Saturday, December 19, 2009

Is a deeply flawed healthcare bill better than no bill at all? Yes. Pass it. Please.

Now that the Democrats seem to have their 60 votes lined up to pass the Senate bill, the question is, should they pass it -- or has it been so compromised that no bill is better than the one under consideration? Matt Taibbi of Rolling Stone is among the liberals who say no, start over. Taibbi argued against passage on Bill Moyers Journal on PBS last night.
Taibbi argues that the bill "doesn't address the two biggest problems with the health care crisis... and additionally is a big give-away to the insurance companies." He says there will be better chances for reform in the future, "I think it's much better for the Democrats to lose on this issue and then have to regroup maybe eight years later, six years later, and try again and do a better job the next time then to have it go through."
I like Taibbi, but to this I've got to say, "Are you totally out of your mind?" We don't have "maybe eight years, six years." Millions people are suffering right now, and need what even a compromised bill offers. Everyone would benefit from the ban on pre-existing conditions. Etc.

Besides, if Obama loses this one, I think there's a good chance that Sarah Palin will become the first successful third party candidate for president in 2012, winning a three-way race pitting her against a weakened president with a reputation for ineffectuality and a clueless Republican.

I'm with Krugman on this. Pass the bill.
Whereas flawed social insurance programs have tended to get better over time, the story of health reform suggests that rejecting an imperfect deal in the hope of eventually getting something better is a recipe for getting nothing at all. Not to put too fine a point on it, America would be in much better shape today if Democrats had cut a deal on health care with Richard Nixon, or if Bill Clinton had cut deal with moderate Republicans back when they still existed.
This isn't the time to make the perfect the enemy of the good. Pass the bill.

LED lights give the Capitol tree a cooler vibe

Wisconsin State Capitol Holiday Tree
Although it's a big tree, the holiday tree in the State Capitol is dwarfed by the soaring rotunda. It used to be a Christmas tree, of course, but those days are long past. Now it's a holiday tree.

Wisconsin State Capitol Holiday TreeThat's not the only difference. It also looks different, and it's because of the LED lights. Although I agree with the objective, the ubiquitous energy-savers emit a cool wavelength that just doesn't have the warmth of the older incandescent lights, at least to my eye (the camera's eye, too). Those little curlicues of glowing filament that produced incandescent light, were our last link with the glowing candles of an earlier era. We just have to move on, I guess. Since the tree stands in a formal space to begin with, the tree with its LEDs would seem almost too austere, verging on sterile, save for one thing -- the marvelous decorations made by schoolchildren from all over the state. There are stars, Santas, snowflakes, snowmen and all manner of mysterious objects that are impossible to classify. What matters is the innocent exuberance of children making things for Christmas the holidays. The lights might be cooler, but the kids' handiwork is as warm as ever.

Friday, December 18, 2009

Madison's water meets legal standards, but that doesn't mean everything in it is healthy

According to That Tap Water Is Legal but May Be Unhealthy in Thursday's NYT, many communities meet legal standards for water quality while their water contains levels of contaminants that exceed accepted federal health standards. Madison is one of them.

How can a community's water be both legal and unhealthy? Easy. As the Times explains:
The 35-year-old federal law regulating tap water is so out of date that the water Americans drink can pose what scientists say are serious health risks — and still be legal.

Only 91 contaminants are regulated by the Safe Drinking Water Act, yet more than 60,000 chemicals are used within the United States, according to Environmental Protection Agency estimates. Government and independent scientists have scrutinized thousands of those chemicals in recent decades, and identified hundreds associated with a risk of cancer and other diseases at small concentrations in drinking water, according to an analysis of government records by The New York Times.
The article is based on studies compliled by the Environmental Working Group and has links to a database in which readers can find test results for their own city.

The Times' compilation of the data for the Madison Water Utility identifies 5 contaminants found to be below legal limits, but above health guidelines. Another 30 contaminants were found to be within health guidelines and legal limits. And finally, another 97 contaminants were tested for but not found at all in Madison water. Another link lets you check EPA health violations, and Madison has never had one. What does it all mean? The Times uses a more conservative analysis of the data than the Environmental Working Group (EWG), and on their chart Madison seems to come off pretty well.

There's also a link to The EWG analysis for Madison, which seems to have a more sensitive threshold than the Times. For example, it red flags the unsafe managanese concentrations found in some areas of the city several years ago, a problem that since been cleaned up.

What the EWG data does include is a comparison with national averages. By that standard, we might not want to be too quick to congratulate ourselves on our water quality. For example, we have exceeded health guidelines for 14 chemicals vs. a national average of 4. And a total of 35 pollutants were found vs. a national average of 8.

When I was a kid, we were told in school that Madison water was extraordinarily pure because it has been seeping down from northern Wisconsin for millions of years underneath the protective covering of limestone bedrock. Or something like that. But I suppose in the modern world nothing stays pure forever. Water filters and bottled water look better and better all the time.

Thursday, December 17, 2009

Madison's Barnes & Noble opens up their wifi network because of their Nook E-reader

Barnes & Noble Opens Up Their Wifi Network Because of the Nook
The Nook is the new E-reader (and Kindle competitor) from Barnes & Noble. I'm not quite ready for an E-reader yet, though I stopped for a demo (the pages seem to turn a bit more slowly than on Amazon's Kindle, but I like the design of the Nook a lot more). But I love the impact of the Nook on Barnes & Noble. Because one of its unique features is that you can read books on the Nook for up to an hour in the store without buying them (just like browsing dead tree books), Barnes & Noble enabled public wifi throughout the store (previously their Starbucks cafe followed the usual Starbucks paid access model). So I was able to blog and Flickr while waiting to get tires put on at Sears. Woo-hoo! (The post onscreen is an upcoming post on water quality in Madison.)

Unfinished boutique hotel and monument to irrational exuberance at Regent and Monroe

Unfinished Monument to Irrational Exuberance at Monroe and Regent
I always wondered if the business plan for this planned boutique hotel was written on the back of a napkin by irrationally exuberant alumni in a Camp Randall skybox who wanted to party on after a Badger football game but faced the unwelcome prospect of bucking postgame traffic. The business plan must pretty much have been a restatement of what was on their minds at the moment: Wouldn't it be great if we had a place we could go right across the street? Never mind that it's on the corner of one of the busiest intersections in Madison. That traffic access and parking are huge problems. That a hotel at this location would be sold out for seven home football weekends a year and have no real purpose any other time. Don't let negative thinking get in the way. Push on.

Unfinished Monument to Irrational Exuberance at Monroe and RegentActually, the reality was more mundane. It was just a developer who had some land he wanted to develop. Originally he wanted to put up condos, but the neighborhood shot that down. He switched to a hotel proposal, but it was deemed too big. He downsized it -- thus the boutique hotel. He came up with the idea on his own, without the help of alumni in skyboxes, as far as we know. He wore down the opposition, got permission to demolish the old building that housed the Copper Grid, and began construction in November, 2008. He hoped to complete it in time for the fall football season, but missed that deadline. Still, the building was nearing completion when construction halted in mid-October. Recently Kraemer Brothers, the contractor, filed a $3.7 million claim against Sieger LLC, the Madison-based developer, and there's no indication when the matter will be resolved. Meanwhile, the UW Fieldhouse and Camp Randall Stadium are reflected in the windows of the unfinished building, and snowdrifts pile up in the unused entryway.

Tuesday, December 15, 2009

Monday, December 14, 2009

Does the conservative belief in individual responsibility end when it starts snowing?

Apparently so. That's my takeaway from listening to the Vicki McKenna show (WIBA-AM, 1310) when I was in the car this afternoon (something I rarely do as a Wisconsin Public Radio listener, but the radio was still tuned to the station that carried the everyPackers game). McKenna is Madison's best-known on-air conservative ranter, Madison's own female Rush Limbaugh, whose mission in life seems to be to blame Madison liberals and public officials for everything bad she can think of. For days now she's been having a field day with the city and county snowplowing after the recent blizzard.

Sure, the city made some mistakes. They could have done a better job. Mayor Dave said so and apologized -- but, jeez folks, this is ridiculous. We had a 14" blizzard and then the temperature fell down around zero, always a nasty combination. Everybody just had to suck it up and deal with it. This is Wisconsin, after all.

But here was McKenna complaining about her drive on County M: "I was white-knuckling it all the way, even with 4-wheel drive." Oh, the poor thing. Public officials and their inadequate snowplowing was endangering her life. Whatever happened to the conservative belief in individual responsibility? How about slowing down if there's too much snow and ice? How about taking responsibility to maintain control of your vehicle yourself? Instead, McKenna and her callers were complaining that government wasn't doing enough to help them.

But now the secret is out. Conservatives believe in individual responsibility -- but only until it starts snowing. Then they want the government to bail them out.

What I was doing a year ago -- standing in an icy rain, looking down a frozen State Street

Madison One Year Ago Today, Looking down State Street
Today it's snowing gently. We're just supposed to get a few inches. One year ago today, a freezing rain was falling in Madison, coming down almost horizontally in a fierce, gusty wind. I took this photograph standing outside the Capitol, looking down State Street, protecting my camera with a little umbrella that threatened to disintegrate in the icy gale. (At least I had an umbrella. I can't imagine what the bicyclist felt like.) Now the photo is in the December issue of Madison Magazine, above editor Brennan Nardi's column.

A sign, its soon-to-be-famous painter and his mom

The Sign, the Painter and His Mom
Photographers naturally seem attracted by photos of billboards and other signs. I made a screenshot of this 1954 photo because I like it so much. It shows a Coca-Cola sign in Minnesota, as well as the sign painter and his mom. The painter was James Rosenquist, who started out as a commercial sign painter and went on to bring the sensibility of sign painting to Pop Art. He's probably best known for the painting, "F-111," a huge multi-part work made in 1964-65. Rosenquist has written an autobiography called "Painting Below Zero" (which includes this photo). The book is reviewed in this week's New York Times Book Review.