The Internet Bubble

Don’t misunderstand. I believe in the Internet. It’s deeply embedded in my life. It makes so many things so much easier than they used to be. It’s the source of my paychecks. But the Internet is a bubble. Still.

Most of the people I deal with on a daily basis would laugh at that thought, but hear me out.

The Internet is a bubble in three ways:

1. A lot of people don’t use the Internet much. Most people don’t use it at all.
I rely on numerous web tools and services to get through my week. I use Yelp to decide where to eat, find a plumber, get the phone number of my local pizza place. I use Google Maps to get me from place to place. I use Skype, Yahoo Messenger, Gmail, Dropbox, Confluence, GoToMeeting, and other tools to collaborate with my colleagues and communicate with my clients. I use Twitter and Facebook to speak my mind. I use Flickr to organize my photos. I use LinkedIn to find new projects. This is the tip of the iceberg.

Those of us in “the industry” tend to think we represent the norm, but many of my friends – and most of my family – couldn’t describe what Twitter is, much less Foursquare. I’m not talking about Ted Kaczynski types, holed up in shacks in the woods somewhere. These are professionals who are savvy about stuff. Some even have careers doing Internet stuff. These people use email a couple times a day or less, ditto Google. They’re 50/50 on Facebook. They don’t live and breathe this stuff. They don’t keep their eyes peeled for the next new thing.

When it comes to the third world, we go beyond distorted assumptions. We simply don’t factor these people into the equation. But the World Bank puts the total number of Internet users at 1.8 billion (2009), which means that more than 2/3 of humanity doesn’t use the Internet at all.

We live in a collective “industry” bubble.

2. The Internet encourages us to live in our own isolated bubbles
I’m not saying anything new here, and indeed the same things were said about the telephone, radio, and television, but the Internet isolates us from each other. For example, my wife and I are expecting a baby. We don’t know how to diaper a baby, and in pre-Internet times, we would have turned to a sibling or parent or close friend to teach us. Now our first impulse is to try YouTube. Similarly, I want to learn how to set up a router (the woodworking kind), and in the past I would have gone down the street to my friend Mark’s house and asked him to teach me. But even though he lives just a few houses down, my first inclination is to go to YouTube. There’s no denying that this kind of shift represents diminished community.

We live in our own isolated bubbles.

3. It could actually kind of go away
The entrepreneurial types in the tech industry like to paint a rosy picture of the future, where everything’s connected, everything’s social. They see technology’s upside and plot its trajectory into the next decade or two, but they’re usually myopic. They mostly fail to consider the likelihood of skyrocketing oil prices, climate change, food shortages, etc.

What will our relationship with the Internet be like if we need to worry about food, water, and power? What if power blackouts lasting several days become a regularity?

We live in a temporary bubble.

Bad News? The Future of NPR and the New York Times

There have been a couple of interesting developments in news media in recent weeks. The first development is the mostly symbolic vote by the House of Representatives to “defund” NPR. I’m a big fan of NPR, but I’m divided on this. I can’t say philosophically that I believe the government should be in the news and media business. On the other hand, I think the healthiest news media is one that’s not-for-profit and publicly-funded.

In the second development, the New York Times unveiled its paywall. It’s live in Canada and soon to arrive in the US. I won’t make any snarky comments about Canada as the guinea pig, and I won’t waste words on the details of the paywall itself, which you can easily learn about elsewhere. It will be interesting to see whether it works, both from a business-model standpoint and a technical one. On the technical side, the Times is already playing whack-a-mole to kill a number of loopholes and workarounds.

The buzz around these developments has raised a number of good-news bad-news scenarios. What if the paywall doesn’t work, and the Times continues to hemorrhage money until it eventually goes bankrupt? What compromises might NPR need to make in order to survive?

There are a few reasons I’m not really concerned about the future and possible demise of the New York Times, and for the same reasons I am worried about NPR.

For-profit news is compromised

News outlets take great pains to protect their editorial operations from the advertising side of the business. But it doesn’t matter, because there’s no getting around the fact that the editorial operations depend on ads. Editors like to believe the dependency is reciprocal, that the advertising side of the business depends on them to produce high-quality journalism to attract audiences. But there are two problems with this argument.

First, it’s a leap to suggest there’s an inherent link between quality and the size of the audience (the “customers” of news). If this were true, then McDonald’s would have gone out of business long ago. In a for-profit news organization, the advertising side of the business merely needs the editorial department to publish whatever grabs the biggest audience, or the most desirable audience segments. Trashy tabloid news is a big seller, and I assume their ad-sales departments aren’t complaining. Serious news organizations are interested in a different segment of the population, but they still don’t like to publish things that challenge the opinions of their readers and viewers too much. This is why you never see people on FOX News discussing the need to address climate change, but it’s also why the New York Times didn’t challenge the Bush administration during the run-up to the Iraq war. The Times only started to challenge the administration in earnest after the tide of public opinion had sufficiently shifted against it, and the war.

Second, while news outlets may be able to protect themselves from the direct influence of advertisers, to ensure there’s no quid-pro-quo, the content of the news coverage most certainly helps determine who buys advertising. If a news organization has historically gotten a whole lot of its ad revenue from, say, the banking industry, then this fact is bound to affect how it covers that industry. The effect isn’t direct, it’s probably not immediate, and it’s subtle, but it’s surely there. This profit imperative may drive editors to make coverage appear even-handed, even if the facts overwhelmingly support one side of a debate (see major news coverage of climate science vs. global warming deniers); it may drive editors to bury important stories; it surely drives the news away from certain topics and toward others.

People innately get this, which is why a lot of “news” is actually opinion. Or satire.

With opinion and satire, at least people know what they’re getting. Opinion and satire can be a substitute for news, to a point. But only to a point. Satire in particular can speak truth to power and knock the powerful down a few pegs. But satire can also zap the power out of things that are truly important. It can make us laugh at things in a way that anesthetizes us to real injustice.

Big news outlets need big-corporate money to operate

It’s expensive to operate a big news organization that has global news gathering capabilities and global audience reach. This kind of news organization needs million-dollar checks, and only big companies can throw around that kind of money. Now this is where I get cynical: Big companies are evil, or at least unethical… or at least ethically agnostic. A small neighborhood business needs to care about its neighborhood, but a big company doesn’t have a neighborhood. A company incorporated in Delaware, with its main offices in New York and London, doesn’t really care about the damage it’s doing to a small town in West Virginia, much less to some village in Ecuador. It starts to care about those things only when enough of its customers start to care. Its job is only to make as much money as it can. This is not how I want my news to be financed.

The news causes brain damage

Major news outlets plus the power of the Internet produces strange bedfellows. It’s trendy right now to use “social” data to drive experiences, so you see lists like “most emailed” or “most shared.” This is great, but it’s also what puts a headline about Charlie Sheen’s latest antics right next to one about protests in Libya. When everything is equally important, then nothing’s important. This kind of forced equivalence can’t be good for our brains.

We probably don’t need so much news reporting

Journalism is hard work. News reporting is easier. A lot of news we could live without. And I’m not even talking about the trashy tabloid stuff. Test this yourself. Next time you see headlines that trigger feelings of outrage (anything involving Michelle Bachmann for example, or the Westboro Baptist Church), don’t read the articles. Bookmark the items you feel the urge to read, and ignore them until the moment passes and the news has moved on to other things (which will probably take a matter of hours). After a few days, are you still outraged? Are you even interested? What about after a month? What if we didn’t know about the protests in the Middle East as they were happening? There are lots of things we don’t know about, or don’t think about all the time. We turn our Twitter profile pictures green to support protesters in Iran, but we go to work every day not thinking about the plight of the Sioux on the Pine Ridge reservation, or folks living in the projects right down the street. We’re always filtering things out. What if you only paid attention to news you were willing to take action on?

All this news generates anxiety, which can be addictive. So can outrage. Outrage is particularly thrilling because it’s accompanied by a sense of moral superiority. “Look at those idiots!” we say. We eagerly forward the latest Glenn Beck snippet because we want to share the thrill of outrage with our friends (the genius of Glenn Beck is that both the people outraged with him and those outraged at him pass around clips of his show).

We probably need more journalism

By journalism, I mean stories. Well-researched and well-told ones, which are often long and take months to produce. Most of this kind of journalism still happens in the for-profit media, in magazines like the New Yorker, Esquire and Vanity Fair, and on television shows like 60-minutes. But some of the best of it comes out of non-profit organizations like ProPublica, PBS (Frontline) and the BBC.

These are turbulent times for the news media, but ultimately I’m not worried about the future of journalism. There will always be intrepid, curious humans who are compelled to investigate and share, and there will always be an audience for their stories. The economics will morph and evolve and go up and down, but I have faith that we’ll always find ways to link the two. I’d just like it to be direct and democratic, rather than compromised and corporate.

March Madness 2011: Games to Watch

I’m not hearing much buzz amongst my friends about this year’s NCAA tournament, but I think it’s going to be a good one. I say that as someone who doesn’t follow college hoops in general but tunes in to watch for magical three weeks every spring. Truthfully, I don’t know much about any of the teams in the tournament, nor which players are the ones to watch.

But every year in preparation to enter a bracket pool or two, I piggy back on the research of others. I compile expert predictions, pore through statistics and analysis and make a few gut-level decisions. Most years, the aggregated predictions of experts reveal a consensus that very closely follows the seeds. This year’s predictions followed the seeds as well, but there were more than the usual number of very close calls.

As I write this, Butler and Old Dominion are battling to the last second. There have been something like 12 lead changes in this game, and neither team has led by more than four points at any point in the game. Based on my research, this is one of the games-to-watch in the first round.

The other games to watch in this year’s tournament are…

EAST

Round 1
Xavier vs. Marquette

Round 2
Xavier/Marquette vs. Syracuse
Washington vs. North Carolina

Round 3
Xavier/Marquette/Syracuse vs. Washington/North Carolina

WEST

Round 1
Temple vs. Penn State (good in-state rivalry)

Round 3
Duke vs. Texas (assuming both teams make it this far)

SOUTHWEST

Round 1
Vanderbilt vs. Richmond
Georgetown vs. VCU

Round 2
Vanderbilt/Richmond vs. Louisville

Round 3
Purdue vs. Notre Dame

SOUTHEAST

This bracket looks to have the most unpredictable early rounds, with Pitt and Florida emerging to battle for a Final Four berth.

Round 1
Butler vs. Old Dominion
Kansas St. vs. Utah St.
Wisconsin vs. Belmont
St. John’s vs. Gonzaga

Round 2
Kansas St./Utah St. vs. Wisconsin/Belmont
St. John’s/Gonzaga vs. BYU
Michigan St. vs. Florida

How One Security Expert Kicked The Hornet’s Nest that is Anonymous

As promised. The second article I alluded to in my last post is really a series of articles ars technica ran last month. It’s an absolutely riveting tale of how the CEO of a well-known Internet security firm stirred the wrath of a loose collective of hackers known as “Anonymous” and paid a heavy price.

Anonymous has been around for a while, but if you’re unfamiliar with them (it?), they’re not easy to define. The Wikipedia article on Anonymous refers to them as:

“…representing the concept of many on-line community users simultaneously existing as an anarchic, digitized global brain. It is also generally considered to be a blanket term for members of certain Internet subcultures”

This does not exactly roll off the tongue, but the article goes on to explain that this “representation of a concept” evolved into “a decentralized on-line community acting anonymously in a coordinated manner, usually toward a loosely self-agreed goal.” Initially, their goal seemed to be entertainment, or the lulz, but more recently the’ve channeled their efforts into various causes. They made a few headlines for example when they launched a DDoS attack against the websites of MasterCard, PayPal and others after those companies terminated their relationships with Wikileaks.

This is when Aaron Barr, CEO of a well-regarded Internet security firm called HBGary, enters the story. A self-described fan of Wikileaks, he nonetheless sensed a business opportunity in the attacks by Anonymous on MasterCard et al. He hypothesized that he could identify the culprits using data from social networks like Twitter and Facebook, and he knew this would raise his – and his company’s – profile in the Internet security business.

To test his hypothesis, he went undercover in IRC chat rooms and other places where the denizens of Anonymous are known to travel. Eventually, he thought he identified several of the “top leaders” of Anonymous, and he revealed himself to them in an ill-advised moment of hubris.

This turns out to have been a bad idea. Hours later, his company’s website was wiped out and replaced by this (click to enlarge):

But that’s not all, to put it mildly. Members of Anonymous hacked Barr’s Twitter and Gmail accounts, pilfered the company’s email, purged terabytes of backed-up data and more.

I’m not doing the story justice though. It’s a great read, and a kind of primer of basic hackery. Enjoy…

How One Security Firm Tracked Anonymous and Paid a Heavy Price

Anonymous Speaks: The Inside Story of the HBGary Hack

Virtually Face to Face: When Aaron Barr met Anonymous

Anonymous vs. HBGary: The Aftermath

Gawande on Healthcare’s Super-Utilizers

In my last post I attempted to list the things I found especially resonant last year in media, entertainment, art and journalism. I say “attempted” because I didn’t keep track of this stuff very well during 2010. In lieu of keeping track, I retroactively scoured my bookmarks in places like delicious, Instapaper and Evernote, and as a result I probably favored things I consumed toward the end of the year and forgot things I encountered in January and February.

In the spirit of trying to do better in 2011, I’ll mention over my next two posts a couple of articles I’ve read recently that are bound to make my greatest hits list at the end of the year.

In the first, Dr. Atul Gawande who writes perhaps better than anyone about healthcare had a recent piece in the New Yorker about the burden of addressing “super-utilizers,” or the most expensive patients. He examines some pioneering new initiatives which show, counter-intuitively, that hospitals can significantly lower costs by giving even more attention to these neediest patients.

He follows a doctor named Jeff Brenner in Camden, NJ who was inspired by the way urban police departments study crime statistics – clustering crimes block by block into hot spots, then targeting law enforcement to get the biggest bang for the buck. He applied a similar strategy to zero in on healthcare hotspots and found, for example that:

…a single building in central Camden sent more people to the hospital with serious falls—fifty-seven elderly in two years—than any other in the city, resulting in almost three million dollars in health-care bills.

And in one low-income housing tower:

…between January of 2002 and June of 2008 some nine hundred people in the two buildings accounted for more than four thousand hospital visits and about two hundred million dollars in health-care bills. One patient had three hundred and twenty-four admissions in five years. The most expensive patient cost insurers $3.5 million.

Armed with this information, Dr. Brenner reaches out to numerous doctors in several hospitals and offers to take on their “worst-of-the-worst” patients, and with the help of his small staff he starts to give these patients the highest degree of personal attention he can. He sees some patients every day. He nags social workers on behalf of patients and escorts them to AA meetings. With this kind of care, these patients who used to visit the emergency room half a dozen times a year, racking up tens of thousands of dollars in bills (paid for by taxpayers), suddenly don’t need the hospital at all. Daily maintenance costs much less.

Gawande visits a company called Verisk Health that specializes in “medical intelligence” for organizations that pay for health insurance. A doctor analyst named Nathan Gunn drills into patient claims and shows Gawande a typical example of the kind of patient who stands out:

All these claims here are migraine, migraine, migraine, migraine, headache, headache, headache.” For a twenty-five-year-old with her profile, he said, medical payments for the previous ten months would be expected to total twenty-eight hundred dollars. Her actual payments came to more than fifty-two thousand dollars—for “headaches.”

Was she a drug seeker? He pulled up her prescription profile, looking for narcotic prescriptions. Instead, he found prescriptions for insulin (she was apparently diabetic) and imipramine, an anti-migraine treatment. Gunn was struck by how faithfully she filled her prescriptions. She hadn’t missed a single renewal—“which is actually interesting,” he said. That’s not what you usually find at the extreme of the cost curve.

The story now became clear to him. She suffered from terrible migraines. She took her medicine, but it wasn’t working. When the headaches got bad, she’d go to the emergency room or to urgent care. The doctors would do CT and MRI scans, satisfy themselves that she didn’t have a brain tumor or an aneurysm, give her a narcotic injection to stop the headache temporarily, maybe renew her imipramine prescription, and send her home, only to have her return a couple of weeks later and see whoever the next doctor on duty was. She wasn’t getting what she needed for adequate migraine care—a primary physician taking her in hand, trying different medications in a systematic way, and figuring out how to better keep her headaches at bay.

A typical strategy companies employ to lower their healthcare costs is to require employees to pay higher premiums. Employees respond by decreasing the frequency of their doctor visits. Unfortunately, even the sickest employees put off visiting the doctor, which winds up generating higher costs in the end. Dr. Gunn and Verisk Health use this kind of information to persuade companies that better, more-focused care is a more effective strategy than higher premiums.

Finally, Gawande spends time at a clinic in Atlantic City run by a doctor named Rushika Fernandopulle who invented a role he calls “health coach” and hired eight of them to work on his staff – outnumbering his doctors, nurses and nurse practitioners. His approach is a more formalized version of what Dr. Brenner is doing, where each staff member is tasked with meeting very specific goals. One nurse practitioner for example is in charge of getting all the patients to quit smoking.

Gawande is not a political writer, and this isn’t a political article. It’s a delight to read a piece on healthcare that is completely devoid of demagoguery. It’s almost unfortunate that Gawande notes in passing at one point that the Affordable Care Act (I refuse to call it “Obamacare”) makes some money available for the kinds of pilot projects highlighted in the article, and Dr. Fernandopulle’s clinic has made use of that money. I say unfortunate because the mere mention of the healthcare bill will be read as endorsement, and for some readers this will cast a dark shadow across the whole article.

My own feeling is that conservatives who decry the healthcare bill because of its failure to address costs should perhaps appreciate the way the bill encourages private sector solutions, and the way it requires many super-utilizer patients to be insured and thereby help pay for the kind of high-touch ongoing care that keeps them healthier and ultimately saves taxpayers money.

My Best of 2010 (Things Read, Viewed, Heard…)

Better late than never, a list of things I enjoyed in 2010. In the interest of time and space, these are just the things that really stood out (in a good way), with little commentary…

Books

I read a number of books this year, but these are the few that especially moved me…

Fiction

Let The Great World Spin (Collum McCann) – Especially the virtuosic passage in the middle, wherein the highwire artist trains for his biggest performance.

Both Ways Is The Only Way I Want It (Stories) – Maile Meloy

Tomato Red (Daniel Woodrell) – Not a great book, but a great new voice, like none I’d read before. A smart portrait of haves vs. have-nots. I chose this title because the library didn’t have a copy of Winter’s Bone on the shelf.

Nonfiction

Crazy Like Us, The Globalization of the American Psyche (Ethan Watters) – How America exports its notions of mental illness in order to peddle its so-called cures. More importantly, what we might learn about finding “meaning” in what we perceive as illness.

Essays, Blog Posts & Articles

The pieces I talked about, tweeted and recommended most in 2010…

This Is A News Website Article About A Scientific Paper

This Is Broken (Video)

Daniel Ellsberg on the Limits of Knowledge

The Truth About California

The Shadow Scholar

Manufacturing Contempt, or The Commoditization of Practically Everything (a good companion piece to one of my favorites from last year – Better)

Errol Morris on The Postmodernity of the Electric Chair – In a commencement address to graduates of the UC Berkeley School of Journalism

What Good Is Wall Street? – Much of what investment bankers do is socially worthless

The Case For Revolutionizing How We Teach Web Design

Letting Go – What Should Medicine Do When It Can’t Save Your Life?

The Trafficker – The decades-long battle to catch an international arms broker

Television

I didn’t watch a whole lot of TV in 2010. That said, these are the shows I made time for…

Louie

Deadwood (complete series, on DVD) – Absolutely one of the best things ever produced for the small screen.

Mad Men (season 4)

The Closer (season 6) – I hate one-hour procedural dramas as a rule, but this is one of two exceptions. The Closer doesn’t take the kinds of absurd, intelligence-insulting shortcuts that are staples of Law & Order and its ilk. And it doesn’t dabble in hype and headlines it doesn’t understand (e.g. Twitter & Facebook). Finally, it doesn’t take itself too seriously.

The Good Wife (season 2) – This is the other exception. A lawyer procedural that isn’t afraid to develop sub-plot threads that span seasons.

Also, generally… 60 Minutes, 30 Rock, The Office, The Daily Show, Colbert

Movies

Didn’t see The Social Network, Toy Story 3, Black Swan or most of the other movies on most people’s best-of-2010 lists (and I didn’t like Inception). In fact, I hardly saw any films released in 2010, or many movies at all for that matter. So the following list includes things I watched on DVD last year (not necessarily released in 2010). The short list of standouts…

Planet B-Boy (Netflix Instant)

The Hurt Locker (on DVD)

3:10 To Yuma (on DVD)

District 9 (on DVD)

Food, Inc. (on DVD)

The Horse Boy (Netflix Instant)

Exit Through the Gift Shop (Netflix Instant)

Winter’s Bone (DVD)

True Grit

Podcasts

To The Best Of Our Knowledge (TTBOOK)

Difficult to choose just a few from all the segments I enjoyed this year, but here’s a selection…

Boots on the Ground (four-part series)

Science & The Search For Meaning

Reality

Lost In The Supermarket

This American Life

Nummi

The House On Loon Lake

Others

WTF With Marc Maron (always great)

iPhone Apps

Angry Birds

Harbor Master

Instapaper

Epicurious

Also… Evernote, Twitter

Art, Websites & Miscellany

Marina Abramovic: The Artist Is Present, Portraits – Something hypnotic and surprisingly moving about this piece of performance art (almost installation) and the resulting photographs.

If we don’t, remember me – Gorgeous animated GIFs like you’ve never seen, taken from iconic films.

Unhappy Hipsters – Pictures from Dwell magazine recontextualized. My favorite Tumblr of the year

Visualization: Choose Your Own Adventure

Absolutely the Best Chocolate Chip Cookies (Recipe) – Pro tip: Make the dough three-days ahead. For some reason, aging it a bit gives the cookies some extra magic.

On Happy Meals and the Nanny State

The latest highly-publicized, hotly-ridiculed move by my adopted city of San Francisco was to ban the Happy Meal. And so once again we have lobbed a softball to conservatives and libertarians across the nation, who relish any opportunity to point west and say, “See? See the nanny state? See those people who are too dumb, or too lazy, to [in this case] decide for themselves what their kids should and shouldn’t eat?”

My libertarian-leaning friends here (yes, even San Francisco has them) were against the Happy Meal ban on principle of course. To them, it represents paternalistic government overreach. I personally dislike the ban because it’s ridiculous and trivial. But regardless of one’s reasons for disliking the ban (I don’t know anyone who supports it), I’m not aware of anyone who cared enough about the issue to take any action opposing it.

The first anti-smoking laws in the U.S. were met with similarly principled but irresolute opposition. More of the same, more recently, with New York City’s ban on trans-fats.

What is it that makes New York and San Francisco so hospitable to these nanny laws? Are we, the citizens of these cities, simply big government liberals by nature? Are we too busy with our fast-paced urban lives to get involved in politics? Are we so affluent and comfortable and free from real suffering that we need to fish for new (non-)problems to solve? Do we not value our individual rights?

Perhaps.

But there are other reasons.

For one thing, there’s no hard line between issues of individual rights and issues of public policy. It’s fuzzy. This is especially true in cities, where day and night we confront the habits and behaviors of our fellow citizens. For example, how do we reconcile one person’s freedom to smoke in public with another person’s freedom to breathe clean air? There are three options: The factions can battle it out every day in the streets. Non-smokers can silently tolerate the dirty air. Or we can ask the state to settle the issue for us and end the war.

We’ve gone with the third option because it actually gives the greatest amount of freedom to the greatest number of people. The factions are freed from daily battles with each other, and non-smokers are free to breathe clean air. The only losers are the smokers. To put it more simply, anti-smoking laws succeed in cities because most people are non-smokers. A single smoldering cigarette stirs the ire of a hundred non-smokers in its vicinity. Even people who believe on principle that a man should be free to smoke anywhere he wants are annoyed when he lights up beside them, so the principle is not enough to motivate them to oppose the anti-smoking law. People gripe about the nanny state while they enjoy the cleaner air.

Some issues are not so tangible. How, for example, do we reconcile a person’s right to drive without wearing a seatbelt with everyone else’s right not to pay that person’s emergency bill? Hardcore libertarians might wonder why we can’t have both. But how would this play out? At the crash scene, should the person calling 911 check to see who was wearing a seatbelt and who wasn’t, then look into each victims’ ability to pay, so that the ambulance knows whether to respond, whom to treat? The American obesity epidemic, and all the accompanying cases of diabetes, heart disease, etc. raises similar questions.

If we want to minimize our contribution to other people’s hospital bills – for trauma or diabetes – then one option is to make it costlier for people to drive without seatbelts and eat unhealthy fast food.

But the people still ask themselves, “What will they ban next?” They think, “this is facism!” while also thinking, “well, I try to avoid trans fats anyway, and at least now I don’t have to wonder about my restaurant order” and “I can’t remember the last time I bought a Happy Meal.” Again, the principle alone is not enough to start the revolution, because it turns out people don’t like trans-fats, and they don’t care about Happy Meals. But they continue to fret about the “next” crazy law, letting their imaginations run to logical extremes. “Where will they draw the line?” the people ask.

Eventually, there it is. The line. Someone proposes a law that actually goes too far, and the people rise up in sufficient numbers to strike it down. This is the difference between how much government the people say they want and how much they actually want.

This doesn’t mean the Happy Meal law is a good idea, but is it fascism if no one cares?

Have You Ever Killed a Person With Your Car?

The ongoing BP / Deepwater Horizon oil disaster is a sickening object lesson in the evils of oil. Of course it’s just the latest in an ugly line of spills that have occurred over the years. BP itself has a long track record of safety and environmental violations.

I still have vivid tv memories of sludge-coated birds and other wildlife affected by the Exxon Valdez. The impact of oil accidents on nature and wildlife has been tragic, but people haven’t exactly been spared. Spills have destroyed farms, communities and ecosystems around the world. Oil industry pollution gave us 1,400 cancer deaths in Ecuador, and some on home turf too – in Brooklyn for example.

They brought us both Iraq wars (death toll for the latest: more than 4,700 coalition troops and perhaps as many as a million Iraqi civilians). They have been accused of participating in murders in Nigeria and Indonesia among other places. Rockefeller’s Standard Oil of New Jersey backed the Nazis in the lead-up to World War II and engineered a coup in Iran in 1953.

Of course the list could go on and on and on. Cherry picking a few of the most egregious examples doesn’t really do justice to the offenses of oil, but the real point is we are all complicit.

Which brings us to the question at the top of this post…

If you drive a car, then the answer is yes, you have killed people. We consumers of oil are complicit in the deaths and suffering of millions of our neighbors on this planet. Not a fun thing to think about when you start up your car.

In most parts of the country, it’s not easy to opt out of driving, but in cities like San Francisco we have a choice. Do you live in a city? Do you drive a car to work most days, when you could easily bike or take public transportation? If your answer is yes, then the real question is why?

Three Financial Industry Reforms We Should Demand

The House recently passed a major financial reform bill, and the Senate will vote on it as soon as there’s enough Republican support to push it through. By most accounts, the Republicans are mostly on board, which is probably why we’re not hearing a whole lot about it from the media. There’s not enough conflict and hysteria to make it television fodder.

18 months ago we were told we were teetering at a precipice. We felt anxiety, which subsided into anger as we learned more about how the firms we paid to rescue had precipitated the crisis. Now we’re no longer feeling the acute fear, and the anger at Wall Street has fizzled somewhat, so I’ve been a bit worried that the final reform bill won’t have any teeth.

This inspired me to do some digging. I’m not a financial whiz, but having devoured many accounts of the crisis, I feel like I have a pretty good handle on what needs to change.

Too Big To Fail is a maddening phrase we heard a lot, and we’ll never know what would have happened if the federal government had rejected the premise outright – meaning we’ll never know what would have happened if the government didn’t bail out the banks. There are lots of smart people on both sides of the debate around the bailouts, but ultimately hindsight is blind.

Given this fact, too big to fail is one of the key things that Congress has vowed to fix in the financial reform bill. Specifically, they want to be empowered to break up companies before they become too big to fail. I for one have little confidence in the government’s ability to define big in a way that would lead to action down the road. The truth is, the government will never be able to know exactly when or how they should intervene, so I don’t think this will really be a meaningful part of the final reform bill.

Another piece of needed financial reform has to do with incentives. Up and down the whole chain of cause and effect, from home buyers in the suburbs to folks on Wall Street assembling mortgage-backed securities – people had good incentives to make really bad decisions. But this is something the companies themselves need to fix.

That makes one thing the government can’t fix, and one thing they shouldn’t fix, so what should we expect from a reform bill? I think there are three obvious things:

1. Create independent ratings agencies – Agencies like Moody’s and S & P are paid by the firms whose bonds they are responsible for rating. This is the only reason a CDO made up of hundreds of garbage loans put together by Goldman Sachs was able to get a triple-A rating, and it’s obviously insane. Either the government should put together its own truly independent ratings entity, or it should require the existing agencies to operate independently. Either way this is easier said than done, but it’s pure common sense.

2. Eliminate huge private transactions – Wall Street firms routinely make multi-billion-dollar deals with each other that are not reported on anyone’s balance sheet or visible on any index. If the larger financial market is exposed to the risk inherent in these transactions – which it obviously is – then the larger market needs to know about them. The financial industry will fight this tooth and nail, and we’ll certainly hear lots of manufactured reasons why it’s a bad idea. Look for the “trickle-down” attack – you know, the one that says that any restraint imposed on big business is bad for the economy because that’s where the jobs come from.

3. Regulate “hedging” – This is a tough one, because it’s subjective. A few firms made a lot of money from the deals that led to the financial crisis by aggressively touting certain investments to customers while simultaneously making big bets that those same investments would fail. Executives from Goldman Sachs were questioned about this by Congress, and a series of deals engineered by a firm called Magnetar makes a perfect case study. Companies call this “hedging” and claim it’s just a prudent part of doing business – you make a bet, and you “hedge” it with a side bet, as insurance.

There are two problems with this argument. First, the side bets they refer to as hedging were mostly secret, back-channel deals, whereas the affected investments they promoted were very much the opposite. In other words, they aggressively sold certain investments that they secretly bet would fail, and the more of these bad investments they sold, the more money they stood to make from their failure. Secondly, many indications suggest the so-called hedges were often bigger than the bets (which means they’re the real bets and not hedges at all). This is hard to prove, given the secrecy around these “hedges,” which is its own problem.

Again, this is something the financial industry will fight tooth and nail, but we should all demand transparency. We have the right to know about both the hedges and the bets, so we – meaning not only ourselves, but our banks, mutual funds, etc. – can make informed investment decisions

One proposal put forward in the financial reform bill is to establish a new government entity called the Consumer Financial Protection Agency to alert us to red flags in potential investments (like giant side bets), and this is what the Republicans are opposed to, because they see it as unnecessary government bureaucracy. This is a valid point, but I’m not sure what else they’re offering. Alternatives suggested by Democrats in an effort to gain Republican support include beefing up  the consumer protection power within one or more existing agencies.

In any case, consumer protection should give us more freedom, serving to illuminate risks in complicated financial products without prohibiting those products. It’s transparency we need, and that’s what we should look for in the financial reform bill.

[UPDATE] The good news is that items 1 and 2 are in the bill that passed the House. Item 3 is fuzzier, although there are a number of provisions in the bill that might have some impact on the way that firms will be allowed to make bets vs. side bets. Maybe worthy of another post.

Losing My Religion

I was a good Bryn Athyn boy once.

Many people reading this will have no idea what that means, but briefly, Bryn Athyn is a suburb of Philadelphia. It is (or was – I haven’t lived there in decades) very much a bubble, a pleasant Christian community centered around a church that is officially called The New Church but more colloquially the Swedenborgian Church. Many families in Bryn Athyn have lived there for generations.

I went to the Bryn Athyn Church Elementary School as it was called at the time, then the Bryn Athyn Boys School. I was valedictorian of my graduating class in eighth grade. I grew up singing in all kinds of Bryn Athyn choirs and ensembles, played trumpet in the Bryn Athyn orchestra, performed in dozens if not hundreds of church and community functions over the years. I believed in, and aspired to everything my neighbors would have associated with the label “good Bryn Athyn boy.”

Now, at 41, I almost never think about Bryn Athyn, or the church.

I moved away soon after graduating from high school, and I didn’t attend church at all for about two decades – really until I started dating a Catholic woman a few years ago. I’m married to her now, and for the last few years I’ve accompanied her to church on the high holidays and around certain special family occasions.

I’m certainly not the only person who grew up in the heart of a church community then left and never looked back, but I’ve been reflecting on my particular journey over the past few weeks, so I thought I’d write about it.

I didn’t shed my “New Churchness” immediately when I moved away. After Bryn Athyn, I lived in New York City, and my roommates were old Bryn Athyn friends. We didn’t attend church at that time, but it still felt very much a part of my DNA. I can’t speak for my roommates, but I think they felt the same way. I’m embarrassed to admit I was still a virgin, and my roommates were as well until they ultimately married each other. I was still very much intending to hold onto my virginity until… well, if not marriage then at least until I met the person I intended to marry.

At the same time, my horizon was rapidly broadening. Our circle of friends in New York was much wider – culturally speaking – than anything we could have cultivated in Bryn Athyn. I had gay friends for the first time in my life – that I was aware of anyway. I also had good friends who were Muslim, Jewish, Buddhists, atheists, pot smokers, political activists. Many of my friends were single and regularly set out to meet – and sleep with – people of the opposite sex (I know, amazing!). I knew many couples who were living together with no plans to marry, as well as couples who were divorced and still living together, and friends who were in uncomfortable (to me) open relationships. I laugh now to remember how new it was and how radical it all seemed at the time.

What I started to learn very quickly though, was that my friends’ “lifestyles” were not really defining principles per se, but merely details in the rich tapestries of their lives. Homosexuality wasn’t the single defining factor of my gay friends for example any more than the fact that they were white or Hispanic or parents or artists or cancer survivors. I didn’t choose (or reject) my friends because of their lifestyles. They were my friends because I admired and enjoyed them for their compassion, kindness, integrity, intellect, creativity, curiosity, humor, humility.

Maybe I felt some initial dissonance when I first considered things about them I ostensibly disagreed with alongside their objectively good qualities, but I don’t remember experiencing any such feeling. I didn’t imagine those friendships as having asterisks. There’s no denying my friends engaged in things I was told were wrong – or even evil. I had been taught that even some of the things they did alone or only with other consenting adults – which affected no one else in any measurable way – were harmful to their souls, and indeed the collective “soul” of any society that permits such things.

At the time I didn’t feel any dissonance between my friends’ supposed badness and their obvious goodness, but I feel it now as I look back, and I can pinpoint this as the time I really began to reject many of the things I’d been taught growing up.

I’d been taught that my friends’ behaviors were things that were corroding them from the inside, like a spiritual cancer. I was just supposed to believe this, even in the face of their many virtues. My New Church friends would have expected me to put asterisks on those friendships or end them entirely, on the basis of behaviors that don’t hurt anyone. It’s qualities like compassion, kindness, humility and integrity that truly make a difference in the world, and it was obvious to me that these qualities are totally disconnected from a person’s sexual orientation, virginity status, opinions about marijuana and so on.

It’s funny to write this now because it has seemed so self-evident to me for so long, and most of my friends would have trouble seeing it any other way. But many of my old New Church friends would totally disagree with the way I see things now.

Anyway, from New York I moved to Phoenix and eventually to Tucson, where there was a thriving New Church community. I didn’t participate though. I never even found myself in the neighborhood of the church until more than a year after I arrived, when another Bryn Athyn friend moved to Tucson with his wife. They were active in the church, and I attended once or twice with them.

I didn’t avoid the church out of any kind of principle. I had simply drifted away from it, and it hardly seemed relevant to my life anymore.

My occasional contact with that church and others, however, often left a bad taste. The pastors in their sermons, and my church acquaintences in conversations, would pronounce sweeping judgments against people based on the lifestyles I’d come to see as benign details of my friends’ private lives. They would also speak with utter certainty about things I’d come to see as fuzzy and unknowable.

As an aside, it’s fair to say I distrust certainty by default. Certainty without evidence or logic is dangerous. Without evidence or logic, “certainty” is really just ideology, and ideology has led humanity to dark dark places.

Also, one group’s ideology can so easily collide with another group’s, which is what the landscape of religion feels like to me. Every religion claims to be the one true religion, which means that almost everyone is wrong by definition. On top of that, most religions would reject or damn a lot of people I truly admire, based on details that don’t remotely define them as people.

On the other hand, I recognize that church communities do a lot of great things. A coworker of mine, for example, is involved with a group through his church that sponsors schools for autistic children in poor countries – where such children are otherwise abused and neglected. I’m a big fan of churches as a vehicle for this kind of enterprise, and churches are arguably the most effective possbile means of mobilizing people toward good deeds.

Of course, churches have historically engaged in these kinds of pursuits partly as a way to spread themselves, but that’s not necessarily a bad thing. I imagine much of this is motivated by a belief in their own righteousness and a genuine desire to “save” people who would otherwise go to hell. On the other hand, I imagine there is also a certain amount of pure profit motive there too.

My church was somewhat different in the sense that it didn’t work very hard to spread itself. We were taught that divine providence was at work everywhere, and that the “church” is really an internal thing within every individual. We were taught, of course, that our church alone held the whole story – that it was the one true religion – but also that it wasn’t necessary to know or even believe the whole story or belong to our church to be saved.

This is the essence of my response when religious people ask, “what if you’re wrong?” By this they mean, what if you – an atheist – are wrong in thinking that god does not exist. Most of these people think that people like me are bound for hell, but I believe that if I’m wrong and there is a god, then god is like the one I learned about in my church. This god doesn’t require me to belong to any particular church or subscribe to a particular set of beliefs; this god only requires that I do my best to act with compassion, kindness, integrity, humility…

These days I go to church a few times a year, and mostly it affirms my disinterest in the whole thing, for the reasons I’ve already stated, and also for its unrelenting mediocrity. To put it bluntly, most ministers and priests suck at preaching. They have large captive audiences week after week, and so often they drone through academic dissections of doctrine or trot out tired clichés. I don’t know which is worse, but it irks me to see such wasted opportunities.

In my church, there was always a lot of abstract discussion about what we called “correspondences” in the bible. References to “water” for example were really talking about “truth,” but it was the rare sermon that succeeded in connecting this abstract notion of “truth” to the real challenges and questions in our daily lives. What does “truth” really mean? What are some concrete examples? It’s sad how few ministers and priests are capable of telling a compelling story and making it stick.

I live in San Francisco now, and I’m as solid in my non-belief as ever. My experience continues to confirm that religion doesn’t have any kind of monopoly on goodness or principled living (and non-belief has no correlation to the contrary). Many of my non-religious friends work more tirelessly on behalf of their fellow man than anyone I knew growing up in my church community. And many people in our culture – religious and otherwise – go to work every day knowing on some level that their employers are complicit in various evils and abuses. In short, goodness and badness in all of us.

My Christian past feels like a dream of a former life. A mostly happy dream that opened my mind in certain ways (while keeping it closed in others). I’ve awakened from that dream, and I’ll never belong to a church again. Luckily my Catholic wife is OK with that. I’m happy in my non-belief, but I’m no less good for not believing.

© 2009 Shawn Smith | Creative Commons.
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