30 November 2008

Live long and prosper

Just for fun, I have a little video of Leonard Nimoy explaining the secret origin of that cool hand thing that Vulcans do as a salute, proving that the planet Vulcan was settled by one of the Ten Lost Tribes.

27 November 2008

Thankful

Friends, family, health, livelihood, city, and nation. How could I possibly be more blessed?

26 November 2008

Deft

I remember saying that health care policy was the one thing in Hillary Clinton's platform that was categorically better than Barack Obama's was the health care plan. Clinton's plan was universal but relied on the existing structure of health insurers (disappointing). Obama's plan was similar but was not universal because did not include a mandate that everyone participate in the system (worse).

It turns out Obama was thinking several moves ahead.

The Obama plan as presented during the campaign had a gaping policy hole in it. If private insurers were required to cover individuals regardless of pre-existing conditions, but individuals weren't required to purchase coverage, then it would be reasonable for people, and especially for the young and healthy, to forgo coverage until they got sick. That would have bankrupted the private health insurance industry by driving its premiums so high that it couldn't compete with the alternative public plan.

At that point, one of two things would have happened. The private insurance industry would have collapsed — good riddance to bad garbage — thus backing the country into a single-payer system, or the private insurers, with their army of lobbyists, tame think-tank pseudo-scholars, and captive Congressmen and Senators would have had to demand a mandate, which the Democrats could then graciously grant.

Now it looks as if the insurers have jumped the gun, agreeing to offer individual insurance with no exclusions for pre-existing conditions as long as there's a mandate to buy insurance.

If Obama had proposed such a mandate, the health insurers would have had “Harry and Louise” all over your TV set talking about how oppressive the whole idea was and how they could never afford it. Now it's their idea.

This Obama guy seems to know what he's doing with this politics stuff.

25 November 2008

Church

TheHill.com has a little article about a church inviting the Obamas to attend their services. Something jumped out at me, reading it.
Though it is not likely to be the case with Obama, some presidents chose not to attend church while living in D.C.

President Bush is widely known for his religious beliefs, but for eight years has not frequented a local church, at times citing security concerns. Ronald Reagan also did not attend a church regularly, saying that after the attempt on his life it was too great a risk. And Richard Nixon opted to have Billy Graham come to the White House for private religious services.

“The logistics of a president going to a worship service are a nightmare,” Cromartie said.

But security does not make regular worship impossible. Both Jimmy Carter and Bill Clinton, for example, attended D.C.-area churches. Clinton’s church, Foundry Methodist Church, installed metal detectors because many tourists attended services on Sunday — some simply to catch a glimpse of the president.

Hmmnn. It says “some presidents chose not to attend church while living in D.C.” Let's review what it tells us.

AttendedDid not
Nixon
Carter
Reagan
Clinton
Bush
Obama?

It seems like there's a pattern in there, somewhere. I'm sure if I think about it for long enough, it will come to me.

24 November 2008

How did I live without this?

Wikipedia offers me new punctuation: the irony mark.
This mark was proposed by the French poet Alcanter de Brahm (alias Marcel Bernhardt) at the end of the 19th century. It was in turn taken by Hervé Bazin in his book Plumons l’Oiseau (1966), in which the author proposes several other innovative punctuation marks, such as the doubt point (), certitude point (), acclamation point (), authority point (), indignation point (, essentially ¡), and love point ( or ). It was also featured in the art periodical Point d’Ironie by Agnes b. in 1997.

Its form is essentially the same as the late medieval , a percontation point (punctus percontativus), which was used to mark rhetorical questions.

21 November 2008

It's a good thing I live in SF ...

... otherwise Christa Faust might have succeeded in making me miss Los Angeles for a minute.
When I first moved to Los Angeles, I saw a hand lettered sign in a crappy little mini-mall coffee shop that read “Comida China y Donuts.” Chinese food and donuts is a standard fast food combo out here, but that homemade Spanglish sign somehow summed up the culinary soul of LA better than an army of clever foodbloggers. Humble or haut cuisine, we love our ethnic fusion chow out here.

So in the spirit of that mix-and-match dining philosophy, the intrepid Eric Stone, his pal Bill and I set out last night on a quest for Bulgogi tacos. That would be MexiKorean fast food composed of traditional, thinly sliced Korean beef in a sweet soy marinade but served carne asada style in a soft corn tortilla, with or without kimchi.

As a friend of mine says, if you look inside the kitchens of Italian restaurants, French restaurants, and even Chinese restaurants, and see who is actually preparing the food, you realize that all restaurants in California are Mexican restaurants.

I presume that this is even true of the place this story reminded me of, a little spot in downtown LA that serves “Kosher burritos” made with pastrami.

20 November 2008

Remembrance

 

I am reminded by several folks that today is the 10th annual Transgender Day of Remembrance, which marks deaths by trans-hate-motivated violence. Because of course the list is long enough that it would fill our calandars if we had individual days for each person lost.

Yezida, borrowing from Tristissima, offers a mourning poem.

Early 'net culture

I stumbled across this tale of an email list in '93. By failing to handle a prolific and obsessive individual, the list community broke down.
In the first week of August, the list began receiving essays and letters from someone who called herself "Doctress Neutopia." She immediately proved herself to be a prolific writer, highly imaginative and not prone to holding back her opinion. The writings of The Doctress dealt consistently with issues of sexism and the oppression of females by males, and were generally of tremendous length and great personal investment. In shorter e-mailed notes, she spoke of adding a love saga to the rapidly-developing Fixion project. She also told us she was looking for "the A/O (Alpha/Omega) Man," who would join her in rule over the Earth when the Lovolution came. (In an early letter to me she asked if I was that man; a little stunned, I bounced back Mitch's address, figuring she was looking for the author of A/O.) Day after day, her writings poured in, screenful after screenful. She seemed to care little for our already-developing lines of work, preferring instead to stick to her own campaign and agenda. For a week or so, her words seemed illuminating in a unique way; her over-the-top, egocentric, dyslexic metaphor seemed intentionally postmodern, and her research skills were undeniable (even if her prose tended toward hyperbole). The Doctress was unconditionally welcomed to the list. Relatively speaking; Aleph had found another weird sister.
Reading it was tinged with nostalgia for the Mondo 2000 era ... while also being a timeless example of the challenges of virtual community.

19 November 2008

Hipster PDA

You may have heard of the Hipster PDA: a stack of 3x5 cards held together with a binder clip. This thing is, seriously, pretty much a movement. I myself am a Fussy Hipster PDA user, in the form of spiffy sideways 3x5 cards in a little leather pocket portfolio from Levenger.

I bring it up because a major office supply manufacturer now sells it as a product.

17 November 2008

Beating the bushes

In case I haven't already mentioned this to any interested readers, the place where I work, Pure Digital Technologies (makers of the spiffy, spiffy Flip video camera) is looking for a product manager, an interaction designer, and visual designer. We're downtown in San Francisco and a mostly civilized working environment. Drop me a line if you have a lead — or are one.

15 November 2008

Runaway

For most of 1985, my favourite song was Del Shannon's 1961 hit “Runaway”. So for over twenty years I've been puzzling over the question what the hell is that instrument from the break in the middle of the song?

It sounds like a synth, but that can't be right; this was 1961.

It turns out that yeah, it is a synthesizer, homemade by keyboardist Max Crook, which he calls the “musitron”.

Max developed the Musitron out of a variety of musical instruments and other electronic and electric devices. The initial keyboard is a clavioline, a french organ developed by Constant Martin in 1947. The clavioline is very similar in sound to that of the ondioline, developed by Georges Jenny, also of France. Crook created the Musitron by incorporating the majority of the clavioline, but being an electronics genius, Max was able to further enhance the clavioline by expanding the octave range to infinity (beyond human hearing). He inserted extra resistors, pots, and capacitors. The clavioline also lacked reverb. It was a dry sounding monophonic organ. Crook developed a spring echo reverberation unit custom-built from garden gate springs and other mechanical parts to create an echo chamber which, though crude, produced an amazing and natural echo sound resembing the acoustics of a tile-plated bathroom.
Even without the mystery, I still love the song.

14 November 2008

BSDs vs quants

Brad Hicks on the institutional / social / psychological dynamics in financial institutions that led to the mortgage crisis ... and other past breakdowns.
When Michael Lewis was first hired, right out of college, as a salesman at Solomon Brothers, his instinctive belief that things have an actual value was something that got relentlessly mocked by his coworkers. In his early days on Wall Street, they explained to him that there is a pecking order in the financial services industry. For a variety of cultural and regulatory reasons, investment firms are required to have people working for them who are experts at calculating the actual value of an investment based on current mathematical models and best available data. Their department is called “Quantitative Analysis,” and the people who work there are derisively called “quants.” Quants have the lowest prestige jobs in the entire industry, draw remarkably low salaries considering the level of education you have to have to get those jobs and the long hours and the awful working conditions, and Lewis says that they are routinely and cruelly and ruthlessly snubbed by the other half of the business. Those are the people whose specialty is sales. And at the absolute top of the pecking order, Lewis taught us, are the people who were called the Big Swinging Dicks, people who demonstrated the superiority of their manhood by being able to sell anything, however worthless the quants said it was, for however much the company needed it to sell for.

How does a BSD make his money? First, he starts by asking, “what do I have available to me to sell?” How much of it is there? Now divide that into his assigned sales goal. Add in the cost to sell it. That tells him what the thing he has to sell has to be worth; for it not to be worth that is flatly unacceptable. Which leads to the next, and last, and hardest part: what lies does he have to tell to himself to convince himself that it really is worth what he needs to sell it for, and how does he fool himself into believing his own lies? That's the only use that any BSD has for a quant: once in a very, very rare while a quant says something to him that, if he ignores the caveats and footnotes and fine details, he can twist into a justification. The quant doesn't have to have been right. Even if the quant was right, the salesman doesn't even have to accurately remember, let alone accurately pass on to others, what the quant said. He just needs to be able to believe that he is honestly representing what the quant told him when he quotes some bit of (what is to him) quant bullcrap about what the investment is “really worth” when he's on the phone to the client. And he really, really has to believe it, himself, even if he used to know that he was lying, even if he used to know that he was making this stuff up out of whole cloth. Humans kid themselves that they're good at detecting it when people tell them things that aren't true. They aren't. But to the limited extent that they are, they're really only good at detecting one thing: whether or not the other person believes what they're saying. So the ultimate BSD is the guy with the greatest talent for figuring out what he needs to believe in order to get you to give him money, and then making himself believe that, and believe it really hard.
....
I guarantee you that in every firm involved in this market, somewhere in some windowless cubicle in the basement, there was at least one quantitative analyst screaming his head off in emails about this, about how the mathematical modeling that underlaid the calculations that determined pricing on collateralized debt obligations was based on statistical analysis of customers who were buying their primary home, not as an investment vehicle but to live in, and pricing those homes based on reasonable expectations of what someone in their social class could afford to live in and paying no more for them than three times their income. And no BSD in the entire industry wanted to hear that caveat. He didn't dare. He almost certainly paid people to intercept those emails and keep them from him. Because if he let himself get drawn into what must have seemed to him like an arcane and wrong-headed argument about what something is “actually worth,” when there really is no such thing, when everybody knows that the only accurate way to value something is to put it in the hands of a talented salesman and see what he can sell it for? He wouldn't have made his numbers.

Lots of examples of the principle, in tales well told, if you click through.

I leave the parallel to another conflict between people who have been successful by virtue of believing their own BS and the “reality-based community” as an exercise for the reader.

13 November 2008

Left

In a Salon interview, Bernard-Henri Lévy defines “the left.”

I think it is the same definition: to have freedom and equality, the two dreams of freedom and equality walking at the same pace. To refuse to choose between the two. This is written in the motto of the French Republic, as you know, “Liberté, égalité, fraternité.” And it is also written in the DNA of the best of America. The real dream of equality, which fed the battle, for example, for the civil rights, Martin Luther King and so on, and the battle for individual freedom. Those who ask to choose between the two — if you have freedom you do not have equality, if you have equality, you do not have freedom — for me, they are not leftist. This is a good definition of the left.

Emphasis mine.

To refuse to choose between freedom and equality. I can go for that.

12 November 2008

The power of apathy

In the course of a rumination on Missouri's voting in the presidential election, Brad Hicks talks about St Louis' unique, disengaged political culture.
Aside from the economic differences brilliantly documented by political geographer Joel Garreau in his old best-seller The Nine Nations of North America, St. Louis has one huge important cultural difference with the southwestern corner of the state: a bizarre kind of apathy about what other people are doing that borders on tolerance. There really is no such thing as an extremist for any political cause here in St. Louis. The local descendants of the Ku Klux Klan, the Mystic Knights of the Veiled Prophet, are a charitable organization. The local chapter of ACT-UP changed the national group's motto to, “We're here, we're queer ... and we'd like to get to know you better.” The local chapter of Earth First!'s biggest act of defiance was hanging banners over the highway.

I'd love to hear from local Obama organizers, and even more from Obama organizers who were parachuted into the state with Axelrod & Plouffe's brilliant book on political organizing to check one of my guesses: my bet is that they got roughly 1/3rd the turnout of other organizers anywhere else in the country using the same system, and got roughly half the volunteer hours out of the people they did get that volunteers gave in every other city that used the same system. What makes me say that? Because that's what every volunteer organization that comes to St. Louis reports. Even when a volunteer-run movement starts in St. Louis, like Neopagan Wicca did, the locals put in a third of the numbers and half the volunteer hours per person of anywhere else in the country. It's just how we are. Do you know about the biggest “battle” anywhere near St. Louis during the American Civil War? Pro-slavery and anti-slavery militias both stormed the US Army arsenal in St. Louis, on a rumor that the other side was about to seize it. The side that got there first waited for the other side to show up. Other than a few warning shots and some shoving, they then settled down on opposite sides of the nearest street and just waited patiently, maintaining watch for several days; it was enough for them to make sure that the other side wasn't going to grab all those weapons and do something with them. For just about as long as there's been a St. Louis, our natural defense against violent political extremists has been apathy, usually polite apathy with a hint of disdain, but occasionally shading into enforced apathy.

He goes on to talk about how that the rest of Missouri has a very different attitude ...

07 November 2008

Small government

Pericles observes that McCain's reflexive Republican “small government conservatism” was a perfect example of this non-philosophy.
The paradox of McCain is pretty simple: He projects a strong general message that government spending is out of control, and that Congress needs a president strong enough to say NO to its wasteful ways, so that we can continue to cut taxes and yet return to fiscal responsibility. But when the audience asks him about any particular thing the government does, he promises to continue it or even do more of it: He wants to stay in Iraq as long as it takes, keep Social Security and Medicare strong, do something about global warming, take care of veterans, make health care and college educations affordable, start a land-a-man-on-the-Moon-like program to make the United States independent of foreign oil, defend our borders against illegal immigration, and on and on and on. He rails against procedural stuff like Congressional earmarks, but never once does he say, “Here's an expensive government service that the American people are going to have to get along without.”
Pericles goes on to describe the habits of mind which make this reasoning possible.

Soap opera

Stuart Moore sings the tale of X-Men in the ’80s and early ’90s.
Chris Claremont pumped the series full of mysteries and character conflicts, some of which hung, unresolved, for years — especially since the book was bi-monthly at the start. Once John Byrne came on board, he contributed more of his own characters to the stew, most notably the Canadian super-team Alpha Flight.

In those days, X-Men was unique because the artwork was fresh and, more importantly, it was an extension and reïnvigoration of the Stan Lee soap-opera comics formula. Claremont built on Stan’s serial-comics template, weaving a huge number of threads through the book’s uber-story. Many of them were family-oriented: Cyclops’ brother Havok had mysteriously turned against him, Banshee’s cousin Black Tom teamed up with Xavier’s stepbrother The Juggernaut against the team, Moira MacTaggart shared a mysterious romantic past with Xavier.

The early Claremont X-Men never alienated its audience because, while you might be wondering what the hell was going on with Phoenix, there were eight other immediate plot threads moving forward to keep your interest. Once the series went monthly, you’d have expected the dangling threads to be resolved more quickly — but the opposite happened. Xavier, Phoenix, and the Beast spent the better part of a year believing the others were dead, and vice-versa. The mystery of Cyclops’s father, Corsair of the StarJammers, stretched on even longer.

And the book grew even more popular. Its audience loved the spaghetti-strand plots, the personal stories that exploded into galactic-war epics, the hyper-Marvel-style of soap opera piled upon soap opera stacked on top of giant robots, surreal mind-wars, and globe-traveling adventure.

Eventually I realized that Claremont was cheating with his soap opera structure. It seemed like he had a grand master narrative at work, but after reading for long enough you realize that he just is leaving loose ends scattered all over the place, so that was possible for him to pick them up at his convenience and pretend like it was All Part of His Plan.

But the thing about keeping people from falling off the bus makes me think of my man Joss Whedon. He has often talked about how the character of X-Men character Kitty Pryde was a major inspiration to him. It's not hard to draw a line between the teenage superheroine Kitty — smart and fretful, but strong at the core — and Buffy.

But I hadn't made the connection before about the soap opera structure.

One of the interesting innovations of Buffy is the way it weaves a season-long story arc into individual episodes that still stand or their own. TV had been working its way toward that before: Hill Street Blues started it (and invented the brilliant “previously on ... ” device at the beginning of episodes), other dramas had committed to it more and more, and Babylon 5 had attempted the crazy trick of presenting a vast, single narrative disguised as episodic television. But Buffy managed a new level of craftiness in fusing the long and short narratives. Only now does it occur to me that he must have learned some of this trick from reading X-Men.

06 November 2008

Joker

Chris of Chris' Invincible Super-Blog has been thinking about the Joker. Here's a taste:
From the start, he’s an amazing visual, and it’s a complete inversion of the classic hero and villain formula. Batman was inspired as much by Count Dracula and the Shadow as he was heroes like Zorro, with a costume designed to frighten, but he’s still the good guy. The one in the bright colors with the big smile who does magic tricks… that’s the one you need to watch out for.
It's the sort of thing you'll like if you like that sort of thing.

Teutonic majesty

I know what you want. You want Nina Hagen covering a Rammstein song, right?

05 November 2008

8

For a lot of folks like me, the fly in the ointment of Election Night was that California's Proposition 8 looks likely to pass by a narrow margin, reversing the California Supreme Court's decision that the California constitution's equal protection language meant that the state had to respect both heterosexual and homosexual marriages.

Not so fast, says the ACLU.

The California Constitution itself sets out two ways to alter the document that sets the most basic rules about how state government works. Through the initiative process, voters can make relatively small changes to the constitution. But any measure that would change the underlying principles of the constitution must first be approved by the legislature before being submitted to the voters. That didn't happen with Proposition 8, and that's why it's invalid.

“If the voters approved an initiative that took the right to free speech away from women, but not from men, everyone would agree that such a measure conflicts with the basic ideals of equality enshrined in our constitution. Proposition 8 suffers from the same flaw — it removes a protected constitutional right — here, the right to marry — not from all Californians, but just from one group of us,” said Jenny Pizer, a staff attorney with Lambda Legal.

They're going to court. Yet another reason to be glad that I'm a card-carrying member of the ACLU.

Navigation

Apparently, for a few hours the day before yesterday I did not live at the corner of Leavenworth and Bush streets.

Last night in friends' tweets

From me, sent from my phone as we drove home:
Dancing in the streets in the Castro
Ray Ghanbari:
100 years from now, historians will point to watching 2 young African American girls running around the rose garden for 4 years as the pivot
Thomas Roche:
Broadway in Oakland: Car horns honked in the "Yes We Can" pattern, people waving, jumping up and down, college girls in tears
Annalee Newitz:
Wow the mood in San Francisco tonight is amazing. People honking, cheering randomly at strangers.

04 November 2008

Returns indexed by polling projections

A handy election results page from the New York Times.

How it feels

I have measured out my life in polling booths.

1988: I'm excited because it's my first time. But I'm not too excited, because I know that the uninspiring Democratic candidate is going to lose.

1992: I'm guardedly hopeful. The campaign has been so weird that anything could happen. I'm voting for the Democratic candidate I had been fascinated and repulsed by during the primaries, voting for a Democrat in the White House rather than the candidate himself.

1996: I'm happy. The President has exceeded my low expectations of him: the past four years have been the only time in my political consciousness when I've regularly seen headlines containing good news. And he's going to win.

2000: I'm literally nauseous. I've voted for the smart, corporate-friendly Democratic centrist against the numbskull, corporate-friendly Republican faux centrist. I feel like my vote has ratified a corrupt process.

2004: I'm anxious. Over the past six months I've given my voice and my money to another bland centrist Democrat because I'm so horrified by the incumbent Republican war criminal. I'm simultaneous hopeful that he'll win — God, please, anybody, just stop the bleeding — but I'm mortified that it's even close.

2008:

I've voted for a man who is less than I'd wish for, but more than I thought I could hope for: liberal ... and pragmatic ... and the most talented politician I expect I'll ever see ... and smart about policy ... and symbolic of a movement to shatter the poisonous political alignments that Nixon created and Reagan cemented ... and who is going to win.

I want to dance.

Just in case

The ACLU has voting rights resources in case there's BS at the polls where you are.

Yes we can

OK, let's hand him a mandate. Let's give him a landslide.

03 November 2008

California ballot initiatives

Many of my readers know that I'm opposed to the California ballot initiative process. Once enacted, ballot initiatives are nearly impossible to change, so that when it turns out that they are badly designed legislation the legislature cannot fix them. And they very often badly designed: often innocently, as good legislation is tricky to create, and occasionally maliciously, as the interests behind an initiative cook up legislation with effects that an ordinary voter won't understand. In particular, the state budget drama we go through every year is largely because the maze of set-asides, tax limitations, and other budget rules built up from years of initiatives have made it very difficult for the legislature to create a budget even under the best of conditions.

So my default setting for ballot initiatives is to vote No. But every year, there are a few initiatives where against my better judgment, I end up voting Yes. This year is no exception.

1A: Yes

This is a bond issue to fund a bullet train from San Francisco to Los Angeles. My friends and regular readers will be unsurprised to hear how I think that more rail is more good, and with Peak Oil and global warming making commuter air travel a very bad idea, it's long past time we got serious about this obviously good place to start. I don't much like doing this as a bond issue; I'd rather see a political order in which heavy investment in rail is part of the normal budget. But there's good reason to hope that this project will get the ball rolling for a strong network of rail in California — this project is one element in a greater proposal that runs San Diego to Sacramento.

2: Yes

This law improving the treatment of farm animals is exactly the kind of thing that should be part of a coherent legislative effort, rather than a ballot initiative ... but a friend of mine told me an interesting story. She was approached by a canvasser with the original petition to create the initiative, and said exactly that: I like the sound of the legislation, but I don't like initiatives. The canvasser said she agreed, but that a legislative solution had stalled out completely, and the backers of the legislation had turned reluctantly to the initiative process. As I was saying just recently, America's screwy food production is the product of perverse incentives, and this legislation is an effort to straighten that out. So I'm voting Yes.

3: No

I was originally inclined to vote Yes on this bond issue for children's hospitals, but the SF Bay Guardian argues that the rules on how the money is apportioned are screwy. When in doubt, vote No, so that's what I'm doing. I'm voting No.

4: No!

Against the distant possibility that I have readers who don't already understand this: parental notification requirements for minors getting abortions are a very bad idea for a number of reasons, not least because not all parents are responsible parents.

5: Yes

This bundle of reforms in drug policy toward dramatically reduced penalties for possession of marijuana, and better access to treatment, is flawed policy but a whole lot better than what we have now. It's become evident that legislatures cannot provide any sanity in this area, so voting for this proposition is the lesser evil.

6: No

A bundle of “law and order” stuff: budget set asides for cops, stiffer legal penalties, prison spending, et cetera. Further screwing up legislatures' ability to set budgets, and putting more people in jail for longer is only good for the prison-industrial complex.

7: No

It's renewable energy, which is tempting, but there are a lot of policy details lurking in there. Looking at supporters and opponents, I find responsible groups on both sides. When in doubt, I vote no.

8: No!

I spoke with some folks who have been phone banking who say that folks are confused on this one, so let me remind folks: Prop 8 eliminates the right to same-sex marriage established by California courts. Say No to hate; vote No on 8.

9: No

Like Prop 6, this revision to parole rules means more people in jail longer. It also means that without the carrot of parole to offer to prisoners, prisons become more hellish, less rehabilitative, and harder to manage.

10: No

As with Prop 7, this renewable energy measure is tempting ... but again there are too many mixed signals out there with endorsements and anti-endorsements. It will evidently be a big windfall for the natural gas people, which isn't really the point. So I'm voting No.

11: No

Yeah, we need redistricting reform, but it's tricky to define good policy for this. Most of the sources I trust are against this, so I'm thinking better safe than sorry and voting No.

12: Yes

This bond to help out veterans with housing money is exactly what you want from a bond measure: it gives loans to veterans, paying for itself as the vets pay the loans back, taking advantage of the state's ability to create a bigger risk pool to make better loans available to more people.

01 November 2008

Market forces and food

In an old blog post on market fundamentalism I said:
I believe in using heavy taxation to push market incentives in the right directions. Americans are getting obese because, in part, sugar is cheap and readily available while fresh vegetables are harder to obtain. (Anyone who doubts the latter has been spending too much time in foodie places like my hometown; in much of America you can't find anything greener than iceberg lettuce for love or money.) We should tax sugar back into being a luxury, and subsidize the salad industry.
Recently I noticed Ezra Klein asking why is bad food cheap?
Put aside the externalities. The weight gain and the chronic diseases and the carbon pumped into the atmosphere. Bracket it, as my college political science professors used to say. There's a tendency to believe bad food is simply cheap. We make it like that because it saves us money. Sometimes, that's true. More often, it's not. Bad food is subsidized. Take high-fructose corn syrup. These days, the average American consumes almost 60 pounds of the stuff each year. Forty years ago, they consumed a pound or two of corn-based sweeteners. What happened?
....
Sugar is pricey because the government, on the one hand, pays corn producers to sell high fructose corn syrup for below market cost, and because it won't allow the importation of cheap sugar from other countries.
....
taxpayers are handing billions over to the meat and grain industries in order to convince livestock producers to sell their product at below market rates. We are funding this system.

Code

Anil Dash looks closely at what Sarah Palin is saying.
Put simply, if Palin says “Barack Obama consorts with terrorists”, she is making the assertion that he supports acts of violence against American citizens and the media will refute this obviously false assertion. If, instead, Palin says he “pals around with terrorists”, she's used code-switching to mask the seriousness of the charge, obfuscating her meaning enough to get away with making an assertion that inevitably calls for the imprisonment or even assassination of a political opponent.

This clever use of language only hides Palin's meaning from members of the press. Because writers for traditional media are usually highly educated and pride themselves on their mastery of Standard American English, they can often look down on dialects like AAVE and North Central English. Instead these forms of language being seen as legitimate and interpreted in the social context where they've formed, they're dismissed as being the words of “people who don't even speak proper English!” In the cases where the ideas aren't outright dismissed, there is still rampant misinterpretation of meaning: Reporters wrongly see a term like “palling” as imprecise, when compared to a word like “consorting”.

But these words are not imprecise to their intended audience. They are, in fact, clearer than using legalistic terms like “consorting”. They amplify the urgency of the statements, and increase the sense for Palin's audience that they're on the same page with her, speaking a language too “plain”, too full of “straight talk”, for the press to understand. And they're right.