From the Rolling Stone McChrystal article, one of these things is not like the other:
The general’s staff is a handpicked collection of killers, spies, geniuses, patriots, political operators and outright maniacs. There’s a former head of British Special Forces, two Navy Seals, an Afghan Special Forces commando, a lawyer, two fighter pilots and at least two dozen combat veterans and counterinsurgency experts.
A new study by Harvard health policy professor Joseph Newhouse finds that when Medicare payments to doctors for chemotherapy are cut, doctors respond by prescribing chemotherapy to more patients than they previously had, thus making up the difference. Predictable or unintended consequence, it’s still Econ 101. Still, policymakers act as if people (and doctors are people) can be immune to incentives. Since the Obama health reform pays for itself in part with medicare payment cuts, expect to see more of this sort of thing.
What’s especially interesting to me is how this underscores the insanely asymmetric relationship we have with doctors. The only difference between a doctor and a car mechanic telling you that you need to replace your Johnson rod is that you’re probably in a much more vulnerable position talking to a doctor.
California: America's bread basket and food regulator
Baylen Linnekin has published a new law review article that you should read if you care about your right to eat whatever you want. He points out that California is leading the charge in regulating and banning politically incorrect foods, including hollandaise sauce and Caesar dressing, taco trucks and other street foods, eggs, raw milk, trans fats, and many others. This should worry the rest of us because as goes California, so goes the nation. For example, California was the first state to ban foie gras, and soon other jurisdictions followed suit, including famously Chicago.
Before reading Baylen’s article, I had no idea that California was responsible for so much of our food production. When you think of America’s bread basket, you tend to think of the midwest, but in fact it is California:
The sheer volume and variety of crops grown in California defy overstatement. The state leads the nation in production of almonds and walnuts and seemingly every crop alphabetically in between. In addition to almonds and walnuts, California is America‘s sole producer—meaning it is home to ninety-nine percent or more of the country‘s overall production—of figs, raisins, olives, clingstone peaches, persimmons, prunes, pomegranates, sweet rice, and clover seed. The state leads the nation in production of asparagus, avocados, bell peppers, broccoli, carrots, cauliflower, celery, cut flowers, dates, eggplant, garlic, grapes, herbs, kiwi, lemon, lettuce, lima beans, melons, nectarines, onions, pears, pistachios, plums, raspberries, strawberries, turnips, and more than a dozen other crops. All told, California farms account for nearly half of America‘s domestic production of fruits, nuts, and vegetables. California growers ship the vast majority of these crops to other U.S. states. California also accounts for all of America‘s nut exports, and three out of five fruit and vegetable exports.
California also has the most vibrant restaurant industry in the country. To me, this begs the question: If California’s agricultural and food industry is so massive why hasn’t it successfully organized to block food regulation? Is it simply the case that green lobby is much bigger?
I’m back from Disney and here is my verdict: it’s is incredibly ordinary. I’m afraid I have no grand insights to offer, but I’ll take a stab at a few observations.
My last post inspired Jackson Kuhl to riff on how an ideal of cultural authenticity is generally unhelpful, and concluded: “I think perhaps Jerry didn’t want to go to Disney because, as a 30-something dude without kids, riding the Dumbo carousel doesn’t get his heart pumping.” I think that’s absolutely right. Disney is first and foremost for children, and it was for the benefit of my wife’s nephew that we went. It was only through his enjoyment that I could appreciate the place.
Now, two things that struck me. First, vacationing at Disney is like vacationing at a cross of a mall and sports stadium. The entire experience is engineered to get you to buy stuff. At the stores, at the kiosks, at the food court. The vast majority of the stuff is the kind of completely useless garbage that in a previous life I founded Unclutterer to combat. The twist is that there is no competition inside Disney’s walls, so you pay incredibly inflated prices. The company, however, has mastered the art of making folks thankful for the privilege. I am seriously considering purchasing their stock.
The second thing that struck me is that Disney is one of the most massive experiments in privatization we have today. Walt Disney wanted to build more than an amusement part. The immersive experience he had in mind was not just for visitors, but for residents as well. The Magic Kingdom was to be just a small part of the Experimental Prototype Community of Tomorrow. According to Wikipedia:
Walt Disney’s original vision of EPCOT was for a model community, home to twenty thousand residents, which would be a test bed for city planning and organization. The community was to have been built in the shape of a circle, with businesses and commercial areas at its center, community buildings and schools and recreational complexes around it, and residential neighborhoods along the perimeter. Transportation would have been provided by monorails and PeopleMovers (like the one in the Magic Kingdom’s Tomorrowland). Automobile traffic would be kept underground, leaving pedestrians safe above-ground. Walt Disney said, “It will be a planned, controlled community, a showcase for American industry and research, schools, cultural and educational opportunities. In EPCOT, there will be no slum areas because we won’t let them develop. There will be no landowners and therefore no voting control. People will rent houses instead of buying them, and at modest rentals. There will be no retirees; everyone must be employed.”
Here is a film of Disney presenting the concept city. In one sense it’s a libertarian dream. A completely privatized city. In a law review article on the subject, Prof. Chad Emerson explains how it was made possible by the Florida legislature creating what amounts to a giant business improvement district the size of Manhattan. It ceded to the Disney Company traditionally governmental functions such as zoning, streets, drainage and even police and fire service. For example, in the elevators of the Disney hotel at which I stayed last week, the usual inspection certificates were posted. The issuing authority was the Reedy Creek Improvement District, which is wholly controlled by Disney. In essence, the company is certifying its own elevators. In theory, the district (read Disney) also has the power to set up its own municipal court, and it even has explicit authority to develop a nuclear power plant.
In another sense, though, it’s a libertarian nightmare. Planned by experts from top-to-bottom with a benevolent Uncle Walt at the head. As I’ve mentioned, there also doesn’t seem to be much room for competition inside the city walls. If Walt had had his way, alcohol would have been strictly controlled. And what exactly would have happened to the old people who wanted to retire? I guess it’s all OK though if you what you’re signing up for and are free to leave any time.
In the end, Disney died before even the Magic Kingdom opened, and the plan for greater EPCOT was reduced to the EPCOT Center park we know today. The top down and controlled nature of Disney is still very present there, however, and I think that’s what gives me the willies about the place. There’s nothing nefarious about it, it’s simply like Walt’s vision for the dome that would have encapsulated EPCOT: climate-controlled to a perfect 72º at all times with no chance of weather. Even Las Vegas—Disney World for adults—as “synthetic” as it is, has an element of unpredictability to it.
I don’t know if the following is common knowledge, but I was proud of myself for thinking it up unassisted, so I’m going to share it with you anyway. Like most happy couples, my wife and I like to sit next to each other on flights, but neither of us cares for the middle seat. I will insist on taking the aisle because I hate having to ask to get up. My wife is accommodating, but because the middle seat is no picnic, we started to choose aisle seats across from each other, which has worked great. They’re close enough to carry on a conversation without bothering anyone, and four years into our relationship, we can bear to be two feet apart for a few hours.
What I started noticing was that when we did this we often had no one sitting in the middle seats next to us, which made flights extra-comfortable. As you’ve probably already guessed, here’s what I figured out: When choosing a seat online, try to find a row in which both window seats have been taken, then choose the two aisle seats. Unless it is a very full flight, chances are low that any single traveler will choose to take a middle seat. Voila, instant extra room all around. If you wan to sit in the same side of a row, try to find an empty row and choose an aisle seat and a window seat and chances are you’ll have no one sit between you in the middle seat. If someone does, you can ask them to switch and they likely will.
Starting tonight, I’ll be in Disney World for a week. My father-in-law is turning 60 and he’s taking the whole family (not least his three-year-old grandson) to Florida. I’m very much looking forward to it, especially seeing my wife’s great family.
That said I have to admit that Disney World would not be my first choice of vacation destination. The reason, I tell myself, is that I don’t care for artificial experiences. At Disney World, “cast members” are never allowed to frown, for example. The smell of fresh-baked cookies is pumped into the air around “Main Street.” In fact, the very idea of a long lost American main street is fake.
But then I think, isn’t immersing ourselves in fantasy exactly what we do when we go to the theatre or read a book? Disney World is just intensely more immersive, that’s all. Why not just enjoy the ride? That’s true, and that’s what I intend to do. And I’ll make sure to report back here on what I learn.
Let me briefly tackle another objection to Disney World. One can conceive of two types of travel—for escapism and for enlightenment. Two me, these don’t have to be mutually exclusive. They are probably on a spectrum. An all-inclusive beach resort is way to the escapist end, but you can learn something if you try, and while tooling around souks in Turkey may be enlightening, there’s certainly an element of escapism or it wouldn’t be a vacation. So while I don’t think there’s anything wrong with escapism (quite the opposite) I’m thinking I’ll be able to learn a lot about America at this most escapist of destinations.
Over at my humble podcast, I interview “Is Google Making Us Stupid” author Nick Carr about his new book, The Shallows, and what the internet is doing to our brains. Nothing good, he argues.
Carr’s publicist deserves a gold medal because the NYT today is running a series of articles on the “trend” that Americans are coming to the conclusion that gadgets and always-on connectivity is turning their brains to mush (one, two, and three). What’s more, on its Bits blog, the NYT is asking for volunteers to unplug from the internet and then report on their experience. And Carr had op-eds in the WSJ on Saturday and the WaPo yesterday.
So this is all to say, listen to my podcast. But also to ask, do you feel more distracted, unfocused and forgetful since the rise of the internet? For some of us “before the internet” is a meaningless distinction. Do you find it hard to concentrate on deep reading? Do you read as much as you used to?
By examining photographs of artists, Livingstone and her fellow researchers found that Andrew Wyeth, Edward Hopper, Marc Chagall, Jasper Johns, Frank Lloyd Wright, Robert Rauschenberg, Alexander Calder and others all had misaligned eyes. (And by studying the self-portraits and etchings of Rembrandt, she found he also seems to have had a strong lazy eye.) Why this pattern? She proposed that people who have less detailed three-dimensional vision of the world might have an easier time translating what they see onto the two-dimensional page—whether it was for a painting of a dinner scene, sketch for a mobile or plan for a building.
Clay Shirky describes his media diet to the Atlantic. The whole thing’s a good read (and at the end there are links to media habits of other interesting people), but here’s the part that caught my eye:
In general, there’s no real breaking news that matters to me. I don’t have any alerts or notifications on any piece of software I use. My phone is on silent ring, nothing alerts me when I get a Tweet and my e-mail doesn’t tell me when messages arrive.
I also don’t read any of the big tech aggregators. Knowing that, for instance, Google just bought Blogger, isn’t that useful for me to hear today rather than tomorrow. Some of Michael Arrington’s stuff I think is an example of the worst kind of breaking news. The kind of Apple Insider stuff where they publish something every day to satisfy the news cycle. It’s gossip coverage like following movie stars and it distracts me from thinking longer form thoughts. …
For decades, I religiously read the op-ed pages of the New York Times but recently I’ve stopped because every op-ed is so closely tied to a newspeg that the thinking never gets very far from current events. So I’ve recently gotten away from the daily news cycle. I’ve got a weekly clock cycle and a monthly clock cycle. Time is a precious commodity. Increasingly, I’m trying to maximize it.
Several things strike me about this. First, I’m happy to find a kindred soul who doesn’t read news. People are surprised when I tell them that I don’t read newspapers and simply get my “news” from the ether. It’s a great way to make conversation: “So what happened with some baseball umpire yesterday?” Related to this is what I perceive as the increasing futility of the op-ed, or even blogging about current events, especially the latest policy turn in the tech or telecom sectors that I follow. It’s the same script, over and over, same arguments, slightly different sets of facts.
Finally, it seems like Shirky is accepting Nicholas Carr’s argument that the internet is distracting us and changing the way we think to the point where we can’t think deep thoughts any longer. At the same time, he’s offering a solution: turn it off. You don’t have to check it every five minutes. Unfortunately for most people, that’s easier said that done and requires lots of discipline. But, being aware of the issue is the first step toward addressing it.
FYI: Nick Carr will be the guest on my interview podcast on Monday and Clay Shirky will be the guest the following Monday (6/14). You can subscribe on iTunes.
Aaron has a post on hipsters that cites Dan’s essay on irony, the point of which is that the line between sincerity and irony has disappeared. Dan, probably ironically, said, “I no longer distinguish between that which I do sincerely and that which I do ironically.” This got me to thinking, and I’d like to propose a litmus test for irony.
Irony requires an audience. If you listen to Taylor Swift when you’re by yourself, with no one watching you, you’re not doing it ironically. You’re doing it sincerely. This test does not work on the reverse case. If you’re dressed like this in front of your friends, you might be doing it sincerely. We can’t tell.
I think this is what bothers Aaron about hipsters, that everything becomes performance art. While most irony is about humor, the irony of hipsters is all about signaling. When Dan says we don’t know if we’re doing something ironically, I think he’s hinting at how hipsters, especially in their extreme incarnations, seem to have forgotten what it is they are signaling. It’s no longer a smart quip that signals their awareness of the absurdity of modern culture, it’s just signaling about signaling.
Whatever the case, you can’t signal to yourself, and that’s the bright line for irony.
Seth Roberts has a new paper trying to explain the “unreasonable effectiveness” of his self-experimentations efforts. To me it’s more evidence of the rise of the amateur.
The puzzle began in graduate school, where I studied experimental psychology. To learn how to do experiments, I tried to do as many as possible. At the time I had acne. It was easy to measure (count pimples each morning) so I decided to do experiments about it. My dermatologist had prescribed tetracycline, an antibiotic. A few months of self-experimentation showed that tetracycline did not work, which surprised my dermatologist. Later conventional research found that tetracycline often fails. My dermatologist had years of experience. Yet a little self-experimentation by a non-expert found something important that he and other dermatologists did not know.
Unconstrained by groupthink, the need to signal status, or professional regulations, non-expertscan more easily think outside the box.
Pundits are foaming at the mouth about AT&T’s just-announced end to unlimited data packages for smartphones. Here is Jeff Jarvis calling the move “cynical,” “retrograde,” and “evil.” However, he provides no evidence that this is anything but AT&T facing economic reality. The iPhone was a revolution, and how much data people consume given an awesome device turned out to be much more than AT&T was ready for. Now they’re asking their customers who use the most data to pay more, and this is evil?
Not only is it not evil, it’s incredibly fair. Most people will probably pay less for service. The cheapest of AT&T’s new plans is $15 for 200 MB of data. That’s $15 cheaper than their current $30 for unlimited iPhone use. According to AT&T, 65 percent of their customers use less than 200 MB of data a month. I consider myself a heavy iPhone user, and I just came back from a trip to NYC on which my iPhone was the only device I took with me, and yet with 2 days left in my billing cycle, I’ve used 154 MB of data. So, AT&T’s change will actually be a price-cut for me and the majority of AT&T customers.