Monday, May 3, 2010


Here’s an interview with Michael Lewis that I’ve only had a chance to listen to part of (which is good.)

The hidden socialism of Mario Kart.

Thoughts on Goldman:
…there is a danger that we will make a ritual sacrifice of Goldman and pretend to have exorcised our demons, while other firms that have engaged in similar conduct continue undisturbed. It would be a sad irony if, in single-minded pursuit of Goldman Sachs, we not only let other perps escape unscathed, but also hand them the windfall of a less competitive industry. Rather than forcing traumatic self-appraisal and reform at surviving banks, Goldman’s fall might lead managers elsewhere to congratulate themselves for savvy positioning, for playing the system. Competitors would swallow the corpse of Goldman Sachs, thinking they had eaten what they’d killed.

More on Google Ventures.

On developmental milestones in children:
As a classic paper showed, for example, infants in a farming village in Kenya sat up and walked far sooner than their Western counterparts, but only when raised in traditional ways, which encouraged these skills. Moreover, different cultures have their own internal sense of what's normal. In one wonderful study, English, Jamaican, and Indian mothers living in the same city were asked to predict when their newborns would reach certain motor milestones. Remarkably, each group's expectations turned out to be accurate—even though they frequently varied by several months.

A Slate inquiry as to why we root for the underdog. Interesting, but I’d amend the argument here somewhat—the author argues that one reason we might like underdogs is because they show so much hustle and heart but that:
In real-life competition, underdogs don't seem to have any more gumption than the odds-on favorites. In fact, recent data suggest that the underdogs might be dogging it.

For a study published in January, researchers Nathan Pettit and Robert Lount tested a bunch of undergraduates on a simple cognitive task—their ability to generate possible uses for a knife. Some students were told their scores would be compared with scores from a similar experiment conducted at a more prestigious university, while others believed they were going head-to-head with students at a worse school.

The subjects who believed they were up against the stronger competition ended up performing worse on the test. Playing the role of the underdog appeared to sap their motivation. Likewise, the group that was ostensibly paired with a lower-ranked school seemed to try harder.

Another paper, by economist Jennifer Brown, used the results of hundreds of PGA golf tournaments to arrive at a similar conclusion. She examined how the performance of professional golfers changed when they were playing against Tiger Woods. Controlling for the course, the weather, and other factors, Brown found that Tiger's opponents shot almost a full stroke worse, on average, whenever he was in the tournament. (The quality of Tiger's game also made a difference: When he was on a roll, the competition suffered all the more.) Brown calls this an "adverse superstar effect": In the face of a superior opponent, pro golfers have less incentive to compete.
But this may make us appreciate underdogs all the more: because we know that what they’re attempting is generally futile, we appreciate when they do show that gumption to rise up and win or make it a close game.

A disturbing note on China’s local governments:
For more than a decade, the central government has put strict limits on the ability of local governments to borrow money. But, to avoid these limits, local governments have increasingly set up local investment companies, known as LICs, and when credit policy was eased in 2009, these LICs raised debt at a reportedly furious pace.How much money did they raise? Debate rages over whether the actual figure is 6 trillion yuan or 11 trillion yuan.
This Bloomberg article about the China bears notes that the last time around on this China bailout cycle, they had to spend 1.4 trillion yuan in 2000. Just something to keep in mind. Meanwhile, here’s a nice read in Beyond Brics about China’s involvement in Niger.

Cap and trade—for fishermen.

Dana Goldstein on that NYT article I linked to re: problems in charter schools.

The Washington Monthly has a ton of great book reviews this issue. Here’s a book review suggesting the Wall Street Journal was not a great paper before Murdoch got to it. Here’s one about Murder City, a book about the drug war in Juarez. Here’s one about the free-market follies in Ireland. Here’s one about Although Of Course You End Up Becoming Yourself. Here’s one about The Dream Machine, a book about the V-22 Osprey, an airplane that was supposed to have the best features of a helicopter, i.e. the ability to take off and land straight up and down. (If you recognize the capability, that’s because you read James Fallows’s “Uncle Sam Buys A Plane”). Here’s a choice bit from that:
In his new book, The Dream Machine, Richard Whittle, former Pentagon correspondent for the Dallas Morning News, tells the long, costly, and bloody tale of this hybrid bird, which has taken thirty years—as well as thirty lives and $30 billion, so far—to go from blueprints to battlefield. Whittle takes the reader from the aircraft’s birthplace in Fort Worth to its first combat deployment in Iraq in 2007, and puts us grippingly in the cockpits of the four V-22s that crashed during its development. It’s a great yarn for those in love with military gee-whiz technology and aviation in general. But it’s not such a happy read for taxpayers concerned with getting the biggest bang for the buck or ensuring that the nation is buying the right weapons for future wars. In fact, Whittle’s interest in the V-22 succumbs to the same trap that the Pentagon’s did, getting so caught up in the aeronautical wizardry that he never addresses the question that once led Dick Cheney to try to kill the program: Is it worth what it costs?

As Whittle makes clear, the V-22 technology is a wonder, and a testament to the nation’s engineering prowess. But just because something can be built doesn’t mean it should be. After all, the military has never lacked for zany ideas—nuclear-armed cannon, anyone?—that serve little actual purpose, let alone ones that would justify their exorbitant cost. The type of long-range helicopter missions that were the V-22’s raison d’ĂȘtre haven’t happened since Desert One. Much more common in actual combat are shorter hops, where the edge conferred by the V-22’s speed evaporates (think of flying the late Concorde as a New York–D.C. shuttle). The V-22’s theoretical speed and distance advantages have also proven modest, because of both the slower helicopter gunships needed to protect it and the slower heavy-duty cargo helicopters required to cart along the supplies the V-22’s troops would need for any sustained mission. Some observers suggest it would have made more sense for the Marines to save the V-22 for those few missions needing its speed and range, and buy cheaper conventional helicopters for everything else, but the Marines refused.
Oddly enough, the book review suggests that Dick Cheney was something of a hero in this whole episode, which is a sentence I’ve never before written and never will write again.

Here’s Paul Krugman on the oil spill, suggesting that since it is a photogenic environmental disaster, it may yet raise people’s ire about the subject and force some political change. I hope so. Climate change is one of those interesting issues where elites appear to be ahead of the public.

Two book reviews, one by Malcolm Gladwell and the other in The Book about Operation Mincement, a World War II spy mission by the British that is so bizarre, wonderful, and strange that I won’t even bother to summarize it.

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