foo to yoo

Thursday, February 23, 2006

Abortion and the power of the state

Over New Years I had the pleasure of spending some time with friends who are either in, or recently graduated from, some of the best law schools in the country. These folks are going to have a hell of a time being confrmed to the Supreme Court in the future, because they actually dicsussed the issue of abortion and the legal basis for restricting access to it (unlike Clarence Thomas, who was able to ascend to the Supreme Court without ever sullying his mind with such matters).

The bottom line that they agreed on was very interesting to me and has resonated more strongly over time: restrictions on the right to an abortion make a woman an unwilling conscriptee of the state for the duration of her pregnancy. Think about that for a minute, mull it over, and see the underlying truth to it.

The fact is that the technology exists to safely terminate unwanted pregnancies. Abortion restriction activists seek to deny access to a technology that is:
  • Safe for the user/recipient
  • Poses no danger to other citizens
  • Reliable
  • Well-understood
  • Inexpensive to deliver
I'm racking my brain trying to come up with another technology that is comparable in these areas and that is restricted by the state, but cannot come up with a truly comparable technology/service. This alone points out the exceptionalism of the abortion case-- that it is not a common occurance to legally restrict access to technolgies that are safe, reliable, and inexpensive.

An important consideration is the argument made by abortion-restriction advocates that the state has a duty to protect the abortion target-- the fetus. There is a simple answer to this argument-- the state has an obligation only to protect its citizens, and since citizenship is acquired by birth, prior to birth there are no citizenship rights and no obligation of the state to "protect" prior to birth.

Is abortion necessary? Examine the reliability statistics for the following methods of birth control:
  • Male condom: 97% reliable (when used correctly)
  • Female condom: 95% reliable (when used correctly)
  • Diaphragm: 94% reliable (when used correctly)
  • Cervical cap: 74% reliable (when used correctly); 91% reliable for those who have never given birth
  • Birth Control Pill: 99% reliable (when used correctly)
  • The "mini" pill: 99% reliable (when used correctly)
  • The Patch: 99% reliable (when used correctly)
  • Birth Control Ring: 98-99% reliable (when used correctly)
  • Depo-Provera: 99% reliable (when used correctly)
  • Progesterone or copper IUD: 98-99% reliable
  • Vasectomy: 99+% reliable (1 in 1,000 chance of pregnancy)
  • Tubal ligation: 99+% reliable (1 in 400 women become pregnant within 10 years)
  • "Natural" birth control methods: 85% reliable when done properly
It takes no more than a simple knowledge of statistics too see that, even under ideal circumstances, some women will become pregnant. If these women don't want to carry a child to term, a safe, reliable, inexpensive method is available to address this problem. Yet, in the view of the abortion-restriction activists, these women should be required to carry the child to term, regardless of her desires or the impact that it would have on her health and welfare. Pregnancy and childbirth are not without risk-- in fact, obstetricians have described it as "the most serious, complicated and life-threatening experience that most young women will have in their lifetime."

Requiring women to take on this burden and the attendant risk when they are unwilling and there is a reasonable alternative is effective conscription by the state.

It is no accident that we see many male politicians holdong forth on abortion and advocating for elimination of abortion. I find male leadership on abortion restrictions illogical and undefensible. If they can't find women to lead this fight, I think that Tbogg is onto something.

Wednesday, February 22, 2006

Question for analysts: Bird flu

Visiting a company last week, I was surprised and impressed to see in every bathroom a sticker above the sink asking people to wash their hands to help prevent influenza. Included on the sticker was the (easy to remember) URL for the company's internal "Influenza Readiness" site. In addition, I learned that the company has distributed hand sanitizer to all employees.

I was impressed that this company has taken these steps, at a minimum, to address and mitigate some of the risks of an influenza pandemic. Thinking about the kind of forward-looking risk management that this represents, I would think that securities analysts would want to ask companies the following questions:

  • How would an influenza pandemic (or other pandemic) affect your business?
  • What steps have you taken to mitigate these risks and ensure the continued performance of the business?
  • Has an influenza readiness plan been created?
  • Are the employees aware of the plan if it has been created, or is it limited to key staff?

My guess is that many companies have not thought through their response to such a threat, even in industries that would be hard hit by a pandemic. So get to work, analysts!

Tuesday, February 14, 2006

Link to Long or Short Capital

Because they asked so nicely.

Seriously, I love that finance-flavored snark.

RSS interfaces are irritating

So I've gotten really into the utility of RSS-- I really like the ability of RSS and it's friends to publish out new items for those who wish to subscribe. However, I've found all of the RSS interfaces really irritating.

Safari's on Mac OS X is terrible. I'm a smart guy, IT background, know how to deal with klugy interfaces, and I still don't have a clear idea how Apple means for me to use RSS in Safari. When I land on a page with an associated feed, I get a little blue "RSS" icon on the right side of the location bar, which when clicked takes me to the feed's "page" (e.g., http://site name/atom.xml), but I'm not sure what I'm supposed to do there--- bookmark it I guess, but then I can see the number of items I haven't "visited" in my feeds, but going there basically takes me to the atom.xml page. However, I've decided that I want to go to the actual article. Apple also gives me an option to view all RSS articles in a menu, but then interleaves them based on date of publication and doesn't allow me to sort by source. The display of information also takes up way too much room, requiring a lot of scrolling to see the articles, even though the font size is relatively small.

Firefox is better-- I like that it basically places the RSS feeds into bookmark menus-- this is much more intuitive for the user. I recognize that some people would like to see the syndication beyond the title of the new items, but I like this-- it makes the headline/title writer think about how to communicate the important point in a title, which is a good thing. One thing that I would like, however, is for Firefox to keep track of visited RSS articles-- perhaps by bolding unvisited links and unbolding them after a visit. I also keep finding myself wanting to go to the main site, but having to either follow a story link and then backtrack to the main page or having to go to another bookmark (for instance, I see several slashdot stories I want to take a quick look at but can't go directly to the slashdot home page from Firefox's live bookmark).

I've always stayed away from browser plugins that add features-- the only one I've ever really used has been Pith Helmet on Safari-- so I can't comment on IE RSS readers. I've seen a couple of articles on RSS in the new IE (version 7 I believe), and they have generally been positive.

I've also stayed away from using standalone RSS reader applications, although I played around with Thunderbird and it was ok, although I would have preferred that it not load the entire html page in the lower pane-- it seemed to make things slower than they should be.

I'm still hoping to find something worthwhile, but I'm thinking that we're again stuck at a stage where making things the extra 10% better that they need to be is not going to be easy.

Monday, February 13, 2006

Glenn Greenwald

Although Glenn Greenwald has only been blogging for three months, he's been rapidly embraced and linked to by other (especially progressive) bloggers. He's one of those bloggers whose output and clarity are awe-inspring (well beyond my abilities, as should be evident to everyone reading this blog).

In the last two days he's written a great post on the bizarre phenomenon that has been the creation of an incredible cult of personality around Bush and the replacement of conservative political ideology with a "whatever Bush does = conservative ideology." Glenn's argument is good, and goes a long way toward explaining why Bush, who objectively seems to have abandoned practially all of what would have been seen as conservative principals in say, 1988, retains a rabid base of "conservative" defenders. I guess 9/11 changed everything, including the ability of many conservatives to identify and stick to their principles.

The follow up to Glenn's original post is great, too.

Sunday, February 12, 2006

NBC is the worst network in the universe

So I'm socked in by snow-- did the shopping, etc. yesterday before the big storm and don't need to leave the house (did go to the gym this morning and shoveled snow, but that will be enough to head off cabin fever I think). Usually, snow is a bigger inconvenience, but with all the weekend activities done, I felt great about sitting around and watching TV, especially with the Winter Olympics in progress.

What. the. hell?!?

NBC, rather than trying to show the Olympics to fill their Sunday afternoon sporting timeslot, is showing, and I am not kidding in any way, Daytona 500 gualifying "events." These events include the fascinating spectacle of single cars going around the track, totally alone, in order to qualify for the race. The other riviting television that we see in between single cars going around the track are scenes from the NASCAR inspection process. Honest to god, a few minutes ago I saw the gripping television that is a crew member adjusting the turnbuckles on the rear spoiler flap while an inspector watched to ensure that the angle would be within the limits of the NASCAR rules. Occaisionally the network will show us a timer counting the elapsed time for the car that they are following through the inspection process. I guess I'm supposed to be impressed that the inspection process takes upwards of four and a half hours. Just this second an announcer is standing next to what I imagine is the Daytona 500 trophy.

Now I'm sure that NBC knows what theyre doing, and that ratings for the NASCAR Daytona 500 qualifying will be higher than anything that they could have shown instead, like any of these things that happened today in Torino:

  • Men's and women's cross country skiing pursuit races (30 and 15 Km, respectively)
  • Men's snowboard halfpipe qualification runs
  • Luge men's singles runs 3 and 4
  • Ski jumping 1st round
  • A boatload of short track speedskating heats
I'd love to see more of these events-- we just don't see them in the US, and I like to see them in the olympics every 4 years. I know that they are going to be "shown" in the prime time programming later in the day, but we all know that NBC will show us virtually nothing of these events. In the Luge we'll see the top two guys (the 39 year old Geman and the Italian) and the US runs, and that will be it. We'll see outtakes from the cross country events. We'll see the US jumps and the jumps of the top competitors in ski jumping, and that will be it.

It jsut seems like NBC, especially on the weekend, could do more with these events. I'm old enough to remember ABC's Wide World of Sports-- "spanning the globe to being you the constant variety of sport"-- and the great thing that was the variety of the events showccased week to week. When Wide World of Sports started, ABC felt that it wasn't going to be anything more than a filler for the non-sporting Summer weekends, and it's unexpected popularity took ABC by surprise. It seems like the lesson of WWoS, that Americans like to see the variety of sporting events worldwide, have been lost on NBC in it's quest for prime time relevance and domination by the Olympics through the "dramafication" of the various events and incessant rooting for the US atheletes. We like sports, all sports, and the fact that we don't know what will happen next. I'd like more of the olympics from NBC.

[UPDATE: Monday 12:31 PM]: So NBC did step up and do an admirable job of showing more olympic sports than I expected yesterday afternoon (cross country pursuit for instance). So I will perhaps remove their "worst network in the universe" title depending on their performance for the remainder of the Olympics. Their prime time shows still stink, though.

Friday, February 10, 2006

Whoa. Weird.

Last night I went to the Bodyworlds exhibit at the Franklin Institute. Aside from it being absolutely fascinating to be able to see the interior of actual humans, there was a lot to think about in other respects.

First, the artistic license of Gunther von Hagens, the guy who does the plastination of the bodies is interesting. The various ways that he creates exploded views of the bodies is something-- there is clearly a measure of artisitic interpretation in the way that he has chosen to put together exploded views of various individuals. Some of the displays-- the hurdler, the soccer goalie (diving to his right for the ball while his vicera is held upright in his extended left hand, as if when he dove it remained in place while the musclature did the work), the gymnast. There was neuron-skeleton with just the bone and nerves, there was circulatory person, where the circulatory system was all that was left, having been filled with some type of reddish laquer and the body blasted away from it. Torsos and heads split in any number of ways to expose the actual inner organs.

Fascinating, but a little disturbing. I've got to think about it some more, but I admit to leaving and feeling a little queasy.

Thursday, February 09, 2006

Olympics: What's a Sport and What's a Contest?

The Winter Olympics start tomorrow. Time to drag out my usual pet peeve and irritating topic of the fortnight-- which of these are sports, and which are contests (and not sports).

First, the argument. It goes like this. A sport will pit athletes against one another in an event in which there is a clear and objective standard for winning: fastest time, most goals scored, first around a track. Contests test athletic skills of the participants, but there are subjective elements imposed, typically by a panel of judges.

There you have it. So if I can train my body to perform a task that is measured objectively better than other athletes, I participate in a sport. If I train and compete against other athletes in a task that involves subjective elements judged by human experts, I'm a contestant. In the spirit of making the difference perfectly clear, here are the Winter Olympic events categorized into contests and sports:

  • Biathlon (weird, but a sport)
  • Bobsleigh (including bobsleigh and skeleton)
  • Curling
  • Ice Hockey
  • Luge
  • Short-track Speed Skating (even though it has some weird rules)
  • Speed Skating
  • Alpine Skiing
  • Cross-country Skiing
  • Snowboard: Parallel Giant Slalom
  • Snowboard: Snowboard Cross
  • Nordic Combined (due to inclusion of ski jumping)
  • Ski Jumping
  • Snowboard: Halfpipe
  • Freestyle Skiing (moguls and aerials)
  • Figure Skating (obviously)
I have a fight every four years with female friends who insist that figure skating is a sport. It's not. In addition, it is only better than gymnastics because the athletes (especially the female athletes) are generally older and therefore the creepiness factor is much lower.

Wednesday, February 08, 2006

News from the incompetent

Well, I planned to write something different today, but then I read the thread on this at slashdot entitled Verizon threatens Google's "free Lunch" and read the comments and a few things struck me.

The first was the absolutely stunning audacity of the statement in the Washington Post article that Google " enjoying a free lunch that should, by any rational account, be the lunch of the facilities providers."

Wow. I mean wow.

I didn't realize that all of the money that the poor "facilities providers" (for those of you not familiar with the language of the industry, this means telcos, since they own the facilities and provide them for use) spent on the network infrastructure was forced on them by the government. Nor did I realize that the government was forcing them to sell their services at a price at which they couldn't make money. Oh wait, neither of those is true.

What is true is that the telcos spent a lot of money on deploying DSL services to customers, and are spending even more money installing fiber to the home. The problem that they had with DSL and are probably going to have with fiber is that the business case used to justify the investment assumed a higher price point than they could get for the service. For instance, I happen to know that in 2000/2001 a lot of people thought that you couldn't make money on DSL services unless you charged $75 a month.

That's fine and all, but the fact is that telcos couldn't sell it to consumers at that price for three main reasons:

  • The first is the existence of a substitute-- cable access-- that could be purchased for less or equal money.
  • The second was the venomous hatred of the phone company in many areas. I know that it may be a surprise, but if you overcharge and mistreat your customers for a century, you can't fix it with a few radio spots. Pretty much no one loves the cable company, but they don't have a century of ill will to sell through.
  • The third reason is that telcos have no idea how to sell to customers. For a century, they took orders for phone service. The sales function was answering a phone, taking the order from the customer, including a very few overpriced options, and telling them how many weeks it would take for a technician to show up sometime during the day to hook up your service. Well, that sales method doesn't really work anymore for phone service, but it's a model that is heavily embedded in the phone world.

In addition, has there ever been an industry with worse marketing? Just look at the company names-- AT&T, SBC (gone now, unloved and unmourned), BellSouth-- ugh. Even when they threw out the old and came up with new names, ugh-- Verizon?!? Level(3)?!?!? Terrible. The product names-- DSL is bad until you find out what it stands for-- Digital Subscriber Line?!? A former colleague told me that he was talking to the head of sales at a telco (he'd come from outside of telecomm) who said that the industry was so bad at naming and marketing if they took over KFC they'd change the name of the main product to "Hot Dead Chicken."

The only way that they have found to sell the products (especially DSL) to customers is to discount heavily and for a long time. Current thinking is that they have to offer a year of service at $15/month for people to get DSL (or switch from cable, which has been able to maintain a better price point). That's a far cry from the $75/month that people in the industry thought that they'd have to charge to "make money."

So after much "thought" (and no doubt millions spent on consulting services), the telcos have realized that they can't sell DSL at a high enough price to make a decent profit, have started to spend money hand over fist to put fiber into homes, where they may have the same problem (and probably will, since they haven't addressed any of the three problems that they had with DSL-- competition, ill-will, and inability to sell).

The approach that they have turned to now is to claim that Google, Microsoft, and other money making companies should pay them more, ostensibly because the money that Microsoft, Google, and the rest make my creating content (I am defining software as content here, mostly because it makes this paragraph easy) should belong to them since it happens to traverse "their" network.

Look, Google, Microsoft, and the rest pay for Internet access, probably a lot more than any of us imagines, and if AT&T, Verizon, and the rest set the prices for their service at a level that is too low, they need to reexamine and reopen the contracts that they have with Google or with whoever is providing them access to AT&T's network (i.e., if Level3 is providing access to Google, then Verizon needs to talk to Level3 about their contract). But at the end of the day, if they paid too much to build a network that they couldn't profitably sell, then that is primarily their problem.

The sad game that they are playing now is a familiar one to them (noted in the Post article): go to the government and rent seek! Maybe we can get some sort of exclusive arrangement from the government for providing a commodity service that many companies can provide! What they would like is a legal cover to do what they want-- charge the sender of a packet every time that packet is delivered to one of their customers-- instead of paying by the call/minute, we can pay by the packet. And they want the "right," which they have already, to deny access to those who don't pay the packet fee. The problem is that there are alternatives, alternatives for which we are already paying more and which will become more valuable if the telcos follow their current path.

Tuesday, February 07, 2006

Pay Us More, We're Incompetent Part 1: Telco History in the Internet Age

So I've been following the telcos' (AT&T [nee SBC], Bellsouth, etc.) comments on "not getting paid" by people using their networks and I've got to say that I'm surprised more hasn't been written about this. I've got a telco industry background, so I understand these things a little better than others (although I haven't kept up with them as much as I should), and this line of reasoning seems to be coming from outer space.

When Internet access first started to affect telcos, it was a winner-- it meant people needed a second line, meaning more monopoly profits, best of all from the highly lucrative dial up franchise. In fact, telcos started to look like a growth business, what with all those extra phone lines and Internet traffic increasing at unprecedented rates (for quite a while, it was erroneously stated as a "fact" that Internet traffic was doubling every six months). Wireless wasn't good enough, cheap enough, or ubiquitous enough to be a replacement for the home phone, so there was no threat there. As it became obvious that higher-bandwidth was going to be a consumer demand, the telcos rolled out Digital Subscriber Line or DSL services. On the good side, this allowed the telcos to charge even more than they had for the second line. On the bad side, there was competition for this service from the cable companies.

Now not may people "love" the cable company. But compared to the phone company the cable company looks like your loving momma. The cable company also had a better product-- the phone company could complain all they wanted that cable was a shared system and DSL was tecnically better, but the fact was that you got T-1 speeds or better over cable and anemic (usually 256K/128K) speeds comparitively over DSL. Neither group did a great job with the marketing of the product, but most cable firms at least called it what it was, "high-speed Internet" (for example), while even when you figured out what DSL stood for, that didn't tell you what you were buying.

A root problem for the phone company was that they were really suddenly required to sell something. For 100 years, they had basically been order takers. Suddenly they had to compete. Cable companies had gotten an education in competition from satellite TV. While they still operated as quasi-monopolies thanks to local franchise agreements, they had been exposed to market forces (and had been investing in their networks to be able to compete against satellite offerings, so they had a lot of fiber optic cable in their networks fiber that could be used for Internet traffic as well as TV signals)

Prior to the Internet, telcos were as good a place as any to park yourself if you were a middle manager-- plenty of cash came in from the voice business, as an incumbent utility you were generally able to charge the customers a rate guaranteed to provide a profit no matter what your monopoly product "cost," and no one was ever laid off, since you could always increase prices. Wireless looked like a threat, but it wasn't very good and never seemed like anything that would really affect the RBOCs (Regional Bell Operating Companies). Most of them had some skin in the game, but wireless was crappy and expensive. Even better, the government had mandated that telephone service was a universal need, and created a system called the Universal Service Fund (USF) by which urban telephone users payed an extra fee to support service to rural customers. (USF lines are very profitable thanks to this system)

So in the space of a few years in the 1990s, the local phone companies went from boring but profitable utilities growing at the pace of their underlying goegraphy's economic growth rate to a suddenly surprising revenue growth company thanks to all those extra lines to a compnay that had invested a lot of money in equipment to provide DSL but was suddenly losing customers to the first real competitor they had ever faced. The first few years of the 21st century were no kinder, as wireless phones replaced traditional phones for many and VoIP phones that completely bypass the traditional phone network while providing more functions for free made the goose that had traditionally lain the golden egg for telcos-- the local dialtone service-- a shrinking commodity.

Next: Where does the money come from and where does it go?