Monday, March 30, 2009

How to fix Chrysler's Problems?

Two words: Fiat quality.

Sunday, March 29, 2009

What is the similarity between the health insurance companies and the Soviet Union?

Do you remember the old joke about the Soviet Union? It had to do with whether a two-party system could ever work, and the answer was no, because if there ever were another party, everybody would join it.

The nomenklatura of the American health insurance industry have figured out that the same principle applies to them. In the current discussions of health care reform (and thankfully, since we kicked the Republicans out of the White House, that doesn't mean they're talking about slamming the courthouse doors on the victims of medical malpractice), one of the questions is what kind of public option should be built into the new system.

What the health insurance companies realize is that they're parasites, and they can't compete with the public system. Or, as they put it, A public plan would most likely employ the payments rates used in Medicare, which are far lower than the rates paid by private payers. In fact, the average family of four with private insurance spends an additional $1,778 on health care each year because of Medicare and Medicaid underpayments to providers. On an aggregate level, commercial payers incur approximately $89 billion more in costs than they would if public and private payers all paid equivalent rates.

Tim Noah has a longer article on this in Slate that is worth a look. His conclusion is that when the insurance companies whine about needing a "level playing field", what they really mean is that they don't want to face the competition from a public system that will inevitably put them out of business.

And it can't come a moment too soon.

Saturday, March 28, 2009

Our "friends" in Israel

Gaza's over, and we don't have to think about it anymore. Whatever happened, Israel successfully defended itself against the terrorists and life is back to normal.


Sorry. There's news out that we need to pay attention to. While the Israeli war in Gaza was going on, I was unwilling to describe it as a war of genocide, or a war of terror, or a war on civilians. Apparently I was wrong.

The news isn't coming from anti-Semites here, or Arab or Palestinian organs in the Middle East, but from legitimate Israeli news sources.

You should read or listen to the story in its entirety, but here are some highlights:

WESTERVELT: Shaul says some of the soldiers he's interviewed also say they destroyed civilian property and homes, actions that seemed to have little or no tactical purpose or necessity. Some soldiers, he says, called it gratuitous and stupid.

Soldiers interviewed by the Military Institute and Breaking the Silence also allege the army's chief rabbi used an inflammatory religious and nationalist rhetoric to encourage soldiers to see the Gaza attack as a sacred fight to expel non-Jews from Jewish land.

The rabbi's office passed out booklets during the war that among other things urged soldiers not to show mercy to the enemy. The army's chief rabbi, Brigadier General Avichai Ronsky, is from Itamar, a West Banks settlement with a history of right-wing activism. Former soldier Yehuda Shaul says the picture that emerges is of a chief military rabbi promoting the fight in Gaza as a holy war.

Human Rights Watch has also reported on Israeli atrocities, including Israel's use of white phosphorus weapons.

Of course, it's not easy to get the information, because Israel blocked access to Gaza by human rights investigators. Still, it is clear that, whatever official Israeli policy was, it was Israel's widespread practice to target and slaughter Gaza civilians.

Thursday, March 26, 2009

Who's your friend?

That quiz, survey, or game you just did on Facebook: is it a harmless entertainment, a marketing ploy, or even a virus?

If you're like half the known world, including me, you're on Facebook. Maybe as a regular user, maybe someone with an account that is barely active, but just there. (If your profile pic is a blank silhouette, you know who you are.) Part of the appeal of Facebook is the low barriers to entry: it's full of applications, not produced by Facebook, that will do everything from ask you what Grateful Dead song you are or the five worst movies you've ever seen, to giving you the chance to "send" drinks, flowers, or other virtual trinkets to your friends (and, in the process, spamming said friends with pointless messages).

But there's more. First, the linked nature of Facebook's friends network means that applications can grow and spread exponentially, so a popular, or even a problem, application can spread through the whole network fast. Second, although all the apps give you a chance to "Allow" the application, the odds are that most users don't read the disclosure before hitting the "Allow" button.

Would it make a difference if they did? Maybe not.

Here are a couple of examples. There's a quiz that presents you with a set of questions about your health that will then tell you what your "true" age is. My snarky response to one of my friends was that it's pretty easy to determine your true age: subtract your date of birth from the present date and that will give you your true age, generally expressed in years.

According to today's Times, though, the quiz does more than present you with some tips to improve your health. You might not have thought about what happens to the answers you submit to the quiz, though, but the quiz makers did. According to the Times:

But while RealAge promotes better living through nonmedical solutions, the site makes its money by selling better living through drugs.

Pharmaceutical companies pay RealAge to compile test results of RealAge members and send them marketing messages by e-mail. The drug companies can even use RealAge answers to find people who show symptoms of a disease — and begin sending them messages about it even before the people have received a diagnosis from their doctors.

Yes, even though Oprah Winfrey's doctor friend Mehmet Oz likes it, and you can find out what Oprah's RealAge is, when you take the quiz you're turning over private health information to the drug companies. Do you really want that?

Or, take another example, PicDoodle. It looks like a regular Facebook app, and it claims that it enables you to make hilarious pictures of your friends. In fact, if you Allow the application it will create blank pictures of your friends, tag them, and cause the Facebook photos app to send your friends reports that they've been tagged, and they can see it if they allow the application. Before long, the virus is spread throughout Facebook.

Facebook claims it's not a virus, but I don't believe it.

So what's the message here? The same as we've been told about the whole Internet for years: be careful, know who you're dealing with, and don't give out any information you don't want to be made public.

Oh, and my "Real Age"? Fifty-five, but I'm expecting it to go up to fifty-six in a couple of months.

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Wednesday, March 25, 2009

U.S. Torture

“We are finding terrorists and bringing them to justice. We are gathering information about where the terrorists may be hiding. We are trying to disrupt their plots and plans. Anything we do ... to that end in this effort, any activity we conduct, is within the law. We do not torture,” Bush said.

I woke up, naked, strapped to a bed, in a very white room. The room measured approximately 4m x 4m [13 feet by 13 feet]. The room had three solid walls, with the fourth wall consisting of metal bars separating it from a larger room. I am not sure how long I remained in the bed....

The truth is out. The guy who told the truth was Abu Zubaydah, one of the planners of the 2001 terrorist attacks. The guy who lied was the President of the United States.

What we hear about is waterboarding, but that isn't half of it. It isn't even the beginning. Throw out all the allegations of waterboarding, and what U.S. forces did was still torture under any definition, or at least any definition worthy of respect from a civilized people. In other words, any definition except that promulgated by torture apologist John Yoo. The findings come from a report by the International Committee of the Red Cross, and they are damning. You should read the entire article in the New York Review of Books to get a full understanding of what happened, but even what little I have room for here is shocking.

The report details other techniques, used in combination, including constant cold temperatures, loud noises, forced standing (one prisoner was forced to stand by being handcuffed to the ceiling of his cell for an entire month), repeated beatings, sleep deprivation (water was sprayed in their faces whenever they dozed off), prolonged exposure to light or dark, prisoners being repeatedly slammed against the walls of their cells, prisoners being handcuffed to chairs or hospital beds, naked, for weeks on end. It seems endless.

Remember what Bush said. "We do not torture." He lied.

Remember a few other things. Remember the "ticking time bomb" scenario. We have constantly heard that the euphemistically named enhanced interrogation techniques have protected us against further terrorist attacks. This is almost certainly a lie.

Or, on another tack, remember the gloating tone with which the American sources reported that Abu Zubaydah folded immediately after being waterboarded, with the unstated message that he clearly wasn't man enough to take it. Now see the report from John Kiriakou, the CIA officer who is in a position to know:

He resisted. He was able to withstand the water boarding for quite some time. And by that I mean probably 30, 35 seconds.... And a short time afterwards, in the next day or so, he told his interrogator that Allah had visited him in his cell during the night and told him to cooperate because his cooperation would make it easier on the other brothers who had been captured. And from that day on he answered every question just like I'm sitting here speaking to you....

We hear claims about bringing the criminals to justice. When those claims are made, they generally refer to Osama bin Laden and his accomplices. Criminals they are, no question about it. Justice, though? When will we see Rice, Ashcroft, Cheney, Kiriakou, and Bush prosecuted?

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Tuesday, March 17, 2009

AIG Bonus List Revealed

Pursuant to the subpoena issued by New York Attorney General Andrew Cuomo, the American International Group (AIG) has released a list of the bonuses issued by its Financial Products division. While seventy-three employees received bonuses of at least $1,000,000.00, some of the bonuses were paid to people who didn't even work for AIG.

Among the workers deemed by AIG to be deserving of special recognition for outstanding job performance were:

Captain Joe Hazelwood, Exxon-Mobil Corporation. AIG President and CEO Edward M. Liddy observed, "It is true that there was one incident in which Capt. Hazelwood performed at less than his peak, but people overlook the many voyages in which Capt. Hazelwood neither ran aground and caused a massive oil spill, nor operated his ship under the influence of alcohol. On balance, Hazelwood was entitled to a bonus of $800,000 because it is in the interests of Exxon-Mobil to retain the best and the brightest."

Homer J. Simpson, Fork and Spoon Operator, Sector 7-G. Absenteeism, gluttony, sleeping on the job, and generalized incompetence. $1,200,000.00.
According to AIG's Liddy, "If only AIG owned a nuclear power plant, he would be our safety officer."

George L. Costanza. $3,800,000.00 for performance above and beyond the call of duty for multiple employers.
Pendant Publishing: fired for having sex with cleaning woman on his desk.
Play Now Corporation: defrauded corporation by posing as a handicapped employee.

New York Yankees: placed team in shrinkable cotton uniforms, causing painful rout, chafing; traded to Tyler Chicken for fermented chicken products.
Krueger Industrial Smoothing: defrauded corporation out of $10,000 for contribution to "The Human Fund", a nonexistent charity.
AIG CEO Liddy's comment, "Are you sure he never worked for AIG/FP? He may not be Penske material, but we like the cut of his jib!"

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Monday, March 16, 2009

New Hope for El Salvador

There is an election going on in El Salvador, and for the first time a member of the FMLN, the Farabundo Marti National Liberation Front, is likely to win, defeating the latest candidate of the ARENA party.

I consider this good news. If you were around in the late 70's and early 80's you'll remember that ARENA was founded by Roberto D'Aubuisson, who later became the fascist dictator of the country; founded and commanded death squads that murdered Archbishop Oscar Romero, three American church women, and tens of thousands of Salvadoran civilians; and was Ronald Reagan and Elliott Abrams's best friend in Central America.

It's good that D'Aubuisson is dead, and the leaders of the current parties are at a generational divide from D'Aubuisson and his accomplices. Still, I question the news coverage that the election has received. For instance, NPR has carried stories on the election on its news programming this weekend, and they have mentioned the civil war in El Salvador, but they mention not a word about the death squads.

I have to wonder why not.

Sunday, March 15, 2009

The Best and the Brightest

AIG has a problem: what to do with the tens of billions of your money?

Their answer? Give $450,000,000 of it to its top executives.

No-brainer, right?

Well, maybe it isn't so bad. After all, they have two good reasons. First, they claim they are contractually obligated to make the payments. Second:

"We cannot attract and retain the best and brightest talent to lead and staff the AIG businesses, which are now being operated principally on behalf of the American taxpayers — if employees believe their compensation is subject to continued and arbitrary adjustment by the U.S. Treasury," Liddy said.

Now just to be clear, these are the "best and brightest" who landed us in this mess by getting AIG involved in credit default swaps and other "creative" financial instruments.

So tell me: what would we be losing by not having these guys running the show? What are the odds that some random selection of people to run the company could do worse?

Thursday, March 12, 2009

How Liberal Are You?

Here's kind of a fun thing--an interactive quiz from the Center for American Progress that presents you with a series of questions. Your score will give you a ranking on a scale of 0-400, with zero being the most conservative and 400 being the most progressive.

Take it and see how you do.


For Bristol Palin, a Romance Ended

With such a stable foundation, and all those kids had going for them, you just have to ask yourself: If they can't make a go of it, what chance do the rest of us have?

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Ari Fleischer continues to lie

Two big lies on this video, which I suppose is par for the course for Ari Fleischer in a minute and a half.
The first is at the very beginning, when he says that Bush inherited a recession. This is a lie and he knows it. The recession did not start until after Bush took office. They like to say that he came in after a recession, hoping to absolve Bush from what happened to the economy (admittedly a small point when we see now what he did to the economy that Obama has to deal with), but it just isn't true.
The other big lie comes at 1:09 to 1:16. "But after September 11, having been hit once, how could we take the chance that Saddam would not strike again?"
Get the two key words there--"Saddam" and "again". Fleischer missed no opportunity to lie about the source of the 2001 terrorist attacks when he was working for Bush, and he's still doing it.
What a miserable excuse for a human being.

Tuesday, March 10, 2009

Allahu Aqbar

Another in a series celebrating the tolerance and humane values embodied by the religion of peace.

In this case it's a 75-year-old woman sentenced to forty lashes for being seen in the company of two young men.

Here's the link
, but really, how much more do you need to know?

Israel Lobby Crushes Debate

Director of National Intelligence Dennis C. Blair announced today that Ambassador Charles W. Freeman Jr. has requested that his selection to be Chairman of the National Intelligence Council not proceed. Director Blair accepted Ambassador Freeman’s decision with regret.

This story just popped up on my radar the other day, so I haven't been following it closely, but it appears that this is another example of the Israel lobby making sure that the President can't get independent intelligence or dissent on U.S. policy in the Middle East.

Freeman, who seems to be universally called "Chas", is a diplomatic veteran. Freeman — a former Ambassador to Saudi Arabia who once served as President Nixon’s chief translator in China in 1972 — not only opposed the Iraq war, but has demonstrated a commitment to a well-rounded understanding of key U.S. national security issues and the importance of an even-handed U.S. role in the Israel-Palestine dispute:

“We abandoned the role of Middle East peacemaker to back Israel’s efforts to pacify its captive and increasingly ghettoized Arab populations. We wring our hands while sitting on them as the Jewish state continues to seize ever more Arab land for its colonists. This has convinced most Palestinians that Israel cannot be appeased and is persuading increasing numbers of them that a two-state solution is infeasible.”

In other words, he has the temerity to utter statements that run counter to U.S.-Israeli orthodoxy. We have known for years that the permissible scope of political debate on the Middle East is far more strictly circumscribed in the United States than it is in Israel: criticisms that are commonplace in Israel, from prominent Israeli speakers, would immediately be attacked as anti-Semitic if spoken in the United States.

It's obvious that Freeman, while stating that he withdrew his name, was, in fact, kicked to the curb, thrown under the bus, made to walk the plank, or otherwise summarily dismissed in the face of right-wing agitation. For instance, here's what Chuck Schumer said about it: Charles Freeman was the wrong guy for this position. His statements against Israel were way over the top and severely out of step with the administration. I repeatedly urged the White House to reject him, and I am glad they did the right thing.

One of the interesting things about this whole debate is that a couple of years ago two academics John Mearsheimer and Stephen Walt, were viciously attacked when they published a book, The Israel Lobby and U.S. Foreign Policy, for daring to suggest that American supporters of Israel wield influence over the foreign policy of the United States. In the minds of Measheimer and Walt's attackers, simply to raise the question is beyond the pale, a sure sign of anti-Semitism. Nothing could be more absurd than the idea that supporters of Israel in the United States would try to influence U.S. foreign policy.

Except now Jonathan Chait, editor of the New Republic, has let the veil slip. Here's what he says about the Freeman defenestration: Of course I recognize that the Israel lobby is powerful, and was a key element in the pushback against Freeman, and that it is not always a force for good.

In other words, the Israel lobby is a fiction, and it will crush anyone who dares to challenge it.

Good luck finding a new adviser who will tell the truth about Israel.

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Monday, March 09, 2009

Good news for science

Today was a great day for science in the United States. As you may have heard, this morning Barack Obama signed an executive order rescinding the ban on federal funding for stem cell research. This is great news for people who have diabetes, Parkinson's disease, Alzheimer's disease, or any number of other conditions, or the millions of us who have family members with those conditions.

It goes beyond that, though.

One of the negative aspects of the Bush administration was that they felt they had license to suppress or falsify the findings of science when they didn't coincide with the political prejudices of the administration. For instance, NASA adopted a policy to downplay and dispute the idea that there was a Big Bang because this scientific theory might undercut the idea that the universe was created by god.

Similarly, the Bush administration leaned on Johns Hopkins to suppress any abortion-related results from its reproductive health database, so that if a search was done using the word "abortion" as a search term, it would find nothing. Nothing.

Obama's statement today announces an end to all that, and explicitly.

He said that he would ensure that his administration “never opens the door” to cloning for human reproduction, adding, “It is dangerous, profoundly wrong and has no place in our society or any society.”

Mr. Obama paired his executive order with another document, a presidential memorandum directing the head of the White House Office of Science and Technology Policy to “develop a strategy for restoring scientific integrity to government decision-making.”

There have been, and there will continue to be, reasons to question and challenge what Obama is doing as president. This is true even, or especially, for those of us who worked to make him president. Still, if the government is once again going to start telling the truth about science, that will be a good thing.

Friday, March 06, 2009

What else is there to say?

I owe PZ for alerting me to this.

The story is that a nine-year-old girl in Brazil was raped and impregnated by her stepfather.

The Catholic Church, always concerned for the well-being of innocents, immediately stepped in.

That's right: they did everything they could to prevent this kid from having an abortion. Then, when it was too late because the abortion had already been performed, they did the next best thing: they excommunicated everyone connected with the abortion, including the little girl's mother.

They spared the little girl. They undoubtedly think they spared her by not excommunicating her. I think that they spared her by hopefully driving this whole family away from the church for good.

Oh, wait! There is something more to say: The rapist stepfather doesn't get excommunicated.

UPDATE: The pope says, "Yeah, that's right."