From this week's print edition, a story on charter schools in New Orleans. At Democracy in America, on the problems of the permanent campaign--problems which are currently playing out in the debate, if we can call it that, over the debt ceiling. And at Americas View, a post on Operation Fast and Furious, which also suffers from a serious law-enforcement problem, We-Think-We're-In-The-Wire disease.
 
 
Long-term bicycle leasing. As opposed to short-term rentals.

I heard from Ax that you can do this in Belgium, lease a couple of bikes for about 99 euros a year. That would make sense if people are living somew they can have the usage of the bikes without the hassle of reselling them later or trying to ship them back to Britain.

This seems like a great idea for a city like Austin, which is fairly bike-friendly (despite the heat and the hills) but hasn't developed a robust system for bike sharing or short-term rentals. The city might not have the population density for a Bicing-style program, and although you can rent bikes from a lot of shops, if you're planning to do that for longer than a week or so the costs stack up. There are in Austin a large number of cyclical residents (i.e., students at the university) who would need a bike for two years but not ten, and there are also a lot of people who might be interested in getting a bike but are dissuaded by the up-front costs and the prospects of maintenance and so on. The market for used bikes isn't especially well-developed. You could find a good one craigslist for perhaps $200, but without any consumer protections if it turns out to be a lemon. Or you could go to a bike shop, but the selection is small and prices are, accordingly, relatively high. What newbie wants to shell out $400 for a bike, only to discover that he's got a type of bike that is not well-suited to his usage patterns, or that she ends up driving to work anyway?

How about theft? It might be that the leasers will be less concerned with anti-theft precautions, as they don't stand to lose the entire cost of the bike. But I don't think they would be entirely cavalier about it, because they would still be on the hook for a new lease, and cab fare home. And one way to address this issue would be if the leased bikes were somehow distinctive (a fleet of uniform color, perhaps, with engraved serial numbers). That would diminish their value to thieves--it might preclude resale, for example. It might even be that if the fleet bikes are less likely to be stolen, that's another incentive to lease a bike rather than to buy outright.

So there would be a reasonably good market here. Buy a fleet of moderately priced bicycles (around the $400 level) and lease them out, for about $100 a year. The fee could include a deposit or insurance to cover damages or theft, and include access to free maintenance (the kind of tweaks that are easy and cheap for bike shops, but discouraging for people who don't know their way around a chain). At the end of the year, you can re-up your lease, or bring the bike back to the shop, where they can put it to rights and rent it out again. Properly maintained, the life of the bicycle should well exceed a several year span, so within a couple of years the shop would be profiting on the leases while offering their customers a more flexible option.
 
 
Before I bought a Nook, the e-reader from Barnes & Noble, I spent a few days last month mulling its strengths compared to the Kindle, asking around among my friends, and so on. I opted for the Nook for a couple of reasons: it's slightly smaller, the design does away with the fully QWERTY keypad that takes up space on the Kindle, it turns pages a bit faster. And sad to say, in the battle of Barnes & Noble vs Amazon.com, the former is a underdog. It maintains storefronts in the United States, which is worthwhile, especially as the Borders chain is closing. Amazon, by contrast, is throwing its weight around in an effort to dodge taxes

So I chose the Nook. It turns out that I chose poorly. You should choose the Kindle. Here's why:
  • There are a couple of buggy things about the Nook that really announce, "this is an early-generation device designed by Barnes & Noble." For example, you can turn pages by pressing the button on the top right, or by flicking your finger across the page. Occasionally only one of those functions will work, and which page-turning method is viable sometimes switches in the middle of a reading session. (I haven't figured out the pattern.) Also, the syncing process isn't particularly quick or intuitive; if you grew up in the age of the iPod you're not going to be impressed.
  • The Kindle storefront is just much better than the Nook's--a legacy, presumably, of Amazon being an online company, while B&N has always been clumsier with e-commerce. Also, Amazon's selection is better. I've already had the experience of trying to find a book in the Nook store (Derek Parfit's Reasons and Persons), finding it unavailable, and noting that you can get it via Kindle. This may even out if the Nook gets more established, and it may be a marginal concern, because there are still more books for both devices than anyone can hope to read, and some books that aren't available on either. But still.
  • Most annoyingly, you can't buy books from the Nook store unless you are physically in the United States. It doesn't matter if your credit card has a US billing address. Something to do with copyright and licensing. Barnes & Noble's suggested workaround is that you have someone in the US buy the books for you, and then you can download them wherever you are. This of course violates the presumed efficiency of access that is touted as a selling point for both devices.
Overall, I'm 100% convinced about the benefits of having an e-reader, and I think both the Kindle and the Nook are better for e-reading than something like the iPad, which is heavier, more delicate, and has more functions (i.e., more distractions). But if I was doing it again I would go with the Kindle. 
 
 
Andy Carvin was one of the speakers at last week's International School on Digital Transformation in Porto, Portugal, and at the beginning of his (very interesting) talk he cited, as an example of user-generated content, letters to the editor--specifically, letters to the editor of The Economist. As regular readers will know, they are grouped under a headline that summarizes the topics therein. (In this week's issue, for example: "On Google, aeroplane emissions, food, Libya, skinheads, phone-hacking, James Baldwin.")

In Mr Carvin's view, this system "needs work." Not to come over all German, but I think it's admirably accurate and efficient. Accordingly I will use it here. From this week's print edition, I have a story about the drought in the southern United States, and another about Alabama's harsh new law against undocumented immigration. The law, I think, is doubly unnecessary: there aren't many undocumented immigrants in Alabama as it is, and no more are going to move there once they read this week's issue and realise that there's a horrible drought on. I also had a post at Babbage about Jane McGonigal's forthcoming SuperBetter game, and at Prospero about the less teleological pastime of fan fiction
 
 
At the Guardian, Marina Hyde is skeptical of David Cameron's comment, in Lagos, that although Britain has a big problem, it is "a big country":

Are we? To both trained and untrained eyes on Tuesday, we seemed a very small country indeed. There appear to be only around 50 senior personnel, with those not working three jobs - combining shilling for the Met, say, with running interference for Rupert Murdoch and advising the Tories - guilty of the most glaring lack of ambition.

Britain strikes me as a big country. At the very least it punches well above its weight class. But this does point to another issue that made Britain vulnerable to News Corp's meddling, and that is the comparative smallness of its press corps. Washington teems with international journalists covering American politics for domestic and international outlets, and across the world armchair analysts have opinions on the subject. That's because as a world power--not necessarily the world power; the world is increasingly multipolar--the politics of the United States are internationally relevant. (Also, a pretty good spectator sport.) If the American press was thoroughly corrupt, or even just inadequate, people could turn to the outside sources. It's always good to have extra sets of eyes. Occasionally a nuisance for the politicians, but one of the takeaways is that they can look after themselves.

How to bring in the commentariat? Difficult, but scandals always gin up interest. That goes for the current one, too. It may turn out to be part of the silver lining.
 
 
This video comes from Casaleggio Associati, an Italian internet/marketing/research type company. Confusing. I mean, it's not an ad for Google...I don't think?
 
 
In Britain, the News Corporation scandal has eroded public confidence in the press and shaken David Cameron’s administration. See The New York Times or the Guardian for summaries of today's parliamentary hearings. In America, it leads to the question: could it happen here? Logistically, the answer is that the actions clearly could; hacking, greed and blind ambition are transnational phenomena. But I would argue that the United States has some defences against the political trauma of having politicians (of any party) become so pressured by any particular organisation.

The most important factor, I think, is the variety of voices in American public life, including a phenomenon that is frequently decried: partisan polarisation and its highbrow cousin, epistemic closure. That is, America has Glenn Beck and Andrew Breitbart and Keith Olbermann and DailyKos. One side pushes; the other pushes back. America can have individuals and institutions with disproportionate influence—the Koch brothers, the teachers’ unions—but none of them command hegemonic support, nor could they, under current conditions. They get influence by ginning up people to care about their cause, not by calling up the president and giving him the what-for. News Corporation might own the company that owns the Wall Street Journal, but when that paper came up with a quasi-defence of News Corporation yesterday, there were plenty of papers ready to push back.

Another factor, I think, is that American electoral cycles bring politicians into regular, recurring contact with the common man (who is actually an older white lady living in Iowa). It is therefore difficult for any particular news outlet to claim to be the voice of the people, as the British tabloids do. See, for example, Alex Massie on this. This is in contrast to the British system; although MPs have frequent surgeries, a sort of open house for constituents, they aren’t incentivised by a permanent campaign system. The American electoral process sometimes looks like theater, with the people vying for one of the world’s most powerful and pressured jobs try to qualify themselves by scarfing fried meat at fairs they would never otherwise attend. Still, it provides regular reason for politicians to pay attention to polls and to protests.

There shouldn’t be any schadenfreude in this; there are plenty of problems with the American media. But this should be a reminder that dissent is patriotic, whether it comes from the tea-party movement or the netroots. We can bemoan the incivility of the discourse, but we should also see the occasional virtue of our fractious discourse and of our partisans howling and forwarding emails in the middle of the night, whether they’re in San Francisco or Salt Lake City.
 
 
"Explorers are not, perhaps, the most promising people with whom to build a society. Indeed, some might say that people become explorers precisely because they have a streak of unsociability and a need to remove themselves at regular intervals as far as possible from their fellow men."

An unnamed member of the Royal Geographical Society, quoted in David Grann's The Lost City of Z. I'm exploring a bit myself this week--but in the meantime, a new post at Gulliver about what happened to me the last time I went out on an adventure.
 
 
I'm back from a road trip through the south--Austin to San Antonio to Houston to New Orleans to Natchez to Jackson to Mobile to Montgomery to Atlanta, or as I was thinking of it, the great shrimp & grits/fried chicken/sweet tea side of life. More on the south soon, but in the meantime, some new posts.

At Babbage, a few thoughts about Google+, whatever that is. At Democracy in America, another post on the death penalty, this time focused on Alabama's idiosyncratic approach to it; and a prediction that whatever else happens, Michele Bachmann will not be the next vice-presidential nominee. And from last week, another eulogy for the space shuttle.




 
 
The new Errol Morris documentary, Tabloid, sounds quite interesting and seems to have a religious subplot. Its subject, Joyce McKinney, was the subject of a tabloid scandal in the British press after being charged with kidnapping her (Mormon) lover; the press added the accusation that she chloroformed and raped him; she denies all of this and describes it as a Mormon plot to bring him back in the fold. The New York Times explains:

Likening the experience to the Akira Kurosawa classic about clashing realities, [co-producer] Mr. Lipson said, “It’s a Looney Tunes ‘Rashomon,’ but ‘Rashomon’ all the same.” He continued that, as with “The Thin Blue Line,” “it’s documentary as film noir, as a fairy tale, and like all good fairy tales it’s totally perverse. I see her as the princess who crosses an ocean to rescue her somewhat reluctant, pear-shaped prince. She should take pride in knowing she had that kind of guts.”

Incidentally, I love Morris's First Person series; a lot of it can be watched on YouTube.