Bailout Beach Reading

I've been reading Thomas Frank's new book The Wrecking Crew: How Conservatives Rule, which is full of fascinating stuff about the conservative movement in the US.  It's topical too, of course, given how the conservative agenda of gutting government and letting free markets run wild is squarely to blame for what's happening right now.

I was surprised to learn that he's now writing a column at the Wall Street Journal.  An excerpt from his latest, from last Wednesday:

Consider the current economic catastrophe, which has been building
for a year. Just as it has taken down Countrywide, Bear Stearns,
Indymac, Freddie, Fannie, Lehman, Merrill and Lord knows who else in
the weeks to come, it has also pulverized the reigning conservative
shibboleths of the past 28 years.

There is simply no way to blame this disaster, as Republicans used
to do, on labor unions or over-regulation. No, this is the
conservatives' beloved financial system doing what comes naturally.
Freed from the intrusive meddling of government, just as generations of
supply-siders and entrepreneurial exuberants demanded it be, the
American financial establishment has proceeded to cheat and deceive and
beggar itself — and us — to the edge of Armageddon. It is as though
Wall Street was run by a troupe of historical re-enactors determined to
stage all the classic panics of the 19th century.

By the way, this is the same system the Republicans would still
apparently like to put in charge of Social Security. The same system
that is minting millionaire CEOs, that is holding the line on wages,
and that we will be bailing out for years.

On Monday, John McCain blamed the disaster on "greed by some based
in Wall Street." It's a personal failing of some evil few, in other
words, and presumably capitalism will start working again once we
squeeze the self-interest out of it. In the weeks to come, maybe Sen.
McCain will also take a bold stand against covetousness and sloth.

But the structural changes of the past 28 years that have made all
this possible — the waves of deregulation, the takeover of government
itself by business interests — these haven't made too much of an
impression on him. In March Mr. McCain actually called for more
deregulation in response to the crisis, and at the Republican
convention two weeks ago an ebullient Mitt Romney promised that Mr.
McCain would take "a weed-whacker to excessive regulation." Just for
good measure, this former management consultant also called for yet
another round of attacks on the unionized federal workforce, deploring
its "tyrannosaurus appetite."

Some tyrannosaurus! Thanks to the party of Romney and McCain,
federal work is today so financially unattractive to top talent that it
might as well be charity work. It's one of the main reasons — other
than outright conquest by the industries they're supposed to be
overseeing — that our regulatory agencies can't seem to get out of bed
in the morning.

Link: Get Your Class War On.

I  also recommend this inspired rant by Bob Sullivan (author of Gotcha Capitalism) on his Red Tape Blog, with a consumer angle on the bailouts: Consumers Deserve Greed Bailout.

And I found this interview of Michael Greenberger by Fresh Air's Terry Gross last week to be really informative: Was 'Adult Supervision' Needed on Wall Street?

The Gospel of Consumption

It probably won’t shock anyone to find an article called "The Gospel of Consumption" in (environmentalist) magazine Orion, but this piece by Jeffrey Kaplan is better than your average anti-consumption rant, I think. 

He talks about the forces that created American consumer society in the last century.  In the 1920s the abundance brought about by "labor-saving" machinery could have led to short workdays and a more active citizenship (as championed by people such as W.K. Kellogg).  Instead, industrialists and politicians put economic growth at the forefront, leading to the wonders of advertising to manufacture need in consumers, thus leading to more production and even more work.

Jeffrey Kaplan is an activist and has an agenda, to be sure (see Take Back Your Time for more work along these lines).  I believe his history here to be fairly accurate, though.  It’s an interesting contrast to Clay Shirky’s story.

Link: The Gospel of Consumption (the sidebar has some interesting links to check out as well, such as the introduction to Kellogg’s Six-Hour Day by Benjamin Kline Hunnicutt).

Oh, and happy May Day (Wikipedia, Britannica).

Defending Incandescent Bulbs

Update: Brendan Koerner has written a pretty solid rebuttal of Rosenbaum’s article: The Case for CFLs (Slate).  I’m still not convinced about the light output, but maybe I just haven’t seen the right bulbs (or data) yet.

Ron Rosenbaum has an article in Slate about what we lose when we outlaw incandescent bulbs in favor of compact fluorescents.  He’s a bit too nostalgic for my taste, but he does raise some important points.  Excerpt:

the idiots in Congress, too torpid and ineffectual to pass a
health-care bill for children, have busy-bodied themselves in a
bumbling way with the way you light up your world. In December, they
passed legislation that will, in practice, outlaw incandescent bulbs
because they won’t be able to meet the new law’s strict
energy-efficiency standards. The result: Between 2012 and 2014,
incandescent bulbs will be driven from the market. Replaced by the ugly
plasticine Dairy Queen swirl of compact fluorescent lights.

a purely environmental perspective, this move is shortsighted. CFLs do
use less energy, which is good. But they also often contain mercury,
one of the most damaging—and lasting—environmental toxins. Not a ton of
mercury, but still: A whole new CFL recycling structure will be
required to prevent us from releasing deadly neurotoxins into the water
table. CFLs: coming soon to sushi near you.

Failing to properly
recycle your CFLs won’t be the same as putting an Evian bottle in the
wrong slot. It’ll be genuinely hazardous, particularly dangerous to
children. Way to go, congressional dimbulbs!

And God forbid you
break a bulb. If you do, you are advised by some experts to evacuate
the room for 15 minutes to escape the release of mercury vapor, then
scrub the area as though there’d been a plutonium spill, virtually
wearing a hazmat suit as you dispose of the glass shards. […]

Good luck. But the greater crime of the new bulbs is not
environmental but aesthetic. Think of the ugly glare of fluorescence,
the light of prisons, sterile cubicle farms, precinct stations,
emergency rooms, motor vehicle bureaus, tenement hallways—remember Tom
Wolfe’s phrase for the grim, flickering hallway lights in New York
tenements: "landlords’ haloes"?—and, of course, morgues. Fluorescents
seem specially designed to drain life and beauty from the world.  […]

Not fair!, say the CFL advocates. Our
new fluorescent technology is not your father’s fluorescence, it
doesn’t drain blood from complexions like a vampire, it doesn’t buzz
and flicker the way the old ones did

I’ve tried the new CFLs, and they are
a genuine improvement—they don’t flicker perceptibly, or buzz, or make
your skin look green. There is a difference, and I’d be in favor of
replacing all current fluorescent bulbs with CFLs. But even
CFLs glare and blare—they don’t have that inimitable incandescent glow.
So don’t let them take lamplight away. Don’t let them ban beauty.

Link: In defense of incandescent light.

I use CFLs, but still have some incandescents kicking around.  I couple of years ago I bought some full-spectrum incandescents, which I find much nicer for reading than regular incandescents, and they also last very long.  CFLs give worse light than either, and people seem to be ignoring the disposal/recycling problem.

Google tells me there are now bulbs marketed as "full-spectrum compact fluorescent" but I can’t tell if the light output is really comparable.  I suspect "full" is marketing-speak for "a little bit wider" spectrum, but I may be wrong.

Sandbox Summit on Kids and Technology

The first Sandbox Summit, a conference "exploring the way kids play, learn, and connect in a digital world" took place at last week’s CES.  From an AP story:

The International Consumer Electronics Show is such a glitzy
celebration of technology that it was striking to see a set of panel
discussions here Tuesday exploring whether electronic connectedness is
valuable for children.

Are computers and electronic toys providing creative new outlets for
kids to play, socialize and learn? Or does staring at screens all day
addle the developing mind and hinder critical thinking skills?

It’s a little of both, judging by the commentary at this first
"Sandbox Summit" at CES. The trick, participants said, is for parents
to intelligently monitor their children’s use of computers and
communication devices.

Link: ‘Sandbox Summit’ debates tech and kids (AP/Globe and Mail)

There is a website and blog for the conference series here: Sandbox Summit.

Radiohead Dismisses Internet-only Albums

The BBC quotes Thom Yorke of Radiohead on their decision to release a physical CD to accompany last October’s Internet release of their latest album:

Yorke said the band would have been "mad" to ignore a physical release, which is being distributed by XL Recordings.

"We didn’t want it to be a big announcement about
‘everything’s over except the internet, the internet’s the future’,
’cause that’s utter rubbish.

"And it’s really important to have an artefact as well, as they call it, an object," the musician added.

Link: Web-only album "mad", says Yorke (BBC)

Farhad Manjoo at Salon writes:

It’s a good point, and well worth remembering in a time of digital
hype. CD sales will surely continue to fall, but for many years to
come, musicians will still have to make little plastic discs if they
want to be heard at all.

Link: Radiohead’s Thom Yorke says people still need CDs (Salon)

But I think Farhad misses the point with that paragraph.  It’s not about the money (at least not for Radiohead) or about it being too soon to dismiss the CD.  It’s about the experience. Even after the CD format is long gone I bet many people will still prefer to buy albums in physical form, on little flash drives or cards or something.

How to Discard Old Electronics

So you got a new iPod, TV, DVD player, stereo, etc. for Christmas.  We all know you can’t just dump the old ones in the trash — you need to take them to an e-waste recycling service instead.  But not all electronics recyclers are equal.  Some simply export your waste to developing countries where it is disassembled or burned in unsafe conditions.

Some things you can do:

Photo: Electronics waste in Lagos, Nigeria © Basel Action Network 2006.

Is “Generation Digital” Real?

Siva Vaidhyanathan writes about the digital generation:

For a while I have been recoiling at all that talk about how young
people today are "born digital" or are part of some special or distinct
experiential universe that grants them special prowess or powers and
blinds them to other things (like, say, books).

I don’t buy it for one minute.

Partly, I resist such talk because I don’t think that "generations"
are meaningful social categories. […]

Invoking generations invariably demands an exclusive focus on people
of wealth and means, because they get to express their preferences (for
music, clothes, electronics, etc.) in ways that are easy to count. It
always excludes immigrants, not to mention those born beyond the
borders of the United States. And it excludes anyone on the margins of
mainstream consumer or cultural behavior.

In the case of the "digital generation," the class, ethnic, and geographic biases could not be more obvious.

And besides, I have spent more than a decade in the constant company
of people 18 to 23 years old. The faces change. The age range does not.
I have to report that the levels of comfort with, understanding of, and
dexterity with digital technology varies greatly in every class. Yet it
has not changed in more than 10 years. Every class has a handful of
people with amazing skills and a large number of people who can’t stand
computers at all. A few every year lack mobile phones. Many can’t
afford any gizmos and resent assignments that demand digital work. Most
use Facebook and Myspace because they are easy, not because they are
powerful (which, of course, they are not).

Link: The problem with "digital natives"…

More here and see also a post at Henry Jenkins’s blog: Reconsidering Digital Immigrants.

I agree with Siva’s points.  I’m sure there are some real differences, on average, in the psychology/behavior between generations, but too often these terms are thrown around based just on cliches and gross assumptions.  And when it’s not Generation Digital it’s Generation Old and Terrified of Technology.

Today I noticed a "Teach Yourself" book called Computing for the over 50s.  It apparently "takes the terror out of technology."  Could they get any more condescending?  And what’s with the bear?Computingfortheover50s

Nick Carr and others on 23andMe

From the Guardian last week:

Google’s involvement suggests that 23andMe probably has larger
ambitions than just providing individuals with gene maps. As its online
store of genetic information grows and as customers add personal
information, the company could end up with a database of extraordinary
value to pharmaceutical firms, medical researchers and insurance

Sorted and analysed with Google’s sophisticated
data-crunching tools, the database could disclose hidden connections
between genes, aptitudes and diseases. In a privacy statement on its
site, the company acknowledges that it plans to grant outside groups
access to its database, allowing them to search, "without knowing the
identities of the individuals involved", for correlations between
genetic variations and health conditions. That could well turn into a
major business.

The company also says that it will give users
"the ability to connect with other 23andMe customers through sharing
features". 23andMe could evolve into a social network, a biotech
version of MySpace or Facebook where people make connections not with
friends but with people who share similar genetic traits. This, too,
could provide the basis for a lucrative business. Given that 23andMe
tracks its customers’ movements with cookies, it may not be long before
we see genetically targeted advertising.

Link: Google gives new gene mapping service a bit of spit and polish.

See also earlier articles by David Ewing Duncan in Portfolio: Welcome to the future and David Hamilton in VentureBeat: Will 23andMe and Navigenics lock up your genome and charge you for the key? (via Biopolitical Times)

Miscellaneous Stories

I’m starting to catch up on blogging after a lull because of a move and a new job.  Here are some links that have been festering in my feed reader for a while:

  • The Wall Street Journal explains the failure of Negroponte’s laptop: A little laptop with big ambitions.  For a shorter take on this, and the Negroponte-Intel feud, read Fake Steve Jobs: Give one, get one — right in the ass.
  • Print is Dead by Jeff Gomez, the latest book to rehash the perennial "future of books" debate, is now available.  I’ve listened to podcasts of a few chapters and was not terribly impressed.  He’s a thoughtful writer, and has done a decent amount of research, but his premises and arguments are seriously flawed, in my opinion.
  • Mark Hurst critiques a WSJ article on new e-mail software that tries to solve the problem of e-mail overload: Silicon Valley’s solution to overload: More technology.
  • Second and third graders draw designs for laptop computers: The laptop club.
  • "Google controls your e-mail, your videos, your calendar,
    your searches… What if it controlled your life?" — Scroogled, fiction by Cory Doctorow in Radar magazine.
  • New Greenpeace guide to greener electronics.  Nintendo, Philips, and Microsoft are at the bottom this time.
  • Novelist John Degen explains why copyright is important to writers: Copyright = Oxygen.  He includes an excellent rant by Harlan Ellison on the topic (at YouTube).
  • Derek Cheshire proposes a slow approach to innovation, taking its cue from the Slow Food movement: Slow Innovation (Change This).  I once considered rebranding this blog as "Slow Technology", for the same reason, but that didn’t get far.