Thursday, March 30, 2006

Still the Second City has listed Chicago as having the second best skyline in the world. As a proud resident of Chicagoland I would have to concur. Though my favorite view is driving along the Dan-Ryan Expressway at night. When you pass around the curve and see the entire night sky lit up it still takes my breath away after 10 years.

HatTip: Catallarchy

Wednesday, March 29, 2006

I Guess 2 Cars, a House and a 55 inch TV Isn't Enough

In an interesting piece Sebastian Mallaby hypothesizes why American firms are outperforming their counterparts in Europe and Japan. Of course no good news can go unpunished.

So the shift from manufacturing to services; the gallop of globalization; and the rise of information technology that flattens corporate hierarchies: All these forces come together to create an American moment. But you could be forgiven for missing this, because other forces spoil what ought to be a celebration. In the midst of this American moment, hatred of President Bush has simultaneously created an anti-American moment. And in the midst of American prosperity, rising inequality has prevented American workers from sharing in the success of American firms.

Is this the same set of abused workers that own 2.5 cars and a 3000 sq foot house? Color me unsympathetic.

The truth is that more people own homes and cars than ever before in American history. We also have more toys – large screen TVs, computers, cell phones, iPods, and on and on and on. All of these things add to our total wealth and make our lives more comfortable than they ever were. This doesn’t fit into the left’s anti-success and anti-American agenda, so it gets conveniently ignored.

Are the richer far more rich than the middle class than historically true? Sure, but who cares. If second place is an SUV parked in front of a large house then I’ll gladly take the consolation prize.

HatTip: Concurring Opinions

EU Doesn't Want Microsoft to Innovate

The seemingly never-ending saga between Microsoft and the European Union took another turn on Wednesday as the EU Commission's antitrust division warned the software company not to return to its old ways with Windows Vista. The body is concerned about Vista's built-in Internet search functions and new document features

So basically the EU is going to threaten Microsoft with anti-trust charges every time they decide to offer an enhancement – presumably one that consumers want – for free. Of course if Microsoft left Windows basically unchanged and charged for every feature and enhancement they would be levied with predatory pricing anti-trust suits. Its amazing how create bureaucrats can be when they work from the assumption that success is evil.

Meanwhile Ballmer doesn’t want his kids to have choices.

In a recent Fortune interview with Steve Ballmer, the newer kinder Microsoft CEO is not only ready to take on the videogaming, search, music download and mobile markets - but he's also laying down the law in his own house. Steve says that his kids are not allowed to use Google or have an iPod.

From all the accounts I’ve read, Ballmer is an arrogant SOB, this doesn’t do anything to counter that claim. Instead of maintaining dictatorial control over his families choices wouldn’t it make sense to find out why his kids prefer non-Microsoft products? If he could answer that question maybe they could develop competitive alternatives.

But that would just lead to more anti-trust suits, so maybe its not such a good idea after all.

Tuesday, March 28, 2006

Linux Held Back By Dress Code

CNet is reporting that according to former Massachusetts CIO Peter Quinn 'the lax dress code of the open-source community is one of the reasons behind the software's slow uptake in commercial environments.' In particular, Quinn blames the 'sandal and ponytail set' for sluggish adoption of Linux by businesses and governments." From the article: "Quinn, who faced plenty of scrutiny over his support of the OpenDocument standards-based office document format, said proponents of open source in government faced formidable opposition from vested interests if they went public."

It amazes me sometimes how dumb some people can be. Unix isn’t being widely adopted because it’s 30 year old technology and requires at least twice the administrative overhead as Windows does. Sure its been gussied up, but it is still ancient. The entire dot com boom was driven by hippies in sandles and ponytails I’m sure Google, eBay and Amazon are crying all the way to the bank that the suits don’t like their dress

Light Blogging

I am still around, but incredibly busy as my evil employer insists on sending me around the country in its pursuit of ever more dollars.Being somewhat evil myself (in pursuit of even more dollars) I have complied, but it means my blogging schedule will be very light.

NYT Misses the Point - MS Edition

The New York Times is running an article on why they think Windows is so slow. They boil it down to one key factor - legacy support - and they hold up Apple as an example of a company willing to make hard decisions around legacy support in order to provide a better product. From the article: 'Windows is now so big and onerous because of the size of its code base, the size of its ecosystem and its insistence on compatibility with the legacy hardware and software, that it just slows everything down ... That's why a company like Apple has such an easier time of innovation.

In its never-ending attempt to ad mouth Microsoft, Slashdot (and NYT) simply provides reasons why Microsoft is successful and Apple isn’t quite so successful.

It’s also part of the reason that Apple’s install base is so small. Companies want to upgrade on their own path, not Apple’s. Only by ensuring backwards compatibility can Microsoft ensure that companies adopt to the latest and greatest on something approaching a quick time frame.

Microsoft does phase technology out, but its timeline is at least ten years (which is essentially forever in the IT world). It is this long term thinking that IT departments like because everything is interdependent. If IT staff couldn’t count on this support they would be paralyzed.

Wednesday, March 08, 2006

Deja Vu: Transit Strike

Hours after members overwhelmingly agreed to authorize a strike, the Chicago Transit Authority bus operators' union took preliminary steps Tuesday toward staging a walkout although union officials would not say if a strike would occur.

Union officials said they will meet with management on Friday to discuss the scheduling of bus runs, which is at the heart of the union unrest. After the meeting, the union will decide whether it should continue with strike plans, a union officer said.

Perhaps taking a note from the kinda-successful NYC strike, the Chicago union is threatening an illegal strike.  I’m convinced Daley will probably put pressure on the CTA to meet whatever demands the union is presenting, so it’s doubtful that they will actually walk off the job.  If they do I don’t expect Chicago commuters to treat them any kinder than NYC commuters treated their transit workers.

More to follow if they actually walk out.

Union Logic

Workers at Ryerson's Chicago and Burns Harbor, Ind., facilities, who have been without a contract since Feb. 1, authorized a strike Feb. 12, the Chicago Sun-Times said Tuesday.

The 540 employees, represented jointly by United Steelworkers and Teamsters Local Union 714, want to end a concession made to management in the last three-year deal that had employees cross-trained for jobs and allowed management more flexibility in shifting employee job assignments without regard for seniority, a Ryerson spokesman said.

Normally I wouldn’t find a strike to be very newsworthy.  Union members typically just want more money – we all do – they just happen to choose a coercive method to accomplish that goal.  What strike me odd about this strike is that it doesn’t appear to be about money – it’s about self-destruction.

These workers don’t want their employer to be flexible.  They don’t want their employer to be able to respond quickly to changes.  They want plumb work assignments to be decided by the workers themselves instead of the employer being able to assign jobs based on ability.  

In short the union does not want the company that they work for to be successful.  Simply mind-boggling.

Krugman Thinks You Are Stupid

Of all the reasons to be for socialized medicine, I find it difficult to believe that people are too stupid is a compelling argument. Yet that is exactly what Paul Krugman is saying.

But the case of diabetes and other evidence suggest that a third problem with health savings accounts may be even more important: in practice, people who are forced to pay for medical care out of pocket don't have the ability to make good decisions about what care to purchase.

How exactly does third-party medicine fix this problem? In fact, it exacerbates the problem in some areas. We are grossly over consuming antibiotics. So much so that we are forcing them to evolve into antibiotic resistant strains. How many thousands of unnecessary and risky operations are performed each year? How many people rush off to the doctor at every sign of a runny nose to get treatments that they don’t need? When doctors propose a new fangled procedure that they are just dying to try, how many patients take the time to find out more about it?

Since our wallets are never any lighter we have been trained to not ask any questions. And because we do not pay the costs we do not think twice about asking for medicine and procedures that we do not need. We heard that our neighbor Suzie had a brand new operation to cure her back pain so we rush to the same doctor and ask to get it too. Why would the doctor say no – he wants to make money after all. We see fancy new advertisements on TV about some WonderDrug – not that we know what it does – so we rush to the doctor to get it. If he says no, we just try another doctor. Most communities have a resident pill pusher, so it’s not like it’ll be hard to find someone to prescribe it. If we can’t find someone we will just it online.

Would free-market medicine fix these problems? Perhaps, though perhaps not. I do know that if people had a larger stake in the decision making process (i.e. how much is coming out of my pocket) they would be more likely to start asking questions. It’s likely that people would seek out more second opinions and I know, for a fact, that prices would start coming down on medical devices at the very least.

How can I be so sure? Because the prices for medical devices are all over the map now. A friend of mine broke his ankle and the hospital told him the walking cast would cost $500. (Needless to say they were a bit taken aback by being asked how much something cost) Being the frugal sort (and we have a high deductible) he told them to shove it. He did some online shopping and found it for $95.

Admittedly that is a single anecdotal case, but I challenge you to search for some medical devices online and witness how widely the prices vary and think about how many billions of dollars are wasted because there is no price sensitivity in the current system.

HatTip: Café Hayek

Tuesday, March 07, 2006

NYT: Dog Bites Man

Today the New York Times ran a story on how Wal-Mart is using bloggers to build its reputation.  Of course by “using” I mean feeding information to bloggers that have been sympathetic to Wal-Mart in its never ending battle with the left.

It should come as no surprise to anyone that some bloggers are more than a little lax about citing sources, I mean there are almost 30 million bloggers, an infinitesimal number of them have any journalistic training.  Heck, I’m not even sure that most of them can spell (I know that I can’t).  

In a world where real life journalists – you know the ones that get paid for writing – get caught making up stories, inventing sources and get paid for their opinions, I don’t see where the story is.  Bloggers are, by and large, amateur pundits that enjoy writing, opinion making, arguing or some combination of the above.   The internet is a vast place, so when Wal-Mart sends positive news about itself, or negative news about its opponents to parties that they know may be interested, they are providing a free service to bloggers (including myself) that may have otherwise overlooked the news.

One thing that I find telling about the whole story is that the NYT fails to mention any of the special interest groups and grass-roots organizations that send newsletters to members and interested parties highlighting news stories and press releases that fit within their own agenda.  If you looked hard enough I would be willing to bet that a significant number of bloggers that receive that information fail to cite sources as well.  NYT is bending over backwards to portray the ties between PR and the blogosphere as something that only evil corporations engage in.  Because, you know, Wal-Mart is evil and stuff.

Monday, March 06, 2006

FAIR Unanimous Decision

I have blogged previously about FAIR v. Rumsfeld and like nearly everyone else I’m not surprised by the outcome.

What I do find interesting is that the Roberts court has been handing out a lot of unanimous decisions – or at least that has been my perception.  It seemed that most decisions out of Rehnquist were 5-4 and I don’t think any of the Robert’s opinions have come out that way.

Does this mean that Roberts is more persuasive or is better at finding consensus or merely that the cases were cut and dried?  I find the later possibility unconvincing since there was at least one abortion case involved.   Granted the opinion was narrow and merely remanded it to a lower court (IIRC), but I think that there may be a trend.

Is justice better served by narrow, unanimous decisions or divisive broad decisions?  I think that a court that delivers consensus views gives the appearance that it is less political by nature and perhaps will ease some of the angst that is still brewing over Bush v. Gore – or I’m completely wrong and the trend will go unnoticed by the unwashed masses.  Only time will tell.

Daley Wants to Privatize Midway

At first it seems odd that Chicago, hardly a champion for businesses [not owned by political favored parties] would consider privatizing Midway Airport. Well, at least it until you consider that the city is desperately in need of additional revenue sources.
A bill quietly moving through the Illinois Legislature would grant blanket property tax exemptions to private investors who lease all or parts of Midway, the 2,180-space Millennium Park garage, smaller city-owned garages, and three transfer stations where recyclables are separated from routine garbage.

That's precisely how Daley got the ball rolling on the Skyway deal that has allowed him to restore Chicago's shaky bond rating and hold the line on property taxes while funding human services programs.

The deal that Chicago struck with Spain's Cintra Macquarie Consortium to lease the Skyway Tollway netted the city $1.82 billion up front. Even that cash infusion has not gotten the city out of financial troubles so Daley is rooting around to see what other gems he can put on the auction block.

Surprisingly, the Illinois Senate passed the measure clearing the way unanimously. The must have forgotten all the graft that they get by selling off giving contracts at the airport as political favors. If a deal actually comes to pass I expect a little more rancor as the politicians fight to protect their pork.

I would also expect the US Congress to get involved as I’m willing to bet that foreign interests will be quite pleased to take ownership of such a large US asset and in light of the recent port deal I expect the National Security boogieman to raise its ugly head.

Anonymous Speech

It is cases like this that make me wish I was a lawyer.
The New Jersey legislature is considering a bill that would require operators of public forums to collect users' legal names and addresses, and effectively disallow anonymous speech on online forums. This raises some serious issues, such as to what extent local and state governments can go in enacting and enforcing Internet legislation.
Unfortunately (or fortunately depending on your point of view) I am unable to peruse through existing case law and construct a compelling argument about how this would be unconstitutional. To my lay-person's view it certainly seems that the Constitution protects anonymous speech, after all anyone can pick up a pen and send off a letter to the editor and have it published in any number of media sources.

Instead I’ll have to attempt persuade against such a measure on the simple unenforceability of the proposed legislation. Unless every forum in the lovely state of New Jersey requires users to present a credit card – which is only a proxy for identity, and certainly not foolproof – there is no way to confirm identity remotely. Such a proposal would have a chilling effect on the culture of the internet where people that, rightly or wrongly, fear expressing their opinions in a public forum due to repercussions in the real world.

Certainly the internet is full of know-nothing blowhards, so is every other forum where people are allowed to speak freely, I’m unconvinced that the internet deserves special restrictions. Content providers are perfectly capable of moderating the speech on their own forums, and many do so. Additionally, if there are legitimate criminal concerns about illegal speech or speech that predicates a crime it is not impossible to track individuals if one has enough resources. More than likely the speech that they are attempting to regulate would just move to another forum – whether to a state that doesn’t provide such draconian measures or another medium entirely would remain to be seen.

I’m not quite sure what problem New Jersey is attempting to solve, but their solution will only stem the flow of legitimate speech and do nothing to catch or deter illegitimate speech.

Update: Kip stopped by and pointed me to an online article on anonymous internet speech, an interesting read if you want to aquaint yourself with the law as opposed to my ramblings.

Thursday, March 02, 2006

Update: China's Private Internet

It turns out that China isn’t looking to create its own private internet which is good news for Chinese citizens. I am still hopeful that the internet will continue to spread information and eventually liberty to all of the oppressed in China.

Initial reports that China may have been attempting to split off the Internet by creating its own Chinese-language top level domains now appear to be untrue. A spokeperson for China Internet Network Information Center (CNNIC) said that the country has no intention of creating its own root servers, or breaking away from the global Internet.
The misunderstanding was caused by an inaccurate report in the English version of the state run People's Daily Online. The report, which was somewhat ambigious, gave the impression that pre-existing work being done under the .cn domain name was being done as a top-level domain to replace .com and .net.

China has had a system of Chinese character domain names under their approved top-level domain for the past four years, the CNNIC said. According to both ICANN and the CNNIC, the only change was the addition of a Chinese-language ".mil" domain under the ".cn" root.
The adjustments were made to bring the country's domain names into agreement with an article in a government decree known as the China Internet Domain Names Regulations.

Piracy On The High Water Bill

When you see waste like this I fail to see how anyone can say that public works are better than private business.  When companies are motivated by profit they do everything that they can to eliminate waste – when your government wants more money they just take it from you.

Imagine filling your bathtub and watching 41 percent of the water leak onto your bathroom floor.
That's what happens every day beneath the streets of Buffalo, according to a first-of-a-kind study that examines leaks in the aging water system.
The city pumps 29.6 billion gallons of water each year. But nearly 12 billion gallons goes down the proverbial drain. Most of the water is lost through leaks and bursts in the city's 900-mile maze of pipes...
Another jolting discovery is that Buffalo only collects revenue for 46 percent of the water it pumps ... Another 600 million gallons is stolen by water pirates who tamper with meters and take extreme measures to restore service after water has been turned off for nonpayment.
This same water system has raised rates for metered customers by 64 percent in the past four years and increased flat-rate bills by 55 percent.

Wednesday, March 01, 2006

My Own Private Internet

China seems to have realized that they can’t block unwanted content from the internet. It is a realization that Network Administrators have learned long ago. Unfortunately, Chinese dictators look like they are going to take the path that Network Admins would never be able to take – they are going to create their own internet.

In a move that some speculate to be the initial steps towards a possible breakaway from the global Internet, new versions of top-level domains will be added on separate Chinese root servers, China's Ministry of Information Industry said on Tuesday.

According to the state-run People's Daily, the country is launching ".cn," ".com," and ".net" in Chinese.

The adjustments were made to bring the country's domain names into agreement with an article in a government decree known as the China Internet Domain Names Regulations.

This step towards isolationism is destined to failure, at least in the long term. It is an unfortunate turn of events that will not make Chinese citizens any better off. I guess the plus side is that it will make Google, Yahoo! and Microsoft’s internet presence in China irrelevant.

Apathetic About Freedom

Dale, over at Volohk Conspiracy, points to a survey that shows that Americans don’t know much about the Constitution, or more specifically the First Amendment.

Americans apparently know more about "The Simpsons" than they do about the First Amendment.

Only one in four Americans can name more than one of the five freedoms guaranteed by the First Amendment (freedom of speech, religion, press, assembly and petition for redress of grievances.) But more than half can name at least two members of the cartoon family, according to a survey.

The study by the new McCormick Tribune Freedom Museum found that 22 percent of Americans could name all five Simpson family members, compared with just one in 1,000 people who could name all five First Amendment freedoms.

American’s don’t know much about the Constitution because it doesn’t mean much in their day to day lives. Sure, they know that they have rights and that those rights are protected by the Constitution, but Americans take those rights for granted. They take them from granted because government really doesn’t bother us all that much.

Using myself as the anecdotal average citizen I deal with the federal government when they take money out of my paycheck every month and on April 15th. Beyond that I am insulated from the mountains of regulation by businesses and local governments that internalize the headaches.

From Sarbanes-Oxley to No Child Left Behind to the Highway Spending Bill I don’t see the practical implications of those legislative actions in my everyday life. My school administrators and teachers probably complain about NCLB, business that I deal with everyday do nothing buy moan about SOX and my Congresswomen will brag come election time about the pork she delivered – but, unless I am paying attention, it is a bit difficult to connect the dots back to Congress.

No one tells me what I can and cannot say, no one tells me who I can spend my time with, no one tells me what god to worship. For these reasons and more people simply don’t care much about the details of the Constitution. I would be worried if Americans knew them inside and out because that would mean that government was constantly trying to impinge on those rights.

As long as Congress leaves the First Amendment alone and as long as the Supreme Court is only dealing with cases at the margins of free speech and religion the public at large will continue to take our freedoms for granted – which is precisely the way that I would like to keep it.

IT and Health

I think, if I am reading him correctly, that Arnold makes a fatal assumption with the statement below.
Up close, it turns out that in order to benefit from information technology, a business has to be organized to take advantage of it. I suspect that the practice of medicine needs to be standardized before information technology can have big impact. Whether standardization is desirable or feasible is an open question.

It’s the same flaw that proponents of socialized healthcare make – that medicine is somehow different than the rest of the marketplace. Specifically in this case, that the healthcare industry – as a whole – hasn’t benefited from IT advancements because somehow that industry is fundamentally different from every other sector that has benefited from IT.

Software development has advanced to the point that industries do not need to be standardized in order to receive value from automation, or to make developing customized applications for your specific business valuable. Patients are not fundamentally different than any other customer. There is data that identifies who you are and then there is information about you that the doctors want to know.

Customer Relationship Management (CRM) is sufficiently robust and flexible to provide this type of data. The reason that doctors and hospitals haven’t invested in this type of software is that they don’t have to because they don’t compete on price. IT takes significant investment and that investment has to have a payoff somewhere and the current marketplace just doesn’t provide it.

Patients don’t shop for doctors, in fact they don’t typically even know what they paying for services. Because there is no sensitivity on price there is no incentives for providers to lower their prices. If there is no incentive to lower price then there is no reason to become more efficient to increase the profit margin. If doctors want to make more money, they just charge more.

In short, if there is a need for the healthcare industry to use IT to become more efficient the only way to accomplish that is for patients to start paying for their own bills.