Saturday, 26 December 2009

Health care reform finally making it, but there's not much to cheer about in the bill, unless you own insurance stocks. I appreciate the fact that it's finally going to do away with this draconian denial of coverage because of pre-existing conditions, one of the key things that I was hoping to see come out of this bill and something I'm very relieved to see put into place. Also, it puts in place some very significant subsidies for health insurance. But what I don't see it doing is anything about the high and ever increasing costs of health care. We see in this bill, I think, the continuation of the worst of all possible worlds. No public option that might allow us to see a powerful government insurance entity that could negotiate better pricing nor do we see any innovation that could result in true competition and price drops from that effect.

Friday, 18 December 2009

Player Effectiveness Measures

I think I've argued here before that hockey needs to undergo a sabermetrification of sorts, an analysis of the metrics that we use to determine how effective a player is being in particular situations, how well a team is doing as compared to earlier teams, how effective the power play unit is, etc. I've recently discovered On Goal Analysis, a site with an associated blog, that apparently shares my interest. Recently they've undertaken to design a metric that measure overall effectiveness. This metric works by measuring the number of points scored per shift and the number of "defensive actions" per shift.

I think the intent is laudable, but it's not clear to me that this is a better metric than the old fashioned +/- metric that simply calculates the difference between the number of even strength goals scored while you were on the ice and the number scored against your team. After all, not all defensive actions are equal. Some hits are light or result in the hitter falling out of the play, some blocked shots weren't headed for the net or fervent shot blockers may also have a tendency to screen their goaltenders. Similarly, not all shifts are equal. Some players spend more time on power plays, others on penalty kills. Some teams favour longer shifts, other short shifts. And considering only points scored per shift overlooks the offensive actions that can lead to goals but not count as points or "defensive actions". At the very least, I'd have liked to have seen this changed to points/defensive action/minute played, but even then we're ignoring power plays. The old +/- effectively addresses all these things without overly favouring power play units and hurting penalty kill units. Presumably, if your defensive actions are effective, the long term result is fewer goals scored against you. Show me a man with a high 'defensive action/shift' and a lousy +/- and I'll show you a poor hitter or shot blocker.

So, I like the old +/-, the main disadvantage being that it's not very effective at measuring player power play and penalty kill contribution. But here's a way to do that: for each player measure the power play goals/per power play minute played (or net goals, subtracting shorthanded goals) and number of goals scored against/per penalty kill minute. Then compare that to the team average. Is the player a positive or negative contributor to these situations?


I loathe Joe Lieberman. With memories of his cheerleading for the Iraq war and Dick Rumsfeld fresh in my mind, I now have to sit back and watch while this political no-mind, ignoring the wishes of his constituents, undermines health care reform out of spite. For, apparently this Medicare extension that his conscience allegedly requires him to reject is very similar to something he himself argued for just a few months ago, may before his insurance company supporters let him know that they didn't like it. But this process does give us some insight into how Lieberman's political mind works, from this article:

And he said he was particularly troubled by the overly enthusiastic reaction to the proposal by some liberals, including Representative Anthony Weiner, Democrat of New York, who champions a fully government-run health care system.

I guess that's one way to avoid thought and analysis. Wait to learn where an ideological opponent stands and then take the opposite view, may not always be sensible, but it may be a route to consistency, assuming your opponent is consistent, and it beats thinking.

(I agree with Glenn Greenwald that the Obama WhiteHouse has been intentionally feckless and/or subservient to the health care lobby on this issue as well, just wanted to point out why I find Lieberman so particularly contemptible.)

Wednesday, 16 December 2009

A Lesson ...

Remember when Canada was the "greatest country in the world"? In a few short years it has fallen from that to "thuggish petro state" and international environmental laughingstock. Let this be a lesson to anyone inclined to vote for conservatives.

Thursday, 10 December 2009


From an article entitled "Obama defends US wars as he accepts peace prize":

"President Barack Obama entered the pantheon of Nobel Peace Prize winners Thursday ... delivering a robust defense of war ..."

Fortunately for Obama, nobody reads anymore or we'd be all over him about Orwellian doublespeak.

Monday, 7 December 2009

Food, Inc.

I watched the documentary Food, Inc. last night. I thought it was really excellent, managing to pull together a number of important issues including Monsanto's patents on plant species, intimidation practices, domination of the food market by only four companies, the centrality of corn in the food industry and its role in the prevalence of dangerous e coli, ridiculous libel laws, impotence of the USDA, corn subsidies, treatment of animals and meat packing plant conditions. I highly recommend it.

It brought to mind another issue that wasn't directly addressed in the movie but is connected to those issues, namely, the use of artificial bovine growth hormone, rBGH, to increase milk production in dairy cows. In some places, presumably under pressure from scummy corporations like Monsanto, states are considering or have passed legislation to ban the practice of labeling milk that is not taken from cows that have been given artificial growth hormone to increase milk production. In other words, they don't want consumers to be able to know whether or not their milk has come from rBGH treated cows. Europe, Canada, Japan and New Zealand ban the use of rBGH, but in the US not only is it legal but they're seeking to prevent us from knowing on which milk it has been used. The argument is that milk from cows so treated is indistinguishable from milk from cows that didn't receive it. Setting aside the fact that claims that rBGH milk has no ill effect on human health are probably just untrue, what galls me about this is the fact that it displays absolutely no concern for the animals. I refuse to drink rBGH milk not, primarily, because I'm worried about its effects on my health, but because of my concern about effects on the cow, i.e., increased mastitis and lameness and decreased fertility.

Monday, 30 November 2009

This "climategate" thing has been pissing me off. Partly because the scientists from whom the emails were stolen were being political, stupid and imprudent, but mostly because it's being used, entirely predictably, to quickly jump to the wrong conclusions. I'm trying, sometimes unsuccessfully, to avoid getting into discussions about it. People who care about the truth and the science and hadn't made up their minds beforehand are able to figure out that this is not nearly as nefarious as skeptics are attempting to spin it. My impression is that those claiming that these emails are a disproof of AGW are not those inclined to take the science seriously or those who already made up their minds long ago. It's hard to find any evidence against AGW in this controversy. So I'm trying to avoid the debate in much the same way that I avoid the "birther" debate or the evolution debate. But in the meantime, the Northwest Passage is now passable, we're rapidly losing sea ice and temperatures increase and we keep twiddling our thumbs and feeling reassured because Matt Drudge laughs when global warming press conferences occur during a snow storm. I can't disprove determined scepticism so for my own peace of mind I'm going to try to leave it alone. But my favorite objection has been the one about the "politicization of science". That climate change sceptics can say this with a straight face is remarkable.

Thursday, 19 November 2009

The Stupak Amendment

I haven't been following the discussion on the Stupak amendment very carefully, so I may have missed some subtleties, but I'm a bit confused by claims I've encountered that it somehow violates a woman's right to choose. Surely acknowledging or establishing the right to do X isn't accompanied by an obligation to have access to X paid for by the government, i.e., by taxpayers for whom X violates their ethical principles. People opposed to drug laws or alcohol prohibition aren't arguing that the government has an obligation to provide drugs or alcohol for its citizens, are they? If I don't believe the government should forbid the eating of meat, does it follow somehow that I should also believe my tax dollars should go towards subsidizing cattle farms?

Friday, 6 November 2009

Preventing Mass Murders

Whenever these Columbine/Austin clock tower/Ft. Hood sorts of events occur, the media orchestrates displays of handwringing and bewilderment about what went wrong and consternation about how we might prevent such things from happening in the future. But isn't the solution, although not easily implemented, fairly obvious? I believe that most of these nutbars who shoot up restaurants or army bases or schools or office buildings before taking their own lives, directly or by "death by cop", wouldn't bother to do so if they knew that despite the horrific actions they'd die in relative obscurity.

If I'm right, this imposes an obligation on the news media and news consumers to stop providing that which motivates the actions of these killers, i.e., fame. News media should just stop reporting the details about these kinds of killers. They could report the crimes but leave out the killer's name and details about the killer's personal life, focusing instead on the nature of the crime and the victims. Other than local media that may have family members of the killer in its audience, how is it in the public interest to learn the details of the private lives of these killers? In discussing these people ad nauseam is the media doing anything other than suggesting to those who are leading failed insignificant lives, that this route at least offers them an opportunity to matter and be noticed?

The obligation also falls on the news consumers. We should stop seeking out and paying attention to such details and perhaps also join together to boycott news organizations that publish those names and details and the companies that sponsor them.

I'm not suggesting a legal ban, but a voluntary ethical code, based on the same kinds of principles that prevent news media from explaining how to build bombs or leaving out certain details of crimes or failing to publicize the names of the victims of some crimes. This information wouldn't have to be top secret, it should remain available to people. Psychology researchers and criminologists, for example, should continue to access it. But if people actually had to go to police information sources and the media failed to broadcast it, I suspect that the main motivation for these crimes would be eliminated.

Wednesday, 4 November 2009

Off-Year Elections

It's hard to know what last night's election results portend for the Democratic or Republican party. On the one hand, we see Virginia going, very heavily, Republican, on the other, the Democrats won a seat in NY that had been Republican since the Bronze Age. I won't try to interpret these results in terms of what voters think of the Obama administration, possible to spin it either way, I suppose, but I think it is notable that both losers, in VA and in NY-23, seemed to have made a point of distancing themselves from their party. Deeds is a very right wing Democrat and purposefully distanced himself from Obama, and Scozzafava is fairly left wing, relative to Republicans, and ultimately endorsed the Democratic candidate.

So, what are we to make of these things? I suppose the simple lesson is that one ignores one's base at one's peril. Triangulation only goes so far; cynical attempts to grab the swing voters can backfire. Truth be told, I was, in an odd way, pleased to see the third party candidate come as close as he did in NY-23. Not, of course, because he was such a right winger, but because it showed that politics haven't become a matter of simply "supporting one's team", that principles and ideas still matter to some voters.

Tangentially, I think it is notable that the WaPo endorsed Creigh Deeds shortly before the election. At that time polls showed Deeds behind but not 18 points behind. It makes one wonder what a newspaper endorsement is worth these days. This certainly didn't give much evidence that it helps.

Monday, 2 November 2009

Spinning the Semantic Web.

Last week I attended the International Semantic Web (SW) Conference, ISWC 2009. The semantic web project is one that has interested me for a long time because it would be a large scale knowledge representation implementation and because it involves standardizing languages and approaches for doing so. But the semantic web has been taking its sweet time in catching on. Interestingly, I attended a few sessions of the ISWC in 2002 or 2003 and Tim Berners Lee claimed that we were just on the cusp of having it catch on and that it was picking up speed just the way the web originally did. I think that now, in 2009, some momentum is finally beginning to gather. dbpedia is a SW version of, essentially, Wikipedia and there is a way to query it using the SW query language, SPARQL, and the NY Times is "semantic webifying" itself, but the SW has not caught on at nearly the same speed as the web did and I think it is useful to ask why. Some of my thoughts:

a) There has been a tendency to make the semantic web a much harder problem than it needed to be. Last week's conference was full of discussions of generating the inferential closure of hundred of millions of triples (assertions), sophisticated model theory discussions and SPARQL extensions. A new OWL 2.0 spec was released that included n-ary quanitifiers. Those are important questions and issues for knowledge representation, but they're not, I would claim, the things to be focusing on when attempting to get the SW implemented on a wide scale. (A good but abstruse example: Last week I found myself in a discussion over a claim that a many-sorted first order logic implementation of uncertainty representation was preferable over a pure second-order because completeness and compactness were important features of a web reasoning language. Well, completeness and compactness are important features of a logic in the very purest sense of the word 'logic', i.e., in the sense of keeping logic contentless, but not really necessary for a knowledge representation language in such a heavily applied environment. Many argue that SOL is an appropriate foundation for arithmetic and set theory, surely the internet is not quite as pure as those domains.) RSS implemented simple RDF at one point, but even that proved too complex for full implementation, so why are people worried about packing inference into SPARQL and getting n-ary quantifiers into OWL? Any traction the SW is seeing is in FOAF and linked data, it hasn't been for want of n-ary quantifiers that the SW has been mostly unrealized. Linked data focuses on the relatively simple task of linking data and far less on sophisticated ontologies and knowledge representation issues. This gets to the heart of the reason why the SW has been slow to catch on. The utility of the web was obvious to people who didn't have computer science degrees; the SW, not so much.

b) Querying the semantic web is difficult. The standard query language for the SW is SPARQL, but from my experience, even relatively intelligent web searchers, doctors and the like, are barely capable of using quotes or boolean operators correctly, why do we think they'll be able to run complex SQL queries requiring complicated URL UIDs? SPARQL is useful for sophisticated users deeply familiar with the knowledge representation language and ontology that has been implemented, it would likely be much harder to use it for discovery, a key task in much web usage. And yet those involved in "spinning" the SW seem unwilling to give this problem much consideration.

c) The development has been very top down. See (a). The players in the SW are well known and the group is relatively small. We're getting standards passed down for problems that don't yet exist instead of going to the grass roots and trying to solve problems as they arise. Even the venue was evidence of this. The conference was ridiculously expensive and took place at some remote Marriott, completely inaccessible by public transit. Hardly screams "grass roots" or "user input". Tellingly, I heard lots of talk of the need to go out and "spread the word" and "encourage people to use it' or join "meet ups", etc. Or questions about how I get "people to take more interest in the semantic web". People will get interested when we show them it's useful, let's worry more about that and less about methods of popularization reminiscent of an evangelical church.

d) I'm still of the impression that the SW's original sin was to insist that the URL become the means of designating reference. I think it leads to ontological confusion. We use such strings both to point to pages about X and to refer to X itself, not completely unlike using some string to denote me and the apartment in which I happen to be living at some point in time. It's handy and solves what could have been a complicated UID problem but I wonder if it makes the proposed solution seem harder than it needs to be. There has been discussion of this issue amongst those doing the implementing and I wonder if the ontological fuzziness here ends up making the SW fuzzier than it needed to have been.

Anyway, I think the SW will catch on and is catching on, but I think it could have been happening much more quickly if people had mainly concerned themselves with making it useful and workable and less with exploiting it as a funding tool for interesting but ancillary AI problems.

Friday, 25 September 2009

Noble gesture?

A story about a kid who stops at the 2-yard line rather than score another touchdown against some down on their luck school is being widely advertised on Yahoo. The breathless writing makes it clear that we're supposed to regard this kid, and the team, as some modern day hero[es]. It was a "noble gesture" even, according to the title! Near the story was a pointer to a different, but similarly themed, story about a kid with Down Syndrome who is brought into a football game late, when the game is out of reach, and given the ball and allowed, by the opposing team, to run it in for a TD.

Whenever I hear about these alleged "noble" gestures, or teams catching hell for scoring too many pts in a game, I always think there are lots of things more disrespectful than running up the score against someone or not letting a kid with Down Syndrome inaccurately believe that he's able to score a touchdown. At least in those cases one respects his/her opponent to take them seriously. More disrespectful, IMO, is being the kind of patronizing person who holds his/her opponent in such low regard that he'd condescendingly stop at the two yard line rather than bother to score. Or another example, perhaps, being the kind of person who would make a fool out of someone by creating a farce in which he's led to believe he's scored a legitimate TD when in fact he hasn't and everyone around him knows it.

Thursday, 17 September 2009

Market based health care dilemma

Here's a dilemma I've been thinking about after yet another health care discussion (YAHCD) and some recent commentary from David Frum

As is well known, the US doesn't match up well with other nations in comparisons regarding some fairly basic health indicators, e.g., life expectancy, infant mortality, etc. See the report linked in this post. When faced with this fact, defenders of the current US health care system have been known to argue along these lines: "There are a lot of contributors to these factors in addition to medical care. Things like diet, lifestyle, environment, etc. all play a factor." Many then go on to argue that Americans have worse diets and more sedentary lifestyles than much of the world. So, suppose we accept that. Doesn't this fact actually undermine an important arguments against socialized medicine, i.e., the moral hazard argument? If people aren't forced to pay the costs of their health care, they lose an incentive to be healthy and avoid the need to access expensive health care. But, in fact, nobody pays more for their health care than Americans do and yet this moral hazard has no positive effect on their willingness to remain healthy and avoid the need for health care.

Tuesday, 1 September 2009

Holder's investigation

Some people, the president and the 08 Republican nominee for president included, keep asserting that with respect to allegations of torture during the Bush administration, we should "look forward, not back". And Holder's announcement that he intended to investigate regardless generated concerns that such an investigation could hurt morale and effectiveness of the CIA.

It's hard for me to understand how these constitute effective arguments. The first suggestion is just utterly silly. First, it seems that it could be applied to any criminal investigation, all crimes have occurred in the past and yet we go back to investigate them. But it's much more dangerous in this particular case, the question of whether or not the US endorsed and/or participated in torture and whether or not the country is willing to take a stand and indicate whether or not that was permissible goes to the very heart of what the country's principles are. How can the country "move forward" while those questions remain unaddressed?

As to the CIA morale argument, well, of course, criminal investigations hurt morale at any organizations, but surely if this is a legitimate argument, then we've effectively given the CIA carte blanche. Prosecution for any criminal wrongdoing will require investigation. Any investigation will hurt morale at the CIA, so if the general principle is "Never hurt morale at the CIA", it follows that we can never prosecute any criminal wrongdoing at the CIA, so the CIA is free to do whatever they'd like.

Friday, 7 August 2009

Cash For Clunkers seems a little Clunky to me

I don't doubt at all that Cash For Clunkers has a stimulative effect on the economy. I'm far more sceptical about claims that it has a positive environmental impact.

Consider the environmental impact of producing a new car, let's call that amount EIP. Suppose that we can expect a car to last Y years, then the environmental impact of producing (EIP) a car is EIP/Y for each year it's on the road. If I have an old car that I might have driven for, say, three more years but which I retire early, then I have to replace my old car but the EIP of my old car has already been paid. It's paid if it lasts for a week or a century (the longer a car lasts, the less its EIP/year). So the total EIP is a fixed amount and we might even say that, in effect, the EIP/year goes up if I take the car off the road early.

Now consider the new car that I buy3 years earlier than I would have. That is a brand new cost of 3*(EIP/Y), a cost we wouldn't have had to pay had we kept my old car on the road for three more years. Now, further suppose that I drive 12000 miles/year and my new car gets 22 mpg while my old one got 17. With my new car, I'd have to buy 1636 gallons of fuel vs. 2117 with my old car. Let's call the environmental impact of burning a gallon of gas, EIGG. Is it obvious that 3*(EIP/Y) < 481*EIGG? If it's not, we incur an environmental loss from the C for C program here. (And what if the buyer uses the program to gain a 2 mpg improvement?)

Tuesday, 4 August 2009

The Future of Journalism???

Some time ago I wrote out some thoughts on what might be done to save the newspaper, essentially a coming together of newspapers in sort of a cable TV model, i.e., where one pays for access to any and all of the sources, and where revenue is split according to proportion of page clicks. Since then I've realized that I'm not alone in making this suggestion. For instance, David Simon has been arguing for the newspapers to do essentially the same thing and lobbying to get an antitrust exemption exactly for these purposes. Personally, I like the idea because it retains newspapers in something like the function, if not the same form, we have now, i.e., a relatively independent group beholden to no one doing the kind of job that we once envisioned newspapers doing.

On the other side, we have, well, a lot of people. A lot of people oppose efforts at walling off content, and, relatedly, of obligating news aggregators to cough up fees. I've been following King Kauffman, who used to write a brilliant sports column for Salon, and Katherine Mieszkowski's blog: The Future of Journalism. They've been fairly critical of the David Simons and even the Ian Shapiras (who recently complained that Gawker was stealing his content). But, I'd think and sometimes even comment, what in the world do we propose in their stead? Are bloggers ever going to provide the kind of painstaking journalism which Simon has described? Will amateur bloggers ever break a Watergate? Well, I was assured, you're assuming they'd be amateurs, maybe they'll be paid, this is America, we're full of ingenuity, we'll find a way to monetize. Don't worry.

Ah, yes, well, apparently they've found it. According to a tweet from Kauffman and an article in their blog, the "future of journalism" may very well be what is described in this article: "From a Texas Small Town and a Bedding Company, the Future of Journalism, Marketing, or Both". The article discusses a corporate sponsored blog, in which some former journalist is now paid by Carpenter Company to write about Stephenville, TX. Yup, that's the future of journalism, that's why we can all laugh at David Simon and say's he's just being paranoid and standing in the way of progress. We've found a way to monetize. We can now safety let the newspapers die. Good riddance ya bums and don't let the door hit you on the way out But what about independence of the press? Oh, don't worry, the article assures us, "Dan's free to chronicle small town life as he sees fit. So he roams Stephenville, capturing residents' hopes and dreams and idiosyncrasies and taking literal and figurative snapshots" Yeah, sure he's free. And I'm sure the town can look forward to his hard-edged articles on, for example, how questionable corporate practices at the town's largest employer affects the residents of Stephenville. Mieskowski bizarrely dismisses this kind of potential conflict as Hollywood fantasy, "But this is real life." Um, yeah, you got me there.

You thought GE telling Olbermann to shutup was bad? You ain't seen nothing yet.

Sunday, 2 August 2009

Papa Bear on life expectancy

In this clip Bill O'Reilly claims that the reason life expectancy is higher in Canada is because the US has 10 times as many people resulting in ten times as many deaths and crimes, etc. I try to be charitable, I've misspoken lots of time, momentarily misunderstood a metric or a stat when presented with it in the heat of discussion, and as such, probably made a stupid remark or asked a dumb question. But this is uttered by a "talking head", a man whose job it is to analyze, discuss and elaborate on the issues of the day. He's ostensibly doing an analysis of health care systems and it's a prepared bit, not an off the cuff reaction to someone calling in. Life expectancy, for better or worse, is a very simple metric frequently used in comparing health systems. There cannot be any excuse for coming on the air and pretending to speak intelligently on an issue while failing to grasp such a simple idea. Try as one might to be charitable, it's hard to conclude anything other than the man is a complete moron, a blowhard who cares nothing for truth, only winning arguments. Yet tens of millions of people listen to him and form opinion based on what he's saying, a man so fucking stupid and/or pig-headed that he doesn't even understand, or bother to try to understand how to interpret life expectancy metrics. This is the man playing a key role in helping Americans form opinions in the health care debate. Sometimes I think my head will explode.

Saturday, 25 July 2009

health care and the free market

Krugman's recent blog explains why free market principles just don't work well when it come to health care distribution. He's essentially summarizing an important paper Kenneth Arrow wrote way back in 1963, "Uncertainty and the Welfare Economics of Health Care". To summarize his summary, there are two key factors that make health care very different than things that the free market might be able to distribute more efficiently:

a) health care is completely unlike most good or services because it's largely unpredictable when we'll need it and when we do need it, it is very expensive. Hence, it requires some kind of insurance and consumer choice becomes largely a non-factor. (and insurance companies are not out to get you effective coverage but to minimize costs)
b) health care is far too complicated to allow us to do things that can make us effective agents in the marketplace, you can't rely on experience or comparison shopping.

I'd rant on about this but Krugman does a great job of summing up the situation in my opinion: "There are a number of successful health-care systems, at least as measured by pretty good care much cheaper than here, and they are quite different from each other. There are, however, no examples of successful health care based on the principles of the free market, for one simple reason: in health care, the free market just doesn’t work. And people who say that the market is the answer are flying in the face of both theory and overwhelming evidence."

Thursday, 16 July 2009

Democrats' House Healthcare Bill

I haven't read the Dem's house bill on healthcare or even read much commentary, but with that caveat I will say that I'm pretty sure that imposing heavier burdens on businesses in terms of providing health care insurance, as this bill is apparently doing, really can't be the way to go. Health care costs are already severely undermining the ability of US companies to compete in the global marketplace. Compromise is often a laudable thing, but in the case of the US healthcare system, I think it's so badly broken that we really need to start over from scratch. My solution, of course, would be to implement a universal single payer system, I think the data shows that this is very efficient and effective. To see how this translates into global competitiveness one need only research the competitive advantage that Canadian car plants are afforded, as compared to their US counterparts, by the fact that they don't have to buy healthcare for each worker. But, even if my solution isn't the solution ultimately implemented, I'd argue that going further down the road of employer provided healthcare deepens the long term problem.

(And I apologize for sounding like a pro-business blowhard. I'm not a huge fan of globalization and in general, arguments about cutting benefits because the global marketplace demands it are unconvincing to me. But in this case I think the global marketplace is effectively underscoring a huge inefficiency in the US marketplace, an inefficiency that we ignore at our peril.)

Tuesday, 7 July 2009

Challenge problems

Apparently a team has reached the threshold in the Netflix contest to improve quality of viewer suggestions by 10% (for a $1 million prize!):

A blog on the process here:

(and, somewhat tangentially, a nice "SVD/LSI [a method often used for recommendation systems] for dummies" article here: (including an implementation in Ruby as the URL suggests) )

This "bounty" system of development seems to be proving very effective and relatively inexpensive. See also the DARPA Grand Challenge effort that managed to produce an effective driverless vehicle system for a tiny, tiny fraction of what a full blown traditional DARPA program would have cost, assuming a traditional program would have managed to do it at all. My claim: This provides evidence that in a post-industrial society, and maybe in all, a gift economy is superior to a market economy for purposes of providing innovation, people valuing prestige and satisfaction of solving challenges even more highly than material gain. (While the prizes here are, prima facie, substantial, the actual reward to participants is likely far, far less than they'd have received in typical market production scenarios even if they were just being paid for their time. If one considers, for example, what a DARPA program would have paid for the person hours that the winning team alone would have cost in the Grand Challenge, I imagine it would have far exceeded the prize money actually paid out.)

Sunday, 14 June 2009

Deficit Fears

Robert Reich wonders why the great debt scare has returned and hints that conservative deficit hawks in Obama's inner circle are to blame:

Is it possible that among the President’s top economic advisors and top ranking members the Fed are people who agree more with conservative Republicans and Wall Streeters on this issue than with the President? Is it conceivable that they are quietly encouraging the Debt Scare even in traditionally liberal precincts, in order to reduce support in the Democratic base for what Obama wants to accomplish? Hmmm.

I wonder if Reich has let ideology get ahead of him. I'm no deficit hawk, and I embrace the fundamental tenets of Keynesian economics, and have no knee jerk opposition to government spending as necessarily inefficient. However, I think there are real reasons to worry about the deficit here, reasons that have nothing to do with Conservative conspiracies. As a matter of fact, there is a real issue over how this debt is going to be financed. The markets recently showed an unwillingness to keep on buying T-bills forever, the yield on the 10 year t-note took a big jump as inflation worries mounted, for good reason. In addition to a mounting deficit, significant questions over the solvency of Medicaid and Social Security remain. It's not so much that deficit spending is inherently bad, but it becomes bad and worrisome when we don't know how much that deficit spending is going to cost us and when our ability to repay the accumulating debt becomes increasingly unclear.

All this said, attempts by Republicans to make political hay out of this by painting the Obama administration as irresponsible profligate spenders, when their fiscal policies (and lack thereof), contributed so heavily to the current debt and economic situation is some of the astounding cynical political maneuvering I've ever witnessed.

Saturday, 30 May 2009


I've become mildly intrigued by Sotomayor's claim that "I would hope that a wise Latina woman with the richness of her experiences would more often than not reach a better conclusion than a white male who hasn't lived that life." I haven't been able to find the broader context (update, see this link) for that speech, but it suggests to me that she's invoking standpoint theory. As such, I resent Obama's attempt to brush this off with a "I'm sure she would have restated it" as if it were nothing more than a flippant remark rather than recognizing it as the rather important epistemological claim it may very well be.

It's also easy to understand why Obama's opponents would try to spin this into an accusation of racism, but that accusation is also to completely overlook, probably intentionally, what the claim is actually saying. If she's claiming that the experiences that a Latina woman has, presumably as an outsider of sorts, can in fact lend her insights and objectivity that many white males will lack, in virtue of their insider status, than that doesn't equate to racism, (although racism could well have contributed to the state of affairs giving Latina women outsider status). Her claim is a claim about the insight that experience lends, and neither implies nor follows from "a belief that race is the primary determinant of human traits and capacities and that racial differences produce an inherent superiority of a particular race" (the M-W definition of racism.)

I wish we could have a real conversation about Sotomayor's rather bold and noteworthy claim without dismissively sweeping it under the rug or going into politically motivated histrionics about racism.

Saturday, 23 May 2009

Dick is on the rise

Dick Cheney continues his somewhat remarkable process of agressively attacking Obama with his dueling banjo response to Obama's national security speech on Thursday. This leaves me a little perplexed because I've been largely disappointed in the extent to which Obama's national security policies, despite his lofty rhetoric, has mostly matched that of the Bush administration and at least some people on the right and on the left seem to share this view.

So, beyond symboic gestures, like closing Gitmo, Cheney's substantive policy criticisms of Obama seem to boil down to issues over torture, whether to do it or whether to release memos discussing it. (I won't bother to expressing my concerns about torture any further but it's worth noting that the war on terror advocates who've had the balls to try it out, Mancow and Hitchens, have both unequivocally ceded that it is torture and, essentially called 'bullshit' on Cheney's "advanced interrogation techniques" euphemism. Secondly, there is evidence that torture was used for establishing ties between al qaida and Iraq more than it was used to keep America safe are increasing.)

Cynically, I continue to wonder whether this is less about Cheney trying to keep America safe and more about the GOP having a strategy so that they'll be able to say "we told you so" should any future attacks occur.

Saturday, 16 May 2009

Wolfram Alpha

I played with Wolfram Alpha a bit this morning. So far it mostly seems like a nice web service front end on Mathematica, example link1 and link2, and a good source for straightforward kinds of information lookup, e.g., facts on a city, travel, (but it won't disambiguate 'seattle washington' as a potential query on travel b/w Seattle and D.C.) company information and the like.

It did rather poorly on the following:
To be fair, I've been evaluating it by posing questions in the same way that I'd posed them to Google. (with the exception of the mathematical queries). Unfortunately, I think that our experiences with Google shape our expectations and the way we test these new tools, we basically expect to be able to write natural language inputs. I think that if end users would be willing to open their minds a bit in terms of the way they submit input to a search/knowledge tool, the potential effectiveness would increase significantly and developers could spend more time on developing intelligent apps rather than solving the really really hard problem of understanding natural language input. I think about this frequently because the company I work for develop tools that are designed to exploit semantic search. We index documents using a knowledge base of concepts that gather synonyms and relations between those concepts. As a result we can understand, for example, that documents about aortic regurgitation are relevant to queries on 'heart valve disorder'. It's clear to me that our tools could be exploited so much more effectively if people would be able/ willing to use simple semantic relationships and variables in their queries. (Imagine being able to specify queries asking explicitly and fairly directly for, for example, articles about types of heart disease written by people affiliated with universities in the southwestern u.s. or the stock indices for stock markets located in Eastern Europe). But we're constrained, greatly IMO, by the fact that people expect / demand to use search engines only with natural language queries. It's like the rest of the world could be developing sophisticated robots capable of having sophisticated conversation in French, but we insist that we'll only use English when testing it.

UPDATE: BTW, should have mentioned, the 13 min. intro video is a good place to start (before experimenting) if you really want to have a sense of how to test it.

Wednesday, 13 May 2009

On Freedom and Quality of Life

Famously, something that often frustrates people in political discussions is the fact that political discussion tends to end up being much more like supporting one's favourite hockey team than a dispassionate inquiry into the best way for a government to operate, i.e., people care less about what their favoured party does than they care that it be successful and continue to hold power.

But less partisan political aficionados are often guilty of the sin of a priori politics. By this I mean the inclination to defend a political system or methodology without regard for its actual success or effectiveness in practice. In defending a political ideology I think we should be clear as to whether we're defending it because we view it as the best means to some other ends, in which case we need an account of what those ends are, or whether the fundamental principles are so important that we'd defend them regardless of their effectiveness in practice. So, for example, if I'm devoted to socialist libertarianism, what would it take to convince me that the system didn't work in practice? If we were to implement it and it resulted in a 80% drop in economic productivity and a 10 year decrease in lifespan would I continue to defend it because I think its basic principles are essential for a fair system, or would I acknowledge that part of the reason I embraced the system is because I thought it would result in greater equity with a relatively small drop in productivity and quality of life?

So, I think it's important to have a clear understanding of the political principles one holds but also the effect one thinks that such principles should allow us to achieve. What would have to be the case for us to give us those beliefs, that ideology? The point of all this is that I like looking for data that can be used to help evaluate such systems, while being painfully aware of the fact that political theory is particularly susceptible to the indeterminacy of theories problem.

So, all that said, I was interested recently when someone posted a link to a paper, "Freedom in the 50 States", that attempted to quantify the level of freedom in each of the U.S. states. If we could really measure such a thing we could consider some other factors and see how or whether they benefit by increased or decreased government control so for starters I looked at correlations for some of these scores, while remaining agnostic about the quality of the metrics being used. (I also acknowledge that the level of variance between states for many of these variables is likely far smaller than it would be between countries, so if we're really interested in drawing conclusions it would be more useful to consider that.) In any event, here's what I came up with.

There is a small --> medium negative correlation between increased freedom and average income levels.
I believe that crime rate is a factor in state livability so some of the correlation there is explained by that.
Not unexpectedly, there is a fairly large negative correlation between poverty levels and health level scoring.
There is no correlation between livability and the various freedom scores, nor between the violent crime rate and the freedom scores.
Other thoughts or observations?

Person Fdm. ScoreSource
Econ. Fdm. ScoreSource
Overall Fdm. ScoreSource
Amer. health RankSource
Percent < Pov. Level (07)Source
Income/capita (07)Source
Violent Crime RateSource
State LivabilitySource
Middle School test ScoreSource

Thursday, 30 April 2009

Miraculous, really?

"Head Coach Bruce Boudreau raises his fists in triumph as the Capitals complete a miraculous comeback from a 3-1 series deficit." (emphasis added)

I think the WaPo is setting the bar on miracles a bit low here. The Caps were ranked no. 2 in their conference, Rangers 7th. If two teams are equally matched, there's a 1 in 8 chance that the team behind 3-1 will come back to win, and here we can argue that they weren't equally matched, Caps were better. Historically, 9% of teams behind 3-1 have come back to win the series. So, I'd say this comeback is about as miraculous as seeing three red cards come up on the flop in a game of Texas Hold 'em or flipping heads three times in a row. But I guess "as the Capitals complete a mildly surprising comeback ..." isn't very compelling copy.

Saturday, 18 April 2009

The Torture Memos

I had mixed feelings this week when the Obama administration took the bold step of releasing the Bush administration secret torture memos. Link.

On the one hand, I think it's more or less clear that releasing the memos is a positive step toward openness and resolution. We can get some verification and clarification of what had long been rumored, we can get clear on the attempted justifications, etc. (Some are arguing that it was a bad idea to make these procedures public because they worked. I've written before (sept. '06, jan. '05) what I think about these arguments so I'll leave that alone now.)

But, while I'm pleased that the memos have been released I've become increasingly troubled by Obama's decision and commitment not to prosecute any of these people. Here's some of what Obama said to explain why he didn't want to pursue prosecution of those who participated.

But at a time of great challenges and disturbing disunity, nothing will be gained by spending our time and energy laying blame for the past. Our national greatness is embedded in America’s ability to right its course in concert with our core values, and to move forward with confidence. That is why we must resist the forces that divide us, and instead come together on behalf of our common future.

There are a number of things I find objectionable here. (And, I refer interested readers to Keith Olbermann's commentary and a post by Chris Floyd that probably do a nicer job of articulating some of these concerns.) Let me try to spell out in three interrelated points.

1) The principle that "nothing will be gained by spending our time and energy laying blame for the past" seems to undermine a cornerstone of our system of justice, i.e., that crime cannot go unpunished. As Floyd notes "And cannot every criminal on the face of the earth now claim the Obama defense: 'Surely, your honor, nothing will be gained by spending our time and energy laying blame for the past. So let's forget the fact that I (raped/murdered/robbed/tortured), and move forward, shall we?' "

2) Anyone suspicious that the rules in the U.S. are only for the "little people"; that big finance and big auto and big brother can get away with flouting the rules, now has more basis for their concerns. If we contend that our government is above the law, that their illegal activity won't be prosecuted for whatever reasons, don't we undermine respect for the rule of law? Juxtapose this with recent data about the high incarceration rates in this country, particularly amongst African Americans and it suddenly becomes very difficult to argue that we don't have two sets of rules in this country.

3) Finally I'd like to further consider a point that Olbermann and Floyd have made, i.e., the concern that this response appears to appeal to the Nuremberg defense, i.e., the assumption that flouting the law is permissible when one is "simply following orders". It's useful to consider the reasons that we've rejected this defense. The Nuremberg defense suggests a very disturbing position on the role of law and the obligations of citizens. Laws, in this view, seem to be nothing more than manifestations of what the powerful want us to do. If, as I'd argue, laws implement and instantiate abstract principles of just practice, principles that we're all, qua humans and citizens, obligated to follow, then no dispensation from the powerful can override them. The Nuremberg defense is legitimate only if we assume that we're in a system in which laws are nothing more than rules and constraints put forward by 'the man", obligations created by and therefore retractable by those in power. If that's what we believe, then it's reasonable to allow that the government is allowed to make exceptions whenever it sees fit and the Nuremberg defense is a legitimate one. In the Nuremberg defense scenario, citizens are guilty if and only if they fail to do what the government tells them to do, there is no law beyond a base will to power. But we reject Nuremberg defenses if we hold that all people are citizens and all are obligated to follow the general principles of justice, rather than the pragmatic procedures decided on in secret by a small group of powerful men.

Monday, 13 April 2009

I'm sure I've ranted about this before, but I think hockey badly needs a "sabermetrification", i.e, a move to refine and take their stats more seriously. Here's an example from something I've been seeing lately. There's some talk that the Washington Capitals have set records for most points, most wins and most home wins in a season. But the problem is that the original records were set by the 1985-86 Capitals team. That team played at a time at which there was no shootout or regular season overtime, games tied at the end of regulation just ended with each team gaining a point. Also, that team played only 80 games, not 82 as they play today. Today, games ending in ties in regulation are 3 point games, a consolation point going to the loser, that wasn't the case in 85-86. So the teams now have more opportunities for wins and there are more points that can be won in a game. It's silly to just compare their records straight up. It's like comparing prices without adjusting for inflation.

It wouldn't be that hard to get a fair comparison, we'd just need to normalize the points. The most accurate way to normalize is to subtract all pts. gained in OT or SO (win or loss) and then give the Caps exactly one pt. for each game that ended in a tie in regulation. I don't have those numbers handy, an approximation is to drop the pts. gained in OT losses. So, this year's Caps have 96 "normalized" pts. after dropping the 8 pts they gained in OT losses. To finish with a comparable record they'd have to get 110 "normalized" pts. (they have 2 extra games, take the percentage of possible pts. the 85-86 team, won, .66875, and multiply by 82). But this year's team has only 3 games left. Or we could normalize the 85-86 records, perhaps most simply by assuming they'd have received a win in half their ties had they gone to a tiebreaker. This would give the 85-86 team 111 points in 80 games, which pro-rates to 114 in 82. So, IMO, the old record is safe.

What was Boudreau's, Caps coach, response when asked if these format changes rendered the record less impressive? "
You're going to have detractors anywhere you go when it comes to records. Everyone is going to want to put asterisks and things beside people's names. But in today's era, everything has changed. Everything has gotten bigger, faster, stronger, quicker. There was no salary cap in the '80s, either. There could have been a huge discrepancy. Everything evens out in the long run."

Hmm, I have no idea why the speed or strength of today's player is relevant. That today's players are faster and stronger doesn't change the fact that they give out more points and chances for wins today.

Sunday, 29 March 2009

People have been getting all upset with Obama for not getting on board with marijuana decriminalization. Fair enough, I suppose. I think that drug use for the most part should be an individual choice and that the government shouldn't be wasting money on the war on drugs but instead regulating and taxing it. Okay, fine.

But, I wish people would get their facts straight when making this argument. I've read a number of things in the blogosphere attacking Obama because, after all, "pot is harmless." This line of argument troubles me because, well, it's just untrue and paves over a large number of issues of which people should be aware before engaging. For starters, and the one that's most concerned me, marijuana use is strongly linked with schizophrenia and other mental illnesses. (One can read "Cannabis use and risk of psychotic or affective mental health outcomes: a systematic review". It surveys a large number of studies from over the years.)

As noted, I don't think the government should make every dangerous thing illegal, I'm no fan of the nanny state, so my support for legalization has nothing to do with my views on the safety of using it. But I wish people would do a bit of research before blithely proclaiming marijuana use harmless or safe or, my favourite, "no worse than cigarettes". Yeah, right.

There's an article in the Wednesday New York Post reporting that Citigroup and Bank of America are using the federal TARP money, the money that was supposed to be used to free up lending, to speculate on toxic mortgage assets. And, of course, they anticipate that the value of these assets will go up because of the government's willingness to buy up these assets. The looting continues, if we were going to spend all this money on the banks, we probably should have just nationalized them.

Saturday, 21 March 2009

Global Warming and Conservatism

This morning I was reading Chris Mooney's response to George Will's recent cynical anti-global warming diatribe and it got me to wondering. Why is there so much criticism about global warming, a matter about which scientific consensus is quite strong, on the right and why is most, although not all, of the criticism coming from the right? My rough impression is that the various gw sceptics, usually conservatives, are practicing something other than healthy scepticism but bring in a predetermined conclusion looking for a justification. Maybe I'm wrong about that, maybe conservatives really are better scientists than all those arguing about the dangers of global warming, but even if I am wrong, I think it still may be a phenomenon requiring explanation. In other words, if it just happens that the Conservatives are right about global warming, why is it that the oppositiion and scepticism is so heavily concentrated on the right? (So, I'm less interested here in who's correct than I am in understanding why the divergence of positions is breaking down the way that it is.)

a) D'uh, what do you expect, we're Conservatives? This is the simple explanation. Global warming entails the necessity of a fairly radical change in lifestyle. Conservatives are disinclined to embrace huge lifestyle changes, that's often part of the reason they're conservatives. Nothing fancy here, we just don't want to change.

b) Global Warming, if correct, represents an important failing of free market ideology: Global warming is not a problem easily solved by the markets. The problem of pollution already presents a problem for free market ideology insofar as firms receive the benefit of creating marketable goods in a way that pollutes but they don't bear the cost of the increased pollution. Free market adherents have some response to this in the case where the effect of the pollutants is rather immediate and the responsibility for polluting is tracable to a small number of parties. But I would think that it becomes harder and harder to give a coherent free-market response when the effect of the polluting is temporally distant, affects a much broader class of properties, and the extent of the responsibility for the damage is harder to assess. So, to the extent that the truth of global warming represents a reductio of free market ideology, we can expect that proponents of that ideology would oppose it. We're never inclined to give up fundamental theories easily.
We all tend to naturally embrace scientific conclusions that reinforce our prior beliefs and way of doing things and oppose those that do the opposite. (In this regard, we're all conservatives.) Liberals wrt economics tend to be sceptical of science indicating the efficacy of free markets, for example. None of us are floating along as unbiased judges, we're all trying to save the theories that take a place of centrality in our web of beliefs, the more central the theory the less inclined we are to disentangle it.

c) The cost of these fixes is very high, let's make sure we have it right before embarking on them: An argument that I've heard explicity is a simple prudence based one, i.e., let's not spend our resources and lifestyle on this until we're really sure. This is merely an advocacy of doing some decision theory and who could argue with that? But I think that the inherent problem is that conservatives will have a different calculus when doing the cost - benefit analysis. To their minds government controls on business, for example, exact a very high cost, a society in which government has much stronger controls on business. There is also a realization that this isn't a very high cost for many liberals assessing the situation, it's a situation they're perfectly happy or mostly happy to live with. Therefore, in order to get the decision theoretic calculus operating in a manner more balanced to their weightings, it's in the interests of conservatives to take steps to start the calculations with a much lower probability on the correctness of various global warming predictions.

Friday, 27 February 2009

Mitch McConnell makes this observation about Obama's budget proposal, "Unfortunately, at this juncture, while the American people are tightening their belts, Washington seems to be taking its belt off." Mitch, I know we're not all Keynesians, but, you know, this is actually precisely the point of this massive spending, i.e., because Americans are tightening their belts, and reasonably so, the government is trying to pick up the slack to prevent the economy from completely tanking. This seems a bit like someone watching a baseball game and saying, "unfortunately, just as the Orioles went up to hit the ball their opponents started doing their level best to prevent hits".

Tuesday, 10 February 2009

Meet the New Boss, Same as the old boss

Many had hoped that the new Obama administration would change the abominable civil and human rights policies that had been put in place during the Bush administration. His inaugural address explicitly asserted that those hopes were not ill-founded. Unfortunately, those hopes were at least partially dashed yesterday. Five men are attempting to sue a subsidiary of Boeing for "aiding the CIA in flying them to other countries and secret CIA camps where they were tortured" (ABC story). The government is using "state secrets" and "national security" to prevent these men from having their day in court.

See Glenn Greenwald's blog and Andrew Sullivan's, erstwhile Obama cheerleader, for more comments.

Sunday, 8 February 2009

Job Number Optimism?

The G & M has a relatively optimistic story about spinning yesterday's horrendous unemployment numbers out of the U.S. They note that it's a little inaccurate to compare these to the 1974 numbers, the last time we've posted numbers this big, because the total number of jobs is so much higher now. Also, as they note, the unemployment rate is far rosier than it was in the Great Depression and even rosier than the early 80s' serious recession.

They also acknowledge that it's a lagging indicator, though, and there are a reasons, IMO, to worry that we're on a very troubling downward spiral. The reason is that in the early 80s and and in 1974 we weren't facing nearly as fragile a situation with housing and with car companies. As demand for cars continues to decrease we're likely to reach a point at which failure of two of the big three becomes inevitable. Similarly, the foreclosure situation is horrific and while we're losing jobs at a pace of 500 000/month, it's likely to get worse. Remember the precarious situations banks were in, well we could see even more of their assets becoming toxic. The banks and the auto industry don't need too many more hard shoves, but I worry that this accelerating job loss situation is exactly what is going to be delivered. And if Chrysler and GM go, then we'll really start seeing unemployment numbers.

Friday, 6 February 2009

With apologies to Harper's Index

Percent of national income the richest 1% of the population took home in 1976: 9
Percent of national income the richest 1% of the population took home in 2006: >20
Last year in which the richest 1% of the population took home more than 20% of national income: 1928

(This from Robert Reich, link. Today's blog is also worth a read for those interested in the cuts vs. spending debate.) Tell me again, about how I should feel indignant about Obama wanting to increase taxes on the rich.

Meet the new boss, same as the old boss

Hoping we'll see some real health care change in this new administration? Nice article from Glenn Greenwald on the multifarious douchebaggery of Tom Daschle, the nominee for new secretary of Health and Human Services: . We are soooooo f-ed.

UPDATE: He's out, cool.

Newspapers of the World Unite, you have nothing to lose but your delivery costs

My friend Erik recently discussed a NYT editorial on the demise of newspapers and it called to mind a few thoughts I've had on the topic recently.

Personally, I'm not too troubled about the possibility that hard copy versions of newspapers are unlikely to survive. Well, I shouldn't say I don't care, I do really enjoy perusing the paper copy of the newspaper in the morning. It's nice to be able to take a section with me for long car or Metro rides or to pass the time at a kids basketball practice, or grabbing the, (not long for this world), Book Section to read in bed on Sunday night, etc. There's something idyllic about sitting together trading sections of the paper on Saturday/Sunday mornings, drinking coffee, or whatever. But we'd probably be better off if we all just got past those romantic notions and conveniences; the sooner we all stop demanding hard copies and just read on our laptops or PDAs, the sooner newspapers can redirect those, presumably substantial, production and delivery costs to news gathering, and the fewer trees we'll need to sacrifice and fuel we'll need to burn to deliver our news.

The problem is not that we're facing a day in which we may not have news sources that can double as bird cage liners, the real problem is that we're facing a world in which it just doesn't pay to produce high quality news reporting, be that delivered online or on your doorstep.

I'm sure that part of the problem facing newspapers is that demand for news is dropping. People prefer porn or youtube or the comedic stylings of Bill O'Reilly or Jon Stewart. As a cornucopia of media sources and alternatives emerge, the demand for some news may not be as high as it once was. I, for example, rarely watch TV newscasts anymore, but can recall a time when watching The National was a fairly predictable part of my daily routine. On the other hand, I think I've become a bit more sophisticated reader of "print" news, reading more stories, more sources for some stories (despite the shrinking newsrooms), more editorials and regularly taking advantage of my ability to peruse less mainstream sources such as ZMag or even National Review. So, in some sense demand has dropped, but in another sense, demand may simply have changed form. As the financial suffering of newspapers has increased, I, and many like me, having actually been watching less TV news and reading *much more* newspaper news.

Despite this, newspapers can't make money anymore. As the print editions slowly wither away, the revenue streams become smaller and more precarious. We know that the NYT and WaPo would have to shut their doors or run a skeleton crew if they had to rely solely on their online revenues. As the NYT editorial quotes, "The notion that the enormous cost of real news-gathering might be supported by the ad load of display advertising down the side of the page, or by the revenue share from having a Google search box in the corner of the page, or even by a 15-second teaser from Geico prior to a news clip, is idiotic on its face."

But the problem for newspapers isn't, or least isn't just, that demand for news has dropped off significantly, the problem is that there's very suddenly, via the magic of the internet, an incredible increase in the amount of supply. So, it seems a little early to mourn the newspaper if demand for its content persists. But what is the problem? I love Salon and NYT but I've never spent a nickel to access them online because they're not providing me with anything of which I can't get a reasonably decent version of for free from other respectable news sources or from intelligent bloggers. The NYT can't charge for content if the WaPo and the San Jose Mercury News don't charge for content. So, clearly what these newspapers need to do is to control and organize the supply. They must get together and assemble all U.S./international newspapers under one or a small number of central umbrella organizations. A condition of membership of these organizations, or cooperatives, would be to provide online content only through some portal controlled by the organization. The organization would charge subscriber fees and set advertising prices but would have absolutely no editorial control. Users could buy "all you can eat versions" or buy single articles. Revenue would be shared based on number of articles perused. If readers read more NYT stories, NYT gets a larger share of the revenue. Also, the organization sets rates for advertisers. The incentive to join such an organization would be, I'd hope, the willingness of advertisers to shell out a lot more money to this relatively stable source of large numbers of eyeballs and the potential access to subscription revenue that newspapers have heretofore been unable to generate in any substantial amount.

To my mind, this approach has an advantage over the endowment approach proposed in the NYT editorial, (although they're not really competing approaches, they could co-exist). It leaves the market for news essentially free without leaving news writers beholden to those providing or overseeing their large endowments. Presumably, the number of newspapers in the endowment scenario would be very small and newspapers would no longer be free to continue editorializing in any way they see fit. If the newspapers don't t do something like this soon, we'll see it occur in a different way as newspapers will continue to die and news will end up being controlled by smaller and smaller groups of people. Eventually we'll reach a point that the need to assemble an organization of newspapers will be obviated by the fact that all the newspapers will be in de facto organizations in virtue of having the same owners, e.g., Rupert Murdoch. This ownership oligarchy will then be able to start implementing this plan but without the need to split revenues with competing interests (and editorial perspectives).

I think the model I'm proposing probably isn't that much different than the structure being utilized in cable television, except perhaps the advertising might be centralized more than it is on cable TV now. Note that people are now willing to pay much more for TV access than they used to be in exchange for access to a much larger and more diverse body of content. Is it naive to think that we could expect the same thing to happen with online "print" news if only the news organization would stop undercutting each other by giving their valuable content away for free?