False crisis turned real, Republican born and bred

When the 2012 presidential election season rolls around and the Republicans try to blame the Democrats for the Great American Credit Default (or near-default, if we’re lucky), remember:

  • The notion that the House bill, rejected by the Senate in a short two hours tonight (with six Republicans and both independents joining all democrats), was a good-faith effort in governance — is a joke. House Speaker John Boehner was asked to bring a main to the national potluck, showed up with a wheelbarrow full of horse manure (sprinkled with Tea Party batshit) and acted surprised when it didn’t pass the even the sniff test. And then he pens a ludicrous op-ed claiming victory like Napoleon on his return from Russia. The “arrogance” of Washington he decries is almost entirely manufactured by the intransigent loon teabag faction of his own party. We have a legislative branch entirely co-opted by the insane right — the sort of faction that would have three seats in the bleachers of a reasonable multiparty government.
  • The most insane part of the Boenhead bill, besides its obvious political motivation with the pre-2012 election deadline, is the nutty demand for a balanced-budget constitutional amendment. Come on out to Colorado, teabaggers, and see what rigid constitutional amendments to government purse strings get you. It’s called TABOR, perpetrated by a reporter-kicking, tax-evading Republican named Douglas Bruce, and it’s a disaster. Hell yes, we need to balance budgets, but it has to be done by human beings and in context, not mandated by mindless, rigid policy.
  • The cuts being thrown together now are going to hurt. Environmental and energy programs, programs to assist the poor, students –a trillion or so in discretionary spending, which is some 35 percent of the federal spending pie, but everything most of us associate with the federal government — the National Weather Service, the FBI, federal research labs, the Environmental Protection Agency, the National Science Foundation (which pays for research that leads to innovative products), the State Department (yes, despite the media being ridiculously focused on the debt talks, the rest of the world continues to exist) and so on.
  • The Republican zeal to pare back government should be met with extreme skepticism by anyone who is not very wealthy. That’s because so much of government spending goes straight back to the people in the form of health care and retirement benefits. A helluva lot of the rest flows back to the private sector to build everything from battleships to spacecraft. The term “government” is a very slippery one indeed.
  • The Republicans are causing all this grief for one of two reasons, or some combination of the two. The first is a religious, ideological zeal against raising taxes, despite their boy Ronald Reagan having raised them 11 times. Because Reagan, while an idealogue, was also a pragmatist. Now, I don’t like paying taxes, either, but I do like living in a reasonably safe, civil society, and taxes are why we have that.
  • The second is a total disregard for the good of the many to preserve the interests of the few and well-heeled. The Republican party, as it exists in 2011, deserves the votes of the top 2 percent of earners, no question. Why the rest would be foolish enough to support them is a product of voters declining to engage their minds and superior electioneering/political skills of the American right.

Post Palm Pre Post

I dig technology, but tend to be a late adopter. One of the few exceptions was in June 2009, when I was quick to jump on the Palm Pre. The iPhone Killer. Sprint’s first real smartphone. It was a revelation, the device.

Just look at that baby. The Sprint Palm Pre, circa 2009.

Slide-out keyboard, cards you could swish into the great beyond with a flick of a thumb, wirelessly synced contacts, the Web at your beckon, Google maps when lost, Asphalt 5… The closest experience I can recall was my introduction to the first Macintosh as a teen in 1984. Just an entirely new approach to technology.

The Pre borrowed heavily from the iPhone, of course, to the point that iTunes, until Apple sued Palm, thought it was an iSomething. I’d been a palm user since the late 1990s, starting with the Palm V. Also had used Sprint for years. So it made sense.

I was happy for a year, year and a half. But a sliding keyboard is a big-time moving part, and moving parts weaken and break. The mobile computing was going fine, but calls started crackling. Still, I waited for the next Palm. Though it would have to be an HP product.

See, Palm’s big gamble with the Pre bombed. They botched the release marketing, didn’t get the SDK out to developers fast enough, and apparently didn’t see Android coming, either. Before the company cratered entirely, HP bought them, valuing Palm’s only true asset, the WebOS running on the Pre, for $1.2 billion.

HP announced their new WebOS hardware in February, a couple of phones (the HP Pre 3, the Veer) and a tablet, but the summer arrival of the phones (the tablet is here) was delayed, and Sprint has been silent.

Two years passed. My brother, an iPhone user, took to saying, Is that a Palm Pre? Whenever the device emerged. I’d dropped it while jogging, so the screen was all scratched up. Call quality got worse. The thing seemed to be slowing down, somehow. I’d bought a few apps — the most important of which was an electronic wallet called jVault, in which I’d put a zillion passwords, which I’d have to port over manually to whatever new app I found on whatever new phone I bought.

I surfed forums of pathetic Pre owners such as myself. But the switching costs were low enough that I bailed.

Spent $200 on the Google Nexus S.

The Google Nexus S, circa now

Am using the free and excellent KeePass for my electronic wallet. Bought Asphalt 6. There are 225,000 vs. 5,800 apps. Android Gingerbread 2.3.4 isn’t as elegant as WebOS. I miss the manual keypad (though not the sliding-out part). It’s not revelational. It doesn’t, as Foreigner sings, Feel Like the Very First Time. Nothing ever does.

But the hardware is way fast, it’s a lovely device, and Android is good enough that I don’t miss the Palm offering at all.

Given Android’s and the iPhone’s momentum, it’s hard to see how HP will ever sell phones. They’re apparently toying with licensing the technology. But this whole episode is starting to remind of the Dvorak keyboard, Beta videotape standard sort of thing. The quality of the OS is higher, but Palm/HP’s dithering has lost the market. Palm Pre, we hardly knew ye.

On a positive note, for those tens — if not hundreds — of Palm Pre users who remain, when you switch phones, you can turn on WiFi in airplane mode and the device is a great little MP3 player/video game machine/web/e-mail client for young children. You may as well: Sprint is buying them back for all of $9.

Health care rationing is good

For a reminder of the big picture issue in health care, former Colorado Gov. Dick Lamm’s Sunday opinion piece in the Denver Post is well worth a look. Lamm has been writing about this issue since the mid-1990s, and federal deficit and spiraling costs have moved events increasingly into his philosophical sights.

The piece argues that we already ration health care (“Your health insurance contract is a rationing document setting terms of coverage”), and that, given the conflicting directions of cost curves and budgetary reality, we have no choice but to face some very difficult decisions. Lamm reminds us that federal health care costs now exceed Social Security costs, and that Medicare and Medicaid tabs amount to more than triple the federal defense budget, with no signs of slowing.

For all the talk of resurgent family medicine, the creation of medical homes, and the use of electronic medical records to avoid redundancy/foolishness in care, the monumental cost of end-of-life care is an issue we can no longer skirt. Health care is ultimately a zero-sum game, with a finite basket of resources already inadequate to cover 51 million insured in this country. Whether by “death panel” or a simple refusal by insurers, public or private, to pour tens of thousands of dollars into services that extend a patient’s life for a month or two, change has to happen, and we should support it.



Space budgets in the news

Why do space missions go over budget? John Kelly of Florida Today did a solid summary of some of the key issues in his Saturday column, based, it looks like, on a Government Accountability Office report on the same topic. The key points are similar to those I made here based on my experience writing a book about three over-budget missions across about 60 years of the American space enterprise. I wasn’t the first to make these points, either. Kelly’s/the GAO’s key ideas:

  • Project teams are optimistic about their technical abilities
  • NASA lowballs the costs of major missions thinking they’ll get more money if they need it later
  • There’s not enough contingency (rainy-day fund) to cover the inevitable technical hurdles.

Points he doesn’t mention:

  • Smaller missions go way over budget, too. Its just that the overruns aren’t as painful or visible as the James Webb Space Telescope type budget-annihilators.
  • Once a mission gets going, NASA’s appetite for failure dries up, requiring less “aw, it’ll be fine” and more “prove it.”
  • Cost overruns feed contractors and engineers, and while Congresspeople don’t like overruns on the one hand, they do quite like the work coming to their districts.

Elon Musk and Alan Stern had some interesting comments on this whole dynamic in the fifth paragraph of this post, particularly the punishing of on-budget, well-run missions by out-of-control missions.

Expedia caveat emptor

Expedia sounds Latin, really, so I thought I’d match it up with some other Latin words so I could share some insights, as a disgruntled customer, more widely than Expedia might prefer.

Expedia, the travel web site, is to thank for my unplanned overnight stay in Kansas City, which is, checking Google Maps on my phone, not in Kansas at all. Who allowed this?

I blame Expedia.

It’s raining here, and windy, and while there are no tornadoes nearby (the only place in the Midwest not being torn to shreds in a vortex of some sort, it seems), the weather is not good. My legs were in fact soaked as my 15-year-old Japanese super-fold-up umbrella (actually bought in Japan!) buckled under soaked and shoving gusts en route to Ruby Tuesdays a couple hundred yards away, and on the way back. I held the umbrella literally horizontally. My knees are still drying as I type this.

So. I spent three days in Washington D.C. at Compliance Week 2011 at the Mayflower Hotel. This is a wonderful hotel, far too expensive and nice, normally, to allow me past the extraordinarily heavy, I think brass, doors. But Compliance Week was paying for it, and I was in fact authorized to enter. I had a nametag hanging from a Compliance Week laniard, complete with my name on it. Todd Neff, Compliance Week Contributor, it said. And it’s true.

Freelancers live schizophrenic lives, make no mistake. Last week, I wrote about abiraterone/Zytiga; on the plane back from Washington D.C. to Denver, where I jointly own a home with my wife and where my daughters and puggle now sleep, I looked over my notes for a sample chapter involving a mountain of municipal solid waste; today I moderated a panel during which three amazing board directors talked way over my head, at the Mayflower Hotel, in Washington D.C.

I learned, in the seventh floor elevator lobby of the Mayflower Hotel, that Franklin Delano Roosevelt composed his inaugural address, and the “Only thing we have to fear is fear itself,” line, right down the hall from my room (He was in a room, though. Not in the hall). The band Living Colour first made the quote famous in their 1989 hit, “Cult of Personality.”

So Expedia. Having moderated/introduced 9 panels in 2.5 days at Compliance Week 2011, I presently have a rather honed notion of risk/risk management, and I am, or was, angry with Expedia because they deceived me into buying an airline ticket dripping with risk without letting me know. So, in effect, compared to other possible flights (and DEN-DCA is not an obscure route, lots of options) it was extremely risky. So it should have been priced extremely inexpensively, or I should have understood the risk I was taking so I could avoid it assiduously. Neither was the case, so I didn’t, So Expedia ripped me off.

Let me explain.

My flight was scheduled to leave Washington National at 4:40 p.m. and arrive at 6:25 p.m. A Frontier flight. Then from Kansas City, which Google maps tells me is in fact in Missouri (who would have thought? I mean, what a great idea. Next, I’ll bet, they’ll name a city in Indiana “Michigan City”), I’d take a 7:47p flight to Denver. That flight, turns out, was on United Airlines.

Now, I booked this whole thing based on schedule. Compliance Week 2011 ends at noon, and there’s a bit of a flight desert in the early afternoon, so it made sense, or seemed to. And while I wanted not to saddle Compliance Week with a huge flight tab, they were paying. So I booked the flight. It was a $565 dollar flight, all told. So expensive. And, thanks to Expedia, super risky.

How? Well, it was delayed. Not long–20 minutes out of the gate. Then for what seemed like inordinate time on the tarmac, in our Embraer 190, a plane made in Brazil. Embraer’s chief compliance officer had spoken at a panel I had introduced just the day before (the Dairy Farmers of America rep who hogged the armrest between us was all stoked about it, until he fell asleep and started infringing upon the foot space also). So we got in at about 7:30p.

This is a tight connection if the gates are next to each other. I disembark apace and the gate agent says, oh, United? They’re in Terminal A. Look for the red bus.

Red bus?

She may as well have said, “It’s in Topeka, which is actually in Kansas,” because even though the bus showed up reasonably quickly, it was way too late. United, the guy tells me as he shuts down the counter, doesn’t fly to Denver again until Friday.

It is now, as I write this, for the next four minutes, still Wednesday.

Try Frontier again, the guy suggests. And maybe Expedia. So back on the Red Bus, around (Kansas City’s airport is arrayed in a three-terminal circle, as if someone had started building a supercollider and given up and settled for a sprawled airport instead) back to Frontier. I am, the entire time, on hold with Expedia. Fuming at the Frontier counter, though it’s not their fault in the least. A 20-minute delay is not bad, really, given DCA and weather etc etc. Need to talk to the supervisor. Still on hold with Expedia. The recorded CEO talks to me about how important I am. “I’m Leaving on a Jet Plane,” the song, plays. Smiling voice overs. I want to kill Expedia.

The Frontier guy goes out of his way to be nice. But it’s not good. Amazingly, there’s not a lot of flights in and out of Kansas City, despite the presence here, among other things, of the Kansas City Chiefs. And 8 p.m. in Kansas City, looking at the monopane departures flatscreen, is like 11 p.m. in a major airport. There’s nothing else for the night.

After probably 20 minutes, Expedia answers the phone, absorbs my snarling abuse, the least of which they deserve, and says they’ll call back.

Frontier forges ahead. Fifteen minutes of code-entering and indecipherable phone-calling later, they’ve got me on standby on a nine-something flight tomorrow morning. Everything else is completely booked up, they explain. And is a smoking room OK? At the Drury Inn?

Sure, I say, and I mean it. I am beginning to emerge from the anger/denial phase into something well shy of acceptance. But first I have to take the Red Bus back around to United, because my checked bag is over there. Maybe.

It is. The United Lost Bags lady calls to someone whose office is, in my imagination, deep underground, and they fire up the carousel for the express purpose of coughing up my leaden roller bag. And then the Drury shuttle picks me up, and here I sit in a room in which the relatively light ashen scent tells me that not a few nonsmoking marooned travelers have come before. The hallway smoke is worse. And I braved the rain to Ruby Tuesdays and had two very tall Blue Moon seasonal weizen beers and a half rack of ribs and watched both NBA and NHL playoff games (in part) and ended up in spirited sports-related conversations with three sales guys (two riding mower salesmen, one medical device salesman) and a bartender-woman whose father owns a rink. In Kansas City, not Kansas, nine hundred fifty miles from home. Because — because! — Expedia sold me a flight that should never have been sold. And I won’t forget it, and neither should you.

Expedia caveat emptor!