Public Private

When I first went to work at the National Library of Medicine you couldn't get a password to search Medline until you'd been trained.  They'd gotten it down to a basic three days, plus a couple of days for the specialized databases -- a week altogether.   A decade or so earlier, it took three months.  No, I am not making this up.

You had options.  Although no private company would've built Medline, there were several that were eager to provide access.  BRS had been formed by some of the people who'd been involved in the original MEDLARS project.  When I was in library school, DIALOG was the big dog in the bibliographic database market, with a portfolio of more than a dozen databases.   But Medline was the first -- when it came up in 1972 1971, it was the first publicly available bibliographic database in the world.  But "publicly available" didn't mean you could just come in.  NLM licensed the database to independent companies, but with plenty of restrictions -- required training being one of them.

Searching Medline (MEDLARS On Line -- the original project had been MEDical Literature Analysis and Retrieval System) was cheapest if you went directly to NLM.  By law, they couldn't charge more than the actual cost of providing access.  You paid by the minute, so a librarian spent a good bit of

Texassilent700

time before dialing up working out the search strategy so as to be as efficient as possible.  The companies had to make money, so they had to charge more, so they had to build fancier search engines, had to offer additional services to draw customers.  And they were very successful.  They hated the fact that they had to compete with "the government".  But if the government hadn't built the database in the first place, they wouldn't have existed.

This was all pre-internet.  (Remind me to tell you sometime about my experience with the first IBM XT personal computer purchased by NLM's Bibliographic Services Division).  So you dialed into a commercial telecommunications company (NLM had contracts with two), and linked into the database.  Lots of people made money off of that government investment. 

I was there when access was opened up to physicians.  Without training.   Highly controversial within the organization.  At the time, I was the assistant editor of the NLM Technical Bulletin, the newsletter that was sent monthly to everyone with an access code.  In the course of a year, the number that we sent out increased by a factor of ten.

One of my projects at the end of my Associate year was to investigate whether or not videodiscs (twelve inch platters encoded in an analog format) would be a good vehicle for distributing information in the event of toxic waste spills.  They weren't, but in the course of my investigations I became aware of the five inch "compact optical discs" that Phillips & Sony had recently developed and were trying to find a commercial use for.   I calculated the number of discs that would be required to hold the entire MEDLINE database and suggested, in the formal presentation that capped the year, that they could be used as a distribution medium.  It seemed pretty far-fetched, but I thought it was a fun idea.

The commercial outfits always complained about competition from NLM.  One of the ironies of capitalism is that while competition is the essential engine, every capitalist hates competitors.  And having the government as a competitor is worst of all.  But NLM never put anybody out of business, and the investments that were made in MEDLARS and MEDLINE were the foundation of the search industry. 

It was a government agency that developed the internet in the first place.  The Defense Department wanted a communications network that could survive a nuclear attack.  Tim Berners-Lee worked for a government funded organization when he invented the world wide web.

So it's hard for me to get too freaked out about government intrusions into the marketplace.  Public health insurance option putting private companies out of business?  I don't think so.  Public access to federally funded research destroying the STM industry?  Probably not.


No News Is Good News

I've banned myself from listening to the news.

My habit has been to put on music in the morning when I get up to write (I've got the iPod on shuffle at the moment -- the Pretenders just came up).  At 7:30 when I pour a bowl of cereal before my shower, I switch to NPR, and continue listening on my drive to work.  More NPR on the drive home, and then, while I'm fixing dinner, maybe watch a bit of MSNBC or CNN on the little TV on the kitchen counter.

It's not doing anything for me.

I could almost believe that Joe Wilson's outburst was calculated to divert the discussion from the specifics of Obama's speech to a raised voices argument about whether or not Wilson should be censured or praised.  Obama gave a good speech, with the clearest statement he's yet made about what he believes should be in the healthcare bill.  There's plenty to discuss there, and, indeed, plenty to criticize if you're a small government conservative.  But that would still require some reasoned thought, and what's the fun in that?  Wilson cleverly hijacked at least half of the news time that could have been devoted to those discussions.  And then the House had to go through the senseless move of censuring him, thus keeping the vitriol boiling for another couple of days.  Anybody want to talk healthcare?  Nah, that's too complicated, let's talk about Joe Wilson and whether he's an idiot or a hero.

Then Jimmy Carter lifts the tarp off the elephant in the room and points out that racism is fueling much of the most hostile responses to the President.  This seems to me to be quite obviously and unremarkably true and I still (almost) wish he hadn't said it.  Now you've got Limbaugh using that as a launching pad for his line that in "Obama's America" it's alright for black kids to beat up white kids on the schoolbus.  And then news commentators take Limbaugh seriously as a political analyst.  Ai-yi-yi!

The notion that Limbaugh (and rising star Beck) actually speak for the Republican Party or have any interest in improving its standing is laughable.  They're entertainers.  Limbaugh has always been very clear about that.  His objective is ratings, pure and simple.  If he bothered to vote in the last election, I would imagine that he voted for Obama.  Certainly having Obama in the White House is far more in his self-interest than McCain/Palin would've been.

Finally I faced the fact that I wasn't learning anything from listening to the news.   It was just depressing me.   I don't really think that the inability of most members of the public to think clearly is getting any worse, but social media and the 24-hour news cycle have certainly made it much easier to demonstrate one's complete lack of critical thinking than ever before.  And I don't think our politicians are more venal, obnoxious, self-serving, lying and craven than in the past.  Wilson himself barely holds a candle to some of his more illustrious predecessors in South Carolina.  But I don't really need to hear about them anymore. 

So I'm loading up the CD Changer in the car -- Danger Mouse & Sparklehorse, the RH Factor, Hendrix, Alejandro Escovedo, Bob Geldof & Bill Frisell.  I'll be a happier man when I get home.





Rush is not the Republican party and Dick Cheney is a man of principle

While I'm fixing supper I turn on the little TV in the kitchen to watch the commentariat dissect the day's news.   It's their job to view everything through a political lens, which seems sometimes to leave them fairly blinkered about the motivations of the actors on the stage.

I was amused at Rove's comments on the Powell/Cheney flap.  "Neither one of them are candidates," he said, dismissing the entire matter.   He's only interested in winning elections.  Anything else is the "false debate that Washington loves."

The talking heads on MSNBC continue to be baffled.  They're trying to figure out the strategy.  If Cheney & Limbaugh continue to be polarizing figures, then how is that going to help the Republican party make a comeback in the next election cycle?  They shake their heads in puzzlement and disbelief.

Except that there's nothing to indicate that either Cheney or Limbaugh are particularly interested in helping the Republican party win elections.  Limbaugh, for all his bluff and bluster, is consistent in one thing -- he's an entertainer whose interest is self-interest and driving his ratings up.  If the Republican party falls apart and the ensuing controversies raise his profile and get more people to tune into his show, that's a good thing.  Zev Chafets's profile of Limbaugh in the Times Magazine last July makes it pretty clear what drives him.  You will consistently misunderstand Rush if you think that he's trying to build, preserve or further the interests of the Republican party.

Cheney is similar in that way.  But much scarier.   If you take him at face value -- and I see no reason not to -- he believes deeply that the actions that he took, the agenda that he drove until even W. couldn't stomach it anymore, kept the country safe.  And that what the Obama administration is doing now is terribly wrong and is opening the door for another attack.  His mission now is to do as much as he can to hammer home that message in hopes that public and congressional opinion can be turned enough to put roadblocks in Obama's way.  Whether or not that serves the interests of the Republican party is irrelevant.

Once you quit trying to view their actions through a political lens, they're both remarkably consistent.   I was never outraged at Limbaugh's comments about wanting Obama to fail.  How could he not want that?  Obama's vision for the United States is fundamentally antithetical to the view of the U.S. that Rush holds.  If Obama were to succeed, he would be moving the country in a direction that would make it much more difficult for Rush to sustain his riches and his notoreity.

I imagine that during the days between the election and the inaugural, Cheney must have wondered if there wasn't a way to stop the succession from happening.  He must have considered the implications of declaring a state of emergency, of some sort of martial law.  His actions over the past eight years have made it very clear that he believes that the President has unlimited authority to do whatever is necessary in advancing the war on terror.  It must have been deeply disappointing to him to realize, finally, that he'd made a president who just wasn't as tough as he was.




Truth and Reconciliation

One might almost be inclined to feel sorry for still-my-president if one could only forget what a horrific mess he's made of things.  Reading the transcript of his last press conference was bad enough -- seeing the still pictures or the video of the clueless guy struggling to present his administration in a positive light was truly painful.  Jon Stewart said, "He really doesn't know why we're mad at him!"  I think that might be true.  He's been living in an even thicker bubble than I'd imagined.

His petulant defenses of his interrogation procedures ("Do you remember what it was like right after 9/11?") are particularly gruesome when they're followed just a day or two later by the assessment of a senior administration official that she couldn't bring a certain Guantanamo case to trial because "His treatment met the legal definition of torture."

I admit to being of two minds as to how strenuously the Obama administration should investigate and attempt to charge senior administration officials for war crimes.  The country is in such serious shape that I really don't want their attention diverted in that direction.  It's also clear that, unlike his predecessor, Obama really is trying hard to be a uniter (note his unannounced dinner the other night with several prominent conservative columnists), and any attempt to address the torture and civil liberties issues now would severely damage that effort.

But the damage that's been done to the country has been so severe that I'm loathe to let it go altogether.  If you read the comments to the various news stories on the torture angle it is clear that there are plenty of people who now feel that the administration is completely justified in doing whatever they feel is necessary and that concerns about torturing terrorists are just more namby-pamby left wing liberal hand-wringing.

Thank god we've had Bush, they say.  He kept us safe.  Actually, he didn't.  You can't prove a negative in the first place, but if one wants to run with that argument, then it was Clinton who kept us safe and Bush who screwed up and allowed 9/11 to happen.  There were plenty of warnings.  The evidence is now clear and it was pretty obvious at the time.  Remember Condi Rice saying that nobody could have imagined that terrorists would fly airplanes into buildings?  The report from the Rudman-Hart Commission suggesting just that possibility had been on her desk for months.  I never could understand why she was not only allowed to keep her job as NSA, but was eventually promoted to Secretary of State.

When I was growing up, and was learning about the United States of America, I learned that its heroes were the people who were willing to die in defense of its liberties.  Young men and women went off to war to protect, not just the lives of those at home, but their right to free speech, to free assembly, to freely practice one's own religion, to be free from excessive government control and surveillance.  I grew up believing that our system of government and our way of life was a beacon to the world showing how a free people were willing to put their lives on the line rather than compromise those precious freedoms.  I grew up believing that protecting our principles was more important than just protecting my personal safety.

That's what Bush took away from me.  And I want it back.

I don't care what happens to him.  I don't feel any need to see him punished.  I wish that Congress had had the guts to impeach him years ago, when it might have made a difference.  That doesn't matter now.  But we, as a nation, still have to come to terms with what went terribly wrong.  If we are going to be able to get back to the country that I grew up believing in, we've got to be able to acknowledge to the world that the Cheney-Rumsfeld-Wolfowitz vision of the country was a terrible wrong turn, and that we will do everything possible to see that we don't go down that road again.

In that last press conference, Bush said, "I strongly disagree with the assessment that our moral standing has been damaged. It may be damaged amongst some of the elite, but people still understand America stands for freedom, that America is a country that provides such great hope."

Wrong again, George.  But I think we still have a chance to get it back.  I still believe in the best of my country that much.

UPDATE:  At this morning's confirmation hearing for Obama's pick for Attorney General, Eric Holder said what no Bush administration official has been willing to say: "Waterboarding is torture." 

Finally.


Obama's Blackberry

Apparently, Obama hasn't yet given in to the wishes of the secret service and the lawyers that he give up his blackberry. 

"Well, here's what I think I can get. I think I'm going to be able to get access to a computer somewhere. It may not be right in the Oval Office. The second thing I'm hoping to do is to see if there's someway that we can arrange for me to continue to have access to a BlackBerry." (from an interview on CNBC.)

In the early days of the Iraq war, I was channel surfing one night and came across a remarkable scene on MTV-UK.   The prime minister of England was sitting among a group of teenagers -- sitting among them -- and answering questions about the invasion and the rationale for it.  And they were tough questions.  It was clearly not a carefully selected group -- they were sceptical and concerned and wanted answers, and Blair appeared to be doing his best to be straight with them.  I watched for awhile, somewhat wistfully, knowing that I would never see my president in a similar situation.   I did some more channel flipping, watched the end of a movie, and about an hour or so later came across that channel again and they were still at it!  I don't know how long the segment was, but it must've been an hour and a half or more.

And then there's the "Prime Minister's Questions" -- a tradition in the UK and several Commonwealth countries where the prime minister spends half an hour every week answering questions from members of parliament.

Part of the problem with W is that he never saw himself as accountable to the American people.  It was apparent (if you bothered to pay attention) as far back as his first campaign for president that he was actually rather contemptuous of the population at large.  So "politics" was a matter of manipulating the message as necessary in order to retain power, but once power was achieved, he believed that it was his job to "stay the course" according to his beliefs about what was best for the country.  His press conferences (such as they were) were designed to reveal as little as possible about what was actually going on, and his public appearances were simply theater.

I want a president who is willing to make unpopular decisions and to stand his or her ground when the going gets tough.  A president should not be unduly swayed by the opinion polls of the moment.  But the president does need to stay in touch with the people, listen to them and answer to them.  While I believe in respecting the Office of the President, we have come to a point where we give far too much deference to the individual in that position.  We need to remember that the title is Mister President, not Your Highness or Your Excellency.  The grimaces of annoyance and flashes of temper that W showed when being asked tough questions were an indication of his belief that he had the right not to be challenged in that way.  I think that Obama knows better.  I hope he gets to keep his blackberry.


Watching the Primaries

I was relieved to see Clinton bounce back in New Hampshire.  It's not that I'm in her camp, just that I'd like the race to go on for awhile.  It is somewhat bizarre that so much emphasis is put on the caucuses in Iowa when they are representative of nothing except the opinions of the people who go to the caucuses in Iowa.  The media coronation of Obama was absurd.

Jon Stewart (who gets a little better each night dealing with his no-writers situation) had John Zogby, the prominent pollster, on his show Wednesday night, and their exchange was fascinating.  Jon kept trying to press the point that it would be better for the country if the MSM quit expending so much energy trying to figure out who was going to win ahead of time, and focused on reporting the issues and positions, and then reported who actually won.   To his amazement, Zogby didn't really contest that point -- his stance seemed to be, that might be true, but he's a pollster, so he runs his polls and delivers the results and what the media do with those results is not his issue.

Jon expressed the most amazement, though, at the answer to his question, "Does the polling data simply reflect what people are thinking or does it actually influence the way that people subsequently vote?"  Zogby said, "I don't know."

On the issue of why the Obama/Clinton projection was so wrong, Zogby gave a number of plausible reasons.  There's been a fair amount of blovistic chatter claiming that this shows that polls are just meaningless.   But, in fact, most of the time the polls are pretty accurate -- that's what makes this result interesting.   What it does reveal in this case is that the situation is extremely fluid and many people are not making up their minds until they get to the point of actually casting that vote.  If I were going to be voting in a primary, I wouldn't be able to tell you today who I'd vote for, and I've been following all of this pretty closely.   It's like ordering in a restaurant where I almost never know what I'm actually going to order until I open my mouth and tell the waiter.

I won't be voting in the primary, however.  Alabama has an open primary and is participating in the February 5 carnival, so the vote here will actually count for something; but it doesn't seem right to me to vote in the primary when I'm not now and never have been a member of a political party.   Why should I have a voice in choosing the nominee of either major party if I'm not willing to cast my allegiance for that party?  (I realize that this is an extreme minority viewpoint).

My fondest hope for the primary is that we come out of February 5th with the issue still undecided -- although the field will undoubtedly be much smaller by then.  We are finally getting to the point where people are starting to pay attention to the nuances of the differing positions, and I think it would be good for both parties for the potential nominees to have to spend at least another month or so further defining and explaining their positions.

I'd prefer that Edwards hang on a little longer because of his emphasis on the economic divide that the country ought to be dealing with.  Once he's out of the race, we'll lose that thread, and I think it's an important one.  On the Republican side, I'm happy to see Romney struggling.  Whenever I hear him speak I can't help remembering Mary McCarthy's famous comment about Lillian Hellman. 

I'm disturbed, though, by the rise of Mike Huckabee.    Like many people (apparently), I respond very positively to Huckabee as a person.  He seems very natural and very genuine.   A nice guy (although the further one digs into the details of his time as governor in Arkansas the more the glow wears off).  But I have no confidence that he would actually protect and defend the constitution any more than W has.   I want a president whose decisions will be driven by a deep understanding and belief in the democratic principles on which this country was founded, not someone whose decisions will be driven by their religious faith, whatever that faith may be.

And what about Bloomberg and the potential for an independent candidate?    According to a story in today's NYT, there's a growing backlash in New York from people who think that he should quit dancing around the issue and make up his mind -- preferably that he is not going to run, but is going to get on with being the mayor of New York.   But if the contests are still pretty open after February 5th, the calls for him to go for it are going to increase.  And then things would get really interesting.