Monthly Archives: November 2010

“The Shallows: What the Internet is Doing to Our Brains”

“We program our computers and thereafter they program us.”

Nicolas Carr’s “2001” conclusions can seem over the top, especially in the final chapters of his study of “What the Internet is Doing to Our Brains,” the subtitle to his book The Shallows. But if you’re skeptical of hyperbole, there’s much to recommend this book.

First, his research is impressive, though reading about some of the psychological studies can be tedious. But in the early portions of the book, his documentation of the history of reading and the impact the printed word has had on society is a fascinating read.

His main thesis is that reading on the Internet, with numerous hyperlinks and other links on the page “change the way we use, experience and understand the content.” And it’s not for the better. He believes that reading this way makes it hard to concentrate and ultimately, hard to reason and think creatively.

He also believes social networking sites create self-consciousness, particularly younger folks. My own experience tends to confirm that idea: One person I know, who shall remain nameless, sends and receives more than 3,000 texts a month. That’s 100 per day. Personally, I have a Facebook account but find most of the posts by my friends to be drivel. About the only posts I make are links to my blogs.

But many of Carr’s conclusions seem to mirror my own experience as a slave to the Internet.

What makes this book interesting is that Carr’s conclusions are supported by dozens of experiments and studies that he cites in the book. One for example, which he believes supports the theory that using the ‘Net makes us dumber, is one where two groups similar in cognitive function were asked to solve a simple problem on a computer. The first group used software that provided clues and helpful hints. The second group used a very basic software that simply allowed them to complete the tasks (it required moving blocks into a defined order) with no hints or clues. Although the first group started out better, they quickly fell behind and the second group solved the puzzle more quickly because, Carr argues, they had to think more creatively than the first group, which became lazy and dependent on the hints. Dependent, and Carr argues, constrained by the software. Repeating the study yielded the same results.

The Googling of America is not only making us all less creative but is leading to an homogenization of thought. By looking at citations in scholarly papers from 1945 to 2008, he finds today, with online access to sources, such papers cite fewer sources than older papers—before the Internet. This is caused in part by Google’s algorithms that produce results based on the popularity of the click throughs on those results, thereby making it more difficult to find the less often cited papers that may change our conclusions. Googling also tend to emphasize the most recent papers so that we overvalue what’s happening now.

Finally, Carr contends that all the time we spend absorbing myriad facts and information bits reduces the time we should spend contemplating, i.e., thinking.

After he finished the book, he heard of a new development that he added as an epilogue. A large educational testing firm developed new software that would review students’ essays and grade them. The result is that the student can only achieve high marks if he conforms to the parameters established by the software. Where is the evaluation of creativity and writing that is unusual yet compelling?

Indeed, how compelling and creative can we be if our information is filtered and presented in a way that precludes contemplation?

Drivers Who Hate Cyclists

First, let’s shoot all the car drivers, or at least those who don’t tolerate cyclists.

I first began cycling as an adult 40 years ago when I would commute on an beat up coaster bike from my apartment in Arlington to my office on the Mall in D.C.  (I purposely used this old bike on the chance that it would be stolen, I wouldn’t be out much.)

Since then I’ve commuted in other cities and for the last 15 years have bike around Fairfax County, though I don’t commute, as my office is in my home.  The story never changes:  Too many drivers think they own the roads and are discourteous and dangerous, willing to sacrifice the lives of those in oncoming vehicles and cyclists, in their mad dash to be somewhere a few seconds earlier.

Many cities are trying to encourage cycling.  It helps the environment, decreases car traffic, and benefits the rider physically.  Except that they run a good chance of being slaughtered.

Now it appears New York drivers want to reverse this trend. They’re angry at New York for taking away a few feet of traffic lanes that they think belongs solely to them.  Most states have laws allowing cyclists to share the road, but drivers, like too many Americans these days, don’t want to share anything.

I grant you that cyclists are not without fault.  Too many, especially those who think of themselves as the physically elite riders, frequently break the law, running stop lights and signs.  They need to be ticketed.  But that’s no excuse for drivers who feel entitled to something we all pay taxes for: the roads.

Surging bike ridership has created a simmering cultural conflict between competing notions of urban transportation. Many New Yorkers object to bicycle lanes as sudden, drastic changes to their coveted concrete front yards.

“He’s taking away my rights as a driver,” Leslie Sicklick, 45, said of Mayor Michael R. Bloomberg. Ms. Sicklick, a dog walker and substitute teacher, grew up driving with her father around the Lower East Side, where she still lives.

All about her “rights.”  The hell with what’s good for the city.

The Transportation Department has responded to criticism by pointing to accident data showing a correlation between new lanes and increased pedestrian safety. Fatal crashes have decreased on streets with new lanes, according to the department.

“The record speaks for itself: Injuries have dropped, dramatically, for everyone on streets where bike lanes have been installed,” said Janette Sadik-Khan, the transportation commissioner.

The department pointed to the support lanes have found from community boards across the city, many of which have explicitly requested new bike lanes — along Prospect Park West, for example — in part because of safety concerns.

Meanwhile, and not surprising, some politicians are hostile to cyclists.  But none more wacko that this Coloradoan.

Outside the city, bikes have begun creeping into political battles this year. The Republican nominee for governor of Colorado, Dan Maes, wondered during the primary whether bicycles were part of a plot to ruin cities.

A plot to ruin cities.  Oy vey.

American Dream Slipping Away

I know there were stories earlier in The Washington Post about the human toll of the recession, but it seems over the last few days, the paper has stepped up its coverage to go beyond financial statistics and political arguments.  There are several that merit mention and a read, if you haven’t already.

Last Friday, Wil Haygood demonstrated how this economy—and our declining standard of living—impacts good people who’ve done all the right things,  “A Storm in My Life” recounts how a college educated woman with a six-figure job as a nursing home executive loses her job and finds herself 18 months later with little left and dim prospects of recovering what was once the American dream.

Then yesterday, “Food banks swamped by demand” shows us more middle class people, not the chronically underemployed, are turning to charity, in what for many is a first.  On the Metro page is a story about people about to be underemployed as wait staff at a new D.C. IHOP. Fourteen percent have college degrees.

The there is today’s heart wrenching story of the impact foreclosures have on children.

Even those retrained for “green jobs” can’t find work.

Maybe it’s because three of these human stories about the economy have been on the front page, this seems like a welcome shift in the reporting.  Enough of political arguments.  The Post is showing us the important stories.  Kudos to the editors and writers at the newspaper.

Terrorist Faces 20 to Life: Trial a Failure

The verdict in the trial of Ahmed Ghailani means his role in the 1998 embassy bombings in Africa earns him 20 years to life imprisonment. But the GOP and some Democrats have won the message war: This is a failure of the Obama administration’s plans to try some terrorists in civilian court because it was the only charge of more than 200 for which he was found guilty.

What it is, really, is another example of the failure of the administration’s ability to get in front of an issue and frame it correctly. In fact, administration officials were silent.

Neither President Obama nor Attorney General Eric H. Holder Jr. commented publicly on the verdict, which other officials said they interpreted as a sign of quiet defeat [emphasis added]. The political climate for civilian trials will grow only worse in January once Republicans – who are widely opposed to using federal courts to prosecute Guantanamo detainees – take over the House, officials said.

Apparently, though, the administration feels the fault lies with the GOP.

Senior administration officials expressed frustration with the Republican response to the Ghailani case, saying the verdict changed nothing about the legal viability of civilian courts to handle terrorist cases. "Ghailani is an unfortunate addition to a long-running saga of politicization and outright distortion of this issue," one official said.

So sorry they feel frustrated. Would someone mind telling them that when they offer no position or framing of their own, reporters are left with the impression that there is no defense, let alone an offsetting offense.

How many folks know that not only did George Bush try terrorists in civilian courts, including the infamous “shoe bomber,” but that civilian trails have been successful during the Obama years?

Denis McDonough, the deputy national security adviser, said the White House remains committed to using all available venues for trying terrorism suspects. And in the past year, with little controversy, the administration has tried numerous terrorism suspects, including individuals who planned attacks on Times Square and the New York subway system.

If you don’t communicate your own successes, don’t cry because the GOP won’t.

Some folks tried, of course, but listen to the stilted, bloodless defense.

Rep. Jane Harman (D-Calif.), the chairman of the homeland security subcommittee on intelligence, noted that Ghailani is facing a sentence stiffer than all but one meted out by military commissions.

"More than 200 years of American jurisprudence and a clear track record of success should not be thrown out the window or falsely characterized for political advantage," Harman said. "The Obama administration needs to push back."

Blah, blah, blah, jurisprudence, blah, blah, blah.  Push back?  We’re waiting.  How about this reframe?

“Why does the GOP so mistrust Americans?  Our country is founded on the idea of jury trials, but the GOP doesn’t trust Americans to uphold that tradition.  Do they think average Americans are too stupid to be on a jury?  Do they think that average Americans want to coddle terrorists? Or do they want to do away with jury trials altogether?

“This is another brazen, deceitful attempt by Republicans to instill fear and divide Americans.  They want to play politics with our security.”

Ahmed Ghailani will get 20 years to life.  I think American jurors did their job, and I’m proud of them.  Why aren’t Republicans?

In a related note, The Post’s writers adopted an awkward GOP frame for the issue of torture.  Note this paragraph:

"This was a difficult case in that there were questions about Ghailani’s treatment during the previous administration" – such as the use of enhanced interrogation techniques – "that led to a key witness being excluded," {Justice Department, spokesman Matthew Miller] said.

Note the phrase between the em dashes.  That’s the Bush term for torture.  Did the reporters substitute that frame for torture, the word Miller said, or did they add the phrase to describe the “treatment” Miller alludes to?  In either case, the word is “torture,” not “enhanced interrogation techniques,” which is, among other things, vague and a phrase that was not in the language before the Bushies created it.

Kathleen Reardon is right. Obama is no great communicator. 

[L]ong diatribes with no passion, assertiveness and spontaneity in the face of GOP hostility are going to make this presidency a short, disappointing one.

U.S. Healthcare Ranks Worse Among ‘Rich’ Countries

I hope the next time a reporter or a progressive hears someone say, “We have the greatest healthcare system in the world,” they point to this.

The findings, published in the journal Health Affairs, looked at 11 developed countries and compared the experience of patients — from costs, to paying medical bills, to dealing with insurance companies.

The U.S. came out at the bottom on almost every count, sometimes with shocking gaps between it and the next country.

Here’s a rundown of the various ways the U.S. is falling behind Australia, Canada, France, Germany, the Netherlands, New Zealand, Norway, Sweden, Switzerland, the United Kingdom:

  • Only 58 percent of U.S. adults said they thought they could afford the care they needed
  • A solid 20 percent of U.S. adults had major problems paying medical bills, compared to 9 percent in France, with the next highest figure
  • 31 percent of U.S. adults reported getting caught in insurance snafoos: either dealing with mountains of paperwork, having their insurer deny a claim, or receiving a lesser payment than expected
  • Americans are coughing up more from their own wallets: one-third of U.S. adults paid $1,000 or more out-of-pocket in the past year for medical bills, much higher than all of the other countries.
  • Among the worst-off are uninsured Americans: nearly half of them went without needed care and one third had problem with bills

The complete survey is here.

Why Pelosi Should Relinquish Leadership

I admire Nancy Pelosi.  When we needed someone to find the votes and stiffen the resolve, she managed to “get ‘ur done.”  That’s no mean feat.

Yes, she helped the Dems accomplish a lot. But at what price?  I just wished the pressure on her would come from the left. 

While she won a lot of battles, she lost ground in the larger war.  (The irony here is, of course, that the GOP won the election because of its accusation that the Dems weren’t focused enough on creating jobs; and now we’re focused on the deficit?!)

Yesterday’s come-to-Jesus (in Dem parlance, that’s “approach the altar of vague spirituality, careful not to offend”) caucus meeting was, as Rep. Brian Higgins, D-N.Y., dutifully called it—I think they nominate someone each time they have a meeting like this to say this: “cathartic.”

"It’s what the Democratic Party’s about," he said. "There are ideological differences, there are regional differences, and it was a good thing for people to be able to talk through that."

But the Dems, as usual, can’t even articulate what it is they don’t like about her.

[A] number of rank-and-file Democrats, including some left of center, are dismayed. They note that dozens of Republican House candidates ran campaigns linking their Democratic opponents to Pelosi, who was portrayed as a hardcore liberal hopelessly out of touch with middle American values.

"She definitely hurts," said Rep. Gene Taylor, D-Miss., who lost his re-election bid this month. Citing former Republican House leader Tom DeLay, Taylor said in an interview: "When he realized he was a drag on leadership, he went away. Somehow the Democratic leadership didn’t learn that lesson."

She “hurts” because the GOP said so.  Of course, who among them defended her during their campaigns?  At least, some Dems recognize the problem.

"One thing the Republicans are very good at: They set goals, they set objectives and they set a way to get there," Rep. Luis Gutierrez, D-Ill., told reporters.

And that’s why Pelosi must go.  What she did was get through a series of bills, but with apparently little thought to an overall strategy to leverage that success at the polls. Now you might argue that that’s not her chief responsibility.  Yes, much of this should come from Obama himself.  But she, being much more experienced at the job of legislating and politicking than the president, should have recognized the vacuum at the top and filled it.  And she may not be capable of that.

Let’s face it (and I’ll be accused of sexism here) even if she could develop a strategy, she would not be the one to give voice to it.  Being the leader of her party in the House, she is the one called upon by reporters.  She is not a good speaker,  She halting. She’s harsh.

(Yes, she looks harsh, too. But Boehner suffers from his orange look, and I think Eric Cantor does, too.  He looks like a cross between Buddy Holly and that dorky geography whiz in middle school whose voice always sounds like he’s saying, “I’m smarter than everyone else.”)

But most importantly she can’t be the spokesperson for progressive causes.  She lacks humor. She doesn’t handle herself well in interviews. In a word, she’s just like the president.  They both sound hesitant, as if they’re trying very hard to make you believe what they’re saying…because they’re not sure they do.

The problem is, who on the Democratic side is?  I open the floor for nominations because I can’t think of an articulate progressive voice in Congress who could lead the party.

Well, at least all was not lost for the Dems in their hour of angst.

Pelosi pronounced Tuesday’s long session "wonderful," then hurried past reporters.

Could GM Bailout Be Profitable for Taxpayers?

Set aside the irrefutable argument that unemployment would be a lot worse if Uncle Sam didn’t invest in GM, thereby saving thousands of jobs.  It now appears the taxpayer could also earn a profit on that investment.

GM is set for an IPO this week.  Initially the IPO price was set at $26 to $29.  But due to increased investor interest, the IPO price is now being set in the $32-33 range.

A higher GM share price and an increased offering size means the initial loss to U.S. taxpayers from the bailout of General Motors will be more limited than initially thought. The U.S. Treasury owns nearly 61 percent of GM as a result of its $50 billion taxpayer-funded bailout.

Based on a diluted share count of 1.9 billion, $33 per share would give GM a market value of about $63 billion. GM needs a market value of roughly $70 billion for U.S. taxpayers to break even.

The final terms for both offerings will be determined when GM prices its IPO, the company said, which is expected to be on Wednesday and it will begin trading on the New York and Toronto Stock Exchanges on Thursday.

The Feds aren’t selling all their shares at the IPO price.  Bloomberg is reporting that if the stock does well, however, we taxpayers could make a profit.

The Treasury needs to sell GM’s stock at an average of $43.67 each to break even on its entire investment, data compiled by Bloomberg show. That means the shares would have to climb to almost $50 for the government’s remaining stake to offset its loss in the IPO, the data show.

Now how will the Dems communicate this success story?

Obama Must Be a Genius

Because this makes no sense to a mere mortal like myself.

After two years of the Party of No, Obama blames himself for the tone in Washington.

He said his own “obsessive” focus on implementing the right policies had led him to ignore a part of the reason voters handed him a mandate in 2008.

“I neglected some things that matter a lot to people, and rightly so: maintaining a bipartisan tone in Washington,” he told reporters in a brief question-and-answer session aboard Air Force One as he returned from a 10-day trip to Asia. “I’m going to redouble my efforts to go back to some of those first principles,” he promised.

…For much of the last two years, Mr. Obama and his aides have pointed the finger of blame at Republicans, saying that efforts at changing the way Washington works have been systematically blocked by Republicans.

But Mr. Obama appears to have now concluded that some of the fault is shared by his own staff, which often pursued politics by traditional means as he tried to push through fiscal stability measures, health care reform and new financial regulations.

And I am sure the GOP will redouble their efforts.

Ah, but he’s such an optimist.

Mr. Obama told reporters that he “very confident” that voters this month were not casting ballots for gridlock.

“They are not going to want to just obstruct, that they’re going to want to engage constructively,” he said of his Republican adversaries. “And then we’re going to have a whole bunch of time next year for some serious philosophical debates.”

I think he’ll soon break out into a rendition of Kumbaya.

But then he says, it was really just a misunderstanding by the American people.

Among the things he neglected, he told reporters on Sunday: “Making sure that the policy decisions that I made were fully debated with the American people and that I was getting out of Washington and spending more time shaping public opinion and being in a conversation with the American people about why I was making the choices I was making.”

I’m beginning to wonder if Obama has intellectual ADHD.

Why Do Regulators Meet with the Regulated?

Columbia Journalism Review this morning spotlights a Los Angeles Times article that documents and elucidates the relentless lobbying by financial firms.  Though most of the praise is directed toward the Times’ use of data to highlight the extent to which financial firms, having lost some key battles in Congress over the financial reform law, now relentlessly lobby the regulators, hoping to get lax enforcement written into the regulations.

The story documents that one law firm met three times with a regulator in two weeks, representing a different client each time.

At the end of the piece, CJR’s Ryan Chittum asks a pertinent question I’d like to see an enterprising story on: 

What’s unclear from the story is why [Commodity Futures Trading Commission Commissioner Bart] Chilton is meeting with these guys three times in two weeks if he doesn’t want to. Why can’t he just refuse the meetings? I have a feeling the answer just might be illuminating.

Why do regulators meet with the regulated?  Sure, they might like some insight on questions they are unclear on.  But one would hope the regulators know the industry well enough that they don’t need a primer three times in two weeks to hear the same complaints.

A recommendation to MSM who all send reporters to Congress detailing the same tit-for-tat verbal wars on the Hill everyday:  Free up a reporter to do some digging on this.  It can’t be that hard to lay out what happens between the regulated and the regulators.

More Free Money for Financial Firms

Financial firms have found another way of making risk-free money.

In a New York Times story today, we learn that a burgeoning business is that of financial firms that lend money to attorneys representing clients suing in court.  It used to be that law firms took the risk.  If the suit failed, the law firm ate the costs.  If it won, it took a huge chunk of the settlement.  But now investors are lending money to law firms to pursue cases.  This frees up the law firms from fronting the money. The firms, in turn, charge their clients interests on the loans.  The interest rate on these loans are on par with those charged by credit card companies.

But if the suit fails, the investors are still due their loan, forcing some firms into bankruptcy if they can’t pay it.

So it’s literally, if you win, we win and if you lose, we win, lending money at exorbitant rates.