February 2009 Archives

Are Democratic lobby groups ready to fight alongside the Obama administration to secure their policy goals?

This time, too, the ground has shifted in the debate, with new support for a sweeping overhaul of the health care system from some quarters of the business community, where the crushing effect of benefits costs and the impetus to contain them through new governmental policies are a regular topic of discussion.

Wal-Mart and AT&T, for example, are members of Better Health Care Together, a group Mr. Podesta’s organization helped found with the leader of the Service Employees International Union, Andy Stern.

Even the insurance industry group that ran the “Harry and Louise” spots — now called America’s Health Insurance Plans — says it wants to play a different role this time around.

Liberal Groups Are Flexing New Muscle in Lobby Wars

I’d hesitate to reduce this to a single dimension: the strength of the Democratic lobby corps. While I haven’t done any deep analysis of the two situations, it seems to me that Clinton’s healthcare policy was being advanced from a position of weakness: Clinton was badly bruised in his election, taking only 43% of the popular vote. President Clinton then immediately galvanized the right with the issue of gays in the military. What’s more, the resulting solution of “Don’t ask, don’t tell,” also managed to disenchant the left.

Today, we have a popular president advancing his healthcare agenda during a severe economic downturn. Businesses, governments, and individuals alike dread spending even more of their dwindling cash on healthcare. Individual states have experimented with private universal coverage, helping to bring the idea further into the mainstream.

A former colleague of mine in the information security business used to refer to what he called “the shelf life of urgency,” and the Obama plan may be able to take advantage of the current conditions to sail through.

The Kindle Swindle?

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There are several levels of wrongness layered in this Times op-ed:

BEING president of too many well-meaning organizations put my father into an early grave. The lesson in this was not lost on me. But now I am president of the Authors Guild, whose mission is to sustain book-writing as a viable occupation. This borders on quixotic, given all the new ways of not getting paid that new technology affords authors. A case in point: Amazon’s Kindle 2, which was released yesterday.

Op-Ed Contributor - The Kindle Swindle? - NYTimes.com

Let’s recap the situation:

Amazon.com, the largest seller of books in the world, has created a way for people who find books, magazines, and other printed versions of the written word too inconvenient to enjoy the works of authors. All this in the midst of declining print sales, consolidation of publishers, and a global recession.

Yeah, if I was the head of the Authors Guild (where’s the plural possessive apostrophe, by the way?), I’d want to put the brakes on that, too.

How bank bonuses let us all down

One simple, but profound, explanation for the current crisis lies in the implicit misalignment of incentives in the financial services world: bankers make bonuses every year when things are good. In fact, their bonuses are bigger when they take huge risks that pay off.

But when these risks get out of control, then whole banks, and whole financial systems, collapse, giving back the gains that created these bonuses. The bankers, of course, keep their cash, but the taxpayer pays for the resultant meltdown.

Take two bankers. The first is conservative. He produces one annual dollar of sound returns, with no risk of blow-up. The second looks no less conservative, but makes $2 by making complicated transactions that make a steady income, but are bound to blow up on occasion, losing everything made and more. So while the first banker might end up out of business, under competitive strains, the second is going to do a lot better for himself. Why? Because banking is not about true risks but perceived volatility of returns: you earn a stream of steady bonuses for seven or eight years, then when the losses take place, you are not asked to disburse anything. You might even start again, after blaming a “systemic crisis” or a “black swan” for your losses. As you do not disgorge previous compensation, the incentive is to engage in trades that explode rarely, after a period of steady gains.

FT.com / Comment / Opinion - How bank bonuses let us all down

Safari 4 took my draggable space away!

Instant reaction to the new tab design in Safari 4: not loving the tiny draggable area:


There, that ribbed corner? That’s what you have to hit if you want to drag a tab. You used to be able to manipulate the whole window; this is a bit of a step backwards. In fact, if you miss the click target, you wind up dragging your whole Safari window around.

Let the jokes begin:

"This is the first time that we have ever done anything large-scale like this. For a first version of something, I would say all things considered, we did a reasonably good job," said Brummel. "Unfortunately, this what I will call a small error -- but I am sure not to the individuals. Forty five out of 1,400 is unfortunate. But I think it just causes us to say we need to double check process along the way, particularly as it relates to what people get paid."

Microsoft apologizes for severance check mishap, says laid off workers don't have to repay - TechFlash: Seattle's Technology News Source

We’ll get it right by Layoff 3.0 Enterprise Edition?

We’ll start the Trustworthy Layoff Initiative; the next few rounds of layoffs will show successively fewer overpayments than layoffs at Sun, Red Hat, and IBM.

Article on the Hulu, Boxee, TV.com, etc flaps:

Hulu caused quite a stir this week when, at the request of rights holders, it shut down Boxee’s access to its streaming video platform. While many discussed the business implications of this move, some are ready to do more than just talk about it. One reader wrote to tell us that he’s gonna stop using Hulu altogether and go back to downloading TV shows via BitTorrent. Lifehacker editor Adam Pash apparently had the same idea, given his post entitled “How to Get Hulu Content on TV Without Hulu’s Help.”

Is Hulu Driving People Back to Piracy? « NewTeeVee

Bottom line is that there’s only one lesson you need to learn about the effect the internet can have on a business: inconvenience people, and they’ll get what they want from the next most convenient supplier.

I think people would be surprised at the fact that there’s no single, overarching federal law to protect your privacy in the United States.

The row over Facebook's change in its terms of service governing users personal data highlights the need for a privacy law, claims a leading watchdog.

The Electronic Privacy Information Centre was on the brink of filing a legal complaint when Facebook announced it would revert to its old policy.

The new terms seemingly gave Facebook vast control over users' content.

"This row underlines the need for comprehensive privacy laws," said Epic's president Marc Rotenberg.

"It is great that Facebook has responded by going back to its old terms of service. That is a step in the right direction, but these issues don't go away.

"It's going to be an ongoing concern for users until we get privacy laws in place," Mr Rotenberg told the BBC.

BBC NEWS | Technology | Privacy law call in Facebook row

It certainly is a concern for me, although Facebook may not be the best way to make these issues clear to most people. After all, Facebook’s whole purpose is sharing, publishing, exhibiting. Privacy risks become clearer for people when they’re thinking more in terms of storing (and limited, controlled sharing of) information you want otherwise to keep private, such as your financial or health information*.

*I work for the Microsoft team that created HealthVault, and privacy is one of the policy issues I help manage.

Interesting idea, although the article and the comment thread kind of devolve into a bit of “This is DRM! No it’s not!” shouting.

The pop band The Presidents of the United States of America have released a special iPhone app that contains all of the music from all of their albums, as well as additional rare and unreleased music and images. The whole thing costs $3 -- which certainly blows the old $1/song model out of the water.

Band Puts All Its Music (Plus More) Into A $3 iPhone App | Techdirt

The biggest problem I see, and so do others, is that this creates a boxed-in experience for the listener. POTUSA’s music lives in their app, not on the iPod itself. No playlisting with the other music you own.


Dan Nemets, a sophomore at Central Michigan University, likes the TV show "Family Guy," heavy-metal musician Ozzy Osbourne and a good pipe.

Mr. Nemets took up pipe smoking 18 months ago after strolling into a pipe and tobacco store near the Mount Pleasant campus with a friend. Mr. Nemets can't smoke in his dorm room but has networked with other youthful smokers on Facebook in the Collegiate Gentlemen's Pipe Smoking League.

"They say everyone has an inner child," the 19-year-old says. "I guess I have an inner old man."

The Latest Thing They're Smoking in Pipes on College Campuses: Tobacco - WSJ.com


I myself started on a corncob in university and moved up to buy a couple of Stanwells, but after a brief pipe renaissance, I think I’ll put that habit aside for now.

Although I’m not sure the fact that this kid likes Ozzy Osbourne lends any kind of credibility to the idea that “the kids” are smoking pipes. The nerdy misfit kids, maybe.

Bloomberg.com: Technology


Microsoft Corp.’s plan to eliminate U.S. workers after lobbying for more foreigner visas is stirring resentment among lawmakers and employees.

As many as 5,000 employees are being shown the door at Microsoft, which uses more H1-B guest-worker visas than any other U.S. company. Some employees and politicians say Microsoft should get rid of foreigners first.

“If they lay people off, are they going to think of America first or are they going to think of the world first?” Chuck Grassley, a Republican Senator from Iowa, said in an interview.

Bloomberg.com: Technology


As a guest in your fine country, this kind of talk gives me the heebie-jeebies.

Follow Up: ID and Surveillance

Reason Magazine has a little follow up on John Gilmore’s quest to travel in the US without being required to show documentation. The upshot? It failed. What’s worse, the surveillance capabilities of the state, with sensors everywhere scanning RFID-enabled ID or other artifacts and sending the data into mine-able databases, are only poised to grow:

In June 2008, the Transportation Security Administration (TSA) officially announced that travelers who refuse to show ID, à la Gilmore, will be barred from airplanes. (Previously, the consequences seemed to depend on the airport and the TSA agent.)

But it might be that our science-fiction surveillance vision was merely a bit premature. Jim Harper, a technology and privacy scholar with the Cato Institute, says the techniques and practices for a universally tracked and databased America “are still out there waiting for their chance and could be just five years away.”

Follow Up: ID and Surveillance: - Reason Magazine

Did Big Cable Force Hulu Off Boxee?

Peter Kafka suspects so:

That’s because, as I noted before, it’s the cable TV providers who have the most to lose from cable bypass plays like Boxee: If you can get all the movies, TV shows and other content you want for free on the Web, why are you paying Comcast (CMCSA) or Time Warner Cable (TWC) for a cable TV subscription?

Did Big Cable Force Hulu Off Boxee? | Peter Kafka | MediaMemo | AllThingsD

The implication is that technology companies trying to end run the gatekeepers who control the network last mile will continue to have a tough go of it. The cable companies want to avoid the fate of the landline consumer telcos.

Gems of Unnoticed Problems | UI and us

This is the genius of successful consumer product companies: addressing the latent desires of their prospective customers.

I like his example of asking people “What is wrong with your current measuring cup?”, which got answers like “it’s sometimes slippery”, or “the handle gets hot with hot liquids in it”, but never

“it’s actually hard to measure accurately without pouring a bit, bending down to look, pouring some more, bending down again…”

People didn’t see the problem, until Oxo presented them with the solution. (Oxo actually didn’t invent the better measuring cup design, they just improved on it and brought it to the masses)

Gems of Unnoticed Problems | UI and us