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.