THE SCENE (a.k.a. |
Comments on current ideas and events
Week of July 9, 2001
PALM TRUCE: The Eden Prairie palm-tree war is over. Embarrassed by the media attention, the city has agreed to let the Pickled Parrot restaurant keep its palm trees until fall, when they'd die anyway. Thanks to reader Peter Stenoien, who sent me this story from the Eden Prairie News. [Posted 7/15.]
DISPOSABLE DOCTORS: How long before doctors realize they can't take patients for granted? An interesting New York Times piece raises that question. It seems physicians are ticked that patients drop them when the doctors are no longer in their health plans. Manhattan cardiologist Bradley A. Radwaner has asked the state's opportunistic attorney general Eliot Spitzer to do something about the issue. "Since the vast majority of patients cannot distinguish a quality, experienced and well-trained physician from one who is simply personable, decisions are made based on $10 co-pays versus paying full fees," he wrote Spitzer. "Patients want referrals only to 'participating' physicians so they have to pay as little as possible."
Radwaner complains to reporter Jennifer Steinhauer that "a lot of my patients come in, pay me $10 and then go down the block and have their teeth done and write a check for $1,200." It doesn't occur to him that perhaps his dental competition has learned to treat patients like customers—keeping appointments on time, offering pleasant surroundings, and mailing potential patients information about their services and training.
Steinhauer wonders where such an attitude might lead: "But once you apply this market logic to health care, then how do doctors plan to woo and retain customers? Do they offer something akin to frequent-flier miles—one free procedure for every 10 paid at full price? Do they improve customer service, offer to make house calls in a pinch or put lemon slices in the water cooler?" Thinking like that would be a good start.
The problem Radwaner raises in his letter is real: Patients really can't distinguish between good doctors and bad, but they can tell the difference between jerks and nice guys. One approach is to cultivate a customer-friendly attitude and environment. One reason patients flock to "alternative medicine" providers is that they get attention and respect along with the mumbo-jumbo. An alternative is to offer a lot more information about why you're worth the money. Such information is sometimes available about cardiologists and other specialists, usually with substantial research by the patient, but it's essentially nonexistent about primary care physicians. Doctors who combined the two approaches might even be able to get customers to pay cash, as a few already do. Either way, you don't need Eliot Spitzer. [Posted 7/15.]
THANKS: Speaking of doctors, thanks to all the readers who wrote in about my migraines. I'm better now—though swamped with deadlines, which still limit postings—and I appreciate your concern. [Posted 7/15.]
NOT TONIGHT: Why no Scene postings lately? One word: migraines. A major attraction of writing a me-zine is that the deadline is whenever I feel like writing. And lately I haven't. So you wonderful readers will have to live without my coherent thoughts on the non-personhood of blastocysts for a few more days. For now, I recommend Bob Bartley's, Jonah Goldberg's, and Ron Bailey's. Bartley and Goldberg, as good American conservatives, argue for tradition and common sense, while Bailey, a (classical) liberal, addresses the issue of individual personhood. Bartley is, by the way, completely right about which branch of government should be addressing the question of research funding. This is a matter for Congress, not the White House (until it's presented with a bill to sign or veto). [Posted 7/11.]
AESTHETIC VALUE: Some deadlines aren't so flexible, so here's my latest New York Times column—an economics, as opposed to business, take on the demise of the Apple Cube and the value of look and feel. [Posted 7/11.]
DISTRIBUTED COMPUTING, CONT'D: Declan McCullagh's invaluable Politechbot.com updates and elaborates on the travails of David McOwen, the Georgia computer administrator facing criminal charges for using spare computer cycles to aid distributed computing research. [Posted 7/11.]
ME-ZINE MANIA: For more than 10 years, I edited a national magazine with tens of thousands of paying subscribers. I assigned stories, managed a staff, wrote a lead editorial every month, founded a website before everybody else was doing it, and even racked up a few prestigious awards (or at least finalist places). But never in all those years of editing Reason did I get half the publicity I've gotten from writing this weblog. It's amazing. Everyone from Howie Kurtz to the Columbia Journalism Review is writing about Me-zines. The latest installment is this piece in today's New York Times. Ira Stoll, whose Smarter Times site inexplicably wasn't mentioned, notes that the piece has its flaws. Ira's big on the myth that our time is free, which of course it isn't, but that was tongue-in-cheek silliness; the more glaring error was suggesting that Josh Marshall doesn't cover the Chandra Levy case, when it's a site specialty. (I'm the one offering Chandra-free coverage. At least until now.) But I've got no complaints. They spelled my name right, and that's no easy thing. Plus my site is more profitable than Mickey's. Hah. [Posted 7/9.]
COMPUTING PROSECUTION: Voluntary cooperative efforts at distributed computing—the use of spare computer cycles to do huge number-crunching jobs like analyzing SETI data—has been an interest of this site and its readers. (See my postings "Home Genomics" and "Distributed Computing Cont'd" and the letters from readers here and here.) These efforts can have their technical downside, as one reader letter warns, though less so today than they once did. But they're great examples of largely decentralized coordination and of the cooperative nature of science.
Now Dave Farber's tech-oriented Interesting-People list brings the horrifying news that the state of Georgia is prosecuting a system operator for participating in such a program. The man writes:
My name is David McOwen. I need everyone's help that possibly can. I worked at a school system 2 years ago that is part of the State of Georgia and was the configurator of the computers. They are now prosecuting me for Felony conviction with up to 15 yrs in prison and wanting $ 415,000. They are saying the DistributedComputing.net client costs 59 cents per second for the Internet transmissions! If you or you know anyone that can help please contact my lawyer Mr. David Joyner at firstname.lastname@example.org , phone number of the Law Firm 770-564-1600 . Beside my life and my family, the future of all that use the Internet and computers is at stake. Don't let them turn the good of computers into something so terrible. If it was so terrible it should be taken away from the world and not prosecuting one individual.
This offense is, at most, an example of bad bureaucratic judgment. Perhaps Mr. McOwen should have checked with his superiors. But the cost estimates are surely nonsense and the felony prosecution is truly frightening. Dave Farber, who has talked with McOwen's attorney, reports that the Tennessee Valley Authority is pursuing similar actions against employees who participated in the SETI@home program. [Posted 7/9.]
PALM-FREE ZONE: Once again, a reader has come up with a great story for Look and Feel, my book-in-process. And, once again, I am convinced that local planning authorities are completely out of control.
Todd Fletcher sends this link, to a piece on Sunday's Minneapolis Star Tribune. The cause is one near and dear to my heart: palm trees. The world needs more of them. And the Pickled Parrot II, a Caribbean restaurant in Eden Prairie, Minnesota, is doing its part. The new restaurant planted 18 palms on its grounds, and they've been swaying in the summer breezes for several weeks now. While the owners knew they'd have to replace the trees every year, since even the hardiest palms can't survive a Minnesota winter, they worked out a promotional deal with a local nursery that made the tropical look affordable.
No way, say local regulators. "They said, 'Cut 'em down, take 'em out, make 'em go away,'" owner Chip Isaacson told the Star Tribune. "They said they aren't part of our approved plan." That plan was developed and approved before the nursery proposed its deal. But instead of a suggesting an amended plan, the city is just saying no.
Mike Franzen, the city's planner, tells reporter Chuck Haga that the town's anti-palm policy is part of a New Urbanist strategy: "The city is trying to create a visual theme to its downtown, a place where people are comfortable getting out of their cars and walking, and that includes a list of acceptable plant materials." Palm trees, apparently, are just too scary. [Posted 7/9.]
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