Russell's Blog

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LA Natural History Museum doesn't grok citations

Posted by Russell on March 18, 2013 at 8:25 a.m.

Earlier today, I received a request to use one of the photographs I've posted on Flickr. I get a lot of these requests, and I always find them a bit annoying; I release all of my photographs (and writing, including this blog) under a Creative Commons Attribution license.

I would be delighted if people emailed to say, "Hey, thanks for letting me use your photo! Here's a link to what the thing I'm using it for." Even that isn't strictly necessary, since I always notice the inbound referrals from the attribution links. The whole point is that you don't need to ask permission because you already have it, provided you give proper attribution. So, as usual, I tried to explain this concept, and got an interesting answer.

Hi Russell,

Thanks for your email. That's neat to hear that you have a connection to the Museum.

Yes, I did notice that your photo was offered under a Creative Commons license. In the case of this particular video, however, we are crediting contributors by name only (ie "Credit: Russell Neches". That is one of the reasons why I contacted you directly, to see if you would be willing to waive the standard CC attribution requirements.

If it is ok to only credit using your name, please let me know. Your credit will appear on the image itself. We are also looking to label each photo with the location where the image was taken. Based on the tag, I assume the Opossum image is from Pasadena. Please correct me if I am wrong.

Look forward to hearing from you.

Thanks again,

Sam Easterson

Sam Easterson
Senior Media Producer, Nature Lab
Natural History Museum of Los Angeles
900 Exposition Blvd.
Los Angeles, CA 90007

Wait, he wants me to waive the CC-BY license just so they can avoid actually linking to the original photo in the credit? That doesn't make a bit of sense. Yes, I want credit for my work, but that's not why I licence under CC-BY. Even if something is in the public domain, nobody has the right to plagiarize from it, and an author can and should expect their public domain works to be properly credited. You can copy it, and you can cut it into bits, rearrange the bits, paint the whole mess orange and trade for a silly hat. However, you cannot claim you created the original, because, well, you didn't. That would be fraud.

The reason I use CC-BY instead of Public Domain is because it requires anyone using my work to provide useful attribution information. This is basically the same standard of attribution used in science. Scientists have to cite the work of others in such a way that the reader can actually identify and obtain the cited material for themselves. It's about access, not just credit.

So, I try to explain...

Ah, I see. Well, I suppose I should explain myself then.

The reason I release my photos under CC-BY rather than Public Domain is because I believe it is important that the practice of traceable attribution be extended to new circumstances. It is important because it is often very important that people be able to ascertain where a particular piece of media came from. For example, they may wish to find related materials, or they may wish to independently verify its authenticity. This is why standard citation formats in research papers are so important. Giving credit is necessary, but not sufficient. The reader must able to actually access the source material, or they aren't really in a position to exercise judgment.

Now, I understand that this can be awkward when you're outside the traditional media formats where there is an acknowledged code of conduct for citations. There isn't yet a "standard" way to include citations in a slideshow, or in a dance performance, or in an opera, or in a sculpture. It's easy to imagine how doing it badly could mar the work.

Nevertheless, I think it needs to be attempted. The Natural History Museum is the sort of institution that is most likely to actually get it right and to set trends that others will follow. Everything in the museum has to meet pedagogical, scientific and aesthetic goals. It's one of the things that makes science museums so awesome.

I think developing some best practices for incorporating traceable citations into a mixed media installation is perfectly in keeping with that. After all, you're not using these images to sell toothpaste. You're using them to teach the public about science and nature. One of the most important practices in science is making sure the audience has direct access to the sources. Science regards the audience as peers, not as consumers.

Now, I'm not designing the exhibit, so I'm not going to insist on any particular design solution for providing links. I'm sure you can think of something that will work wonderfully, and won't be much trouble.

I can also imagine how an exuberant use of citations could make the exhibit like what you're describing extremely awesome. For example, a smartly-designed footer on each image with a scientific name, common name, time, location and a QR code link. Patrons could say, "Ooo! What's that?" and snap a photo with their phones, and be taken to a page with lots and lots of details about the organism and the source image. That's not necessarily what you should do, but perhaps you see what I mean about why citations are important? They make media more awesome!

As for the furry fellow in the picture, I found these guys in Eaton Canyon after their mother had been killed by a coyote. The ranger gave the babies to me, I suppose, because she didn't want them to be eaten by hawks in front of a school group on the hiking trail. They stayed at my mom's house in Pasadena for a few weeks until they were big enough to eat and do opossum-y things, and then I released them back into Eaton Canyon. The photo was taken in her backyard.

Russell

I was hopeful that this would click. There tons of easy things they could do to house the links. They could make a page on their website somewhere that said "attributions page for exhibit X" with a list of photos and attribution links. It would just take a few minutes, and it would be useful.

But alas, no.

Thanks for your email Russell. I very much appreciate your thoughts.

Unfortunately, in this case, I'm not going to be able to accommodate your request.

I'm sorry that I won't be able to include your image in the slideshow after all. My apologies for taking up your time.

Sincerely,

Sam

Think about this here. He says, "I'm not going to be able to accommodate your request." Remember who's requesting what here. He really means, "I'm not going to be able to comply with the terms of your license."

So, I'm pretty disappointed. I don't care if they use my photo or not. I get thousands of views already. My photos get used for lots of things, including a couple of elementary school science textbooks in developing countries. The publishers didn't have any problem putting a link next to my name.

No, I'm disappointed that the Los Angeles Natural History Museum doesn't seem to understand why citations are important.

A new Prometheus

Posted by Russell on December 08, 2012 at 2:33 a.m.
One year ago, UC Davis law student Megan Glanville was killed a stone's throw from my front door. She was crossing the street for a morning run. It was foggy. The driver didn't see her.

Since then, the intersection where she died has been redesigned. It is now a three-way stop with modern LED lighting. Watching over the scene, there is a new flashing red beacon.

This sort of infrastructure is easy to take for granted. As a Commissioner for the City of Davis, I suppose I pay closer attention to these things that most people do. I've payed particular attention to this little piece of city infrastructure because I pass through it several times a day.

Something has changed there since the red beacon went up. Up and down the boulevard, for almost a mile, there are crossings to access the bicycle path. Drivers now stop and let me cross. They never did that before. I am not exaggerating when I say that wherever the beacon's light falls, the feel of the street has changed. It's no longer the tail end of a lonely country road. It's a neighborhood street, and people act accordingly.

I would like to think that drivers feel the significance of the flashing beacon. I would like to think that they have noticed that the intersection has been redesigned. I would like to think that they know that Megan Glanville died there. In all likelihood, they are oblivious to these things. They stop and smile and waive me through anyway.

Why?

Good design matters. That's why.

The rocky ledge runs far into the sea,
And on its outer point, some miles away,
The Lighthouse lifts its massive masonry,
A pillar of fire by night, of cloud by day.

Even at this distance I can see the tides,
Upheaving, break unheard along its base,
A speechless wrath, that rises and subsides
In the white lip and tremor of the face.

And as the evening darkens, lo! how bright,
Through the deep purple of the twilight air,
Beams forth the sudden radiance of its light
With strange, unearthly splendor in the glare!

Not one alone; from each projecting cape
And perilous reef along the ocean's verge,
Starts into life a dim, gigantic shape,
Holding its lantern o'er the restless surge.

Like the great giant Christopher it stands
Upon the brink of the tempestuous wave,
Wading far out among the rocks and sands,
The night-o'ertaken mariner to save.

-- The Lighthouse, Henry Wadsworth Longfellow

On a superficial level, a flashing red beacon is a utilitarian thing. If you look more closely, you will see that it is also a thing of beauty. It is an avatar of the compulsion we all feel to protect, to warn, to guide. The humble beacon is one of the better angels of our nature, sculpted with massive limbs of galvanized steel and eyes of electrically exuberant gallium phosphide. It sends our message out into the world, again, and again, and again.

be careful

be careful

be careful

be careful

be careful

...

Moving forward by stopping

Posted by Russell on April 02, 2012 at 4:06 p.m.
Just a three weeks after I was sworn in for my term on the City of Davis Safety and Parking Advisory Commission, UC Davis law student Megan Glanville was killed just a few dozen feet from my doorstep. She was out jogging on a foggy morning, and truck coming into town from the county road ran her down in the crosswalk. I never knew Megan, but her death deeply upsets me.

I've been worrying about pedestrian and bike safety ever since my little sister was nearly killed by a careless driver.

I find it extremely frustrating that most people do not look beyond the (usually imagined) behavior of the people involved in an accident like the one that almost killed my sister, or that did kill Megan Glanville. Either they identify with the frustrating experience of driving, and blame the victim, or they side with the law, and place the responsibility at the feet of the operator of the more dangerous vehicle. I will always side with the person who suffered more, but both views are myopic. When someone has been killed in an accident, the question of who was more "right" in that sliver of time is irrelevant. It is worse than irrelevant; it is an insult to the lives of all the people affected.

There are other, far more urgent questions that need to be raised. If you see a problem, the first question you should always ask is, "In what way am I responsible for this?" We are all bound together by bonds of mutual responsibility, and nothing happens among people, good or bad, for which each of us are not in some sense responsible. That is what words like "society," "community," and "civilization" mean. They describe the fact that the bonds that link us together are fundamentally inescapable. There is such a thing as integrity, but there is no such thing as self-reliance. Interdependence is the very essence of what makes us human. And so, if you see something that upsets you, the first thing you should look at is your own role in causing it. Through our choices, we were all present on morning that George Souza killed Megan Glanville. You. Me. Everyone. We all had a hand in it.

Clearly, we failed. You failed. I failed. Someone is dead as a consequence of that failure.

So, let us set aside the choices of George Souza and Megan Glanville, and look at the choices we made that contributed to this terrible thing. They are easy enough to see :

This is the crosswalk where Megan was killed, which is part of a system of roads that belong to the City of Davis. The arrow on the yellow sign is pointing almost directly at the spot. The laws that govern the design of the road are a kaleidoscopic fugue of local, county, state, federal and international regulations. Within that often contradictory matrix of statutes, the city government has a small keyhole of authority within which it may choose what the road looks like and how it works.

From an engineering point of view, it's pretty clear what the problem is. The road on the left is just a stone's throw from the border of the city. Beyond the border, it is a wide county road that cuts a nearly straight line for miles among orchards and farms. When it crosses into the city, this road suddenly plunges into a dense residential neighborhood with no transition whatsoever. The intersection where Megan was killed is the very first intersection an eastbound driver encounters in the City of Davis. So, drivers come in from the county road going at county road speeds, and roar through this intersection where people are trying to cross to the bike path that parallels the road. Add a little darkness and bit of fog, and the accident was basically inevitable.

Why was this intersection designed this way? I don't know. According to the laws and statutes that regulate its engineering, there is nothing particularly wrong with it. But then again, houses that catch fire and burn people alive inside are often built to code. Compliance with the law is not enough. Only thoughtful design can keep people safe, and the absence of that thoughtfulness killed someone.

So, who is to blame? The legislators who wrote the statues describing how intersections should be designed? The engineers whose designs were constrained by those statutes? The City of Davis Public Works Department that built and maintained it? Surely, some of the responsibility falls to them. But not very much. If you've ever driven, walked or bicycled through the intersection of Lake and Russell, then a great deal of the responsibility falls on you. If you've ever felt uncomfortable or unsafe while passing through it, then you knew someone would get hurt there sooner or later.

The Council Chambers are open to the public. The meetings and agendas are available weeks in advance for all to see, at CityOfDavis.org. You can even submit your concerns in writing if you don't have time to come to the meetings. In other words, you had the reason and the means to get this fixed, or at least play a part in getting it fixed, before Megan Glanville was killed. I share in this responsibility; I serve on the commission charged with advising the City Council on these things, and I did not raise this issue either. And I use this intersection several times a day. And I always feel unsafe. It is my fault too.

So, here is what is going to happen. The City Council was asked, and agreed, to take steps to prevent anyone else from getting killed. The proposed changes will add stop signs on Russell Boulevard in both directions, a blinking red light in case drivers don't see the stop signs in the fog, and four new street lights for better illumination overall. It will cost about $20,000.

This is a much better design. It's impossible to know if it would have saved Megan's life had it been in place in December, but it seems likely that it would have. I strongly support it.

Roads are not natural phenomena. They are public infrastructure, and they are designed and built and maintained in exactly the way the public asks them to be. Let's try to do a better job of holding up our end of that conversation.

Say it with us : Another open letter to the Chancellor

Posted by Russell on November 23, 2011 at 2:05 a.m.
Dear Chancellor Katehi,

I know this joins a growing list of open letters addressed to you, but you will find that this one really is addressed to you, rather than at you.

On Saturday, I signed the petition for your resignation. After this evening's townhall meeting, I withdrew my signature. You've restored some of my confidence in your ability to lead this campus, although reservations remain. The way I see it, you have two choices; lead, or resign. I would prefer you that lead.

Unfortunately, it seems that you are not getting the best advice in that regard. I offer these thoughts in the hope that they will point the way.

Sometimes, it is necessary to break a small rule in order to protect a more important rule. Civil disobedience is not disregard for rules in general; it is a statement about the relative importance of two rules that are, or have become contradictory. The Civil Rights rights movement broke many local ordinances and state laws, but this was done in order to push the country into compliance with the Fifth and Fourteenth amendments of the United States Constitution. This is a proud and honorable part of American history, and has been a model for tremendous positive change around the world.

The Occupy protests belong to this tradition; they are peacefully but deliberately breaking a small law, in this case, ordinances against camping, in order to protect the country from the existential threat of economic nihilism. UC Davis was occupied by its students because they object to its destruction.

You spoke powerfully this evening about the burning of universities and libraries in Greece. "No one has the right to destroy the public's property," is how I think you put it. I am absolutely in agreement. I believe it is indeed your duty as chancellor to protect this campus, because there are indeed anarchists who are very eager to burn it down. However, the anarchists who threaten UC Davis are not camping on the quad tonight. They are in Sacramento and Washington D.C.

One of the most difficult problems in politics is building coalitions. You are always divided from your natural allies by social boundaries. Race, religion, age, region, class and gender create boundaries to mutual comprehension. Professors are separated from students by the roles each must play in the classroom, and administrators are separated from both professors and students by billowing layers of university bureaucracy.

You have fought for this campus in Sacramento and Washington, and you have seen just how frustrating and lonely it is to fight for public education these days. You clearly understand how important places like UC Davis are for the future of this country. But on Friday, your officers used chemical weapons on people who were engaged in the very same fight.

So, let me make a suggestion. Don't just apologize. Don't just seek to heal and muddle forward. The panels, investigations, reports and meetings you discussed this evening are all important positive things, and by all means proceed with them. However, you must know that they will not save this campus from the fire that is coming.

Instead, look across the divide and recognize Occupy UC Davis for what it is; the banner of your true allies. They are the infantry in the battle to save public education. Join them. Next time you walk the halls of Congress to fight for this campus, don't just bring a few token students. Bring an army.

The past few days have made it painfully clear that while you can be quite articulate, you are not a skilled politician or tactician. This sits in stark contrast to the students, who have frankly run circles around you. If you're willing to fight for us, your errors can and will be forgiven. However, if you are going to be an effective advocate for this campus, you will need to employ the skills you have, and find trustworthy friends to help when you are out of your element. An alliance of the Chancellor's office and the student movement would be much greater than the sum of its parts, and would certainly be more productive than continuing to antagonize one another. If you want that alliance, you are going to have ask for it in the language of mass protest; with symbols, not words.

You will find that there is plenty of room on the quad for another tent. There could be no symbol more unambiguous than joining the students in committing this trivial infraction. The world is watching.

Whose university? Our university. Say it with us, Chancellor.

Russell Neches
Graduate student, Microbiology
UC Davis

Wine states, Beer states

Posted by Russell on May 26, 2011 at 1 a.m.
I was playing around with Google Lab's latest nifty gizmo, Google Correlate, and came across this interesting little tuft of statistical ephemera. Here is the distribution of searches for "wine" verses "beer" across US states.

I suppose that's... basically what I expected. I thought this would be a nice little homage to the 35th anniversary of the Judgement of Paris, the event which catapulted California wines out of unpopular obscurity and onto the world scene (and is also a beautifully wry literary allusion).

What Google knows

Posted by Russell on April 28, 2010 at 11:26 a.m.
After six months of using Google Latitude, I've amassed about 7108 location updates, or about 38 a day. It would probably be a lot more if I hadn't managed on occasion to break the GPS or automatic updating by fiddling with the software.

It's actually quite useful to have this data, especially if it's correlated with some richer information. For example, I've consulted the data to answer questions like, "Where was that awesome sandwich place I ate at last month?" It's also extremely useful to be able to share this data with Google because it allows me to quickly cross-reference location coordinates with Google's database of businesses and addresses. You can also download your complete location history in one giant blob (just ignore the warning that the History map only displays 500 datapoints, and download the KML file). Once you have the KML file, you can do whatever you want with it. For example, I uploaded mine to Indiemapper to map my wanderings for the last six months (Indiemapper is cool, but I quickly found that this dataset is really much too big for a Flash-based web application).

Not surprisingly, I spent most of my time in California, mostly in Davis and the Bay Area, with a few trips to Los Angeles via I-5, the Coast Starlight, and the San Joaquin (the density of points along those routes is indicative of the data service along the way).

The national map shows my trip to visit my dad's family in New Jersey and Massachusetts, as well as a layover in Denver that I'd completely forgotten about.

I have somewhat mixed feelings about this dataset. On one hand, it's very useful to have, and sharing it with my friends and with Google is very useful. It's also cool to have this sort of quantitative insight into my recent past so easily accessible. On the other hand, I'm not particularly happy with the idea that Google controls this data. I chose the word controls deliberately. I don't mind that they have the data -- after all, I did give it to them. As far as I know, Google has been a good citizen when it comes to keeping personal location data confidential. The Latitude documentation makes their policy pretty clear :

Privacy

Google Location History is an opt-in feature that you must explicitly enable for the Google Account you use with Google Latitude. Until you opt in to Location History, no Latitude location history beyond your most recently updated location if you aren't hiding is stored for your account. Your location history can only be viewed when you're signed in to your Google Account.

You may delete your location history by individual location, date range, or entire history. Keep in mind that disabling Location History will stop storing your locations from that point forward but will not remove existing history already stored for your Google Account.

...

If I delete my history, does Google keep a copy or can I recover it?

No. When you delete any part of your location history, it is deleted completely and permanently within 24 hours. Neither you nor Google can recover your deleted location history.

So, that's what they'll do with it, and I'm happy with that. What bothers me is this: Who owns this data?

This question leads directly to one of the most scorchingly controversial questions you could ask for, and there are profound legal, social, economic and moral outcomes riding on how we answer it. This isn't just about figuring out what coffee shops I like. If you want to see how high the stakes go, buy one of 23andMe's DNA tests. You're giving them access to perhaps the most personal dataset imaginable. In fairness, 23andMe has a very strong confidentiality policy.

But therein lays the problem -- it's a policy. Ambiguous or fungible confidentiality policies are at the heart of an increasing number of lawsuits and public snarls. For example, there is the case of the blood samples taken from the Havasupai Indians for use in diabetes research that turned up in research on schizophrenia. The tribe felt insulted and misled, and sued Arizona State University (the case was recently settled, the tribe prevailing on practically every item).

You can't mention informed consent and not revisit HeLa, the first immortal human cells known to science. HeLa was cultured from a tissue biopsy from Henrietta Lacks and shared among thousands of researchers -- even sold as a commercial product -- making her and her family one of the most studied humans in medical history. The biopsy, the culturing, the sharing and the research all happened without her knowledge or consent, or the knowledge or consent of her family.

And, of course, there is Facebook -- again. Their new "Instant Personalization" feature amounts to sharing information about personal relationships and cultural tastes with commercial partners on an op-out basis. Unsurprisingly, people are pissed off.

Some types of data are specifically protected by statute. If you hire a lawyer, the data you share with them is protected by attorney-client privilege, and cannot be disclosed even by court order. Conversations with a psychiatrist are legally confidential under all but a handful of specifically described circumstances. Information you disclose to the Census cannot be used for any purpose other than the Census. Nevertheless, there are many types of data that have essentially no statutory confidentiality requirements, and these types of data are becoming more abundant, more detailed, and more valuable.

While I appreciate Google's promises, I'm disturbed that the only thing protecting my data is the goodwill of a company. While a company might be full of a lots of good people, public companies are always punished for altruistic behavior sooner or later. There is always a constituency of assholes among shareholders who believe that the only profitable company is a mean company, an they'll sue to get their way. Managers must be very mindful of this fact as they navigate the ever changing markets, and so altruistic behavior in a public company can never be relied upon.

We cannot rely on thoughtful policies, ethical researchers or altruistic companies to keep our data under our control. The data we generate in the course of our daily lives is too valuable, and the incentives for abuse are overwhelming. I believe we should go back to the original question -- who owns this data? -- and answer it. The only justifiable answer is that the person described by the data owns the data, and may dictate the terms under which the data may be used.

People who want the data -- advertisers, researchers, statisticians, public servants -- fear that relinquishing their claim on this data will mean that they will lose it. I strongly disagree. I believe that people will share more freely if they know they can change their mind, and that the law will back them up.

Update

The EFF put together a very sad timeline of Facebook's privacy policies as they've evolved from 2005 to now. They conclude, depressingly :
Viewed together, the successive policies tell a clear story. Facebook originally earned its core base of users by offering them simple and powerful controls over their personal information. As Facebook grew larger and became more important, it could have chosen to maintain or improve those controls. Instead, it's slowly but surely helped itself — and its advertising and business partners — to more and more of its users' information, while limiting the users' options to control their own information.

Owls!

Posted by Russell on March 03, 2010 at 12:13 p.m.
To my surprise, I learned this weekend that Davis has a lively population of burrowing owls, Athene cunicularia. How cool is that?

I took some nice shots, but Jonathan has a 300mm zoom, and I don't.

They're one of the few species of owl that is active during the day, though I think these guys were only awake to watch various chattering bipeds on the hiking trail. They seem comfortable with people getting within about 30 feet of their burrows, so you can get pretty close. If you go any closer, they start to do the "I don't like you" dance. If you ignore the display and keep getting closer, I'm not sure if they would run into their burrows or have at you with their claws and beaks. Owls will mess you up, even these little guys. At least they're polite enough to warn you, so heed the warning.

Premises regrettably lacks belfry, cave

Posted by Russell on September 18, 2009 at 1:25 a.m.
I was going out to the garden to wash off the cat-litter-scooper this evening, and I noticed a tiny bat clinging to my screen door. It was hanging out about knee level, and I was worried my cats would take an interest in it. So, I tried to shoo it away, but it just chirped at me and clung onto the screen harder.

I thought maybe it was hurt (or worse, sick), so I captured it in a plastic bowl to observe. It didn't do anything to evade capture, and allowed itself to be sort of gently scooped up by the edge of the bowl. It walked around a little and chirped, but didn't do try to escape.

Since it didn't seem to be interested in flying around the apartment, I transferred it to the lid of the bowl, where it allowed itself to be photographed. I put a bead of water near its nose, which it prodded a little but didn't seem to drink.

I brought it outside again to see if I could get it to fly away. I held the lid out over a soft patch of ground and lowered it quickly, it spread its wings but didn't fly. I tried a few more times, and got it to fly as far as the fence. Finally, some tapping on the fence convinced it to flap away.

Does anyone know if this is normal behavior for this kind of bat?

A busy month

Posted by Russell on September 09, 2009 at 8:06 p.m.
This summer has turned out a bit like a chocolate bar in the sun; everything started out nice and neat, but everything ended up squished into the bottom of the wrapper.

Right now, I'm working with Andrey Kislyuk on our little piece of the DARPA FunBio project. We're in the middle of a two-week code sprint, so I'll save that for a later post.

I also moved to a new apartment, and that didn't go nearly as smoothly as it could have. The guy we subleased from was in the process of buying a house, and the loan underwriter decided to yank back the money after he'd closed escrow (or was in escrow, or something). Evidently they wanted a sworn affidavit from the gardener that he was contracted to take care of the grounds. Anyway, the upshot was that instead of a nice leisurely move, he got stuck in the apartment for three weeks longer than he expected, and I was homeless for a week. Fortunately, one of the staff scientists in our lab was generous enough to let me stay at his apartment. Neil and Buzz got to learn about stairs, which they evidently adore.

Over Labor Day weekend, I went with Srijak and some of his friends from San Diego on a day hike at Lassen Volcanic National Park. I've always loved California, but it's nice to be reminded from time to time exactly why I love this place so much.

Because it's awesome.

Summertime things

Posted by Russell on July 30, 2009 at 12:47 a.m.
Here are a couple of random cool things that aren't quite enough for a post on their own, so I'll stick them together.

It's been absurdly hot in Davis. Since the summer started, I've lost about nine days of productivity on account of my brain being too hot to function. By the time I get to the heavily air conditioned Genome Center building, I spend the rest of the day wanting to stick my head in a bucket of ice water.

Happily, the evenings tend to be very pleasant. And no, I'm not going to take Nate Silver up on his challenge. Good on you, Nate.

On Saturday, the Mondavi Center hosted Dengue Fever for a free concert on the quad. They are really great live! Chhom Nimol got all the little kids in the audience to come up on stage and dance. It was a great show.

My labmate Lizzy just adopted an adorable rescue puppy of unknown origin named Dweezil. He is very sweet, and already very well adapted to life with humans. He seems to love everybody, but Lizzy especially.

Meanwhile, my own rescue animals continue to puzzle me. Why does Buzz like to sleep behind my monitor? It's hot, and the cutter on the tape dispenser keeps poking him in the head and causing him to emit annoyed grumbling noises and squirm around. There are lots of comfy places he could sleep, but he likes this spot for some reason.

One year with solar

Posted by Russell on July 12, 2009 at 3:34 a.m.
A little more than a year ago, my mother installed 14 SunPower 230 watt panels on her roof. After a year of production, my mom's solar array has produced 5.3 megawatt-hours of electricity. That's about $1500 worth of electricity production.

Her actual use was about 3 mwh, yielding a surplus of about 2 mwh over the year. Rock on! Pasadena Water & Power won't actually write a check for the balance, but are carrying it forward indefinitely. Eventually, I suppose, they will figure out a way for her to cash in. I figure that someday she will be able to buy an electric car, and the extra production (plus the surplus stashed away in her utility bill) will go toward charging it.

Before installing the panels, she had whittled her electricity usage from about 32 kwh a day down to about 13. I thought it would be interesting to see the how things look now.

I decided to invert the Y-axis to represent net energy balance from the homeowner's point of view. Negative numbers represent net consumption, positive numbers are net production. The green region indicates the interval since the panels were installed. PWD bills on a bi-monthly basis, so unfortunately there are not very many data points.

The panels were installed in the middle of a billing period, so the first data point lifts away from the prior trend, and settles on a new trend. The third point in the green region -- the one that dips back into the negative -- is the middle of winter. Production was lowest, and my mom was running a space heater at her desk to keep her feet warm.

OMG snake.

Posted by Russell on July 04, 2009 at 2:22 p.m.
After it started to cool down yesterday, I went for a bike ride around the research farms, and I saw what I thought was a seam in the bike path. It wasn't until I was almost on top of it that I noticed that it was the shadow of a snake crossing the path! I ran over the poor guy before I could hit the breakes.

Fortunately, the snake survived, and went slithering into his hidey hole in the roots of one of the huge trees that line the bike path. I used a stick to touch the end of his tail to make sure his spine wasn't broken, and he reacted in about the way you would expect a not-run-over snake to react.

Sorry this isn't a very good picture. Since T-Mobile pushed out the Android Cupcake upgrade, my phone has been ridiculously, pathetically slow. It took almost a minute and a half to get the camera application open and snap a picture. By that time, the snake had spent 30 seconds slithering around on the bike path checking itself out (which would have been an awesome shot), and then gone about 20 feet into the grass. Boo Android! Fix your shit!

The snake was about four feet long and about the width of two fingers. The head was sort of bullet-shaped, as opposed to shovel-shaped, so it's probably not a viper. My guess is garter snake.

Bike safety column in print

Posted by Russell on June 19, 2009 at 4:55 p.m.
My article on bike safety is in print in the Davis Enterprise! I was invited to write this column as a follow up to my Davis Crash Map article and Anna's accident in 2007.

It's not up on their web site yet. I'll update with a link one they post it.

:: update ::

Here is the text of the article :

The Davis Enterprise: June 19, 2009
Davis Bicycles! column #20
Title: When road design gets personal Author: Russell Neches

Two years ago my little sister was riding her bicycle to a friend’s house. A woman was diving home from work. They met when the car hit Anna at 30 mph.

Before I go further, Anna is OK.

The weeks following the accident were hard. Aphasia, hematoma, and dental prosthesis became a regular part of family conversation. It was a month before we were sure she would get better.

Anna lives in Norman, Oklahoma. Norman is a lot like Davis; it’s roughly the same size, population and distance from the state capital. Norman hosts a big university and encourages bicycling.

After the accident, I desperately wanted someone to take responsibility. At first, I blamed Anna for not being more careful. Then I read the police report, and blamed the driver. But when I visited Norman and stood by the splashes of dried blood on the asphalt, I found I couldn’t blame either of them. The blame belonged to the road itself.

In sharp contrast to Davis, Norman has some of the sloppiest road design in America. The road where the accident happened has no curb, no sidewalk, no lane markings, no lights, and no center divider. The street is a smear of asphalt that informally fades into gravel and scrubby grass on its way to becoming front yard. This wasn’t some lonely country road. It happened downtown, right next to the University of Oklahoma. The equivalent spot in Davis might be about Seventh and E Streets. Until Anna’s face slammed into the windshield, the driver had no way of knowing for sure that she was driving on the wrong side of the road.

Davis does a pretty good job when it comes to road design. Even out amongst the farms, most of the roads have reflectorized lines to mark the center and shoulders. This isn’t because paint is cheaper in California. It’s because public officials have found that the lines help people be safer drivers.

With Anna’s final round of reconstructive surgery still in the works, I hope I can be forgiven for being preoccupied with bicycle safety. I’m a scientist. When scientists get worried, we go back to the data. Mapping the last couple of years of Davis accident reports indicates that the biggest problem spot in our town is the much-debated Fifth Street corridor.

It has been proposed to transform the stretch of Fifth Street north of downtown from a higher-speed four-lane road with frequent stops into a lower-speed two-lane road with center turn pockets. The design would look somewhat like B Street does now. I was surprised to learn that the two roads carry about the same amount of traffic.

Not everyone likes the idea, and some warn that slowing traffic may result in congestion. This must be taken seriously, and so detailed computer models have been constructed. The models show that the proposed design would actually increase throughput and reduce congestion somewhat.

This counterintuitive result is something with which I have personal experience. I grew up in Los Angeles, the poster city for congestion. It got that way because people tried to solve congestion problems by adding lanes. What we got for our billions of dollars was even worse congestion. LA has more acreage under roads than under destinations, and yet it is still asphyxiated.

Roads are ancient technology. Roman engineers would find California’s freeways impressive, but would learn little from them. But even ancient technology can be improved. We didn’t get from swinging stone axes to landing robots on Mars by refusing to try new things. Lane reduction has been tried in other cities, with great results for safety and efficiency.

The proposed Fifth Street design sounds like something worth trying. It will make Davis a safer, more efficient place walk, bike and drive. Repainting and installing different signals is part of the normal process of maintaining and improving roads. The proposal would simply guide this process. If it doesn’t work, the city has more paint. My family learned the hard way just how important lines of paint really are.

I’ve made an interactive map at vort.org/media/data/crashes.html displaying the last couple of years of Davis accident data. I hope it will inspire you think about how our roads are designed, how those designs succeed, and how they can be improved.

— Russell Neches is a microbiology graduate student at UC Davis. He has commuted to school and work through Los Angeles, New York and Boston on various vehicles including bikes, cars, trains, subways and on foot.

:: update 2 ::

Here is the direct link to the article on the Davis Enterprise website : http://www.davisenterprise.com/story.php?id=621.3

The Davis Crash Map

Posted by Russell on April 29, 2009 at 12:02 a.m.
I want announce a little project I put together over the weekend. For want of a better name, I'll call it the Davis Crash Map. Basically, I analyzed the accident report spreadsheets from the City of Davis Public Works Department, and made an overlay for Google Maps to visualize the data. The spreadsheets are a bit difficult to analyze, so I'm leaving out the reports that aren't clear to me (about 15% of the reports). The reports that gave me some trouble seem to be randomly distributed over the city, so the overlay should still give an unbiased picture of what is happening.

In particular, this is map is intended to examine bicycle accidents. I hope people will look at this map, and think about how they behave on the roads, weather on foot, on a bicycle, or in a car. How you behave on the road has direct, and sometimes dire, consequences for you and for other people.

However, there is more to this than behavior. This is also a design question. Roads are not natural features. They are designed and built by people for use by people. As with anything that is made by humans, there are good designs and bad designs. These designs have a real impact on peoples' lives. In the case of streets, the impact on your life can be very literal, as this map shows.

Even good designs can always be improved. Davis is a pretty safe town in which to walk, bicycle and drive. But if you study this map, and think about it as you go about the town, it's also clear that things could be better.

I'm not a traffic engineer, or a civil engineer, or a city planner. I claim no expertise in those areas. I'll leave it to other people to make specific suggestions. However, I think it is important for the users of streets -- pretty much everybody -- to think about what kind of streets they want. This map should help give you a better idea of what kind of streets we actually have.

For some reason, people seem to get very emotional about traffic. I grew up in Los Angeles, home of the nation's worst traffic jams. Perhaps this is to make up for our lack of a professional football franchise. Passions about transportation, especially mundane things like parking spaces and HOV lanes, get people really worked up. Los Angeles is also famous for road rage, and nowhere is it in greater evidence than in the corridors of City Hall. Public meetings on traffic can make I-405 look like afternoon tea. In fact, thousands of people from all over the world tune into the internet broadcast of the Santa Monica city council meetings to listen to Californians scream at each other over the exact position of little blobs of paint on little strips of asphalt.

What the conversation needs, I think, is some perspective. Data can help provide that perspective, especially if it can be represented in a way that is easy to understand. Maps are good at that.

If you will indulge me, I'd like to share my perspective on this data. Each marker represents a traumatic event for someone. Under some of those markers, a life came to a sudden, violent end. I'd like to share a picture of what kind of event a marker on this map represents. You won't find a marker for this event because it happened in Norman, Oklahoma, a college town that is a lot like Davis.


Anna and me

In October of 2007, my little sister was riding her bicycle near her house. A lady in a Mercedes made a lazy left turn, and crossed onto the wrong side of the road. She hit Anna head-on. Anna went up and over the hood of the car, and face-planted on the windshield, breaking her nose and her front teeth. The lady slammed on the breaks, and Anna then went flying off the car and slammed her head on the pavement. That much is clear from where my mother photographed the tire marks, the blood stains, and scattered teeth.


Who designed this street, anyway?

The sequence of events afterward are a little unclear, since Anna does not remember anything from that day, or for several days before and after the accident. The police report includes several details that are impossible or don't make any sense; for example, the officer thought she was coming out of a driveway onto the street, but the driveway did not belong to anyone she knew, and was paved in gravel (extremely annoying to bicycle on). The report also places the accident on the wrong side of the street, which was obvious enough based on the tire marks and blood. Based on what her friends say she was doing -- biking from her house to a friend's house -- she would have just been pedaling along the side of the road. The details of what happened are somewhat unclear, other than the evidence left on the road and gouged onto my sister's face.

After hitting the pavement, she evidently got up and staggered around for a bit, and then collapsed. She stopped breathing, and officer on the scene couldn't find a pulse, and assumed that she was dead. This was the reason given for not immediately summoning an ambulance.

Then she suddenly revived and started mumbling. The lady who ran her down went into screaming hysterics, and had to be restrained (or evacuated, or something). It was only then that an ambulance was called. From the report, it appears that paramedics and police spent a good deal of time tending to the driver of the car, who was having an anxiety attack, instead of Anna, who was bleeding from massive head trauma.

Anna then spent the next several days in the hospital. My mother got on the next flight to stay with her. For the next several days, Anna went through long and short memory lapses and dizzy spells of various lengths. When I spoke to her on the phone over the next several days, she also had some kind of aphasia, which was very jarring to me because she is normally a very articulate person. And then there was the puking. Brain injuries often come with a heavy dose of overpowering nausea. She was on anti-nausea drugs for a long time after the accident.

It took a long time for he to start feeling "normal" again. Almost two years later, she's still not sure she feels completely normal. Fortunately, thanks to some really great work by her surgeons, she looks normal. Needless to say, she is both very lucky and very tough.


Anna's bicycle. The police kept it as evidence, but allowed my mother to photograph it.

You could say that I have a personal stake in this, and I will not claim to be unbiased. Many people who argue against safety measures that would slow traffic argue their case on the basis of personal responsibility. We are each responsible for our actions, they argue, and if you do something stupid, you are responsible for the consequences. Why should people who don't do stupid things be inconvenienced?

I agree completely. However, if one casts any real issue into the frame of personal responsibility, then things are rarely so simple. Everyone who could act in a situation has responsibilities, even if they are not they are directly involved. When you have the power to prevent something bad from happening, and you choose not to act, then some of the responsibility falls on you. Every unfortunate, stupid thing that happens involves a cast of thousands of silent, but not blameless, bystanders.

We have a responsibility to at least attempt to protect people regardless of what they are doing -- even if it is stupid. This is especially true when it comes to the things we build. We shouldn't, if we can possibly avoid it, build things that injure and kill people. If we can think of ways to make something we build less dangerous, we ought to give it a try.


Anna and Earnie, about a year after the accident.

My little sister was stupid not to wear a helmet that day. The lady in the car was stupid not to have been on the lookout for cyclists. But neither of them deserved what happened. Each of them is obviously bears some measure of responsiblity (and I have my own opinions on how those measures are apportioned), but the city of Norman is also responsible. The city didn't even bother to paint a line down the middle of the road; what was the driver supposed to be on the wrong side of?

Yes, this is about personal responsibility. We, the public, build the roads. We are responsible for the markers on this map, and all the terror, trauma and tragedy they represent. Let's try to do better.

Bike saftey in Davis

Posted by Russell on April 25, 2009 at 11:18 p.m.
I've been tinkering with a little data visualization applet for looking at bicycle crash data in Davis, and I thought this map might be interesting to people. This is a image was generated with Google Maps and a heatmap overlay generated with a gheat tile server.

This is for 168 bicycle accidents that happened between 2004 and 2006. I have a lot more data, but 95% of the work in this little project involves parsing and renormalizing it. Evidently, police reports are not written with data processing in mind! I suppose that makes perfect sense. An officer at the scene of an accident probably has things on her mind besides generating a nice, easy to parse data point for future analysis. The priority seems to be completeness, rather than consistency. My parsing code, for example, has to be able to correctly detect and calculate distances measured in units of "feeet".

I'll release the applet here once I make an interface for it (and get the rest of the data imported). Stay tuned.

Fun with My Tracks, an accident, and Biking in Davis

Posted by Russell on April 21, 2009 at 5:40 a.m.
I was biking home today, and I decided to take a detour to enjoy the warm evening (and to avoid the not enjoyable warm apartment). About half way around the Davis Bike Loop, I remembered that I wanted to try out My Tracks. Here's the result :
Neat!

After wandering off the Bike Loop a bit, I decided to head home. I was biking down Russell Blvd., and I witnessed a very scary car accident. The accident happened where I stopped recording the track, at the red marker. A guy in a cherried-out lifted F-150 was sitting at the traffic light (that's the point where I turned around). When the light turned green, he floored it. According to the other witnesses, he was racing with someone, or trying to catch someone who had cut him off. I couldn't see the other car because it was behind his gigantic stupid truck.

What I did see, though, was that he accelerated continuously until he reached the next intersection (the red marker), where he had a head-on collision with a girl in a 1990's Honda Civic trying to make a left turn. His engine was deafeningly loud even a block away, and I heard it roaring and down-shifting right up until the crash.

Looking at the damage to her car, it looked like he basically ran it over. The lift kit on the truck put his undercarriage about level with her roof, and there were even little ladders installed to climb up to the doors. After he ran over the Civic, he swerved around a bit, jumped the median, sideswiped a small SUV in the oncoming traffic, spun 180 degrees, and snapped his axle. When the axle snapped, I heard his engine redline for half a second and then cut.

Happily, nobody was hurt. The girl in the Civic was pretty much petrified, though. She was convinced that the accident was her fault because she didn't get out of the way.

I told her this was nonsense; the truck was going more than double the speed limit, and I'm pretty sure he didn't have his lights on (it was dusk, but not completely dark yet). She asked me about five times, "How much do you think it will cost to fix?" I told her, "Cost you? Nothing. He was committing maybe a dozen moving violations, and probably racing someone. His insurance company will probably be so happy not to have to pay medical bills that they will buy you a whole new car."

Maybe she could have been a little swifter completing her turn, but it's a busy street and there is a lot of pedestrian and bicycle traffic (it parallels a bike path). Making a quick turn is probably not a good idea. Or, maybe she could have waited until this asshole passed, but, as I pointed out, he was going maybe 50 or 60 in a 30 zone, and accelerating. She timed her turn right for reasonable traffic flow, but didn't account for total maniacs among the oncoming traffic. It would have been difficult to judge when he would reach the intersection she was turning through.

Oi!

As it turns out, Davis has been thinking about redesigning this stretch of Russell Blvd. for several years. If you look at the proposed design, it would have made this accident impossible or unlikely. You can't race on a one lane road, and a landscaped medium would have prevented the second collision.

Warm spell

Posted by Russell on January 13, 2009 at 8:52 p.m.
I was biking to the gym yesterday, and it occured to me that since it was so beautiful outside, I may as well just keep biking. So, instead of sitting on the stationary bike, I did a three and a half hour ride down some random county road. It was awesome, even with my funny little commuter bike.

Along the way I passed this pathway planted with olive trees through the middle of one of the UC Davis research farms.

Note to self: Plant more olive trees.

Travel notes (part 1)

Posted by Russell on December 28, 2008 at 2:54 a.m.
After almost fifty-some hours riding the train, I have a few impressions worth sharing. I had a lot of time to think, and a lot of things to think about, so I'm going to break this up into a couple of posts.

I expected to get a great deal of work done in that time, and I accomplished absolutely none of it. Not a single jot. I basically spent the whole trip either looking out the window, or happily asleep. There is just too much to look at; breathtaking snow-capped mountains too numerous to name, scores of towns and a dozen cities, the vast arid emptiness of New Mexico, lonely volcanic prominences rising from Euclidean flatness, knots of green trees rioting in pocket valleys bracketed by sterile sun-blasted volcanic rocks, and the profane, hideous pointlessness of Texas cities.

The trip was a grand tour of the majestic beauty of our country, and an industrial colonoscopy showcasing a great deal of what is wrong and twisted about its economy.

I will spare you my gasping about mountains and trees. I lack the skill with words necessary to even crudely sketch such things. You simply have to see it. Instead, I'll tell you about the ugly and fascinating things I saw. They leave me truly awed.

The first thing that struck me was the vast and penetrating impact of exurban development.

It was heartbreaking to see just how much of the land is already destroyed. In California, luxury homes and golf courses fill every level patch of ground from the outskirts of incorporated Los Angeles to Palm Springs. Tuscon and Phoenix have similar, lower-budget penumbras of sprawling exurbs stretching two hundred miles in every direction. In the space between the outskirts of Palm Springs and the outskirts of Tuscon, people are busily making preparations to link these two cities with a continuous smear of houses. I was relieved to notice that many developments in the margins seem to be abandoned. One of them was nothing but rain-swelled chip-board and wind-tattered Tyvek nailed to dozens of identical frames. I regret that the photos didn't turn out.

That isn't to say that I don't have sympathy for the lives and fortunes that are suffering as a result of the economic pestilence that ruined these ventures, especially the craftsmen and laborers. But the fact is, nobody should be building out there. America's natural spaces should be treated like places of worship. Look at these houses huddling at the foot of this mountain:

These are money changers in the temple. I'm not against money changers in general, but they shouldn't ply their trade in my temple. Actually, this is quite a bit worse than the New Testament parable. The money changers could be thrown out and the sacred space restored. After the developers are thrown out, millions of their innocent dupes remain.

As beautiful as it is, this land is both exquisitely fragile and damn miserable to live on. Fragile because there is so little water, and miserable for its looming and contrarian propensity for devastating floods. Fragile because of the trophic poverty of the nutrient-starved ecosystem, and miserable for its tendency to erupt in sudden racing conflagration. Fragile because of the extreme sensitivity of the wildlife to disturbance -- a few scattered bottle caps have likely doomed the recovery of the California condor -- and miserable for the tendency of the wildlife to apply claws and fangs and venom to pets and loved ones. Fragile for the delicate balance of commodity prices and labor market conditions that make inhabitation possible, and miserable for the stress and strain of living on the knife's edge of financial viability, and doubly miserable when the distant rumbling of our global economic system brings your financial house crashing down on your head.

The only way most people can be comfortable in this kind of place is to obliterate it. Suck dry the aquifers, poison coyotes, shoot the mountain lions and the red-tail hawks, pave the chaparral, relocate factories and office buildings and depots from the distant city, blast and grade the mountainsides for drainage ditches and flood control swails, murder the night with the eyewatering glare of sodium vapor floodlamps. Then what have you got? Just another hot, boring place.

Yes, we can inhabit these places. Such is human ingenuity and power that given sufficient amounts of dynamite, concrete, oil and steel, we can probably live anywhere we can reach. We can blast and pave and bulldoze and burn any landscape to suit our purposes. The great challenge of the 19th and early 20th was to learn how to do these things on the scale required by the lethally difficult lands of the American West. A hundred years ago, life in the Mojave desert was so hardscrabble that few of even the most intrepid adventurers bothered to attempt it. Today, we build full-scale replicas of Scottish seascapes on which we play golf.

The great challenge of the centuries to come will be to abstain from exercising this power, and instead develop better enterprises in which to invest our blood and treasure.

This One for That One

Posted by Russell on November 04, 2008 at 1:01 p.m.
A lot of people fought long and hard to give me the right to a secret ballot. This time around, though, I'm happy to show it to anyone who cares to look.

I like this ballot system much better than the InkaVote thing they have in LA, and much better than any kind of computerized bullshit. I spent four years using computers to design fusion reactors, but I sure as hell don't trust them with an election. Pen and paper, thanks.

My very own ballot initiative

Posted by Russell on October 29, 2008 at 1:58 a.m.
I propose a ballot initiative to amend California's constitution to end ballot initiatives. Who's with me?

I like the idea of a little direct democracy, but it if I'm going to be expected to cast votes on these damn things all the time, then I want my damn legislator's salary. The initiative process should be reserved for extremely serious problems, like succeeding from the union if the Republic gets overthrown by evil blob aliens, or whatever.

What should be proposed, exactly? What if initiatives needed to pass at 66 percent? Or maybe if we required that a third of all California voters sign the petition to get it certified? How do we get rid of these damn things?

On calling the end of the financial crisis

Posted by Russell on October 14, 2008 at 9:46 p.m.
I was wondering how we'll know when the credit crisis is over, and I thought I'd share my gloomyness with you, dear readers.

The Big Money people invested vast amounts of capital in malls and condominiums, and now they have to come to terms with the fact that these things are not productive assets. All of that capital was blown on green lawns and shiny baubles, instead of invested in equipment and training. Now the capital is gone, with nothing to show for it but a bunch of luxury stucco boxes in the desert with no schools, no jobs and no water rights.

You'll know we're near the end of it when they start bulldozing abandoned subdivisions and planned communities. That's the reality of the situation; we built too much housing, we built housing of the wrong type, at the wrong size and scale, with the wrong materials and the wrong technologies, and we built it in the wrong places. Until Americans face that reality, the financial system will stay broken. But once the bulldozers get to work, you can be pretty sure that the reckoning is underway, and the stock prices you see are close to honest.

The metric for recovery that I'm keeping in my head is this; when it becomes profitable in Southern California to buy up a bunch of crappy houses, tear them down, plant some orange trees, and sell the oranges, then we're good.

4.01

Posted by Russell on May 19, 2008 at 1:56 a.m.
For the first time, I just paid more than $4 a gallon for gasoline. It cost $40.34 to fill the tank on my tiny Toyota Yaris. My commute to UCLA is 37 miles each way, and I get about 38 MPG for that trip. I normally do a little better, but the Sepulveda Pass always seems to wreck my milage. At about $0.11 a mile, one trip costs me $7.77. If I drove in every day, it would cost me about $155 a month. That's almost as much as the payments on the car. If gas goes up another 84 cents, then I'd be paying more for the gasoline than the car just from driving to school.

Ouch.

Meanwhile, a Metro day pass costs $5, and a month pass is $62.00. If you commute in LA, chances are pretty good that your employer will buy your pass for you.

Primary 2008

Posted by Russell on February 05, 2008 at 1:50 p.m.
Here's my ballot for the 2008 California Democratic primary. As you can see, I voted for Obama. I hope you will vote for whoever you feel would be the best nominee, but some people may be intersted to hear my reasons for voting as I have.

Why I Won't Vote for Hillary

Hillary's campaign has focused relentlessly on one theme: Experience. She's been fighting for middle-class Americans for a long time, particularly on the subject of health care. People who don't like her have tried to minimize Hillary's role in the Clinton White House; they evidently don't remember the 1990s. The trouble is not that I don't think she has the experience, it's that I'm not particularly impressed by her accomplishments.

That's a pretty sweeping assertion, so let me offer the most important example of what I am talking about. The touchstone moment of Hillary Clinton's tenure in the White House was the introduction of the health care package. At the time, it was clear that health care was in crisis, and the plan assembled by the Clinton White House under Hillary's supervision probably would have more-or-less ended the crisis. I'm not going to claim that it would have been a great system, or that it was a wonderful piece of legislation, but it was clearly a bold step in the right direction. Unfortunately, the bill failed, and it failed so spectacularly that it hobbled Bill Clinton's domestic agenda even after his successful reelection.

Why did it fail? It failed for a lot of reasons, but here are the ones that stick in my mind :

  • It was a gigantic piece of legislation, more than a thousand pages of dense legal jargon. I still remember the news clips of Congressional aides setting out copies of the bill on overloaded, buckling folding tables. There was no hope whatsoever that an ordinary person, even a very motivated one, could have learned enough about the bill to understand it on its merits.
  • The bill was produced in secret. The Association of American Physicians and Surgeons even went as far as to sue the Health Care Task Force to find out what was happening in the closed meetings. They were drafting legislation that would change the whole health care system, and they shut out the doctors. Dumb, dumb, dumb.
  • The plan itself was a hideous chimera; the idea was to take the scenario under which most Americans obtain health care coverage (i.e., from their employer), make it mandatory. Then, there was a system of price controls, and various other administrative thingamajigs... In short, it lacked any kind of unity of vision that would have allowed the Clintons to articulate how it was supposed to work.
  • The Task Force deliberated for a very long time to excrete this gorgon of a proposal, and by the time it was out in the open, the initial enthusiasm and excitement had evaporated. The bill's opponents had a nice, long time to organize their attack. The attack went off like clockwork, and Newt and his cronies rode the momentum of this attack into the 1994 elections and seized control of Congress. The Clinton's didn't just loose the health care bill, they lost every bill that could have been promulgated to a Democratic Congress.
Universal health care is a pretty grand endeavor. You'd have to look at the Social Security Act to find a piece of legislation with a similar breadth and scope, so let's take a peek at the Social Security Act of 1935. It represented a historic change in the relationship between citizens and government, but the legislation is only a few dozen pages long. It doesn't take long to read, and an ordinary person can pretty much follow what most of the bill does.

The original act has been updated several times since the program was created, but the original legislation completely captured the theory, practice and most of the essential features of the program. It was fairly simple, it was astonishingly efficient (even before computers), and it works.

Hillary's health care bill didn't fail because the nasty Republicans killed it. It failed because it was a murky tangle of legal spaghetti-code constructed in secret under dubious circumstances and championed by a callous, tardy and tone-deaf technocrat.

Hillary claims that she's learned from her mistakes. On a personal level, I'm more than happy to forgive her. I think she made an earnest effort to do something good for a lot of people. However, the fact remains that we've seen Hillary spearhead a major legislative effort, and she did just about the worst job you could possibly imagine.

There are a lot of people who are very excited about the prospect of a female president. I think it would be pretty great, actually. On the other hand, she is running for president. You don't put someone in that office because you like them and think they deserve your loyalty. You put them in that office because you want them to do a good job, period. The presidency is not a reward; it is a duty. It should be given to person best able to peform that duty, and Hillary has an established record of arrogance and poor decisions.

Women have fought for a long time to be taken seriously in the workplace, in academia, and in politics. I take Hillary seriously, and I seriously don't want her to be president. She clearly has the brains and the grit to be president, but then again, I don't think she's particularly unique among women in that regard. There are millions of women who could competently serve in the capacity of President of the United States. There are women out there doing much harder jobs.

The Clinton campaign mantra is that Hillary is experienced. Yep, she certainly has lots of experience fighting for good, worthy things. On the other hand, she also has a conspicuously inauspicious track record when it comes to accomplishing these good, worthy things. She and her husband presided over the Democratic Party's most devastating legislative failure of the 20th century. I don't see why we, as voters, should reward failure.

Since then, Hillary has managed to help precipitate a number of other spectacular legislative failures :

  • Voted to authorize the Iraq war
  • Voted for the PATRIOT act (twice)
  • Voted to confirm John Roberts
On the Other hand, we've got Barack Obama. Mr. Obama might not have quite as impressive a resume as Mrs. Clinton, but
  1. he is nevertheless an astonishingly accomplished individual and
  2. he has never done anything to wreck the Democratic Party.
Both Obama and Clinton are clearly competent to hold the office -- especially in contrast with its current occupant. Mr. Obama is more charismatic, though I thik more has been made of this point than it deserves. The reason I am voting for him is that of the candidates on the ballot, he is the one with the best record of good decision making. I don't agree with everything Mr. Obama says -- I emphatically agree with Paul Krugman on the topic of mandates -- but I think Mr. Obama is the most likely candidate to actually deliver a health care package. Mr. and Mrs. Clinton had their chance, and they blew it.

Up in smoke

Posted by Russell on October 23, 2007 at 5:12 a.m.
The upper atmosphere was pretty think with smoke today, though I don't see any ash falling in Pasadena or near UCLA. 500,000 people have been ordered to evacuate from what may be the worst outbreak of fire in California history. A constellation of fires are burning from Santa Barbara to the US-Mexico border.

There aren't enough firefighters, and, as has been the case for a long time now, much of California's National Guard is in Iraq. The Guard that is still here is also missing a lot of vehicles and equipment, because the equipment is in Iraq now, or because it was destroyed in Iraq. The Guvonator had to order 200 guardsmen away from patrolling the US-Mexico border, and people's homes are still burning without a firefighter or a guardsman in sight.

For those readers outside of California who are chalking this up to the various "natural" disasters for which California is famous, I'd like to offer a little explanation. Southern California is a desert. Specifically, it is biotic system called chaparral. Normally, it looks sort of like this :

The land is loosely covered with scrubby sagebrush and small, knotted trees. Small clumps of grasses or wildflowers grow here and there, but mostly the surface is exposed rock. There is almost no water whatsoever. One of the peculiar features of this kind of land is that it is supposed to burn. Chaparral plants evaporate volatile oils -- turpentine -- into the air to encourage fires. This is why Chaparral smells so nice, and why it fucking burns all the time.

So, the problem is this: What kind of idiot would build a house in the middle of a place that is supposed to burn to the ground every four of five years? The answer is that it isn't the idiots, it's the assholes. The people who built those houses (and whole towns, in many cases) knew exactly what was going to happen. But they slapped the houses together and sold them to regular folks looking for a place to live. They've been doing this for a hundred years.

For the New Englanders who read this blog, think of it this way. Rivers are supposed to flood periodically, usually into special areas called floodplanes. These areas have plants and animals that are adapted to life in a place that floods from time to time. In fact, many of them would die if there weren't floods. We know all this. Nevertheless, people still build houses in floodplanes. Usually, though, the home owner isn't the one at fault. They just moved in, and then one year, their house floods, and everyone says, "You idiot, you built your house in a floodplane."

Well, chaparral is sort of the same thing. Instead of a floodplane, it's a fireplane. It's a really, really stupid place to build a house.

But of course, the homeowner didn't build anything. Usually, a gigantic multinational corporation, like KB Home, is responsible for developing the site. No, you say, no developer would knowingly build in a floodplane, or in a fireplane, or some other obviously dangerous place. Allow me to direct your attention to one of their developments in Arlington, Texas :

According to plaintiffs' attorneys, the land that KB Home developed into the Southridge Hills subdivision was once owned by the U.S. government and was part of a naval training range. Commonly known as Five Points Field, it was used as a military practice bombing range during World War II, the firm said.

The government sold the property in 1956. Lawyers said in its deed to the purchaser, the U.S. government acknowledged that the property was subject to contamination by the introduction of unexploded bombs, shells, rockets, mines and charges. The government recommended that the target impact area be restricted to "above surface" use only, the firm said.

They built homes on top of fucking bombs, and then sold them to people without telling them. So, do you think they have any qualms about selling people homes in floodplanes, chaparral, and hurricane highways?

Now, I'm not against building homes or against multinational corporations building them. However, it is worth noting that if my IBM ThinkPad exploded and burned into a cinder because the battery charging circuit was defective, no one would be shocked or surprised if I expected IBM to replace my laptop with one that doesn't explode. Houses placed in unstable locations are defective. Whoever built them should be expected to replace them with houses that aren't defective. If we held companies like KB Home to the same standards we hold Apple and IBM, then we wouldn't be evacuating 500,000 from regions that are naturally supposed to burn.