Tuesday, August 31, 2004

Two Republican lies about medicine

I caught the tail end of Bill Frist's Republican National Convention speech on PBS today, followed by commentary from two Republicans (no Democrats; yes, it's ridiculous). There were probably more lies and distortions than I could count in real-time during those scant ten minutes, but here are two big ones.

Lie Number One: Frist claimed that Bush will not spend federal money to have human embryos destroyed. Luckily for Frist, relatively few Americans read Michael Kinsley's articles on the subject (more via Manu). But it's still a load. Q: Why won't anybody else in the mainstream media call the Republicans on this hypocrisy? A: Unlike Michael Kinsley, most editors are chickenshit.

Lie Number Two: Both Republican followup analysts (actually Republican politicians from swing states, but whatever) claimed that medical malpractice lawsuits were the major cause of high health care costs. Now, I'm not going to pretend to be an expert on the health care system, but this claim is rather transparently a piece of rhetorical judo to deflect the anger of physicians and patients from the extortionate insurance agencies and drug companies onto a Democratic constituency, as S. Polakow-Suransky explains. Especially compelling quotes from Polakow-Suransky's article:

  • ...contrary to the administration's line, increasing jury awards are not single-handedly driving premiums through the roof. Rather, a steep decline in insurers' projected investment income is largely responsible for rising rates. Medical-malpractice insurers do not invest heavily in stocks; in fact, approximately 80 percent to 90 percent of their investments are in the bond market, and bond income has been declining. Moreover, insurance companies are technically barred from recovering past losses by raising premiums, an argument the AMA parrots to dismiss claims that insurance companies are at fault. But insurance companies do regularly raise rates based on projected investment losses. For medical-malpractice insurers, investment income represents a far greater share of profits than in other lines of coverage due to the long lag (up to 10 years) between premium payments and claim payouts. And when investment income evaporates, it hits hard. AIR's J. Robert Hunter, an actuary and former Texas insurance commissioner, tracked premiums and insurance-industry investment returns over the last 30 years. He found that each of the three malpractice insurance "crises" directly coincided with declining insurance investment returns.

    Translation: when bond income declines, insurance companies try to recoup the reduction in profits by squeezing doctors (and, indirectly, patients). To add an extra dash of audacity, they ramp up the political pressure against malpractice lawyers. It's a devious one-two punch: jack up prices, then blame your political opponents for the result.

  • Far more effective than an arbitrary cap on damages would be a more systematic effort to weed out bad doctors and prevent malpractice in the first place. Dr. Sidney Wolfe, director of Public Citizen's Health Research Group, says, "You should protect patients with doctor discipline and protect good doctors with low premiums." Public Citizen ranks state medical boards according to their records of disciplining negligent doctors. "Five percent of the doctors account for 50 percent of the malpractice payouts," he says. "The primary failing is at disciplining doctors. A lot could be remedied by taking bad doctors out of practice."

    If we aggressively took out the bad 5% of doctors, malpractice costs would drop dramatically. Malpractice awards exist for a reason: some doctors are fuck-ups. Doctors should direct their anger against the fuck-ups who are harming patients and their fellow-doctors alike, not the lawyers who try to recoup some measure of retribution for patients.

p.s. Health care experts could probably point out some important flaws in the following proposal, but it seems to me that we could

  1. have the government offer insurance companies a voluntary "super-insurance plan" that would pay the balance of malpractice awards above a certain cap, and
  2. require that any doctor whose policy incurs this bailout be barred from practicing medicine in the U.S., now and forevermore.

So, doctors and insurance companies would have a choice: either pick a (pricey) policy in the unregulated, unlimited-payout system, or pick a (cheaper) policy covered by a limited-payout system with strong doctor accountability.

p.p.s. I am now listening to the Governator talking about how he became a Republican after hearing Nixon speak. Nixon. Nixon. What universe do Republicans live in where Nixon was a President to be proud of? Watergate was bad enough, but even before that, Nixon's Southern Strategy turned the Republican Party into the toxic, unholy alliance of plutocrats and crypto-racists that it is today.

Monday, August 30, 2004

The arrogance of Middle America

It's a common fallacy that America is divided between the humble, unpretentious residents of small-town America and the elitist poseurs on the coasts. What goes unnoticed is that Middle America has an equally large share of arrogance, rooted in provincialism and sanctimonious religiosity, and stoked by opportunistic Republicans cultivating ressentiment against "coastal elites" in order to conceal the true elitist agenda of the right. From today's Times:

"I left God's country," said Leon Mosley of Waterloo, Iowa, co-chairman of his state party. "They could use a bunch of people from Iowa to come here to show New Yorkers what life is all about, what being patriotic is all about, and what country is all about."

Could there be anything more transparently arrogant? Have you ever in your life heard a New Yorker claim that Iowans aren't real Americans? Jeanne, as usual, has the appropriate reply.

Friday, August 27, 2004

Faith and philosophy are air, but events are brass

Low signal-to-noise ratio warning: rambling pseudointellectual navel gazing w.r.t. random sexual predilections ahead.

I did something tonight that I rarely do: I fired up my browser and went surfing through blogrolls (starting from a post, if I recall, at Three-Toed Sloth). After a few degree-of-separation leaps, during which the reading matter predictably veered off into a random walk across the human condition, I came across Bitch, Ph.D.'s examination of her open marriage.

In general, I'm quite sympathetic to people who choose nontraditional relationships. Honestly, the reason I've never been in one is probably lack of opportunity more than lack of willingness on my part.1

On the other hand, it seems to me that this particular woman has some significant emotional problems to work through --- for example, her fear of trying new sexual things with her husband --- and that her need for an open relationship stems in part from those problems. However, it also seems possible that there's simply no way that she could work through these problems without going through character-molding experiences that bring them to light.

The human capacity for self-deception is virtually limitless; worse, by the Heisenbergesque logic of human psychology, self-deception seems to manifest in direct proportion to introspection. Sometimes only life can dispel the illusions. I can certainly recall times when I've believed something about myself that was later disproved by a mere momentary flash of concrete experience. Or, as H. Melville wrote in Pierre2:

As Pierre conjured up this phantom of Glen transformed into the seeming semblance of himself; as he figured it advancing toward Lucy and raising her hand in devotion; an infinite quenchless rage and malice possessed him. . . . All his Faith-born, enthusiastic, high-wrought, stoic, and philosophic defenses, were now beaten down by this sudden storm of nature in his soul. For there is no faith, and no stoicism, and no philosophy, that a mortal man can possibly evoke, which will stand the final test of a real impassioned onset of Life and Passion upon him. Then all fair philosophic or Faith-phantoms that he raised from the mist, slide away and disappear as ghosts at cock-crow. For Faith and philosophy are air, but events are brass. Amidst his gay philosophizings, Life breaks upon a man like a morning.

In this woman's case, the necessary experiences to bring on the dawn might be the extramarital hookups she advocates.

Furthermore, who's to say that she's doing worse than any dozen randomly sampled people in strictly monogamous relationships? To cite another literary source, here is D. Coupland's Microserfs:

Dusty gave Susan lessons in dating architecture: "Tech women hold all the cards, and they know it. Tech men outnumber tech women by about three to one, so the women can choose and discard mates at will. And let's face it, it's cool for a guy to be dating a tech chick."

. . .

Susan, nonetheless, wanted to know why she was having such a dating problem. Dusty said, "I think your problem is that you think everyone else is a freak except you, but everybody's a freak --- you included --- and once you learn that, the World of Dating is yours."

I thought Susan would go ballistic, but instead she agreed.

Everybody's a freak --- you included --- so it's silly to run down the particular hangups of particular people who choose open relationships. You've got your own problems and it's entirely possible that you're not working through them. Or working through them only in a halting and piecemeal manner, driven by an insufficient supply of learning experiences.

1 However, n.b. the following analysis of the odds in straight open relationships:

  1. In our present society, men are more willing than women to engage in sex with no possibility of future commitment.
  2. Sex between a third party and one of the partners in an open relationship is presumptively sex of this sort.
  3. Ergo, barring deception about one's relationship status, the woman in an open relationship will have more opportunities for more sex with more partners than the man.
  4. In our present society, it's easier for women to obtain sex in general, which exacerbates the imbalance in the previous point.

This simple deduction, and the imbalance of power it implies, should should give pause to any honest man considering an open relationship. Second, and conversely, it reveals that there's some truth to the claim of some feminists that monogamy has a patriarchal bias --- ceteris paribus, women lose out on more sex partners in a monogamous relationship than men do. (Of course, other factors can compensate, so monogamy isn't an entirely losing proposition for women. For example, monogamy, or at least the appearance thereof, reduces doubt as to the biological fatherhood of children, which leads to better paternal care. Etc.) Third, this deduction also explains the fact, which Bitch, Ph.D. notes in comments, that liberated women tend to be more willing to be in open relationships than their male counterparts.

2 Full title Pierre: or, The Ambiguities. The remarkable and weird novel Melville wrote after Moby Dick. Adapted in 1999 into Leos Carax's film POLA X, whose title is a fittingly pretentious acronym for the novel's title in (bien sûr) French: Pierre: ou, Les Ambiguïtés. Both novel and film teeter on the brink of (and sometimes plummet into the chasm of) hilariously overwrought badness. And yet there's something compelling about certain moments, of which the passage quoted above is one example.

Monday, August 23, 2004

Hook me up with some of that

In Neuron 43 (August 19), Y.-L. Xu, R. K. Reinscheid, et al. (said alia including a gaggle of 10 coauthors) report results that neuropeptide S keeps rats awake, reduces their level of anxiety, and elevates curiosity and interest in their surroundings. From the Science Now article by R. Ehrenberg:

...the team conducted a series of experiments to see how neuropeptide S affected the stress levels and wakefulness of rats. They found that rats injected with the neuropeptide were less anxious about exploring brightly lit areas of their cages than were normal rats, which preferred the safer, enclosed areas. When researchers put marbles into the cages (rats worry about foreign objects), injected rats didn't care as much and buried fewer of the marbles in their bedding.

In addition to calming nerves, a jab of neuropeptide S kicked the rats in high gear. Those injected with the protein stayed awake for almost twice as long as normal rats. When put in a new cage, rats usually inspect it for a time but then get bored and just sit around. But injected rats remained active and kept exploring the cage as if they'd never been there before. "It's genuine arousal, the urge to go out and do something new," Reinscheid says.

Apparently this neuropeptide activates receptors in "a previously unmapped collection of cells in an ancient part of the brainstem located near the locus coeruleus". Yeah, that's definitely the first place I'd have looked for something like that.

All I want to know is, when can I get some? I have this obsessive-compulsive habit of burying marbles in my bedding and it's really bugging me.

Sunday, August 22, 2004

Quickies re: Lessig's Code... and Free Culture

I've been reading Lawrence Lessig's articles, speeches, and blog for a long time now. I recently (finally) got Lessig's three books from Powells, and spent a chunk of my weekend reading them. I've finished Code and Other Laws of Cyberspace and Free Culture: How Big Media Uses Technology and the Law to Lock Down Culture and Control Creativity. I'll probably read The Future of Ideas over the next week. Initial reactions:

  • Code is a broader and more original book than Free Culture. If you read only one of these two, Code is probably the one to read. It lays out a fairly broad theory for understanding the regulation of human behavior, one that goes beyond mere law (as it is traditionally conceived) and encompasses markets, social norms, and architecture (code). It's an idea that I'm still digesting, but it's at least thought-provoking.

  • On the other hand, Free Culture does have the following to say for it: it's a faster and perhaps livelier read, animated by a righteous fire that probaby grows out of (among other things) the heartbreaking loss in the Eldred v. Ashcroft case which Lessig argued before the Supreme Court.

  • When tech types read or hear Lessig, there's an overwhelming sense of recognition, that Lessig, unlike most law types, "gets it" when it comes to technology and the law. Reading Code makes you realize that Lessig actually "gets it" even better than many technologists. Back in 1999, it was still commonplace among Internet theorists to claim that the Internet was beyond the reach of governments. The Net would dictate, and governments would adapt or even disappear. Lessig dissented, powerfully, and I suspect it won't be long before his views become accepted as common sense. Indeed, this may already have happened.

  • I saw Lawrence Lessig give a keynote at OOPSLA'03. In an hour and a half he explained all the major ideas that appear in Free Culture (which runs 300 pages, not counting endnotes). He did it without using more than a dozen words on any given presentation slide, and he did it with absolute clarity. Of course, Free Culture (the book) develops his ideas more gradually, and explains his arguments in more detail, and is generally worth reading even if you've seen one of his talks. But that OOSPLA talk seems even more impressive in retrospect, having read the book, because I realized the tremendous density of ideas he packed into it. By contrast, I have a lot of trouble explaining a ten-page scientific paper in half an hour. (That's not an entirely fair comparison, because scientific papers have more text on a page and pack a higher density of technical details than a book like Free Culture, but still, believe me, I'm a much worse speaker than Lessig.) If you haven't seen Lessig's OSCON'02 talk, you should check it out.

  • Funny Lessig verbal tic: many things are "increasingly X", for various X. BTW the hit count on the Google link underestimates the number of occurrences of this word; a grep through the ASCII version linked from the FC remixes page reveals that there are 54 lines containing the word "increasingly".

    (Appropriately enough, there would have been no easy way for me to do this count if Lessig had not made his book available free in electronic form.)

Saturday, August 21, 2004

Swift Boat Vets for White Supremacy

I'm pretty fucking sick of all this Swift Boat Vet b.s. that's infesting all the blogs I read. It's been thoroughly debunked and basically I wish it would just stop. Nevertheless, I will add one post noting that Regnery Publishing, publisher of the the SBV book, is bankrolled by white supremacists who, among other things, want to organize a whites-only online dating website (MSNBC/Newsweek article).

But not all of their activities are quite as silly. Regnery sponsors The Occidental Quarterly, a white supremacist journal whose editorial staff includes such charming characters as Samuel Francis (whose column was dropped from the Washington Times after he made racist remarks before a meeting of American Renaissance, which is roughly to anthropology what the Journal of the ICR is to evolutionary biology).

Of course, as has been well-documented, Bush has not dissociated himself with this group, its ads, or its publisher. Far from it. (J. B. DeLong piles on.) But we should expect no less from a candidate who spoke at Bob Jones University on the campaign trail in 2000. It's a common Republican talking point that _______ (fill in name of Democratic politician here) will do anything to get elected. But this is a classic case of projection: it is, in fact, Bush who will stoop to any level, ally himself with any faction no matter how grotesque or unsavory, in order to get elected.

Bonus link: Nick Confessore on other exploits of Regnery Publishing.

Wednesday, August 18, 2004

Phil Agre on conservatism & democracy

Have you ever read an essay that put into words, all at once, all of your most deeply-held but incompletely articulated beliefs on some subject? Phil Agre's What Is Conservatism and What Is Wrong with It?, was such an essay for me.

Of course, Agre is tackling a subject that could easily fill the careers of a dozen historians, economists, political scientists, etc., so some oversimplification is inevitable. But I believe that he gets all the high-order bits correct, and he tells a compelling story along the way.

Tuesday, August 17, 2004

Pop music quickies

Item one: I recently bought the Future Bible Heroes album Eternal Youth, and (to paraphrase W. Ferrell imitating G. W. Bush) "I approve of this album. In fact, I think it is awesome." The Future Bible Heroes' quirky electro-pop silliness may not appeal to everyone, but it's been a long time since a pop lyric's rhyme actually surprised me. From "Losing Your Affection":

I would rather be a frog speaking Tagalog
as they start the vivisection
I would rather be the dog food in front of the dog
than be losing your affection

Or, from "Doris DayTheEarthStoodStill":

They don't know we're out here
as far as we can tell
so jamming all our senses with advertising hell
midnight movie heaven, is accidental, well
details at eleven.

Doris DayTheEarthStoodStill
the hippest chick on Thurth
let's live always in the dream
they beam from Planet Earth
all our tentacles entwined
snow-blind and without sound
Doris DayTheEarthStoodStill
you make my world go round

The rest of album never quite rises to the heights of these first two tracks, but it's still lovely. One small downside to this particular album is that polymath pop genius Stephin Merritt doesn't sing. Claudia Gonson does a fine job with the vocals, but there's nothing like hearing Merritt's deep sardonic/earnest voice let loose with a lyric that balances the absurd and the poignant on a knife's edge.

Item two: Today I dug out Jon Spencer Blues Explosion's Experimental Remixes again from the depths of my hard drive. This disc may be my favorite E.P. from the 90's. Kick ass. Though I have to admit that I've always been vaguely embarrassed that I like the JSBX because, frankly, they're really fucking obnoxious, musically and personally.

SHA break updates

So, apparently they didn't break full SHA-1, only SHA-0 and a reduced-round version of SHA-1. Interestingly, I heard tonight from a security researcher that when SHA-1 was being designed, the NSA suggested a minor tweak, without which full SHA-1 would be vulnerable to this attack.

This is alternately heartening and scary. It's heartening, obviously, because it shows that the NSA basically does want civilians to have good security. It's scary because it means that the NSA foresaw the possibility of this weakness a decade ago, which puts them a decade ahead of the combined might of the entire civilian cryptographic research community.

Secure hash algorithms broken?

Princeton prof (& UW grad) Ed Felten (of RIAA v. Felten fame) has a series of posts (one, two, three) on rumors that the Crypto conference tonight will include presentatons whose results bode ill for all cryptosystems that use the SHA-1 hash algorithm and its relatives. Exciting times.

Sunday, August 15, 2004

M. Yglesias on the prospects for Iraqi democracy

Just when you've nearly gotten sick of M. Yglesias's occasional outbursts of random snottiness and self-promotion, he goes and writes this thoughtful, gloomy, and wholly ego-free piece on America's mission in Iraq. Bravo.

August Crypto-Gram highlights

It's the 15th again, and that means (as kiddies go "yay!") it's time for your Crypto-Gram highlights...

  • If you hear a flight attendant talking about a "Bob" while on board a flight, you now know what (s)he's really saying:

    Last Tuesday's bomb scare contains valuable security lessons, both good and bad, about how to achieve security in these dangerous times. Ninety minutes after taking off from Sydney Airport, a flight attendant on a United Airlines flight bound for Los Angeles found an airsickness bag -- presumably unused -- in a lavatory with the letters "BOB" written on it. The flight attendant decided that the letters stood for "Bomb On Board" and immediately alerted the captain, who decided the risk was serious enough to turn the plane around and land back in Sydney.

    Even a moment's reflection is enough to realize that this is an extreme overreaction to a nonexistent threat. "Bob" is common flight attendant jargon for "babe on board" or "best on board," as in: "Look at that Bob in seat 7A." United Airlines apparently also uses it for some domestic U.S. flights to mean "Buy on Board" -- meals aren't provided gratis, but if you want one you must buy it. And even if it weren't, there's absolutely no reason to think that "BOB" is not just someone's name, written on the airsickness bag sometime in the past and left in the lavatory by a passenger who didn't even realize it. Why in the world would someone decide that out of all the possible meanings that "BOB" scribbled on an airsickness bag could have, its presence on this particular airsickness bag on this particular flight must mean "Bomb On Board"?

  • Wireless networking is really insecure. Will the day of reckoning ever come? It's gotten one small step closer, at least for Bluetooth and 802.11.

  • The Bush Administration, working hard, each and every day, to fulfill its promise never to stop thinking about new ways to harm our country.

  • The UW IMA (sports activities center) has a poster next to the Internet terminal (which I never use, but it's right by the big workout room) that warns of date rape drugs. Schneier deflates this bit of security theater:

    GHB is gamma hydroxybutyric acid; a date rape drug. An attacker (presumably male) slips the drug into a woman's drink, and then rapes her after the effects of the drug set in. Not a common attack -- there are fewer than 40 reported cases in the U.S. each year -- but horrible when it happens. (To be fair, this number is widely believed to be an underestimate, but it seems clear that it's a small fraction of all rapes.)

    One suggested countermeasure is that women carry their own bottle opener into a bar, and make sure that no one else handles their opened drink. ...


    As with the threat of drugs or razors in Halloween candy (which, unlike GHB, is almost completely phony), risk assessment is often based on scariness rather than prevalence. That is, people are having an emotional reaction to the threat rather than a realistic one. And they end up with a countermeasure that makes no sense from a security analysis perspective, but a lot of sense from an emotional analysis perspective.

    Sure, carrying a bottle opener is easy. But the constant vigilance that this countermeasure requires is not. And someone so focused on this countermeasure is more likely to ignore other threats.

    There are 5,000 deaths every year from food-borne illnesses, but nobody refuses to take unwrapped food from restaurants, or insists on inspecting the kitchen and watching their food being prepared.

    Schneier also notes that the test strips that some people are selling don't work, at least for ketamine.

  • Schneier writes about a boneheaded program whereby Houston will allow men to ride around airports, in manly fashion, on their horsies:
  • Want to help fight terrorism? Want to be able to stop and detain suspicious characters? Or do you just want to ride your horse on ten miles of trails normally closed to the public? Then you might want to join the George Bush Intercontinental (IAH) Airport Rangers program. That's right. Just fill out a form and undergo a background check, and you too can become a front-line fighter as Houston's airport tries to keep our nation safe and secure. No experience necessary. You don't even have to be a U.S. citizen.

    No, it's not a joke. The Airport Rangers program is intended to promote both security and community participation, according to the official description. It's a volunteer mounted patrol that rides horses along the pristine wooded trails that form the perimeter of the 11,000-acre airport.

    Security is far more effective when it's based on well-trained smart people, instead of on rote-trained people checking photo IDs and X-ray machine screens, or implementing database-driven profiling. The idea of trained guards patrolling a secure perimeter is a good one. But as a security professional, I see two major problems with the program as described.

    The first is the lack of training. ...[deletia]...

    The second is the new security vulnerability that this program creates. The perimeter around the airport used to be a no-man's-land; anyone on the property was immediately suspicious. Now there is a group of people allowed around the airport perimeter. How do you tell the difference between someone who is allowed and someone who isn't? A photo ID, one you might glance at from ten feet away, is easily forgeable. And since all Rangers are on horseback, if you have a horse and you're Western-looking, you probably are going to be automatically trusted. Is the airport safer, or more at risk, because of this program? The answer isn't obvious.

    IMO Schneier is still not hard enough on this program. Given the fiscal tendencies and anti-government ideology of the ruling clique in Texas, this strikes me as a scheme to "improve" airport security on the cheap, without having to pay actual professionals who might, you know, know what they're doing. And the security vulnerability introduced by the system seems pretty serious.

  • A regular Crypto-Gram feature is "The Doghouse", wherein Schneier discusses some fraudulent or simply idiotic security product, measure, or company. Last month he pointed to ICS Atlanta (note: server currently down) which peddles a "virtually unbreakable" encryption product, based on an undisclosed algorithm that "uses no math" and "does not use a 'key'". Yes, that's right --- a computer program that encrypts text with "no math". That was pretty funny.

    Little did I know that the fun was just beginning.

    This month, Schneier got an email from ICS Atlanta's Ken Lavender, who states: "I am APPAULED at your 'comments' that you had made on your website," and goes on to make a totally entertaining ass out of himself. Read the last entry in the reader comments section.

Thursday, August 12, 2004

Recovering what has been lost

If you don't read Many-to-Many regularly, then you're missing out. Today Clay Shirky relates a story by Duncan Watts that sent shivers up my spine.

Wednesday, August 11, 2004

Anti-Asian racism in the D.C. black community

As someone of Korean descent, I found the WaPo article referenced by this Crooked Timber thread especially disturbing.

My take: The poor guy works his ass off embroidering t-shirts in his basement, and provides service superior to all his competitors, so that the retail business owners can sell them for 200%+ markup to communities that, let's face it, could stand to do more productive things with their capital. Who's being exploited here? Then when Kang decides to go into business for himself, trimming the fat that these middlemen are skimming off his production, they paper the town with flyers that basically warn of the Great Yellow Threat. To the extent that these business owners aren't slammed for the scum they are, this is a case of white liberal guilt giving blacks a free pass for behavior that they'd never tolerate from anybody else.

BTW, the only times in my life that I've been racially insulted by a stranger in public have been on the street in New York City, and the strangers were always black.

Full disclaimer: yes, the Korean and Korean-American communities have their own considerable racism problems to deal with. Additionally, I personally find the (New York-area) Korean-American community to be materialistic, status-conscious, reflexively pious, politically disengaged (and even reactionary), and obsessed with preserving "face" and politeness instead of honesty. But they don't put up posters of red-lipped little Sambo eating watermelon.

Tuesday, August 10, 2004

Twice Sold Tales: Seattle book shoppers beware

Attn. to anyone who may, at any point in the future, shop at the Seattle-based bookstore chain Twice Sold Tales. This bookstore's current anti-theft system consists of sticking big plastic RFID tags on the pages of every single book in the store. The particular variety of RFID tag they use is a 1.5 inch plastic square, and uses a glue that makes it incredibly hard to peel the tag off the page without both peeling off a layer of paper pulp (and, sometimes print) and leaving a sticky glue residue that makes the pages stick together. I speak, here, from bitter experience. They don't stick the tag on the inside cover, where such peeling would be relatively harmless and where leaving the tag on wouldn't make your page stiff and hard to turn. They put it on a page --- usually an interior page, which therefore has text on the alternate side; I've even gotten books with the tag stuck over printed portions of a page.

There are other bookstores that use RFID tags, but they usually use relatively harmless "blow-in" tags tucked between a couple of interior pages or hidden in the book's spine. I don't object to the anti-theft technology. I object to the fact that they use a technology that inevitably damages the book that I am paying for.

Twice Sold Tales is a sentimental local favorite, for the attitude, the atmosphere, the all-night hours, and the friendly cats. Unfortunately, I cannot patronize a bookstore that rewards its book-loving customers with damaged books. Until they change their policy, neither should you.

Monday, August 09, 2004

Verbal tics that annoy me

I still have no good ideas for doing signature subsumption of method abstractions (translation: I suck at research), so now I am going to vent on something completely different. My friends are hereby informed that the following words and phrases are on my shit list. Not that any of you habitually say or write any of the things that follow, but allow me to bitch for a while.

This is basically a colorful way of saying "doubleplusgood". It is a word that is almost literally meaningless, except as a social signal that writers and speakers use to fluff up something that they're too lazy to fluff up with some more specific description. The proof that this is true is that people use it to modify almost any noun to add a splash of color, in much the same way that a gaudily colored lampshade can be used to brighten any room, and with similarly tacky results --- see: "vibrant health care system", "vibrant military", "vibrant accounting firm", "vibrant cement". Whatever punch "vibrant" may once have had, it is now thoroughly debased. Maybe someday this carelessly random usage will decline, and this much-dulled blade will grow sharp enough to be used with precision again. In the meantime, if you really want to say that something is so alive and full of energy that it is akin to a vibrating object, then find a different way to say it. And if you mean to say something else, then say something else.
Analogous to "vibrant"; can be used to modify almost any adjective, and has become more of a social gesture than a word with an actual denotation. Signals a cheap world-weariness: "In my (implicitly vast and impressive) experience, other members of set X are Y, but Z, although a member of X, is refreshingly not-Y." What makes this formulation especially obnoxious is that it is the pose of somebody tired of clichés, but it is itself a tired cliché. Either come up with a livelier way to say this, or just say that Z is not-Y and have done with it.
I don't know about you, but I basically assume that any reasonably intelligent adult is articulate by default. Calling someone "articulate" is a signal that you believe the person you're talking about belongs to some group --- e.g., children, autistic people, or gorillas --- whose members are not presumptively capable of expressing coherent thoughts in language. When this word is applied to people like, say, Barack Obama, it's just ludicrous. Obama is not "articulate", he's eloquent. (Note, by the way, that this word seems to be applied with unusual frequency to African-American men in public life. Call a black man articulate and you're probably transmitting an unsavory assumption about the group to which he belongs.)
"X nails it", "X hits it out of the park"
When not used in reference to carpentry or baseball, these phrases have become really overused, particularly among bloggers. Give it a fucking rest. Come up with some other way of saying "I agree!" Better yet, don't say "I agree!" Surely you've got something more substantial to say. (Full disclosure: I used this regrettable turn of phrase about a year ago. Therefore, next time I see you, you have permission to punch me.)

Sunday, August 08, 2004

A brief reply to Leon Wieseltier

OK, one more thing on today's Times, and then I'm going to put the paper and the blog down and get back to work. In the Sunday Book Review, Leon Wieseltier writes, whilst discussing Nicholson Baker's Checkpoint:

Liberals must think carefully about their keenness to mirror some of the most poisonous qualities of their adversaries. It was never exactly a disgrace to American liberalism that it lacked its Limbaugh. But demagoguery now enjoys a new prestige.

There is an old Jewish joke that goes like this (quoted from the rendition in this Canadian Jewish News article):

Two Jews, sentenced to death by the czar, are before the firing squad. They are offered blindfolds. One says, "You can stuff your blindfold." The second Jew responds, "Shh! Don't make trouble!"

That is all.

UPDATE: No, wait. I'm too mad. Just one more thing. Wieseltier writes:

The demagogue's gravest sin is not incivility, it is stupidity. Does the Bush administration love capitalism too much? But it is also possible to love capitalism too little. The greatness of capitalism, after all, is that it may be politically corrected. Was American power used improperly, or for ill, in Iraq? But it is also possible for American power to be used properly, and for good. Is the friendly opinion of the world a condition of American security? Often, but not always. The incompetence of the Bush administration in world affairs, too much of which was ideologically ordained, does not alter the fact that the United States must sometimes deploy overwhelming force against extreme wickedness. It will be disastrous, for liberalism and for America, if the indignation against George W. Bush becomes an excuse for a great simplification, for a delirious release from the complexities of historical and political understanding that it took the American left decades to learn.

And, of course, it's us irrational "Bush-haters" (note how this term insinuates that our hatred of the man derives from something other than hatred of his policies) who are leading America off the cliff. We're a simplistic rabble, too immature to run the country, unlike wise old men who, like Wieseltier, understand the ins and the outs and the what-have-yous, the intricately braided complexities of homiletic aphorisms like "it is also possible for American power to be used properly, and for good".

The supercilious hectoring of liberal hawks, like Wieseltier, and the editorial staff of The New Republic, and Thomas Friedman, should be viewed in light of a singular fact: they supported the Iraq war. They believed that even with an obviously dishonest and incompetent American administration at the helm, it was worth killing Iraqis and killing American soldiers on the enormous gamble that was the Iraq war. (Needless to say, none of these well-fed pundits' lives were placed in the line of fire. Funny how it's so much easier to let other people die for your grand abstractions.) All the while, they caricatured people who were against the war (such as, say, 90% of the population of Spain) as a bunch of shaggy, dunderheaded narcissists. And now, the Iraq war has predictably turned into a disaster; and, far from being ashamed of their own gullibility, they are turning around and lecturing us on how to run a country, accusing us of "demagoguery" and "stupidity".

This is like a guy who walks into a chess tournament drunk, loudly calls everybody a patzer and a cheater, brags about his own strategic brilliance and moral probity, passes out handbills containing glowing encomia to his amazing unbroken string of victories, and then sits down at a table and gets roundly checkmated in six moves.

And then he gets up and tells everybody else how he's still got all the answers and you should never open with king's pawn to four.

I never thought I'd quote approvingly from Forrest Gump, but stupid is as stupid does. The American liberal hawk faction, of which The New Republic was perhaps the leading light, has done stupid, big time. It would do well to sit down and display a little humility.

Richard Bernstein, jackass

There's much to complain about in today's Times, but right now I only have time to complain about Richard Bernstein's article on the back page of the Week in Review. The basic thesis:

Europe, the kinder gentler continent, where the death penalty has been abolished and arrogant unilateralism, assembly-line hamburgers, Bible thumping and crass patriotism are repudiated.

These days there is a powerful trend in Europe, with plenty of support in the United States, to believe in the advantages of the European model over the American one.


But is Europe really better, as many Americans and Europeans feel?

Bernstein goes on to discuss a couple of writers who are bringing out books suggesting that, yes, Europe is better, or no, Europe is not better. Such a subject is more or less guaranteed to bring out the jingoistic handwaving, so who knows why the Week in Review editor thought it was a good idea to run an article on it. However, that aside, Bernstein spends most of the article parrying claims of Euro-superiority by saying, roughly, "I know you are, but what am I?" And our illustrious Week in Review editor decided to run the article.

Now, I can think of all kinds of reasons why I prefer to live in America instead of Europe, but Bernstein's evidence is---well, let's examine his reasoning.

Yet [(author of "The American Dream") Jeremy Rifkin's] proclamations are at best arguable. Mr. Rifkin writes that he finds more cultural diversity in Europe than in the United States. But it is in Europe, not America, that anti-immigrant sentiment has fed the rise of far-right parties; and, recently, the French government banned girls from wearing Muslim head scarves in school.

Erm, how are these two factoids evidence that Europe does not have more cultural diversity than America? Being a loose federation of separate nations, each with distinct languages and centuries of history, and many of whom have been at war with each other, Europe must almost by definition have more cultural diversity than the United States. If you want to argue the contrary, you've got a long row to hoe, and you'll need a lot more than these two unconvincing data points to do it. Particularly given that anti-immigrant sentiment is evidence for the existence of cultural diversity --- anti-immigrant sentiment is aroused by the presence of immigrants, not their absence.

Besides which, America's hardly free from anti-immigrant extremism. Perhaps Bernstein lives in a universe where the Reform Parties don't exist, where the Philadelphia Nativist Riots never happened, and where the Know-Nothings never existed. Also, America doesn't need far-right parties; elements of its center-right party have cheerfully allied themselves with far-right immigrant groups. America's winner-take-all political system encourages the emergence of two "big-tent" political parties that, in European parliamentary systems, would splinter into fractious coalitions of separate parties. This may be a good thing or a bad thing --- on the one hand, it works against the emergence of extremist parties, but on the other hand it encourages the two major parties to bring extremist groups under the "big tent", thereby granting extremists greater legitimacy -- but either way, it's a statement about America's electoral system, not about America's greater cultural diversity.

In "Free World," a new book soon to be published in the United States that offers a more balanced view of the debate, the British writer Timothy Garton Ash reports that the United States today spends more on Medicaid programs caring for 40 million poor people than Britain's national health service spends on its entire population of 60 million. Yet Mr. Bahr can proclaim that the United States has no welfare at all.

It is certainly untrue that America has no welfare system, but what's Bernstein's point? Should poor Americans be thanking their lucky stars that they America spends more money on them than Britain does on its national health service? It seems to me that poor Americans would much prefer to get reliable, affordable health care, regardless of how much money is spent. Britain's health service, for all its flaws, provides comprehensive health care for all Britain's citizens. Medicaid covers 40 million Americans, but does nearly nothing for the childless non-disabled poor, and is basically a Band-Aid on a hugely dysfunctional system that the New England Journal of Medicine calls "the most expensive and the most inadequate system in the developed world". Bernstein seems to confuse greater spending with actual results.

Or, here's a claim from a prominent British journalist, Will Hutton, made in a column in The Observer some months ago: "The capture of universities by the rich and the lack of education for the poor have meant that social mobility in the United States has collapsed." Yet 60 percent of students at America's elite institutions of higher learning (many of which practice need-blind admissions) receive some financial aid.

Ha! Ha! Can Bernstein seriously be suggesting that the fact that so many students receive some financial aid is an indicator of greater social mobility in America? There are at least three ways that this statement is ridiculous.

First, let us suppose you wanted to know about social mobility in America. What would a layperson reasonably familiar with economics look for, just off the top of your head? I'd suggest comparing inflation-adjusted lifetime earning power across generations, or perhaps comparing lifetime wealth acquisition across generations. The percentage of students at elite universities who receive "some" financial aid is not anywhere near the top of my list. (Paul Krugman, being an actual economist, has even better suggestions) The only reason Bernstein could have for choosing such a silly statistic is that he is either stupid, or lazy, or aware that he's deceiving his reader.

Deceiving his reader? Damn straight; because here's the second reason that Bernstein's statement is ridiculous. If he's even passing familiar with American universities, Bernstein must be aware that receiving "some" financial aid at an elite university is no indicator that the student's parents come from modest means. If a family sends two children to an elite university, raw tuition can easily top $200,000, and that figure is rising rapidly. And that's just for undergraduate education, which is no longer the passport to automatic prosperity that it once was. Entering the higher tiers of the professional class typically requires some form of postgraduate education; a friend of mine who's going to law school took out $150,000 of loans to finance the enterprise. In the face of numbers like these, even comfortably upper-middle class families are likely to apply for some financial aid, even if it's a relative pittance of a few thousand dollars.

Given these facts, what should really astound us about Bernstein's statistic is that 40% of the students at elite universities do not get financial aid.

But forget all this. Let's get to the most outrageous thing about Bernstein's statement. American families need so much financial aid for America's elite universities because America's higher education system is so goddamn expensive in the first place. This expense is, needless to say, a major barrier to social mobility.

My fellow Americans, please guess how much it costs to attend the University of Oxford, UK? Close your eyes and take a wild guess, then read the next paragraph, from the Oxford financial information page:

Undergraduates beginning a course in 2005 may have to contribute towards their tuition fees. You will pay no more in tuition fee contribution at Oxford than at any other university, which is an amount set by the government: currently a maximum of £1,125 per year. How much you pay of that maximum is means-tested and depends on your family's or your own income (depending on whom you rely on for your living). Currently, if that income is under about £20,000 a year, you pay no tuition fees.

Try not to weep. Now go back, reread Bernstein's statement about social mobility in America, and see if it doesn't strike you as simply monstrous.

But perhaps Bernstein thinks American peons should just be glad that "many" (not all) of America's elite universities practice need-blind admissions, as we kick back and enjoy our handomely paid-for Medicaid, and delight in the multicultural superiority of a nation where Pat Buchanan hasn't been invited to a Republican national convention in, like, eight whole years.

Saturday, August 07, 2004

Bush administration's plan for fighting terrorism

Inspired by a recent email, forwarded to me by a friend, from a Bush supporter, and in the spirit of South Park's underpants gnomes, I hereby present the Bush administration's plan for fighting Islamic fundamentalist terrorism:

  1. Invade Iraq.
  2. ???
  3. Freedom!!!!

Here is the expanded plan:

  1. Invade Iraq, alienate allies, tie up military indefinitely in occupation, politicize intelligence-gathering process, underfund first responders in America, ignore Afghanistan, weaken UN nuclear inspections regime, radicalize Muslims around world by promoting torture and rape of subjugated Iraqis.
  2. ???
  3. Freedom!!!!

UPDATE: via Google, I see that I'm not the first person to make this comparison, though only a few have put it equally succinctly.

Wednesday, August 04, 2004

John Q. on funding medical research

I have long maintained that the current "intellectual property" based regime for funding medical research is a terrible way to run things. John Quiggins of Crooked Timber elaborates.

Monday, August 02, 2004

Three thought experiments: Lesser evils and moral obligation

You're on a Caribbean cruise, taking a leisurely walk on the deck, enjoying the sun and sea breeze. You pause for a moment and lean against the railing. Suddenly, the devil, dressed in a rather natty tuxedo, is standing beside you.

"My dear friend," he says, "it's been so long since we spoke last. I was beginning to miss you."

"Oh, not you again," you say.

"That hurts, dear friend. In fact, I think my visits have been rather salutary---"

"And on such a nice day..."

"---and you know what, my name actually means adversary. In the ancient Hebrew tradition, I wasn't the incarnation of evil itself. I was more like a criminal prosecutor. I'm the opposition voice, which is necessary to make the system work."

"Well, I think the system outlined in scripture sounds like a terrible way to run the universe, so what's your point?"

"Simply that you should blame the guy upstairs. I'm just the hired help."

"Whatever. Get on with it."

The devil lights up a cigarette and smiles. "In ten minutes, I am going to sink this boat with a typhoon that will spring up out of nowhere. I'm also going to make all the lifeboats disappear. Everyone on board will die."

He pauses and takes a slow drag. You roll your eyes. Drama queen.

"Or, I could leave one lifeboat. Then you can save a few dozen people."

"What's the catch?" you ask.

"No catch. Choose: one lifeboat, or zero."

"One lifeboat, of course. This is a pretty trivial dilemma."

"Well chosen. Yes, it's a trivial dilemma, which is why I won't bother sinking this boat. Anyway, the tux is rented, and the dry cleaning bill would kill me. Here's the real dilemma." With a flourish, he pulls a small metal box out of his jacket pocket. The box has two buttons, labeled A and B. He hands it to you, of course.

"Now," he explains, "you must press A or B. If you press A, then everyone on this boat will die instantly. If you press B, then everyone on this boat will die instantly, except for a few dozen, who will live. If you press neither, then in ten minutes I'll bring the typhoon, and make all the lifeboats disappear. All hands will be lost."

"How about I just use this box to bash your brains out?"

"If you think you can take me..." He fades from sight, leaving only a disembodied cigarette hanging in the air. "I'm still here; I've just tucked myself into a nearly-inaccessible fold of quantum space-time. If you swing, I give you odds of one in ten billion that you'll hit me. I'm not lying. It's a nonzero probability. You've got a real chance."

You sigh. "Okay, I suppose I'll have to press button B."

The devil snaps back into view, smiling. "Excellent. Not a hard decision, since the choice is, for practical purposes, morally isomorphic to the previous one. Now, I suppose you'd call button B a lesser evil than button A. But you felt morally obligated to press it, rather than take the one-in-ten-billion chance of swinging at me."

"This is leading to some rather tedious, obvious, didactical point, isn't it?"

"Yes, but however obvious it is, there are many thousands, perhaps hundreds of thousands, of Americans who do not grasp it, so let's proceed. Give me the box."

"You're not going to sink the ship?"

"Like I said, the tux is rented. Now, here's thought experiment number three. Suppose that we're in the midst of a United States Presidential election. Suppose there are two candidates, and your assessment is that one is somewhat less evil than the other. The evil one is button A, and the less evil one is button B. There's a third party candidate who has a one-in-ten-billion chance of winning and changing the whole system, and that's probably an overestimate of the probability. What hangs in the balance? Not dozens, not hundreds, but (at least) thousands of lives and perhaps the future of the free world. The balance of the Supreme Court for the next generation. Life-saving scientific research. Federal funding for health education programs for millions of Africans. The list goes on. What is your moral obligation? Button A, button B, or take a swing?"


"Exactly." With that, the devil takes a last drag, flicks his cigarette into the ocean, and strolls off towards the bar.

Religion and the left

Today I wandered over to Washington Monthly to see if the quality of their blog has increased at all since I stopped reading it last year. It hasn't. Kevin Drum hasn't got anything surprising to say anymore, and additionally today they're running Amy Sullivan's analysis of Kerry's convention speech, wherein she describes Kerry's references to religion as:

...a rebuke both to those on the right who would claim religion only for themselves and to those on the left who see evidence of faith as enough to disqualify individuals from participating in the political sphere.

Aaaaarrrrrgggghhh. Who on the left, beyond a few far-fringe extremists, believes that "evidence of faith" should "disqualify individuals from participating in the political sphere"? This is a straw man so ludicrous as to defy belief.

Let's look at the past three Democratic Presidential candidates: Clinton, Gore, Kerry, obvious Christians all. And then there was Vice Presidential candidate "Holy Joe" Lieberman --- whose religiosity, to be sure, was grating to most progressives, but we didn't object to his faith; we hated his showy, pompous sanctimoniousness. Has there been a major Democratic or Republican politician in the past, oh, hundred years who has shrunk from saying "God Bless America" in a speech? Please.

The truth is, American politics, on both sides of the aisle, is deeply hostile above all to secularism, not to religion. America will elect a Jewish black lesbian President before it elects an atheist President.

Sullivan's statement is so stupid, so incredibly, unbelievably stupid, that it makes my eyeballs do the quivering can't-see-straight angry thing that they do when I get so mad I can't see straight.

In any case, looks like it will be another six months before I bother checking out the Washington Monthly again.

p.s. Kerry's line about not wearing religion on your sleeve did, indeed, make a good point, but not because it admonished Sullivan's imaginary religion-abolishing leftists.