Kevin Drum - November 2008

Battery Woes 2....The Empire Strikes Back

| Fri Nov. 21, 2008 5:26 PM PST

BATTERY WOES 2....THE EMPIRE STRIKES BACK....I know you're all waiting on pins and needles to get the skinny on my trip to the Apple Genius Bar, so here's how it went. My appointment was scheduled for 3:20. At 3:20 they called my name. I told the tech my story, he nodded, plugged a doodad into my USB port and booted my MacBook. After a few seconds it came up with a special screen that said:

BATTERY STATUS: BAD

There was a bunch of other detail on the screen, but basically, it just confirmed that my battery was bad. And for what it's worth, the tech says we were all wrong: there's no harm in letting the battery discharge completely, and no harm in letting it sit around for a couple of months. It is a good idea to let it discharge to zero and then charge completely once a month or so, but that's just to keep the battery calibrated. And it's also a good idea to discharge it to 50% and turn the machine off if you think you're not going to use it for five or six months. But that wasn't my problem. I just had a bad battery. So he replaced it, and at about 3:30 I was on my way.

So: all whining about the battery aside, I have to say that this was just about the most painless tech support experience I've ever had. Kudos to Apple.

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Obama's Cabinet

| Fri Nov. 21, 2008 3:10 PM PST

OBAMA'S CABINET....The New York Times says Hillary Clinton has decided to become Barack Obama's Secretary of State. New York Fed chief Tim Geithner will head up the Treasury. So far, then, Obama's cabinet looks like this:

State: Hillary Clinton
Treasury: Tim Geithner
Defense: Robert Gates (maybe)
Attorney General: Eric Holder
Health & Human Services: Tom Daschle
Homeland Security: Janet Napolitano

Whatever else you can say about this crew, there's not much question that Obama is assembling an extremely experienced and competent set of advisors. This is a team that can definitely hit the ground running.

On a related topic, I guess this means I have to eat my hat. After my trip to the Genius Bar this afternoon I shall search the local bakeries for a chocolate cake shaped like a hat and report back to you on how I fare.

Friday Cat Blogging - 21 November 2008

| Fri Nov. 21, 2008 1:14 PM PST

FRIDAY NETBLOGGING.... After my Macblogging this morning (or perhaps Macwhining is more like it) (and yes, I have a 3:20 appointment today at the local Genius Bar, thankyouverymuch) (and I can hardly wait to find out if the only option is to buy a new battery at whatever inflated price Apple charges) — anyway, after all that, I figured I should update you on the netbook I bought last week too.

So here it is, propped up next to Inkblot to give you a sense of scale. (And before you ask: yes, the recursive wallpaper idea turned out to be a huge pain in the ass.) (And it didn't even work all that well, since the white balance of the LCD screen is way different than the white balance of the great outdoors.)

Anyway. It's an MSI Wind U100 and so far it's worked pretty well. Very light and convenient. Good performance. Uses Windows XP, not Vista. Sleep mode and hibernation work nicely. Battery life is advertised at five hours, but my guess is that a little over four hours of continuous use is more realistic. The keyboard is quite usable and all the keys are in the right place. The trackpad doesn't have a scrollbar (why? why?!?), but tapping the upper and lower right corners scrolls up and down, and that works pretty well. The trackpad, as I mentioned earlier, is very sensitive, which is a problem until you figure that out, and still a bit of a problem even after you get used to it. The screen is small, of course (1024 x 600), but very sharp and readable. The card reader gave me some problems until I figured out that internally it's a USB device and I have to click the "remove device safely" icon before I pop it out. Bluetooth and wireless work fine. The speakers suck, of course, but the sound is OK with headphones. (In fact, it's a nice little movie player, and I used it last weekend to finally watch The 27th Day, which I had downloaded months ago but never watched on my desktop machine.)

But there's got to be something wrong with it, right? Yes. And I owe it to the Mac fans to air this on the blog. Here it is: the wireless seems to work fine on all networks except mine. On mine, it continually cycles on and off trying to acquire an address. This could be the router's fault, of course, but the router works fine with every notebook I've tried except the MSI. The only failure comes with the combination of this router and this notebook. If I reboot the router, everything works fine for a while, but the next day it's bollocksed up again. It's probably related to the router releasing and reacquiring an address overnight or something, but I haven't figured out anything more than that yet. I don't suppose the Genius Bar folks can help me with that, can they?

Big Bonuses

| Fri Nov. 21, 2008 12:36 PM PST

BIG BONUSES....Dan Ariely writes in the New York Times today about an experiment he did to find out if paying people big bonuses motivated them to produce better results:

We presented 87 participants with an array of tasks that demanded attention, memory, concentration and creativity....We promised them payment if they performed the tasks exceptionally well. About a third of the subjects were told they'd be given a small bonus, another third were promised a medium-level bonus, and the last third could earn a high bonus.

We did this study in India, where the cost of living is relatively low so that we could pay people amounts that were substantial to them but still within our research budget. The lowest bonus was 50 cents — equivalent to what participants could receive for a day's work in rural India. The middle-level bonus was $5, or about two weeks' pay, and the highest bonus was $50, five months' pay.

....The people offered medium bonuses performed no better, or worse, than those offered low bonuses. But what was most interesting was that the group offered the biggest bonus did worse than the other two groups across all the tasks.

The gibes pretty well with my understanding of how to get the best performance out of people. Money matters, but not that much. Being happy in your job matters, but not that much. What really matters is (a) having the skill set for the job and (b) having the support infrastructure (tools, budget, executive buy-in, whatever) needed to allow you to do your job.

Now, obviously, money is important to attract people who have the skill set for the job. If CEOs are all being paid 400x the median salary, the best ones aren't going to work for someone who offers them only 100x. Why would they? Still, the huge secular increase in CEO salaries (and Wall Street bonuses) over the past few decades has almost certainly produced absolutely nothing in the way of higher performance. All it's done is suck money away from blue collar workers, who do respond the way you'd expect to monetary incentives, away from support infrastructure, which genuinely improves the performance of high-skill workers, and away from shareholders.

Bottom line: in a variety of ways, our economy would almost certainly operate more efficiently if the super-rich were paid less. At best it does no good, at worst it motivates reckless behavior, and in the end it prevents the money from being put to its most beneficial use. Quite a mess we've gotten ourselves into since 1980.

Quote of the Day - 11.21.08

| Fri Nov. 21, 2008 12:15 PM PST

QUOTE OF THE DAY....From Felix Salmon, on the possibility of Citigroup merging with Goldman Sachs:

"Nothing's unthinkable in this market, not even the idea that you can tie two rocks together and hope that they float."

National Security Musings

| Fri Nov. 21, 2008 10:57 AM PST

NATIONAL SECURITY MUSINGS....I don't have a lot of independent comment on this, but here's a bit of miscellaneous rumormongering on the national security front. First, Joe Klein:

Lots of news from Obamaland on the national security front in the past 24 hours — Hillary Clinton "on track" to become Secretary of State, retired General Jim Jones said to become National Security Adviser (while Republican realist Brent Scowcroft has been advising Obama on National Security)...and some strong flutterings that Obama wants to retain Robert Gates as Secretary of Defense as first reported here last summer, which seems especially credible because no other name has been floated as a potential SecDef.

If true, this is an extremely strong, and wise, national security team. It would reflect a powerful desire on Obama's part to return to the tradition of bipartisan foreign policy, with politics stopping at the water's edge. And it would reflect a growing centrist consensus in the foreign policy/national security spectrum that includes most members of the Bush 41 and Clinton teams — in favor of the primacy of diplomacy over militarism, ready to begin talks with those the Bush Administration considered pariahs (the Taliban, Syria, Iran), but not averse to the use of force — against Al Qaeda, in particular — when necessary.

Hmmm. Here's Andrew Sullivan on John Brennan:

Marc reports the Republican, former chief-of-staff for George Tenet (who authorized war crimes as CIA head), admirer of Dick Cheney, CEO of the company one of whose contract employees improperly accessed Obama's and McCain's passports, and defender of renditions and "enhanced interrogations" is still Obama's front-runner pick to head the CIA. No, I'm not making this up.....Why is such a man even considered for the post under Obama? This man cannot end the taint of Bush-Cheney. He was Bush-Cheney.

From across the pond, Alex Massie considers Obama's views more broadly and concludes that we're not likely to see any dramatic change:

Viewed from outside the United States, the foreign policy "debate" in Washington is a curiously curtailed affair. It concentrates on means, not ends and this rather tends to obscure the fact that, on many and perhaps even most issues, there's less between the parties than might be thought.

....When you get down to the bottom of it, Obama hasn't yet given much indication that he either wants to, let alone will, break from the broad thrust of the Washington foreign policy consensus. That being so, why should hawks on either side of the aisle have anything to fear from him? Means matter, of course, but so do ends.

I'm not yet in the mood to make any thundering pronouncements on any of this stuff. None of these people have actually been announced yet, for one thing, and the rumor mill might be wrong. And even if these do turn out to be Obama's picks, they aren't the whole team. And anyway, Obama never pretended to be some kind of Noam Chomsky acolyte. He's a mainstream liberal American president.

Still — and keep in mind that I'm speaking as someone who's only modestly left of center on foreign affairs — this is a disturbingly hawkish team taken as a whole, isn't it? I get the whole "water's edge" thing, as well as Obama's desire to bring back some kind of consensus in the national security arena, but it would be nice to see at least one or two really serious progressives getting some high profile national security positions that have the president's ear, wouldn't it? I mean, that is why most of us voted for him, right?

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The Gnomes of Zurich

| Fri Nov. 21, 2008 10:12 AM PST

THE GNOMES OF ZURICH....John Quiggin thinks Switzerland is about to go bankrupt. Just thought I'd mention it.

Trouble in River Citi

| Fri Nov. 21, 2008 9:27 AM PST

TROUBLE IN RIVER CITI....Back in the hazy days of early 2008, Countrywide failed. But hey — they were hugely exposed to subprime mortgages, so that was hardly a surprise. Don't read too much into it. Then Bear Stearns failed. But they were the weakest of the investment banks and had unusual derivative exposures. The others were probably OK. Then Fannie and Freddie failed. But they were GSAs. And Lehman Brothers went under. But Richard Fuld had really screwed the pooch, and the federal bailout plan would keep the other investment banks OK. But then Merrill got eaten, and Morgan and Goldman turned themselves into bank holding companies. No more investment banks. But at least the big money center banks were basically OK, right?

So tell me: now that Citigroup seems to be on the brink of failure, what are we supposed to think? Is anyone safe? Is Brad DeLong right, and full-scale Swedish style nationalization is the only real option still open to us? Does Congress really want to go into recess without passing some kind of major stimulus package before January 20? Really?

MacBook Update

| Fri Nov. 21, 2008 9:00 AM PST

MACBOOK UPDATE....Thanks to everyone who suggested resetting the SMC controller in my MacBook. It didn't work, but it did cause the white LED on the front of the notebook to start pulsing again, which made me think it was working for a while and allowed me to go to bed happy. When I woke up this morning, though, the battery was still dead after a night of charging and the message on the menu bar was actually more ominous than before. Sigh. Off to the Genius Bar, I guess.

But I'm curious about something. An awful lot of people in yesterday's thread seemed to think that I had committed some kind of technological malpractice by letting the battery discharge completely. Mind you, this wasn't deliberate on my part. I just closed the lid one day (August 29, I think, after using the MacBook to blog about Sarah Palin during a power failure) and then didn't happen to use it for the next two or three months. But frankly, even if I'd known I wasn't going to use it I wouldn't have done anything special. I would have just figured that the battery would discharge completely and I'd have to charge it before I used it next. No big deal.

But that's not so? If you let your battery discharge completely, the entire machine dies and refuses to charge the battery again? Why? Just to teach me a lesson? Or what? I don't understand why completely discharging a battery should have such dire effects. I thirst for knowledge, as always, so can anyone enlighten me?

Sadr's Slump

| Fri Nov. 21, 2008 8:51 AM PST

SADR'S SLUMP....The latest from Baghdad:

More than 10,000 supporters of the radical anti-American Shiite cleric Moktada al-Sadr gathered in Baghdad's Firdos Square on Friday to protest the Iraqi government plan to sign a security agreement which would maintain American troops in the country for up to three years. With powerful symbolism, demonstrators hanged an effigy of President Bush from the plinth that once supported the statue of Saddam Hussein that was toppled after Baghdad fell to U.S. troops on April 9, 2003.

Hmmm. Am I the only one who thinks 10,000 is a pretty puny turnout for one of Sadr's protests? Didn't he used to brag about turning out crowds of nearly a million? Symbolism is nice, but a few hundred thousand marchers would have been a much more impressive show.

Based on this, I predict that the SOFA will pass parliament shortly. You heard it here first.