Don't worry, they only do this in Japan. (Flickr/Fugu Tabetai)
For a while now, the Postal Service has been telling us that they'd like to end Saturday mail delivery as a way to cut costs and deal with their ongoing financial difficulties. Congress isn't about to let that happen, so now they've gone the other way: they're going to start delivering on Sunday. But only packages. And only from Amazon.
The natural response to this is, "Wait, what?" Since when does a single corporation get to commandeer an enormous government agency to use for its own profit-making purposes? What's next, are we going to just rename it the Lockheed Martin Department of Defense? Sell the naming rights to national parks? ("Welcome to the Doritos Locos Tacos Grand Canyon!")
OK, it isn't as bad as all that. In fact, as long as they do this in a fair way—essentially for any company that wants it—it could be good for everyone.
In case you haven't heard, CBS News is in a bit (but only a bit) of hot water over a story 60 Minutes recently aired about the attack on the American consulate in Benghazi. It centered on a breathless account from a security contractor, who just happened to have written a book about it being published by a conservative imprint of a publishing house owned by CBS (that's synergy, baby). He told of the harrowing events of that night, including his own heroism and the spinelessness of the big shots who sit in their cushy offices while men of action like him do what must be done and get hung out to dry. The only problem was, he appears to be a liar who fabricated much of what 60 Minutes relayed in the story, which was reported by Lara Logan.
After insisting for weeks that everything in their story checked out, CBS finally conceded that the contractor, one Dylan Davies, was lying to them and through them to their audience. On Sunday night, Logan delivered an extraordinarily half-assed on-air apology, full of passive verbs and obfuscations plainly intended to minimize the whole thing; most critically, it gave no indication that CBS is going to make any effort to figure out why it happened. So who's going to be punished for this enormous screw-up? I'll tell you who: Nobody.
Artificial intelligence has a long way to go before computers are as intelligent as humans. But progress is happening rapidly, in everything from logical reasoning to facial and speech recognition. With steady improvements in memory, processing power, and programming, the question isn't if a computer will ever be as smart as a human, but only how long it will take. And once computers are as smart as people, they'll keep getting smarter, in short order become much, much smarter than people. When artificial intelligence (AI) becomes artificial superintelligence (ASI), the real problems begin.
Click to reassure me that my troubles outweigh the suffering of millions.
Apparently, there was a meeting of the editors at TheNew York Times op-ed page in which someone said, "You know how every time someone does a story about one of these Obamacare 'victims' whose insurance companies are cancelling their plans, it turns out they could do really well on the exchange, but no one bothers to check? We should get one of them to write an op-ed, but not bother to ask what options they'll have." And then someone else responded, "Right, don't bother with the fact-checking. But we need a new twist.
Every few days, a new poster child for the horror of Obamacare comes along, the person who just loves their insurance plan but has been told it's being cancelled. Pretty much every time, their story turns out to be full of holes—the plan they're on is actually junk insurance, they'd be able to get better and cheaper coverage through the exchanges, and so on (here's the latest). But without a doubt, this small group of people (and not, say, the millions who are getting free or low-cost coverage for the first time) have become the momentary face of the Affordable Care Act, at least in the mainstream news media's eyes.
So now the administration is scrambling to deal with this political problem, and here's the latest twist:
If you aren't following that guy, your life is obviously devoid of meaning.
A pop quiz: Twitter is A) a world-transforming communication medium that connects us to one another in ways that redefine what it means to be human; B) an idiotic time-waster that is the enemy of genuine thought and meaning; C) both; D) neither.
What do you think? Sometimes I feel like people who write about it have to take either position A or position B, without entertaining the possibility that the answer is C, or maybe something else: used in a way that suits you, it can be quite handy and entertaining, but it could also disappear tomorrow and life as we know it would continue.
George W. Bush has been spending much of his post-presidency working to end the problems of poverty and disease...kidding! Actually, he's been working a lot on his painting. Which I guess is perfectly fine, since it isn't like there are major world crises that would go unsolved were it not for Dubya's intervention. But friend of the magazine Sarah Posner informs us that Bush is also doing some speaking, and in front of at least one audience a touch more controversial than your run-of-the-mill Processed Meat Product Association or whoever is usually able to pony up the six-figure fee a former president demands:
Liberals have seldom felt lower than they did after the 2004 election, when a president they despised—and whom they believed had already proven himself to be a complete failure—was re-elected by a nation that somehow didn't grasp who and what Bush was. One of the most pointed post-election analyses was a long editorial in the Seattle alternative weekly The Stranger. Titled "The Urban Archipelago," the piece was an unapologetic cry of anger that captured the way a lot of people on the left felt. "It's time to state something that we've felt for a long time but have been too polite to say out loud," the editors wrote. "Liberals, progressives, and Democrats do not live in a country that stretches from the Atlantic to the Pacific, from Canada to Mexico. We live on a chain of islands. We are citizens of the Urban Archipelago, the United Cities of America. We live on islands of sanity, liberalism, and compassion--New York City, Chicago, Philadelphia, Seattle, St. Louis, Minneapolis, San Francisco, and on and on….Citizens of the Urban Archipelago reject heartland "values" like xenophobia, sexism, racism, and homophobia, as well as the more intolerant strains of Christianity that have taken root in this country. And we are the real Americans."
Don't they realize the hell this now-missing woman has been through?
If you had asked Republicans a few months ago what they hoped for from the first month of operation of the Affordable Care Act's insurance exchanges, they probably would have said, "It'd be great if the web site doesn't work at all, and people get completely frustrated about it. And it'd be nice if the insurance companies chip in by sending people scary letters about policy cancellations. It'd be extra-great if the media then credulously reported on those letters without asking whether they're true, or saying much of anything about all the people who will benefit from the law. If that happens, Americans will surely turn against it en masse, and we'll be on our way to repealing it once and for all."
If that's what they wanted, they got it—at least until we get to the part about Americans turning against the ACA en masse. Things could hardly have gone worse in this stage of the rollout, and guess what: Americans' opinions about the law are, by all indications, exactly what they were before.
They're on to me! Let's get the hell out of here! (Flickr/Medill DC)
Imagine if you walked into your office one day and literally every wall had a giant poster with your smiling face on it. Not only that, your name is on every piece of paper, the receptionist says it every time he answers the phone, and some people are wearing buttons with your name on them, too. When you look around at the staff, they aren't just engaged in some activity with a common goal like in any enterprise, all the component parts of that goal are about you. That guy over there? His job is to get you on television and get you quoted in the newspaper. That woman in the corner? She writes legislation that you then claim you wrote. That one on the right? Her whole job is setting and keeping track of your schedule. Those two down the hall? They write speeches that you deliver and op-eds that go out under your name.
Not even the most powerful CEO has an operation as focused on one person as even a mid-level politician does. The only thing that compares is whatever staff I assume people like Beyonce have around them. Rand Paul is most certainly not Beyonce, but he has 53 people who work for him, about typical for a United States Senator. And some of them apparently never learned that taking other people's words and passing them off as your own is considered bad form.
Well, another election is in the books. It wasn't the most surprising or the most compelling, but every election offers lessons for candidates and parties. So what did we learn? Let's get to the do's and don'ts of 2013:
Soon-to-be governor Terry McAuliffe yukking it up with media big shot John King. (Flickr/Adam Fagen)
Pop quiz: Who's the governor of Georgia? It's a pretty important state, with a population greater than that of Virginia or New Jersey, to pick two others at random. Can't recall? Don't much care? You get my point—the fact that we momentarily care about who the governors of those other two states are is just an accident of the electoral calendar. It's perfectly fine to pay a lot of attention to the two states with gubernatorial elections in odd years just because there aren't many other elections happening. But come tomorrow, there's going to be a lot of media chin-scratching about What the 2013 Election Means. Was it a harbinger? A bellwether? A foreshadowing? An omen? Here's the answer: In the grand scheme of things, this election means...almost nothing.
The Affordable Care Act was designed to solve the big problem of health security—namely that nobody in America had it—and find a way to get coverage for the 50 million Americans who were uninsured. It also attempted to address lots of other problems, and this week it's a good time to remind ourselves that many of its provisions came about because, to put it bluntly, health insurance companies are despicable scum who will literally kill people (more on this below) if it makes them more money. I bring this up because now, people in the news media are learning about a scam insurance companies are trying to pull on some of their customers, and are not only not portraying it as such, but are simply taking the insurance companies' word and blaming the whole thing on the Obama administration.
I realize that part about "despicable scum" is a little intemperate, and without question there are employees of the insurers who are good people. But as a whole, outside of the tobacco companies or gun manufacturers it's hard to find an industry that so frequently destroys people's lives when they're at their most vulnerable and fools so many people into thinking they're safe when they aren't.
Only two states, New Jersey and Virginia, hold their gubernatorial elections in odd years, and since there's generally a dearth of other political news at that time, Washington-based reporters usually decide that whoever got elected in Virginia is suddenly a national figure with a future as a presidential or at least vice-presidential candidate. They say this because they have become familiar with the Virginia race and therefore perceive it as important, and because Virginia is a swing state, which is supposed to mean that someone who got elected there might also appeal to voters elsewhere. This year, however, the Virginia race features two candidates no one much likes: Ken Cuccinelli, who seems like he might launch a campaign to reintroduce witch trials to the commonwealth if he became governor, and Terry McAuliffe, an almost comically smarmy operator whose most profound talent lies in separating people from their money. Obviously, neither of those two is ever going to be president, so that leaves reporters with the other race up in the Garden State.
So when Chris Christie wins that race easily, as he will, we'll be treated to a brief but overwhelming deluge of stories about Christie's 2016 presidential candidacy. He certainly sounds like he's ready to start running, and it's safe to say the press corps would love it if he did.
I suppose we should be pleased that every couple of months, a book, that old-fashioned communication form in which ideas are related at considerable length, is able to captivate official Washington for a moment or two. A while back it was Mark Leibovich's This Town, which cast a jaundiced eye on the incestuous world of press and politics in the capital, and the latest is Mark Halperin and John Heilemann's Double Down: Game Change 2012, which won't be officially released until tomorrow but already stands at #8 on Amazon.
I haven't read Double Down, but if it's anything like the authors' previous work, there'll be no jaundice to be found. As in Game Change, their best-selling account of the 2008 election, the authors show themselves to be aficionados of the scoop for scoop's sake, giving us the inside skinny from campaign operatives with scores to settle but avoiding saying anything interesting about what it all means. That's perfectly fine—if you're interested in politics, reading about the behind-the-scenes maneuvering is entertaining enough, much like finding out from People magazine how Robert Downey Jr. and Mark Ruffalo got along on the set of The Avengers. But from early reports, Double Down isn't exactly delivering the spice, perhaps because it lacks a central character quite as compelling as Sarah Palin was to the authors' previous installment.