Wednesday, December 30, 2009

Happy Decade!

I may or may not get another chance at updating before the New Year, so uh, let's have a good decade coming up!

Decade in Review: What We Talk About When We Talk About Numbers

Another note on the decade: this is the numbers decade. We have entered the decade in which everything can be quantified, to the obvious distress of many. Google’s ad services, for example, is probably the most disruptive of the quantifier services: ad men previously could not quantify their efforts—they had little idea of what worked and why—and now Google’s ad services give you at least some idea of the power of ads.

The quantifying world can largely be divided into enthusiastic amateurs and big corporate presences. For the latter, you obviously positively have Google, but negatively you have to consider the financial industry, which employed statistics, quantification, and models as a tool for self-deception rather than edification.

The enthusiastic amateurs had perhaps less of an effect, but more positive. I mean amateurs in the best sense of the word: as a committed hobbyist, as someone who pursues statistical/quantification activity from a spirit of inquiry rather than for mere dollars-and-sense profit. (This distinction is somewhat amusing, don’t you think? Dollars and cents are, after all, easily quantifiable; the spirit of inquiry, love-of-hobby—this is not.) But the enthusiastic amateurs singlehandedly remade sports, as Michael Lewis pointed out in his wonderful Shane Battier profile. Baseball most obviously, but that’s because baseball is uniquely malleable to the hand of statistical analysis. It’s in the other sports, basketball, football, soccer, in which the problems are thornier, in which individual performance and environmental context are not so easily disentangled. (Interestingly, in basketball, the powers-that-be realized the potential of statistics very early, and much of the interesting, best data is proprietary, leading to things like Daryl Morey insisting Shane Battier is worth 6 points a game in adjusted plus/minus, essentially with a “trust me” attached.)

The sporting question of performance is a low-stakes version of other questions: in particular, the teaching question, where reform advocates are unable to measure performance without controversy, but are sure that it’s extremely important. That is, reform advocates think that high-stakes testing can measure student progress; many do not. And both have a point. The problem for the next decade is not how to measure, but what to measure. We need not the application of statistics, but a philosophy of statistics.

Tuesday, December 29, 2009

End-of-Year Linkism

Let’s conclude this year with some links (I’m heading off for New Year’s, so…I’m sure you’ll adjust.)

This New Yorker profile of the founder of Whole Foods reveals him to be deeply crazy. A few facts: he mentions that one of his competitors is Wegmans, and it’s true…in the same sense a neighborhood bully is competition to Manny Pacquaio (Wegmans = Pacquaio.) Fact the second: the profiler mentions the Whole Foods CEO’s opposition to health care reform, but doesn’t make clear that it’s run-of-the-mill crazy (and the profiler pretty much shows him to be crazy on his other issues, so you know…wouldn’t have been too bad to expose him there.)

An op-ed in the New York Times makes the case for search neutrality (particularly for Google), i.e. “the principle that search engines should have no editorial policies other than that their results be comprehensive, impartial and based solely on relevance.” As it turns out, he thinks that search neutrality would have helped his business! It’s not a very good standard—why comprehensiveness? Wouldn’t that make something like Wolfram Alpha against the rules? Anyway, it makes me wonder if there’s a little bit of an anti-Google backlash gaining some steam.

A contrast of two countries:
The Harmony express, which reached a top speed of 394km per hour in pre-launch trials, travelled at an average rate of 350km per hour on its debut. This compared with a maximum service speed of 300km per hour for Japan's Shinkansen bullet trains and France's TGV service. In America, Amtrak's Acela "Express" service takes 3½ hours to trundle between Boston and New York, a distance of only 300km.

That’s China’s Harmony express that’s doing it. Meanwhile, Amtrak has to beg for money—Congress threw $2 billion its way, but what it probably needs is:
For the Northeast corridor alone, Amtrak estimates that it will need almost $700 million annually for the next 15 years to maintain the system and to tackle a backlog of maintenance projects and upgrades. Reducing travel times between New York and Washington to two-and-a-half hours and times between New York and Boston to three hours — goals that were established in the 1970s — will require straighter track, improvements to bridges and tunnels, increased capacity through Manhattan and newer trains, among other investments.

There’s obviously an element of inflation here—you suspect that they may be exaggerating—but still. We’re falling behind.

The El Paso Times devotes coverage about the history of Stanford and its impact on Silicon Valley; the coverage is prompted by the football team’s visit. Kind of fun to read.

Decade in Review: All the Missing White Rappers

I think the most underappreciated trend of the decade is in its white rappers. There were more of them, though they all mostly traded on their novelty. Let’s start with the original (well, kind of--everyone forgets about the Beastie Boys, including myself for a while) and still greatest, Eminem.

That, of course, is a great song. Clearly, Eminem could make it as a rapper aside from his race. (As is shown by the classic “Racial draft” skit on Chappelle’s Show, in which Mos Def attempted to trade Colin Powell and Condoleeza Rice for Eminem.) But, by the same token, his whiteness + rapping combination works: he’s announcing ahead of time that he’s doubly an outsider—he’s a rapper (i.e. estranged from regular folks in the heartland or what have you) and he’s a white rapper (so, theoretically, the black rappers won’t have him). Which sets up the expectations for the whole epater les bourgeois routine rather nicely (meaning that the assault on political correctness is practically required). But Eminem has undoubtedly lost his fastball, as is to be expected (as Jay-Z said before his aborted retirement, “Rap is a young man’s game.”). These are his replacements.

The commonality here is that neither is a seriously good rapper. Lonely Island is a great comedy rapper (and much better than Weird Al Yankovic, who was straight parody; Lonely Island on the other hand advances more complex jokes). For Lonely Island, the whiteness is part of the set-up to the whole joke: yeah, it’s white people rapping, it’s going to be funny. Asher Roth, on the other hand, is something like the preeminent example of affirmative action in America today, and it’s offensive: not so much the record deal or whatever, but the taste of America, that this could be a hit at all. You mean, you enjoy drinking? You enjoy partying? One dollar pizza slices? You, sir, are a real Socrates, enjoying the deeper pleasures of life. The problem isn’t necessarily the sentiment but the way it’s expressed: the flow is barely that (it’s like a shower without water pressure), and the words used are less than interesting, alone or in combination. Again, Asher Roth leverages his whiteness (with the whole Animal House-college trope) as an attention-grabber—tons of news articles from the period focused on, “Hey, it’s a white rapper!”—and once he’s grabbed, he doesn’t know what to do with it.

Criticizing Roth isn’t necessarily fair, though, as, hell, it’s just one guy. He shouldn’t have to signal anything beyond himself. Yet he does; that there’s only been two critically-acclaimed white groups (i.e. the Beastie Boys and Eminem) of popular consequence is certainly a curious fact. Because that means that in rap’s roughly thirty year history, white people have mostly interacted with the genre as listeners. And that’s not the experience of other pop music genres: white people moved pretty quickly into rock and jazz, for example. And they moved relatively more cautiously into R&B (e.g. “blue eyed soul”), but they still have had a fairly decent presence. But, not rap. And that’s…interesting, don’t you think?

It’s not as if the requirements are too high in terms of investment: the whole point of the genre, from its early days, was the low barriers to entry. So you’d have to figure the problem is cultural. But at what point? After all, you’d have to imagine at least some of the white people listening to the genre would be interested in producing it themselves. Maybe they just don’t think to do it or don’t think they can (i.e. a “White People Can’t Rap” phenomenon.) But there’s another mystery in of itself, don’t you think? It’s certainly not one I’m capable of answering. At any rate, this clearly isn’t the biggest problem in the world—I don’t think the world’s missing rappers is as big a problem as its missing scientists, say—but it is a curio in our culture.

The Decade That Was: Financial Reform Fatalism

The financial crisis will likely define the decade in the perspective of future generations, and it’s necessary to get the aftermath right. Obviously you have the financial reform (which, like health care reform, will likely be a terribly disappointing advance—read this article on the House Banking Committee if you’re unconvinced), but it’s important to get the intellectual aftermath correct. And in many circles, a curious fatalism has arisen:

From Daniel Indiviglio:
…bubbles are notoriously difficult to avoid. Although the Federal Reserve might have been able to take some action to make the real estate bubble less severe, I find it hard to believe that government intervention could have avoided it altogether -- unless he means that the government should not have allowed Fannie and Freddie to grow so large

From Michael Pettis:
So is there no room for financial sector reform? Of course there is, but the purpose of reform should not be to allow us to turn from the crisis and proclaim “Never again!” That is silly. It will happen again and again and again. Instead, the purpose of regulation should be to ensure that the financial system does a better job of allocating capital during “normal” periods. A financial system designed to minimize the risks of crisis is probably a waste of time. It should be designed to create the best mix of risk capital and safety consistent with a rapidly growing economy over the long run. Periodic financial crises are a necessary evil, and there is little we can do about them except try to create automatic structures (counter-cyclical in national balance sheets, as Mnsky argued) that minimize their transmissions into the real economy.

I guess I don’t have a disagreement with the basic point: human nature is such that financial crises will recur over tremendously unproductive investments. The problem I have is one of emphasis: they appear to be fatalistic about bubbles…Imagine they were talking about hunger and arguing that some hunger is inevitable and what you really need to do is plan for the famines; that’d be silly (I’m simplifying their argument, admittedly). We’ve lowered the incidence of many evils previously assumed to be intractable; why not financial crises?

Dipping into my historical memory, it seems to me that financial crises are clumped together, and that there are runs of financial crises: for example the period around the beginning of the 20th century that culminated with the Panic of 1907. And this current financial crisis is (hopefully) the culmination of a run of crises: you have the big stock market decline in the late eighties, the S&L crisis, Long Term Capital Management, the Asian Flu, the Internet bubble popping, and the current debacle. That’s about twenty-five years of semi-serious to serious financial problems. On the other hand, I can’t recall many corresponding crises in the postwar period. Why is this? Some claim that bubbles leave behind infrastructure (e.g. railroad bubbles in the U.S. and Europe) and other useful economic activity, and I’d accept that explanation for the Internet bubble, but that doesn’t account for S&L, LTCM, or the current debacle: none of these left behind the infrastructure that future generations will enjoy.

So I hope that no one succumbs to the evils of fatalism.

Decade In Review: Football And Contemporary Conservatism

It’s not exactly a secret that football is a conservative sport. Left largely unexamined, however, is what kind of conservatism it is, and its internal tensions. It’s the old story: the conflict between tradition and innovation in the American conservative soul, and just as the economic dislocations of this decade prompted conflict between the two forces, so too has the conflict accelerated in football.

What’s funny about football and its commentators is not merely the invocation of traditional principles, but the assumption that the fans don’t like them. (“The fans might not want to hear this—they like those fancy passing attacks—but to win a football game, you gotta run and stop the run.”) What’s funny about this is that fans also appear to believe this and speak in similar terms and think in similar ways to their fellow fans. You begin to wonder which fans, exactly, believe you should only pass and forget about stopping the run. Well, innovators and outcasts, at least on the offensive side of the ball (see, e.g. Mike Leach).

But you can’t deny winning, and as offensive innovators have percolated through the ranks, the game that commentators talk about abstractly (on specific plays, many are fine) resembles less and less the game that’s being played. But that’s not really the main problem of football conservatism: it’s that the old tradition of mashing fullbacks and tight ends is killing the former and changing dramatically the role of the latter. The fullback, therefore, is like the Luddite: football strategy has made him superfluous, replaced by faster, better players…and his job is gone. (E.g. 59% of snaps in the NFL have been shotgun snaps).

The conflict is more or less the same in contemporary conservatism. You can preach both entrepreneurism and the creative potentialities of free-market capitalism, and you can preach the importance of traditional values and traditional family structure…but you also have to recognize that the two have at best an uneasy relationship. And American conservatism tries to fuse the two, often uncomfortably. Just like football. That’s why football is the conservative’s sport.

Monday, December 28, 2009

Fun Little Ad

Yellow Tail sucks...but, this is a fun ad:

The Rich: They Are Different Than Decades Past.

First, watch this:

Have you stopped laughing yet? It’s hard. But. This video defines the decade, but not in the way you’d expect. You’d expect this to be a meditation on fame-for-fame’s sake, and nay, it is not. I want you to focus on the home depicted. Strip it of the ridiculous furnishings. What do you have left? Well, you have a typical suburban house. I’ve seen these house co-owned by an accountant and a dance teacher. Nothing against the couple—they are a wonderful, imaginative couple—but if you are anything approximating a pop star, and you own basically the same home as them, there’s something wrong: specifically, a serious lack of imagination.

This problem, incidentally, isn’t just limited to the Ying-Yang Twins*; it’s general. The problem we had this decade is not merely that we allowed inequality to spike and the rich to get dramatically richer…it’s that the rich displayed a serious, fatal lack of imagination of what to do with their wealth once they got it. Say what you will of the rapacious rich of earlier eras, but they at least did something cool and/or neat with their wealth once acquired.

(*The biggest problem—maybe it’s an oddity—with the Ying Yang Twins, however, is that they are the only rap group ever to make a rap song that’s better censored than not. This is arguably a bigger problem than the lack of imagination one, since at least the Twins were in good company)

Let’s review some more examples. Tiger Woods. To me, the most underappreciated aspect of the whole Tiger Woods story was his home: yet another McMansion in a private community. Put yourself in Tiger’s shoes. You’re a billionaire. You are admired. You therefore could do just about anything with your money residence-wise…and you choose to build a boring McMansion? What the hell kind of judgment is that? What the hell kind of failure of imagination is that? A terrible one. You basically said “Meh” on the whole imagination thing. What’s the point of having a gigantic house if you aren’t going to go Robber Baron on the entire thing?

Speaking of Robber Baron, let’s continue with another cherrypicked example: Oklahoma City Thunder owner Clay Bennett. I give him credit for the beginning: buying a team for the express purpose of moving it to Oklahoma City, his hometown. I don’t approve, of course, but the general imagination I approve of. But here’s the rub. He had the opportunity to rename his team, a chance he availed himself of. He obviously chose the Thunder. And his finalists? The Thunder, the Marshalls (sic), the Energy, the Wind, the Barons, the Bison. You know what this list tells me? Once again, a serious failure of imagination. You can name your team almost anything. Your city/region has a rich heritage to take advantage of, which you can use for a great nickname. And yet…these are your finalists. And the Thunder was your choice. Thunder? Thunder doesn’t do anything. It doesn’t do damage. It intimates animals and small children, but that’s not a qualification of a successful nickname. Thunder is objectively terrible, and again, it’s a serious failure of imagination. Off the top of my head (and very improvised), here are choices that would’ve been better than any of these: Outlaws, Roughnecks, Sheriffs, Pistols, Oilers, Vandals, Wildcatters, Sonic Boom, Derricks, Shooters, Mustangs, Stallions, Buffaloes, (and Bison, admittedly, would've been good). Any of these choices would have been vastly superior to the Thunder.*

(*In fact, a similar critique could be applied to the other new franchises of the decade: the Texans, the Bobcats, the Wild, the Blue Jackets, the Nationals, the Rays [which was a renaming of the Devil Rays name]…All incredibly lame.)

These might strike you as goofy examples. And, admittedly, they are small-bore. But consider this. How many universities has the current crop of rich people founded? The Gilded Age gave us Stanford, University of Chicago, Carnegie Mellon, Vanderbilt, Duke…True, there are charter schools, but the evidence is distinctly mixed as to their effectiveness. How many great charitable foundations? The Gates Foundation is a strong point, much credit; but again, the Gilded Age rich did more. Great museums? The current age of rich people have done great work in adding to old museums, but you know what? The formative work was done in the past. In terms of gaudy, egotistical, impressive, Ozymandian monuments to self, the current generation of the rich came distinctly short. (Maybe only what? Dubai? But that’s more absurd than impressive.)

And then their debaucheries. What were they, really? The roaring twenties rich lit hundred dollar bills on fire and circumvented Prohibition; the eighties rich did cocaine, bought ridiculous baubles, had ridiculous styles. What was the signature aughts rich debauchery? Was Jon Francis the most debauched rich dude of a generation? Isn’t that setting the bar very low? That’s not very vicariously entertaining at all, is it? The answer: nay, it isn’t.

So, on net, let’s consider the rich. They not only did all the bad things that the rich typically do when given the means: speculative financial bubbles, capturing political institutions, etc., etc, but they didn’t leave us with much of the good—i.e. absurd, wonderful monuments to imagination and egotism. Basically, the rich were not very good at being rich. And that’s the shame of the decade.

Which One Was LeBron Chosen To Be?

They like to call LeBron “The Chosen One” but we haven’t agreed which “Chosen One” he is anyway: I suspect a lot of people mean to analogize him to Jesus; I think that Moses is a more apt comparison to LeBron’s narrative. Here’s what I mean:

I’m aware that LeBron is neither Jesus nor Moses, but his story is much more a Moses story than a Jesus story. And because his story is more a Moses than a Jesus story, LeBron can’t go to New York.

The difference between Jesus and Moses is that Jesus was a rebel; Moses was a rescuer. Jesus’s main adversaries were the Pharisees, a Jewish elite of moneychangers and kosher-keepers who were strangling the religion. Jesus’s intended counterpoint is the establishment. On the other hand, Moses was a rescuer: his whole mission was to rescue the Jews from Egypt; his main adversary was the Pharoah, a man of alien values and belief.

Which story has LeBron been sold as? Well, I’d say Moses. His commercials consistently sell him (most cinematically here) as springing directly from a community. Serving the community, in fact, is typically his motivation. (As Bernie Mac says, “He asked for court vision”:


And that’s appropriate, considering what the Rust Belt’s been through. It could definitely use a Moses, and since that’s not likely to be General Motors, LeBron will have to do. And he’s always attached himself to Akron and Cleveland strongly for that reason.

So it would be deeply wrong from the perspective of LeBron’s…brand…narrative, whatever you’d like to call it, for him to go to New York or Los Angeles or Miami. Jesus could go to New York; Moses cannot. He especially can’t go because of the defensiveness people of the Rust Belt have vis-à-vis the big city (Chicago, even, would be too Big a City for Clevelanders to accept, I think). I’m not saying it will or won’t happen, but it’s something to contemplate, at least, right? Celebrities have recalibrated their stories and narratives before, and ultimately what’s best for LeBron—in our particular corner of the sports world—is winning championships.*

(*Chris Connelly has an important point: in virtually every other corner of the sports world, particularly in soccer, regular seasons count for more than postseason playoffs, or is at least a coequal. So FC Barcelona’s run last year is credited for three trophies: Spain regular season, Spain postseason, Champions League. It’s certainly a different attitude, and maybe worth thinking about. Such an approach would make LeBron staying in Cleveland more likely, I suspect.)

Ultimately, however, like many a son and daughter of the Rust Belt, it’s possible, even probable that LeBron’s ambitions will outmatch his opportunities and that the only way to succeed is to go to the proverbial Big City. (I’d love if LeBron leaves and he didn’t go to the Knicks…New Yorkers have been far too entitled, as they always are. And I’d especially love it if he went to the soon-to-be Brooklyn Nets. Midde-aged sportswriters’s heads would melt, bandwagons would jump, and the general chaos would be wonderful).

Stanford/Oklahoma Predix

Largely out of mind has been the wonderful fact that Stanford’s playing in a bowl game against Oklahoma. It’s hard to assign a lot of importance to these bowls: for an example, look at last year’s Emerald Bowl, a matchup between Cal and Miami. Cal won, fairly decisively, and the momentum off of the win led them to get a top-ten ranking…Stanford fans can, with (somewhat tempered) delight, tell you how that ended up. On the other hand, Miami lost…and then went 9-3, well above expectations, and are darkhorse national championship contenders next year. So again, you shouldn’t assign the bowl that much importance; you should, however, assign the bowl as much importance as other people assign it.

College football is primarily about perception. That’s what separates a Texas from a TCU. Since this game will be played on CBS, it’ll be broadcast for a national audience, and much of that audience will be seeing Stanford for the first time. That audience—particularly the influentials among them—will be prepared to anoint Stanford a “hot” team for next year, which has some important benefits:
a) You get a pass if you lose early and rebound late
b) You get a tiebreaker on a not-hot team with a similar resume.
And if you’re in the hunt for a BCS Bowl bid, well, these things are important. And Stanford might well be on the fringe of that discussion next year. So, sadly, there’s a little more importance to the game than it might deserve.

It turns out to be a game that’s hard to read. Most people begin and end with this: well, Stanford’s offense will be diminished and its defense sucks…so there’s no way it beats Oklahoma. And I can’t really disagree with this analysis, but it seems overly simplistic.

For one, saying Stanford’s defense sucks really conceals the nature of its suckery: specifically, it holds bad offenses below their average and it allows good offenses to explode well above their average. On net, you get a mediocre defense. (Statistical analysis here and here). Now the problem here is, how good is Oklahoma’s defense? And that’s a little bit of a mystery. Whenever I saw them on TV (I saw them play BYU, a little bit, Miami, Texas and that’s it), they definitely struggled; their quarterback, Landry Jones, made some bad decisions and struggles away from home (5 TD/9 INT ratio away from home); they’re on their fourth-string center at this point. They don’t have a rushing attack, really, at all. On the other hand, they do have a number of athletes doing athletic things, an formula that generally produces bad results for the Stanford defense. (Jones’s statistics are inarguably inflated by jaunts against Tulsa, Idaho State, Kansas, Kansas State and A&M. What a joke of a schedule.) Again, hard to read.

Meanwhile, though news reports have been at pains to emphasize that Andrew Luck might just maybe play, you have to assume that Tavita’s the guy. Obviously, that doesn’t bode well for the offense. But, in terms of points produced, the question is, how much of a dropoff is there? You can’t simply attribute the difference between last year’s offense and this to Andrew Luck. You also have to credit the offensive line. You also have to credit the improved receiving corps. You also have to credit the great field position that Stanford consistently got. In fact, the last factor may be most important of all: remember that Oklahoma can either kick to Owusu and risk touchdowns or surrender superlative field position. That was not a factor last year; maybe Pritchard plays better with a year of experience and wisdom and ten fewer yards to drive per drive. And all of this assumes Stanford has no Luck; if Stanford gets some Luck, it can produce. (On the other hand, Oklahoma’s defense is pretty voracious.)

On net, you have to favor Oklahoma, but the analysis makes it look complicated; the result is murky. Oklahoma 27 Stanford 24, otherwise known as the generic “I think this is a hard game to predict” prediction.

Linkism, MOAR

Some linkism for your afternoon, no?

Tyler Cowen asks the question, “What are the odds that the best chess player in the world has never played chess?” It’s a great human capitalization question. But I have a related question, that Chuck Klosterman noted (I forget where this is): It’d be perfectly plausible for me to assert that the world’s best band is an as-yet unheard-of band playing in the rundown bars of Detroit; it would be somewhat less plausible but still believable that the world’s greatest writer is still an unpublished guy still trying to hack it; but it would be totally implausible for me to assert that the world’s best quarterback is not in the NFL.

On China and the pace of change.

This article on a mosque in Marseille is pretty good on the French, but this quotation is good for a face-palm:
In 2004, France banned the head scarf (and other signs of religious affiliation) in public schools. It is now debating a ban on the burqa, by which the government seems to mean any full facial covering, including the niqab, which shows the eyes. That controversial measure is caught up in a government-sponsored debate over national identity, led by the ministry that also handles immigration.

Both measures have been widely criticized as political maneuvers by President Nicolas Sarkozy, capitalizing on social fears to unite the center-right and co-opt the far-right National Front before regional elections in March. He has tried to play down the religious element in the debate, but he has also urged Muslims to show “humble discretion” and avoid “ostentation and provocation”; a junior minister, Nadine Morano, said young Muslims should dress better, find jobs and stop using slang and wearing baseball caps backward.

(My emphasis).

This slideshow of NBA coaches from the 70s and, especially, their fashion, is incredibly hilarious.

Did the aughts really suck? A good case as to why you’d think that (America-specific).

Sunday, December 27, 2009

Bullshit And The Modern Capitalist

(Spoilerz of Mad Men, Up In The Air and Infinite Jest abound)

You can tell we’re in a late, tired stage of capitalism by the business heroes we put on-screen. Whereas before we had such responsible pillars of the community as It’s A Wonderful Life’s George Bailey, or even peculiarly pleasurable rogues like Wall Street’s Gordon Gekko, our current capitalist protagonists are…well, distinctly problematic.

Let’s focus on two of an interesting type: Up In The Air’s Ryan Bingham and Mad Men’s Don Draper. It’s a comparison that I’m surprised hasn’t been made yet, because the two characters have many similarities and important differences.

The similarities are probably most interesting: both are handsome salesmen with inner, existential problems but seem to make up for it by being charming cads with some self-awareness. It’s a common type. What is equally common—in Up In The Air’s case definitively, Mad Men possibly in the future—is the reformation or attempted reformation of said character. In Bingham’s case, it’s somewhat disappointing (but with some good nuances); in Draper’s case…well, it hasn’t happened yet. But reformation is clearly necessary for each character; they’re each skilled bullshitters.

Probably the classic moment of bullshitting for each involves deeper principles co-opted for other purposes. Here’s Draper’s greatest moment (embedding appears to be disabled for all the YouTube videos I can find, sadly). The look in his eyes is key: what’s he thinking there? Is he feeling nostalgia? It’s hard to say for certain, but you have to assume that there’s a nontrivial element of bullshit in there. Similarly, too, Ryan Bingham is someone who engages in his fair share of bullshit. Up In The Air takes a typical approach at contrasting his bullshit with earnestness: send the bullshitter to the Midwest, that stereotypical capital of earnestness (and a classic storytelling way to contrast the slickster with the good Midwestern Earnest).

There’s a scene that reveal Ryan’s bullshitting vis-à-vis Midwestern Earnest. There’s a scene where Bingham meets the fiancé of his sister; the fiancé is—in that classic manner of the Midwestern Earnest, slightly bumbling but he means it—explaining his plan for a real estate plot, he adds that his hope of making low-income housing available will help, and says something to the effect of (can’t remember exactly), “That’s the American Dream, isn’t it?, having a house over your head.”

And of course he means that nonironically; and of course Clooney’s Bingham responds, “Nice touch,” presuming that it is, in fact, bullshit. And the fiancé misunderstands, he means it eagerly, for the service in of itself. And Bingham’s mind is on, well, spin. There are other scenes to that effect; this is the best example. Maybe the other good example is the voice over at the beginning; he fires people because the boss “doesn’t have the balls to fire” the employees himself. So his entire job is, in essence, spin. It’s redundant that Bingham is also a motivational speaker. Bullshit is his life.
I’ve been careful to make distinct bullshit and lies. Take the examples I’ve used above: each of these things has something real in essence. The emotion of family; the desire for house and home; they’re not fake. Firing—not fake. They’re just being repurposed for personal gain with unsavory results.

David Foster Wallace spotted this trend first. He wrote an essay about TV in 1992, E Unibus Pluram that posited that TV’s attitude towards irony was corrupting fiction, and that the real literary revolutionaries would be the earnest folks, the ones who “risked” the derision of his peers who said “oh how banal.” Infinite Jest developed the theme further; Don Gately and Alcoholics Anonymous interacted with much tension: Gately found the clichés of AA useful, but so hard to follow in their obviousness. So it is with Bingham, who, when trying to convince his sister’s fiancé to follow through with his marriage, can only assure him that “Life’s easier with a co-pilot.” Bingham is only in the middle of his transformation (which is complicated, elegantly so at the end), but the cliché has the same air: fatally obvious, in the manner of sports announcers or Hallmark cards.

So you might say that Bingham’s entire business life is bullshit; besides the moral and spiritual dimensions of the thing, there’s the economic implications: his economic life is somewhat less than completely productive or efficient. There’s wasted capital here at work.

Draper, on the other hand, is different, and the show’s attitude towards him is different and more conflicted. There’s an oppositional element to Bingham’s lifestyle from the very beginning in the film, even though Bingham begins the film unreservedly in love with it. Draper’s life is…different. In theory we know that his lifestyle is morally dubious; in theory we know a lot of advertising is about deceiving the viewer: deceiving the viewer about the qualities of the product, and the needs that the product will allegedly sate. (Shorthand of the latter: “Sex sells.”) But in practice…Draper’s having a ton of fun, and, more importantly, in regards to his job, the show’s attitude is complex.

Draper is constantly referred to as part of “creative,” and that’s the best shorthand for him and his work. He is constantly being portrayed as being a part of Newton-apple-falling-on-head moments of creative genius, and he musters poetic language as a part of his sales pitch. And Mad Men’s third season employed a well-executed version of the cog-in-the-machine story: Sterling Cooper getting taken over by the British ad firm crimps Draper’s work style greatly. Suddenly he can’t do everything he wants; the solution, at the end of the season—after the threat that Sterling Cooper will be sold to an even more problematic institution—is to create a new firm Sterling Cooper Draper Pryce, which, operating from a shoestring budget, promises to liberate the partners and workers from the demands of hellish, unfeeling bureaucratic superiors, with their shortsighted concerns and money-grubbing.

But what are they using the freedom for? The rarely-acknowledged reality behind Draper’s bullshitting is that many advertisements work by inculcating weakness. Many do not; many are genuinely useful. And some ads approach art in creativity. But, as is clear, Draper’s no hero. And it appears his—and the business of our time’s—fatal weakness is bullshit. I think of bullshit when I see a media figure selling me a point rather than arguing one; I see bullshit in menu contortions at restaurants to get me to pay more and other consultant-driven tricks; I see bullshit everywhere. And at some point, the bullshit piles up and you can’t do anything for the stink.

List For The Decade

Favorite Movies Of The Decade
1. Eternal Sunshine Of The Spotless Mind
2. Memento
3. Burn After Reading
4. Anchorman
5. Y Tu Mama Tambien
6. No Country for Old Men
7. Children of Men
8. The Man Who Wasn’t There
9. Ratatouille
10. The Departed

Favorite Writers
1. David Foster Wallace
2. Zadie Smith
3. Michael Lewis
4. Ian McEwan

Favorite Stanford Athletes, Half-Decade (2005-2009)
1. Toby Gerhart
2. Chris Hernandez
3. Fred Washington
4. Brook Lopez
5. Mark Bradford

Trends That Will Embarrass Us In Future Decades (e.g. Pet Rocks)
1. Uggs
2. George W. Bush
3. The Jonas Brothers
4. Gaudy New Era caps
5. Dressed pets (all)
6. Baby leashes (all)
7. Reality TV (most)
8. 50 Cent
9. Two And A Half Men
10. Nearly Ruining World, Nearly Guiding It Into Great Depression II.

Linkism, wrapping things up.

I’m back from the holidays, briefly (I’ll be stepping out again at December 30th), so here are the links (as you may have guessed). But, here’s my plan from now until the 30th. Were you aware that a decade is ending in a few days? Were you aware that writers often enjoy encapsulating decades in essays or lists? Well, since you’re blissfully unaware of such things, let me hit you with a novelty: I’ll be using several “lists” and “essays” and perhaps even an “lissay” to encapsulate/sum up/make important points about the decade.

But first, the links:

This op-ed by Ross Douthat on Obama and his image makes some intriguing points.

This history of Central Asia reveals some things I didn’t know, but makes some points I think aren’t quite right and some conclusions that aren’t warranted.

Colbert reveals some of the considerations behind the White House correspondents dinner speech. Really good.

Why we should worry about our shrinking manufacturing sector. This one reason is the most persuasive (though there are others that are very persuasive also)
What of the idea that we can continue to shed l0w-value-added manufacturing functions and focus on the most sophisticated and innovative parts of the sector? For example, you could outsource production of laptop components and assembly to Asia, but continue to develop and design laptops in the United States. In that case, we might have a smaller manufacturing sector, but a much more profitable one.

Unfortunatately, the evidence suggests it's nearly impossible to thrive at R&D and product-design unless you're also actively involved in the production process, too. (And that's setting aside the income-inequality issue.) To stick with the laptop example, while U.S. manufacturers initially outsourced less sophisticated components and assembly to Asia, laptops are now almost entirely developed and designed in Asia, too. (Apple is really the only exception to this trend.)

A handy summary of Rupert’s wars.

And an excellent article in The Nation on China’s advances. A good graf:
When you talk to Chinese officials, they seem competent, focused and obsessed with stability (if also, sometimes, arrogant and pedantic). But occasionally you can glimpse the dangers and threats to the established order that lurk just outside the frame. "Chinese government officials face a lot of pressures," Wen Tianping, the spokesman for Chongqing's municipal government, told us. "We work under extreme pressures and we have a lot of difficulties."

The foremost difficulty is immigration. In English we'd call it "migration," but our translators unfailingly used the word "immigration," and I began to see that it was the more accurate description of what was happening. Just as developed countries like the United States and members of the European Union face an influx of workers from the developing world, so does China: it's just that China contains both the developed and developing worlds within its borders.

Wednesday, December 23, 2009

Tuesday, December 22, 2009


Here’s really interesting news: Apple is planning on offering more TV through iTunes, probably on a channel level basis, with a monthly fee. The one-sentence description sounds good, but it needs to be fleshed out: namely, will you still be able to purchase shows permanently through iTunes (for example, my access to Mad Men saved me during my internship this fall) still, which I think is an important option. The other question is, are you downloading the shows or streaming them? Ideally, you’d like the ability to do both. Will Apple have some sort of internet-equipped cable box (maybe with its wifi base station?) to go along with it? Will there be advertising? And here’s something I haven’t heard contemplated but I’d like to see the ability to purchase blocks or types of shows. For example: a college football plan, or an NBA plan, or a reality TV plan, or a Law and Order plan. I’m sure other people could come up with other ideas. Meanwhile, what’s really interesting is what this portends for Hulu. The article says they’re talking to CBS and Disney, and the latter is, obviously, a part-owner of Hulu. So it’s interesting that Disney appears to be flirting with the idea of walking away from its (part)-baby. For the record, of the Hulu owners—Disney, NBC, Fox—that means all have pretty much expressed an interest more-or-less obviously to kill it dead.

David Leonhardt has a good article about the differences between the Senate and House bill. That said, I think he emphasizes the strengths of the Senate bill too much; the House is better on what you might call the “empathy” part of the bill: it’s got tougher regulations and better subsidies, and you’d like to see both of these things incorporated.

This is such a sad story from the Mexican drug wars: a few hours after a funeral for a Mexican sailor at which his mother was honored, hitmen entered her home and shot and killed her and other relatives.

This New Republic article encourages Obama to go left on his judicial nominations, as his conciliatory strategy seems to have failed in winning expedited passage for these nominees. Of course, this article makes the dangerous assumption that Obama actually wants to appoint lefty judges, which ah, I wouldn’t count on.

Monday, December 21, 2009

Pure Linkism

Felix Salmon poses the theory that the iPhone may, because of the App Store, become a monopoly or duopoly player among the smartphone market. And there is an iTunes-like lock-in effect to smartphones, as well as powerful network effects. But I think Paul Graham has an important point with iPhone app store:
They treat iPhone apps the way they treat the music they sell through iTunes. Apple is the channel; they own the user; if you want to reach users, you do it on their terms. The record labels agreed, reluctantly. But this model doesn't work for software. It doesn't work for an intermediary to own the user. The software business learned that in the early 1980s, when companies like VisiCorp showed that although the words "software" and "publisher" fit together, the underlying concepts don't. Software isn't like music or books. It's too complicated for a third party to act as an intermediary between developer and user. And yet that's what Apple is trying to be with the App Store: a software publisher. And a particularly overreaching one at that, with fussy tastes and a rigidly enforced house style.

Is the future of handheld devices one locked down by Apple? It's a worrying prospect. It would be a bummer to have another grim monoculture like we had in the 1990s. In 1995, writing software for end users was effectively identical with writing Windows applications. Our horror at that prospect was the single biggest thing that drove us to start building web apps.

And yet I’m not sure about the benefits of completely unlocking the app store to all comers: you’d have to deal with clutter and malicious software. Maybe the solution is to create a special section for submitted apps that aren’t yet approved by Apple; the apps in there would be a caveat emptor type of deal. Thoughts?

An interesting innovation-related worry: that younger people are more innovative, and that some resources are being diverted away from young people:
instead of young scientists getting grant funding to go off and do whatever they want in their twenties, they're working in a lab where somebody in his forties or fifties is the principal investigator in charge of the grant. They're working as apprentices, almost, under the senior person. If we're not careful, we could let our institutions, things like tenure and hierarchical structures and peer review, slowly morph over time so that old guys control more and more of what's going on and the young people have a harder and harder time doing something really different, and that would be would be a bad thing for these processes of growth and change. I'd like to see us keep thinking about how we could tweak our institutions to give power and control and opportunity to young people.

A worrying article about Zimbabweans in South Africa.

Something to keep your eye on further: US warns Iran not to “push around” Iraq.

Very good perspective on the China-India axis on climate change:
Two developing countries — India and China — also possess, by sheer size, great-power status. Never before, perhaps, have there been two nations so powerful in aggregate-income terms that are so poor relative to others at a per-person level. China is the third-richest nation over all, but it is poorer than 132 countries in per-person terms; India is fifth-richest over all, but poorer than 166 others per person.

Together, that is $11.3 trillion worth of power being steered, if you divide income by population, by a $4,500-a-year mentality. The result is that India and China face enormous pressure to think like the Western great powers of 2009 and, simultaneously, to think like those great powers did 100 years ago, when they were much more focused on economic development and much less interested in global justice.

On geopolitical issues like climate change, India and China are encouraged to balance their internal duties as developing countries with their external responsibilities as emerging giants. They are told to short-circuit history, to avoid tactics for growth that the West now sees as errors, to assume obligations that rich lands took on only when they became much wealthier.

Sunday, December 20, 2009

Really Good Statement From Sen. Webb, re: HCR

Here’s what Jim Webb said about the process by which health care reform was developed:
"Over the past year, the process of debating this issue often overwhelmed the substance of fixing the problem. The Obama Administration declared health care reform to be a major domestic objective, but they did not offer the Congress a bill. Nor did they propose a specific set of objectives from which legislation could be derived. Consequently, legislation was developed independently through five different Congressional committees, three in the House and two in the Senate. This resulted in a large amount of contradictory information and a great deal of confusion among our public."

The Obama administration had a specific political rationale for this strategy: as the conventional wisdom goes, they didn’t want to make the mistake of the Clinton administration of wasting all the momentum for the bill by secreting themselves and coming up with their own bill; in the meantime, Congress had been developing their own ideas; the conflict of the two caused Congress to feel miffed and territorial.

But there was an easy way of solving the territorial problem while still coming up with one specific bill, while avoiding the problem of the dragging August recess (which did a lot to kill momentum for the bill): you gather together all of the relevant Democrats, with a few amenable Republicans, and you do some health care summit—maybe with part public, to educate the public as to the specific problems and solutions—and then don’t leave until you’ve all agree on the language of the bill. You leave some room for amendments, and boom. Simple, easy. It’s only a theory, but I think it’s a pretty good one.

Some More Linkism

One of the genuinely worthwhile things to come out of this health care debate is this: there’s a gradually increasing recognition that the routine filibuster is the principal obstacle to governance generally and progressive governance specifically. Let’s take another example besides the obvious. There’s been a little bit of hubbub about the hacked drones (which insurgents have hacked the video feeds to), but the Wall Street Journal advances the ball on the story: apparently, Pentagon officials have meant to do something about it this year—they’ve even created a new post to deal with the problem, but:
… the Pentagon's new Cyber Command has gotten off the ground slower than expected because of congressional uncertainty about its scope and mission.
The Pentagon had said the entity -- designed to gather all the military's cyber defense and cyber offense programs under a single rubric -- would be operational by October.

Nearly three months later, the command doesn't yet have a chief. Lt. Gen. Keith Alexander, the current head of the National Security Agency, has been tapped to run the command, but his nomination has been held up on Capitol Hill.

It may be months before the general receives his confirmation hearing. A spokesman for Michigan Sen. Carl Levin, who chairs the panel, said Friday that "no date has been set and I don't anticipate it will take place anytime soon."

A recent Pentagon briefing document said Lt. Gen. Alexander was expected to be confirmed in January, but people familiar with the deliberations said it might not happen until March.

I’m guessing that the roadblock here is an implied filibuster. And, to be clear, a ton of different low-profile jobs have been stalled by filibuster or hold. It’s a big problem.

This article on China’s workers working abroad is worth a read.

Question To Ponder

What will we call the next decade? (I vote for the teens, though obviously three years won't be the teens. Maybe the tweens and the teens?)

Sunday Linkism

Karen Tumulty plumbs the depths and crevices of health care reform. Meanwhile, Suzy Khimm asks whether the White House-Phrma dela will survive?

This is a good post on Bolivia and its impending water famine.

An interesting little post on a big bond issue from California

Saturday, December 19, 2009

Saturday Evening Linkism

An interesting question from Alyssa Rosenbaum about the decade that is, re: the spate of really good, complex TV series:
Matthew Weiner was trained by David Chase--The Sopranos spawning, to a certain extent, Mad Men. And The Corner made The Wire possible. Is it possible that the aughts were simply a time when a small group of auteur accumulated enough clout to get done what they wanted?

This, I think, may turn out to be true in hindsight: there are tons of examples of clusters of artists arising, looking like some inevitable, irreversible trend, and then dying or petering out, creativity exhausted. Think of, say, New Hollywood of the 70s, the Golden Age of the studio system—or if you want to get away from movies, ask yourself why the vast majority of the Impressionists were French? (Paul Graham has an interesting related essay on the subject, but now we’re really far afield, aren’t we?)

Something worth keeping an eye on: Iran has taken control of an Iraqi oil field, with Iranian troops.

Noam Scheiber on why Japanese and German manufacturers seem to innovate more than their American counterparts.

An old New York Times Magazine article on the hostage economy in Third World Countries.

Saturday Linkism

I like this article about Stanford’s Tunnel Workers Union. I especially enjoy it because we, as a nation, have been falling behind in a key area of dominance: the manufacturing of cool nicknames, especially for athletes. Time was, we could give a guy like Red Grange—Red Grange! the kind of name that doesn’t need a nickname—a nickname like, “The Galloping Ghost.” And we also came up with such greats as “The Four Horsemen,” “The Steel Curtain,” “The Gold Rush,” “The Purple People Eaters,” “Night Train,” “The Human Highlight Reel.”…and on and on. Even offensive lines could earn nicknames (e.g. “The Electric Company” and “The Hogs”) So congrats to the Tunnel Workers Union for coming up with a great nickname for themselves, and especially so for continuing it for future use. Our next assignment? Finding nicknames for other Stanford athletes.

Bloomberg has a couple of great articles: one about the bubble in the Chinese real estate market and the other about Harvard, Larry Summers and those interest rate swaps.

This Felix Salmon post about the financial reform bill is a nice little read to keep abreast of that bill.

Health Care Reform

Yet another milestone was passed in the quest to find the holy grail of health care reform today, and it’s worth saying that it really sucks, is the best we can get, and a substantive improvement over the status quo. So naturally you must approach it with ambivalence.

There were two main problems: the Senate, and the blinkered vision of the White House political corps. The former can be blamed on anachronism and the Senate culture; the latter the blame must be affixed on the White House. There was a flurry of articles insisting that the White House really didn’t understand what the fuss was all about over the public option, which merely proves that the White House doesn’t understand its constituency: it doesn’t understand what the public option symbolized for liberals, it doesn’t understand the appeal of a simple message, it doesn’t understand the confluence of the two. But perhaps this was spin or they were lying; perhaps they never wanted the public option and saying that the public option was a minor component of the bill was their attempt at minimizing the damage they had done in liberals’ eyes. If so, this hardly inspires confidence. Surely they could do better by way of spin.

There are many who I’ve been talking to who have referred to this as a deal with the devil, how it further empowers the bully on the block, and so on and so on…This is probably at least somewhat true. But under the current system, you can no more disempower the bullies than move a mountain; the Senate gives too much power to the individual bully. Sadly, beating the Joe Liebermans of the Senate is a process, a long one; look forward to 2012 for that, and undermine him continually from now until now. And while you’re giving into the jackasses to the Senate, realize this: there are Americans who didn’t have health insurance who will; Americans who found the costs crushing and will have their burdens relieved somewhat; Americans who won’t be bankrupted by a cancer diagnosis. That’s why you have to grin and bear it.

The topline numbers are good. 97% of Americans with coverage, a $132 billion reduction in the deficit over the first ten years (with the CBO suggesting more over the second ten-year window)…it looks good. I’m ready for Health Care Reform II: This Time It’s Financial.

Friday, December 18, 2009

Teams That Ought To Permanently Go To Their Throwback Uniforms

The Stanford Cardinal (From this to this)
San Diego Chargers (From this to this)
New Jersey Nets (From this to this)
Toronto Blue Jays (New to Old)
Buffalo Bills (New to old)
Golden State Warriors (This to That or That)

Any more? Thoughts?

Fantastic Mr. Fox, A Review

Happened to see Fantastic Mr. Fox last night. I felt it was a jaunty little film whose surface humor and lightness hid some heavy thoughts. You’d think, with the trademark Wes Anderson soundtrack—weighted towards the fun—and the stop-motion animation, that this was an optimistic, fun film. And certainly there’s that fun in there; any time the “heist” genre is a part of the film, everyone is going to have fun thinking about the heist, thinking about how it can go wrong, seeing how it ultimately goes right…(speaking as a writer, I can tell you that nothing is more fun than the heist to write, because you get to plot very intricately and toy with the audience’s expectations implicitly, as part of the deal of the whole genre)…there’s obviously the fun of transgression and depicting it done casually, with grace, which all heist films do. And Fantastic Mr. Fox does do that.

And yet there’s a pessimism that’s lurking underneath the entire film. I’m not referring to perhaps the main conflict—the reconciliation of Mr. Fox to his family, though there’s that; I’m referring to the fatalism of the film. (WARNING: SPOILERZ) There are several points in the film in which Mr. Fox says that they—his friends and family—are fundamentally all wild animals anyway, despite their veneer of civilization that they’re acquired (and it’s true: the film develops this well by having the animals revert spontaneously into aggressive, wild behavior: see Mr. Fox’s ravenous eating, the rat’s compulsive drinking/insanity, or the fight that breaks out between Mr. Fox and his badger lawyer), so they might as well act like them.

And there’s a way that fate has a way of dragging them downward. The Foxes start in a comfortable burrow and end up in a sewer (as do all the animals). And though they find food at the end, it’s at the supermarket of the mean trio of farmers, which would seem to guarantee that this conflict between animal and human would continue. It doesn’t even seem to guarantee that the humans will come out that well from the war: the town ends up bombed, and the farmers—at the end of the film—all sit around the sewer’s entrance, expecting the animals to starve to death. (The newscaster provides a convenient commentary by referring to them as “obsessive.”)

The whole provocation of the this war between animal and man seems essentially fated, as in a Greek tragedy. Mr. Fox can’t help but steal from the farmers; that’s who he is. And the farmes can’t help but war on the animals—going to ridiculous lengths—because that’s who they are, they’re (as the rhyme at the beginning of the film reminds us) “mean.” No questioning that judgment. Once these pieces are in place…well, the characters are doomed to their characters.

For all this, it’s pretty hard to leave the movie without a smile. For one, the animals are dancing to a rock song. And it’s hard not to smile when there’s stop-motion dancing and rock combined, trust me. For another, it’s pretty funny in a bouncy way. But I think it’s somewhat interesting that the movie is able to convince the audience to be happy despite the troubles of the situation that ends the film. Apparently, destiny isn’t something to be feared.

Linkism, Belated

A couple of interesting pieces out on the economy. From David Leonhardt’s consistently good “The Economic Scene” column, here’s the first three grafs:
Greg Woock is the chief executive of Pinger, a fast-growing Silicon Valley company that makes iPhone applications. So Mr. Woock spends a fair amount of time interviewing job applicants. In almost every interview, he told me recently, the applicant asks about Pinger’s health insurance plan.

Now think about that for a minute.

In the cradle of American innovation, workers are making career choices based on co-payments, pre-existing conditions and other minutiae of health insurance. They are not necessarily making decisions based on what would be best for their careers and, in turn, for the American economy — that is, “where their skills match and where they can grow the most,” as another Silicon Valley entrepreneur, Cyriac Roeding, says. Health insurance, Mr. Roeding adds, “is distorting the decision-making.”

And Noam Scheiber on business schools:
One of the themes that came up while I was profiling White House manufacturing czar Ron Bloom earlier this fall was managerial talent. A lot of people talk about reviving the domestic manufacturing sector, which has shed almost one-third of its manpower over the last eight years. But some of the people I spoke to asked a slightly different question: Even if you could reclaim a chunk of those blue-collar jobs, would you have the managers you need to supervise them?

Basically, business schools have been churning out financial types rather than people who like to make stuff, and there’s far more innovation in the latter than the former. Good read.

A good comment on conservatism:
Think back to the 2004 RNC—which I happened to be up in New York covering. After witnessing three days of inchoate, spittle-flecked rage from the people who had the run of all three branches of government, some wag (probably Jon Stewart) puzzled over the “anger of the enfranchised.” And itwould be puzzling if the driving force here were a public policy agenda, rather than a set of cultural grievances. Jay Gatsby learned too late that wealth alone wouldn’t confer the status he had truly craved all along. What we saw in ‘04 was fury at the realization that ascendancy to political power had not (post-9/11 Lee Greenwood renaissance notwithstanding) brought parallel culturalpower. The secret shame of the conservative base is that they’ve internalized the enemy’s secular cosmopolitan value set and status hierarchy—hence this obsession with the idea that somewhere, someone who went to Harvard might be snickering at them.

A libertarian admits that French health care > U.S. health care (well, it's more nuanced than that). Speaking of—my insurer only accepts mailed checks. Does it accept credit cards over the internet, like practically every other big business today? Nay, my friend, nay. Does it accept credit cards/check number over the phone, as most big businesses did in the eighties? Nay. Only a mailed check. WTF, insurance industry?

This is a really cool development in the e-reader business: The Atlantic and Amazon are starting to bring short fiction to the Kindle. Very cool—the great thing about the internet is that it unshackles writers (theoretically) from length restrictions.

Wednesday, December 16, 2009

Some Stanford Football Odds/Ends

First of all, this homeriffic (that’s homer + horrific, for the record) projection of Pac-10 articles spurred me. Here’s the ranking from the OC Register’s USC blog:
1. Jake Locker, Washington
2. Jeremiah Masoli, Oregon
3. Matt Barkley, USC
4. Nick Foles, Arizona
5. Andrew Luck, Stanford
6. Kevin Riley, Cal
7. Prince/Brehaut, UCLA
8. Jeff Tuel, Washington State
9. Katz/Lomax, Oregon State
10. Osweiler/Szakacsy, Arizona State
Ridiculous, no? First of all, it’s tough to claim Matt Barkley will rank ahead of Foles and Luck (and hell, he hasn’t even really proven he’s that much better than Riley yet) when a) Foles and Luck were both dramatically better than Barkley this year and b) Barkley’s team is losing a ton of talent; Foles’s very little and Luck’s slightly more. So it’s pretty horrendous. The top of the list is somewhat more defensible, but still slightly odd. So I decided to rerank with projections: Masoli (1), Luck (2), Locker (3), Foles (4), Barkley (5), Riley (6), Lalich/Katz/Lomax (somehow this guy didn’t even get one of the contenders—7), Prince/Brehaut (8), Tuel (9), Osweiler/Szkacsy (10). Ah, that’s better.

Meanwhile, I think it’s worth rounding up a particular set of All-Pac 10 guys, the All-Freshmen team, because it’s important to the future and I want you all thinking happy thoughts during your holiday season. Ted Miller lists them: Stanford has 5 (Luck, DeCastro, Martin, Thomas, Skov). The next highest, Oregon, has three. Also cool: four of the five are redshirt freshmen, meaning that the current true freshmen (of which 16 scholarship players will be redshirt freshmen; there are a ton of walk-ons who might well contribute) have yet to make their mark. recognizes Luck as their Freshmen MVP (and also has DeCastro on its team), etc. etc. So we’re doing well.

(You might wonder, why no Stanford basketball? Well, Landry Fields has been amazing, but it’s sadly inconsequential: it was Wait ‘Til Next Year the moment this year started.)

Notes On "Empire State Of Mind"

Of all the questions/takes that have been brought up, asked and answered about the Empire State of Mind video—e.g. nice visual style, WTF is that hat Jay-Z is wearing at 1:25 of the video? (Answer: I don’t know, but he wore it to the Inauguration)—one that remains unasked and (I assume) unanswered is this: why does Jay-Z spend so much time looking away from the camera?

Watch it for yourself. Don’t worry, I’ll wait.

Good, you’re done. So…if you’ve made it to this point, you’re at least open-minded to the point I’m going to make, and it is this: it represents the burgeoning confidence in his own maturity. Jay-Z isn’t looking at the camera because the cameraman (whose perspective is implicitly yours) is being narrated, led through New York and what’s great about the city; Jay-Z’s essentially a guide to the city and what’s good about it. Being a guide is often an inherently....well, we’ll call it paternal: you’re operating from a position of kindliness and knowledge—you know more and you’ve decided to impart your wisdom. And—generally speaking!—the guide character is often an elderly fellow. (For what it’s worth, the song that Empire State of Mind is often compared to, “Theme From New York, New York”, was written at a similar point in Frank Sinatra’s career)

Now, that’s a role that Jay-Z has embraced recently:

(By the way, I never even realized that this remix, featuring a tight Andre 3000 verse, existed)

But it’s also a role Jay-Z has embraced since the beginning of his career; it’s just deepened (warning: the following song is probably the worst of Reasonable Doubt)

Nevertheless, Jay-Z has taken on the role of wise old man more and more has his career advances, and I think “Empire State of Mind” might be the biggest assumption of that role yet, since it is largely subtextual (whereas “30 Something” reads as an almost defensive song re: his age). Looking back to the remix—you’ve got Andre 3000 and Ice Cube doing some good work—it’s worth noting that hip-hop is only about twenty years old or so, and that hip-hop, traditionally a young man’s game, is housing more and more veterans, who naturally have to diversify their subject matter/perspective. So the next few years of hip-hop should be interesting indeed.

Nighttime Linkism

I think this article from Jim Manzi on America’s economic/strategic position is thought-provoking, even if it contains its fair share of libertarian clichés and stupidities. Read and ponder, I’d say. Here’s two good grafs from early in the essay (with what I find to be a good point—or a good way of phrasing it—bolded):
Our strategic situation is shaped by three inescapable realities. First is the inherent conflict between the creative destruction involved in free-market capitalism and the innate human propensity to avoid risk and change. Second is ever-increasing international competition. And third is the growing disparity in behavioral norms and social conditions between the upper and lower income strata of American society.
These realities combine to form a daunting problem. And the task of resolving it turns out not, by and large, to be a matter of foreign policy. Rather, it compels us to consider how we balance economic dynamism and growth against the unity and stability of our society. After all, we must have continuous, rapid technological and business-model innovation to grow our economy fast enough to avoid losing power to those who do not share America's values — and this innovation requires increasingly deregulated markets and fewer restrictions on behavior. But such deregulation would cause significant displacement and disruption that could seriously undermine America's social cohesion — which is not only essential to a decent and just society, but also to producing the kind of skilled and responsible citizens that free markets ultimately require. Moreover, preserving the integrity of our social fabric by minimizing the divisions that can rend society often requires ¬government policies — to reduce inequality or ensure access to jobs, education, housing, or health care — that can in turn undercut growth and prosperity. Neither innovation nor cohesion can do without the other, but neither, it seems, can avoid undermining the other.

The Los Angeles Times published a pretty interesting rundown of proposed medicinal marijuana regulations in LA. Oddly engrossing.

I disagree with most of this post on e-readers, but I think this is a worthwhile point:
As millions of people around the world become devotees of e-readers, they will download millions, perhaps billions, of book titles, magazines, and newspapers -- paying for most of them. Many content producers are carefully pricing and distributing content through the e-reader world, instead of giving away content for free as many businesses did at the beginning of the Internet revolution. That decision (or lack thereof) grievously wounded business models for online media and businesses have been hurting ever since.

Daily Dish rounds up some reader e-mails on Joe Arpaio, the conservative populist sheriff of Phoenix, AZ; I think it reveals some good points on Arpaio specifically and the political type he belongs to generally.

Fast Company wrote a really good article on Design Within Reach; if you find its points interesting about some American’s newfound interest in design, a good complementary piece is David Brooks’s Bobos In Paradise. (Seeing as it is largely nonpolitical, it falls into the Safe David Brooks category, unlike, say, his conservation with Gail Collins this week wherein he laughably pretends Joe Lieberman has principles.)

Mike Konczal has two really valuable posts: one, on the long-term effects of the recession; the second, on the financial bill that just passed the House.

YouTube is apparently thinking of doing subscriptions and rentals as a way to attract more premium content as the shift towards paying continues on the internet. I think, however, this is a good fact to keep in mind: “Hulu, owned by NBC Universal, News Corp, and Walt Disney, has rapidly become the No. 2 video site in the United States and has sold out on key ad inventory.” Reminds me of a point I read that sometimes it’s best to be #2 (I mean, think about how many YouTube videos don’t have any advertising whatsoever.)

Big Money talks about Palm; again, some good points.

Afternoon Linkism

This Wall Street Journal report on the plan for the surge in Afghanistan is well worth reading; you almost wish it was written earlier. The plan appears to be roads, Afghan police, and Helmand Province. The first two I can’t complain with; the last one, with Helmand Province, doesn’t seem to be as good: that province is overwhelmingly rural (and mostly is important for its opium production), so I’m not quite sure how that works in the whole winning-over-the-populace strategy.

Comcast introduces a streaming TV service that includes some intriguing features…do you think Comcast will kill Hulu in a month or wait a little longer?

Tyler Cowen makes the case that, when given the choice between a famous thinker and his/her distillers, you ought to read the famous thinker, and has some persuasive reasons to believe that. That said, he doesn’t account for the utterly impenetrable famous thinkers, which are legion: being a former philosophy major, you couldn’t give me enough money to make me read Hegel, or (most of) Kant (with the exception of his essays “Perpetual Peace” and “What Is Enlightenment?). Don’t do it to yourself; life’s too precious—let someone do the intellectual scutwork for you.

Speaking of China/cleantech, I assume this New Yorker article on the subject is incredibly good because of the intersection of author (Evan Osnos), publication (see above) and subject (see above) is so promising.

This history of Second City, the great comedy troupe, is really good.


This is apparently what English sounds like to foreigners.

John Slattery Tells Us All To Buy Gold.

Two of my favorite things combine in this clip: Mad Men and the Colbert Report.

The Colbert ReportMon - Thurs 11:30pm / 10:30c
Prescott Financial Sells Gold, Women & Sheep
Colbert Report Full EpisodesPolitical HumorU.S. Speedskating

Tuesday, December 15, 2009

What The Health Care Negotiations Are Like

(Via Daily Dish)


A couple of interesting China/cleantech stories in the papers today: the first, from Wall Street Journal declares China a leader in cleantech, though it gives space to critics saying that China is overinvesting and creating overcapacity. A specific manifestation of these critics’ fears might be found in this New York Times piece, which talks about safety worries in an expanding nuclear power sector.

I think it’s kind of funny that “It’s Complicated,” the Streep/Baldwin/Martin vehicle, was rated “R” for pot smoking depictions. The MPAA—it’s ridiculous. Meanwhile…and I hate to admit this…I’m kind of interested in seeing the movie. I mean, that’s a lot of acting talent in that movie, no?

This is kind of a stimulating take on the climate change talks, saying that:
Even if the fate of the world did not hang on the outcome of climate change negotiations between 192 nations in Copenhagen, Denmark, the spectacle would be fascinating solely from the vantage point of history. The Industrial Revolution isn't just responsible for pumping vast amounts of carbon dioxide into the atmosphere; the countries in which technological progress, fueled by cheap energy, originally took off ending up using their new powers to dominate the entire globe over the last 200 years.

The processes that caused climate change are therefore inextricable from a history of imperialism and colonialism and uneven economic development. When developing nations ask for cash and technology to help them adapt to a clean energy future, they aren't just trying to guilt-trip the rich countries for all the tons of greenhouse gases they have alread emitted -- the so-called "carbon debt." In a very real way they're also asking for reparations to compensate for the creation of the rift that has divided the world into "developed" and "developing" nations.

I think that this is an infuriating yet understandable comment from a real live Heisman voter:
“The reason that I voted for Ingram, Tebow and McCoy was because I saw them play the most. I never saw Gerhart play an entire game (we work all day Saturday and Saturday night) and only saw a few minutes of Suh’s game against Texas. I refused to vote for somebody based on highlights. And I think you have to represent your part of the country; in fact, there used to be fine print on the paper ballots that instructed balloters to vote “with regard to your region.” However, I think it’s wrong to leave a player off your ballot completely just to help a player from your region, as apparently the case with some Big 12 voters on Tebow year. So I, too, an still unhappy about that injustice.”

It’s infuriating that said Heisman voter didn’t take some time out of his day to mosey on over to and pick up some Stanford games. To be fair, it was a while before he would’ve had to take Gerhart seriously, but still…you wish he’d been a little more proactive. That said, again, the ultimate fault is the Pac-10’s: from a prestige and revenue perspective, it has to upgrade its media arrangements.

This is one of the more interesting takes on Tiger Woods; it specifically focuses on endorsements. (Here’s the follow-up). Here’s a thought-provoking graf:
Woods’s appeal was based, ultimately, not on his physical abilities but on his mental toughness, his extraordinary capacity for focus and discipline. He was the man who always made the key putt, who never cracked under pressure. That’s why Gatorade, introducing a new drink with his face on the label, called the drink Tiger Focus. And it’s why the most powerful Nike ad about him is the one in which his father, in a voice-over, says, “I’d say, ‘Tiger, I promise you that you’ll never meet another person as mentally tough as you in your entire life. And he hasn’t . . . and he never will.’ ”

In other words, Woods has been presented as the embodiment of bourgeois virtues: dedication, hard work, single-mindedness. Indeed, when, in 2008, Woods won the U.S. Open while essentially playing on one leg, the Times’ David Brooks devoted a column to his extraordinary ability to block out distraction and focus on the matter at hand, dubbing him “the exemplar of mental discipline” for our time. For millions of people—many of them, to be sure, affluent middle-aged white guys—Woods embodied an approach not just to golf but to life. Myriad studies show that celebrity endorsements are most successful when there is a tight fit between the pitchman’s identity and the product he’s pitching. Woods was the rare athlete whose identity seemed to fit not just with golf clubs or sports drinks but with consulting firms.

Monday, December 14, 2009

Ad note

An ad for a used car dealership is referring to its vehicles as "a car you haven't used yet." Brilliant and ballsy.

Evening Linkism

This interview with the New Yorker fiction editor on David Foster Wallace is interesting to the hardcore Wallacophile.

I think this post on Dave Eggers’s Panorama is a nice overview, but this offhand comment strikes me as pretty interesting: “Newspaper stories are written to be read once or twice, top to bottom, and then tossed out, shat on, used to start a fire. It's almost inconceivable to return to a newspaper piece—even a brilliant one—weeks after it appeared to resavor its insights or its prose.”

This article on Hulu makes an excellent point: it’s kind of odd that so many media companies want to copy it given that its owners want it to change. (Speaking of Hulu paywall, I do think a modest freemium model could work, to access archives. Thoughts?)

Henry Ford…incredible jerk. A little piece of history I was unaware of.

I’m still chugging along on The Power Broker, but I keep on getting struck by similarities in today’s news. This article on the fight over a tunnel in Seattle (that would replace an old, antiquated overpass) makes me almost miss Moses. For one, you get to replace an overpass—that’s good urbanism right there! But activists apparently have questions about its environmental impact, and I don’t necessarily want to dismiss that out of hand, and it may be that the Wall Street Journal may be framing the article away from them…but still. This was especially resonant:

Seattle has quashed megaprojects before, including a monorail system that locals voted to kill. Skip Kotkins, chairman and chief executive of Skyway Luggage Co. in Seattle, said he didn't want to see the tradition continued. "We have absolutely perfected the art of saying, 'No,'" he said. "It's like people take pride in stopping things."

There’s nothing like a little change to get people to appreciate a shitty present.

By the way, remember that article about Google in Italy that I posted yesterday? About that, Foreign Policy makes pretty clear that Italy’s got an…interesting legal system. For one, the average criminal trial takes about six years in Italy. (I believe it’s around two years? in the U.S. Don’t quote me on that though.) And, heck, here’s the sensational fact:

some Italians believe the media is complicit in "creating a general sense of social alarm," says Malini, pressuring authorities to arrest, indict, and sometimes even convict suspects without solid evidence. Newspapers routinely blame blood crimes on suspects belonging to "dangerous minorities" -- that is, immigrants from Romania or Italian Roma -- not just perverting the course of justice, but stoking racism to boot.

"Here in Italy trials take place in TV, rather than in court," Judge Francesco Cananzi, a representative of the national council of magistrates, publicly stated this year. And as the Knox case demonstrated, the court of public opinion is often defamatory. For instance, the Italian press routinely demonizes defendants by revealing embarrassing details about their personal lives, even if unrelated to the trial -- such as the pornography kept on their home computers. Knox's alleged sexual promiscuity, even her preferred underwear, made headlines across the globe.