goal of wealth redistribution (putting aside the fact that it was far more about cronyism than righting past wrongs), they ended up merely performing wealth destruction. Giving a productive farm to people who have no experience farming simply results in an un-productive farm; the moral arguments behind the action simply are not relevant.

If only Mugabe's motives were pure then perhaps he could be forgiven for the tactical missteps, but he has only compounded the tragedy because he has not demonstrated that he has the people's interests at heart.

He is quite simply and evil man, and he has singlehandedly destroyed a jewel of a country.

Friday, December 28, 2007

A quick rant about smokers in cars

Want to lose money quickly? Next time you are driving behind a car with a driver that is smoking, bet your passenger that the ashes from cigarette as it burns, and the resulting butt, will stay in the car. You'll lose every time.

It's still a (mostly) free country (despite the best attempts of the security-obsessed among our "leaders", but that's another rant), so I'm not advocating a ban on smoking while driving or other various stupid activities in which you wish to behave that don't directly impact my safety.

But I would ask my fellow citizens who choose to smoke and drive the following questions:
  1. I notice that you inevitably have the window down to let the smoke out, even on rainy or cold days. If you can't stand the smoke in your car, isn't that a clue that you should quit?
  2. Why do you think that the world is your ashtray? You have one in your car, why can't you use it?
  3. You're generally a law-abiding citizen. Why do you think it's OK to toss your butt out the window? At best, it's littering, but it's not unusual for forest fires to start this way either.

Friday, December 21, 2007

No irony here

The EPA denied California's request for a waiver that would allow it (and several other states, including Washington, which follow California's lead) to set its own emissions standards. This despite the EPAs own lawyers advising that if California sued, it would likely win.

President Bush defended the EPA saying that this is a matter of federal jurisdiction, while governors such as Washington's Gregoire (a Democrat) made a state's rights argument in favor of California's waiver application.

So we have a staunchly conservative president asserting federal rights and a bunch of Democratic (and centrist Republican) governors asserting state's rights. Did I miss something or hasn't it always been a conservative hallmark to favor state's rights and a liberal hallmark to favor strong federal power?

TSA: I can't say I'm surprised.

There's a news report out today about a study that says that there is no evidence that the TSA's screening procedures actually provide any additional security. My favorite quote from this is the fact that the TSA defended itself by citing the number of prohibited items that they've confiscated - completely ignoring the question of whether or not prohibiting the item enhances safety.

My biggest complaint with the TSA isn't the annoyance of it all (although I do complain about that.) My biggest complaint is that the illusion of providing security can be more dangerous than no security, and can distract resources from providing actual security, and I think that the airport security process provides nothing more than that illusion of security.

Not surprisingly, the public is not a big fan of the TSA.

Thursday, November 08, 2007

Telecommunication immunity

I have to say that I can't find anything other than a completely cynical explanation for why congress would even consider granting immunity to the telephone companies who cooperated with the NSA on warrantless wiretaps (for which they are getting sued).

To me, it is really quite simple. What the cooperating companies did was either illegal or it wasn't. I'm not a lawyer so I don't know for sure which side of the line what they did fell on. But it doesn't matter. If it wasn't illegal, then they don't need immunity. If it was illegal, then they shouldn't be granted immunity.

I suppose there's also a middle ground, whereby what they did wasn't illegal but was a violation of their policies with their customers (i.e., not a criminal offense but a potential civil liability). Even here, if they promise something and then break that promise - even if its for good reasons - they should not have immunity; those reasons - if in fact "good" - can and should mitigate any penalties, but they shouldn't prevent any attempt to claim damage.

I'm unfortunately left to conclude that there are only cynical explanations for the attempt to grant immunity here. For shame.

Sunday, November 04, 2007

Death penalty

The death penalty has been in the news again lately, focused largely around the question of whether or not lethal injection is unconstitutionally "cruel and unusual" punishment.

On that particular question, I'd say "hardly." Folks get shots every day, it's not that big a deal. It has a bit of pain, sure, and I suppose there's certainly some mental anguish on the part of the condemned that the moment or two from injection to death are one's last. If either of these, though, meet the "cruel and unusual punishment" bar, then I can't imagine of any sort of punishment that doesn't.

Of course, this sideshow discussion ignores the larger moral/constitutional question of whether the death penalty itself meets that bar. I'd have to say that no, I don't think it does, when correctly applied. (Ahh, but there's the rub.) Mass murderer who has confessed? Seems perfectly reasonable. Parking violator? Seems a tad excessive. Good, so that's clean, but what about the 98.3% of all other criminals on death row fall somewhere in between those two extremes? That's, of course, a judgment call and what juries/judges are for.

Even though I have no a-priori opposition to the death penalty from a moral point of view, I've found that it's problematic from a pragmatic point of view. It all boils down to the basic question of whether or not the death penalty is doing what it is supposed to do, which is to (a) deter the most abhorrent crimes, (b) punish those who commit them, and (c) never ever punish an innocent person. The evidence for (b) is pretty strong; the evidence for (a) is weaker, and (c) is getting weaker every day. And given other claims that it's more expensive (due to appeals and so forth) to execute someone than to lock them up forever, the pragmatic qualities of the death penalty as applied today (a key qualifier!) look weaker.

A common argument in favor of the death penalty is that nobody has ever been proved to have been incorrectly executed. I think that's a bit of a false argument: once someone is dead, few people have the means or the standing to pursue post-mortem appeals, useful evidence is rare, and survivors generally want to move on.

But over the past few years, we have seen quite a few death-row inmates freed using DNA evidence, something that wasn't even available 20 years ago. If a measurable percentage of all current death-row inmates today are guilty-beyond-a-reasonable-doubt until DNA proves otherwise, then one must assume that similar convicts 20+ years ago would have been executed. And there's no reason to think that the percentage of convicts who are actually innocent would vary much over time. Therefore, the overwhelming likelihood is that we have, in fact, executed innocent people.

I think the proscription against executing the innocent is so strong that we should certainly halt any execution where there is a possibility that DNA or other new techniques have a possibility of proving innocence.

But other than beefing up safeguards to ensure that the guilty truly are guilty - not just beyond a reasonable doubt, but beyond a shadow of a doubt - I don't have a moral issue with the death penalty. If we can fix the system to where there is no risk of innocents being executed, then the decision of whether or not to keep the death penalty really should be dictated by whether it is cost effective (vs. life in prison) and actually achieves its deterrent goals.

Friday, September 28, 2007

Is a hate crime a distinct crime?

News today that congress is trying to tie hate crime legislation to the must-pass defense spending bill. Bush is threatening an unprecedented veto, it will be interesting to see if he actually does it.

What intrigued me about this story was not the surface story about the relevance of hate-crime legislation in a defense bill, or the political fight or model for passing this. Rather, it was this nugget in the story:

But Republican Sen. John Cornyn of Texas maintained the measure has nothing to do with the defense authorization bill. He argued that crimes should not be considered more or less despicable because of the victim's identity.

"All crimes of violence are crimes of hate," said Cornyn, a strong ally of the White House. "All ought to be judged according to the same criteria. All ought to be subject to the same range of punishments, given to juries able to convict people based on evidence produced in court (and) not based on (the) politically correct notion that some crimes are more heinous than others."

What is interesting about this statement is that it essentially argues that there is no such thing as "terrorism," that Sept. 11 was nothing more or less than a mass murder, a sort of Green River Killer on steroids.

The fact is that we do distinguish motive (pre-meditated crimes are considered more serious than heat-of-the-moment crimes) and, yes, victim as well. Fortunately, nobody is arguing that genocide is somehow distinct from - and more evil than - simply killing random people.

I've seen the argument before that "hate crimes" are problematic because, by weighing the intent/motivation, or the identity of the victim, they essentially criminalize thought. This is a pretty strong and compelling argument, but it doesn't quite pass muster for me for a pretty simple reason. Terrorism or hate crimes are distinct from the crime of the underlying act precisely because they carry a chilling message beyond the basic act. Burning a shed in a random person's yard is arson; burning a cross is clearly something more menacing to society, yet by Cornyn's argument, it is also simply arson.

Maybe I'm actually making Cornyn's point. Burning the cross is actually two distinct crimes: it's the underlying crime of arson, with an additional crime of harassment/intimidation (or whatever is the technical legal issue). But Cornyn seems to ignore the latter point.

When Matthew Shepard was beaten to death in Wyoming 9 years ago (the inspiration for the bill), it wasn't a random petty crime; it sent an intimidating message of fear among a population of people simply for being who they were. Whether you treat it as a distinct crime or as an attribute of the crime - is to miss the big picture entirely.

Friday, August 31, 2007

Good commentary on piracy and digital media

Good blog today on CNet about NBC/Universal's recent cut-off-your-nose-to-spite-your-face move in cutting off their contract with Apple's iTunes. If people want your product and you're not making it available to them in a way that they can use and at a reasonable price, you shouldn't be surprised that you suffer piracy. That's not a justification for piracy at all - merely an explanation. Big media wants high prices and stringent controls; the market says "nope, not gonna happen." Big media needs to become much more customer-centric.

Sunday, August 26, 2007

The Elephant and the Dragon

Late blog post, but a few weeks back I read The Elephant and The Dragon, a book about the rise of China and India and their differences by Robyn Meredith. I had seen her speak in Los Angeles in April; she plugged her book and it sounded quite interesting. Indeed it was - if you like Thomas Friedman's "The World is Flat" then this book is definitely in the same vein, providing more historical/cultural context for Friedman's thesis with a little less focus on the "what's happening now."

The book is a quick read and perhaps a bit superficial (especially if you've read Friedman's works), but - partly due to its currency - nevertheless an enlightening comparison and contrasting of the quite different tracks that these two Asian Giants have taken.

Wednesday, August 22, 2007

Bush is finally comparing Iraq to Vietnam

But I think he's missing the point. He frames Vietnam as a war that we abandoned too early - and points to a lot of badness that happened subsequently (Khmer Rouge, re-education camps, etc.) as the result of our withdrawal.

What this misses is the exact same lesson that I believe he is missing in Iraq today: that you can have all the military success in the world, but having great success on a military mission that is fundamentally a political/social problem is like trying to keep your house dry by building the most incredible concrete foundation while ignoring the leaky roof above. You need the dry foundation for sure, but without the roof you're kinda wasting your time.

As far as I can tell, our military is doing a very good job of providing security, given the job we're asking them to do. The problem, however, is that our floundering on healing of ethnic divisions is counterproductive to the job we're asking the military to do. Every day that the divisions are not addressed leads to more people growing frustrated and taking up extremist roles. This is not "blaming America", but merely pointing out that we haven't fixed the leaky roof so we should hardly be surprised that the watertight basement is nevertheless filling with water.

Friday, August 03, 2007

Scary potential overreaching power grab

I've posted here a number of times about how the recording industry just doesn't get it with regard to DRM (Digital Rights Management) and copyright. While in no way condoning copyright violation or abuse, I feel quite strongly that the industry is usually its own worst enemy.

Today I saw news that the industry may consider sharing of music on one's home network to be a violation of their rights. Fortunately, this is still in the "novel theory" category, but it is a chilling point of view to advocate.

I personally have a rather large (5000+) collection of songs ripped from CDs (perfectly legal - for now, at least!) to my hard drives throughout my house. How often do I listen to a CD? Never anymore. How often do I listen to music from whichever hard drive is closest to me? Quite frequently. It's not worth the inconvenience of searching for the disc and moving it to the nearest player in order to play it.

Yet somehow, the (potential) argument being made by copyright holders is that somehow it is perfectly legal for me to listen to music in any room of my house if I go through a bunch of hassle-inducing steps to move the CD from room to room. But if I don't go through the physical motions, somehow that provides the basis for a copyright violation. How does the physical medium possibly change the copyright status of my listening to music? I've legally purchased the CD, which means I've legally purchased the right to listen to the music therein. I could certainly run speakers throughout my house, so why is playing it through arbitrary speakers in my house OK while playing it through a network to another computer which then puts it on speakers in my house somehow crossing the line? (To clarify above: I play from one of two sources; I keep two sources so that one is a backup of the other).

Here I am, playing by the industry's rules (i.e., actually BUYING the CDs!), and now they're saying they'd like to criminalize my behavior. If that isn't hating one's customers, I don't know what is.

Heck, now I'm seeing news stories of ASCAP demanding that restaurants and others pay royalties for playing copyrighted songs. This makes sense to me when the restaurant plays a CD (that's a public performance, not a personal use) or hires a band that plays covers (although in that case, shouldn't the musicians pay?), but they're also going after restaurants that have a TV or Radio playing. Maybe I'm missing something, but didn't the TV/Radio station already pay for the right to broadcast to an unlimited # of people? And if so, isn't making the restaurant pay "double dipping"?

Tuesday, July 24, 2007

Executive Privilege out of control

Congress wants Harriet Miers and others to testify about the firings last year of US attorneys that may have been politically motivated. Bush has claimed executive privilege and directed Ms. Miers not to testify, and she herself has declined to so much as show up for the hearings. And if Congress holds her in criminal contempt for doing so, they can only enforce that by going through the US attorneys, who work for Bush, who clearly will not pursue the matter. Check-mate.


A few things have become painfully clear to me here:
  • Ms. Miers should indeed be held in contempt. The claim of executive privilege may or may not apply here, but either way that's no excuse for ignoring a congressional subpoena. If you get a subpoena, you show up, even if all you do is repeat "I'm sorry, I cannot answer that due to (fifth amendment, executive privilege, I'm washing my hair, etc.)" all day. If your claim of executive privilege is valid, then you've fulfilled your duty.
  • As for the application of executive privilege: I am too much of an amateur to judge that, but if there is a suspicion of illegal activity (and political considerations in hiring/firing of career attorneys or political pressure that has the effect of interfering with day-to-day duties of attorneys would be illegal if true), my understanding is that privilege does not in fact apply.
  • If she is held in contempt and Bush sits on the contempt charge, then he should be impeached for obstruction of justice. This is a serious statement I'm making, but he's doing an end-run around the careful system of checks and balances. At this point, it is not about executive privilege, it's about responding to congressional subpoenas, and nobody should be above the law on this point, even if they are a friend of the president.
  • President Bush is clearly making a strong statement that he believes that executive privilege applies to anything to which he declares that it applies, and that such declarations are not subject to any sort of challenge or review by anyone but himself. This a remarkable statement - privilege may or may not be as broad as he claims, but the notion that it is essentially unquestionable is quite disturbing and I have a strong hunch that the judiciary might take a different view of this. Normally, I'd think that such an accusation against the president is overly harsh and cynical, but after the leaking of Valerie Plame's identity and the commutation of Lewis Libby's sentence, there is a pretty strong pattern of not accepting oversight within this White House.
I am going to be writing a bigger check to the ACLU than I wrote last year.

UAW/Detroit labor negotiations

So it seems that the UAW is beginning its bargaining with the Big 3, hoping to walk the fine line between acknowledging that they have to help a troubled industry, and avoiding the face-loss of giving up any benefits.

Seems to me that this is rooted in an unfortunately too-typical short-sighted/self-defeating tactic of winning the battle at the expense of losing the war. If the unions preserve benefits packages that are uncompetitive, they may keep benefits or jobs in the short term, but they will ultimately find themselves with fewer members overall as the industry downsizes.

I suppose I should be up-front here about my general anti-union bias: while I support unionization and the right to collective bargaining, I feel that the vast majority of unions are net-negatives for their workers and for the unionized industries. They all-to-frequently foster an us-vs-them attitude within a company (as opposed to "our company vs. our competitors", which it should be), or a highly inefficient and unhealthy bureaucracy (the NEA and UAW are classic cases of this), or general impediments to innovation and nimbleness.

This time the UAW professes to understand the trouble that the Big-3 are facing. I would propose that the negotiators try to call this bluff. If in fact the union recognizes this, then they should be part of the solution. Instead of negotiating a contract that enshrines certain benefits or jobs, they should negotiate a performance-based contract. If the union improves productivity, provides more flexibility/nimbleness/innovation/quality, and otherwise meets lower costs-per-car or increase efficiency targets, then the automakers should actually promise them a net INCREASE in benefits than they currently receive. But if things remain the same or net efficiency decreases, then the union should see their benefits shrink accordingly.

The same should go for executive pay, frankly: although their performance is, in theory, already tied to performance by being so heavily weighted towards stock/stock-options, it is far too common for them to preserve compensation through other means even when the stock does poorly. If they're going to ask the UAW to have more skin in the game, then the executives should do likewise and truly and unambiguously tie their compensation to specific performance targets.

It's funny what can happen when people's interests become aligned.

Saturday, June 30, 2007

Ahh, justice.

In case it got overshadowed by the Paris Hilton circus, I thought I'd highlight an example of our judicial system showing common sense, albeit far too late. Trouser guy lost.

The bad news: how did this ever make it to a trial?
The even scarier news: this guy (the plaintiff) is a judge in our legal system? Yikes!
The scarier still news: Paris is out of jail, which I fear means she'll be even more in the news.

When religion and career collide.

I came across this story a few days ago about doctors who are unwilling to provide medical services for which they have a moral objection. This is similar to other cases in the news lately about pharmacists who are unwilling to provide RU486 or even less broadly controversial things like birth control pills, or Muslim cab drivers who refuse to carry passengers who are carrying alcohol, or checkout clerks at Target who refuse to handle pork.

The common thread, of course, is the imperative of one's religion vs. the needs of one's employer or one's customer. My view, however, is that if your religion and the duties of the job collide, you should take another job.

This position is easiest to defend in the case of employees serving customer demands. Let's use McDonald's as an analogy. You don't hear cases of kosher Jews seeking employment at McDonalds but demanding to be exempted from handling non-kosher food. And I suspect that if such a case were to arise and a lawsuit ensue, it would be laughed out of court. Employers are required to make reasonable accommodations for their employees, but changing the fundamental business that they're in cannot be considered "reasonable."

Similarly, employees who patronize McDonalds would be aghast to order a cheeseburger and be dissuaded from doing so by a kosher or vegetarian server. This is essentially no different from the Target, taxi, or even pharmacy examples above.

Of course, one might note that a vegetarian or Jew is obviously free to leave McDonalds and open a vegetarian or Kosher restaurant, but there are two key differences that differentiate this from the examples above: (a) doing so is no longer contradictory to the stated goals of their employer, and (b) customers can clearly see the focus of the new offering and make an informed judgment whether to eat at the new restaurant or elsewhere.

This is where things get a bit tricky for the MD example with which I started this post. A doctor takes an oath to do no harm, and if one's view is that abortion is murder, then this is a judgment about crossing a medical line (doing harm) and hence it seems to me perfectly appropriate for the doctor refuse treatment or to refuse to make a referral. However, just as I wouldn't want a vegetarian to lecture me when I patronize a McDonalds, I think that the decision by a doctor to exercise this conscientious objection imposes on them a responsibility to inform patients up front of this fact so that the patient can make a decision whether or not to see that doctor, in much the same way that the kosher person can discover and patronize kosher restaurants.

Heck, faith healers and witch doctors are free to offer their services to anybody that chooses to utilize them, but obviously would label their services as such (and in fact, legally must not put forth as being licensed physicians).

Here's the rub, though: fast food is a pretty efficient free-market system. Customers weigh choices according to a variety of factors and make a decision, and providers compete for their business. Medicine, however, often does not operate according to these principles - especially emergency medicine. Insurance takes cost out of the equation for many, and when one is dealing with one's health much of the normal tradeoffs go out the window: you want the best treatment you can have. In an emergency, of course, such as the rape example cited above, there's no time to make a decision, and the doctor therefore is in quite a powerful position to not only treat the patient, but to also inappropriately impose their particular world view upon them, whether wittingly or not. After all, you wouldn't want to go to an emergency room after a car crash and be refused a much needed transfusion by a physician on religious grounds if you did not in fact share that religion. As a result, I have a very hard time supporting emergency room physicians who are unwilling to provide legal services requested by their patients.

If you're not willing to make the cheeseburger, don't work at McDonalds. If you're not willing to treat your patients or fill valid prescriptions, then you should clear your moral conscience by not working in emergency situations or in a pharmacy.

Thursday, June 21, 2007

New Blokus Champion?

Tonight Parker saw our Blokus game and asked me to play it with him. At first I said no, it's a grown-up game, thinking that the rules were too hard, but he persisted and I relented and taught him how. The rules are actually pretty simple: you take turns putting down your color's tiles, your tiles have to touch corner-to-corner but cannot touch side-to-side; whoever has the fewest leftover tiles at the end wins. He picked up on the rules immediately, and even though we were both basically playing random pieces (there's a fair amount of strategy that you can/should employ), he almost beat me: I had 40 pieces left over, he had 41. Wow, Not bad.

Saturday, June 09, 2007

Another great Fareed article

I've long been a fan of Fareed Zakaria's approach to world events, but I thought that this week's Newsweek cover story was exceptional.

Two quotes in particular, I think, are worth highlighting:

If one day bombs do go off, we must ensure that they cause as little disruption—economic, social, political—as possible. This would deprive the terrorist of his main objective. If we are not terrorized, then in a crucial sense we have defeated terrorism.
I've been railing for a while about the stupidity and futility of our approach to security, particularly at the TSA line at airports. Our approach is reactive and focuses on the symptoms, and in a quest for perfect safety against terrorism has imposed incredible costs for a gain in perceived rather than actual security. Banning liquids on airplanes simply does nothing serious for security - it presumes that the bad guys are not clever enough to think up ways around it, or other ways to attack. (For this reason, I've taken to declaring that I'm traveling with 6-8 pints of blood and asking if I need to drain it into 3oz bottles in a clear plastic bag.)

Such overreactions are precisely what Osama bin Laden has been hoping for. In a videotaped message in 2004, bin Laden explained his strategy with astonishing frankness. He termed it "provoke and bait": "All we have to do is send two mujahedin ... [and] raise a piece of cloth on which is written 'Al Qaeda' in order to make the generals race there, to cause America to suffer human, economic and political losses." His point has been well understood by ragtag terror groups across the world. With no apparent communication, collaboration or further guidance from bin Laden, small outfits from Southeast Asia to North Africa to Europe now announce that they are part of Al Qaeda, and so inflate their own importance, bring global attention to their cause and—of course—get America to come racing out to fight them.
More successful manipulation of us by the bad guys. Why can't we recognize that we're being played?

Thursday, May 24, 2007

Hate crimes and terrorism

The recent sentencing of an ELF member for acts of arson that were legally found to be "terrorism" raised an interesting question in my head. Namely: how can people who frown upon laws against so-called hate crimes support laws that ban terrorism?

Many conservatives such as George Will and make a quite valid point in arguing against hate crime laws that it is a dangerous precedent to punish the same crime differently because of the motivation in someone's head. This amounts to punishing thoughts, which should make any lover of freedom shudder, even if the thoughts being punished are abhorrent. It is acceptable to pass a law that you cannot lynch black people, but it is not acceptable to pass a law that says you cannot be a bigot against black people; even the ACLU would agree with this.

And this brings me to terrorism. What distinguishes terrorism from mere destruction and mayhem? Is it not entirely about motivation and intent? Yet it would be hard to find a conservative (or liberal for that matter) who would argue that we shouldn't have laws against terrorism.

In fact, I have thought about this and have come to the conclusion that I cannot come up with a definition that distinguishes terrorism from hate crimes. It's a pornography thing - we know it when we see it. When a Sunni insurgent blows up a car in a Shiite market in Baghdad, we would call it terrorism. Yet if someone attacks a Muslim in America in (perceived) retaliation, say, for 9/11, we'd call it a "hate crime." Yet what really distinguishes these two heinous crimes? Both target innocent non-combatants for being who they are, not for anything they have done or any role that they play. I have scratched my head and I simply cannot identify any meaningful facet that distinguishes these two acts.

It seems to me, therefore, that logical consistency requires that you either support (in principle) the idea of anti-hate-crime legislation AND anti-terrorism legislation (assuming, of course, that the laws promise to actually be effective and otherwise reasonable), or that you support NEITHER of the two. I simply cannot see how one can be for anti-terrorism legislation, but opposed to the idea of hate crime laws.

So which position should one take? I think the George Will crowd is right on the one point - you cannot and should not outlaw abhorrent thoughts or points of view - but miss the critical larger point: "hate crimes" are crimes (arson, murder, etc.) that are made worse not because of the motivation or thoughts of the perpetrator, but because they are committed in order to intimidate a larger group. A mugger attacking a random person differs from a skinhead attacking a minority in that the first consists of a single crime, while the latter actually consists of two: the attack itself, and the intimidation of the minority group. Terrorism is, of course, exactly the same - the car bomb in the Baghdad market is not mere murder, but murder that intimidates a specific group beyond those actually killed.

Wednesday, May 02, 2007

Bush's disingenuous veto

Bush issued the second veto of his presidency yesterday, killing a war funding bill because it has a timetable for withdrawal of troops. I happen to agree with the president that arbitrary timetables are a bad idea (and hence think the veto was probably the right decision), but I think his rationale for the veto was disingenuous for two reasons.

The first reason was that he said that it substituted the judgment of politicians for that of commanders on the ground. That simply doesn't wash for me. For one thing, of course that's what it's doing; that's precisely the point of congressional oversight, of the power of the purse. Secondly, the bill doesn't dictate any tactics or strategy or anything affecting the commanders on the ground. Why? Because none of them have the authority to initiate a withdrawal. That decision lies with...the commander-in-chief, overseen by congress. As such, it is absolutely the sort of decision that we elect politicians to make.

The second reason I think Bush's rationale was disingenuous is that he stated that any funding request for our soldiers should be given and given cleanly. I don't buy this argument, though, because it is equivalent to saying that the only acceptable check is a blank one. Blank checks are obviously a bad idea for many reasons, but they are especially in appropriate when it is so clear to everyone (except Bush himself, it seems) that something needs to change.
The timetable may be a bad idea, but putting it in the bill has a very redeeming aspect: it makes it clear that things cannot continue as they have been, that Bush must be held accountable for making progress.

I've made this suggestion before, I'll make it again: Bush should get serious about wrapping up the war so that our troops can come home for the right reasons (i.e,. stability achieved in Iraq rather than a particular date arriving). This requires political and diplomatic progress, not military, and Bush has simply not shown any progress here over the past 4 years. It may have been our fault that we messed up their country, but the situation is what it is and the Iraqis need to take control of it, and Bush needs to drive that progress.

Tuesday, April 24, 2007

2 more education observations

I've been wondering a lot lately about parental involvement and student eduction. They have shown a slide at the Global Conference multiple times that highlights the impact of factors on student learning and achievement. Teacher quality is 43% of the impact, but parents/family was 49%. (The other 8% hardly seems to matter now, does it?) I could go into detail about how they measured it, but suffice it to say that teacher quality and home/family environment have almost all of the effect both positive and negative on student learning and achievement. It makes intuitive sense, of course - families that value education and nurture and support it tend to have kids that do better.

Yet this politically and institutionally, we seem to treat the job of educating kids as our schools' responsibility - almost as if it's their problem to deal with exclusively.

So I wonder, why can't we institute a formal contract between parents and teachers, that specifies what the teachers will do and what the expectations are of the parents? (I've heard of some schools doing this on an ad-hoc basis.) At the very least, it should include discipline expectations and food/clothing - after all, a hungry or cold student isn't likely to be ready to learn. But it should also include basic additional involvement like making quiet time available for homework/study every day, attending parent-teacher conferences, reviewing report cards and seeking remedial help when necessary.

Almost certainly this would need to be done school by school or district by district because conditions can vary so much. And I recognize that this can be hard for low income or single parents, but I think that the contract can point the parent to available programs and stipulate that they should be used if needed.

The point of doing such a contract is not to go about suing parents or anything like that, nor to assign blame when the kids don't achieve. The point is really twofold: (a) to highlight to the parent that education is a shared responsibility, and (b) to mitigate the inevitable problems and fights (and occasional lawsuits) that arise when a student is expelled for disciplinary issues, or gets a failing grade, or is held back a year. This mitigation would make it easier for teachers to choose to do the right thing rather than the easy thing.

My second observation arises from a session today that talked about play as a learning mechanism. A panelist made the observation that learning is fun, and the one place that we've done a great job of ensuring that learning isn't fun is...the classroom. I think these two points are dead-on. We are learning even when we are engaged in "mindless" play, even if it isn't intellectual pursuits. A laboratory or a kitchen are where we play to learn. I don't have a better idea for how best to learn theory and themes besides a classroom or textbook of some sort, but for "bottoms up" learning, I think that making play expose "academic" principles - whether physics, science, or social interactions - is a great way to teach and to learn. We should be more and more creative about incorporating these methods whereever they can lead to actual learning.

Monday, April 23, 2007

A few comments on education

I'm currently at the Milken Institute's Global Conference along with approximately 3000 other folks, listening to a bunch of panelist's talk about education (among other tracks). Not minor players either - Bill Bennett and Tim Pawlenty (governor of MN), heads of the state departments of education in MN, PA, MD, and OH, Sally Ride (talking about science), and others. Some interesting insights and talk (although, sadly, just talk - it is a conference after all).

Anyhow, my point is not to name drop but to make a few observations.

The first is that most teachers are underpaid. This is not particularly insightful - ask any teacher and they'll say that. This begs the question "so why do you teach?" The answer, it seems, is invariably some variation of "because I am so passionate about it." That's terrific and makes for great teachers, but at the risk of saying something offensive, I'll add this rebuttal: if you're so passionate about the profession that you're willing to work for peanuts, then you shouldn't be surprised that peanuts is what you get. In the same way that we have tons of actors who wait tables because they're passionate about acting but can't make a living with it, I wonder if we don't somehow have too many teachers in the system. If we had trouble hiring teachers, we'd probably see teacher salaries going up.

My second observation is around national standards for education. The topic came up several times today, and the general consensus seems to be that it's really hard to achieve national standards because education is such a local issue. I can't see how one can escape the need for national standards, though. The most obvious reason is the simple fact that family - and hence student - mobility is dramatically greater than what it was, say, 30 years ago. With students moving from district to district and state to state, the lack of national standards guarantees that they will have a disjoint experience.

The second reason to have national standards is that it has become apparent to me that, by and large, each teacher works in isolation and improvises how they go about teaching to a great deal. I recognize that it's really important for talented teachers to be able to devise creative methods for teaching; I even applaud this. But it also leads to discontinuities for students. Great musicians, however, all work from the same basic musical principles, and somehow this doesn't inhibit their creative expressions. Having consistent standards upon which teachers can "riff" would really go a long way to distinguishing good teachers from poor teachers, and provide better service to their "customers" by ensuring that they receive a more consistent service across their educational path.

Sunday, April 15, 2007

FAA and user fees

The current FAA funding bill runs out soon, and the FAA and Bush administration are pushing an airline-backed plan for a new funding model. OK, I'm a pilot, so let me back up and explain the background. Today, the FAA, which provides safety oversight and runs our air traffic control system (the safest and most efficient in the world, I might add), primarily out of three sources: (a) a tax on aviation fuel, (b) a tax on airline tickets, and (c) a contribution from the general fund (i.e., regular federal taxes kick some in). It's super efficient to collect, it's proportional to the usage (fly more - use more fuel or buy more tickets - pay more), and it's worked well for...ever.

The new proposal not only jacks up the tax on aviation fuel (which would make sense if the FAA were underfunded, which it isn't), but more significantly impose new "user fees" on a variety of FAA provided services, including (most notoriously) any service provided near a major metropolitan airport. Since most major population centers are near major metropolitan airports, this means that most services for most pilots would carry non-trivial itemized charges. And since many of these services are not optional, this would add considerable expense to flying for the same services that are provided with adequate funding today.

I generally don't buy lobbyist arguments without a healthy dose of qualification, but (the lobbying arm for the general aviation community) has a wealth of articles explaining why this proposal is an obscenely bad idea, that are pretty much on target.

Therefore, I won't go into depth here except to summarize the key arguments against it:
  • The FAA funding model isn't broken now, so why change it?
  • With a wide variety of fee-incurring events, the cost of billing pilots and collecting for services rendered becomes significant relative to the revenue collected, resulting in a far less efficient model
  • It raises the cost of flying for everyone, without any offered benefit.
  • It has supremely bad - and dangerous - incentives built in.
I can pretty simply explain the "dangerous incentives": if you're a pilot in the air and have a situation develop (emergency or not), I think we'd all agree that the right thing is for the pilot to worry about their safety first. At the moment, there is no incremental cost associated with diverting to an airport, requesting assistance from Air Traffic Control (ATC), or getting an in-flight weather update from flight service. But if a call to flight service would incur a $10 fee, pilots would have an incentive to avoid the call and might find themselves inside a thunderstorm. If diverting to the closest airport or practicing landings have incremental costs, then pilots will have bad incentives to make bad choices. Of course, with the current fuel-based taxes, the pilot has paid for the service before takeoff, so there's no counter-incentive to taking advantage of every safety option available.

The European model for funding aviation services is built mostly around user fees. The net result? Almost no aviation in Europe other than the airlines.

Which brings me to my point. The main lobbyists in favor of this plan have been the airlines. I spent 6 years in the travel industry, and I might not have learned much, but I can say this: the airlines are among the most irrational self-destructive self-worst-enemy businesses out there (with the possible exception of the RIAA), so if they want something it is almost certainly a bad idea. Case in point is the fact that the airlines, as a whole, have lost money since the inception of the business a century ago. (Southwest airlines is a notable exception, but I digress).

Anyhow, at the risk of venturing a bit into the world of conjecture, the airlines' primary goal is to shift some of their cost burden onto general aviation. For an industry that is notoriously bad at making money or providing customer service, this is a not unreasonable goal. And it has a nice side effect of reducing traffic from private pilots in what the airlines regard as "their" airspace.

However, it seems to me that the airlines should be wary of getting what they want. For if this proposal passes, we will surely see two changes in aviation: (a) general aviation pilots will make poor safety decisions due to goofy financial incentives, resulting in more accidents, and (b) partly due to the nickel-and-diming, the increased overall taxation, and the resultant decreased safety, fewer private pilots would fly.

Thus the airlines would almost certainly get their side effect (greatly reduced general aviation), but they are ignoring classic price elasticity economics: if the price of flying goes up, fewer pilots will fly, therefore the contribution from those pilots will decrease. What will be the net effect? The FAA will want to maintain its funding level, so it will raise its fees. This will squeeze yet more general aviation pilots out of the system. Yet the airlines don't have any choice about availing themselves of FAA services, so they will end up picking up the tab. And it will be even more expensive for them than it is today, because they will have greatly reduced the contribution to the FAA from general aviation, requiring them to pick up the slack. Ahhh...unintended consequences. Nope, that's never bitten the airlines before.

Ronald Reagan is quoted as saying that the scariest words in the English language are "Hello, I'm from the government and I'm here to help." I think that the proposed user fees are a case where we could adapt this aphorism as "I'm from the airlines, and I have a good idea." In either case, the best response is to run away.

Tuesday, April 10, 2007

Bus vs. driving

One of the things I really miss about Boston is the great public transportation. When I lived there, I would take the T everywhere. Always the subway, though - I've never been a bus person.

Lately, though, I've been riding the bus to work on days when I can (namely, if I don't need to drive somewhere mid-day, or if I can leave work in time to catch the last bus home). It's actually quite nice to do - there's a park-and-ride near my house, and an express bus that goes from the P&R to a stop that is one block away from work with only a single stop in between and no transfers.

When I take the bus, I leave the house at 7:30am, get to the P&R at 7:36, catch the bus at 7:39, and am at my office by approximately 8:08, 38 minutes door to door. Since the bus travels in the carpool lane, there is very little variability day-to-day in drive-time.

When I drive, I leave the house at the same time but go a more direct route. Inevitably, as a single-occupancy car, I get caught at the metered on-ramp to the highway and in traffic once I'm on the highway, but even with that, I am generally in the garage at work by 8, and in my office shortly thereafter. There is, of course, more variability in my drive time, but surprisingly driving is actually almost always about 5 minutes faster door-to-door, even accounting for typical mid-week traffic. (Of course, on some days the traffic is really bad, and it can take me close to an hour to drive home.)

I pay $3 for the round trip on the bus. I probably burn a gallon and a half of gas for the round trip in the car, so call it $4.50 to drive, so on days that I take the bus I'm saving a bit of pocket change and save the planet a little bit from the gas I don't burn.

I also pay $100/month for parking in my building because I need to drive 40-60% of days for one reason or another. That works out to about $5/workday, or about $10 on average for my driving days. Since parking for the day a-la-carte would be about $10/day, I break even on parking if I drive about half the days, which I do. Of course, since I can't ride the bus every day, I have to pay this regardless of whether I drive or ride the bus.

So economically, if I drive half of my workdays, I'm effectively paying $4.50 of marginal costs for my commute, vs. $3 for days when I ride the bus. (Yeah, yeah, there are lots of fixed costs associated with driving, but I'd be paying them regardless of whether or not I drive or take the bus, so it's not appropriate to include them in the comparison.)

So all in all, it's a pretty good deal for the bus: I save ~$1.50/day that I ride, I remove a car from the road for the day, and (most importantly) I can read or catch up on work while someone else drives. Obviously, if I ride the bus more, then my per day parking rate goes way up, if I ride the bus less, my per-day parking goes down.

The downsides? Only two, really: it's obviously way less flexible than driving (I can't ride the bus if I can't leave work promptly at 5ish or else I'll have a long commute with transfers to get home, I can't stop to pick up dinner or groceries, etc.), and it's a bit slower door-to-door than driving, even with traffic.

Of course, the fact that this is almost point-to-point for me helps a lot; for many people, taking the bus involves transfers and a significant walk. That, I think, is the key problem with public transportation: people won't use it without a critical mass of saturation/density is important.

So I'm a convert. Now I just wish they'd build a subway system out here, or something that would make it much easier and faster to get from where I live into and out of Seattle.

Saturday, April 07, 2007

And yet more evidence that the recording industry doesn't get it

And that they hate their customers. Now they want the right to commit fraud in the name of protecting their rights. Excuse me, but what exactly is it about pursuing copyright infringers that requires you to pretend that you're someone you're not? They're justification? "We're not talking about trying to go in and get customer information. In no case have we ever tried to do that." So essentially, it is "trust us", something that they are absolutely unwilling to do with their customers in the first place.

I've said it before: the recording industry hates its customers. If their business is shrinking, they need only look in the mirror to see why.

Friday, April 06, 2007

Great Op-ed in the NYT about the RIAA

Great article about how the recording industry has been shooting itself in the foot. I particularly love the use of the adjective "boneheaded" in the gray lady. It's so true.

EMI is making a very smart move - and I hope that they are rewarded for doing so. It's not too late.

Wednesday, April 04, 2007

Big oil vs alternatives? Doesn't make sense to me

Interesting article on CNET today about "Big Energy's alternative challenges." One of the observations here is that Exxon/Mobil sees no need to be investing in alternative energies; they see their future remaining in oil/gas.

"Know thyself" is of course critical to success, and Exxon is expressing self awareness about their core competencies (oil & gas), so I don't actually fault them this.

But where I do fault them is that I think they have a decision to make, and I don't think that they realize that they are failing to make that decision. Specifically, are they an energy company or an oil and gas company?

They seem to be divided on this; they position themselves as an energy company, but they stay in oil & gas. This is a recipe for long-term failure, I think; they should pick one or the other. If they are an energy company, then the goal is continuity and diversity of supply, and alternatives are not at all competitive; to an energy company, there is nothing inherently special about oil and gas - they happen pencil out as the most economical sources of energy today, but if that changes tomorrow, that's fine. They can still source their own oil and gas if it makes sense to do so. But notice that intrinsic in the qualifier "if it makes sense to do so" is the presumption that they do not have to be in the oil/gas business.

BP and Chevron have decided that they are energy companies - almost entirely hydrocarbon based today to be sure, but they are both positioning themselves to pounce upon any competitive technology that furthers their goals as energy companies; they're not ideological about it being oil.

If Exxon doesn't want to be an energy company, then they can certainly claim competence as an oil and gas company. But this implies a different set of priorities. An oil/gas company is all about supplying energy companies with oil and gas, and securing supplies and refining capacity is paramount. In this model, it does indeed make sense to forego investments in alternative energy sources, because those alternatives are in fact competitive with core business. The name of the game in oil/gas is efficiency and maintaining oil's economic edge over other sources of energy. And your goal is to sell as much product to as many people as possible, so one might legitimately ask why an oil/gas company would maintain its own retail network.

Either model can work just fine; I'm not trying to tell Exxon which is the right model for them. The problem as I see it is simply that Exxon is half pregnant, and half-pregnancies rarely result in happy outcomes. Energy companies need diversity of supply, but oil/gas companies want to be exclusive suppliers. These goals are inherently in conflict. Exxon ultimately needs to decide which it is.

Monday, April 02, 2007

It's a fine start!

EMI today announced that it will be selling songs from its collection without DRM. They cost more than the DRM'd songs ($1.29 vs. $0.99), but hey - they have high quality (256kbs vs. 128kbs for the cheap stuff) and no DRM. This is excellent, excellent news. I think it's a terrific model to price-differentiate on DRM and sound quality.

When this happens, I will make a point of buying as much EMI music as I can find that I like. Yes, buying - not sharing. Hear that Sony? Give customers what they want and you'll find that they'll actually pay for it.

Friday, March 30, 2007

Microsoft Office 2007 commentary

OK, this isn't particularly "political" commentary, so forgive me. (Disclaimer: I worked at Microsoft for many years.)

First, a bit of typewriter history. We're all used to the quirky and odd layout of keys on our keyboard, called "QWERTY" after the keys in the top left row. It's a truly bizarre arrangement of keys, something noticed by everyone that learns to type. Legend has it that QWERTY was designed specifically to slow typists down, to prevent typewriters from jamming up. So along came Mr. Dvorak who invented the Dvorak keyboard layout, which was demonstrably more efficient than QWERTY for people that mastered it. Yet somehow, despite being better, it never caught on. People learned QWERTY, and Dvorak just wasn't enough better to justify re-learning how to type.

Which brings me to Office 2007. I've been using it for a little more than a month now, and (metaphorically) it feels like they "upgraded" my keyboard from QWERTY to Dvorak, but without giving me anything new or noticeably better in return.

Microsoft noticed that the most common feature requests they received were for functionality that was already in the product, but which people somehow didn't discover. As a result, the biggest new feature in Office appears to be that they've redone the UI, getting rid of the menu bar in favor of big "ribbons" (basically souped up toolbars) that do a better job of exposing the functionality in the product.

Making the existing functionality more discoverable certainly is a reasonable goal. It's just about 10 years too late. Good or bad, most people have figured out the basic UI model at varying degrees of proficiency. Designing for the "novice" user may have been a wise goal then, but today there are too few "novice" users compared to experienced users. If the old UI was a keyboard layout, it was QWERTY.

This could have been fine, except that they removed the menu bar from most (but not all!) places in the UI. This move is especially puzzling because there is no reason I can see that the menu bar and the ribbon cannot co-exist, and the rest of windows has menu bars.

The net result is that existing users are actually quite a bit less efficient while they hunt through the ribbons for functionality that they know exists, and used to know how to access. Keyboard shortcuts have changed, the whole taxonomy of command layout has changed, with only a very few minor functional enhancements apparent throughout the suite.

But I suppose it's not all bad, I suppose. It may not be an improvement, but they made performance slower than previous versions too!

Timetable on Iraq

I've blogged previously that I believe that a timetable for withdrawal from Iraq is a bad idea; it merely tells the bad guys that they can wait you out and you'll be gone. And now the senate and house have passed bills that contain timetables, which Bush has threatened to veto.

Yet I'm about to make a suggestion to President Bush that seemingly contradicts myself:

Mr. President, you should embrace these bills, not veto them. And then take it as a challenge to beat the timetable by knocking some Iraqi leader heads together and finally making some forward progress on achieving the stability that you have not achieved over the past 4 years. In particular, start pursuing a political solution with the same intensity that you have pursued a military solution. (Fareed Zakaria has a great article this week pointing out how important the political side of this is - and how little progress you have made.) Make it your focus.

Think about it: it's the ultimate Judo move. Right now the Democrats have the momentum, largely because of your handling of the war. They've played right into your hands, doing precisely the sort of "timetable to failure" that you've said they would do. Call their bluff. If you can clean up the political mess, you can begin the withdrawal early and you become a hero for actually succeeding there AND bringing home the troops. Everybody wins, you and republicans in particular.

After all, isn't the issue not whether or when to withdraw (I'd hope that everyone - even you - wants to withdraw at some point before eternity), but rather under what conditions? After all, the problem with a timetable isn't the fact that it's a timetable; the problem with a timetable is that it implies that you pull out even if conditions do not warrant doing so. (And if you are willing to extend the timetable due to conditions on the ground, then what is the point of the timetable?)

But by fighting this, you give credence to the idea that you don't really want victory, you just want to stay in Iraq. I may think that a timetable is a bad idea, but I have to say that staying in Iraq with no visible political progress is much worse. Heck, even pulling back to Kuwait and letting the ethnic groups butcher each other until they realize that they have to solve it themselves, and THEN going back in to help them would be better than the path we seem to be on now.

You should take the date not as a micromanaging constraint, but as a challenge, as a dare. The Dems don't think you can do it. Why not give them the ultimate humiliation and show them that they're wrong? Vetoing the bill, though, just plays into their hands.

Gonzalez and Rove

I find the scandal surrounding the firing of the prosecutors to be somewhat fascinating theater. It is an interesting question of how you can serve at the pleasure of the president yet not be beholden to his political priorities. After all, if the president's law enforcement priorities were immigration enforcement (for political reasons or otherwise) and the prosecutor were to focus instead on drug enforcement, nobody would argue that the president would be out of bounds in replacing that prosecutor with one that reflected his priorities.

Yet even if the firings are technically legal that doesn't mean that they are justifiable or ethical. The nation's judicial system rests on perception of fairness and being free from overt political influence. If it's not OK for a congressman to call a prosecutor to ask about whether they are pursuing a case (it isn't OK), then there is clearly something wrong with firing prosecutors who for failing to be "loyal" enough to the president, and congress is thus absolutely justified to investigate.

Which brings me to two observations:

The first is that Alberto Gonzalez has by all accounts been less than credible - his testimony has been incomplete at best, lying at worst. 10 years ago, Clinton was impeached not because he got a blowjob but because he lied about getting a blowjob. Even if the firings turn out to have been OK (a big "if"), it sure seems to me that Gonzalez's shifting testimony falls in the same category as Clinton's.

The second observation is that Bush will let Miers and Rove testify, but only with no oath, no transcript, and no public. He's claiming executive privilege, but I don't see how that can hold up in the face of what amounts to an investigation of wrongdoing. (I have no idea if that's true from a legal perspective, I'm just talking from the perspective of what's right and what engenders trust in the system.) He calls the investigations "political theater" rather than a search for the truth. But given the suspect testimony to date, Congress is quite right to assume that "the truth" will not come from a closed-door no-oath no-transcript session. If Bush really wanted the truth (and truly believed in accountability), wouldn't he demand at least an oath and transcript, even if it's behind closed doors?

Sunday, March 18, 2007

Bold thoughts on public education

Over the past 6 months I've been volunteering for Social Venture Partners, focusing on grantmaking for K-12 non-profits. And I've just recently started working at, which is working in the educational space as well. Therefore, I am an expert in all things education, and above reproach. Well, OK, so no, I'm pretty new to the space and know almost nothing about it. However, hopefully that also means that I have no preconceived notions and a possibility of a fresh perspective. (Or, I could just make all the old mistakes over again.) But since I'm in this space, I will probably blog about it periodically. And one thing I have learned is that our educational system is, if not broken, certainly not nearly as effective as it can or should be.

Recently as a result of my SVP membership, I received a transcript of a talk that Donald Nielsen gave to the Seattle Rotary club back in November. I haven't decided yet whether I agree with his suggestions, but I certainly agree with the questions that motivate them. Since I got permission to host the transcript, I thought I would share it.

Saturday, March 17, 2007

Darwin's theory of evolution is wrong

No, I'm not running for the school board in Kansas. But with all the debate in recent months over the teaching of Intelligent Design (within the much longer-running debate about teaching of evolution overall), I thought I'd point out something subtle but important that I think gets missed in all of the debate. Specifically, the debate gets so distracted on the "correctness" of the theory that even people who accept evolutionary theory forget that, well, it's almost certainly mistaken.

Why on earth would we think otherwise? No scientific theory that I can think of to date has withstood the test of time intact - heck, we're even refining evolution on an almost daily basis with new techniques, as this recent Newsweek article shows. But here's the thing: just because evolution is flawed hardly means that it's worthless or that we shouldn't teach it.

My favorite example here is Newtons laws of motion. Some 300 years ago, Newton proposed his theories of motion, gravity, inertia, that sort of stuff. These theories worked great, they made predictions that could be tested, they helped people engineer all sorts of things, and everyone assumed that these theories were how the world worked. Except for one small problem: these theories were, well, wrong. 200 years after Newton, a troublemaker named Albert Einstein showed that Newton was wrong. Not completely off-the-mark wrong, but at-the-edges wrong; specifically, Newton's theories break down when you get into the world of the very small (atomic level), the very large (universes/black holes), and the very fast (near the speed of light).

But here's the thing: for everyday scenarios, the difference between what Newton says and what Einstein says are so small as to be essentially immeasurable. In other words, Newton got it so close that his theories are worth teaching and the most useful ones out there in the day-to-day world, even if they are only a good approximation of reality.

And it took 200 years for Einstein to show that Newton was only an approximation. This is why I bet that within another 200 years, we'll find a better approximation than Einstein offered, and why I am convinced that Darwin will ultimately be shown to be merely a very good approximation. And as a good approximation, it absolutely makes sense to teach it. Good science is all about approximations - every theory has rough edges that are continually refined and occasionally replaced (as Einstein did with Newton's rough edges).

The Intelligent Design folks, of course, latch on to the rough edges of evolution as evidence in favor of their "theory" (which is not actually deserving of that word in any scientific sense of the word). Of course, pointing to the holes in one theory as a means of supporting your own theory is like saying that since drinking water doesn't explain why people get cancer that they must instead get cancer from carrots. It's bad logic, but then the creationist crowd is pursuing an ideological agenda, not a scientific one, so I suppose bad logic is par for the course.

Global warming also suffers this. Lots of global warming doubters make the same logical mistake as the intelligent design crowd by pointing to the rough edges of global warming (of which there are many) as evidence that it's bunk. And many folks that accept global warming as real tend to ignore those rough edges, which is probably just as dangerous. There is certainly more about our climate that we don't know than there is that we do know. This doesn't mean we shouldn't make the most of what we do know, just that we shouldn't pretend that we know more than we do either.

Anyhow, I would caution against too much overconfidence from the scientific community that just because there is little or no scientific debate over a theory that the theory is somehow "done;" we just get better and better approximations. Global warming and Evolution are both pretty darned good approximations, but they are just that. Let's teach them, and teach our kids to extend these theories as well.

Sunday, March 11, 2007

Affordable Health Care

A friend who has been reading my posts suggested that I try to tackle affordable health care. More to the point, since I don't think I have a prayer of "tackling" it (especially since it is such a complex space that I know almost nothing about), that I at least do what I think I'm pretty good about doing: distilling it down to the key issues so that at least one can have an honest debate/discussion.

I think the premise of his suggestion is a fair one: health care is broken. I did a quick Google search and found this site which I think sums up the problem: the United States spends more per capita than almost any other nation, yet each incremental dollar we spend does not appear to increase our longevity. I recognize that longevity and overall health are hardly the same thing, but they obviously correlate and it certainly illustrates the point.

I'll make an assertion from this sort of data that we have a highly inefficient system in terms of converting dollars into health care. If that's a controversial point, then I suppose the rest of this post is probably moot, but please indulge me on that. The question then is "how do we get a more efficient system?" My friend posed the question a bit differently, asking how we achieve affordable health care, but I'm deliberately reframing the question because I think that if we can make the system deliver health care more efficiently then I think we can deliver affordable health care. Heck, in the extreme case, look at the citation above. Cuba is just below us in life expectancy, yet spending ~4% what we spend. I'm not proposing that we adopt the Cuban system, but it shows that there is a long way we go, and if we could get even 20% more health benefit per unit of health care delivered, I think the whole notion of "affordable health care" becomes much more realistic.

Broadly speaking, I think there are two sources of inefficiencies: transactional and allocation. Maybe there are others, but these two stick out to me.

The first is the inefficiencies along a single health-care transaction. This includes things like health insurance overhead, malpractice insurance overhead (which is probably a topic all by itself), and in fact a whole slew of crazy policies that result in perverse incentives. My favorite example is that most insurance policies cover Viagra and childbirth but don't cover birth control pills. Whose bright idea was that? There are secondary effects here two, I'm sure. For example, fear of malpractice lawsuits undoubtedly drives some degree of tests and treatments that are not strictly necessary. I can't prove it, but I'd guess that advertising of prescription drugs leads to increased patient consultations, which cost money even if no treatment ultimately ensues.

The second realm of inefficiency is in the allocation of health care. To pick an egregious and provocative example, how many people could have received basic primary care for what it cost to keep Terri Schiavo alive through even one court appeal? If we could allocate dollars more to the needy, we might get more longevity (or other "overall health") points per dollar. More to the point (and to the source of my friend's question), we have a huge imbalance in this country in who has access to health care, and for what. How do we make it so that nobody has to go without?

My friend raised an interesting analogy, which I think is quite good: food security. As a society, we have over the years decided that we don't think people should go hungry. And by and large, we do a pretty good job of ensuring that nobody need be hungry. We have welfare and soup kitchens and a wide variety of programs and charities that try to make sure that people don't starve to death. While hunger certainly has not been eliminated, the number of people that die of malnutrition annually is (thankfully) small. Yet we don't view food as an entitlement from our government or employer, nor as something that we don't have to pay for. And we don't resent the fact that eating at a fancy restaurant costs more than eating at the corner deli.

I'd suspect that this may be part of the key of the issue: how do we make health care security like food security?

A few things come to mind to consider:
  • Provide skin in the game. One of the unintended consequences of insurance is that, in shielding the customer from the costs or risk associated with a transaction, the customer has no incentive to limit their use. I believe that this is part of the reason that low-income people (many uninsured) use the emergency room disproportionately - especially if they ultimately do not have to pay the cost of that emergency room usage. Basic marketplace principles: People need to have skin in the game if they are to make rational decisions beyond what is easiest for them. Think about how we would eat if food were provided by insurance. We'd be ordering lobster for dinner as often as we could, especially if the copay for lobster was the same as the copay for tofu.
  • Perhaps I should reformulate the "skin in the game" argument as "return insurance to being insurance." The point of insurance, after all, is to spread risk, to limit downside exposure. Health insurance does that, but it's also become its own entitlement program, providing a "health benefit" rather than a safety net. (Again, we have food insurance in this country in a variety of forms, yet nobody feels weird paying for food out of pocket.) In the way that a portion of our telephone bill goes to ensure universal telephone coverage, we should consider funding the insurance side of the equation not just through individual premiums, but through a portion of what gets paid for pay-for-service.
  • Increase choice and competition in the system. Easy to say but hard to do, but I can enumerate some of the places where increased competition could lead to greater efficiency:
    • Choice of health plans. Most people are ensured by their employer, and they are stuck with a one-size-fits-all plan (or perhaps a menu of 2 or 3 options).
    • Drug patent reform. I struggle with this because I really do believe in the value of patents and I recognize how much it costs to bring a new drug to market. But we also have companies that tweak a product slightly in order to extend a patent's lifetime, and who do not license cheap generics or competitors. I think we should try to find ways to compensate the companies for the investment and risk they bear to develop drugs, while making it as easy to crank up the volumes (and down the prices) on those drugs as we can.
    • Malpractice reform, as a way to make it easier for more doctors to get into the field (increased competition), and to reduce the incentive for them to practice defensive medicine.
There's a tension in most debates about healthcare between the single-payer model and the pure free-market model. I think this is a false debate because neither model works. The single-payer model is inefficient because it lacks competition, choice, skin in the game, and often has rationing of service or long delays for service. The free-market model works much better, but only for those who can afford it. The trick is to take the best of both models: provide a safety net so that nobody goes without essential health care, but wring enough efficiency from the system so that most people can afford to pay for the health care that they need.

Saturday, March 10, 2007

We're a Christian Country

That's the rationale I heard tonight explaining why we should be bothered by Keith Ellison's decision to take the oath of office on a Koran rather than a bible. We were founded by Christians, after all, so we're a Christian nation, and we should be using the Bible. (Some excellent commentary on this, IMO, is here.)

Well, yes and no. It is an undeniable fact that the founding fathers were pretty uniformly Christian. But I think this point is pretty irrelevant, and an exceptionally weak argument for justifying almost anything that it is used to justify. Actually, it's worse than that, because the logic of using this fact to justify fairly innocuous things like "in God we trust" on our currency (something I don't , by the way, have a problem with, but for other reasons), is equally valid for justifying quite noxious things as well.

I get why people are on edge about Muslims these days; saying that the western world is suffering from challenges in the Islamic world would be an understatement. Many Muslims have sworn to defeat the west and not enough Muslims have stood up to disavow that ideology. But letting that lead to intolerance and prejudice - and distorting our history to justify that - is hugely problematic.

And yes, the Bible and other Christian derived traditions have some pretty prominent places in our society. For example, people swear in court on a Bible to tell the truth. But the thing about this that many people seem to miss is that it isn't the Bible that's the relevant part of that particular process; it's the fact that people are swearing on something that means something to them. I frankly am quite comfortable with an oath to tell the truth made by an atheist if they simply raise their hand, but if they have to do it on a religious text which I know they do not accept, then I do not trust their oath either. (And my understanding is that the courts take the same view - raising one's hand is sufficient; certainly, that's all that was done in the court cases where I've been a juror).

There are at least two reasons why the "we were founded as a Christian nation" rationale is so bothersome to me. The first is the fact that it omits the minor detail of the constitution and the government that these Christians forefathers created. It is no accident that the government is explicitly a secular institution. The first amendment prohibits establishment of religion (or free exercise thereof - keeping government quite explicitly neutral!). And even more significantly, it requires no religious test to hold office. So Ellison's decision to use a Koran is constitutionally strictly a personal decision; it holds absolutely no legal or official significance. (And, of course, Jews and even other Christians have declined in the past to use a Christian Bible for their oath, somehow these decisions never generated controversy.) Our forefathers had the foresight to deliberately create a government that was secular and that stayed out of religious matters; this much is pretty clear, so I don't understand why they would do this if their intent was in fact to achieve the opposite (a Christian nation).

But the more disturbing reason that the "founding fathers were Christian" argument bothers me is that that same logic leads to some rather frightening conclusions. After all, our founding fathers were all white, so if the fact that they were Christian confers special benefits to the Christian Bible, then you have to also presume that being white also had special implications - perhaps that there is a problem with non-Europeans holding office. Oh, wait, they were all male, maybe that means that we shouldn't afford women equal rights. And of course, many of them owned slaves; I don't need to draw conclusions about what that must mean.

Our founding fathers were great men - visionaries who created the greatest nation on earth. But they were not without flaws, and it is dangerous and IMO frankly ignorant to assume that because they created a great nation that everything about them was a template for all to follow, and to then extrapolate from that. There is nothing wrong whatsoever with being white, Christian, male, or (gasp) all three, but there is quite a bit wrong with assuming that there is something wrong if you fail to meet all three criteria.

The Democrats latest tactic - be an ostrich

OK, so it's a myth that ostrich's bury their heads in the sand, but it makes for a good analogy.

The Democrats this week are looking to cut off funding for the war if Bush doesn't pull the troops out of Iraq by 2008. This seems to me to be an ostrich strategy, and comes from the following faulty reasoning: the war was a mistake, therefore we must undo it by pulling our troops out. Uh-huh. And if you close your eyes and click your heels 3 times, the situation will magically resolve itself.

(Before I get too harsh on the Democrats here, it bears pointing out that Bush's approach in Iraq is not exactly realistic either. Plan B in Iraq seems to be to try to make Plan A work, long after Plan A has shown itself to be a complete failure. Of course, picking on Bush is easy, so back to picking on Democrats, which, oh what the heck, it's just as easy...)

One can have reasonable debates about whether the war was a mistake. And regardless of where you fall on the question of whether starting this war was or was not a mistake, pretty much all reasonable person (i.e., anyone NOT in this White House) agrees that the execution of the war after the first few weeks has been pretty disastrous.

But nevertheless, here we are. And here's the problem: you can't put humpty dumpty back together again. I'll give Bush credit on one thing here: a timetable is a mistake. The mess we're in means that we can't leave a bigger mess behind. We need to leave behind something that won't be a breeding ground for terrorists, and that won't further erode what little credibility we have left in foreign policy. (And I frankly wish that Bush would spend his energy recognizing that this problem, not a military problem, is what we face.) We need to be establishing security yes, but we need to establish confidence building measures and not wait for the Iraqis to stand up but force them to stand up. As this happens, yes, we should withdraw, but absolute anarchy would result if we do so in the wrong way.

To the degree that our presence in Iraq is part of the problem, it may actually make sense to pull troops back early; I say "hooray" if this is the case. But it still makes my point above that the key metric is increasing stability, not numbers of soldiers coming home.

So I come back to the Democrat's tactic to try to force Bush's hand. It's stupid because it ignores reality, and it's stupid because it's about politics, not about doing the right thing.

In the spirit of not merely criticizing, I think there is a far more constructive way that the Democrats could exert pressure on Bush to do the right thing and (hopefully) still get the troops home sooner (and probably score political points as well). They should let Bush have all the funding he thinks he needs for Iraq. Yep, every last penny. But here's the catch: they should allocate zero new dollars out of the budget to pay for it. So for every dollar that he wants to spend on Iraq, he should have to cut it from somewhere else, or raise taxes (or cut his tax cuts) to pay for it. Bush currently faces no pressure on this front because everyone wants to support the troops. But if he has to actually make sacrifices/tradeoffs with his other priorities, I think his focus on the need to solve Iraq may increase a bit. At the very least, it would make explicit the sorts of tradeoffs that we are making implicitly today.
Here's my idea: give bush all the $ he wants, but make him pay for it out of his tax cuts or spending cuts elsewhere. I.e., if you think the strategy sucks, make it hurt to continue it.

Saturday, February 17, 2007

Steve Jobs and DRM

Apple has been getting some flack lately for the closed nature of its iTunes/iPod system, specifically the fact that the music that it sells on iTunes is protected by digital rights management (DRM) schemes which greatly restrict the ways in which the songs can be played.

Steve Jobs recently posted a rather surprising response to complaints about these restrictions in which he suggests that all DRM be dropped. Hooray! DRM is fundamentally flawed; I could go on about the reasons I believe this, but I think that Corey Doctorow does a pretty terrific job (in a talk to researchers at Microsoft, no less!) here.

That Steve Jobs, who arguably has benefited the most from DRM music (being the pioneer of legally sold music on the Internet) should take this position is notable and refreshing.

Unfortunately, it is also insufficient - his position is self serving and mistaken in two key ways:
  • He claims that opening up the FairPlay system is impossible to do, and is thus calling on the music industry to remove DRM. While this is a nice call-the-bluff statement, it is hard to accept this assertion. From a technical point of view, there are a variety of ways in which FairPlay could be licensed to other manufacturers, opening up the ecosystem to competition and compatibility. It's obvious why Apple would not want to do this, however.
  • He also claims that only a small percentage of music on peoples' systems is DRM protected, that the vast majority of the music is legally converted to MP3 with no copy protection whatsoever. This is likely true (it certainly is for me - I have about 25 songs purchased from iTunes out of about 5500 songs that I've ripped from CDs). However, from this fact he draws the ludicrous conclusion that consumers are locked in as a result. If you have even a few songs from a single store, and you can only play those songs on one device, why would you buy songs from another store that you can only play on a second device? That's simply a crazy demand to make of consumers.
Of course, I think Jobs is absolutely correct in pointing out that the music companies themselves sell the bulk of unprotected music and as such are not in a great position to decry unprotected music.

Which brings me to what I think is the larger problem with DRM in general (and the DMCA in particular): it tries to achieve the legitimate goal of copyright protection with draconian impositions on consumers. (See my earlier post asking why the music industry hates their customers; DRM is just another example of treating your customers like criminals.)

I'm no lawyer, but here how it seems to me. When I buy a DVD or a CD, I am buying the right to watch the movie or listen to the music whenever and whereever I want to. I obviously don't own the music itself (I cannot play it for profit, I cannot resell it, I cannot license it), but there have never been any restrictions on any personal use to which I choose to put it. The physical disk merely provides "proof of purchase" - it provides evidence of that right.

But as long as I have the disk, there is no intellectual property distinction between playing the movie/music directly from the disk or ripping it to a computer and playing it there (and thus avoiding the inconveniences of lost or scratched disks, or of having to put disks into trays, move them around, find them in a pile of disks, etc.) With CDs, which were invented before DRM and hence (for compatibility reasons) have no DRM, I can in fact rip the music to my hard drive and then toss the CD into a drawer and never pull it out again. This is also perfectly legal, as long as I do not share the music with others (since I purchased the right to listen to it for myself, I don't have the right to share it). I cannot, however, do this with DVDs because the act of doing so violates the DMCA, even though there is no copyright violation involved. And I cannot do this with DRM'd music that I purchase off of the Internet.

This is why I only have about 25 downloaded songs (I buy the CDs for everything else). I would be very surprised if I were alone, which suggests that there is huge financial opportunity that DRM is damping.

I assume that the music industry imposed draconian DRM on Apple largely because of the widespread theft they saw with Napster. What the industry doesn't understand, though, is that that Napster arose from its own failure to address a significant market demand. Now, even though they have (grudgingly) agreed to address that market demand, they continue to treat their customers as presumed criminals.

Here's some simple math that the music industry should consider: given the choice between selling $100 worth of music and suffering, say, 5% piracy, or selling $200 worth of music and suffering 20% piracy, most rational businesses would choose the latter in a heartbeat. After all, making $160 sure beats making $95. I admit that my numbers here are pulled out of thin air, but I would bet that whichever music company is first to take the risk and remove the DRM requirement will find that indeed piracy goes up a little, but overall sales will go up even more.

Too bad none of the major publishers have the vision or the guts to even give it a try. Too bad for them, because they're leaving money on the table, and too bad for consumers.

Thursday, February 01, 2007

The hypocrisy of civil disobedience

We were watching Boston Legal last night. (Extremely silly show, obvious liberal political bias, but still a lot of fun. And boy, justice moves quickly in Boston. But I digress.) There was a case that involved a character who sprayed a woman with blue paint because her company did testing of cosmetics on animals. The character's defense was basically that he shouldn't be convicted because the animal testing is so morally wrong that it needed to be stopped. This got me thinking.

I have a tough time with this line of reasoning, though. Civil disobedience of course has a long history of being a non-violent and morally superior method for exposing evils in society, and I think that's great. But there are three ways to go about it; the distinction is subtle, I think, but important:
  1. Commit your act of civil disobedience, and then claim that you shouldn't be prosecuted because what you were doing was morally right.
  2. Commit your act of civil disobedience and defend yourself on the basis that the law under which you're being prosecuted needs to be tossed out, not just for you but for everyone (for example, because it is unconstitutional).
  3. Commit your act of civil disobedience and demand to be prosecuted for it and plead guilty (i.e., invite the conviction) and let your conviction highlight the wrongness of the law or of the thing for which you were convicted.

I think the first method exposes the hypocrisy of the protester while the other two achieves the goal of highlighting the hypocrisy of the law or of the thing being protested.

The problem I have with the first method is that it sets a precedent that anybody who thinks that they are following a higher moral calling can ignore any law that they want and get away with it. This leads to anarchy, frankly. And besides, the whole point of civil disobedience is to suffer so that your suffering shows the wrongness of a status quo; if you go the first route, you are basically saying that you're not willing to pay the price. That's not civil disobedience, that's just flouting the law.

The second approach is pretty straightforward, but unfortunately often doesn't present itself as a viable course. It also gets into the tricky area of "judicial activism," (a notion that many conservatives view as an existing out-of-control problem but which I view as merely something to be careful of). Nevertheless, I think civil disobedience as a way to force judicial review of a law that needs to be struck down is a fine thing. (Frankly, I'd like to see more people violating the DMCA to force review of this overreaching restrictions on our freedom, but that's a topic for another posting.)

The third approach is, I think, the gold standard for civil disobedience. This is for those tricky cases where, like it or not, the law has passed legal muster but is simply morally repugnant.

Abortion is probably the poster-child issue for this today: legally, it's a settled matter, but morally it obviously is not, so I'll pick on this issue to highlight what I mean. I do not intend to take a side on the abortion debate here, just highlight two potential methods of civil disobedience protest; I could just as easily pick on radical animal rights groups, for example.

I respect abortion protesters who get arrested (for non-violent acts!) and fill the jails to highlight their cause; this actually demonstrates that they are willing to sacrifice for what they believe.

On the other hand, I have no respect whatsoever for the abortion protestors who break the law and then try to claim that they should not be punished for having done so (especially if violence is involved). This is a weasel approach. In my opinion, people who take this approach - regardless of cause - are not willing to sacrifice for their beliefs. Yet it is the sacrifice, not the original act of civil disobedience, that ultimately changes minds. Isn't that the point of civil disobedience?

Tuesday, January 30, 2007

The urge for the surge

Lots of people have been criticizing President Bush's proposed "surge" of troops into Iraq. Frankly, I don't know whether or not it's a good idea or a bad idea because, frankly, I don't know what his goal is. (And to be clear, "success at our mission," as Bush describes it, is not a goal. It's a description of whether or not you've met your goal. I still don't know what his goals for Iraq are, frankly, although I have some of my own.)

Anyhow, there's sort of a predictable and reflexive response from many - mostly, but not exclusively, from the left - opposing the surge. I think that's as absentminded as the surge proposal itself.

As I see it, the surge could be exactly what we need, or just putting more troops into harms way, but it depends on how they're used. In other words, the surge is neither a good idea or a bad idea - mostly, it's a tactical move rather than a strategic move, and I have no idea whether or not it actually supports our strategy. (Hmmmm....actually, I think the problem is that I don't have a good idea what our strategy itself is). As an essentially tactical decision, I also have a quibble with the fact that Bush spent months agonizing about what to do in Iraq only to come up with a tactical move that he could have ordered one morning over coffee. But I digress...

Here's the thing. It's been said so often that it's cliché at this point, but I'll say it anyhow: the problem in Iraq is fundamentally a political problem, not a military one. This is something that the left has repeated and that the White House still doesn't seem to understand. But equally true is something that the White House points out that the left seems to ignore: you can't solve anything politically until there is stability on the ground. If the surge can provide the stability that is the substrate for any conceivable political solution, then hooray - it's a critical and necessary move.

Of course, that then begs the following question: "Mr. President, now that the surge has been successful and the streets of Baghdad are quiet, how do you ensure that they will stay quiet and won't need a massive military force (ours or Iraqi) for centuries to come?" If the President has an answer to this, then the surge is the right medicine at the right time (no, scratch that - a year or 3 too late), and I'd love to hear the political strategy.

Absent any clear coherent political strategy - or even a strategy for a strategy - the surge is just going to put more gasoline on the fire.

I'm not an advocate of a withdrawal from Iraq. Right or wrong, we made this mess, we need to fix it. (And full disclosure: I felt that invading Iraq was the right decision, albeit for different reasons than Bush provided. It's the subsequent management of Iraq that I think has been so disastrous.) The surge is a tactical move that could provide the opportunity - through stability on the ground - to actually address core issues and actually achieve a stable, democratic Iraq (something that I feel would indeed be an unambiguously Good Thing), or it could just result in more body bags. My fear is that Mr. Bush hasn't thought it through in this way.