July 27, 2009
Ezra Klein, whose column on Obama's healthcare strategy I mentioned yesterday, has an informative question-and-answer chat session going on health care reform.
Maybe I just don't understand the argument here correctly, but it seems to me that there's a perfectly reasonable explanation for the uninsured as a category having about the same overall health as the general population while still including people who are very unhealthy (and therefore very undesirable potential customers for insurance companies). Of course the very healthy are going to be among the uninsured, since they have the least incentive to buy insurance in the first place. So the fact that 60% of the uninsured are healthy isn't evidence that insurance companies prefer healthy customers; rather, because their health is being summed with the health of the unhealthy uninsured, it's evidence that those unhealthy uninsured are particularly unhealthy. I think Tabarrok's problem is that he's attacking Krugman's statement by disproving its inverse.

Also, it's odd to see Tabarrok attacking this particular statement in the first place. For an economist, isn't the idea that insurance companies would try to avoid unhealthy customers kind of trivial? They are trying to make money, yes? Isn't it natural for them to respond to incentives? That is, if there isn't a market failure of some kind.

From an odd post on The Online Photographer:
Recently, a friend asked me about the prospects for photographing Betelgeuse when it goes supernova. Not as far-fetched as it might seem. Betelgeuse is a very late stage red giant (it's the brightest star in Orion, the left shoulder), with large-scale instabilities. It's in the last moments of life.

A red giant lives a million times longer than a human being, so the fact that Betelgeuse has anywhere from "seconds" to "days" to live doesn't have quite the immediacy it does when we're talking about a human being. Still, there's a finite chance the wavefront is already on its way and will arrive in our lifetimes.

I don't why this interests me so much, but it certainly isn't because of the possibility of photographing it. I suppose I just like the idea of "participating" in cosmic events, which are usually so inaccessible because of the time scales involved. Or, maybe I just like massive explosions.

By the way, there is apparently no danger to civilization, thanks to Betelgeuse's rotational axis. Readers of The Road (or Marginal Revolution) can rest easy.

July 26, 2009
Gorgeous photos of the Tuscan landscape from Polish photographer Marcin Sacha. I usually don't go for landscapes, but in this case... wow.
Several things I've looked at lately that are worth passing on (at least three are via Kottke, so my apologies if you are a reader of his as well):

1. Malcolm Gladwell on overconfidence, recapping a bunch of this William Cohan book (and even pulling the same quote I did). I'm looking forward to the new book on the financial crisis from Ben Bernanke's perspective.

2. Ezra Klein on the problem with Obama's health care strategy. Ezra is the person to listen to on the health care mess.

3. A long feature on Valerie Jarrett and her influence.

4. Advice on how to become a regular at a restaurant. I'm not sure why you need a guide to this... don't you just start going all the time? But I suppose some people, once they get there, will find a way to thwart themselves.

5. A reading list of postmodern fiction.

6. Here is a person who lives without accumulating or spending any money.

7. And here is Tyler Cowen on the future of libraries and his own reading habits. His latest book, Create Your Own Economy, deals with this more. UPDATE: More from Cowen on reading.

I ran into a cute blog called Forgotten Bookmarks on Metafilter:
I work at a used and rare bookstore, and I buy books from people everyday. These are the personal, funny, heartbreaking and weird things I find in those books.
My dad's habit of dropping interesting items into books to be happened upon later rubbed off on me, so many of my books contain old letters, train tickets, newspaper clippings, etc. It can be fun to find these things later and be transported back, but it can also be a problem if you are lending or getting rid of books. I hate the idea that some personal memento could find its way onto a blog from someone at a used bookstore (although of course I love reading about others' mementos).
June 24, 2009
I'm not sure what to say to this blog post from the Times's new photography blog. The topic is a photojournalist from Raleigh who uses a cellphone to take some of his pictures -- not even on assignment -- and the tone is sort of "look at this freak of nature over here in the middle of smalltime." Meanwhile in Iran, ordinary folk are using camera phones to report things that journalists can't reach, and some of these cellphone shots have even appeared in the New York Times.
June 23, 2009
To hear Ezra tell it, everyone's talking about a constitutional convention in California these days, although this is the first I've heard of the idea, although I've been privately wondering whether declaring bankruptcy would allow the state to write a new constitution.

The notion of picking 400 individuals at random to work with experts reminds me of this quote from William Buckley that my dad used to like to repeat (though I wonder what Buckley would think of the plan to have experts educate them beforehand):

I'd rather entrust the government of the United States to the first 400 people listed in the Boston telephone directory than to the faculty of Harvard University.
Personally I can see the attraction of this idea, but isn't this sort of romantic direct democracy (in the form of propositions) what got them into this mess in the first place?
March 18, 2009

No posts around here beacuse I've been busy reading House of Cards, the William Cohan book on the Bear Stearns collapse. It's fascinating for someone who's never really had any exposure to the culture of Wall Street, but it's ultimately going to be really unsatisfying because it ends far too soon -- the Lehman and AIG deals, along with the concurrent political machinations by McCain and Obama, will have to be in the sequel I guess.

One thing that's amazed me is the language some of these people are willing to use in interviews that were obviously on the record. Since Tim Geithner is so popular these days, here's a quote from Jimmy Cayne, a former Bear Stearns executive, on the then New York Fed president:

The audacity of that prick in front of the American people announcing he was deciding whether or not a firm of this stature and this whatever was good enough to get a loan. Like he was the determining factor, and it's like a flea on his back, floating down underneath the Golden Gate bridge, getting a hard-on, saying "Raise the bridge." This guy thinks he has a big dick. He's got nothing, except maybe a boyfriend. I'm not a good enemy. I'm a very bad enemy. But certain things really -- that bothered me plenty. It's just that for some clerk to make a decision based on what, your own personal feeling about whether or not they're a good credit? Who the fuck asked you? You're not an elected officer. You're a clerk. Believe me, you're a clerk. I want to open up on this fucker, that's all I can tell you.
March 12, 2009

I should probably start a new blog called The Refrigerator Door for this, but...

My daughter Miriam has built a lot of things out of Legos, but this one really blew me away. Maybe it's my own failure of imagination with other things she's built in the past, but to me these seahorses have a creative vision all their own apart from anything I've showed her how to do. When I saw them my first reaction was to think they were very strange and wonder where they could possibly have come from.

According to Miriam the one on the left has a baby inside. Interesting fact about seahorses: it's actually the fathers who incubate the eggs after they are fertilized, in a small pouch on their bellies. Miriam and I learned this from an Eric Carle book a while back, but I don't think she remembered it.

1. Apparently municipalities in Los Angeles County were selling their stimulus funds to each other until the practice was recently stopped! Read the Mother Jones article to see what the going rate was. Via MR.

2. And Ross Douthat is going to be a columnist for the New York Times, replacing Bill Kristol. There's apparently never been a younger columnist for the Times, but I can't think of anyone better -- and better for the conservative movement -- than Douthat. It'll be interesting to see how conservatives see the move; I suspect Douthat will end up moving the debate measurably.

March 10, 2009

Just some books we took back to the library today. I wanted to take a picture so I'll remember what we had and what we liked, and it occurred to me to post it here in case others are interested. I sure wish I'd done this from the beginning. Miriam's favorites were probably Corduroy (which we'd had out before), When the Elephant Walks, Kitten's First Full Moon, Hugo at the Window, and especially Bruno the Baker, which is basically a recipe for a cake disguised as a story (Miriam loves cooking).

MORE: So after I looked at this again, I realized that she probably asked for The Owl and the Pussycat more than any of the others, but that was sort of an oddball choice because she knew the poem before. Anne Mortimer's illustrations are really something though.

March 9, 2009
Via Gapers Block, here's Time's prediction that the Sun-Times is one of the 10 papers most likely to fold or going digital. I work pretty regularly as a freelance photographer for Pioneer Press, which is the part of the Sun-Times that covers the suburbs, and I can tell you that things are not pretty. Twelve of the suburban weeklies Pioneer publishes were closed earlier this year. Work has slowed way down for freelancers, and the editor who brought me on board was recently laid off (he has reappeared as a freelancer himself, but not before a party was held for him to which we were invited to bring canned food).

Here's what Sun-Times responded with after seeing the story:

Since we're on the list of dying/going digital - I don't buy it - a question: Why is going digital equated with dying in this media age?
Well, in the case of the Sun-Times, going digital probably will mean death. This is the same company that cut all of their permalinks for a redesign three years ago. I don't read the Sun-Times website much these days (although a quick look reminds me how clumsy it is), but the Pioneer Press site -- the series of local news outlets that has the potential to be a huge cash cow because of the opportunity for highly targeted advertising -- is an embarrassment. It loads so slowly that half the time I give up one it. When it does load, the content I'm looking for either doesn't exist yet or is very difficult to find. As a photographer, what amazes me most is that they almost never bother to link photos to the relevant stories. Instead, photos are listed in a gallery where users are invited to purchase prints. Now I don't know how much money they make off these prints, but it speaks volumes that they think this kind of direct sales project is more important than getting all the related content in the same place so that people can find it and use it.

I don't really understand why it has been so difficult for print journalism to make the kinds of transformational changes needed to get the most out of their content online. Other industries have figured it out. Is it just that the transformation is somehow more fundamental to what the press does? Some of these organizations will obviously survive, but it seems to me the next round will go to publications that have been built from the ground up with a new business model in mind. In fact, if I had the time and the resources to invest, I'd be working on building an online only local news source myself.

It isn't exactly a surprising finding that it's harder to get healthy food in poor neighborhoods, but it's a good sign that they seem to be doing more comprehensive studies on this issue.
Researchers are familiar with the idea that poor people have a harder time getting access to healthy food. But Franco said the two studies his team published are the first to take a look at the issue in a large city; in this case, it was Baltimore. Previous research, he said, only looked at a few neighborhoods or areas.

Researchers visited 226 food stores in the city of Baltimore and Baltimore County -- including supermarkets and convenience stores -- and looked at the availability of healthy food. They then tracked the availability of healthy food in each of 159 neighborhoods.

I only have limited experience going into grocery stores in the poorer parts of Chicago, but a big part of the problem is a lack of sufficient grocery stores to begin with. It would be interesting to know what Franco means when he says that "neither the store owners nor the residents themselves are entirely to blame." What dynamics are at play here?
March 8, 2009
$100     {0 Comments}
Mort Zuckerman had a cute joke about economists on Meet the Press today that I hadn't heard. An economist and his friend are walking down the street, and there is a $100 bill on the ground. When the economist walks right by, his friend asks him how he can walk right by a $100 bill, to which he replies, "If it were worth anything, someone would have picked it up already."
I wish we saw more of this kind of writing on what's wrong with world food production and how we can fix it.

I guess this kind of critical discussion of the organic and local food movements resonates so much with me because I've always felt a little uncomfortable with the self-righteous moral positioning that seems to go along with these products. Of course, I buy organics (less so locally produced food),and I do so in large part because they taste better and I have a vague sense that they are healthier. I am willing to pay a premium because I value better taste and health. But there's also a feeling that when I purchase these items, I'm also buying a sort of environmental indulgence.

Do people really miss the irony of using the term "sustainable" to refer to this kind of production? I understand that (among other things) it's referring to the unsustainability of using petroleum, which is a limited resource, as a motivator of food production. But if you can't scale it up to a place where it provides food for the whole world because of limitations on another natural resource -- land -- then doesn't it end up being equally unsustainable? Doesn't it just become a luxury product, a way for some people to feel like they're doing their part while the hoi polloi keep eating their corn? It's certainly sold like a luxury product. I don't see it at WalMart.

As I write this I'm in the middle of reading The Omnivore's Dilemma (highly recommended based on what I've read so far, but of course you've probably already read it) and while Pollan's description of our industrial food production is deeply troubling, there's this inescapable question of scale that it manages to satisfy. These ugliest features of our food production are also the same ones that allow us to live in the modern world, that support our populations and our largely urban lifestyle. Obviously the current system can't continue, but it seems pretty clear that any system that replaces it has to satisfy the same question of scale.