Friday, June 26, 2009

My Dinner with Erik

This post is about a man named Erik Naggum, who died in Oslo, Norway on June 20, 2009, apparently after a long bout with chronic illness. I say "apparently" because I didn't know Erik very well, and the official accounts of his death have been light on details (which is fine -- it's not really anyone else's business).

The reason I'm writing this is because despite the fact that I didn't know him very well, we had a very close, um, association over the years (it will become clear presently why I had to struggle a bit to find the right word to use). My name, for better or worse, has become inextricably linked with his in certain circles, and so I thought it would be appropriate for me to write something on the occasion of his passing. Death often provides an occasion for reflection.

I would like to start by setting the record straight about a couple of things. Erik and I were often very publicly at loggerheads and a lot of people believe that I had a personal dislike for the man. I didn't. I met him on only one occasion -- a story which I've never told, but which I will tell here shortly -- and we got along reasonably well, to the shock of many witnesses. To be sure we had deep and profound disagreements, but beyond those disagreements I knew (and to this day know) very little about him. I have no reason to believe that he was anything other than an honorable, hard-working man, but beyond that he was always a cipher to me. I mourn his passing because now that can never change.

My relationship with Erik is unique in that, with only a few exceptions, every interaction we ever had took place on a Usenet newsgroup called comp.lang.lisp. As a result, our relationship is chronicled in unusual detail, thanks to the eternal memory of the World Wide Web in general, and Google Groups in particular. Unfortunately, when I went to consult the record to prepare this piece I found to my dismay that Google Groups seems to be coming down with Alzheimer's. I would occasionally go there for a trip down memory lane, so I know it was working fine up until a few months ago. But last week, when I learned of Erik's death, I went to search for some of his old postings and found that Google's index of several Usenet groups has apparently been corrupted. The original raw data is all still there as far as I can tell, but the index that lets you search it has big gaping holes in it. As a result, I had to do the research for this piece manually, which is why it has taken me so long to finish this, and why I may well be leaving out some pertinent details. If you think I've missed something important, you're probably right.

To set the stage for people who may be reading this who aren't already familiar with the background, I have to tell you a little bit about comp.lang.lisp, or CLL as it is known amongst its adherents. CLL is a Usenet newsgroup, one of the earliest forms of on-line communities on what would eventually become the World Wide Web. Usenet itself goes back to 1979, and CLL to 1986.

My first post (as far as I can tell) was in February of 1990. Time Berners-Lee was still ten months away from writing the world's first web browser. The general public did not yet have access to the Internet, was not generally even aware of its existence, so everyone there was a computer geek. On-line communities (they weren't thought of as such back in those days) tended to organize around technical topics of mutual interest. CLL focused (and does to this day, at least ostensibly) on a programming language called Lisp, whose fans (and I was definitely one of them) tend to be unusually passionate about it. Lisp inspires love and devotion among programming language geeks the way that Apple's products do among gadget hounds. I won't get into why that is here because that would take me far afield. Just take my word for it.

Because of this common interest, and because Lisp tends to be somewhat of a black sheep among programming languages, CLL fostered a kind of camaraderie that went beyond its nominal scope, to the point that in March of 2003 when I felt the need to vent about the upcoming and IMO ill-advised invasion of Iraq, CLL is where I went. (Reasonable people can differ about whether or not this was appropriate. The point is, this is an illustration of how *I* felt about CLL. And I was apparently not alone because my post spawned a very long thread. But I digress.)

Erik Naggum joined CLL (again, as far as I can tell with search not working properly) in August 1994. (N.B. I'm actually pretty sure this is *not* Erik's first post because I have a vague recollection of looking for it several years ago when search was working properly and coming up with a different posting that was quite a bit earlier than this. But searching manually I couldn't find it.)

BTW, by drawing attention to the fact that Erik joined CLL several years after I did I in no way mean to imply that I had some kind of seniority privilege or anything like that. I am only pointing this out because I want to tell the whole story, and part of the story is that I've been observing Erik for a long, long time.

The thing that I remember first catching my attention was Erik's habit of not capitalizing the first words of his sentences. The second thing that I noticed about him was that he had a very no-nonsense take-no-prisoners style. And the third thing that I noticed was that he seemed very smart. But that was pretty much it. It was five years (again AFAICT) before Erik and I interacted in any way. My first participation in a thread involving Erik in any way was in February of 1999 and my first direct response to him was in March. If you take the time to follow those links you will see that there is nothing whatsoever remarkable about them, which is pretty remarkable in light of how things ultimately turned out.

Things didn't start to get tense between Erik and me until late August of 1999. This is not to say that things weren't tense. I was not the first to clash with Erik (but as fate would have it I would be the last). Erik was already getting into regular tussles like this one.

At this point I have to digress for a moment and say a word about my background. I am not doing this to be self-aggrandizing, but because the conflict between me and Erik ultimately hinged on differences of opinion, and I'm going to make some comments on those differences of opinion, and I want to provide a basis for you the reader to assess how much stock to put in my opinion. For example, one of the things that Erik wrote in the post I cite above was:

"what? a customer of a product has _invested_ in the company?! this is too fucking nuts to bother discussing."

The opinion I wish to express is that the position that Erik is dismissing is defensible. Not necessarily *correct*, but not so wrong that it can reasonably be dismissed as "too fucking nuts to bother discussing."

So let me tell you why I feel qualified to make such an assessment. One of the things I did in my career is to convince the powers-that-be at NASA to fly Lisp on a spacecraft, which was not an easy thing to do. The culture at NASA is extremely conservative when it comes to software technology, and Lisp was viewed with extreme suspicion. But I did it, and along the way I learned a lot about how managers think, and one of the things that managers think is that they *do* make an investment in a company when they buy that company's product, particularly a software product. Right or wrong, that's what they think.

I'm walking on eggshells a bit here because I don't want to start an argument with a man who is no long here here to hold up his end of it. I only want to point this out as an example of Erik's habit of taking very strong positions on matters that ultimately hinged on subjective issues, like what the word "investment" really means.

What bothered me about Erik's behavior was not that he was wrong. In fact, it was exactly the opposite. The problem was that he was usually right, and often people would try to argue with him when he was right, and often they would find themselves on the receiving end of some very harsh rhetoric. I saw two problems with this. First, it made it very hard to tell when Erik was right and when he was wrong, because taking issue with him could be so emotionally draining. And second, CLL was turning into not a very nice place to hang out.

It's important to keep in mind that I was not the only person who felt this way. A number of people had similar opinions. A few of them expressed their views openly if a bit inartfully.

And then there was this where Erik wrote (among other things):

"one of the things you will experience is that the community is very different from the Windows communities, whence it appears you come. for instance, the Common Lisp market is not marketing-driven, it is not a pyramid game that requires ever new people nor a bug-and-upgrade scam, and it is not leveraging its operational costs across a huge volume of sales. rather, it is a pretty mature market of long-term partnerships with a steady growth..."

Now, this really bothered me, not only because he was taking it upon himself to speak for the community (and I felt like I was part of the community and I never agreed to have him speak on my behalf) but also because I thought he was wrong. The Lisp market was *not* experiencing steady growth. I believed it was in fact in slow, steady decline (a belief which, sadly, has been at least partially vindicated by subsequent history). I also thought that Erik's very visible acerbic nature might be contributing to that decline even if only in a small way. And finally, I just found the man's arrogance to be incredibly annoying.

In August of 1999 I decided to try to do something about it. Having observed a lot of interactions between Erik and people who disagreed with him I knew that simply confronting him with my views would not work, so I chose a different tactic: I decided to try to engage him and model my behavior as closely as I could on his, expecting that this would lead to a confrontation. I would then reveal (privately of course) what I had done, and hopefully he would see that his style, having been on the receiving end of it, was counterproductive.

The exchange took place in this thread. My first engagement was in this message and it escalated from there, as I expected it would, at one point fulfilling Godwin's law.

I don't want to rehash the controversy over that exchange (there was a lot of it) but there are a couple of things that I think are important from a historical perspective. First, there were only four postings from me out of 183 total in the thread. I pushed only as hard as I thought I needed to to make the point. Nonetheless, by the end of our exchange, Erik was threatening to sue me, so I decided that things had gone far enough, and took the conversation to email.

I don't have those emails any more, and I wouldn't reveal their contents even if I did out of respect to Erik. (I did find this message from Erik in which he references that exchange just to show that I'm not making this up.) Suffice it to say, it turned out that I had misjudged the situation quite badly. My mental model of Erik had been very wrong, and my plan had, to put it mildly, not worked.

It was in this context that Erik and I had our first and only face-to-face meeting. It took place at the 1999 Lisp User Group Meeting (LUGM99) in San Francisco. This was the conference at which Erik delivered his now legendary "Long Painful History of Time" paper, as far as I can tell the only peer-reviewed work he ever published. To make a long story short, I managed to convince him to talk to me, and we had dinner together on the first evening of the conference. No one else was present.

When I was outlining this essay I had planned to write a paragraph at this point about my physical impression of Erik, which was nothing like what I had been expecting. But I've changed my mind for a couple of reasons. First, it's not relevant. Second, Erik was a very private person. He never published details of his personal life, nor as far as I know ever put a photograph of himself on the web. So I will respect his obvious desire for privacy and say simply that in person he was soft-spoken and very polite.

We reached an understanding at that dinner. I don't remember the details of what the understanding was -- this was ten years ago and it's not like we signed a peace treaty or anything like that. But by the time dinner was over, Erik understood -- or at least acted like he understood -- what I had done and why I had done it. The only evidence I have for this was that we got along for the rest of the conference, and this was witnessed by all the other attendees. I could have sworn someone wrote up an account of this on CLL because many people remarked on it at the time, but I can't find it. (Maybe it was in an email.)

(Ironically, at that same conference I also approached Kenny Tilton, with whom I had also been having some friction on CLL. He refused to speak to me, and to this day I have never had a real conversation with Kenny.)

I thought that would be the end of it. Things were quiet for a while. Erik and I didn't interact again until December, in a very unremarkable exchange, and then not again until February.

It all started to unravel in late February of 2000, when I posted this. Detente was not breached immediately. It was a slow, steady unwinding, and it's all there if you want to read it. I'll just note this where Erik wrote:

"I also vote that somebody write "the complete idiot's guide to special variables" instead of proposing silly language changes."

The result of that suggestion was this often-cited paper which owes its existence and its title to Erik.

It took a very long time for things to really deteriorate. Things were tense but still professional for a long time. As far as I can make out, the real turning point came in May, which ultimately led to this.

Shortly thereafter I quit JPL to go work for Google. I was absent from CLL for over a year, during which time Xah Lee stepped up to the plate. If ever there were two people who deserved each other, it was Erik and Xah. Watching those two go at each other was a truly tragic comedy.

I returned to JPL and CLL in August of 2001. My first post after my long hiatus was this one, which again is remarkable only for how unremarkable it is.

Things apparently hadn't changed much in my absence. I watched with some dismay asJohn Foderaro was driven from CLL. I thought this in particular was a little over the top. The understanding we had reached in 1999 seemed to be long forgotten.

I myself didn't enter the fray again until late August. This thread is notable because for about half a dozen messages I responded to Erik by cutting-and-pasting exact quotes from earlier messages of his. I was hoping this "replay attack" (a term of art from computer security) would remind him of our conversation at LUGM99. No such luck.

In retrospect I find it fascinating how the level of tension on CLL seemed to suddenly build in the days before the World Trade Center was attacked. Maybe there was something in the air. (For the record, I didn't participate in that thread.)

Erik and I never managed to rebuild the fragile truce we had forged in San Francisco. Our last exchange was this one after which, as far as I could tell, he not only dropped out of CLL but stopped posting in English altogether. (He posted a couple of things about me in Norwegian but I don't speak Norwegian so I have no idea what he said. Frankly, I think I'm just as happy not knowing.)

So that's my Erik Naggum story. I've told it as accurately as I can. There might be mistakes. I did the best I could under the circumstances. And I think Erik did too.

So farewell, Erik Naggum. Notwithstanding our differences, I actually learned a lot from you, and not least among those lessons is that life is short. So I will always remember our meeting in October of 1999 with great fondness. Everything else is lost in the noise.

First Iowa, now Ireland

Vying to replace Iowa in the the top spot on the list of last-places-in-the-world-I'd-expect-to-see-gay-rights-recognized Ireland has granted limited rights to same-sex couples.

In other news, temperatures in hell continue their plunge to unseasonal lows.

Best. Ad. Ever.

Who would have thought that potato chips could be so compelling?

Thursday, June 25, 2009

Microsoft does something cool. Frost sightings reported in hell.

I used to say that Microsoft never produced a technological innovation in its history, preferring instead to make money by stealing other people's ideas and squashing the competition with unfair business practices. But I have to admit that this looks pretty frickin' cool.

Wednesday, June 24, 2009

Barbarism in Iran

Not that they were ever great even before the "election" (there hasn't been real democracy in Iran since 1953 when the U.S. helped depose Mohammed Mosaddeq and install the Shah), but the situation in Iran is apparently getting really bad. Warning: there's a very graphic image on that link.

A summary for the squeamish:

An Iranian blogger (whose URL I will not publish) live blogging from Baharestan Square in central Tehran today captures but brief glimpses of the unimaginable horror that took place today. Bus loads of protesters were stopped and unloaded from their buses by "black-clad police" and literally herded. When the massing was sufficient, as the barely controllably distraught Tehran caller to CNN described first hand, hundreds of the regime's Basij thugs poured out of an adjoining mosque and commenced a massacre with axes, clubs, guns and gas.

Obama, Iran, torture, and hypocrisy

Someone asked me the other day if I was "pissed" at Obama. No, I'm not, at least not yet. But I am very disappointed.

Monday, June 22, 2009

The opposite of prohibition is not permission

Ron's First Law states, in a self-deprecating and hopefully somewhat humorous strange loop, that all extreme positions are wrong. But that is only a useful aphorism if you actually know what the extreme positions are. Unfortunately, many people mistake moderate positions for extreme one simply because the extreme positions are so extreme (and so obviously wrong) that they don't even enter the conversation.

Take gay marriage for example. This is framed as an argument between prohibiting gay marriage and allowing gay marriage, with the moderate compromise being civil unions or some such thing. But this misses a very important point: permission is already a moderate position. The opposite extreme of prohibition is not permission, it is requirement. The counterpart to prohibiting gay marriage is not allowing gay marriage, it is prohibiting straight marriage. Those are the two "extreme positions" that Ron's First Law warns against.

The same applies to abortion: the opposite of prohibiting abortion is not allowing abortions but requiring them.

There's another important point that people often miss: permission is not endorsement. Just because the law permits something does not meant that it's right or desirable, just that we've decided to place the responsibility of making the decision with the individual rather than the government. I personally think that it's a terrible thing to, say, raise a child as a creationist. But if there were ever a law proposed to forbid the teaching of creationism (in private -- public schools are different) I would be first in line to oppose it.

So you can be vehemently opposed to abortion and gay marriage and still oppose laws that prohibit them on the grounds of moderation, restraint, and (dare I say it?) even conservatism. Because once you set the precedent that it is acceptable to pass laws that support extreme positions, the only thing protecting you from the opposite extreme is your status as a member of the majority. And majorities are often fleeting, as the Mullah's in Iran are lately learning to their dismay.

More on placebos

They really do work.

Sunday, June 21, 2009

A response to quantamos

Quantamos took up my challenge and posted a response to my earlier post about gay marriage. It was long enough and well-written enough that it raised sufficiently legitimte points that it deserved a considered response, hence this separate posting.

fine. i'll comment. we'll see what you can do to assuage my queasy twaddle. good luck!


historically, fecundity was a matter of national security, since it was important to get lots of children to fill your battle lines, factories, voting booths, and to provide social security for the elderly.

It was actually even more important than that. Until not too long ago (a few tens of thousands of years) fecundity was vital not just to the survival of nations (because there weren't any) but to the survival of the entire species. That is why we have instincts hard-wired into our brains that drive humans -- even gay ones (I'll get to that in a moment) -- to reproduce. Our not-so-distant ancestors who lacked these drives didn't leave many offspring. Halting reproduction is not an idea that reproduces well.

But, to understate the case considerably, times change. The human species has in a very short span of time (a few thousand years) gone from being just another contender in the game of life to being its undisputed champion. The survival of our species is no longer under serious threat from any quarter except ourselves. To the contrary, we have been so successful that we are the predominant threat to the survival of nearly every other species on earth. And indeed, increasing our numbers beyond the carrying capacity of the planet is a very real possibility (some think we're already there).

So reproduction need not be attended to with the same urgency as it once was. Unfortunately, we are still left with the instincts, intuitions and social norms that evolved back in the day.

But even leaving that aside, your next assertion:

gay marriage takes two families out of the pool.

is simply not true. First, gay people can and do reproduce. Gay women can do so through artificial insemination, and gay men can do so through surrogacy, both of which are widely accepted means of heterosexual reproduction in cases of infertility. But this misses a much more important point: producing a baby is only the first (and arguably the easiest) step in a much longer and more difficult process. Human babies require years of care before they are able to survive on their own. That's the reason marriage is supposed to be a long-term commitment. It has nothing to do with making babies; it has everything to do with raising them. And gays are just as capable (in my experience often more so) of raising children as straight people. So the truth is the exact opposite of what you say: the shortage of resources is not babies; we've got babies aplenty. What there is a shortage of is couples who are ready, willing and able to raise those babies to adulthood. So it is not gay marriage that "takes families out of the pool", is is the prohibition on gay marriage that has this effect!

By the way, if you really believe that reproduction is such an urgent societal imperative that it should override people's right to marry whom they love, then it follows that having children ought to be required of all married couples. But this is obviously a political non-starter, which proves that virtually no one really takes this argument seriously.

i understand that japanese, europeans, and israelis worry about their demographics all the time, and in some sense, they're a forecast for our future. our country currently has the benefit of imported labor, but how much of the financial burden for our elderly will they be willing to bear? the pyramid scheme we call Social Security is already scheduled to blow up. in your previous post you said "Both are slowly but surely dying, and good riddance." (emphasis mine). surely you do not intend to propose that as a solution to the health care questions i'm raising. as a very wealthy man in a very wealthy country who has no concerns about your future, have you considered that you're committing "selection bias?"

Absolutely. But this is a separate issue. As I've already pointed out, when the topic at hand is gay marriage, reproduction is a red herring. I've actually been meaning to write about this. Maybe this will motivate me to finally do it. (It's a very complicated topic.)

here's what I'm queasy about. nobody's figured out a (sustainable) way to draw more money out of a pool than you put into it, no matter how big or complicated that pool is.

That's not true either. Economics is not a zero-sum game. If I have something that you want and I don't, and you have something that I want and you don't, and we make an exchange, then we have magically created value out of thin air. Likewise, technology can create more value than the sum of the parts that went into it.

this is why many gov'ts provide incentives to encourage the production of children of their own, because migrant workers are maybe not going to be willing to foot the bill. i'm not sure that it's fair to allow gay people to get those incentives, or to gain full access to social security if they've been unwilling to contribute as much as others through the hard work of raising children. it makes me suspect that gay marriage is fundamentally a selfish act. it's double jeopardy; they won't have children to bear some of the direct responsibilities so their care will cost more, and they won't have children paying into the system as a part of their indirect responsibilities.

Here again, if you really want to make this argument, you have to take into account the fact that many gay couples raise children and many straight couples (my wife and me included) don't. In any case, the remedy for this is not to make gay marriage illegal, but to change the rules about who is eligible for social security (and I think you'll find that's a political non-starter as well).

so will gay marriage raise my taxes to pay for elderly gays who draw more from the system than they put in?

No more than straight marriage raises your taxes for elderly straights who draw more from the system than they put in. Being gay has nothing to do with it.

the other historical purpose for marriage was to provide protection for women; financial, legal, and physical. our individualistic society has, it seems, obviated the need for this to some extent. but is it gone and will it stay away? i'm not sure, but i don't know enough to comment more on this.

I think that's wise ;-)

i'm worried that this whole issue is merely foolish populist rage at a time when scientists are prohibited from objectively studying and producing facts about the long term effects of this on society. so we do agree that there is "no demonstrable harm in allowing gays to marry" because the one thing activist groups accomplish for sure is to eliminate objectivity.

Now you're sounding like a conspiracy theorist. You acknowledge that there is no evidence that gay marriage harms society, but attribute this to unknown dark forces that prevent scientists from studying the matter and uncovering the diabolical truth. If there were a diabolical truth to be discovered there is nothing preventing the Mormon church from taking the hundreds of millions of dollars it puts into political campaigns and instead funding scientific studies to uncover it.

thank God we have bigots who stand in the way when crowd mentality takes over! i WANT the law to move at a glacial pace.

Are you familiar with Martin Luther King's famous letter from the Birmingham jail? I'll quote the relevant part for you:

We know through painful experience that freedom is never voluntarily given by the oppressor; it must be demanded by the oppressed. Frankly I have never yet engaged in a direct action movement that was "well timed," according to the timetable of those who have not suffered unduly from the disease of segregation. For years now I have heard the word "Wait!" It rings in the ear of every Negro with a piercing familiarity. This "wait" has almost always meant "never." We must come to see with the distinguished jurist of yesterday that "justice too long delayed is justice denied."

finally, i don't understand why people think it's so important for the gov't to play a regulatory role in their interpersonal relationships. what's the point in demanding the right to give up your rights? let gay couples sign contracts to accomplish the same thing! maybe you're not worried about what i just wrote, and you don't believe the gov't has a stake in the institution of marriage. if you believe that the historical motivations for marriage are obsolete, then shouldn't we pull the gov't out of it all together?

I'd personally be all for abolishing government recognition of marriage altogether and just having civil unions for everyone, but that's yet another political non-starter.

thanks for giving me the opportunity to solidify some of my thinking on this issue.

My pleasure. Thanks for having the courage to stand up for your beliefs.

Saturday, June 20, 2009

Google Usenet archive data lossage

According to Google Groups today, there were only 227 articles posted to comp.lang.c between 1981 and 1995.

The effect seems to extend broadly across the comp.lang.* hierarchy. I haven't investigated beyond that. I hope this is a temporary glitch and not permanent data loss.

It's a little scary how much the world has come to rely on Google for historical data archiving.

Friday, June 19, 2009

Am I a bigot?

In my earlier post about the recent California Supreme Court ruling on Proposition 8 I wrote:

The overarching social trend in the United States is clear: the bigotry that drives people to deny gays the right to marry the people they love resides mostly in the older generation. Both are slowly but surely dying, and good riddance.

For this I was accused of bigotry. I freely confess to and apologize for a very poorly constructed sentence that left the impression that I was happy to see all old people die because some old people are bigots, or because statistically bigots tend to be old. I rejoice only at the prospect of the death of bigotry, not individual bigots. But that wasn't enough to satisfy my accuser, who responded:

You are tarring the "older generation" with the brush of bigotry. I hope you can see the irony.

So just to be clear: it was absolutely not my intent to "tar the 'older generation' with the brush of bigotry". It is simply a fact that prejudice against gays is more prevalent among older people than younger ones, and that the margin is substantial enough that it is a virtual certainty on simple actuarial grounds that shameful laws like Proposition 8 will eventually get repealed. That is all I intended to say.

There is, however, one form of bigotry to which I do subscribe: I am bigoted against bigots. I am intolerant of intolerance. I am prejudiced against prejudice. And in this I am an extremist. You may be entitled to your opinions, but you are not entitled to have those opinions respected merely because you hold them. Moreover, if you tacitly endorse bigotry through inaction or feigned injury (like, say, pretending that *you* are somehow hurt by the alleged damage done to the "institution" of marriage if gay people are allowed to marry each other, or by someone "insulting" your religion, or whatever) then you are in my book part of the problem. If you don't stand up for other people's rights then your forfeit your own. It makes mighty good rhetoric, but the sad fact of the matter is that we are not in fact endowed by our Creator with certain inalienable rights. We have rights because we as a society agree -- sometimes only at the end of painful and violent struggle -- to grant each other those rights for our net mutual benefit. Part of the cost of freedom is letting others be free.

If you want to be free to worship your god, if you want to be free to marry who you want, if you want to be free to speak your mind, but you are unwilling to grant those same freedoms to others, then yes, I am stubbornly and completely intolerant of you. If that makes me a bigot then I will proudly don the scarlet B.

Tuesday, June 16, 2009

Change? What change?

Barack Obama, taking another page from Dick Cheney's playbook, has blocked an MSNBC request to see the White House visitor logs. It seems transparency is just another piece of empty rhetoric.

UPDATE: Glen Greenwald has a much more comprehensive analysis of the Obama administration's record on transparency. It's not pretty.

Friday, June 12, 2009

Why health care reform matters

A friend of mine recently sent the following message to a mailing list I subscribe to:

We have a family friend who was diagnosed with 2nd stage breast cancer yesterday.

Several months ago she lost her job that provided health insurance. She continued her health insurance after losing her job, and set up automatic payment on a credit card. But then the card expired, and she didn't check the bills carefully and the insurance company dropped her.

Because she had a very expensive and difficult third pregnancy, no insurance company wanted her and the one that was legally required to provide the insurance was pretty happy to be rid of her. She spent a few months trying to get insurance, but then gave up.

Now she has cancer....

I'm curious - what happens to people like her.

The answer is, sadly: they go broke, at least in the U.S. Then they qualify for medicaid.

Or they die.

Or, in many cases, both.

My friend goes on to explore various options for this unfortunate woman, but the sad fact of the matter is that she's screwed, a victim of, depending on your political leanings, the private insurance system, or her own poor choices. Once you get a life-threatening illness while you are uninsured under our current system, that's it. Game over. You can never get insurance again, at least not for that illness. And it makes sense that you should not be able to, otherwise there would be an incentive for people to wait until they got sick to get insured. It would be like waiting to get auto insurance until after you had an accident. The entire system would collapse.

[UPDATE: it turns out that the situation isn't quite as bad as I thought. I learned, to my astonishment, that you can sometimes get coverage for pre-existing conditions after a waiting period of, typically, 12-18 months. But that's a long time to let a stage II breast cancer go untreated.]

So here we have the entire health care debate in a horrible nutshell. The conservative position is that people should be free to make their own choices, and must assume the responsibility that goes along with that freedom, and bear the consequences if they make bad choices or fail to pay their bills on time. The liberal position is that the consequences of getting those choices wrong are so severe both on an individual and a societal level that government intervention is necessary.

The U.S. is gearing up to have this debate (again!) right now. If you live here, you should pay attention, and urge everyone you know to pay attention too, because it really matters.

Thursday, June 04, 2009

Worst president ever: Bush... or Reagan?

Robert Parry makes a pretty convincing case that the Gipper ought to at least be a contender for the crown.

Monday, June 01, 2009

China breaks off diplomatic relations with North Korea (maybe)

According to Bloomberg News, China has suspended diplomatic relations with North Korea.

I don't normally post bare links to regular news items here, but this story is remarkable in that I can't find a single other news outlet that has picked it up (and neither, apparently, can Google). Normally in a situation like this I would just discount it as an Internet hoax, but Bloomberg is not exactly the Drudge Report. If it's actually true, this is a huge development in international politics. It completely changes the political landscape surrounding North Korea and their nuclear ambitions. I'm no journalist, but it seems to me that this is more important than, say, Susan Boyle taking second place on Britain's Got Talent.

So I'm not sure what is more interesting here, the story itself, or the fact that only Bloomberg seems to be reporting it.