Later On

A blog written for those whose interests more or less match mine.

Archive for August 27th, 2010

An example of the free market failing—yet again

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The insane notion that if you just permit businesses to do whatever they want and the "market" will automatically correct any problems will soon die, I hope, crushed by evidence to the contrary. Here’s an example by Peter Waldman in Bloomberg BusinessWeek:

After Dr. Mark Logsdon tore a ligament in his knee skiing at Lake Tahoe in March, he returned home to Sacramento and had an MRI scan at Sutter Davis Hospital. Sutter’s price for the knee scan was $1,271, payable by Logsdon and his insurer. The same MRI at a local office owned by Radiological Associates of Sacramento would have cost $696, or 45 percent less.

Logsdon didn’t know something his insurer does: Sutter Health, the nonprofit that owns Sutter Davis, charges 40 percent to 70 percent more than its rivals for a typical procedure, and it requires insurers to keep its rates secret. Sutter, with 2009 revenues of $8.8 billion, can charge these prices because it has acquired more than a third of the medical-care market in the region from San Francisco to Sacramento. The company has taken over more than 20 hospitals in the past 30 years, according to executives at Aetna (AET), Health Net (HNT), and Blue Shield of California who asked not to be named because their agreements with Sutter ban such disclosures. The executives say operating so many of an area’s most popular hospitals, doctor groups, and testing facilities gives Sutter the ability to stare down insurers and employers.

The pricing power of local hospital systems has received little attention in the national health-care debate, says Stanford University economist Alain Enthoven. In 2009, as consumer prices fell for the first time in 54 years, the U.S. health bill rose 5.7 percent, to $2.47 trillion, a record 17.3 percent of the economy. "Provider consolidation is driving up health-care costs," Enthoven says.

Sutter Chief Executive Officer Patrick Fry says his company conducts itself properly in a competitive environment. "I don’t see Sutter Health as having market power, given the choices that employers can make," he says. "The market has a lot of room to make a lot of decisions."

Federal investigators in five states—Connecticut, Massachusetts, Ohio, Pennsylvania, and New Hampshire—are probing proposed hospital takeovers and consolidating medical practices for evidence of antitrust violations. "The enforcement pendulum has now swung back to where it should be," says Matthew J. Reilly, assistant director of the Federal Trade Commission’s competition bureau…

Continue reading.

Written by Leisureguy

27 August 2010 at 2:22 pm

Misrepresenting small business

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Stacy Mitchell writes in Bloomberg BusinessWeek:

For six years, Pennsylvania Governor Ed Rendell has tried to give a tax cut to businesses in his state. And year after year the Democratic governor’s proposal has been stymied by a surprising foe: the state’s business lobby.

Both the Pennsylvania Chamber of Business & Industry and the state chapter of the National Federation of Independent Business (NFIB) have opposed Rendell’s plan to slash the business income-tax rate. Why? The plan would close a loophole that allows certain multi-state companies—mainly retail chains and banks—to shield profits earned in Pennsylvania from state taxes. In other words, for the Chamber and NFIB, ensuring that a handful of corporations continue to enjoy a tax break is worth denying thousands of small businesses a tax cut.

The U.S. Chamber of Commerce and the NFIB, together with their state-level affiliates, are among the country’s most powerful lobbying forces. While they claim to speak for small business, a look at their lobbying record suggests their primary allegiance lies elsewhere. The U.S. Chamber has fought to preserve offshore tax havens that only multinationals can use, leaving small businesses at a disadvantage. Both the NFIB and affiliates of the Chamber have lobbied in various states to maintain loopholes like Pennsylvania’s. And neither group has contested the multi-million-dollar tax breaks cities routinely bestow on big-box retailers to the detriment of their independent rivals.

Although the Chamber says it represents 3 million small businesses, that’s misleading. The figure includes members of local and state chambers, which have no say over the national group’s activities. The U.S. Chamber’s direct membership includes some 300,000 small businesses, or about 1 percent of the total nationwide. While small businesses are prominent in its press releases, they’re scarce in its boardroom; the vast majority of the Chamber’s 125 board members represent large corporations. "Our policy priorities are closely aligned with our small-business members," and the Chamber has a committee that focuses on them, says Giovanni Coratolo, the Chamber’s vice-president for small-business policy.

All 300,000-plus members of the NFIB are small businesses. Yet their politics are out of sync with the broader small-business community. While an American Express poll shows that 32 percent of small-business owners are registered as Democrats and 33 percent are Republicans, 85 percent of the NFIB’s campaign contributions went to Republicans in 2008, according to the Center for Responsive Politics. "Our job is to represent our members," says NFIB spokeswoman Stephanie Cathcart. "Do they skew right? Yes, they do. But they are thinking as business owners."

The NFIB’s close ties to Republicans may explain its effort to downplay the effect of the credit crisis on small businesses. Ever since President Barack Obama proposed the small-business lending bill now stalled in the Senate, the NFIB has said access to credit is a low priority. An NFIB survey, though, showed that 55 percent of small employers sought loans in 2009, and over half of those couldn’t meet all of their borrowing needs. While the NFIB and the Chamber say they don’t oppose the lending bill, neither has done much to persuade Congress to vote for it. Compare that with the full-court press both groups waged against the financial reform bill. Small businesses paid dearly for Wall Street’s excesses and, as frequent users of credit cards and home equity loans to finance their growth, have much to gain from stronger consumer protections. Yet the U.S. Chamber and NFIB repeatedly cited the interests of small business as a reason to oppose the bill.

Given the disconnect between the lobbying efforts of the Chamber and the NFIB and the interests of those they say they represent, . . .

Continue reading.

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27 August 2010 at 2:19 pm

Frank Talk With a Cabdriver About Islamic Center

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Interesting article in the NY Times by Susan Dominus:

Kristen Kelch did not find religion when the cab abruptly stopped in the middle of the Franklin D. Roosevelt Drive one recent morning, stranding her, her 19-year-old daughter and a friend in the middle of midday traffic. But she did find herself altered by what happened next.

The rattling taxi Ms. Kelch had hoped would take them from her home in Park Slope to the Metropolitan Museum of Art unexpectedly came to a halt near the Manhattan Bridge — squarely in the middle lane.

“I cannot repeat enough times,” said Ms. Kelch, who is in her 50s and had taken the day off from her job in public relations at the City University of New York, “that it was the middle lane.” A car came up from behind and nudged them to the right, but there was no shoulder, and as more cars zoomed by, whining and honking, Ms. Kelch tried very hard to remember whether it was safer for people in stalled cars to get out or stay in.

It was a reminder of the unlikely faith that New Yorkers, religious or not, have whenever they get into a cab, putting their lives in the hands of someone they have never met. Even more impressive, perhaps, is the faith cabdrivers have in their countless daily encounters with strangers, a trust cruelly punished this week, when Michael Enright, a student filmmaker, was charged with a hate crime in the stabbing of a Muslim driver.

The driver of Ms. Kelch’s stalled taxi seemed to have no big ideas about how to get them out of peril — later, he tried to charge her party $13 for the aborted trip. But there was another cabby, an off-duty driver in a crisp seersucker shirt, who stopped, at his own peril, in the middle lane, and offered the passengers a ride.

The women sprinted into the back seat of his cab and thanked him effusively. He was heading to an uptown mosque to pray, he told them, and could easily drop them off at the museum. Ms. Kelch is one of those people who always makes small talk with cabdrivers, but on this day, after all that had happened, she was invested enough to take on a riskier conversation: What did he make of the proposed Muslim community center two blocks from the World Trade Center site?

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27 August 2010 at 12:54 pm

Posted in Daily life, Religion

Two Greenwald posts worth reading and pondering

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27 August 2010 at 12:49 pm

Mississippi never really embraced the outcome of the Civil War

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It’s clear that many in Mississippi still long of the days of slavery, and failing that, they are desperately trying to preserve segregation—anything that will help whites think they are superior in some way to other races. Tanya Somanader in ThinkProgress:

With the election of President Barack Obama, the country heralded the coming of an age in which an African-American could overcome significant historical prejudice to ascend to the presidency. But while the country celebrates this collective step forward, a Nettleton, Mississippi public school is taking a clear step back. According to Nettleton Middle School’s rules, children running for certain class officer posts must meet a specific race requirement: to be president, the child must be white.

A school memo, obtained by MixedandHappy and The Smoking Gun, was passed out to every 6th, 7th, and 8th grader to inform them of the breakdown. The upcoming elections are divided between offices delineated for black and white students. Of the 12 offices for which students can compete, “eight are earmarked for white students, while four are termed ‘black seats.” The presidency is reserved for white students across each grade, but a black student is permitted to be the 8th grade vice-president or reporter, the 7th grade treasurer, or the 6th grade reporter. So, along with a “B” average and “a good disciplinary status and moral character,” a child hoping to represent his or her class must be the right race:

whitememo1

According to Nettleton parent Brandy Springer, the school’s handbook also states that “other elections such as homecoming court operate in a similar fashion. Positions are not held by one girl and one boy but by four individuals; one black couple, the other white.”

The middle school “has about 400 students, and about 72 percent are white, according to a source familiar with the school board’s operation. The majority of the remaining students are black.” As MixedandHappy’s Suzy Richardson points out, it is unclear where this leaves any child of mixed race, Chinese, Asian, or Hispanic descent. It is also unclear why these policies don’t strike the school’s African-American principal as completely absurd. While she has not offered comment, the school’s superintendent Russell Taylor issued a statement yesterday saying “the origin of these processes, historical applications, compliance issues, as well as current implications and ramifications” are “under review.”

The “historical application” is undoubtedly rooted in the state’s history of segregation — a history Mississippians seem reticent to move beyond. Last year, actor Morgan Freeman finally succeeded in his 11-year campaign to get Charleston High School in Mississippi to integrate its prom. But while it was “quickly embraced by students,” the idea was “rejected by a group of white parents, who held a competing ‘private’ prom” in protest. And this year, it took a federal order to stop a southwestern Mississippi county from “segregating its schools” into “all-black classrooms” and “allowing white students to transfer to the county’s only majority-white school.”

A Nettleton school survey asks students if they feel “Nettleton Schools are preparing students for what they will face in the future.” If the class elections are setting the example, they are teaching that any future African-American presidents are just not allowed. (HT:Gawker)

UPDATE: Today on MSNBC, Brandy Springer told anchor Contessa Brewer that she has decided to remove her children and "would not put her children back in the school system where school officials have this attitude." "Even if they changed the policies due to this, the attitude hasn’t changed," she said. Watch it:

UPDATE: The Nettleton School Board has voted to reverse its policy basing class elections on students’ race.

Full disclosure: My father’s father was born in Mississippi, but he moved to Indian Territory as an adult.

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27 August 2010 at 12:46 pm

A climate-change thought experiment

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Kevin Drum writes in Mother Jones:

It’s unfair to call Bjørn Lomborg a climate skeptic even if he did write a book called The Skeptical Environmentalist. He believes in global warming, after all. He just thinks it’s not our biggest problem right now, and in any case, we can simply adapt to it when it happens. Here he is a couple of days ago on the possibility of a large rise in sea level over the next century:

Here are the facts. A 20-foot rise in sea levels […] would inundate about 16,000 square miles of coastline, where more than 400 million people currently live. That’s a lot of people, to be sure, but hardly all of mankind. In fact, it amounts to less than 6% of the world’s population — which is to say that 94% of the population would not be inundated. And most of those who do live in the flood areas would never even get their feet wet.

That’s because the vast majority of those 400 million people reside within cities, where they could be protected relatively easily, as in Tokyo. As a result, only about 15 million people would have to be relocated. And that is over the course of a century. In all, according to Nicholls, Tol, and Vafeidis, the total cost of managing this “catastrophe” — if politicians do not dither and pursue smart, coordinated policies — would be about $600 billion a year, or less than 1% of global GDP.

It’s a beguiling premise. Only $600 billion a year! And all it depends on is politicians pursuing smart, coordinated policies.

But there’s something missing from this equation: namely that the money is largely going to have to be spent in some of the poorest countries on the planet, and it’s going to have to come from the richest. But will rich countries be willing to pony up even a fraction of this $600 billion a year? Or will they take a look at each catastrophe separately and take refuge in the mantra that no individual event can be blamed on global warming?

I’d guess the latter. But if Myles Allen of the University of Oxford and some of his colleagues have their way, this excuse is going to get harder and harder to make:

In 2004, Allen and his colleagues showed to a high level of confidence that human greenhouse gas emissions had at least doubled the risk of the European heatwave of 2003 occurring….Kevin Trenberth of the National Center for Atmospheric Research in Boulder, Colorado, thinks similar analyses should be done within weeks of an event. For instance, we know that high sea-surface temperatures and large amounts of moist air over the Indian Ocean helped bring about the Pakistani floods and the heatwave in Russia. It should be possible to determine how great a role human climate change played in these events, Trenberth says.

Allen’s team hasn’t analyzed the Pakistani floods yet, and climate deniers will point out that Pakistan has had plenty of floods in the past. But what if Allen’s models show, say, that climate change doubled the chance of this month’s disaster in Pakistan? Does that mean that rich countries ought to bear half the cost of dealing with it? Probably. But just last week the UN reported that "donor fatigue" was hampering aid efforts and that they had raised only a third of the $459 million needed for initial relief. If two or three disasters in a single year makes it hard to raise even a measly half billion dollars for Pakistan’s worst flooding in decades, what are the odds of rich countries coming up with anything close to $600 billion each and every year for the next century?

Slim and none. Given the political realities, adaptation is certain to be a necessary part of our strategy for dealing with climate change. But political realities — not to mention physical, chemical, and ecological ones — also make it clear that adaptation alone is a chimera. Citizens of rich countries will never be willing to spend enough on their poorer neighbors to mitigate the damage of climate change even if the necessary amount is "only" one-percent of global GDP. The fact remains that the likely damage from climate change is so severe, so varied, and so unpredictable that the only sensible policy is to spend money to try to prevent it in the first place. Short of a massive technical breakthrough in clean energy production, this simply isn’t likely to change. The faster we reconcile ourselves to it, the better.

Written by Leisureguy

27 August 2010 at 12:38 pm

Later on, where will we get food?

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The oceans are being polluted and overfished simultaneously—and the phytoplankton that is the basis of the food chain (little animals eat it, and they are eaten by bigger animals, and so on) is dropping fast: down 40% from 1950. On land, we see extreme weather events (floods, droughts, record snowstorms) along with steadily rising temperatures.  Here are a couple of articles on the food outlook.

First is an interview with the author of the book Empires of Food in Salon, written by Riddhi Shah:

In an age of super-sized meals and obesity epidemics, food-shortage doomsday scenarios always seem a little surreal. Backed by half a century of agricultural abundance, it’s easy to imagine that cheap food will permanently abound. But in a new book, "Empires of Food,"academic Evan Fraser and journalist Andrew Rimas show us that we are not the first advanced civilization to have a hubristic, misplaced confidence that we’ll always be fed.

By tracing the rise and fall of a number of preindustrial empires, the authors show us just how much trouble we’re in. The Romans, the Mesopotamians and the medieval Europeans, for example, all had agricultural systems that, much like ours, were yoked to complex technology and highly specialized trade networks. And each of those societies eventually failed because they hadn’t accounted for soil erosion, growing overpopulation and weather changes. Climate change, anyone?

Fraser and Rimas propose no easy solutions, advocating instead that we learn to store surplus food, live locally, farm organically and diversify our crops.

Salon spoke to Evan Fraser over the phone about agricultural patterns through history, the instability of our food system, and whether the solutions he proposes are ultimately unaffordable for the world’s poor.

Your book focuses on how food can cause empires to rise and fall, and specifically, how this is an almost cyclical process that has been repeated through history.

A society has to go through the same steps to grow. For example, all complex societies have people living in cities who rely on country folk to produce their food. They have to transport the food over large distances, and they begin to use food as a tradable commodity. But usually this happens during a time of good weather. So the Romans, for example, grew because they specialized in wheat, but things got colder around 300 A.D., and the empire collapsed. The same thing happened with medieval Europe. In the 14th century, the medieval warm period ended, and there were huge famines.

In our case, we won’t face a cooling, but either end of the thermometer is problematic for a farmer. As a global society, we’ve come to depend on food production that is largely reliant on good weather conditions and good soil. But with climate change, good weather will be a thing of the past and production failures will become common. This is my biggest concern.

You mentioned Europe in the medieval period. What else do we have in common with their food system at the time? . . .

Continue reading.

And second is a review in the NY Times by Mark Bittman of the book The Coming Famine: The Global Food Crisis and What We Can Do to Avoid It:

Fifty years ago, a billion people were undernourished or starving; the number is about the same today. That’s actually progress, since a billion represented a third of the human race then, and “only” a sixth now.

Today we have another worry: roughly the same number of people eat too much. But, says Julian Cribb, a veteran science journalist from Australia, “The era of cheap, abundant food is over.”

Like many other experts, he argues that we have passed the peak of oil production, and it’s all downhill from now on. He then presents evidence that we have passed the peaks for water, fertilizer and land, and that we will all soon be made painfully aware that we have passed it for food, as wealthy nations experience shortages and rising prices, and poorer ones starve.

Much of “The Coming Famine” builds an argument that we’ve jumped off a cliff and that global chaos — a tidal wave of people fleeing their own countries for wherever they can find food — is all but guaranteed. The rest of the book concentrates on catching an outcropping of rock with a finger and scrambling back up. The writing is neither personality-filled nor especially fluid, but the sheer number of terrifying facts makes the book gripping.

Arguments that overpopulation will lead to famine or worse are nothing new, of course; in the early 19th century the Rev. Thomas Malthus contended that the human march toward progress would be derailed by a cycle of overpopulation that led to shortages and misery. And of the many who’ve followed in the Malthusian tradition, none have been correct: overpopulation has caused problems, but, as noted above, the percentage of people starving has actually declined.

Mr. Cribb is reporting on the fate of a planet whose resources have, in the last 200 years, been carelessly, even ruthlessly exploited for the benefit of the minority. Now that the majority is beginning to demand — or at least crave — the same kind of existence, it’s clear that, population boom or not, there simply isn’t enough of the Euro-American way of life to go around.

And while there is a sky-is-falling tone to his relatively brief (just over 200 pages) thesis — if it doesn’t make you restock your survivalist shelter with another hundred pounds of rice and beans — the book does offer sensible ways to help alleviate the “global feeding frenzy.”

Climate change, of course, is an important piece of Mr. Cribb’s puzzle, as are overexploitation of the sea and natural resources, overuse of chemical fertilizer, reliance on fossil fuels, protectionism, subsidies, biofuels, waste and other factors.

Most important are what he calls “the two elephants in the kitchen”: population growth and overconsumption. A projected 33 percent growth in population in the next 20 years, combined with increased consumption of meat as the global middle class grows larger, means that food production must grow by at least 50 percent in that same period…

Continue reading.

Written by Leisureguy

27 August 2010 at 12:36 pm

Republican Ted Olson, whose wife was killed in the 9/11 attacks, speaks about the community center

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27 August 2010 at 12:25 pm

Oscar Peterson and Count Basie

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27 August 2010 at 12:21 pm

Posted in Daily life, Jazz, Video

It’s not just pedophile priests that the Catholic church protects: also terrorist priests

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The Associated Press reports:

The British government and the Roman Catholic church colluded to cover up the suspected involvement of a priest in a 1972 bombing that killed nine people and injured 30, a new report said Tuesday.

The Northern Ireland police ombudsman’s report determined that Father James Chesney was the prime suspect in the blast in the village of Claudy, just outside of Londonderry and that the police chose not to pursue him. The Irish Republican Army has been blamed for the attack.

Despite the suspicions of authorities, the church and U.K. officials struck a deal that allowed Chesney to move to a parish in Ireland where British prosecutors lacked the jurisdiction to investigate him.

The deal was struck following a meeting between Cardinal William Conway, the head of the Catholic Church in Ireland at the time, and Britain’s representative in Northern Ireland, William Whitelaw, documents cited by the report said.

Chesney, who died in 1980 after suffering from cancer, had denied involvement in the attack, Conway told Whitelaw, according to the report.

The police at the time believed Chesney to be an IRA member, but the report made no conclusion one way or another about his potential involvement with the group.

However, according to the memo included in the report, a government official who was not named wrote that, "the cardinal said he knew the priest was a very bad man and would see what could be done."

The report is certain to raise more questions about what role, if any, the church may have played during the more than 30 years of violence that claimed 3,600 lives…

Continue reading. The Catholic church, as an organization, seems to be working to erode their moral authority as fast as they can.

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27 August 2010 at 12:20 pm

Coleman Hawkins and Charlie Parker

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27 August 2010 at 9:15 am

Posted in Daily life, Jazz, Video

Does Your Language Shape How You Think?

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TYD points out this intriguing article by Guy Deutscher:

Seventy years ago, in 1940, a popular science magazine published a short article that set in motion one of the trendiest intellectual fads of the 20th century. At first glance, there seemed little about the article to augur its subsequent celebrity. Neither the title, “Science and Linguistics,” nor the magazine, M.I.T.’s Technology Review, was most people’s idea of glamour. And the author, a chemical engineer who worked for an insurance company and moonlighted as an anthropology lecturer at Yale University, was an unlikely candidate for international superstardom. And yet Benjamin Lee Whorf let loose an alluring idea about language’s power over the mind, and his stirring prose seduced a whole generation into believing that our mother tongue restricts what we are able to think.

In particular, Whorf announced, Native American languages impose on their speakers a picture of reality that is totally different from ours, so their speakers would simply not be able to understand some of our most basic concepts, like the flow of time or the distinction between objects (like “stone”) and actions (like “fall”). For decades, Whorf’s theory dazzled both academics and the general public alike. In his shadow, others made a whole range of imaginative claims about the supposed power of language, from the assertion that Native American languages instill in their speakers an intuitive understanding of Einstein’s concept of time as a fourth dimension to the theory that the nature of the Jewish religion was determined by the tense system of ancient Hebrew.

Eventually, Whorf’s theory crash-landed on hard facts and solid common sense, when it transpired that there had never actually been any evidence to support his fantastic claims. The reaction was so severe that for decades, any attempts to explore the influence of the mother tongue on our thoughts were relegated to the loony fringes of disrepute. But 70 years on, it is surely time to put the trauma of Whorf behind us. And in the last few years, new research has revealed that when we learn our mother tongue, we do after all acquire certain habits of thought that shape our experience in significant and often surprising ways.

Whorf, we now know, made many mistakes. The most serious one was to assume that our mother tongue constrains our minds and prevents us from being able to think certain thoughts. The general structure of his arguments was to claim that if a language has no word for a certain concept, then its speakers would not be able to understand this concept. If a language has no future tense, for instance, its speakers would simply not be able to grasp our notion of future time. It seems barely comprehensible that this line of argument could ever have achieved such success, given that so much contrary evidence confronts you wherever you look. When you ask, in perfectly normal English, and in the present tense, “Are you coming tomorrow?” do you feel your grip on the notion of futurity slipping away? Do English speakers who have never heard the German word Schadenfreude find it difficult to understand the concept of relishing someone else’s misfortune? Or think about it this way: If the inventory of ready-made words in your language determined which concepts you were able to understand, how would you ever learn anything new?

Since there is no evidence that any language forbids its speakers to think anything, we must look in an entirely different direction to discover how our mother tongue really does shape our experience of the world. Some 50 years ago, the renowned linguist Roman Jakobson pointed out a crucial fact about differences between languages in a pithy maxim: . . .

Continue reading.

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27 August 2010 at 9:12 am

Nordic Track

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14.5 minutes, non-stop. The villagers cheered when I skied up with the vaccine.

I was listening to Billy May and his Orchestra.

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27 August 2010 at 9:05 am

Posted in Daily life, Fitness

Rescued baby hummingbird still fed by mom

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Written by Leisureguy

27 August 2010 at 8:26 am

Posted in Daily life, Video

Do you support small government (GOP)? or a government sized to meet its goals (Democrats)?

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The point is that the liberal wing has no specific position on government size: agencies should be sized to do their jobs and meet the goals defined for them. The GOP, on the other hand, simply wants the government to be small, regardless of goals and accomplishments. Exception: the GOP supports have a military that uses virtually all the discretionary money the government spends—and the GOP wants to spend more there.

Steve Benen comments:

In a "Daily Dish" item yesterday, Conor Friedersdorf explored the ways in which someone like Matt Yglesias approaches public policy. Friedersdorf emphasized that Matt does not, conservative rhetoric notwithstanding, having a reflexive preference for larger government:

The desired end of Matthew Yglesias isn’t to grow the American state. On some issues, he sees a bigger state as a necessary means to an end he desires (like using subsidies to increase the percentage of Americans covered by some form of health insurance), and on other issues he favors taking power away from the state. It is useful to understand these distinctions, even if you think, as I do, that the federal government should be much smaller than Mr. Yglesias would have it.

It prompted Adam Serwer to note one of my favorite observations.

[T]he idea that conservatives don’t understand that liberals aren’t ideologically committed to the expansion of government the way conservatives are ideologically committed to the shrinking of government is indicative of the fact that conservative conversations about liberals take place in an alternate reality. Liberals believe that government has a responsibility to help people, especially those at the margins, cope with the exigencies of the free market, but that doesn’t mean we’re going to support a local height requirement in Washington, D.C., that artificially inflates the price of living space because it prevents the construction of housing with greater density. The means and outcome of policy matters, rather than the size of the role government ultimately plays. Yglesias is hardly unique in that sense.

On the other hand, I’m not sure I believe that conservatives don’t really understand the difference.

I continue to see this as one of the fundamental differences between the left and right — one considers smaller government an end unto itself, while the other cares infinitely more about policy outcomes than the size of government. Liberals and conservatives don’t only disagree on political goals, they differ on the kinds of goals worth pursuing.

Paul Krugman had an item on this in April: "On the right, people are for smaller government as a matter of principle — smaller government for its own sake. And so they naturally imagine that their opponents must be their mirror image, wanting bigger government as a goal in itself. But it’s not true. I don’t know any progressives who gloat over increases in the federal payroll or the government share of GDP. Progressives have things they want the government to do — like guaranteeing health care. Size per se doesn’t matter. But people on the right apparently can’t get that."

No, they really don’t. The liberal worldview is not about necessarily increasing the size of government or raising taxes; those mechanisms are only valuable insofar as they reach the desired end-point. For the right, it’s the other way around — the ideological goal is the desired end-point.

I can imagine a scenario in which the president hosts a big meeting with all the congressional leaders, and suggests it’s time to review the economic recovery efforts of the last year and a half, looking closely at what worked and what didn’t, and then working on what to do next. For Dems, the task would be fairly straightforward — let’s do more of what was the most effective, and less of what was the least effective.

For Republicans, it doesn’t work quite that way — they have ideological ideals that outweigh evidence. GOP leaders could be shown incontrovertible evidence that the most effective methods of creating jobs and improving the economy are aid to states, infrastructure investment, unemployment insurance, and food stamps, and they’d still say tax cuts for millionaires is the better way to go. Why? Because their ideology dictates that government spending is bad, government intervention in the economy is bad, and tax cuts are good.

Jon Chait had a terrific piece on this larger dynamic several years ago.

We’re accustomed to thinking of liberalism and conservatism as parallel ideologies, with conservatives preferring less government and liberals preferring more. The equivalency breaks down, though, when you consider that liberals never claim that increasing the size of government is an end in itself. Liberals only support larger government if they have some reason to believe that it will lead to material improvement in people’s lives. Conservatives also want material improvement in people’s lives, of course, but proving that their policies can produce such an outcome is a luxury, not a necessity.

The contrast between economic liberalism and economic conservatism, then, ultimately lies not only in different values or preferences but in different epistemologies. Liberalism is a more deeply pragmatic governing philosophy — more open to change, more receptive to empiricism, and ultimately better at producing policies that improve the human condition — than conservatism.

Now, liberalism’s pragmatic superiority wouldn’t matter to a true ideological conservative any more than news about the medical benefits of pork (to pick an imaginary example) would cause a strictly observant Jew to begin eating ham sandwiches. But, if you have no particular a priori preference about the size of government and care only about tangible outcomes, then liberalism’s aversion to dogma makes it superior as a practical governing philosophy.

Those on the right want to cut taxes, because tax cuts are necessarily good. They want smaller government, because smaller government is necessarily good. They want to privatize public programs because privatization is necessarily good.

The left has no parallel ideological desires (wanting bigger government just for the sake of having bigger government).

The left starts with a policy goal (more people with access to medical care, more students with access to college, less pollution, more Wall Street safeguards) and crafts proposals to try to complete the task. The right starts with an ideological goal (smaller government, more privatization, lower taxes) and works backwards.

Written by Leisureguy

27 August 2010 at 8:25 am

Raising a superstar

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Jonah Lehrer (a superstar himself) summarizes what is known about developing exceptional human skills. He begins:

The 10,000 hour rule has become a cliché. This is the idea, first espoused by K. Anders Ericsson, a psychologist at Florida State University, that it takes about 10,000 hours of practice before any individual can become an expert. The corollary of this rule is that that differences in talent reflect differences in the amount and style of practice, and not differences in innate ability. As Ericsson wrote in his influential review article “The Role of Deliberate Practice in the Acquisition of Expert Performance”: “The differences between expert performers and normal adults are not immutable, that is, due to genetically prescribed talent. Instead, these differences reflect a life-long period of deliberate effort to improve performance.”

On the one hand, this is a deeply counter-intuitive idea. (It’s best articulated in Gladwell’s excellent Outliers and Daniel Coyle’s The Talent Code.) Although we pretend to be egalitarians, we really believe that the talented are naturally “gifted”. You and I can’t become chess grandmasters, or NBA superstars, or concert pianists, simply because we don’t have the necessary anatomy. Endless hours of hard work won’t compensate for our biological limitations. When fate was handing out skill, we got screwed.

And yet, the 10,000 hour rule also echoes a long-standing belief about how talent happens. Let’s call this the parable of Tiger Woods. The story goes something like this: When Tiger Woods was an infant, his dad, Earl, moved his high chair into the garage. This was where Earl practiced his golf swing, hitting balls into a soccer net after work. Tiger was captivated by the swift movement. For hours on end, he would watch his father smack hundreds of balls. When Tiger was nine months old, Earl sawed off the top of an old golf club. Tiger could barely walk – and he had yet to utter a single word – but he quickly began teeing off on the Astroturf next to his father. When Tiger was 18 months old, Earl started taking him to the driving range. By the age of three, Tiger was playing nine hole courses, and shooting a 48. That same year, he began identifying the swing flaws of players on the PGA tour. (“Look Daddy,” Tiger would say, “that man has a reverse pivot!”) He finally beat his father – by a single stroke, with a score of 71 – when he was eleven. At fifteen, he became the youngest player to ever win the United States Junior Amateur championship. At eighteen, he became the youngest player to ever win the United States Amateur championship, a title he kept for the next three years. In 1997, when he was only 21, Tiger won the Masters at Augusta by the largest margin in a major championship in the 20th century. Two months later he became the number one golfer in the world.

The lesson of Tiger Woods is . . .

Continue reading.

Written by Leisureguy

27 August 2010 at 8:18 am

Posted in Daily life, Science

Break taken

with 5 comments

It was good to get a day off. I even took off the Nordic, but I continued to observe good eating habits. I made a couple of things.

When I buy boneless chicken breasts, I do buy them with skin-on (much cheaper). I bring to the boil a big pot of water containing:

Carrots
Celery
Onion
Other as desired (whole allspice, whole cloves, star anise, etc.)

Once at the boil, I cover and reduce heat to simmer for 40 minutes.

Remove and discard veg, using a slotted spoon. Return broth to heat and add:

Chicken breasts

Bring to boil, reduce heat, cover, and simmer for 20 minutes. Let chicken breasts cool in stock for 10 minutes then remove breasts, remove and discard skin from breasts, and refrigerate breasts.

Now I have a very nice stock. I always use it for something, and yesterday Whole Foods had fish for stew: cut up pieces of a variety of fish (including things like swordfish, salmon, and the like): just $8/lb and some very pricey fish included. Good-sized chunks, too.

I added that, some lemon juice, a chopped onion, and what was left of my lunchtime salad—I thought the greens would go well, and the seasonings would be fine. I wanted some carbs in the soup and didn’t feel like rice or pasta, so I added some red quinoa, which was pre-rinsed.

I simmered for 15 minutes. Extremely tasty.

I also made this recipe for dinner, except that I used calamari steak cut into strips.

I had some dandelion greens left over, so this morning I used a little coconut butter and about 1/4 c of water to sauté 1/4 chopped onion and three minced cloves of garlic, then added the leftover greens and cooked covered, stirring occasionally, for 6-8 minutes. Then I put that in a bowl, added my oat groats cooked with turmeric and a sliced 7-minute hard-boiled egg and a good splash of homemade hot sauce. A very nice breakfast indeed.

Written by Leisureguy

27 August 2010 at 8:04 am

Cedarwood-Lemongrass—and a good morning!

with 3 comments

I recently blogged about Queen Charlotte Soaps, LLC. I received my first order (well packed, Priority Mail) yesterday, so I was eager to give it a go this morning. He says that he shaving soap is more on the order of a shaving cream, and he’s right: it’s quite a soft soap (like, for example, Figaro, but with a totally different fragrance).

I like Cedarwood-Lemongrass, an unusual fragrance, and the lather I got was quite good: lots of lather for all the passes, and it worked well. My Gillette Executive with a previously used Gillette 7 O’Clock SharpEdge blade, did three smooth passes, and then a splash of Pashana sent me on my way, feeling refreshed and fragrant.

Written by Leisureguy

27 August 2010 at 7:31 am

Posted in Shaving

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