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Archive for August, 2009

Gotta love xkcd!

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States are being negligent with their cultural heritage when they turn it over to a monopolist and thereby run tax-funded projects like the European digital library Europeana into the ground.

Not having had the time — till today — to go through the details of the controversial Google Books settlement, I wasn’t entirely sure where I stood on the issue. The above quote by the German Minister of Culture, however, was the first indication that the settlement couldn’t be as evil as some were making it out to be. Not to over-generalize, but when leftist cultural nationalists oppose something, it generally means I will end up supporting it.

Anyway, it prompted me to finally go through the agreement in detail. And my intuition was right, I think the agreement is perfectly ok, and indeed a great thing. It is important to make clear at this point that my concern was never monopoly; I happen to oppose anti-trust laws. My concern was always rights. So for me, the most important aspect of the agreement is the fact that is non-exclusive. That basically seals it for me. Once you see what that means, it is clear that much of the opposition is misleading, or worse. In particular, the next time you hear someone claiming that the agreement gives Google an exclusive right to sell millions of out-of print but still-in-copyright books at whatever price they wish, remember they are simply lying. The rightsholders of these works, under the terms of the settlement, retain all rights to sell (or give out for free) digitized copies of their books through any other agency, even a competing one, now or any time in the future. (They also have the right to opt-out of the settlement altogether.) So if you are the copyright holder of an out-of print book and you are outraged that Google is selling it at some high price, remember that you can, first off, ask them to stop (there is a deadline for this) or even better, you can legally, anytime you wish, put it up on your own webpage or anyone else’s, or enter into a competing agreement with Microsoft or Yahoo, and either sell your book at your chosen price, or give it to the public for free (and you don’t even have to opt out of the settlement, meaning that your book will continue to be searchable through Google). This is very different from what the situation would have been if the agreement were an exclusive one, and the distinction really goes to the heart of the matter.

As for the case of orphaned out-of-print books (where the rightholders cannot be found or don’t care), first off, Google is doing a service by making their books more easily available; secondly, any other individual or competing company — like Amazon — can also scan these books (that’s the beauty of non-exclusive), and thirdly most of these books will get into the public domain pretty soon.

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Its a question whose answer is probably a complicated one, but this article by Allison Brown (yes, she is female and libertarian) makes some great points and is also an excellent read.

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For those not following the Whole Foods controversy, this is roughly what happened: John Mackey, CEO and co-founder of Whole Foods, and a fairly committed libertarian who once debated Milton Friedman on corporate responsiblity to stakeholders, decided to pen an article against Obama-care at the WSJ. Here’s an excerpt.

Many promoters of health-care reform believe that people have an intrinsic ethical right to health care—to equal access to doctors, medicines and hospitals. While all of us empathize with those who are sick, how can we say that all people have more of an intrinsic right to health care than they have to food or shelter?

Health care is a service that we all need, but just like food and shelter it is best provided through voluntary and mutually beneficial market exchanges. A careful reading of both the Declaration of Independence and the Constitution will not reveal any intrinsic right to health care, food or shelter. That’s because there isn’t any. This “right” has never existed in America.

He also suggested some sensible ideas for reform. Of course, in politics, sensible is a relative term.

• Equalize the tax laws so that employer-provided health insurance and individually owned health insurance have the same tax benefits. Now employer health insurance benefits are fully tax deductible, but individual health insurance is not. This is unfair.

• Repeal all state laws which prevent insurance companies from competing across state lines. We should all have the legal right to purchase health insurance from any insurance company in any state and we should be able use that insurance wherever we live. Health insurance should be portable.

• Repeal government mandates regarding what insurance companies must cover. These mandates have increased the cost of health insurance by billions of dollars. What is insured and what is not insured should be determined by individual customer preferences and not through special-interest lobbying.

• Enact tort reform to end the ruinous lawsuits that force doctors to pay insurance costs of hundreds of thousands of dollars per year. These costs are passed back to us through much higher prices for health care.

• Make costs transparent so that consumers understand what health-care treatments cost. How many people know the total cost of their last doctor’s visit and how that total breaks down? What other goods or services do we buy without knowing how much they will cost us?

• Enact Medicare reform. We need to face up to the actuarial fact that Medicare is heading towards bankruptcy and enact reforms that create greater patient empowerment, choice and responsibility.

• Finally, revise tax forms to make it easier for individuals to make a voluntary, tax-deductible donation to help the millions of people who have no insurance and aren’t covered by Medicare, Medicaid or the State Children’s Health Insurance Program.

Now, if you have ever shopped at Whole Foods (I have) it is fairly obvious what the reaction to Mackey’s oped would be. It was swift and expected.

To quote Epic Etheridge writing in the NY Times.

Reaction from pro-reform Whole Foods shoppers was swift and vociferous. As Brian Beutler noted the next day at TPM DC, Whole Food’s “Web site has been fielding angry comments all afternoon, and has had to set up an online forum where customers can vent their frustrations, and, oh, call for a boycott!”

Here’s a thought,” added Beutler. “If you own a major supermarket chain that caters to a great deal of liberal-minded people with money, don’t rail against the evils of health care reform in The Wall Street Journal.”

At Daily Kos, blogger DarkSyde wondered if Mackey had lost sight of his demographic — “Mr. Mackey, I’m not sure if you understand who it is that shops at your organic grocery chain” — and, in case that had happened, reminded him:

A lot of progressives, vegetarians, professional and amateur athletes, and others who care so much about the environment and what they eat that they’re still willing to shell out three bucks for an organic orange, even in the midst of the worst recession in sixty years. I was proud [Whole Foods] was based in my hometown of Austin, and defended it against most of the conservatives I knew growing up there, many of whom still hold your entire business in utter contempt. Some of them ridiculed me for shopping at Whole Foods, with all the “tree huggers and granola eaters and hippies” who, incidentally, made you a millionaire.

At the Huffington Post, Ben Wyskida said “the bottom line for me, reading Mackey’s op-ed, is that by shopping at Whole Foods I’m giving money to a Republican and I am supporting by proxy a donation to the RNC and to health scare front groups like Patients First. I don’t give money to Republicans, so I will have to cross Whole Foods off my list.”

I have three thoughts on this.

— Mr. Mackey will probably lose a few customers who do not want to shop at a chain because its CEO has views which differs from theirs. After all, the Boycott Whole Foods group in Facebook already has more than 13,000 members. But he will also gain customers of other ideological dispositions. Bloggers such as Radley Balko have been writing about this episode too. His readers will certainly be spending a few extra dollars there in the coming months. As for me, I will sacrifice my love for Trader Joe’s and instead make sure to spend money at Whole Foods whenever I come to the US.

— This episode again demonstrates the astonishing insularity of the Obama loving, NY Times reading urban, liberal, yuppie crowd (actually this would include a majority of my friends). They do not seem to realise that everyone who is not a Democrat does not become automatically a Republican. And Mr. Mackey has never been a Republican. He is a libertarian. More importantly, there is nothing contradictory or hypocritical about adhering to libertarian views while selling good organic food and paying ones employees well and doing all the things the Obama loving, NY Times reading, urban, liberal, yuppies claim to cherish. And responding to a polite expression of another point of view on the healthcare debate by boycotting the company the writer is emplyed at is as lame as lame gets, particularly when the actions of the company actually further your political goals overall. Really.

— Thirdly, I find substantial parallels between the Mackey saga and the Wynand saga. Gail Wynand, that is, the tragic character from The Fountainhead. When Wynand went against his own brand’s clientele to push something he believed in (Roark) it ended badly for him. I hope it does not for Mackey.

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When it comes to how to deal with used stuff, or with things that you don’t need anymore, there are two kinds of people, the keepers and the discarders. My temparament leant towards keeper when I was younger but today I am a staunch discarder.

I love throwing away — or even better, physically destroying — my things whose time I deem to have passed. It is like being part of the dynamic cycle of destruction and creation.

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No particular reason to post this here, except that I truly love this song and it brings back so many associations and memories.

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George Sodini’s blog

George Sodini, the gunman who murdered four people and wounded nine others in Philadelphia on Tuesday maintained a rambling online blog for the last many months. The blog has now been taken down, and I am not sure how long the copies of it that remain in various other news sites will survive, so I am posting the full contents here. It offers a fascinating glimpse into the mind of a sad, sexually frustrated but still remarkably lucid man who had obviously been planning this act for quite a while.

It is clear from the blog that Sodini saw himself as a ‘loser’ and one of the motivations for the act, which he successfully carried out, was because he felt this was a way to get the kind of attention that he would never be able to in real life. His last sentence reads “Death lives.” I cannot but help thinking of the similarities between Sodini’s motivations and that of the protagonist in this short story I wrote a long time ago.

Here’s Sodini’s blog in pdf.

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