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Larry Page wants to see your medical records


But of course. What’s good for Mr. Larry is good for everybody. He’s quite clear on that. Why aren’t you?

From ITWorld:

A day after breaking an almost year-long silence on a medical condition that had affected the way he speaks, Google co-founder Larry Page said Wednesday that people should be more open about their medical histories.” …

“At least in my case I feel I should have done it sooner and I’m not sure that answer isn’t true for most people, so I ask why are people so focused on keeping your medical history private?”

Then the icing on the cake:

The Google CEO guessed most people are guarded about their medical history because of insurance reasons. [Or he could, maybe, guess that he could ask people what their concerns are.]

“You’re very worried that you’re going to be denied insurance. That makes no sense, so maybe we should change the rules around insurance so that they have to insure people,” he said to a round of applause.

Wow. Thanks, Larry. Where were you during the whole Obamacare bullshit? When not a single powerful anything came out in favor of Medicare For All, the only way to just “insure people.” At your rate of breakthrough insights, I’ll be waiting for the flash of inspiration sometime in 2020.

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I once bought a house

Buying a house is a hugely intimidating process. At least it was for me. It was more expensive than what I make in years — incomprehensibly more expensive than anything else in my whole world — and I felt like I was signing over the rest of my life when I signed the papers.

Which brings me to the papers. There was a stack of them, I think it was six inches high (around 15cm for those of you who live in the civilized world). Theoretically, you read and understood every word before signing. There was what felt like a damn ceremony, where I went to some office, and signed papers for a few hours. If I started reading any of them, there was a pregnant stage wait. I could just feel the professionals thinking, “Oh my God. If this pointy-haired buyer keeps doing this, we’ll be here all day!” I’ve got news for them. If I’d read all those papers, we would have been there for several weeks.

So, in some respects, I was one of those ignorant buyers you hear about. (For instance, Krugman discussing the subprime situation, “the hundreds of thousands if not millions of American families lured into mortgage deals they didn’t understand.”) The only real difference between me and them was that when I tried to make sure I had a real estate agent I could trust, I was lucky and turned out to be right. But — and that’s a legal hole you could drive a bankruptcy through — if I’d been wrong, there could have been anything buried in that mountain of paper and I wouldn’t have known until the bills arrived. That’s true even though I’m absurdly over-educated, can do statistics and calculus, and understand a little bit about accounting and finance.

Given how easy legal obfuscation has made it to cheat people, all the professionals in the real estate and finance industries who had a part in this process do bear a great deal of the guilt for creating the situation we’re in. I’m not arguing with Krugman or anyone else who says that. The heaviest costs of digging ourselves out of this hole should fall on the financiers. Agreed.

It’s also clear that some buyers really were actively and unethically (if not criminally) cheated. There are too many stories of creditworthy people being steered toward higher-profit subprime loans when they could have qualified for ordinary ones. People whose ignorance was used to cheat them should have that wrong made right at whatever cost to the damn financial industry. I’m completely agreed on that, too.

However.

Some of the ignorant buyers were more than just ignorant. They were greedy, just like the bankers. Unlike the bankers, the only people they’re ruining are themselves, but the fact remains that they were not the unwilling dupes of Wall St.

They were willing. They were out there, scooping in the free money with both hands. I had people tell me that it didn’t matter how much a house cost because the monthly payments were “only” $3000, or whatever. (I live in California.) That’s called charging whatever the market will bear, but it didn’t seem to matter, because everyone knew that houses would coin hundreds of thousands of dollars a year for them from now till doomsday. I saw people re-mortgaging their houses to their maximum, then-current market value so that they could go buy Stuff.

Some buyers weren’t paying close attention to the terms of their loans because they thought none of that mattered. The money was going to keep growing forever.

That’s exactly the same mistake Wall St. made, and for the same reason. If we’re ever to get a handle on Enron-style scamming, we’re going to have to acknowledge that the greed of some of us little people is right in there with the greed of the big people, creating the problem. Our greed may be a lot smaller than theirs, but there’s more of us.

And that’s why I get angry when I read about all the poor people lured into loans by Wall St. Suddenly everyone’s transformed into a Hispanic family who had trouble reading the contract.

Bullshit. There are plenty of people out there who didn’t know because they didn’t want to know. There always are and there always will be. So when we’re thinking about reforms to the financial system to prevent these sorts of meltdowns in the future, let’s try to remember that the rules are there to stop the little people from going crazy, too. The financial industry is a problem, but it’s not the only problem.

Crossposted to Shakesville

Technorati tags: politics, subprime, debt, housing, current events

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Insurance companies cause global warming

Seriously. I’m beginning to think they’re the source of all evil. Think about it. Insurance companies are at the heart of the US health care disaster. This post is an off-the-cuff rant, so I can’t be arsed to dig up the links, but go read Paul Krugman, Ezra Klein, Kevin Drum. Even I have a post about it. It’s obvious to the meanest intelligence.

But what brought this on is that my neighbor is cutting his trees to ten feet high. (Pollarding is the technical term.) I like those trees. They’re almost the only trees left on my street. This is a low rent district, full of little, ramshackle houses. With trees, it looked like something out of Harry Potter. Without trees, it looks like a slum. Even more important, the hummingbirds who visit my feeders live in those last few trees. They are currently Not Happy.

Now, my neighbor is a nice guy, so I went out to moan at him about what he was doing.

“It’s the insurance,” he said. “If I don’t cut them shorter, they won’t insure the house.”

What he means, of course, is that they’ll insure it, but they’ll want bags more money in case a branch comes off in a high wind and knocks off a roof tile or two. The trees themselves are too small and too far from any house to fall right over on one.

So, because the few little trees might, someday, cost the insurance company a few hundred dollars, it’ll either jack up premiums to the point where he has to pay hundreds extra every goddamn year, or it wants them gone. The neighborhoods I live in, nobody has an extra few hundred a year, so all the trees disappear, one by one.

This is the third neighborhood I’ve lived in during the last decade or so where I’ve seen this happen. Multiply that times thousands of neighborhoods, because I’m sure it’s the same thing everywhere. Then calculate how much CO2 that residential urban forest could have taken up. Calculate the increased heat island effect because the trees are no longer there to evaporate acres more water. Calculate the increased air conditioning used because there are no trees to throw shade. Calculate everything, and there’s only one conclusion.

Insurance companies (help) cause global warming.

Why aren’t we regulating the piss out of these bastards, and making it impossible for them to aid and abet the murder of trees?


Crossposted to Shakesville

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Our Government (Not) At Work

Although, really, I guess that would depend on how you define their work. Let me put it this way: the government is continuing not to protect and help the citizens who pay the government to help and protect them.

Via Shaker Nik E. Poo, another depressing bit of news.

Despite the protests of more than 50 scientists, including five Nobel laureates in chemistry, the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency on Friday approved use of a new, highly toxic fumigant, mainly for strawberry fields.

The new pesticide, methyl iodide, is designed for growers, mainly in California and Florida, who need to replace methyl bromide, which has been banned under an international treaty because it damages the Earth’s ozone layer.

I happen to live a few miles away from some of the strawberry fields in question. (Upwind, luckily.) The procedure when they’re fumigating the fields is to cover them in acres of plastic. Great rolls of white stuff, about six feet wide, are rolled out and taped at the seams. Then a couple of guys dressed in white moon suits show up. These are the full biohazard overalls, with their heads completely enclosed in a gas mask sort of thing. They pace around, doing something obscure with hoses and stuff. They have a pickup-sized truck with a metal tank. Once they start pumping the gas under the plastic it billows in a dreamy way. It continues billowing for a few days. Anything alive under there is killed. I drive by with my windows rolled up, wondering how well those seams are holding up.

Meanwhile, a couple fields away, dozens of farmworkers are bent over, picking celery, or cabbages, or carefully hand-weeding a sod farm. When they’ve finished picking a box load, they run to the collecting truck. Then they run back. It’s not easy work, they do it for at least eight hours, and there’s probably scarcely a minute when they’re not breathing hard.

I can hear people sputtering, “Why the HELL don’t the farms just go organic!”

They can’t. If they tried to, it would take about three years before the soil microbiology and organisms built up to the point where something besides pests could live in those fields. Three years of paying taxes on the land and no income to show the shareholders is not something any agribusiness wants any part of. It’s not that they’re against organic farming as such. (Really. Organic farms are often more profitable after the transition period.) It’s that they can’t stand not making money all the time.

So they have to keep killing everything that moves. But life is very adaptable, especially pestiferous life, and there aren’t many poisons that will do that. Methyl bromide was a fumigant that did. It’s a very light molecule that went floating straight up into the stratosphere where it destroyed ozone. Bad for the planet.

But the farms that need a fumigant couldn’t function without it, so even though the stuff was outlawed years ago, it continues to be used with “exemptions” in quantities of thousands of pounds. (When an exemption is a continual thing, is it still an exemption?)

Now, I guess, the EPA has decided it has to get serious about stopping the use of methyl bromide. If you look at that column of elements in the periodic table, you see fluorine, chlorine, bromine, and iodine. All truly vicious toxins, which is why they work as disinfectants. Iodine is a bigger atom than bromine, so when it’s attached to a methyl group, you have a heavier compound. Methyl iodide does not go straight to the stratosphere. It hangs around where we are and gets into the groundwater. Bad for people.

So that’s the choice the “hydroponic” model of agriculture has given us. Kill the planet (and us, eventually), or kill (some of) us now.

There’s an interesting twist at the end of the LATimes article:

The manufacturer [of methyl iodide fumigant], Arysta, has spent eight years and more than $11 million collecting toxicological and environmental data to persuade the EPA to register methyl iodide as a pesticide.

Arysta’s former chief executive, Elin Miller, is now a top official at the EPA and was appointed administrator of its northwest region last year.

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Conflating Morality and Disgust is Immoral: Haidt and the Happiness Hypothesis

Liberals, says Haidt, don’t understand morality. They think it’s only about fairness, something he thinks operates between individuals. Conservatives see the bigger picture, the social glue that makes people behave themselves. That depends on loyalty, respect for authority, and purity. That “broader view” of morality which is not “limited” to notions of fairness, is ingrained, and goes back through evolutionary time. He knows this because he spent some time in India.

I kid you not. Okay, I kid you slightly. He studied other cultures once he returned. He is now a professor at the University of Virginia and researches moral psychology.

I have so many problems with his views, I hardly know where to start.

  • 1) If he wants to imply that morality is genetic, something that evolved like standing upright, then he needs to look at entities that change over evolutionary time, like species, not ones that change depending on the stories people tell, like cultures.
  • 2) He has conflated religion, morality, and disgust without even realizing it, apparently. This is like confusing heterosexual relationships with good parenting. Heterosexuality is not unrelated to parenting. Good parenting can include heterosexuals. But the two are separate issues, and mixing them leads to neither good relationships nor good parenting.
  • 3) He seems oblivious to the role of power in social relations. This is mindboggling. It would be like ignoring this:

    BBC picture of Banksy art in Los Angeles: elephant painted like pink chintz in a pink chintz living room

I’ll go over my reasons for vehemently objecting to Haidt. In fact, I hope to beat his points to death. And I’ll also explain why I feel that strongly.

Starting with the biological angle, my first problem is that he didn’t start with it. Read more »

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Nukes can never be the answer

One bizarre effect of global warming is how it’s become a reason to make the problems worse.

Global warming is so bad, that we have to pull out all the stops. That’s true. So far, so good.

But then people go on to lobby for fuel that doesn’t reduce greenhouse gases, that takes land away from food production, and that’s already causing food crises and environmental destruction. They lobby for hydrogen made from coal, because hydrogen is so clean-burning. (No, no, don’t look at the coal plant. Look over here at the hydrogen car.) And they lobby for nuclear power. The first application in over twenty years to build a new nuclear reactor was recently submitted to the Nuclear Regulatory Commission.

The nuke stuff just blows me away. At least the other technologies haven’t been tried on a national scale in the US. If you’re stupid, you could pretend you can’t figure out what the problems are. But nukes have been tried. They did not work. They do not work. They will never work, because they can’t work.

Let me go over exactly why that’s true.
Read more »

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Stem Cells and Ethics

We’ve heard it all by now. “Stem cells will cure everything.” “Stem cells kill embryos.” “Stem cells are overrated.” We hear much less about the science of it all. (Oh, no! Not science!) And that’s too bad, because it can tell us a lot about the rest of what we hear. Let’s get to it.

Think of stem cells like tiny organ transplants, and you’ll be pretty close to grasping the essentials. If you could grow a new heart from your own tissues, there wouldn’t be any need to worry about transplant rejection. That’s how adult stem cells work when used in the adult they came from. Used in another person, they’re like a transplant. Anti-rejection drugs need to be taken for the duration.

So, conceptually, stem cells are simple. Politically, it’s another matter. I’m going to try to give the Cliff Notes version of both the science and my take on the ethics, as well as what we can realistically expect in the way of cures in the near term.

Intro … at warp speed

Adult stem cells are a very rare cell type, are hard to grow, and are hard to turn into useful tissues. Embryonic stem cells are easier to find because they’re present in much higher proportions relative to the total number of cells in the embryo. The earlier the embryonic stage, the more stem cells, until at the very earliest stages (zygote, blastula) it’s pretty much all stem cells. Embryonic stem cells are easier to grow and mature. They can generally be coaxed to mature into a wider variety of tissues.

Also, the earlier the stage, the less developed the immune system is, so the less chance there is of rejection even when the tiny cell transplant is given to an unrelated person. However, due to research restrictions in the US, there hasn’t been enough work done here to know whether rejection will be an issue or not. Research is being carried forward elsewhere (Britain, South Korea, Australia, Singapore, China, Brazil, and other countries), but I haven’t heard about definitive results on this question yet.

The downside of stem cells is that they can have a nasty tendency to turn cancerous. There’s some evidence (eg here, and here) that at least some cancers get their start as stem cells that lose the fine-grained regulation necessary to grow and differentiate into something useful. Instead, they just grow. However, it’s still not clear whether so-called cancer stem cells start as normal stem cells or just look like them in some ways.

There are also other down sides. One is that more research really does need to be done. We’re just taking the first baby steps in this field.

Some results are being obtained now, and those are therapies for conditions due to malfunction of a single cell type. Things like macular degeneration blindness (retinal cells), replacing insulin-producing cells, and regrowing damaged nerve cells, such as in Parkinson’s (simpler, here), and brain or spine damage. But we’re years away from growing new organs.

[update, Sept. 4. The hardest thing about writing this post is that the field overtakes me before I have the paragraphs finished. The scuttlebutt is that Israeli researchers have grown a whole heart from embryonic stem cells. So we're obviously not years away from growing new organs. We're not even days away, if that report is right.]

Getting a stem cell to mature into one cell type is just a matter of figuring out how to trigger it and then keep the cells alive while they grow. An organ is dozens (hundreds?) of cell types, all of which have to be perfectly placed together in order to function. At this point, we’re miles (but not light years) away from understanding cell growth regulation well enough to know how to do that. Figuring out how far away we are from growing new hearts or limbs is an unknown itself. It’s like trying to figure out how far away a mountain peak is when you’re hiking. If you’re seeing the whole mountain, it’s on the horizon and maybe fifty miles away. If you’re only seeing the tip, then the base is around the curve of the Earth somewhere and it could be 500 miles away. We don’t know enough about growth regulation to know how far we have to go, but we can see the peaks in the distance.

And then there’s the huge downside that people get hung up on stem cells, especially when they’re from an embryo. So let’s just dive right into that issue, since it has to be addressed before anything else can be done.

[Fair warning: this is a long post...] Read more »

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Profits cost us cures

I know nobody here needs convincing that the free market doesn’t provide the best medical care for all. But it’s not just the care part that struggles. The real heart of medicine is cures and, best of all, preventing disease altogether. Profit-driven drug delivery actually hampers finding the best solutions.

I’d say the most insidious effect is how research gets shunted away from the really good stuff. That takes away benefits in the future, and we don’t even know what we’re missing. It could be the cure for cancer or a vaccine against the common cold. Maybe it’s something that makes childbirth feel like orgasm. (Contractions are contractions. It’s an interesting question why there’s such a big difference in felt sensations.) The point is we don’t even know.

And don’t even get me started on what’s painfully obvious: the fact that prevention can never be a priority in a profit-driven system. Read more »

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Beggars the Imagination (and the Republic)

I find this unbelievable. Washington Post, Aug. 15, In High Court Filing, It’s U. S. vs. Investors. Whatever happened to Bubble Boy’s great sense of humor (or something) at the charity fundraiser, telling the assembled rich and mighty, “Some people call you the elite. I call you mah base.” I guess he meant they were something he’d stand on to wipe his shoes.

The Bush administration yesterday sided with accountants, bankers and lawyers seeking to avoid liability in corporate fraud cases, arguing that investors must show they lost money after relying on deceptions by third parties in order to proceed with private lawsuits.

So if you relied on Enron’s fraudulent annual reports to make investment decisions, you could sue Enron for fraud. What you couldn’t do is sue the “independent” auditor who “verified” the annual report and said it was trustworthy. If Arthur Andersen, Enron’s accounting firm, still existed, you couldn’t sue them either for aiding and abetting the fraud.

“Words or actions by a secondary actor that facilitate an issuer’s misstatement but are not themselves communicated to investors, simply cannot give rise to reliance (and thus primary liability in a private action),” [according to US Solicitor general who filed the Administration's brief.]

He’s said, this pillar of the legal community said, that if accountants, lawyers, or bankers knowingly participate in a fraud, but don’t send reports directly to investors, what the company does with the fraudulent numbers is nobody else’s fault.

By the same logic, if I, as a botanist, tell someone exactly how to make ricin from castor beans, knowing that they need a method to kill one of their peskier in-laws, then it’s nothing to do with me if the in-laws die of ricin poisoning. Yet the law would put me behind bars for years as an accessory to murder. So, what’s the big difference between assisting a murderer or assisting in fraud that beggars thousands?

Business advocates pointed out that … allowing such private lawsuits to proceed would have the practical effect of forcing businesses to settle cases rather than risk crippling jury awards.

“Litigation, transaction, and compliance costs would soar — squeezing bottom lines for companies in the U.S. and deterring foreign investment — at the expense of the American economy, its workers and investors,” warned Marc Lackritz, chief executive of the Securities Industry and Financial Markets Association.

That isn’t some pinko commie talking. It’s the head banana of a financial trade association. According to him, the US economy is so corrupt and riddled with criminals that if we try to do anything about them the whole thing will collapse.

He ought to know, I guess.

And the criminal Administration sides with … the criminals. Why do I keep getting surprised by this? Why?

Crossposted at Shakespeare’s Sister

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It’s about the power, stupid

Mark Lilla, professor at Columbia University, has written a long article“The Politics of God” in the Aug. 19, 2007, NYTimes. Shorter Lilla: people who think belief and state should be separated exist, but lots of people want God, the whole God, and nothing but the God. The article explores the history of and people’s need for religion in politics.

[O]ur problems again resemble those of the 16th century, as we find ourselves entangled in conflicts over competing revelations, dogmatic purity and divine duty. We in the West are disturbed and confused. Though we have our own fundamentalists, we find it incomprehensible that theological ideas still stir up messianic passions, leaving societies in ruin. We had assumed this was no longer possible, that human beings had learned to separate religious questions from political ones, that fanaticism was dead. We were wrong.

Really?

Lilla’s analysis is fine if you accept his premise, which is that this is about religion, about people’s sense of their place in the world, about feeling comfortable in the world. But he seems to be forgetting some significant points from very recent history in the course of reaching back to the 1500s. Read more »

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Female Genital Mutilation

It’s gone by other names, primarily female circumscision, as if it was nothing more than the male equivalent of removing the foreskin. It’s supposedly another one of those awful things that “can’t happen here.” Read the CNN report about the British, who may finally get serious about stopping the practice, and you’d never guess that tens of thousands of children suffer through the mutilation and its lifelong consequences right here in the good old U. S. of A.

Why the bizarre silence? Because it’s a “cultural issue,” you know. The approved term is now female genital cutting. Some people felt that the term “mutilation” was culturally insensitive.

For those occasions when somebody starts suggesting that this is a “cultural” matter, consider the facts.

First, an anatomy lesson, developmental anatomy, to be precise. The tissues in males and females come from the same embryonic structures. They just follow a different path of development. The biologists’ term for that is homologous structures. The types of nerves and arousal present in the different male and female structures are much the same, with some differences I’ll note below.
Read more »

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Molly Ivins: Now laughing in the great beyond

I miss her. I still miss her. I didn’t know her, and yet I did. You know some of a person by her work, and what a work it was. (I don’t know how long the Alternet posts of her recent essays will stay up, but at least for now, they’re there.)

And now she’s left us behind, when we need her more than ever. We have cockroaches in suits fomenting World War III, and no Molly anymore to point out that the suits don’t fit.

I realize it’s customary to write tributes in a more timely fashion, but it’s taken me a while to understand that I was never going to find the words I want, and, well, the rest of the reason is under the “About Me” in the sidebar. It’s no less heartfelt for being late. Besides, Krugman (via donkey.od) has written more eloquently than I ever could.

Molly, don’t forget us.

Technorati tags: Molly Ivins

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The government is not just in Washington

The Cheney Administration’s policies affect all of us all the time. I know that. But it feels different when it’s personal.

I lead a sheltered life, there’s no question about that. Anyone who looks at my flickr photo set, which swaps in and out on this blog, can see just how sheltered it is. But the first faint corrosions of the zone of destruction are starting to touch even me.

One of my in-laws has led a long and full life, and has reached the age where her bones are not so much bones as a loose aggregation of calcium and hope. Without her regular dose of Fosamax, she can (and does) develop hairline fractures just from walking. Fosamax is expensive. The new prescription drug bill is so useless that it is still considerably cheaper for her to buy the medicine in Canada, as she’s been doing for years. The Fosamax sold in Canada–at least the stuff she’s been getting–is shipped there from New Jersey and repackaged for the Canadian market.

A few weeks ago, suddenly her Fosamax didn’t arrive. After some flapping around, it emerged that US Customs had intercepted this package of illegal drugs. They just stopped the shipment. They didn’t do anything, at least not so’s any of us noticed, to make sure that patients didn’t get sick or die because of their actions. Except for the fact that nobody showed up in a bulletproof vest to throw this white-haired lady in the slammer, she might as well have been sneaking heroin into the country.

If globalization is such a good thing, why is it bad for her to buy drugs from Canada? One argument the congressional stooges of the pharmaceutical industry have made is that nobody except the US knows how to make safe drugs. Even granting that ridiculous proposition, why are drugs that are good enough for New Jersey not good enough for the rest of us?

It’s obvious to everybody by now (it is, isn’t it?) that the purpose of the prescription drug bill was purely to protect corporate profits. That can actually be a legitimate goal. A noncompetitive industry, in the strict economic sense, may have so much social value that it’s worth subsidizing. Japanese rice growers and Swiss milk farmers come to mind.

The US pharmaceutical industry doesn’t fit the paradigm in any way, shape, or form. It has had the highest profits in recent years of just about any sector except oil. (Speaking as a sheltered person who owns drug stocks, trust me on this.) Drug execs keep pissing and moaning about research and development costs. The lion’s share of R&D that’s not a sure thing is paid out of government grants. A lot of drug company-funded R&D involves stuff like figuring out ways to repackage patented drugs and extend the patent just before it runs out. The really big costs for drug companies are advertising. You know what? I have a real hard time feeling sorry for the poor drug giants creaking under their huge burdens.

But I am furious on a whole deeper level, now that the cruelty of protecting vast profits has hurt a friend of mine.

The other faint touch of corrosion involves Iraq. Anyone who’s read this blog knows that I’m anguished about everything that US policies cause in the Middle East. Everything.

Well, a couple of years ago I met a young man, a buddy of a relative. He’s a friendly guy with a blond buzz cut, a quick smile, and a roll-on-the-floor sense of what’s funny. He’d qualified as a school teacher by entering the Reserve and using some of their programs that help people better themselves. When I met him, he’d been teaching school (I think it was third grade) for a few years, was married, and had young children. He’s not stupid. The minute the Shrub got elected selected in 2000, he got out of the Reserve.

You know where this is headed. He got called up. Under emergency regulations of some kind of other, that can happen any time for five years after you get out. With a few weeks left to go on his five years, he got called up. He’s driving one of those insufficiently armored targets on the Baghdad Road right now. He’d been doing it for way too long, and was due to go home August 1st. A few days before that, Rumsfeld decided that those particular pawns had to stay in his hellish game for another four months. I think they got four days’ notice. I guess cannon fodder doesn’t need weeks or months to make arrangements for the rest of its life.

You’ll notice that another four months keeps the troops there till December first, and after whatever it is that happens in early November. No doubt, when someone was figuring out how many US soldiers had to stay so that a few thousand could be brought home for the TV cameras in, say, September or October, somebody suddenly saw they’d be a few thousand short.

So now my friend is still driving on the Baghdad Road.

I wonder if he ever has that great big blue-eyed smile any more. Maybe when he talks to his family now and again. Although, if he’s anything like me, talking to his family will just make it hurt more. All I can say is that he hasn’t been killed yet. I hope to God it stays that way.

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Immigrants in these United States

I am an immigrant. I grew up bilingual. My grandmother learned English in her fifties, and always spoke with one of those formidable accents that you hear in the movies. So I can’t get too worked up about people who don’t speak English, or who came over on the boat. I came over on a boat, and I still remember walking down the gangway, clutching my teddy bear. I was nearly six at the time.

Immigrants come here to survive, to make a living, or to make a fortune. I never met anyone who came over purely because they admired the Bill of Rights. This doesn’t make immigrants a particularly mercenary lot, but there are those who say that foreigners who don’t share our “values” should just go home. I don’t know about that. It might be hard to keep the country running with the few people who would be left.

If we start litmus tests for admiration of the Constitution, everyone except ethnic Amerindians should have to pass it, since we’re all rather recent immigrants. The outlook is not promising. Consider, for instance, a National Constitution Center poll done about ten years ago that found one in six Americans believe the Constitution establishes the US as a Christian nation. Freedom of religion was the whole original point of the country, and this is what we’ve come to. That was only one of a long string of depressing results, and things have not improved since. Recently there was a poll finding that 20% of Americans (one in five!) believe the Constitution guarantees the right to keep pets and drive cars. No doubt, the Bill of Rights refers only to the standard transmission cars available in the late 1700s.

I think the evidence shows that immigrants do share American values. Like most people, they’re not thinking too much about the Bill of Rights and they’re doing their best to get by.

I think the real objection to immigrants’ values is their inability to see the special value of Americans. Immigrants know other countries in a way that many Americans don’t, and they know that Americans are just folks. When you have grown up feeling that you’re one of God’s chosen, uniquely gifted to bring goodness to the world, it’s depressing to have people around whose very homesickness says that the US isn’t everything.

Immigrants are also supposed to be depressing because they take jobs away from citizens. Well, they do. Without an adequate social safety net in the US, there are plenty of citizens who would work at any jobs they could get. But they could also demand minimum wages. They could demand compliance with safety, health, and environmental regulations. They could, God forbid, unionize. This is not what (most? all?) employers want. Employers want voiceless, exploitable illegals. The job that “Americans won’t do” is hiring workers who can demand their rights.

While I’m on that topic, let’s talk specifically about the subset of immigrants who are illegal. The Immigration Reform bill currently stuck in Congress–the one that planned to turn illegals into felons, but ran into trouble because people noticed–will do almost nothing to allow illegals to become citizens. For illegals who’ve been here over five years (and I’d be willing to bet that means continuous residency, without any secret trips home over the long years to see family), they can get in line for permanent residency. So far, so good, but long-term residents are not the seething mass of border-crossers we’re supposed to be afraid of.

People who’ve been here between two to five years can go back to their home countries and apply for permanent residency there. I’m sure lots of migrant fruit pickers have the savings to travel home and then sit on their hands for several years in a country they left because they couldn’t make a living. It takes years to get permanent residency. This isn’t like going to the DMV and getting your driver’s license. It also takes unbelievable quantities of paperwork. My university-educated mother struggled with it, and it boggles my imagination to think of farmworkers having to deal with it.

Illegals who’ve been here less than two years could get temporary guest worker status. That would create a permanent class of workers who could not vote. They would have no recourse–none, zip, zilch–against exploitation. If they made any waves, like say asking for an extra bathroom break, they could be fired and sent home. Citizens wouldn’t care because it didn’t affect them. But soon, citizens who wanted better-than-slave labor conditions would find themselves replaced by guest workers. Guess who would benefit hugely from this. Guess who’s the biggest supporter of the “Immigration Reform.”

As BottleofBlog puts it so well:

That’s the ugly hilarity of Republicans proposing an immigration bill. It’s that simple. … These are people who get their jobs from scaring the bejesus out of you about open borders, when what they really want to do is pave a giant highway across the border. And these are people who earn a living by whipping up your ugliest emotions at people who are getting something on your dime, when really, you’re getting something on their dime–cheap food, cheap service, cheap whatever.

And the cost is spread out to all of us.

My take on the economics of illegal immigrants is that the sense of being ripped off is way overblown. Kids in schools and people in emergency rooms are easy notice. People forget what stuff would cost if illegals weren’t there to work for next to nothing, and to depress other menial wages. (In my books, the latter is not a benefit, but we’re talking about people who don’t want anyone to cost them anything.) It’s also hard to put a price on how much more our foreign affairs would cost if billions of dollars in remittances were not sent home, were not keeping whole populations out of desperation, and weren’t helping to prevent the resulting (expensive-to-Americans) revolutions, wars, sabotage, attacks, nationalizations of businesses, mass refugee movements, and all the rest.

Besides, if illegals require taxpayer-funded services, whose fault is that? If you, as a US citizen, have an employer who doesn’t pay the outrageous cost of health insurance, you too are one of the millions of citizens using emergency rooms. Would you be depending on charity if you had coverage? Of course not. So, is the situation your fault for getting ill? Or the employer’s for sloughing off costs this society expects them to shoulder? What we’re really complaining about is that illegals aren’t being paid a living wage and that some of them don’t pay taxes. They’d be happy to do both. Ask them, if you doubt me.

Moving on to arguments that might seem to have validity, what about the fact that illegal immigrants are, in fact, illegal? They broke the law. They shouldn’t break the law.

That is true. Nobody should break the law. This includes the US itself. As MaxSpeak notes, the US has made such a mess of Central and South America that hosting hardworking people is the least we can do. Not all of the mess we made was “illegal,” but some of it was legal only in the sense that slavery was once legal. Words were written on paper to sponsor criminality. That doesn’t make it legal in any real sense of the word. Look at US actions, including recent ones like the Nafta legislation that flooded Mexico with enough cheap agribusiness corn to kill whole corn-growing regions. Then look at immigrants who are crossing the border because they’d rather not starve to death. I just cannot get worked up about the criminality of the immigrants.

The other problem with sending all the illegals home is that it is impossible. The Amerindians did not issue visas. If the first settlers were illegals, so is everyone they brought in after them. (That is the current logic, I believe. The children of illegals are not supposed to have a right to citizenship.) So, the rest of us should just go “home”? And where would that be? On the other hand, if hanging on long enough somehow makes it okay, who’s to define what is “long enough”? It’s a bit convenient if long enough means I’m okay, but you’re not.

Another bugbear is security. After all, anyone could be among those undocumented millions flooding across the border.

That is also true. But recent terrorist attacks by foreigners in the US were all the work of legal foreigners. They were on student visas, or tourist visas, or otherwise quite well known to the INS. Terrorists need to have enough money to commit their terrorisms. They aren’t going to be paying some smuggler a couple of thousand dollars for the privilege of walking across a lethal desert for a week or two. They fly in. And they don’t pick fruit. Sealing the Mexican border to prevent terrorism is like searching Granny’s jogging shoes while letting whole container ships offload without inspection.

I’m not saying that countries have no right to control their borders. On the contrary, I think the current inhabitants of a country do have the right to object to mass immigration that would change their world into something else. Ethnic Tibetans have a right to object to the land grab by the Han Chinese. Ethnic Fijians have a right to find some way to preserve their culture despite the enormous number of Indians brought in by the British to work the plantations. (And, yes, I realize that gets into very thorny issues like the Palestinians and Israeli Jews, or the Dutch and citizens of their former colonies. I have thoughts on that, too, but that’s a topic for another post.) Cultures, especially endangered ones, have a right to preservation, even if it is not yet written into law.

The US, however, is one of the few countries with almost no claim to this right. It’s a nation of immigrants. US culture is mainly about doing your own thing. At the highest levels, that includes the Bill of Rights and it really is a contribution to the human story on our planet. However, that isn’t pegged to any single ethnic group or to any race. In the US, talk about loss of our “culture” by invading hordes from across the border isn’t really about culture. It’s about richer immigrants who want the poorer ones to shut up and work.


(Other links: Krugman. Brad Plumer: a series of good posts at the end of March-beginning of April with excellent links to the economics of the issue.)

Technorati tags: immigrants, immigration reform, illegal aliens, HR 4437

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My not-so-excellent cell phone adventure

Before somebody finds out, I’ll say it up front: I hate phones. I hate the way they ring at you and make you leap out of your seat. I hate the disembodied voices unmoored from any actual human being. And most of all, I hate the need to think on my feet. My mind doesn’t move that fast.

So, on the whole, I’d be quite happy with a landline phone I could quietly keep unplugged. A few years ago, just in time for the twenty first century, I was dragged kicking and grumbling into the twentieth. Somehow, entirely by accident, my cell phone tended to be off a lot.

Then came the phones that weren’t phones. Or weren’t just phones. They were PDAs, they were web browsers, they were restaurant finders. One could set their ringers to play “‘enery the eighth I am, I am….” I began to get excited.

The main thing for which I’ve used my Palm Pilot is writing occasional snippets in parking lots, on the tedious parts of trips, and the like. Unfortunately, every PDA-type phone I tried in stores had impossible keyboards. My hands aren’t as big as a bunch of bananas, but they’re not small enough to use those keyboards without major frustration. And the five hundred dollar prices, give or take a hundred or so, were on the frustrating side too. So I coveted, but things didn’t go further than that.

Then came the LG vx9800. It’s a thick candy bar shape when closed, and opens on the long side to a usable qwerty keyboard and good screen. It wasn’t too heavy, it could take miniSD memory cards big enough to hold entire books, and it seemed all-around marvelous. By this time, I was rather cross with Verizon, who was offering the phone. (It’s a long story, but involves the usual useless hours on the phone with customer “service.” And then there’s Verizon’s attitude problem about municipal free wifi.) But I was so taken with the vx9800, I renewed for another two years, plus over $200 for the phone and accoutrements.

The feature list you see in Verizon’s sales material is heavy on GettingItNow (now, now, now!) from Verizon, but oddly silent on what you can actually do with the phone. I was told you could do lots of stuff. And besides, who would put an excellent screen and keyboard on a phone and then make them unusable, right? Right?

Wrong, of course. It took me days to find out, but there was literally nothing, *nothing*, you could do with that keyboard except send text messages (at ten cents a message), and those were limited to 300 characters. You could save pictures to the minidisk, but not text. Go figure. How is it any kind of skin of Verizon’s massive nose if you want to save text rather than picture files? I can’t imagine, but they’d made it impossible.

And I do mean impossible. The phone uses the Brew operating system (aka Get-It-Now, EasyEdge, etc.), whose cardinal feature seems to be that it locks the phone down to whatever the seller wants it to be. Not the buyer. The seller. Bitpim is a great piece of open source software that provides an alternate route to using the features of supported phones (see http://www.bitpim.org/testhelp/ under Phones), but Brew is a no-go zone. As Roger Binns, one of the developers, explained it to me: “Brew applications can only be made with the agreement of the carrier and testing via Qualcomm. You also have to have a revenue sharing arrangement with Qualcomm and the carrier. … Bottom line: If I wanted to make an application available to Verizon phones, it would cost me around $6,000 a year plus certification fees for each new model as they came out and Verizon would have to agree it to and would insist on charging a fee so they could take a cut.”* I guess customers aren’t the only people Verizon treats like dirt.

A workaround would be to use web access and something like google mail to write whatever you needed in a webmail account. Basic web access on Verizon’s plan costs an extra six dollars a month plus per-usage fees, and unlimited is an extra fifteen dollars. Fifteen dollars. Plus airtime. On top of all the other money they’d already gotten and were getting.

It seemed that the couple of hundred dollars I’d just paid Verizon bought me nothing but the privilege of being a cash cow for them. I was so offended, I returned the phone, much as I loved it. I’m back to having one of those phones which, inexplicably, ends up turned off.

So what should I have done, in hindsight? Don’t buy a locked-down phone. Java-based (J2ME) phones are more open to third-party applications and are a much better bet. Dan Fitton’s site has good explanations and links to the universe of java-type phones. Wikipedia, as usual, has excellent info: http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/J2me. In the US, as of Dec 2005, Nokia phones generally fit that type, as well as Blackberries, some of the Motorolas and the Samsungs. TMobile offered the most different kinds of J2ME phones.

A cool cell phone service finder, which lets you specify phone features (but not operating systems) and your area providers is http://www.myrateplan.com/cellphones/. And on another tangential note, Paul English’s site has all kinds of useful cell phone info, including a list of shortcuts through the voicemail thickets of many megacorps.

The future looks interesting, unless the megacorps(es) lock it down. EVDO is a wireless broadband protocol adopted by many CDMA-based cellphone providers (i.e. most of the Americas, Japan, etc.). (Europe, which uses GSM-based services, is getting off to a slowish start through greed before the market could bear it. The acronyms there, besides GSM, are GPRS and EDGE. See Wikipedia for more detail.) To the untutored mind like mine, the easiest way to understand it is to think of wifi, but with a several-mile instead of several-feet range from the transmitter, and the transmitters are cell phone towers which are already spread everywhere. In effect, we could have broadband wifi accessible anywhere there are cellphone towers, and that means one could use voip (like Skype or Vonage) everywhere, too.

Officially, the taxpayers own the airwaves, which are merely loaned to the providers currently using them. So, legally, wireless utopia should be possible. Practically, it’s going to be another story. You can safely bet that business will use its ownership of the towers to charge extortionist prices for use of the airwaves it doesn’t own. And cellphone providers would probably rather die than facilitate wireless voip.

So maybe we should help them. Vote with your wallet for the least pernicious providers, and vote in elections for a consumer-friendly government that actually amounts to something.

*More info on Roger’s LG vx4400 developers site, and the Qualcomm developers site for the whole nine yards.

Update: This just in, as they say.
On AmericaBlog: Anyone can buy a list of your incoming and outgoing phone calls, cell or land-line, for $110 online. FBI, police, Congress, you, me, and our Aunt Tillie. The company doing this is getting that info from–I’m sure you’re surprised–the phone companies, who are apparently peddling it to them for a profit. Reported in July 2005 in the Washington Post, and a couple of days ago by Frank Main in the Chicago Sun Times.

And via Engadget: Microsoft blocking MP3s on Verizon Wireless phones? “…users aren’t being warned ahead of time that they’ll lose MP3 playing functionality by upgrading their phones. … You know, if the customer didn’t always come first with these big corps we’d really be in trouble, folks.” [emphasis mine]

[typo fixed and another wikipedia link added, Jan 8.]

Update, Jan 12: AmericaBlog just bought Gen. Wesley Clark’s phone records which was enough to (finally) get media attention. CBS News is going to report on the cell records privacy scandal tonight (1/12/06) on their evening news broadcast. T-Mobile, mentioned in my post, unfortunately seems to be one of the companies busily selling info. Verizon, much as I hate to admit it, does not.

Technorati tags: cellphones, , LG vx9800, smartphones, EVDO, cell, phone, phones

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The difference between Us and Them

After terrorist bombings, it is required to stress how evil it is to target civilians, a barbarism without parallel in the modern world.

Yes, it is barbaric. But does it stand alone? Dropping atomic bombs on cities has, so far, thankfully, stood alone. Targeted destruction of ethnic groups by the millions has not happened too recently, although targeted destruction of hundreds of thousands is ongoing and causes mainly averted eyes (just like it did when it was millions). It seems like quite a stretch to insist that bombing tens, even thousands, of civilians is in a class by itself.

The main reason why there is no moral equivalence between terrorists and everyone else seems to be that Our mayhem is good, whereas Theirs is bad. Possibly, this is true. However, whether I was killed by a terrorist or a soldier in a clean uniform, I’d be just as dead. The only real difference, in practical rather than moral terms, is that right now my personal chance of being killed by a soldier is zero, but my chance of encountering terrorism is slightly greater than that. (I use the word “slightly” on purpose. The risk of dying in a terrorist attack, worldwide, is on the order of being struck by lighting: not zero, but also not much more. This is true post 9/11, post Madrid, post Beslan, and post London tube bombings.) I have a sneaking suspicion that it is the practical difference, not the moral one, that leads to much of the outrage about terrorism. The terrorists have succeeded in terrifying us, and we don’t like it.

The moral differences depend mainly on where one stands for their strength. The people standing under the bombs don’t like them, no matter who sent them. We target the enemy and define civilians as collateral damage. Terrorists, on the other hand, target the enemy and define civilians as the enemy. Civilians are not given the opportunity to reject either classification. Maybe that makes us better than them, but it is difficult to see by how much.

So what am I suggesting? That terrorism is okay? That it is just another tool in the eternal struggle to advance one rung up the ladder?

No.

Just in case someone didn’t hear that, let me say it again. No.

What I am suggesting is that targeting civilians is not okay, whether it is done on purpose or accidentally-on-purpose. What I’m suggesting is that we preface all mention of miltant actions with sorrow and outrage for the people who died in them. What I am suggesting is that we expand our outrage over violent deaths to the point where PEOPLE STOP BEING KILLED.

Update: August 5th.

I just read the BBC quotes from the men who dropped the atomic bomb on Hiroshima. The following is from Dr Harold Agnew, now 85, who was a scientific observer on a chase plane of the Enola Gay.

[On working in the Manhattan Project:]
I describe myself as a ‘grunt’ at that time, I did what I was told to do. But I was part of a great undertaking.

[On the bomb:]
[We] were about four or five miles off to one side of Hiroshima, dropping gauges with parachutes that would measure the yield of the bomb. …

I don’t think anyone realised exactly what would happen. It was the only uranium bomb to be dropped.

My honest feeling at the time was that they deserved it, and as far as I am concerned that is still how I feel today.

People never look back to what led up to it – Pearl Harbour, Nanking – and there are no innocent civilians in war, everyone is doing something, contributing to the war effort, building bombs.

What we did saved a lot of lives in the long run and I am proud to have been part of it.


Technorati tags: terrorist, moral equivalence,

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