Friday, October 28, 2005

Kill the laws, not the lawyers

I've heard "kill all the lawyers" jokes since I was a kid. "What do you call 100 dead lawyers? A good start." Heck, even the Eagles song "Get Over It" calls for such a cull.

I understand the source of this sentiment. There are just so many. I recently began working in Los Angeles, and at first it was so nice to see how hard working everybody was. I see many professional-looking people on the train thumbing away on their Blackberries, and talking shop on their cell phones. But then, if I eaves-drop I invariably find that they're talking about court dates, appeals, and other legal affairs.

Is this the proper preoccupation of a productive society? Do we really need such a high proportion of the smartest among us dedicated to sorting out exactly how we use the state to bully and coerce each other?

I think not, and neither, apparently, do the jocular, generally blue collar men who toss around "kill all the lawyers" jokes. They offer a humourous response to a serious problem, but there is a seriously necessary solution. Kill the laws, and the demand for lawyers will dry up. Imagine how much our economy would improve if all these people with a knack for precise writing were writing mechanical engineering literature instead of legalese: or if all these people with an aptitude for complicated systems applied their sharp minds to computer code, instead of legal code .

Thursday, October 27, 2005

Could it be?

Now, I'm not usually one for conspiracy theories, but since this morning's news of the Miers withdrawel, I've been thinking: what next? It's still Bush's nomination to make. What if he nominates an extremely conservative one? Would Democrats really be able to block that nomination? It seems the general public reaction to any further attempts to block would be "come on, we can't stop two nominations in a row made by a sitting president. That would just be too much." An arch-conservative, that as an initial nominee would have been rejected, might then get onto the bench. Could this entire Miers debacle be playing out exactly as Karl Rove planned it?

Miers Withdraws Nomination

Supreme Court nominee Harriet Miers has withdrawn her nomination. Brad over at Unrepentant Individual notified a mailing list, and the Washington Post just posted it on their web site 15 minutes ago (8:58 am).

This is a victory for meritocracy, and a defeat for cronyism.

Hopefully this means lawyers and other professionals throughout America will start working harder and kissing up less.

Tuesday, October 25, 2005

Worked by Jobs

Steve Jobs, CEO of Apple seems at once cooler and smarter than most any other CEO in corporate America. For someone rather geeky, he has a strong (and profitable) sense of style, exhibited by every product put out by Apple since he returned to the helm. Even his new product presentations are hip and handsome, the last of which was followed by a performance by Wynton Marsalis, the most stylish jazz-man of our day, who himself remarked sincerely, "Nice presentation" before jumping into 15 minutes of un-watered-down jazz.

During the previous new product presentation, Jobs and the CEO of Motorolla introduced the Motorolla Rockr, which was the first mobile phone to run iTunes. The phone held a very limited number of songs, which according to Walter Mossberg of the Wall Street Journal, was because Apple demanded it. Apparently Jobs didn't want the Rockr to be so successful that it actually competed with his iPods, as Motorolla probably made the lion's share of any money the Rockr made. It seemed Motorolla was desperate to get a piece of the iPod magic, and was willing to take a sour deal for it. And it seemed Jobs was willing to string them along, perhaps in order to use the new product as limited-term trial-run for a future iPod-phone combo of his own. If that is so, his plan seems to have worked, because the Rockr sales have been dramatically disappointing. The Rockr's controls are also really fiddly according to Mossberg; so fiddly that Jobs himself pressed the wrong button when trying to demonstrate to the audience one of Rockr's special features. Maybe his fingers were too used to those engineering masterpieces, his own iPods. Or maybe, just maybe, he did it on purpose.

It reminded me of the co-branded Hewlett Packard/Apple iPod a couple years back. There was literally nothing special about the HP/Apple iPod other than that it said "HP" on it, which to my estimation was a drawback, given that Apple's brand appeal was so much stronger. It seemed like a desperate reach by the flailing CEO Carly Fiorina, who has since been forced out of HP. And indeed, the plug was recently pulled on the HP/Apple iPod venture after, again, disappointing sales. While I don't know the intricacies of the deal, I'd wager that Jobs drove a hard bargain and got something out of it, even though it failed (perhaps HP shouldered the manufacturing costs), and that HP, just like Motorolla, was willing to sign up just for a piece of the magic.

Hopefully the tech sector will come to realize it's not about "the magic", and that Apple's success comes from innovation, smarts, and style. If Motorolla and HP got played by Jobs it's only their fault for trying to piggyback on his market mojo instead of trying to develop their own.

Monday, October 10, 2005

The mugging medium

One in a litany of shameful episodes surrounding the Hurrican Katrina disaster was Congressmen balking at giving up their pork projects to fund rebuilding in New Orleans (a notable exception was minority leader Nancy Pelosi from California). As generous as Americans generally feel toward the victims of Katrina, most voters at the ballot box would fail to make the connection between their local projects and the disaster. Congress knows this is true, and that they would sooner be punished for their failure to bring home the bacon than rewarded for any principle they display. Alaskans lobby for their bridge to nowhere, farm-belters lobby for their agriculture subsidies... every region has its own pet transportation project and pet industry. And their representatives shell out the pork to buy their votes. But it's not just Congress. The president basically bought the votes of the elderly with his woefully irresponsible Medicare law. It all brings me to the conclusion that for all the rhetoric about its power to protect and advance society, government has become primarily a medium through which otherwise decent citizens indirectly mug each other. It's an enabler for mugging. Middle-class Granny would never actually reach into the pocket of a Katrina victim for money to pay for her pills. That would be unseemly. But via the indirect means of voting, taxation, and benefit distribution, such a robbery is made to seem a civilized transaction.

Sunday, October 09, 2005

HBO subscribers, lend this your eyes

The one television show I watch every week is Rome, on HBO. The creators of Rome have acheived the remarkable feat of threading one grand story through the lives of generals, soldiers, nobility, and people just trying to get by in an ancient city-state whose reality is turning upside-down. The plot is centered around the rivalry between the great, but aging general Pompey, and the glorified conqueror Julius Caesar. Caesar is threatening the age-old republic and its Senate, which has claimed Pompey as its defender. Caesar's aggression is encouraged by his machiavellian lieutenant Marc Antony. Other characters include a Centurion who is torn between his loyalty to his military duties and to his republic, a young Octavian, the future emperor, and his beautiful, scheming mother. Although the story shifts from prim to plebian plotlines frequently, the realistic connections between these members of Rome's various strata keep the shifts from being jarring.

The first and foremost triumph of this series is its casting. Ciaran Hinds is a perfectly brilliant and patrician Julius Caesar. Polly Walker is at once luscious and wicked as Atia, Octavian's mother and Caesar's neice. Atia's mercenary gaze is only matched James Purefoy's menacing grin as Antony Caesar. And young Max Pirkin's brooding portrayal of Octavian as a lad is pitch-perfect.

As an enthusiast for ancient history, I can vouch for much of the accuracy of the series. The scorn held for mercantilism by the nobility, the analysis of animal entrails to foretell the future, the short swords of the legionairres, and the fascination with Greek legends are all familiar from history tomes.

Everybody knows Julius Caesar's fate. And most know what will come between Octavian and Marc Antony. But week after week, the show's characters are so well fleshed out, that one wants to know exactly how it happens, and what fate awaits the non-historical characters.

After the sword-and-sandal epics Troy and Alexander failed so miserably to live up to the promise of Gladiator, I was afraid that studios had lost their appetite for films set in ancient times. Rome shows that, when done right, there is a wealth of great stories to draw from what came before these times.

Friday, October 07, 2005

California and western Europe: Resting on their laurels

In his excellent column, Dan Weintraub asks this important question:
Do the voters of California want the kind of fundamental change in their government that Schwarzenegger is seeking to enact? They clearly wanted change two years ago, when they took the extraordinary step of tossing out a governor midterm and replacing him with a Hollywood movie star and businessman who had no prior experience in government. And they seem to still yearn for change today, if polls showing widespread dissatisfaction with the status quo are accurate. But just what kind of change they want remains a mystery.
In this way California reminds me of western Europe. The electorates in Europe are clearly disaffected by the lack of progress made by the establishment politicians currently in power. But whenever they are faced with the prospect of real reform, they balk. Witness the success of the no campaigns against the EU Constitution in France and the Netherlands (which was largely based on fear of liberalization and globalization) and the surprisingly poor performance of the pro-reform coalition under Angela Merkel in the last German parliamentary elections. In both California and western Europe, the people recognize the need for change, but are too wedded to their belief in the "social model" to actually stomach reform. As pleasant and mild the climate is in both places, they are both hemorrhaging business to their pro-business neighbors in Nevada and eastern Europe. The tax burden in California and the mass unemployment in western Europe may be bearable enough now for both places to trudge along on the strength of their attractiveness and past industrial dynamism. But even the most prosperous economies in the most beautiful locales cannot rest on their laurels forever. And sooner or later, the tough choices will have to be made. If we make them now, by the time many of us reach retirement, our economies might provide us with quite comfortable lives. If we don't, you can find me blogging my golden years away in Nevada, or perhaps Estonia.

Thursday, October 06, 2005

My years in the wilderness

I just realized that I use a lot of what one commenter on my blog called conservative "buzzwords." The biggest villains in my posts are generally folks I call "leftists", "lefties", "liberals", "statists", and "socialists". First of all, I disagree that they are buzzwords. They are simply words that describe people I disagree with in terms of how I disagree with them. When I'm arguing against the proponents of over-reaching government, I call them statists, because in my opinion, they are too enamored with the promise and virtue of the state. When I argue against people who don't believe in the efficacy of markets, I call them socialist. That doesn't mean I think they are all communists, or even extreme socialists.

That said, I don't want my name-tossing to give any leftward readers the impression that I reject their kind of politics out of hand. In fact, I am very familiar with the very same pangs of social consciousness that can lead one down the path of moderate liberal holiness. You can't get much leftier than being appointed to a city commission by the most liberal city councilman in the most liberal city in California. But in 2001-2002, I served for Kriss Worthington on the Community Health Commission of the People's Republic of Berkeley. Back then, I was out there fighting the good fight: campaigning against the state school vouchers initiative, railing in the Daily Cal newspaper against big tobacco, and stridently berating the local hospital management company at Commission meetings. But then I stopped protesting, and I started reading and thinking and reading and thinking. And I grew to realize that the course of history has been one long argument for the efficacy of liberty, and the folly of the over-reaching state.

There is an old political adage that goes something like, "A young conservative has no heart. An old liberal has no brain." I'm fairly proud that my brain overtook my heart at the tender age of 23, long before I had a family, a mortgage, or a mugging to make me conservative. So, I don't think leftists are malevolent, any more than I think I was in back in college. And, if I ever sound like I'm yelling at leftists, I'm partially yelling at myself for my previous naivete, stridency, and intellectual laziness.

So, I implore you, progressives, social democrats, and advocates for the disenfranchised (see, I can use nice "buzzwords" for the political left), to take a step back and just entertain the idea that the bad guys might be right. What if free markets really are better at feeding hungry mouths than forced wealth redistribution? What if welfare and subsidized housing really are keeping the underclass poor? Then take a close look at history, keeping an eye out for actual results in the improvement of human livelihood instead of seeking evidence for "injustice" and inequality. Are you absolutely sure that the facts are on your side? What's more important, the actual prosperity of the populations you advocate for, or consistency with your worldview that profit-seeking is selfish, and people just need to give more? The sooner that more young liberals graduate to become old conservatives, the better it will be for the world's poor and underprivileged (and not to mention for the rest of us, too).

Health care and backfiring egalitarianism

For my first Health Care Thursday entry, I'm going to discuss a quite personal matter.

My dad took ill recently. And while it looks like he's pulling through, his experience with his hospital has left much to be desired. They seem to be playing defensive medicine by continually checking for TB, in spite of the facts that test after test has proven negative, the TB medicine causes pain, and his physical complaint isn't even pulmonary. Meanwhile, whatever is actually wrong with him is receiving less attention

My dad expressed frustration that there isn't much he can do about this seeming inefficiency of care. "You just have to assume they know what they're doing," he said, "Your fate is in their hands."

Medicine is not a very customer-driven industry. The guild-like pressures of the medical establishment, government regulations, and the tax disadvantage of hospitals going for-profit make it so. The biggest "market pressure" hospitals face is the pressure to not get sued. And yet even the recent mild bout of consumer empowerment, brought on by the liberalizing of prescription drug advertising, is being attacked by establishment liberals as putting to much pressure on doctors. The "power to the people" party largely doesn't want the people to have too much power over their own health care.

Medicine, like education, is an industry that many think is "too important to leave to the free market" Leftits look at America's founding promises: recognition for being "created equal", for "life", and for the "pursuit of happiness", and stitch them together to demand that everyone gets equal "life" (health care) and an equal starting line for the "pursuit of happiness" (education). This egalitarian impulse generally backfires. Look at a generally free-market product like cell phones. There isn't that much of a difference between a lawyer's cell phone and a waitress's. But there is likely a huge difference between the public school that the lawyer's kids go to, and the one that the waitress's kids go to. The same would be true with the health care each receives. Moreover, if cell phones were tightly regulated like education and health care is, even the cheapest Nokias would be much worse than they are now, not better.

My family is in no way wealthy. But I'd rather have the health care that the free market would offer, than the kind we're getting under our current "egalitarian" system.

Wednesday, October 05, 2005

The science and math education crisis

From a recent episode of Foreign Exchange with Fareed Zakaria:

Fareed Zakaria: This week like millions of Americans, I took my kids to school. You know that summer is really over when parents start shopping for the new school year and worrying about their kids’ future. Well here’s more to worry about; you’ve heard all about the statistics that show when tested, American kids lag behind those in Britain, France, Germany and Japan. Well they’re now being out-tested by countries like Poland, Ireland, and the Czech Republic. And this is true even at the highest levels. The top five percent of American high school students placed twenty-third of twenty-nine in a recent ranking. And then there’s science; in 1996 only 21 percent of American twelfth graders were considered proficient in math and science. By 2000 that number had dropped to 18 percent; it has almost certainly dropped even further in the last five years. Many Americans continue to believe that their kids are going to superb schools and American school children when polled say that they are confident that they have superior skills. But the statistics increasingly suggest that we have become a lot better at teaching self-esteem than science.
We desperately need to attract more people with backgrounds in science and math to teach- and not the way we've been trying so far: loan forgiveness, recruitment drives, and peace corps-type programs like Teach For America. If we want people to teach math when they have a job offer at Oracle, or teach biology when Genentech is banging on their door, we have to pay them more. There is a scarcity, so their price should go up. Conversely there are plenty of humanities majors who want to teach elementary school, and high school English and social studies. There is a surplus of them, so their price should go down. This may be anathema to teachers unions, but they had better get over themselves quickly (or we need to get over them). Their politics may operate in an economics-free zone, but the future of our kids won't.

Tuesday, October 04, 2005

StickyBrain: the iTunes for the written word

For this, my first Tech Tuesday entry, I'm reviewing my favorite piece of software: StickyBrain by Chronos. At first take, StickyBrain seems like just an amped up version of the popular application Stickies, which is basically a digital Post-It app (the company Post-It has its own version as well) . But it is far more than that. In fact it's much more Brain than Sticky. StickyBrain is a powerful personal manager of almost any information that involves the written word. This app makes me pity Windows users all the more, because it is only made for the Mac.

And it shows, too. StickyBrain has features that will be very familiar to OS X users. It has a list of notes on the top, and a preview pane on the bottom very much like Apple's Mail program. But unlike Mail, you can edit any note from the preview pane itself. You can also open multiple preview "tabs", which is much like the tab functionality popularized by Mozilla Firefox and adopted by Apple's Safari web browser. StickyBrain has a "drawer" on the right, that has whatever directory structure you choose to design, much like the multiple calendars in iCal, the albums in iPhoto, the playlists in iTunes, the address groups in AddressBook, the sidebar in Finder... you get the idea. StickyBrain also has the Mac feature whose utility pervades almost every corner of OS X, from "Open File" dialogues to the System Preferences: the Search Bar. If I want to find a note, I just start typing into the Search Bar the first word that comes to my mind when I think about what I'm looking for. Then, bam!, it appears as I'm still typing, and I can start editing it right away. And I don't have to wait for it to load like a bloated Microsoft Word file, which, even when absolutely no text is entered into it, is 20 KB big. Plus you can re-title your notes on the fly, "link" notes together, and put a single note in multiple folders.

StickyBrain is so nimble because it treats your notes, not like discreet "files", but like entries in a database. In this way, it is again like Apple's in-house software. On a Windows you drop pictures and songs in your operating system's folder structure. Then, when you want to get to them, you either fish around in Explorer or the app's "Open File" dialogue ("Let's see, My Computer, C Drive, My Pictures, Family Pictures, 2003, Fourth of July Trip, there it is!"). On a Mac, on the other hand, you add songs and audiobooks to your iTunes library and images to your iPhoto library. And with iTunes and iPhoto, the applications themselves are like great big "Open File" dialogue boxes. They're what I call "immersive apps". They are like miniature operating systems, carefully tailored for music or photos.

In the same way, StickyBrain is like a miniature operating system for the written word. I've taken nearly all my Microsoft Word files (journal entries, notes, lists, research papers, outlines, reference tables, essays, short stories, work reference files, etc) all my Palm OS memos, all my Sticky notes, and all the web sites I've saved onto my hard drive, and eased them into my StickyBrain. Now every useful scrap of word-based data I've ever saved or generated is right at my fingertips. And anytime I come across something interesting on the web, in my e-mail, or in my head I'm just a keyboard shortcut away from registering it in a system that I trust it won't get lost in. I even draft all of my blog entries in StickyBrain (including this one). There are so many useful features in this program (others include Palm sync, iPod sync, integration with AddressBook, iPhoto, and .Mac, a Dashboard Widget, note alarms, and the ability to automatically make a note from selected text), that if you own a Mac, you should at least download StickyBrain for its 30-day trial period. It may very well become a central and essential part of your digital life.

Monday, October 03, 2005

A bit of 6th grade econ

I was tutoring my 11 year-old neice in math tonight, and she said, "Math's always been my worst subject, ever since I was a little kid." I explained to her that schools don't pay math teachers enough, so people who are good at math go to work at companies that pay them better, and kids get stuck with teachers who don't care that much about math. My neice thought for just a second, and said, "That's stupid, because later companies won't have anyone to hire, because nobody will be good at math. People should think about that"

From the mouths of babes comes economic wisdom that seems to elude the teacher unions who insist on equal teacher pay, regardless of supply and demand.

Sunday, October 02, 2005

Objectivity, Shmobjectivity

Objectivity, along with accuracy, is one of the holy grails of journalism. But is it really that desirable? All of my favorite magazines, The Economist, Wired, and Entertainment Weekly are decidedly partial. And I'm not just talking about the opinion columns and reviews. Throughout all their content, these publications make quite clear what developments in politics, business, and culture they like and dislike. And, unsurprisingly, I tend to agree with them. Does that mean I'm locking myself in an echo chamber, and shielding my eyes from reality with hack journalism? Is there any difference between me, and someone who swears by Fox News or The Workers' Daily?

I think there are indeed very important differences. If Fox News seemed to truly want to make the world safe for small government, free trade, or Christian values, and their coverage was filtered through that lens, then more power to them. As long as their values don't lead them to outright lying, I don't see anything wrong with bias in journalism: especially now in the information age, when "the media" is so far from being monolithic. Fox News being conservatively biased is not going to brainwash the masses, as so many leftists fret. What makes Fox News an absolute tool is that it does not seem to truly care that much about small government, free trade, or Christian values. The only thing Fox News seems to want to make the world safe for is the Republican Party, and particularly the Bush administration. Bush tends to receive Fox News' toadyish support even when he's swelling government bureaucracy or establishing protectionist tariffs. The Economist, on the other hand, while it wears its conservative heart on its sleeve, will not refrain from praising the Labor Party when it implements pro-market reforms, or chastising the Tories when they promote excessive limitations on economic immigration.

And what sets publications like The Workers' Daily apart, is that, while they are ideologically consistent, they are also too "on-message." Wired may be libertarian and futurist. But you don't get the impression that every article is geared toward a certain agenda.

A good media source is like a good friend who shares interesting things he's learned. As a human with a brain, he has a certain world view, and certain opinions. That doesn't mean he's being dishonest or cynical in his motivations for sharing his info with you. And just as people are apt to find friends who have similar world views, in the diversified media market of today, it is likely that people can find media sources that jibe with their views.

I'm a classic liberal and so is The Economist. I'm interested in what an organization that has similar views to mine, and vastly superior information gathering resources has to say about the world. I believe strongly in private technological advancement, as does Wired. So I'd rather hear about private space travel from Wired, than from NPR, which is clearly pro-NASA. And I tend to like my music, television, and movies to be smart, fresh, and a little edgy. So I don't mind that Entertainment Weekly will harshly criticize the lame TV show According to Jim, even in a feature article about its star, while a magazine like Time would only find nice things to say.

The "don't offend anybody, but don't inspire anybody either" form of objectivity one finds in USA Today, network morning shows, and most small-town newspapers is not only boring, but intellectually deadening. Most Americans don't have thought-out opinions on very many subjects, because they are never challenged by their media sources. People should bounce back and forth between media sources that offend or annoy them, until they find one that inspires them. And with the explosion of blogs and other web sites, niche magazines, satellite radio, podcasts, and cable channels, that smart and targeted way of learning about the world around us is finally possible.

So, mainstream media, don't be objective. Just be honest. Global discourse would be much more fruitful for it.

Saturday, October 01, 2005

The Open Source Movement and Liberty

For my first Liberty Saturday post, I'd like to ask the question: Where does the Open Source Movement stand on the continuum between statism and liberty?

First, for the uninitiated: what is the Open Source Movement (OSM)?

The term "open source" originated in computer programming jargon. Software is made up of code. The source code is what underlies everything in a program. An open source program is one for which the programmers have made the source code publicly available, free of charge. Other programmers are largely free to mess with the code however they like, sometimes with the stipulation that they release their version of the program in an open source manner as well. The two most famous examples of open source programs are the operating system Linux and the web browser Firefox. The open source ethos has also been extended to other kinds of information like writings, music, images, and movies. Other popular open source ventures are Wikipedia, a free online encyclopedia that anyone can edit, the Creative Commons license under which many blogs are written, and the image sharing web site Flickr.

At first take, the OSM seems to have a collectivist, anti-private property tinge to it. Indeed many of its prominent adherents having something of the 60s in them. The Google founders harp on more about not being "evil" than profit models. And Tim O'Reilly, who promotes an OSM-related meme called Web 2.0, and is featured in this month's Wired, had his start as a "human consciousness" teacher in Northern California. But it's not that simple.

Consider their mode of collectivism. They do tend to favor cooperation over competition. And they favor open standards over owned standards. But that doesn't mean they're all calling for the government to enforce that cooperation and generate those standards. In fact I have yet to observe any prominent OSM pundit doing so. If a bunch of programmers across the world want to contribute their free time to building a better browser than Internet Explorer, there is nothing coercive about that. Liberty isn't about doing what you like as long as it makes a profit; it's about doing what you like, period.

Now consider their seeming stance against private property. Let's be straight that we're not talking about knocking over record stores, because they should be open source. We're talking about intellectual property. And more than a few libertarians think intellectual property is a completely artificial and unnecessary construction. My rule of thumb when deciding if liberty has been transgressed or not is violence. Can one really make a strong claim that getting paid for covering someone else's song without paying royalties is actually committing violence against the original artist? We have to be careful about extending the definition of violence too far to justify government action, because that is exactly what statists do when they define "labor exploitation" and "inequality" as forms of violence. Other libertarians encompass deceit in their set of justifications for government action. Under this conception, it should be illegal to pass off someone else's work as your own, thereby justifying intellectual property. But I think non-governmental systems of accountability, utilizing reputation and non-coercive rating agencies would naturally arise to combat such abuse, if governments would just get out of the way. Moreover, I think because consumers really don't want to get ripped off, there would be such a strong market demand for these systems, that the innovation stimulated by that demand would bring about accountability mechanisms much more rigorous than the unresponsive, inefficient government watchdogs we have now.

So on the whole, the Open Source Movement is much more friend than foe to liberty. And it makes sense when you consider the generation it has sprung from. Most techies are not baby boomers (in this, the fifty-something Tim O'Reilly is quite the exception). Most techies are still in their twenties and thirties. They know that the prosperity of their times did not come from the wars on poverty and social injustice of their parents, and that it has more to do with the high tech of the 90s, and perhaps even the high finance of the 80s "me" generation.

So until the Open Source Movement starts lobbying for Firefox subsidies or demanding that Wal-Mart be considered part of the "Creative Commons", consider me an OSM supporter.

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