Monday, February 28, 2011

Earmarks Away

Per Churchill’s quip that democracy is the worst political system except for all the rest, even the best political systems have many flaws. So we should take a moment to celebrate an unlikely correction to one of representative democracy’s trouble spots: a spoils system called earmarking, which the U.S. Congress has recently taken away from itself.

Earmarking is the targeting of funds to a Congressional representative’s pet project, often as a way to get that representative’s vote on other legislation. The practice is associated with the term “pork barrel” spending because it allows representatives to bring home the bacon of government dollars to local projects.

Although many earmarked projects are worthy, the system for granting earmarks invites abuse. The classic example is Alaska’s Gravina Island Bridge. A proposed $400 million structure as long as the Golden Gate Bridge and higher than the Brooklyn Bridge, it would connect a town in southeast Alaska with an island that has a small airport and a population of 50 people.

The project was championed by Alaska Senator Ted Stevens, then one of the most powerful senators and a big beneficiary of earmarking. However, the audacity of asking for a $400 million “bridge to nowhere,” as it became known by detractors, proved too much. The Gravina Island Bridge earmark did not survive, except as a symbol of what was wrong with earmarks.

The extremity of that case aside, earmarks are a byproduct of a representative democracy. If it’s legal to trade a vote for an earmark, many representatives would consider it serving their constituents’ interests. Such trading is routine enough to have its own name, logrolling.

However, another byproduct of representative democracy is bribing representatives with money. Of course, when someone trades a bag of cash for a vote, we call it payola and say it is illegal. But if a politician trades a vote for an earmark, that’s somehow okay?

Even in the most benign circumstances, earmarks will always have the suspicion of bought votes. Also, if representatives are voting not on an issue’s merits but because they owe logrolling favors, what do those votes mean for policy?

These kind of concerns, and a unique political climate, are what brought down earmarks. The Republican leadership in the House and, with the Democratic White House’s prodding, the Democratic leadership in the Senate agreed to ban earmarks for at least two years.

Political historians will look back on this episode with particular interest. It’s a rare case when an entrenched, bipartisan spoils system is overthrown by those getting the spoils. Good for them.

Tuesday, February 22, 2011

The Boy Who Harnessed the Wind

A country in Africa, Malawi is one of those places we hear about only when the news is bad. HIV/AIDS, famine, and corruption top the hit list. Madonna is an advocate for its orphans.

The Boy Who Harnessed the Wind is a first-person account of the hard lives behind the headlines, and an inspiring story of one boy who invented a way out. William Kamkwamba is the boy and, with Bryan Mealer, the book’s author.

Here is William the day he realized that his father, a farmer, could no longer afford William’s school tuition:

I loved my father and respected him deeply, but I did not want to end up like him. If I did, my life would never be determined by me, but by rain and the price of fertilizer and seeds....I would grow maize, and if I was lucky, maybe a little tobacco. And years when the crops were good and there was a little extra to sell, perhaps I could buy some medicine and a new pair of shoes. But most of the time, I knew, there would be hardly enough to simply survive.

William had always been interested in how things worked. With the aid of books found in the library, he figured out how radios worked and learned to repair them.

Compact disc players were just getting popular in the trading center, and these fascinated me even more [than radios]. I’d watch people insert this shiny plate into their radios and hear music.

“How did they put the sound on that?” I’d ask.

“Who cares?” most people would answer.

Although the people in the trading center were content to simply enjoy these things without explanation, these questions constantly filled my mind. If solving such mysteries was the job of a scientists, then a scientist is exactly what I wanted to become.

The scientific problem he wanted to solve was how to bring electricity to his house.

Only 2 percent of Malawians have electricity, and this is a huge problem. Having no electricity meant no lights, which meant I could never do anything at night, such as study or finish my radio repairs, much less see the roaches, mice, and spiders that crawled the walls and floors in the dark. Once the sun goes down, and if there’s no moon, everyone stops what they’re doing, brushes their teeth, and just goes to sleep. Not at 10:00pm or even nine o’clock—but seven in the evening! Who goes to bed at seven in the evening? Well, I can tell you, most of Africa.

The book recounts how, using salvaged parts and improvised tools, William taught himself to build a power-generating windmill.

I didn’t have a drill, so I had to make my own. First I heated a long nail in the fire, then drove it through half a maize cob, creating a handle. I placed the nail back on the coals until it became red hot, then used it to bore holes into both sets of plastic blades. I then wired them together. I didn’t have any pliers, so I used two bicycle spokes to bend and tighten the wires on the blades.

He was 14 years old at the time. His family and fellow villagers thought he was crazy, but he proved them wrong. Not only did his windmill generate enough power for lights and radios in his home, it became a charging station for other villagers’ mobile phones. It also attracted global press coverage, which got William back into school, and eventually to Dartmouth College.

Here is the book at (a portion of the proceeds go to William’s Moving Windmills project).

If you’re not up for the book, try this six-minute film about William.

Tuesday, February 15, 2011

Enjoy Every Sandwich (Watson on Jeopardy)

This week on the game show Jeopardy, an IBM supercomputer named Watson is competing against two (human) Jeopardy champions. Amid the endless buffet of commentary, I especially liked this soundbite from my longtime friend Jonathan Allen, quoted on San Francisco’s KPIX news:

Reporter: JP Allen of the University of San Francisco says don’t forget, this is also a moment to celebrate human intelligence.

JP Allen: You’re talking about millions of dollars of technology, 42 geniuses working for 4 years to get this working and still, it’s competing against a guy who had a sandwich for lunch.

Sunday, February 6, 2011

Pig 05049

Dutch designer Christien Meindertsma spent three years documenting what happened to Pig 05049. After being slaughtered at a commercial farm, parts of Pig 05049 ended up in at least 185 different products. Ammunition, train brakes, paint, heart valves, soap, cellular concrete, bread, and low-fat butter would like to thank Pig 05049 for its contribution to them.

To see the other 177 end products, including bacon, you can consult Meindertsma’s book, PIG 05049. I saw a copy at The Art Institute of Chicago. Here you can find a video of someone flipping through the book, plus a series of 15 close-ups.

Meindertsma also gave a TED presentation on the subject.