Saturday, November 29, 2003

Television alert:

Scheduled for Meet the Press this Sunday, 30 November:
Mike Allen of the Washington Post, pool reporter on the President’s trip to Baghdad, discusses the surprise visit to the troops. Then David Broder, Doris Kearns Goodwin, Katty Kay, Dana Priest, William Safire and Robin Wright in a roundtable discussion.
Should be absolutely horrible.


Thought for the day:

If Ralph Nader wants to do something for this country, he should run for president - of the AARP.


Friday, November 28, 2003

The Metric System - Bah!

Calpundit has a post about the metric system and how its base units were arrived at. We've long held that the metric system has serious problems - but not for the reasons you might suspect. We wrote about it four years ago - before the days of weblogs. Here is that commentary:
What's wrong with the metric system.

While the historical trend is certainly in the direction of complete acceptance of the metric system, it still has grave defects. There are two main problems: ungainly terminology, and a poor choice of initial values. The system was introduced in 1799 in the wake of the French Revolution. It was probably part of the reaction against the old society as well as being in the spirit of 'reason', which was all part of the phenomenon known as the Age of Enlightenment. Science was finally emerging and showing it to be quite a contender as a system of thought. The impact of Newton's success in physics (in the early 1700's) on the general outlook was tremendous. The power and potential of rational thought freed men to re-inspect the world about them. As a result there was a tendency to start afresh, and construct a new politics and society without reference to tradition. The metric system was a part of that.

The problem with the metric system was that reason was allowed to trump everything else. 'Reason' became its own standard. Take the case of the meter. It was determined initially as 1/10,000,000 the distance between the pole and the equator. So what? Here we have a fetish being made over round numbers. And who cares about the distance between two locations on a particular planet? Maybe it was felt that by basing the measurement on our earth, the system would have universal appeal, as well as sort of ethical neutrality. But it was still silly to go about it that way. The standard length should have been something closer to an inch.

If you like polysyllables, the metric system is for you. Consider the large number of one syllable words the English system has: inch, foot, yard, mile, ounce, pound, ton, (fluid) ounce, cup, pint, quart. But metric insists on appending a prefix to the base element; kilo-meter, centi-gram, deka-liter. Somehow this is supposed to be rational. One is taught to know the prefixes, which then can be appended to one of several bases (meter, gram, liter, watt, ampere, hertz, ...). That's why the names of metric measurements are so long. Do people really parse the words to reassure themselves that a kilometer is 1000 meters? Of course not. To burden the terminology with a naming convention that helps 5th graders understand the relationships is absurd. And anyway, most of us seem to use either milli-, centi-, or kilo- as prefixes. I have yet to read texts containing: decimeter (about 4 inches) or hectogram (about 1/4 pound) or dekaliter (about 10 quarts). So what we end up with are 2 or 3 familiar sizes, and we put two-digit numeric values ahead of them, e.g. 60 centimeters [6 syllables] (instead of 2 feet [2 syllables]).

First, consider lengths. The meter was determined for strictly ideological reasons. As a result, there are no lengths that are human scaled. The centimeter is not as useful as the inch (hand scale) or foot (body scale). Next, examine standards of weight. Sorry, but the gram is just too lightweight for my taste. And liquid measurements suffer from the same problem. I'll take a cup of sugar over 225 milliliters any day.

Steal the terminology from the English system, use multiples of 10 (or 2's or 5's), and have the base elements be human scaled. Tweak some relationships (like 1 pint = 2.5 cups). And keep those one-syllable names! A proposal:
Element How defined Present day
inch 1.1 English inch 1.1 inch
foot 10 inches .916 foot
yard 3 feet .916 yard
rod 100 feet 1.8 rods
furlong 1000 feet .720 furlong
mile 5000 feet 1.042 mile
ounce weight of cubic inch of water .769 avoir.ounce
pound 10 ounces .480 pound
invent wordA 1000 pounds 480 pounds
ton 5000 pounds 1.202 ton
ounce cubic inch .738 oz
cup 10 ounces .960 cup
pint 2 1/2 cups (25 oz) 1.20 pint
quart 2 pints (50 oz) 1.20 quart
gallon 2 quarts (100 oz) 1.20 gallon
barrel 50 gallons 1.935 (31 gal barrel)
1.428 (42 gal barrel)
cord 1000 cubic feet .769 cord
acre 40,000 sq. feet (200x200) .771 acre
invent wordB 1 square furlong 7.8 hectare
sq. mile 25 million sq. feet 1.085 sq. mile


Who knew in advance?

We were surprised to find this in the Yahoo slideshow about Bush's Baghdad visit:
Iraqi Governing Counsel member Ahmad Chalabi sits in the audience as he awaits the arrival of President Bush (news - web sites) at Baghdad International Airport Thursday, Nov. 27, 2003, in Baghdad, Iraq (news - web sites). Bush paid a surprise Thanksgiving day visit to American troops in Baghdad. (AP Photo/Pablo Martinez Monsivais)
It's a minor point, but did Chalabi know more about the visit than even some Secret Service agents?

UPDATE: According to Juan Cole:
It turns out that President George W. Bush did meet on Thursday with four members of the Iraqi Interim Governing Council. All 24 had been invited to a Thanksgiving Day event at the Baghdad Airport, but they were not told the nature of the event. So, only four showed up.
So maybe that explains it.


Thursday, November 27, 2003

David Brooks would not approve:


Asking for it:
U.S. President George W. Bush carries a platter of turkey and fixings as he visits U.S. troops for Thanksgiving in Baghdad, Thursday, Nov 27, 2003. (AP Photo/Anja Niedringhaus, Pool - enhanced by uggabugga)

BAGHDAD, Iraq - President Bush flew to Iraq under extraordinary secrecy and security Thursday to spend Thanksgiving with U.S. troops and thank them for "defending the American people from danger."


Bush performs another stunt - avoids war dead:

President Bush flew From Waco to Baghdad for a surprise visit. In case you are wondering, the distance (one-way) is 7319 miles.

How is it Bush can find time for a flashy performance, yet not be able to attend even one funeral of the war dead?

What's next? Getting aboard a submarine for a trip to the Persian Gulf? A balloon ride over Tora Bora?

Face it. Bush is merely this thing that Karl Rove has dressed up in the uniform-of-the-moment and sends out to look martial. Really, it's not too different from what they did in the era of kings and nobility. Then, total incompetents donned suits of armor and were made the subject of paintings, woodcuttings, and coins.

All hail the 21st Century King!


Pagans need not apply:

Went to the White House website, and saw this: Director of the Faith-Based and Community Initiatives Jim Towey answered your questions in a special Thanksgiving edition of Ask the White House.

So went to that page, where we encountered this exchange:
Colby, from Centralia MO writes:
Do you feel that Pagan faith based groups should be given the same considerations as any other group that seeks aid?

Jim Towey
I haven't run into a pagan faith-based group yet, much less a pagan group that cares for the poor! Once you make it clear to any applicant that public money must go to public purposes and can't be used to promote ideology, the fringe groups lose interest. Helping the poor is tough work and only those with loving hearts seem drawn to it.


Tuesday, November 25, 2003

Low-hanging fruit:

Senate Majority Leader Bill Frist (R-Tenn.) holds up a prescription bottle while talking to reporters at the Capitol, November 24.


Can you believe it?

Even we missed out on this information. Congratulations to our fine media for keeping everybody in the dark until after the bill was passed. From the wires: (excerpts)
Analysts: Medicare Drug Costs Will Rise

Seniors will face annual increases in premiums and deductibles - and a growing gap in coverage - for the prescription drugs they buy under the new Medicare law, budget analysts say.

For example, the $250 annual deductible at the start of the program in 2006 is projected to rise to $445 by 2013.

[In the first year of the program] after [$2,250 in drug costs], there would be no further coverage until beneficiaries' drug bills for the year reached $5,100, leaving a gap of $2,850 that they would have to pay out of their own pockets.

But after just one year, the Congressional Budget Office projects that seniors would see their $250 deductible and the $2,850 gap for which there is no coverage both jump 10 percent.

By 2013, the eighth year of the program, the deductible and the coverage gap are both projected to grow by 78 percent.

In other words, seniors would pay a $445 deductible and those with the largest drug bills would be entirely responsible for more than $5,000 in drug costs.

... the lawmakers [made the] decision to tie the cost of the program to increases in drug costs from inflation, new costly drugs coming on the market and expected increases in drug purchases ...

"The numbers inflate with the cost of the program. I think that's a good provision," said [Senator Don] Nickles, who voted against the bill.

But David Certner, an official of AARP, said: "One of our complaints has been that this benefit would become more unaffordable over time if pegged to drug costs. This bill does not do enough to hold down drug costs."
What the hell is going on? Nickles likes the provision, yet votes against the bill. Somebody from AARP is unhappy, but the organization supported the bill.

We think that accounting for inflation is important, but the focus on the drug cost inflation may make it rough for seniors. Their benefits (e.g Social Security) are usually pegged to general inflation which includes elements such as the cost of housing, energy, and so on. If drugs have a higher inflation rate - which seems likely - over time the Medicare benefit will diminish in value. There are a couple of ways to tackle this problem. One way is to keep the benefit to seniors constant by paying more as drug costs escalate, though at greater cost to the treasury. Another approach is to use market power to restrain the costs - like Wal-Mart does.

Yet the Congress decided to do neither.



Democrats (and Independents) that voted for the Medicare Prescription Bill. From the Senate website:
Baucus (D-MT)
Breaux (D-LA)
Carper (D-DE)
Conrad (D-ND)
Dorgan (D-ND)
Feinstein (D-CA)
Jeffords (I-VT)
Landrieu (D-LA)
Lincoln (D-AR)
Miller (D-GA)
Nelson (D-NE)
Wyden (D-OR)


Monday, November 24, 2003

No big market forces here!

About the proposed Medicare prescription drug benefit, we read in the New York Times:
[The bill] relies on insurance companies and private health plans to manage the new drug benefit. They could negotiate with drug companies, but the government, with much greater purchasing power, would be forbidden to do so.

Supporters of the provision say it is necessary to prevent the government from imposing price controls that could stifle innovation in the pharmaceutical industry. Critics say the restriction would force the government and Medicare beneficiaries to spend much more for drugs than they should.
Supporters of this bill are generally Republicans and conservatives. They don't want to give an entity (in this case the government) the power to exercise its market power on the (ostensible) grounds that it hurts innovation, etc. But that's precisely what big companies like Walmart and Microsoft do. And we've never heard Republican calls for restricting those companies ability to negotiate.