Sunday, November 29, 2009


Couple of interesting Google articles to ponder over. The first, by Robert Darnton, is a continuation of his earlier article on the Google Books deal. It’s very interesting and well worth thinking about. I admire Google for doing the investment, but this remains my biggest objection:
After months of investigating potential violations of antitrust law, the DOJ pointed to two serious difficulties: the possibility of horizontal agreements among authors and publishers to restrict price competition and the further restriction of competition by Google's de facto exclusive rights to the digital distribution of orphan works. Competitors would be denied access to millions of orphans, the memorandum argued, because they would not enjoy the immunity from suits for copyright infringement that the settlement reserves to Google.

Meanwhile, this Nicholson Baker review of Ken Auletta’s Googled has this frustrating tidbit:
One unnamed “prominent media executive” leaned toward Auletta at the 2007 Google Zeitgeist Conference and whispered a rhetorical question in his ear: What real value, he wanted to know, was Google producing for society?

(Emphasis mine) And this insightful formulation of the problem: “So why are the prominent media executives unhappy? Because Google is making lots of ad money, and there’s only so much ad money to go around.”

I continue to believe the New York Times has a South Korea-mixed-race children beat, as this story marks the third time in the past few weeks that they’ve talked about mixed-race children’s difficulty in South Korea.

That beat is kind of an interesting counterpoint to Jim Fallows’s criticism of the media here—he criticizes the media for not recognizing that Obama’s goals in China were in fact met…a week or so after the visit. So it represents the media’s inability to follow up on a story they’d already start (unlike, say, South Korea and its mixed-race children). I guess this goes back to my point about time—media time has sped up so fast that they’ve already forgotten about last week’s OBAMA CHINA FAIL story, as if it occurred weeks and weeks ago.

Meanwhile, this article about the UAE-Dubai thing is full of speculation—it might be a problem—but it seems like the government is standing behind Dubai, so I think we’ll be safe, as long as investors don’t panic. This, however, is the most interesting part of the article:
Yet, Dubai’s problems could also be a boon for some emerging economies, like India, Brazil and China, that are not heavily indebted to overseas investors and which have large populations that are buying more goods and services. Investors have been pouring billions of dollars into those countries in recent months and are likely to increase their allotment to them as they shift away from financially troubled countries.

I don’t see it as a boon—I see it as a problem! There’s tons of hot money pouring into these emerging countries, whether from carry trade or otherwise, and it’s probably inflating a bubble. As Tyler Cowen points out:
PRESIDENT OBAMA’S recent trip to China reflects a symbiotic relationship at the heart of the global economy: China uses American spending power to enlarge its private sector, while America uses Chinese lending power to expand its public sector. Yet this arrangement may unravel in a dangerous way, and if it does, the most likely culprit will be Chinese economic overcapacity.

Cowen recommends that the U.S. stop “postpon[ing] fiscal responsibility” and he has a point; the question is one of timing. Unfortunately, the, ah, incredibly smart individuals in the White House seem to think “sooner” rather than “later” is the right timing, if this Wall Street Journal article is to be believed. And of course, it’s Social Security that they’re after, which as everyone knows is the true source of America’s fiscal problems, what with its projected fiscal problems in the 2050s or so, as opposed to—oh I don’t know—the perpetually overbudget defense systems, inefficient farm subsidies or health care waste. Couldn’t be any of those. Definitely Social Security. Way to endear yourself to your base, Obama.

Reviewing yesterday's game

Wow, what a game. I don’t really have any coherent points, so let’s go with the old bullet/list form that’s so easy and fun and good.

Greatest Stanford Offense…Ever? It did shatter the 2001 team’s single-season record for points scored in a season with a game to go. It’s probably a tough thing to nail down—you’d want statistics that they didn’t even keep back then—but it’d be worthwhile (speaking of which, the next big thing in sports statistics should be gathering old data and/or applying new statistics to old situations, e.g. just how many blocks did Bill Russell have? How many sacks did Deacon Jones have? etc.)

Retire Number 7 Already There are two retired numbers in Stanford history: Ernie Nevers’s Number 1, and Jim Plunkett’s Number 16. It’s well past time to do a joint retiring for John Elway and Toby Gerhart and their number 7. It’s well past time; do it yesterday. But it’s worth noting how important Gerhart is: the great players have the will, the supreme athletic qualities, and all that. But what makes a great player great is his reality distortion field: the extent to which the opponents distort their normal/base way of doing things to account specifically for the great player’s presence. Gerhart’s is up there with the strongest of the great Stanford athletes I’ve seen, in the elite category with Chris Hernandez and the Lopez twins. So while the other running backs are talented, it’s tough to see them having the same reality distortion field as Gerhart does.

Luck bounces back Lost in all the love for Toby is that Luck went back to being flawless. 9.8 yards per attempt! That’s pretty insane. He was on target all night, and his few misses were all excusable. It’s Luck’s offense next year, if he can keep it.

The Stanford Defensive Line Chris Brown (@smartfootball which you should all be following) noted that sacks really screw up a two-minute drive. That’s undoubtedly true. And it was good to see the Stanford pass rush finally reach the quarterback. Part of that was probably due to the predictability of the Notre Dame offense—everyone knew it was going to be a pass, probably to Golden Tate (well, everyone except perhaps Ron Lynn, who remains suspect in my mind). That’s a big advantage to Stanford, particularly since both Keiser and Thomas are ends who prefer to rush the passer (and are comparatively mediocre against the run; the former because he’s often out of position, the latter because he weighs less than some of our linebackers).

But even earlier in the game, there were several hurries that could’ve been sacks, but the defensive line was unable to finish the play. That’s been a problem specific to the defensive line and generally to the defense: it would look a lot better if it could simply finish the plays when it was in a position to do so.

The Officials I don’t want to dwell on the reffing too much—a win’s a win—but it was pretty consistently terrible last night. From the heart attack it almost induced in me from misidentifying Jim Dray as Jemari Roberts, to the “two penalties” on Golden Tate’s TD reception that mysteriously was one, to the odd proliferation of holding calls to an offensive line that’s barely gotten any all year, to the arguable dead play it should’ve been on Tyler Gaffney’s fumble on his punt return (and, by the way, what a gaffe by Harbaugh, putting Gaffney back there when he hadn’t returned a punt all season), the officials consistently and suspiciously favored Notre Dame. Terrible, and in a game where the slightest margin made the difference, potentially inexcusable.

Check back all week as I'll review this season and preview the next.

Saturday, November 28, 2009

Linkology, Generally, For Your Afternoon

A few links, for your afternoon (or morning, as the case may be)

I’m always a fan of tenuous analogies between politics and sports (or politics and pop culture, or pop culture and sports…really, just a fan of tenuous analogies), so this article why politics is really like the NFL is right up my alley:
Social convention explains this deviation from what seems rational. Five Super Bowl rings give Belichick the job security to play the odds and let critics howl. Less-secure coaches have a different calculus. Critics can ruin their career. To protect their reputation, they might punt even knowing that it lowers the odds of winning. Punting reinforces the convention -- if Tony Dungy does it, it must make sense -- making it tougher for new Belichicks to emerge.
Truf (in politics and sports).

Some Dubai World links: Krugman leans to the “less panic” mode (just another real estate bust/just plain weird); while the New York Times article notes but doesn’t endorse reasons for worry; while Noam Scheiber breaksdown four possible consequences for the U.S. Personally, I lean to symptom rather than cause of anything—I’m still a carry trade worrywart. But, here's an interesting little point: the announcement was pretty perfectly timed from a damage-minimizing aspect: on Thanksgiving (the Americans are out), and on Eid (fellow Muslims are out). Which might lead you to believe that there's more there there.

This New Yorker article by Gopnik on cookbooks is funny in a way only Gopnik can be: “The salt fetish has, I think, another and a deeper cause: we want to bond with the pro cooks. Most of what pro cooks have that home cooks don’t is what plantation owners used to have: high heat and lots of willing slaves.”

N+1 asks just what’s behind this whole Twilight thing:
Stephanie Meyer has said that the idea for the Twilight series came to her in a dream, but it may as well have come to her in a graduate seminar. There are, after all, few other contexts where so much cultural baggage comes together under the sign of so many backpacks.

There’s an angle we’re missing about this: the whole Mormonism thing. Many people parenthetically note that the series is propaganda for Mormonism, but this hasn’t been seriously explored: that would make Meyer the most popular (and pop-culture zeitgeisty) Mormon in America ever. That’s very interesting. Mormonism is a religion that’s always had a vexed relationship with the American mainstream, always trying to seem super-normal while (in their early history especially) provoking and fighting against the American mainstream. And so to sneak a lot of Mormon beliefs into a book under the table…it’s very interesting. The question that I have is: are Mormons moving closer and closer to the American mainstream? And it appears to be yes, I think. Thoughts?

Stanford-Notre Dame Preview

When you have Stanford’s offense you’re in every game. When you have Stanford’s defense, your opponent’s in every game. That’s what this game comes down to, and don’t let anyone tell you differently: the 10 point spread is too large; any expectations of a blowout are unrealistic. Both offenses are too good and both defenses too bad to believe otherwise.

There are two big issues that Stanford’s offense had with Cal’s defense last week: first, the 3-4; second, the guessing game. The first is easily resolved: not too many schools run the 3-4 and Cal doesn’t, so that’s a closed book. The second, however, is more interesting. Cal played the guessing game to perfection against Stanford, loading the box on first down and retreating on obvious passing downs. And Stanford obliged with predictable play-calling. When Luck passed on first down, he was the same all-world passer we’ve come to expect. When he passed on other downs, he was terrible. Similarly, all of the big running plays, Toby Gerhart or otherwise, happened to come on second or third down. This isn’t a coincidence. Stanford must inject more creativity into its offense, or else it will falter: not necessarily now, but in the future, certainly.

Meanwhile, defensively, the issue is the same: Stanford doesn’t have very many good defensive players and the scheme doesn’t seem to be very good. These are two problems that we shouldn’t expect to be resolved against Notre Dame. If there’s any fortune at all, it’s that Kyle Rudolph and Armando Allen are out—and the last decent offense we shut down (USC), also happened to be missing critical contributors. The same won’t happen in this game, we only need to slow them down (hopefully). The worry here, however, is that Notre Dame brings two skilled wideouts to the table as well as a more than competent quarterback, so the coverages can’t be shaded to deal with one threat or the other. Of Notre Dame’s two top wideouts, Michael Floyd and Golden Tate, I worry about Tate more: he runs short crossing routes and terms them into big plays. These types of players, with our poor team speed and tackling, tend to cause more difficulty than Floyd, who is more of a deep burner (which gives us problems, but relatively less). So worry about Tate. Just worry.

Stanford 35 Notre Dame 30

Little pre-Notre Dame roundup.

Let’s start with a quick football news roundup:

Chronicle talks about the former Notre Dame players Konrad Reuland and Nate Whitaker. Frankly, I think it’s a little mysterious that Reuland doesn’t catch more passes at TE: he gets deep well, and he’s a bull after the catch. Maybe next year.

They also roundup the freshman class’s contributions so far. Pretty interesting comments in there. For the record, here’s my freshman power rankings (true freshmen only):
1. Shayne Skov
2. Stepfan Taylor
3. Terrence Stephens
4. Tyler Gaffney
5. Jamal Patterson
6. Drew Terrell
As far as I know, no other freshmen have had their redshirt burned, leaving 15 redshirt freshmen for next year (one, Taysom Hill, is on his mission).

The Scouts Inc preview predicts Stanford 31, Notre Dame 27, which is totally reasonable. Here are a couple choice tidbits:
Luck also faced a lot of pressure last week and was often forced to get rid of the ball sooner than he wanted. The offensive line appeared to have communication issues against California's 3-4 defense, which was able to effectively mask where the fourth and fifth rushers were coming from. Things should be easier this week against Fighting Irish's more traditional 4-3 scheme. Notre Dame has been unable to generate consistent pressure and Luck should have ample time to survey the field and find WRs Ryan Whalen and Chris Owusu.

MLB Nick Macaluso has struggled the past two weeks with recognition and pursuit angles while OLB Will Powers lacks elite athleticism and range and has allowed backs to turn the corner too often. The Irish offensive line is not a dominating unit but does a nice job getting into position and sealing off defenders.

Wednesday, November 25, 2009

Pre-Thanksgiving Links

David Leonhardt covers cost-cutting in the health bill, and his conclusion is: it’s a start. Of the important reforms—MedPAC and an excise tax—it looks like Obama’s risking political capital to get it done (which reinforces the notion that it was never about the public option for him).

Carry-tradin’ and Brazil.

How to solve the deficit: fix our politics. And doesn’t that sound simple?

Nation's Music Snobs Protest Predictable Use Of Metallica, Pantera To Torture Prisoners

I think George Packer goes badly astray in his analysis of why Obama seems less commanding now than he did then. The reasons are simple: the nature of politics, the Senate, Obama’s surprising lack of deftness. But none of Packer’s reasons are outright false—well, except for this:
“The Obama campaign raised enormous hopes, and in the last days before the election the candidate seemed unusually grave, as if he knew that those hopes would be impossible to meet. Once he took office, Obama’s message became less one of infinite possibilities than of shared responsibilities and sober appraisals.”

Well, except for quotations like this:

“The risk is doing too little, not too much”—Larry Summers
“Never waste a crisis”—Rahm Emanuel
“This will be the last administration to deal with health care reform”—Obama in Joint Session speech
(other quotations/slogans: change we can believe in, the fierce urgency of now…oh geez and on and on)

All of these quotations raised expectations, not dampened them. And Obama should have raised expectations, because well, there are important, existential, long-term problems confronting the nation and the world. Problems that have to be dealt with now, and aren’t to be put off. And…it looks like our decision-making structure has put these decisions off.

Speaking of putting stuff off, I’ll be putting posting off tomorrow.

Ah, the way it's all changing.

With the news that magazines are contemplating an “iTunes of magazines,” we can officially announce a trend: old media trying to change the internet for its purposes, i.e. getting paid for their content. (With Rupert being one of the main drivers for this change). This move would represent a huge change from the historical media contract, whereby media charged fees only to recoup the cost of distribution; the profits came from advertisements.

I’ve been critical of the move in the past, but I’m starting to reconsider the wisdom of that recently. The reason is the supply of advertising: advertising is literally everywhere on the web; it doesn’t stand out at all; it’s not creative; and with the proliferation of teeth-whitening ads (and the like), downright annoying and sometimes even harmful.

That’s a big change from more traditional ads, which were deceptive and did sell a life that’s unattainable, but could actually be genuinely useful on occasion. (To say nothing of classified ads, practically the U.S. Mint for newspapers). The point of these ads were information…packaged differently than the information in the rest of the media, but potentially useful information nonetheless. But web advertisements are, as yet, not particularly useful—I occasionally click on Google Ads if they’re a more helpful search result (which goes back to my point that a good ad is a good information-provider in another form)—and particularly numerous. And there’s no reason to believe at the moment that advertisements will get better, since they are so easily evaded and since it seems that every new web venture is funded by ads.

So maybe charging more for big media is the way to go. People do form an attachment to magazines, newspapers, et. al., and for that reason they may be able to extract funds (I bet that, for example, The New Yorker would do very well in that kind of scheme) from readers. But this, too, is an uncertain route. I guess we don’t know, do we? Thoughts on the new media environment?

Football Stuff

Football-wise, the rumors continue to swirl around Jim Harbaugh for future jobs. Of course, he also said he’d be signing an extension soon and his denial seems fairly good…but of course it’s difficult to tell. I guess you could throw out the cliché “where there’s smoke there’s fire,” which seems pretty apt for this situation; on the other hand, you’ve got coaches like Mike Leach and Pete Carroll, who have played footsie for years without ever moving on; perhaps Harbaugh’s like them. Let’s just say, if I’m Bob Bowlsby, I have a list of candidates I like to take over quickly. And, of course, I make every effort short of building Harbaugh a bathroom within the bathroom to keep him here.

I’m not a fan of this:
He didn't regret the decision [to go for it on fourth-and-eight], he said, but he second-guessed his play call: a pass intended for Jim Dray on which Andrew Luck, under intense pressure, threw behind the tight end. "We didn't give Andrew a good play for that situation," he said.

As for the two unsuccessful pass plays from the Cal 13 inside two minutes to go, he said he wished he had run the ball. On the second, Luck threw the decisive interception to Mike Mohamed. "That's what I'm kicking myself about," Harbaugh said.

Again, as I’ve said previously, Stanford should’ve thrown more against Cal (on first down). Cal was able to play the guessing game with Stanford, and that was a problem.

…And here’s the confirmation! Advanced NFL Stats constructs the case for why teams run too much on first down.

This breakdown of the Stanford DBs against USC is pretty good, as usual. Again, I sure am glad that Sherman is likely to return next year. He’s improved greatly over the course of the year.


Good news: Obama to pledge a 17% cut in emissions ahead of the Copenhagen talks. It’s certainly a start. On the other hand, China is dragging its feet on a firm target. Of the big problems hanging over the U.S. specifically—climate change, health care, and the deficits—I think climate change may be the most significant. So hopefully that gets figured out.

The blog “The Edge of the American West” has a really superb series on California’s recent history and how it got to its current state of crisis. Here’s a good excerpt:
”Republicans never liked taxes, but they saw them as an unfortunate necessity. By the 1970s, conservatives increasingly sounded like the leader of California’s tax rebellion, Howard Jarvis, who condemned all taxes as “felony grand theft.”

Still, for many years, leading Republicans could contain their most conservative brethren and hammer out deals in the old-fashioned way. As late as 1991, a Republican governor (Pete Wilson) championed a tax increase and budget cuts to close a deficit. In 1994 he won re-election.”

It’s an unfortunate mirror of national politics: Reagan and Bush I were both willing to raise taxes, and did; this gave Clinton room to raise taxes, and he did; now taxes are something of a third rail as the American political public has grown too immature: it wants cupcakes but doesn’t want to do the exercise necessary to keep the weight off.

This New York Times blog post on its house style and slang is incredibly persnickety, and a confirmation of everyone’s worst stereotypes of a grammarian/usage freak. You do wish there were more usage people who were prepared to be more than fussy antiquarians, but, well…there you have it. (I mean, complaining about “sussed out?” Jeez, how uptight.)

Twitter before twitter: “And telegrams, prefiguring Twitter, offered celebrities the chance to display low-word-count wit: “Upon arriving in Venice, Robert Benchley wrote to his editor at The New Yorker: STREETS FULL OF WATER PLEASE ADVISE.””

Tuesday, November 24, 2009

Afternoon links

Noam Scheiber has a very interesting article on the derivatives fight in Congress. Improbably, he says, the bill has actually gotten stronger and better as it’s proceeded through the House, which is certainly rare and welcomed. But, of course, there’s the Senate:
“The bank’s last best hope may be the Senate Agriculture Committee. The committee shares jurisdiction over derivatives because farmers have historically used the instrument to protect themselves from fluctuations in the price of crops. When Sen. Blanche Lincoln of Arkansas, the committee chairman, kicked off hearings on derivatives last week, she seemed intent on working with Saxby Chambliss, the committee’s ranking Republican.”

Translation: hang on, re: popping the Martinelli’s.

This Mike Konczal post recapping the UC budget imbroglio is well worth reading.

Tyler Cowen on public anxiety over deficits:
“A high deficit often is an unfavorable symptom of bad politics, even if you think the high deficit is economically OK on its own terms. It's a sign that you have dysfunctional institutions and decision-making procedures, as indeed they do in Belgium and Italy. I believe that the not-always-swift American voter in fact understands high deficits -- correctly -- in this light. They don't hold theories about "crowding out," rather they sense something in the house must be rotten. And so they rail against deficits, as do some of their elected representatives. It's a more justified reaction than the pure economics alone can illuminate.”

This is probably right. A large part of our deficit is driven by terrible, irresponsible spending, on defense spending, agricultural spending, prison spending, etc. etc. Nevertheless, the concern would go away if the rest of the economy were doing well—which is why the Obama administration ought to be focused on jobs and growth.

But I’m not necessarily convinced of the strategic/political acumen of the administration at this point:
"President Obama said on Tuesday that he will announce his decision on how many more troops to send to Afghanistan next week, and that it is his intention to “finish the job” that began with the overthrow of the Taliban government in the fall of 2001."

It’s definitely possible this is a mischaracterization of Obama’s words, but even if it is, it’s a bad impression to give someone in such a volatile region of the world, where so much can change when it’s outside of your control. So saying you're going to "finish the job"...well, that's not necessarily a promise you can keep.

Witness Iraq for instance. A few weeks ago the political situation looked much better, now? It’s looking like real tensions are erupting now:
"Iraq cannot hold a national vote scheduled for January on time, Iraq's election panel said Tuesday, even as a vice president signaled he would again veto an election law in a dispute whose roots lie in Iraq's ethnic and sectarian divisions."

”President Jalal Talabani, a Kurd, said in a statement that the election guidelines met the aspirations of all Iraqis, "regardless of their religion, sect or ethnicity," and he appealed to [Iraqi VP] Hashemi to accept the amended law.”

On a nicer note, this review of Roald Dahl’s career is very interesting. I didn’t know Dahl wrote porny stories for Playboy. Now I do (and you do too).

Some College Football Links

Armando Allen will be out against Stanford, and Jimmy Clausen was punched in the face. Neither of these things will prevent Notre Dame from running up big numbers against Stanford (or vice versa).

But let’s say you want to remember better days…i.e. two weeks ago. Then look up Trojan Football Analysis’s breakdown of the Stanford running game, along with a video of every single Stanford big rushing gain. Sublimely fun.

Oh, one interesting thing to look at in retrospect. Before the season began, the Wall Street Journal ran an article proposing that offensive line starts returning was one of the most important stats for determining how well your team would turn out, which seemed very plausible. Well, look at the raw data…looks like this theory didn’t apply too well this year, since this was the order of returning starts, from most to least: USC, Wazzou, Washington, Arizona, Arizona State, UCLA, Cal, Stanford, Oregon State, Oregon. I would describe this as “no correlation at all” to “negative correlation.” It was such an interesting theory, too.

Monday, November 23, 2009

Those Wonderful Moderates.

Conservative-to-centrist Senate Democrats are predictably irrational when it comes to health care reform. That’s really the only way to explain—once you think about the politics long and hard—their intransigence when it comes to this bill. Let me juxtapose a couple of things to show you what I mean.

First, from Ezra Klein:
[I]magine there's a big meeting with every member of the Democratic caucus in both chambers. You stand at the front of the room and make a presentation: "If health care reform falls apart after having come this far, tens of millions of Americans will suffer; costs will continue to soar; the public will perceive Democrats as too weak and incompetent to act on their own agenda; the party will lose a lot of seats in the midterms and possibly forfeit its majority; and President Obama will have suffered a devastating defeat that will severely limit his presidency going forward. No one will even try to fix the dysfunctional system again for decades, and the existing problems will only get worse."

For progressive Democrats, the response would be, "That's an unacceptable outcome, which we have to avoid."

For conservative Democrats, the response would be, "We can live with failure."

Now, from Nate Silver:
Baucus, indeed, is not alone in this department: virtually everyone who has tried to play a dealmaker role in health care has seen their approval ratings decline, from Chuck Grassley to Olympia Snowe to Harry Reid to President Obama. [as opposed to moderates like Jon Tester, who have simply gotten out of the way]

You might think that the logic of running these two quotations back-to-back, in the craven political sense, is to resist action. And that, indeed, is what the intransigents have chosen. But if you think about the subject, doing nothing is no option: to borrow a poker term, Democrats are at this point pot-committed to health care reform. The costs of failure (political and policy) are so high that failure is unacceptable, and the most vulnerable Democrats will be the first at the firing line.

Put it this way: if health care reform fails…will it be Bernie Sanders who pays the price…or Blanche Lincoln? Exactly. Republicans aren't going to forget health care reform just because it failed; hell, there are birthers out there. So moderate Democrats might as well pass a bill that a) excites their own base, however small and b) convinces swayable voters to like it (This, incidentally, would favor actually passing a good bill…but again, moderate Senate Democrats do not seem to have thought that far ahead). What has happened is that Senate Democrats are under the influence of the human psyche and the political culture of Washington these days.

To wit, the human psyche:
In a recent study, researchers from Duke and UCLA found that when faced with a decision involving risk, people have an overwhelming tendency to make the supposedly safe choice—to err on the side of caution—even though doing so may lead to worse results.

By studying thousands of hands of blackjack played by random people, the researchers found that when they strayed from the "book" or the optimal strategy, those players who did something aggressive were more successful than those who did something passive.

In fact, the subjects made four times as many passive mistakes as they did aggressive ones. And these passive mistakes—holding on a 16 when the dealer has a king showing, for example—were more costly: They cost $2 for every $1 won, versus $1.50 for every $1 won on aggressive mistakes.

So while aggressive action is the only way to have a hope of getting out of this mess—actually passing a decent bill that will work—they are unwilling to rethink their premises in this risky situation.

Their premises are heavily weighted to the Washington Political Consensus, which is to publicly agonize—hopefully dramatically—to praise bipartisanship, to ritualistically demand compromise (which, wink-wink, does not actually respond to any of the desires of the more extreme side, typically the liberals), and to generally grandstand about how wonderfully moderate you are. This is the safe thing to do. Of course, no one has actually proven that this behavior actually rewards you where it counts—i.e. the ballot box—but no one’s disproved it either (at least conclusively) and the positive reinforcement of the elite chattering class apparently is quite powerful. Well, then they’ll lose their jobs and fade away as elder statesmen or grand old men, powerless but presumably well-remunerated as a lobbyist. Actually, that doesn’t sound like such a bad fate after all—isn’t that a shame?

Fun Fact

Macy Gray is going to release an album under the name "Nemesis Jaxson." In honor of this outstanding name change, here's one of her underrated songs:

And the excellent OutKast song that Gray samples:


This article by Ariel Levy in the latest New Yorker on the Caster Semenya case is incredibly interesting, and touches on sports, gender, history, race…very much recommended. I can’t excerpt any one part with justice, so I’ll excerpt the end:
I told her I had come from New York City to write about her, and she asked me why.

“Because you’re the champion,” I said.

She snorted and said, “You make me laugh.”

I asked her if she would talk to me, not about the tests or Chuene but about her evolution as an athlete, her progression from Limpopo to the world stage. She shook her head vigorously. “No,” she said. “I can’t talk to you. I can’t talk to anyone. I can’t say to anyone how I feel or what’s in my mind.”

I said I thought that must suck.

“No,” she said, very firmly. Her voice was strong and low. “That doesn’t suck. It sucks when I was running and they were writing those things. That sucked. That is when it sucks. Now I just have to walk away. That’s all I can do.” She smiled a small, bemused smile. “Walk away from all of this, maybe forever. Now I just walk away.” Then she took a few steps backward, turned around, and did.

The chair of the House Appropriations Committee announces he won’t agree to sending more troops to Afghanistan unless a surtax on high-income individuals is slapped down to pay for it…meanwhile, the Pentagon is using some funny accounting gimmicks in estimating the cost of more troops in the Afghanistan war…have you ever noticed that when people complain about the high amount of debt and spending, they never complain about war or military spending?

This article on former NYPD, former LAPD police chief Bill Bratton is very, very interesting.

This op-ed by Ross Douthat on the Republican party’s two populists—Palin and Huckabee—is very apt. He argues, persuasively, that they chose to become celebrities rather than governing politicians. But of course they did. Governing implicates you in the establishment; by necessity—if you’re going to do it seriously and well—you must disappoint people and manage and weigh their interests. Therefore it’s impossible to be an effective bomb-thrower. Now, this hasn’t stopped some Republican governors, like Rick Perry or Bobby Jindal, but it should, shouldn’t it? So you really wonder how serious Republicans are about governing, even on their own terms. For that reason, it’s an open question about what the more serious consequences of a failed Barack Obama administration would be (and this is looking increasingly high, sadly): the failure or the elected Republicans.

But I’m trying not to overreact. As this five-part epic by James Fallows on perceptions vs. reality on Obama’s Asia trip notes, we shouldn’t expect results on intractable issues immediately. And I should know better than to overreact—media time is getting faster, political time slower, as I said in an earlier post, so of course the media will obsess over each little action at the expense of the big picture. Obsessing over small details is a much better business model in a sped-up media environment because responsibly talking about the big picture requires time, thought and cautiousness, none of which are particularly conducive to constant news.

More Big Game Kvetching

I’m pretty well obsessed with what happened in Big Game on Saturday, so here’s another point, on the offense. There’s been a narrative that’s sprung up that Harbaugh should’ve entrusted the game to Toby Gerhart’s broad shoulders in the red zone on the final drive, and should’ve run Gerhart even more throughout the game; I don’t disagree with the logic, but it ignores a crucial point: Gerhart wasn’t really all that great yesterday. Set aside his 61 yard gallup—he had 75 yards on 16 carries, for a 3.9 yards per carry. Make no mistake, for whatever reason, Gerhart wasn’t that spectacular.

So the offense was forced to go to the air. When Luck connected, he was fine—he averaged 15.7 yards per completion, which is right in line with his previous averages; it was his yards per attempt that showed the rot at 5.2. The Stanford game does not, as of yet, have a very diversified offense. As far as I can tell, this is the flowchart for the Stanford offense.

2) IF NO, RUN.

This is plenty effective, as we’ve been a witness to. There’s nothing wrong with it necessarily; it depends, as everything does, on execution. But if you can stop the run, or, more importantly, stop the run on first down? You’ve done a lot of good work for yourself and the simplicity of the Stanford offense goes from benefit to liability. The defense can then stack the deck the other way and assume the pass is more likely. So first-down success against a team like Stanford, which only seems to want to throw deep, is critically important. In fact, let’s review first-down performance against Cal.
(Note to understanding this table: the first number is the quarter, the second is the Stanford possession within it, and the third is the number of first downs in the possession. So 1,2,3 would indicate the third first down on the second possession of the first quarter. If a possession stretches across quarters, it will remain under the same name.).

First-down performance in Big Game
PossessionType of PlayYardage

OK, so what’s this data show. Let me provide the important conclusions right here: Luck threw 13 passes on first down for 115 yards, or roughly 8.8 yards per attempt. (He threw 152 yards total at 5.2 yards per attempt total, meaning that on his 17 other passes, he had a paltry 37 yards). Meanwhile, of the 13 rushing attempts on first down, only 37 yards were gained (i.e. 2.8 yards per carry). The rushing statistics are somewhat skewed in both directions: it counts scrambles on one end and goal-line rushes on the other. On the other hand, it’s worthwhile to note the performance on other downs: all of the big carries (Toby’s 61, 21 yarders and Tyler Gaffney’s 21 yarder) were after second down. So yes, there was a flaw with the play-calling…there should have been more passing on first down. Cal punished the predictability of the Stanford offense; when Stanford went against type, it frequently did so for big gains.


So, you need some links this afternoon.

Pop quiz. What government is this paragraph about…?
You'll hear a lot of talk-show wailing and pundit whining. Columnists will scold, myself probably included. But these people in the Capitol can't help themselves….This is not being derogatory. It's being realistic in the current climate of political and public polarization, and a system structured for paralysis. It's in the cards and the cards are stacked…Budgets for the foreseeable future, as they increasingly have been, will be painful patch jobs stitched with gimmickry.

If you said California, full credit! If you said the federal government, well, you’re disturbingly on the right track—partial credit with the option to appeal in five years.

Speaking of the federal government, James Kwak and Jon Taplin note that the short-term budgetary situation isn’t too bad—and interest rate payments on bonds aren’t as big a deal as this New York Times article makes it seem. I agree, but I wouldn’t poo-poo it as much as Taplin does (hint: the carry trade). Paul Krugman also joins in on the fun of “not a big deal.” Well, I guess I agree…

This Ta-Nehisi Coates post on the war on terror is enough to outrage, also.

This article on the style of the aughts, the noughties, is kind of interesting and fun. I have to side with the iPod, IKEA and Target: a distinct set of design values for all of them, intended for the upper-middle-class (and aspirant) masses.

How Stanford Stacks Up/Bad News

We are unranked in the AP/Coaches' Poll.

Ted Miller ranks us #4 in the Pac-10.

Sagarin ranks us #19.

And now the bad news. Running Backs coach Willie Taggart is leaving to coach Western Kentucky. Obviously, best of luck and it makes sense in retrospect--Taggart used to play there--but this is a big blow: Taggart was an ace recruiter for Stanford (he recruited Georgia, where there's been something of a pipeline for Stanford), and so you have to assume that'll dent the recruiting efforts somewhat. Also, Western Kentucky has lost 18 straight games.

Sunday, November 22, 2009


Well, let’s transition back to some more general interest topics after a few days of football obsessions, right? Sure.

Ron Brownstein talks about cost control in the health care reform bill. Looks encouraging here, but I’m still wanting more coverage of the exact, wonky details. How is it that the Baucus bill changes the delivery-payment system? How mandatory are the recommended changes from the independent review board? Is every recommendation going to be Mammogate Redux?

Brad DeLong raises worries about the carry trade, contra Paul Krugman. Again, I’m worried, and I wasn’t even aware that investors were purchasing long-term US bonds with hot money. That sounds curiously low-yield, but WTF do I know? (But then, DeLong may rightly characterize the strategy as “picking nickels in front of a steamroller,” that classic strategy of Long-Term Capital Management…)

This Washington Monthly article on Britain’s surveillance state is really unpersuasive to me. I don’t want to take this anecdote too seriously (I posted the article a month ago), but it’s really persuasive to me. That said, this is not a very good argument to me:
Perhaps because bureaucracies in the UK are mighty forces for inefficiency and inaction, perhaps because abuses have been reined in by good English common sense, the cameras have been deployed in a largely benign way. And despite the fact that the most extensive study of the cameras’ effectiveness—one commissioned by the Home Office of the British government—found no evidence to support the claim that CCTV cameras actually deter crime, surveys show most UK citizens welcome them.

So, basically, the arguments are that Britain’s bureaucracy is too ineffective to be truly scary—well then how effective can it be in the first place? And isn’t it very possible that a more effective, more streamlined bureaucracy could replace it? One that’s possible of visiting oppression on the people it’s supposed to protect? And isn’t it possible that an inefficient bureaucracy could visit petty annoyances on its people? And shouldn’t the popularity of the measures not necessarily be the biggest selling point? People have, at times, been very eager to restrict their own freedoms. That’s the reason the American constitutional system doesn’t put these matters up for a vote. The article is deeply unconvincing analysis-wise, but fairly informative otherwise.

This article on financial firms refinancing mortgages and pushing the risk onto the federal government is enough to get you thinking.

This New York Times Magazine article on agriculture in Africa is very interesting, but has a somewhat overstated headline. Here’s an interesting graf (one of many):
The American scientist was catching a glimpse of an emerging test of the world’s food resources, one that has begun to take shape over the last year, largely outside the bounds of international scrutiny. A variety of factors — some transitory, like the spike in food prices, and others intractable, like global population growth and water scarcity — have created a market for farmland, as rich but resource-deprived nations in the Middle East, Asia and elsewhere seek to outsource their food production to places where fields are cheap and abundant. Because much of the world’s arable land is already in use — almost 90 percent, according to one estimate, if you take out forests and fragile ecosystems — the search has led to the countries least touched by development, in Africa. According to a recent study by the World Bank and the United Nations Food and Agriculture Organization, one of the earth’s last large reserves of underused land is the billion-acre Guinea Savannah zone, a crescent-shaped swath that runs east across Africa all the way to Ethiopia, and southward to Congo and Angola.

This Wall Street Journal article on a possible jobs bill is very depressing. The administration wants a “targeted” bill that “won’t add to the deficit” that much. It’s the economic equivalent of the cookie diet. Either get on a diet or eat your cookies, don’t try and pretend that you can have both. And then this—not even in the headline or lede—is enough to piss you off too:
House Speaker Nancy Pelosi last week said ideas under discussion in the House included a tax on a variety of financial transactions. Democrats estimate such a tax could raise as much as $150 billion a year, a pool of money that could help offset the cost of a job-growth package.

The White House isn't keen on that proposal: Treasury Secretary Tim Geithner has said he hasn't seen a version of that tax that would be appropriate for the U.S.

Because it would be bad to stop traders from trading every five seconds? Bad to make them hold onto assets for the long term? Bad to have a targeted tax that would leave the vast majority of Americans alone while taxing an undesirable activity? What, exactly, is inappropriate here? Incedibly frustrating. I guess they’d prefer to hike the payroll tax or something sensible like that.

Reassessing Stanford's Schedule

There’s one game left on Stanford’s schedule, against Notre Dame, and it has the feel of an anticlimax. Weis is fired, no question, so there’s little drama on Notre Dame’s end. And on Stanford’s end…a win is necessary for national respect, for momentum and all that. But, in terms of concrete goals, how much does it matter? The team is bowl-eligible, so that major goal has been taken care of. And, moreover, we know everything we need to know about this team.

Obviously, they play the games for a reason and all that jazz but we know how this game is going to turn out. Clausen will pass for 350+ yards, Tate and Floyd will murder hapless Stanford corners, the rest of the Irish offense will be meh. For Stanford, Toby Gerhart will get scads of yards. The uncertainty here is: who brings the biggest gun to the shootout and does Andrew Luck rebound against a bad defense? The latter question is probably most interesting from a future perspective, but I expect Luck to have at least a solid game.

A lot of commentators have taken it as a given that Stanford will win against Notre Dame at home. That’s not the case at all. As I’ve said before, Stanford’s offense means it’s in every game…and Stanford’s defense means its opponent is in every game. I expect it to be true against Notre Dame, particularly since it’s got a very good passing offense (even after you subtract for hype). And a game in which both teams put up a ton of points is difficult to predict.

Odds of victory: 50% (-5% of last week)

Day After Blues

The storyline that’s seized everyone in day two is: “WHAT THE HELL, HARBAUGH, WHY DIDN’T YOU RUN GERHART?!?!?!?!??!?!??!” This is a valid point, I think, but it misses the fundamentals of the game. First, I don’t think the call was egregiously bad. On both plays in the red zone, Luck’s intended target was open: on the first, it was a borderline PI call (that went uncalled) that Luck should’ve gone to the cannon/laser/frozen rope for; the second was a tough throw but one we’ve seen Luck hit before. True, Luck was cold; true, Toby is a touchdown machine. My point isn’t to excuse but to explain that it wasn’t the most insane thing ever. It wasn’t even the biggest coaching blunder of the game—that would be Jeff Tedford’s knee to set up the field goal on the drive before. So, again, not terrible. Besides, we’d lost the game well before that.

But now we can sit back and assess the fundamentals, the commonalties behind all the losses. We’ve only been blown-out once, against Oregon State (the scoreboard says it isn’t a blowout, but everything else does). That’s good. On the other hand, there’s a clear pattern in each of the losses. First is a sense that we’re one play away: the terrible clipping call against Wake Forest, the Owusu dropsies against Arizona, and a differently thrown pass against Cal. Second, the offense has done enough in each game; the defense has been awful in each game. Third—and the first point hints at this—the offense has had chances to make up for the defense; it’s had the ball with a chance to win in each game. But execution intervened. I think this qualifies as a serious worry at this point. There are problems on both sides of the ball to be fixed.

But it really comes back to the defense. And here we have the chicken-or-egg question: is it the talent or the coaching? Again, the answer is yes. There aren’t a lot of mature gamebreakers on the defensive side of the ball. On the other hand, at times the players are so poorly placed that they must either be a) lost or b) placed there purposefully, which indicates insanity. I don’t have the coaches’ tape, so it’s impossible to fully assess the coverage issues, but the fact that you can’t identify man versus soft zone a lot of the time is worrying, to say the least. I think coaching may end up being a serious problem.

The Coordinator

The co-defensive coordinator is Ron Lynn, a veteran coach, mostly in the NFL. This sounds good, right? If you look at the lines in his resume before Stanford as a defensive coordinator, it sure sounds good, but a closer inspection reveals all. Let’s explain a little bit. First, all college and USFL statistics are incomplete, sadly. Second, the number in parentheses is the rank of the defense—for college statistics, it’s just Pac-10 statistics. Otherwise, it’s league-wide.

Ron Lynn as Defensive Coordinator
Year/TeamPts AllowedTakeawaysYards AllowedYards Per AttemptYards Per Carry
Cal 1981287 (9)
Cal 1982233 (7)
Invaders 1983319 (2)
Invaders 1984378 (6)
Invaders 1985359 (5)
Chargers 1986394 (24)385366 (23)6.5 (24)3.5 (3)
Chargers 1987317 (15)284953 (15)5.7 (8)4.2 (23)
Chargers 1988338 (18)265418 (21)6.0 (16)4.1 (17)
Charger 1989290 (9)284764 (6)5.3 (4)3.8 (11)
Chargers 1990281 (10)304425 (5)5.7 (14)3.6 (4)
Chargers 1991342 (21)265111 (19)6.5 (24)3.9 (13)
Bengals 1992364 (24)335333 (26)6.2 (21)4.1 (18)
Bengals 1993319 (20)265018 (16)5.8 (17)4.3 (24)
Redskins 1994412 (28)235609 (26)6.9 (27)3.6 (6)
Redskins 1995359 (21)355400 (18)5.7 (10)4.4 (29)
Redskins 1996312 (13)305723 (28)5.8 (15)4.4 (29)

A few takeaways here:
1) Ron Lynn defenses generally get better than when they started at, with the exception of that Chargers ’91 defense.
2) Ron Lynn gets fired/moves on at odd times. In his three moves as an NFL defensive coordinator, only once was the final year a dramatic decline in the defense. Otherwise, the defense improved and Lynn was fired/moved on. In each of these moves, the head coach remained while Lynn moved on/fired.
3) Ron Lynn can coach a great defense…in the late eighties. Who knows whether that’s still true?
4) What the hell happened between 1994 and 95? The defensive skills completely flipped those years.
5) Ron Lynn typically looks better against the run against the pass, though this isn’t the strongest trend.
6) Ron Lynn rarely coached the defense of a great team (less depending on how you feel about the USFL).

What these statistics lack is context. We don’t know about his players, the owners situation, etc. (I’m particularly intrigued by the WTF happened in 1991. Massive numbers of injuries? I don’t know. A short time googling doesn’t really answer this question). So it’s possible Lynn was just at the wrong place at the wrong time a few times. That’s understandable, if true. Nevertheless, the picture here is of an average defensive coach.

One last thing confirms that perception. Here’s his bio on the Stanford athletics website. Notice anything about it? What it chooses to laud is his time…as a secondary coach for the Patriots (during the Pete Carroll years) and the Raiders. That’s suspicious, isn’t it? Again, it may be talent more than the coaching, but I’m not reassured by the defensive coaching.

Saturday, November 21, 2009

Adjust Your Storylines

We are who we thought we were before we thought we were someone we weren’t. What exactly you thought we were before Oregon, however, is up for debate just as what you think we are right now is up for debate. It’s possible to see this as a glass-half-full defeat; also possible to see it as half empty; and to blame many different people for drinking it in the first place. Let’s break down the culprits, shall we? Adjust your storylines to fit new evidence


Over the last two weeks, it seemed entirely absurd to suggest Luck was anything but gifted. And he still is. But the thought has to enter your mind: is Luck simply the beneficiary of a very cushy situation, having an all-world running back and a great offensive line? Both of these benefits were taken away from Luck, and he was decidedly mediocre. The offensive line, in particular, appeared confused and out-of-sorts—the same holes weren’t there on the running game, and Luck was pressured extensively. It looks like Cal’s 3-4 really distressed the line. The three botched snaps were terrible, but probably ultimately flukey.

But a lot of the fault was Luck’s. For the second straight week, Luck was fuzzy in the passing game. Between the last two weeks, I don’t think any of Luck’s long bombs have connected. But the plays have been there; the receivers are still open, the box is still stacked. Luck has consistently overthrown his receiver deep the past two weeks, and it’s been puzzling. I’d also be remiss in pointing out that Chris Owusu returned to being Bad Chris Owusu, by which I mean dropping passes continually. He has every other tool of a great wide receiver—his blocking is even good—but his hands, his hands. He made virtually every important catch the past two weeks, so it was possible to confuse yourself into believing he had reached a new level in his development. Not so. He’s the same Chris Owusu he was before.

Though the offense was fuzzy all game, you can’t really hold the offense at fault here. It did score 28 points and put up 350 yards. And that was true despite the lack of execution for every offensive player—not one had a notably better game than their average, except perhaps Tyler Gaffney (and his one carry). Again, not the offense’s fault, really. It could’ve been better; it could’ve won a shootout. But it was definitely good enough.


Here’s where the fault is. The defense returned to its bad-Ron Lynn state, whose hallmark is the uncertain coverage—as in, what type of coverage exactly was that supposed to be, man or zone—and the big, plush, comfortable cushions afforded a mediocre corps of Cal wideouts, it was scheme-wise a bizarre night, notable for its lack of change or adjustment. Contrast the defensive scheme last week with this—against a wideout corps that was better than Cal’s, the Stanford defensive backs nevertheless played fairly close, and, wonder of wonders, it worked fairly well. No one expects the Stanford defense to play outstandingly well, but it certainly didn’t do enough to win.

Moreover, the Stanford defensive line lost the line of scrimmage decisively. Cal regularly pulled not one but two players on its running plays, the ultimate sign of disrespect for the backside pursuit. The line was also unable to bring pressure on any consistent basis—during the first quarter, it looked like we’d gotten Bad Kevin Riley, but with enough time, he was able to make throws at his leisure.

I also have to make the characteristic point that the Stanford tackling was abominable. As usual, there were many, many, many missed tackles; as usual, opportunities to drop players behind the line of scrimmage were missed; and so on and so on.

Oddly, unlike the offense, there were two players who performed significantly above their averages: Richard Sherman apparently has become a competent cover corner, making me thankful for his recently-granted fifth year of eligibility; and Shayne Skov was simply around every significant play. Sadly, as it stands now, he will be the only significant linebacker, unless the redshirted freshmen have a surprise waiting for us.

But here’s where the whose-fault-is-it-anyway question pops up. Is it Walt Harris, for being such a terrible recruiter and gifting us with virtually no defensive depth whatsoever? Is it injuries, for robbing us of Clinton Snyder, Erik Lorig, Brian Bulcke and Quinn Evans? Is it the current coaching staff? Is it simply that the players aren’t very good? The answer is yes. Am I reassured? I am not.

Special Teams

You might think that there’s no fault to be had here. Oh contraire, sir. Yes, Owusu was explosive in kick returns, consistently gifting us with superior field position. Yes, David Green is a fine punter. Yes, the coverage units were fairly good (though Johnson Bademosi’s promotion to starting corner has robbed Peter to pay Paul). But there is a problem here, and his name is Nate Whitaker. Whitaker can officially be branded shaky. Let’s review Whitaker’s record so far with important field goals, shall we?

at Arizona: misses a 36 yard FG, fourth quarter. Stanford loses by five. So why care? Well, making that field goal means you’re up 41-29. This means that you don’t have to go for it on fourth down on the Arizona 7 a few drives later; instead, you kick the FG. That means the last drive, you can kick a FG for the win. Convoluted, you say? Why yes, it is. But it makes a difference, particularly after it becomes a pattern.

vs. Oregon: fourth quarter, missed 44 yarder. This did not end up mattering in the end. But still, makes a difference.

vs. Cal: third quarter, missed 44 yarder. Again, if he hits this, it changes the math entirely for the game.

Now, you might say, a bit ticky-tack, isn’t it? Possible. These aren’t incredibly egregious. But still…not good. Not the biggest reason for the loss, by no means. But it’s something to keep in mind. Also, Whitaker’s previously booming kickoffs have lost something recently.

The Future:
Look forward to a lot of games like this: high-scoring, with the outcome in doubt until late. It’s hard to project the defense as it will lose many defensive contributors: Snyder, who was limited but game; Lorig and Udofia, who are both assets on the defensive line if not dominant; McNally, who is mainly not any of the other options at safety. The question is whether all of Harbaugh’s defensive recruits are going to take their place and the current defensive players will develop or not. And that’s difficult to say.

Meanwhile, your faith in the offense must be taken into question now. The narrative that Luck can’t carry a team on his own offensively must at least enter your mind, if not be very likely. Otherwise, you ought to be confident: there are so many possible good runners that you’d have to think one of them will be good; Toby will be replaced in bulk if not quality. The offensive line is likely to progress. The question is at wideout. And there’s just a hint of a question at quarterback. Not enough to be doubtful, but enough to question your faith.

Question away. We’re better than we thought we were before Oregon, but we’re not as good as we thought we were heading into the week. We regressed back to the mean. These things happen. We’ll be back, and better. The Axe will return home.

General Linkage

Let’s branch out a little bit. First, for the scoreboard watchers. Official Stanford rooting interests are these: go Michigan against Ohio State, go Arizona against Oregon, go Washington State against Oregon State. Naturally, all of these are underdogs, ranging from slight underdogs to 2012-actually-is-the-apocalypse underdogs. So be satisfied if any of them happen.

But you need your general news fill, don’t you? Sure you do.

Tyler Cowen at Marginal Revolution coins a term about the health care bill: the retreat into the relative, i.e. that the health care bill can only be defended by retreating into the relative. This retreat, it’s true, really is needed for this health care bill. Nevertheless, it is true: the health care bill does represent a significant improvement over the status quo. Tens of millions of Americans will be insured who weren’t before, saving anxiety, stress, health and oftentimes life. That’s not to be discounted. Still, the pressure will be on for Health Care Part II: This Time It’s Fiscal. (And that’s of course assuming Democrats get a second crack at the piñata—never forget that this bill is, in many ways, a long-term political liability, thanks to Rahm’s viciously short-tem political thinking.)

Felix Salmon notes that the SEC has surrendered to the oil industry in allowing it to use its own models. Because obviously this has worked so well before. But, still, you can have confidence in its ability to regulate because you just should.

This mammogram controversy is fascinating and ultimately discouraging. You have both sides of the aisle lining up to bash the recommendations, for related but ultimately different reasons: the right, of course, with its cries of rationing; the left, particularly feminists, are focusing on the panel’s point that saving anxiety is a good reason to not recommend mammograms. I find the left’s point to be more sympathetic, and I don’t want to entirely discount it…but still, it has the air of cherry-picking one point among several in a report. Meanwhile, as John Crewdson notes in The Atlantic, the science behind this is actually pretty good and pretty old. These recommendations, while inconveniently timed, have been in the making for a while. And both Steven Pearlstein and Gail Collins note, this doesn’t bode well for the fiscal prospects of health care reform. Let me outsource a point to Pearlstein:
“Just as the hysteria over "death panels" killed any chance that Medicare recipients and their patients might be encouraged to engage in an intelligent conversation about end-of-life care before it becomes an issue, the mammogram brouhaha is likely to set back efforts to dramatically increase research into what really works and what doesn't, and use the results to revamp the way medical care is delivered and paid for.”

Just so. It’s important to note that, in what I’ve read, mammograms weren’t even the main fiscal driver behind spiraling health care—it wasn’t even on the radar. What a lot of reformers focus on is MRIs, and I can only imagine the fights over that.

Free Exchange over in The Economist has a helpful post on the carry trade. Apparently, this is part of the reason the Obama administration is worried about the deficit, which I suppose is more acceptable than what I suspect the actual reason is: “We’re cravenly buckling to the public’s whims.” At any rate, it’s a real dilemma, assuming the policy rationale is honest. You can’t lower the deficit without screwing the economy; meanwhile, the carry trade could have very nasty effects on emerging markets, which is part of the worry. So, yes, concerning either way.

In his review of the awful-looking The Blind Side movie, Josh Levin unleashes two pretty good lines: “By definition, an inspirational sports movie tells a story that's almost too good to be true… The problem with a story that's almost too good to be true is that someone in Hollywood will try to make it better.” Besides the emotional bluntness and corruption of the story, the whole premise was wrong in the first place: The Blind Side is not a book that should’ve been converted into a movie. I’m not a zealot who insists that books are always better than movies; on the contrary, I think a lot of books could very profitably (artistically and economically) be remade into movies. The candidates for remaking a book into a movie should always be a book that wasn’t very good as a book; i.e. a book that doesn’t take advantage of being a book. So a book with less interiority, abstract concepts, or historical/sociological analysis. The Blind Side deals a lot with abstract concepts and analysis—it’s what makes it great as a book—so it shouldn’t have been a candidate. Meanwhile, I’m waiting for a great adaptation of The Count of Monte Cristo, and don’t make me write it myself.

Kevin Riley, Don't Be That Next Contestant On The Summer Jam Screen

So. Here it is. The Big Game, no longer just ironic, and of course the question is, who will win and by how much?

I suppose it’s not a shocker that I think Stanford will win and cover the spread. But I feel pretty cautious and wary about it, probably because it’s hard to be a Stanford fan and not feel jaded, cynical, skeptical and a little hesitant to fully embrace—faith-wise—the team. Let’s focus on the main issue here: the last two weeks have been as fun for me as a fan as any of my sports rooting interests. But still, good times are made to end.

The question is, do the past two weeks represent a permanent leap in the level of Stanford football, or is it simply—to put it in sports cliché terms—a team playing out of his mind, with seemingly every play and call falling just about into place. I don’t think there’s a definitive answer, which is the source of the uncertainty. If I had to guess, I think the offense is really this good, whereas I think the defense overachieved against USC last week.

We know the offense is this good because last week against USC, it put up 48 points during a game in which Andrew Luck had a merely nice performance; likewise, Toby Gerhart merely had a very good performance. Comparatively speaking, both players were much better the week before against Oregon. And—duh—they still put up 48.

On the other hand, we should still be a bit wary of the defense. Joe McKnight was very good against Stanford last week, and the scoreboard was the best defender Stanford had against him. The USC wideouts definitely made some nice moves against the Stanford secondary. Really, Matt Barkley was the liability for USC, and what a splendid liability he was. Nevertheless, you can’t quite count on Barkley’s brand of stubborn gunslinger-ness to be repeated very often (I don’t see Brett Favre on the schedule anytime soon), so, again, practice safe skepticism with the defense.

But that was the past two weeks. People have speculated that the Pac-10 has had a lot of “letdowns” after big wins, and while you can’t discount psychology, it does have the air of the sportswriter’s easy explanation. What I think is more likely is this: the Pac-10 has so many good teams this year that matchups are everything. Two weeks ago, Stanford matched-up extremely well against Oregon; and USC isn’t very good. So the question against Cal is, how do the matchups work?

I’m happy to say that the matchups are…pretty good! Some people have decided to worry about Cal’s magnificent defense against Arizona last week. That’s impressive, no question. But Stanford’s offense and Arizona’s offense are about as different as two good offenses can be. Cal’s 3-4 scheme should match up well against an offense like Arizona’s, which seeks to throw a lot of short passes and occasionally turn them into long gains. For all the hype about Cal’s run defense against Arizona, Zona’s been banged up all year at the running back spot. What should concern you is Cal’s defensive effort against Jacquizz Rodgers, who actually has a pretty similar running style to Toby (surprising, but true). Nevertheless, I’m pretty confident about Stanford’s ability to run against Cal. What that laudatory article about the Tunnel Workers Union that I posted earlier missed is why Stanford’s offensive line is so good: it is light, mobile and yet it’s strong. Watch a Toby highlight reel sometime—and notice how many times Phillips (#71) or DeCastro (#52) is in front of Toby, destroying some hapless linebacker. That’s because Harbaugh loves to pull his guards, and both of them are mobile enough to so some good damage on that play. Against Cal, you should expect them to consistently get to the second level and blow up linebackers. If they don’t…well, there are problems.

Meanwhile, Cal hasn’t really been able to defend many teams through the air (except…Arizona). And that, of course, is bad when you’re facing Andrew Luck and his receivers, who are a) underrated and b) haven’t quite managed to be recognized yet. I’m still waiting for newspaper poetry-gushing for Ryan Whalen and his blocking ability (to say nothing of his route-running ability). So, again, expect the usual Stanford offensive fireworks.

A quick note about special teams. They’re an advantage, Stanford. Cal’s kickoff returns are, ah, not that great. And—I’m not sure you’ve heard this fact—but there’s this fella, Chris Owusu, for Stanford, who is quite talented at returning kickoffs….so, uh, don’t leave to get chips and dip at the kickoffs, you hear?

But let’s go to the Cal side of the ball. This is where the game will be decided. What you have is a mediocre offense colliding with a mediocre defense, and whomever gets knocked backward…loses. Shane Vereen is a good back in the Cal tradition (no one ever mentions this, but Cal’s running back tradition is pretty absurd. Look it up. They’ve basically had a good running back since Tedford has stepped on campus), so expect Stanford’s run defense to be a little soft against him. But Vereen’s no where near as explosive as Jahvid Best, so it’s unclear whether he can singlehandedly carry Cal to the 30+ pt explosion they’ll need to be in this game, let alone win it. Because the rest of the offense is fairly mediocre. The offensive line is bland, their wideouts are nothing special, and Kevin Riley practically defines erratic. To be fair to Riley, this means he could have a sparkling performance against the weak Stanford secondary. And, frankly, he’ll need it. Also, don’t discount this: Jeff Tedford loves hauling out the full playbook, even to jerkish effect, on Big Game (e.g. fake punt up big in the fourth quarter of 2005). That could be bad, I won’t lie.

Still, I expect a covered spread and then some. Stanford 38 Cal 24.

Pre-Big Game News Stuff

One last piece of news roundup, then we’ll get to breaking down the game, k? Cool.

The Chronicle contributes two pretty cool articles. First one is on the underrated Stanford offensive line and its nickname, the Tunnel Workers Union. Great nickname in an era that’s really lacked for good nicknames. Here’s the fun part: “The Buffalo Bills used to have the Electric Company because they turned on the Juice, O.J. Simpson. The Washington Redskins once had the Hogs. In the 1920s and '30s, Fordham had the Seven Blocks of Granite…” And Stanford has the supremely good Tunnel Workers Union, two of whom will likely be playing in the NFL when their college careers are over (Martin and DeCastro, particularly if DeCastro makes the successful transition to center, the position he was recruited for.)

From the Cal beat, this description of how to tackle Toby:
“"It's like taking down a bull," Bishop said. "We're going to have to make sure we gang tackle him, get the rope, make sure his legs are together, click the heels and then he'll go down."

Bishop sounded so emphatic, so sure of the sequence, it seemed like he had experience with bulls.

"Nahh, I haven't taken one down," he said, smiling, "but I know the technique."”

Also included is the floated possibility that Cal might bust out its trick plays against Stanford. This isn’t just possible, it’s likely. For whatever reason, Tedford loves to unleash tons of trick plays against Stanford, and no one else. It’s very, very strange.

The Cal blog California Golden Blogs gives a statistical breakdown of Stanford’s offense and defense. Read the analysis with a grain of salt—it’s biased towards Cal, as you’d expect—but read it nonetheless.

And the budget cuts at Cal lurk in the background. Obviously, I hate Cal in a sports sense, but I do want to laud it and the UC educational system’s mission: its history is one of the triumphs of democratic education and educational excellence generally. These budget cuts are yet another round of the hollowing-out of vital American institutions, in this recession’s sacrifice of the future to the altar of the present. So it represents a narrowing of the democratic field of vision. We’ll beat Cal on the field, but I hope they continue to compete in the classroom.

Lastly—just for fun—let’s take a look at the lines. It opened at STAN (-8) and the over/under was 65.5. Both have been bet down: STAN (-7) and over/under 61.5. Obviously, this isn’t expert advice, but my god is the “over” tempting on the over/under.

Friday, November 20, 2009

Stanford Football, More Columns, More News, Cal Sucks.

This is an interesting interview with broadcaster Greg Papa on tomorrow’s Big Game. Here’s an interesting quotation: “Typically, a 3-4 is not a great rush defense, it’s more a pressure-oriented defense. But Cal has a lot of good linebackers.” Cal’s 3-4 should be interesting; it’s certainly unique among defenses Stanford has played this year.

This Lowell Cohn article is pretty funny and here’s the funniest Jim Harbaugh exchange:
“Q: “You watched a guy direct traffic for an hour?”

Harbaugh: “I did.”

Q: “Where?”

Harbaugh: “San Diego.”

Q: “You just happened to see a guy directing traffic and you said, ‘That’s really neat. I’d like to watch him.’”

Harbaugh: “He was really good at it — with the hands, with the whistle, the way he was controlling the flow of the traffic. That’s the kind of stuff I like. I like watching people do something really well to the best of their God-given ability.”

The greatest part about this is, I have literally no idea whether or not to believe this exchange or not. Jim Harbaugh!

This is a good sign, re: fan support: “With only a few tickets left, the Big Game essentially is sold out. It would be the second sellout since Stanford Stadium was rebuilt after the 2005 season. Last year's USC game was the first to sell out…The secondary ticket market for Saturday's game is brisk. According to, a Palo Alto firm that aggregates ticket listings from all over the Web, the average Big Game ticket resale price is $180, behind only the Ohio State-Michigan game ($250).”

This article from the San Francisco edition of the New York Times comparing Cal and Stanford alumni is completely laughable and ridiculous, and not merely because Cal wins this comparison…but also because the categories and criteria are terrible. This really worked me up…until…I read this:

Todd McShay (Insider) compares Luck to Matt Ryan, except with better mobility. Fun graf: “The more I watch of Stanford QB Andrew Luck this season the more flashbacks I have to Matt Ryan's days at Boston College. There, I said it….Yes, Luck is a redshirt freshman and is certainly not on Ryan's level just 10 games into his collegiate career, but the similarities are certainly there at the same stage in their respective careers. If Luck continues to progress from this point on he can be the same kind of quarterback Ryan was coming out of school.”
As Nick Saban said of Michael Oher in high school, “If he’s not a first round pick, someone done him wrong.”

Thursday, November 19, 2009

Linkology, Of A General Variety

First, Fed officials fire back (weakly) on the weak-dollar/strong-dollar dichotomy. Dallas Fed President Richard Fisher said: “On the other hand, in terms of its inflationary input, unless it becomes disorderly, a depreciating dollar -- a gradually depreciating dollar -- doesn't necessarily add an enormous inflation impulse.” It’s disappointing to see him defend it in terms of inflation (like, who gives a shit about inflation generally now?), and I guess….well, I can’t find the upside. Just generally disappointing.

This doesn’t represent a 180-degree turn in my thinking, but I find the Iraqi VP’s decision to veto the recently-passed election law to be discouraging. For one, it’s crazy that Iraq has two VPs, either of whom can veto a law. That’s just a terrible system. And then there’s his reasoning: “[VP] Hashimi's veto introduces a fresh hitch. An Arab Sunni, he has demanded that the legislation be amended to allow more special seats to be set aside to represent Iraqis who have fled the country. The law stipulates that a given number of special parliamentary seats be reserved for particular groups, including minorities, internally displaced Iraqis and refugees in other countries.” As I understand it, the majority of Iraqi refugees are Sunni and….well, you can figure out the rest. And of course, this isn’t Democrat v. Republican; it’s sectarian political jousting. These things rarely end well.

More conflicts between Michelle Rhee and the D.C. Teachers Union. I guess I’m skeptical of the education reformers. They have a monomaniacal focus on teachers and their performance. In fact, anyone applying to Teach for America will quickly find this out—you’re assigned slanted articles on how teacher performance is basically the end-all, be-all of student performance, and then quizzed in interview as to how much you agree with these slanted articles in an interview that becomes very uncomfortable if you show the slightest bit of flexibility in your thinking re: teacher performance. Now, teaching performance is important—no question about it!—and teaching performance in many of our cities is abysmally low—also not something I’m questioning!—but common sense practically dictates that there’s more to it than that. I mean, for example, Jamie Oliver and school lunches. It’s a big problem, so let’s not reduce things.

The Wall Street Journal notes that Obama made some key concessions on Chinese jets. I guess it’s not terrible in theory, if you get something in return, but, geez, aerospace is one of the last manufacturing areas the U.S. has an edge in (and with the delays in the Dreamliner….maybe not for long), and you’d hate to see the Chinese come in and destroy everyone there too.

This New York Observer column compares Obama’s political travails to Reagan’s. It’s plausible, I guess, but the historical analogies game is often less than informative. The unemployment rate doesn’t care that Obama’s a good speaker. (Note: crucial difference between Obama recession and Reagan recession: the Reagan recession was Fed-induced to break inflation; the Obama recession is the result of structural factors that the political system has as yet shown little will to confront or change. So, uh, slight flaw with this analogy.)

I like this news that Sen. Dianne Feinstein is acting to curb emissions on TVs. As has been well-covered, personal gadgets are greedy for electricity. But it’s a good example of how powerful Senators are. They really are little princes and princesses making a ton of policy in idiosyncratic directions, in a way that you wouldn’t have in other governments. Mostly, for the worse. Sometimes, for the better.

The Best State of Mind?

I was listening to Empire State of Mind, and was wondering what the best State of Mind song there is.



Or this?

Stanford News Roundup

Let’s round up some fun Stanford football stories (and related). First of all, the Wall Street Journal asks whether Jim Harbaugh is “the perfect football coach,” to which I can only say, calm down. Nevertheless, the article provides some nice anecdotes and this questionable assertion: “And unlike coaches in similar situations, who have turned to gimmick offenses to compensate for the talent gap, he's winning with a power running attack.” Le sigh. Can you call the triple-option or the spread option a gimmick anymore? These offenses started up in the less talented colleges (Chip Kelly started in the University of New Hampshire, for example) and migrated up and…shocker!...seem to do pretty well at the talented colleges too! So the assertion’s insulting to the “gimmick” schemes and, moreover, insulting to Stanford’s scheme. Sure, it relies on the classic “power” play, but what team doesn’t use “power”? Listen, if you’re watching Stanford’s offense and saying, “this is boring, without variety, and has no scheme involved,” well, then you’re wrong. (The article doesn’t up and say it, but the implication is there and in similar articles of Fancy Scheme vs. Real Football).

The Bay Area Sports Blog helpfully tells of Cal Band controversies, and reminds us that a) the Cal Band is lame, like so much of the rest of Cal, and b) there are no interesting controversies, unlike the classic Stanford band, whose USC halftime show, while hilarious (Girls Gone Mild LOL), was nowhere close to the top of “most controversial stunts” the band has performed. Thank you, Band.

And I hope this video never becomes old:

Breaking Down Stanford's Defense, Statistically

Probably the most important question for Stanford this year, in determining how the game is liable to go, is how well the defense performs. Obviously, better is more likely to provide a win. Here are the basic stats for Stanford’s defensive performance, game by game.

Stanford Defensive Performance, 2009
TeamsPoints AllowedPossessionsPuntsTurnoversYards
at WF24930458
at OSU381140463
at UoA361222553
at USC211236334

That’s a lot of data. I’d like to note a few peculiarities about my data: the drive-by-drive data is from I don’t have perfect memory, so I assume does. That said, I’ve also tinkered with the data unconventionally in a few ways. I only count offensive touchdowns, and turnover on downs are counted as turnovers. Also, I’ve made no attempt to account for field position—it’s a flaw, no question, but I don’t have the regression ability/computers to deal with that.

So let’s talk about the interesting part of the data. First thing that jumps out at me is this: how great was the performance against USC? USC’s offense was either really terrible that game, or the Stanford defense was really good; at any rate, considering that USC’s offensive output looks similar to, say, UCLA’s on a per-possession basis (UCLA: 1.77 points per possession; USC 1.75 points per possession.) And whatever you might say about the relative incompetence of USC this year versus years past, that’s a striking result.

The other is that, the defense against the three teams alive for the Rose Bowl looks much different than the defense against the five teams eliminated for the Rose Bowl (only conference opponents here). In fact, let’s show the averages. I’ve done some more things with the stats. First, we’re going to try to strip out pace as far as possible—Oregon State performed better than University of Oregon on a per-possession basis, for example—so we’ll use points per possession, Punts Percentage (the percentage of all possessions that ended in punts) and Turnovers Percentage (the percentage of all possessions that ended in turnovers).

Take a gander at this:

Breaking down the defense
TeamsPoints Per PossessionPunts PercentageTurnovers Percentage
Scrappin’ For a Minor Bowl1.35141.6%31.52%
The Rose Bowl Three3.2327.7%10.3%

That’s a dramatic difference. Basically, the Stanford defense kept opponents that have been eliminated from the Rose Bowl from scoring nearly three-quarters of their possessions. Against teams with a hope of going to the Rose Bowl? They only stopped them 39% of the time.

What this says? Stanford’s defense is very mediocre; it still needs more athletes, more good players, better schemes, more pressure, all of that. But this little statistical exercise really reassured me: it’s not the case that Stanford has had to worry about every offense that rolls around; it just has to worry about the good ones. Now, what’s important, of course, is the Big Game against Cal. Is Cal more like the Minor Bowl Scrappers or the Rose Bowl Three? Probably the former. Without Jahvid Best, Shane Vereen is the only guy on the offense that scares you. Riley is worse than at least one quarterback we’ve beaten soundly, Jake Locker. Their receivers aren’t much. And their coach? Well, Tedford enjoys bringing out the entire contents of his pantry (including, even, the sink in his kitchen—I think a donor bought it for him for $50k) against Stanford; I remember pretty well the fake punt he called against Stanford up big in the 2005 Big Game. (It went over about as well for me as a boot to the soul.) But Tedford has grown fuzzier as a coach of late. Anyone watching him try to run the Wildcat offense should see that; he steadfastly refuses to get the point of the formation (he never calls sweeps and so he never calls counters; his quarterback always hangs out as a wideout, hanging around as a threat but no more, like that awkward kid at the party). So I’m not even particularly nervous about the coaching. Stanford should be fine on defense this Saturday, which means the Cardinal should win.