2009 - %3, June

Onomatopoeia at Its Finest: BING!

| Tue Jun. 30, 2009 1:06 PM EDT

Sure, for years Google has held a virtual monopoly over the search engine sector. But Bill Gates is always looking for a fight. And with Google facing scrutiny from the Feds over its potential anti-trust activities, there's no better time for Microsoft to make one last push for stardom with its new Bing search "decision" engine.

Bing only came to my attention after I saw approximately 50 advertisements, mostly from Gmail ads and Google searches. The name sank into my brain after I heard a catchy radio announcement. After hearing the radio ad, I thought Bing might actually be the product of an adventurous, independent, "two-guys-working-from-their-garage with angel investors" kind of startup. So I was somewhat saddened when, after being visually assaulted by an incredibly large banner ad on the New York Times homepage, I Googled Bing and found out that "the Man" was actually the driving force behind this onomatopoeia-aficionado's dream "decision engine."

We all know what happened when Microsoft tried to make Zune a comparable alternative to Apple's iPod, but we can never count Bill Gates & Co. out of the running for anything. So far, in my limited Bing usage, the engine has combined features of GoogleMaps, Kayak.com, and Hotels.com. For some searches, it was able to find somewhat better prices, though it didn't factor in things like taxes, location, or my preferences into the results. In the end, I ended up not booking through Bing. Since this newcomer is trying to be a one-stop-shop for all your decision needs, it may have uses for those who don't mind giving up the very best deal if it means they only have to go to one site instead of a dozen. For now, I may use Bing as a reference to make sure I'm getting the best deal on something, but I've decided it certainly won't become my go-to for decisions.

 

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The Power of Coal

| Tue Jun. 30, 2009 12:59 PM EDT

Ezra Klein notes that coal state Democrats voted against the Waxman-Markey climate bill at a higher rate than non-coal state Dems, but not that much higher.  About one-in-four of the coal state Democrats voted no, compared to only a little over one-in-10 of everyone else:

Even so, that means only one-in-four of the coal state Democrats voted no. I'd like to see those results drilled down to coal-dependent districts, but still, that's quite a bit less parochial defection than one might imagine.

....Another way of putting this is that the evidence suggests that this vote was less about parochial interests than partisanship and ideology. Plenty of Democrats from coal states made the judgment that they could defend this legislation to their constituents.

I think I'd look at this a little differently.  Sure, partisan politics was the main divide, but that's the main divide on everything.  What's more interesting is that a quarter of the coal state Dems voted against the bill even though it had already been massively watered down to reflect coal state interests. In its current state, Waxman-Markey has very little effect on coal state interests for at least the next decade, and possibly for more like 20 years.  But even so, lots of coal state Dems voted against it despite the fact that passage is a major goal of the party leadership, it's a major goal of the president, and it's the right thing to do.  I'd call that pretty damn parochial.

BP = "Back to Petroleum?"

| Tue Jun. 30, 2009 12:38 PM EDT

BP appears to be back pedaling on its vaunted commitment to alternative energy, renewing old skepticism about what the company formerly known as British Petroleum really stands for.

BP recently shuttered its alternative energy headquarters in London and plans to slash its $1.4 billion alternative energy budget by as much as 64 percent this year, the Guardian reports. Its clean energy boss, Vivienne Cox, is officially stepping down to spend more time with her family, though some industry insiders tell the paper that she's frustrated over the business being downgraded in importance.

Though BP has long led the oil industry in acknowleging climate change and investing in renewables, alternative energy investments make up only 5 percent of its portfolio. "Even its support of Kyoto is pilloried as disingenuous," Paul Roberts wrote in this magazine in 2006. "BP happens to be overstocked in reserves of natural gas, a fuel that emits less CO2 than coal or oil, and whose price would rise steeply if society was forced to cut carbon emissions."

RIP: Goldman Partners' Interest in Public Service

| Tue Jun. 30, 2009 12:25 PM EDT

Felix Salmon got an email from a Goldman Sachs spokesman responding to Matt Taibbi's lambasting of the company in Rolling Stone. (Taibbi called Goldman "the planet-eating Death Star of political influence" and accused it of engineering "every major market manipulation since the Great Depression.") After calling Taibbi's piece "hysterical," the spokesman, Lucas Van Praag, told Salmon the sad news that "in the wake of the events of the past year or two, Goldman’s partners have pretty much lost their appetite for going into public service." The horror, the horror! Whatever will we do without their enlightened leadership?

Ex-Con Consultant Refuses to Help Madoff With Prison Manners

| Tue Jun. 30, 2009 12:21 PM EDT

As I was perusing CNN's headlines this morning, one grabbed my attention: Ex-con: Madoff will be terrified in prison.

We all know that Big Bad Bernie was rewarded with 150 years in the slammer yesterday, but did you know that an ex-con named Larry Levine runs a business dedicated to helping convicts "get out alive" from federal prison?

Larry Levine's "Wall Street Prison Consultants" is one consulting business that succeeds in inversely proportional rates to the economy. It's logical that a white-collar banker's trip to the "pen" isn't a cakewalk, but Levine has devoted his life to teaching people about the ins and outs of prison etiquette. Levine clearly loves the limelight (as evidenced by his site's links to his many media appearances), but his inmate testimonials can't help but make one think that this guy really is something.

Unfortunately for Bernie, Levine's sense of integrity will keep him from helping the swindler stay safe behind bars. Levine told CNN, "Some people I can help, some people I can’t. Now, I had Madoff’s reps get a hold of me before he went into custody and I turned them down. I wouldn’t help the guy out because I view him as an economic terrorist. If you rip off a bank and insurance company, an institution, that’s an acceptable crime. Bernie hurt people. He hurt people individually and I refuse to help people like that. Let him rot in hell."

Reminder: We Tortured People to Death

| Tue Jun. 30, 2009 11:52 AM EDT

If you've been paying attention, you probably already know that the over 100 deaths of detainees during interrogations include dozens of people who were, in effect, tortured to death. If that surprises you, you should go read Glenn Greenwald. Actually, you should do it anyway.

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Green Dam Spouts a Leak

| Tue Jun. 30, 2009 11:41 AM EDT

For years the Chinese government has relied on the "Great Firewall" to censor its citizens' access to the internet, primarily by filtering packets based on keyword detection and blocking IP addresses of sites the government dislikes (Falun Gong, pro-democracy sites, etc.).  But the firewall has never been as watertight as the government would like, and the next phase was supposed to be the mandatory installation of a piece of software called "Green Dam" on every new computer sold in China.  Interestingly, Chinese computer users are fighting back and apparently winning:

In a last-minute climbdown, the Chinese government announced today that it will delay the launch of censorship software that was supposed to have been sold in every computer from tomorrow.

....The Guardian struggled to find a single retailer who had Green Dam either installed or bundled with computers. Adding to the mystery, Lenovo, Sony, Dell and Hewlett Packard refused to comment on whether their PCs are now being shipped with the software, as the government ordered them to do last month.

....A group of bandit hackers, known as Anonymous, declared "war" on Green Dam and threatened to attack it tomorrow.

According to a source close to the group, they plan to create a remote computer 'bot' that pummels Baidu, Kaixin and other mainland websites with data requests containing forbidden or sensitive terms, such as expletives, Falun Gong, Dalai Lama and "Fifty-cent party member" (the derogatory name given to people paid to post pro-government comments online). They hope the volume of dirty traffic will clog up the keyword filters.

I don't have any special comment about this.  It seemed like a quixotic plan from the start, and I'm not all that surprised that it's been delayed at the least, and possibly abandoned.  It's just hard to see how it can work in the long term.  Still, as with the twittering in Iran, it's interesting to see yet another case of how technology can be simultaneously both servant and bane of autocratic governments.

"A Dark Year" For Democracy in Russia, Report Concludes

| Tue Jun. 30, 2009 11:21 AM EDT

Freedom House, a Washington-based NGO that monitors political rights and civil liberties worldwide, released its "Nations In Transit" report Tuesday, an annual assessment of Eastern European and former Soviet states' transition to democracy. The report, first released in 1995, has always been something of a downer. And this year's incarnation is on exception. Two thirds (18 of 29) nations evaluated were found to be backsliding from democratic reform.

"2008 was a dark year for democracy in the region, in particular in the former Soviet states," said Vladimir Shkolnikov, who oversaw the report. "With economic conditions worsening, the region is likely to see authoritarians resort to greater repression, rather than adopt needed reforms." Indeed, for the first time, Russia was determined to be "a consolidated authoritarian regime," due to its persistent problems with corruption, press censorship, and rigged courts, not to mention last year's highly suspect presidential election in which Putin acolyte, Dmitry Medvedev, came out on top. Similar authoritarian trends also appeared in Kyrgyzstan, Ukraine, and Georgia. 

Infinite Jest

| Tue Jun. 30, 2009 10:59 AM EDT

So a bunch of folks are reading David Foster Wallace's Infinite Jest this summer and blogging about it.  Infinite Summer kicked things off and A Supposedly Fun Blog is the stomping grounds for IJ musings from a bunch of political types.

I feel kind of funny reading the things everyone has to say.  It's an iconic book now, the kind of thing you read partly to say you've read it, and it's famously long and complex.  And the footnotes.  The footnotes.

But that wasn't my experience of Infinite Jest.  It's absolutely not the kind of book I'd normally pick up and read, but for some reason I did back in 1997.  I have no idea why.  I'd never heard of the book and I'd never heard of David Foster Wallace, so I didn't suffer from any preconceptions that I was making a statement by diving into it.  I was completely naive.  And I loved it.  It was long and complex — I could only read about 50 pages a day because my brain just gave out after that many pages — but I never found it pretentious or overly difficult, two adjectives often associated with it.  (A little bit difficult, yes, but a friendly kind of difficult.) To me, Wallace was having fun with the vocabulary he used, not showing off.  I got a huge kick out of the endless footnotes.  And once he finally explained what the chapter headings were about, things started making a whole lot more sense.  (Granted, that doesn't happen until you're a couple hundred pages in, but hey — that's less than 20% of the book!)  If you're interested, my original 1997 thoughts about IJ are here.

I don't think I'm up to the task of rereading it this summer, but I'd recommend it to anyone who asks.  When you're done, be sure to read the first chapter over again.

Medical Myths

| Tue Jun. 30, 2009 9:52 AM EDT

The New York Times summarizes a few "medical myths" today, and Ezra Klein says he's glad to hear that knuckle cracking doesn't cause arthritis.  Since I'm a longtime knuckle cracker and it drives my mother crazy, I already knew this.  You gotta keep up with the latest research when you're arguing with Mom.  But this one surprised me:

8. Sugar makes kids hyper. Numerous studies show sugar doesn’t affect behavior, but most parents don’t believe this. In one study, parents were told their kids had sugar and they were more likely to report problem behavior — but in reality, the kids had consumed a sugar-free drink.

Seriously?  Sugar has no effect on kids' behavior?  This must be one of the most widely believed myths in history.  I'm not sure I want to buy the book all this stuff is excerpted from, but I might head over to the bookstore just to skim this part.  It sounds fascinatingly contrary.