Strong opinions, weakly held

Month: August 2010 (page 2 of 2)

Links for August 13

  • James Fallows has a list of airline frequent flier programs and the percentage of their flights that are available for reward travel. You can book reward travel on 99.3% of Southwest flights, and on 10.7% of US Airways flights.
  • Mike Monteiro explains how to buy design.
  • Laurence Koltikoff says the US is bankrupt.
  • PolitiFact looks into the claims we see flying around about anchor babies. They rate it as half true, I rate it as utter and complete nonsense.
  • Paul Graham talks about what went wrong at Yahoo.
  • National Geographic photographer Mark Thiessen talks about fighting wildfires in Russia.

Grasping for solutions

Andrew Brown, in writing about the practice of medicine during the Enlightenment, happens upon a universal truth:

The prestige of a project can survive any amount of failure so long as no alternatives are readily available.

Things never get better by getting worse

Matthew Yglesias has an important piece in the Washington Post that explains why politics are so horrible right now. He answers why people are so fearful and angry:

This hostility is not about the midterms; it is a consequence of the economic downturn, every bit as much as foreclosures and layoffs. When personal incomes stop growing, people become less broad-minded, and suspicion of foreigners and other ethnic groups grows. We have seen this time and again, in this country and in others.

Fear, in essence, begets fear. The loss of a job, or the worry that one might be lost, raises anxiety. This often plays out as increased suspicion of people who look different or come from different places. While times of robust growth and shared prosperity inspire feelings of interconnectedness and mutual gain, in times of worry, the picture quickly reverses. Views of the world turn zero-sum: If he wins, what do I lose? Any kind of change looks like decline — the end of a “way of life.”

And here’s his prescription:

The lesson is simple: The current controversies are ultimately byproducts of our economic morass. To really dispel the atmosphere of suspicion, what’s needed are ideas about how to boost the economy to bring unemployment down and earnings up. Finding policies that do all this will not be easy, but it is the only way to turn the national mood around.

Yglesias focuses on the xenophobia that’s been on display this year, but you can see exactly the same pattern when it comes to environmental policy. People are unwilling to confront or even acknowledge the long term consequences of global warming when they face potential deprivation in the short term.

This has been the great lesson of my adult life. Things never have to get worse before they can get better. Disasters can sometimes bring out the best in people for short periods of time, but sustained hardship always pushes people down Maslow’s hierarchy of needs.

Our reduced size economy

Here’s something I wrote in January, 2009, about fiscal stimulus:

Before the housing bubble burst, the economy was a size XL shirt. Now it’s size L shirt. The economy is rapidly losing weight so that it can fit into the size L shirt. What this means is closed down factories, canceled construction projects, and massive job loss.

The purpose of fiscal stimulus is to stretch the shirt back out to size XL. This works by replacing consumer borrowing (by way of home equity loans, cash-out refinances, and credit cards) with government borrowing. The idea is that the government will stretch the shirt until the economy grows enough for the shirt to remain size XL without fiscal stimulus.

And my bigger question is this: what if the size L economy is the new normal, and the only thing that will save us in the end is population growth? What then is the proper course of action for the government? If the current crisis is a product of structural change, what’s the best recourse? Replacing consumer borrowing with government borrowing isn’t going to save us if there’s no path back to the size XL economy anytime soon.

Looking at today’s job report, it strikes me that we’re going to be stuck at size L for quite some time.

Links for August 6

Here’s a batch of longer pieces for you to read over the weekend.

  • Poligraft is a cool tool from the Sunlight Foundation. Feed it the URL of a news story and it will display contextual information alongside the story text. For example, I submitted a link to a story about the auto bailouts, and learned that employees of GM and Chrysler, the two bailed out firms, donate mostly to Republicans, whereas Ford employees donate mostly to Democrats.
  • Forms guru Luke Wroblewski talks about why designers are starting to prototype interfaces in Keynote. Check out part one and part two.
  • John Timmer at Ars Technica writes about how gamers were able to help solve problems in protein folding more efficiently than their application that simulates protein folding could on its own.
  • The government needs to be more careful (and humble) in issuing dietary guidelines.
  • Oren Harman reviews Naming Infinity: A True Story of Religious Mysticism And Mathematical Creativity by Loren Graham and Jean-Michel Kantor. Sounds like a fascinating book.
  • Christopher Hitchens writes about cancer.
  • Mother Jones’ Andy Kroll dug into the shady mortgage foreclosure industry, created by poor oversight on the part of Fannie Mae and Freddie Mac. Typical story — a few scumbags get rich, regular people get screwed, and the macro effect is to make the housing crisis worse.
  • And finally, Tim Parks writes about The Shame of the World Cup.

Links for August 5

  • Gabriel Arana explains why the findings of fact in the decision overturning California’s Proposition 8 (which prohibited same-sex couples from marrying) are a big deal.
  • Ryan McNeely argues convincingly that the hand wringing over whether it’s a good idea for same-sex couples to try to win the right to marry in court is misplaced. I believed that when it comes to implementing change, legislative action is always better than judicial decisions, but his post convinces me otherwise. The mechanism doesn’t matter. People who are for the change will be happy and people who are against it will be angry regardless.
  • Google killed Wave. I think it’s a sign of Google’s strength that they’d rather kill a hyped project than throw good money after bad.
  • Tim O’Reilly talks about his visit to The Henry Ford Museum in Detroit. Sounds like an amazing place.
  • Tom Junod writes about ants in Esquire. The article is called “Invasion,” so let that be a warning to those freaked out by bugs.

Links for August 4

  • Der Spiegel has a piece on Aldi supermarkets and the reclusive brothers who run them. One of the brothers, Theo Albrecht, died last week. (Aldi also owns Trader Joe’s.)
  • George Packer explains how the Senate works these days. Here’s the short version: the Senate is a joke.
  • I believed for a long time that many of the things that suck about America were mitigated by the fact that we led the world in income mobility. Turns out, we do not.
  • You can find me on Rdio.
  • New York mayor Michael Bloomberg was my hero yesterday.
  • Blizzard is going to be monitoring a certain location on a certain server in World of Warcraft due to a pattern of unsavory behavior.
  • If you haven’t seen the Kanye West/New Yorker cartoon mashup, go look right now.

Links for August 2

  • Former Reagan OMB director David Stockman explains the destructive incoherence of Republican budget policy. There are many things I disagree with Republicans on as a matter of principle, but their budget policy ignores their own ostensible principles. That’s a bigger problem. Barry Ritholtz has the Cliffs Notes.
  • William Saletan runs down the embarrassing opposition to the “Ground Zero mosque.” Funny that the complaints are being made by groups and people that claim to stand for things like Constitutional rights and anti-discrimination.
  • Slavoj Zizek argues that the good feelings induced by charity sap the desire to achieve more meaningful solutions to problems. The way this lecture is presented is amazing.
  • Scott Rosenberg talks about the death of eyeball tracking as a way of selling ads.
  • Girl Developer takes on the Your Code Sucks mentality. I’m still going with what I said some months ago on Twitter, “Hell is other people’s code.” Hell is also my code if it’s not fresh on my mind.
  • NPR is streaming the full contents of Arcade Fire’s new album, The Suburbs.
  • Edward Niedermeyer from The Truth About Cars wrote an op-ed in the New York Times panning the Chevrolet Volt.
  • FlightCaster makes the economics argument that the way we purchase tickets is what’s ruining air travel. People only care about price and scheduled time of departure when buying tickets, so that’s what airlines work on. Things like customer service, comfort, and actual time of departure are sacrificed.
  • Tom Chatfield explains how people build relationships through online gaming.
  • Farhad Manjoo takes on WikiLeaks.
  • The ACLU has an important paper on national security policy, Establishing a New Normal. By adopting and even expanding some of the powers of the security state that started in the Bush administration, the Obama administration is establishing those practices for the future. The Republicans claimed those powers and now the Democrats are laundering them.
  • Federal judge Richard Posner explains why the big Washington Post piece on national security, Top Secret America, is a failure. His complaint is that it lacks analytical rigor.
  • Damien Katz talks about the lessons he learned in getting CouchDB to version 1.0.
  • If you, like many bloggers, never go outside, you are probably vitamin D deficient.
  • Alex Payne on choosing technology with scaling in mind.

The mobile market

Tim Bray, on the market for mobile devices:

This is the big league; bigger today than the computer industry ever was, and growing fast. This is as fierce a concentration of R&D heat and manufacturing virtuosity and distribution wizardry and marketing mojo as humanity has ever seen.

Makes me think I need to really dive into mobile development sometime in the very near future. The thing is, I face a bit of a conundrum. I am a huge iOS fan — I’ve seen Android devices, and there’s no way I’d choose to carry one in my pocket over an iPhone. But if I were going to start writing a mobile application tomorrow, it would be an Android application, not an iPhone application.

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