Friday, December 15, 2006

In his latest column, deep, serious thinker Tom Friedman imperiously declaims to Dubya an agenda for the next State of the Union address:

When Mr. Bush ran for governor, his motto was: “What Texans can dream, Texans can do.” Just substitute “Americans” for “Texans,” and he’s already got the last line of his next State of the Union. What would the substance be? First, let’s set a Texas-like renewable energy mandate for every state. Second, let’s forge a national electricity transmission grid from the Dakotas to Texas to take wind electricity from where it is best produced to the big cities where it is most needed. Finally, let’s create a long-term tax subsidy for building and buying plug-in hybrid cars. Wind energy is produced abundantly at night, when demand is lowest. Electric hybrids would be charged at night. That would mean hybrid electric cars, which emit virtually no carbon, could be powered by wind, which produces no carbon. If that scaled, it could be better than Kyoto.

You got something better to do, Mr. President?

Clearly not. There's nothing else to talk about. Well, aside from this ugly little war that Friedman did his best to get us into, nothing at all.

Wednesday, December 13, 2006

It's December in Boston. So, unlike three weeks ago, in late November, it's no longer really comfortable to walk around outside in short-sleeved shirts. Most people are wearing either sweaters or jackets; some have both.

I remember December being like this when I was growing up. When my parents drove the family down to Miami Beach for winter vacation, it was generally like this somewhere around Atlanta.

Tuesday, December 12, 2006

Proponents of Nicholas Negroponte's One Laptop Per Child project (OLPC, to its friends) have high hopes. Take, for instance, Eben Moglen (long-time legal counsel for the Free Software Foundation), who in a recent speech, says its communications capabilities can help stop genocide:

"What is journalism like when every village has a video camera and is on the net? ...

What does it mean if the next time somebody starts some nasty little genocide in some little corner of the Earth the United States government would prefer to ignore, that there's video all over the place all the time in every living room?

This isn't the first time these sorts of hopes have been advanced for new communications technology. In the 19th century, serious people suggested that the telegraph alone might end war altogether. (You heard less of this sort of thing after World War I). And there were plenty of starry-eyed techies in the 1990s who would tell you with a perfectly straight face that it just wasn't technically feasible for mere, stodgy, obsolete governments to censor the internet --- right up until their friends at Cisco and Yahoo taught the Chinese how to do it.

But I digress. I really did mean to talk about OLPC, and the actual state of the project, which (as is often the case) can be better determined from release notes than manifestoes and mission statements. So, from the release notes for the "B-1" prototype build of the One Laptop Per Child X-O machine (via OLPCnews):

Enough is now present to begin to sketch the outline of where we believe the children's software should go: enabling the construction of software in which children and teachers can easily collaborate is central to our vision.

So, the software isn't there yet, but they know where it should go. Which isn't a bad thing, by itself --- everything, at some point, has to be a work in progress. But for those who tuned in late, they are planning to begin mass production of these machines for "pilot" deployments next calendar year. And a "pilot" deployment, for these guys, means not the small, carefully monitored trial in a few schools that one might expect, but deployment to all kids in an entire country --- Negroponte scoffs at smaller trials: "To do a [smaller] project is ridiculous!" (But they're going to start with a small country. That's why it's a pilot project. You don't want to get overly ambitious).

And yet for all the acknowledged technical brilliance of the people working on OLPC, versions of eductional software which are specialized for target audiences and for the machines themselves (with their unusually small screen size --- one of the cost-saving measures) don't yet seem to exist; the project's own list of shipped software is so far pretty basic, and the content more so --- the featured text is an introductory algebra "wiki-book" in English only, where even sections 5-10 of chapter two are, as I write, content-free skeletons of their hoped-for future selves. [Ed: these links added late.]

Now, it's easy to say that the risk here is low --- that the laptops are cheap, and the kids themselves will surely figure out something to do with them. (Which, by itself, is worrisome enough to folks who know what real kids actually do with computers when the adults around them are totally clueless). But while the machines may be cheap by first-world standards, a little math shows that a full deployment is a huge expense for a third-world country --- so if the OLPC projects' hopes aren't realized, and current educational programs, meager as they already are, get displaced, there is the real potential for lasting damage here.

So, I don't like the grand vision, at least not the way it's being pursued. Does that mean I don't like the project? Those little boxes are amazingly seductive. If the deployment model is all wrong, fix that. Construct a sales organization which can handle orders of less than a million a pop, accept the inevitable markup, and sell the damn things. If they're good for anything at all, the folks in the third world will very quickly figure out what, as they did with cell phones. They'll probably come up with uses that first-worlders would utterly fail to anticipate. (And in the context of OLPC, it's worth noting how most of the cell-phone users described in those articles first saw them as adults. One of the most annoying symptoms of OLPC KoolAid Poisoning is a firm, nearly psychotic conviction that children and only children will readily adapt to any new tech toys you give them. Bullshit.)

I feel badly about writing this because considered solely as a laptop project (and not the "education project" that Negroponte wants it to be instead), the thing is brilliant. There are multiple major technical breakthroughs in this machine. But what we have here is actually two projects, not one: a brilliant technology project for developing a cheap, low-power laptop, and a proposal for a government project in the third world using that laptop. And while there are things that I think government does better than anything else (like health care), this particular proposed government project is, so far, shaping up as the kind of starry-eyed, utopian boondoggle that makes libertarianism look good. For once, the libertarian solution looks good as well. Figuring out the best uses for new technology is one of the things that free markets do better than anything else --- and particularly better than government-driven top-down mandates (especially in countries where the governments aren't all that good to begin with). So, why not use markets?

Sunday, December 10, 2006

Responding to the general concern over growing income inequality, one Daniel Akst, writing on "the soaring compensation paid to those at the very top of the pay scale" in the New York Times, takes the panglossian view:

If career choices today are influenced more by money, it’s mainly because social circumstances have changed for the better. Smart women, for example, may choose banking over teaching, but this reflects only their hard-won freedom. Is anyone suggesting that we take this away? Besides, most of us are poor judges of how useful our own work is, and by putting a price on what we do, the marketplace offers a bracing corrective to our inherent myopia.

One of the social circumstances that have changed, of course, is that certain jobs (e.g., in finance) now pull in much higher multiples of the average wage than they used to, for no immediately obvious reason. And it might be nice if Mr. Akst addressed the point specifically because, well, that's what he says he's writing about. But instead, we get this:

Scoundrels aside, remuneration is a rough but grimly reliable indicator of social utility, and Adam Smith himself pointed out how much the rest of us benefit when the talented pursue wealth. Yes, markets will sometimes fail to compensate activities we cherish, but consider the alternative.

Imagine for a moment two strange countries. In one nation, Cardia, people choose careers with complete disregard for financial compensation. In the other, a land known as Crania, people choose work based entirely on how much it pays. Neither country sounds like a very pleasant place to live. But I’ll wager that Crania would be a much nicer place than Cardia, if only because somebody there would pick up the trash.

As a response to the critics of income inequality, this makes a whole lot of sense --- if they were advocating eliminating differing compensation levels altogether (and if janitors were notably well paid). Since they're not, what we have so far is cheap rhetorical sleight of hand, which in our debased culture would be unworthy of comment were it not followed by this:

Don’t underestimate this. In Crania, financial motives would promote hard work, innovation, specialization and economic growth, resulting in longer life, better health and a richer culture for its residents. The contractual relationships between citizens, however impersonal, would at least free Cranians from the kind of dependent servility they might fall victim to in Cardia, which would most likely be one of those awful places where politics, flattery and backstabbing expand to fill the gaping vacuum that remains when financial motives are absent.

So, in Mr. Akst's world, it's too rare to be worthy of notice that anyone volunteers to do dirty work simply because it needs to be done. And the only noteworthy alternatives to influencing behavior by monetary inducements are "politics, flattery and backstabbing" --- for which money itself is, by similar imputation, rarely if ever at fault. And you know, I believe this may be true of Mr. Akst's world. (Well, all except for that last bit). But while that's a sad commentary on Mr. Akst, I'm not sure there's a lesson here for the rest of us.

One of the more distinctive buildings in Boston, at the base of Beacon Hill, right by the edge of the Charles River, is one whose very walls betray their original purpose: immense piles of very heavy stone, with thin slits for windows which barely let in the light. You don't have to look twice to know this is a prison. Or was --- the actual housing of prisoners moved some years ago to a newer facility, a few hundred yards away, with the general look from the outside, of a cubicle-infested office block. As to the older building, there is now a huge banner up proclaiming the way it's been repurposed. The old Charles Street Jail will soon be known as the Liberty Hotel. Call it a sign of the times.