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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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In an earlier post, I wrote about Amazon’s deletion of unauthorized copies of ‘1984’ from some users’ Kindles and the companies subsequent gracious apology. Well, it appears the story is not quite over. A lawsuit has been filed in Seattle that seeks class action status for Kindle owners and Orwell readers, claiming that Amazon breached it’s contract with Kindle owners when it deleted the e-books.

I had earlier expressed my disappointment with Amazon’s intrusive action. However, I had then assumed that the terms of use allowed Amazon to do what it did, in at least some specific cases. In other words, while Amazon’s actions were stupid, scary and against the spirit of liberty, I did not think they were actually violating anyone’s rights.

However, if it is true that Amazon’s actions were indeed not authorized under the terms of use, which say that “Amazon grants you the non-exclusive right to keep a permanent copy of the applicable Digital Content and to view, use, and display such Digital Content an unlimited number of times,” then Amazon violated the Kindle owners’ rights and liberty not just in spirit but in very tangible terms. I continue to admire Amazon as a company and I will still do business with them; but in the light of this information, I hope that whoever brought the lawsuit wins substantial damages.

Aside: It appears that Amazon similarly deleted e-copies of Ayn Rand’s novels earlier. Heh.

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I love reading Paul Krugman’s NY Times columns and especially the comments that follow because they offer a fascinating glimpse of certain moral principles that are completely alien to my personal philosophy. It is like going into a country where they seem to speak the same language; yet their words mean completely different things than what you are used to.

For instance, in today’s article, PK rages against the practice of high speed trading and certain kinds of financial speculation on the ground that they are socially worthless. But at least he merely suggests higher income taxes to deal with such practices. His commenters go several levels further. They are so — oh so — outraged that some rich people are merely following Capitalism 101 rather than contributing to some “social good” that they want the guys arrested; some go further and demand a popular revolution to fundamentally steer the nation towards social democracy.

Not so long ago, Soviet Russia and countries under its influence measured not just economic activity but everything from art to films according to their social utility in furthering the principles of communism; those that did not pass the test were banned or worse. So the NY Times readers are continuing a worthy tradition.

What can I say? In my universe, freedom — freedom to invest or speculate, to be foolish or smart, to give back to society or be a rich miser — is of far, far greater importance than judging whether the exercise of freedom actually contributes to some social good. So the morality of the NY times commenters with their particular sense of justice and fairness is alien to me. Once upon a time, when faced with such morality, I would rage and scream silently inside at the grotesque sense of entitlement displayed. These days, I am merely amused; it is a bit like going to an alternate universe full of strange creatures.

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I find this passage from Arianna Huffington’s old article “Bernard Levin remembered” rather poignant for several  reasons. The italics are mine.

We started a relationship which was to last until the end of 1980, when I left London to move to New York. And he was, in many ways, the reason I left London. I was by then 30, still deeply in love with him, but longing to have children. He, on the other hand, never wanted to get married or have children. What was touching is that he saw this not as a badge of independence and freedom but as a character flaw, almost a handicap. As he wrote in 1983 in his book “Enthusiasms”, which he movingly dedicated to me even though we were no longer together: “What fear of revealing, of vulnerability, of being human, grips us so fiercely, and above all why? What is it that, down there in the darkness of the psyche, cries its silent No to the longing for Yes?” It was a No that often coincided with retreating into depression — the “black dog” that he described as “that dark lair where the sick soul’s desire for solitude turns into misanthropy.”

The whole article is in fact extremely touching, as I suspect such things often are. Read it.

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NY Times has an article today about BB&T, a bank that has been doing remarkably well in the crisis, and its charismatic chairman and former CEO, John A. Allison, who is an ardent Ayn Rand follower. Consider these:

• In his spare time, Mr. Allison travels the country making speeches about objectivism and his bank’s distinctive philosophy.

• His bank was forced to take bailout money, even though they did not want it. He returned the money with interest. He says “Everyone thinks we got some kind of subsidy, but it’s going to cost us about $250 million for money we didn’t want.”

• Under Mr. Allison, new executives were handed a copy of “Atlas Shrugged.” All employees get a 30-page pamphlet describing BB&T’s philosophy and values: reason, independent thinking and decisions based on facts.

• After the Supreme court upheld the right of local governments in 2005 to condemn private property and hand it to someone else for commercial development, he says, BB&T refused to make loans to developers who obtained property that way.

• BB&T spends about $5 million a year to finance teaching positions and research on “the moral foundations of capitalism.”

Read more here. Actually it is interesting to read the article for another reason too, for it displays the writer’s biases oh-so-clearly. He clearly finds this whole individualism thing something of a mild curiosity not worthy of too much respect and goes into some length to emphasize that serious philosophers consider Rand irrelevant. But then, he works at the NY Times.

(Previous posts on Ayn Rand’s philosophy here)

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Michael Phelps beat Milorad Cavic again, and this time there was no doubt about it.

With a defiant performance in a supposedly inferior suit, Phelps stayed close over the outward lap and rallied on the return to become the first swimmer to break 50 seconds in the 100-meter butterfly.

More here.

I cannot resist the temptation to republishing the statement Phelps ought to have made (instead of that grovelling apology) when he was caught smoking pot a few months ago. Courtesy the inimitable Agitator:

Dear America,

I take it back. I don’t apologize.

Because you know what? It’s none of your goddamned business. I work my ass off 10 months per year. It’s that hard work that gave you all those gooey feelings of patriotism last summer. If during my brief window of down time I want to relax, enjoy myself, and partake of a substance that’s a hell of a lot less bad for me than alcohol, tobacco, or, frankly, most of the prescription drugs most of you are taking, well, you can spare me the lecture.

I put myself through hell. I make my body do things nature never really intended us to endure. All world-class athletes do. We do it because you love to watch us push ourselves as far as we can possibly go. Some of us get hurt. Sometimes permanently. You’re watching the Super Bowl tonight. You’re watching 300 pound men smash each while running at full speed, in full pads. You know what the average life expectancy of an NFL player is? Fifty-five. That’s about 20 years shorter than your average non-NFL player. Yet you watch. And cheer. And you jump up spill your beer when a linebacker lays out a wide receiver on a crossing route across the middle. The harder he gets hit, the louder and more enthusiastically you scream.

Yet you all get bent out of shape when Ricky Williams, or I, or Josh Howard smoke a little dope to relax. Why? Because the idiots you’ve elected to make your laws have have without a shred of evidence beat it into your head that smoking marijuana is something akin to drinking antifreeze, and done only by dirty hippies and sex offenders.

You’ll have to pardon my cynicism. But I call bullshit. You don’t give a damn about my health. You just get a voyeuristic thrill from watching an elite athlete fall from grace–all the better if you get to exercise a little moral righteousness in the process. And it’s hypocritical righteousness at that, given that 40 percent of you have tried pot at least once in your lives.

Here’s a crazy thought: If I can smoke a little dope and go on to win 14 Olympic gold medals, maybe pot smokers aren’t doomed to lives of couch surfing and video games, as our moronic government would have us believe. In fact, the list of successful pot smokers includes not just world class athletes like me, Howard, Williams, and others, it includes Nobel Prize winners, Pulitzer Prize winners, the last three U.S. presidents, several Supreme Court justices, and luminaries and success stories from all sectors of business and the arts, sciences, and humanities.

So go ahead. Ban me from the next Olympics. Yank my endorsement deals. Stick your collective noses in the air and get all indignant on me. While you’re at it, keep arresting cancer and AIDS patients who dare to smoke the stuff because it deadens their pain, or enables them to eat. Keep sending in goon squads to kick down doors andshoot little old ladiesmaim innocent toddlers, handcuff elderly post-polio patients to their beds at gunpoint, and slaughter the family pet.

Tell you what. I’ll make you a deal. I’ll apologize for smoking pot when every politician who ever did drugs and then voted to uphold or strengthen the drug laws marches his ass off to the nearest federal prison to serve out the sentence he wants to impose on everyone else for committing the same crimes he committed. I’ll apologize when the sons, daughters, and nephews of powerful politicians who get caught possessing or dealing drugs in the frat house or prep school get the same treatment as the no-name, probably black kid caught on the corner or the front stoop doing the same thing.

Until then, I for one will have none of it. I smoked pot. I liked it. I’ll probably do it again. I refuse to apologize for it, because by apologizing I help perpetuate this stupid lie, this idea that what someone puts into his own body on his own time is any of the government’s damned business. Or any of yours. I’m not going to bend over and allow myself to be propaganda for this wasteful, ridiculous, immoral war.

Go ahead and tear me down if you like. But let’s see you rationalize in your next lame ONDCP commercial how the greatest motherfucking swimmer the world has ever seen . . . is also a proud pot smoker.

Yours,

Michael Phelps

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