Wednesday, March 31, 2010

Linkism

Apparently venture capital for start-ups is hard to come by…fewer start-ups last year too (is this generally true in recessions? You always hear stories like Google and OTHER BIG COMPANY HERE was started in a recession, but it may be we’ve got a selection bias here.)

Obama and off-shore drilling. They want us to think that this is a preemptive compromise for god-knows-what on the environment, and maybe that’s so. Except Obama presumably is not a character out of Memento, and therefore he must remember the health care debate and the failure of the preemptive compromises then. So it could be that Obama just kind of wants to do offshore drilling for its own sake, i.e. a giveaway. I don’t know.

The economics of Netflix.

So two early reviews of the iPad in the New York Times and the Wall Street Journal. What I think is kind of funny about these reviews is how much they give up the central prerogative of the reviewer: they say it depends on your perspective and surrender the all-knowing critic role.

While employers aren’t hiring new people, they are squeezing huge gains in productivity out of people. This is normally a wonderful thing—we’re either producing more in the same time or the same in less—but not so much now, when any work you can get out of your current workers is work you don’t have to hire someone for. Neil Irwin speculates why we may be seeing such robust productivity growth:
So what's happening? As best as anyone can guess, the crisis that began in 2007 and deepened in 2008 caused both businesses and workers to panic. Companies cut even more staff than the decrease in demand for their products would warrant. They were hoarding cash, fearful that they wouldn't have access to capital down the road.

When demand for their products leveled off in the middle of last year, the companies could have stopped cutting jobs or even hired people back. But they didn't -- payrolls have continued declining.

Instead companies squeezed more work out of remaining employees, accounting for a 3.8 percent boost in worker productivity in 2009, the best in seven years. Which raises the question: Why couldn't companies have achieved those gains back when the economy was in better shape? The answer to that may lie on the other side of the equation -- employees.

Workers were in a panic of their own in 2009. Fearful of losing their jobs, people seem to have become more willing to stretch themselves to the limit to get more done in any given hour of work. And they have been tolerant of furloughs and cutbacks in hours, which in better times would drive them to find a new employer. This has given companies the leeway to cut back without the fear of losing valuable employees for good.

The Urbanophile comments on the cities’ war for talent.

China’s trade numbers may obscure more than they tell.

More Intelligent Life profiles “A Country in Denial”: it’s a paranoid country obsessed with the idea that shadowy operatives dispatched by a powerful government are out to do it harm…For those of us who guessed Pakistan, congrats!

Two books added to my infinitely-long reading list: Although Of Course You End Up Becoming Yourself and Regional Advantage: Culture and Competition in Silicon Valley and Route 128.

You’re Welcome for this video:

NBA Notes

There’s something about ranking NBA players that seems to give people license to be idiotic. Or there’s been a recent trend or something. But recently we’ve heard such opinions as: Tim Duncan, not a top-10 all-time player; Kevin Durant, overrated; Kevin Durant, second-best player in the league; DeMarcus Cousins, best player in draft (Evan Turner “plays small” and John Wall doesn’t have a great “feel for the game” and uh, looked “out of control” on fast breaks.)

Sadly this is just the usual when it comes for pundits, because all of these comments are outrageous. Outrageous in the sense of provoking outrage and also in the sense of being utterly ridiculous. All of these guys are paid for their talents as being provocateurs rather than offering informed analysis, so that’s part of it. There’s too much outrage in the media today—I enjoy a little outrage, a little invective from time to time, but it basically operates the same way as spicy food. If you continually eat spicy food, you build up a tolerance and are eventually forced to ingest the most exotic chilies and peppers. If you continually traffic in outrage, you must steadily increase the level of outrage to distinguish yourself…so instead of doing amusing outrage and invective (e.g. Taibbi’s crusade against Tom Friedman), you’re forced to talk yourself into outraging people’s sensibilities by saying something really dumb (e.g. the first graf, but you knew that already).

But why now, and why ranking NBA players? I….don’t know. Ranking NBA players is tough, so tough that NBA players are unable to do it properly (for example, 55% of the NBA—well, assuming this is a representative sample—believe either Ron Artest or Kobe Bryant is the league’s toughest defensive player). But a lot of things are difficult: barbeque, for example. Quantum physics, for another. Writing great literature, for a third. And yet pundits don’t regularly trouble me with their misinformed opinions on these things. No, I guess like a lot of odd or wrong things, there’s no real rhyme or reason to this particular brand of idiocy on the market, but soon it’ll pass. I think.

***

The Bulls may be the best poorly-managed team ever. Here they are, poking along, nearly in the playoffs but probably not going to make it, and they have what superficially seems like a bright future. The management gurus are right: management is everything (in sports). We all know the bad decisions: the Tyrus Thomas debacle, the odd fascination with Jannero Pargo, Vinny del Negro’s existence*, the not-drafting of so many players…And yet, there’s a future there. It’s a testament to luck, i.e. getting Derrick Rose. Superstars cover up a lot of sins in the NBA. Now the trick is to avoid the Valley of the Mediocre, where every poorly-managed team finds itself: too good to be hopeless, yet not hopeless enough to become great. You need superstars to win in the NBA, and you acquire superstars by getting high draft picks, and the best way to get high draft picks is to be horrible. And then you need some luck: picking the right high draft pick (always a dud), then maybe getting another high draft pick, surrounding those picks with the right players…and so on. Point is, the Bulls are probably going to get stuck there soon, absent a great signing this summer. But probably not. Get ready for mediocrity, Chicago.

*I remain firmly committed to the idea that Vinny del Negro should be forced to register like a sex offender, so that decent basketball-loving Americans might shun him wherever he goes, fearful of catching his utter incompetence like a disease.

***

I’m really looking forward to watching the Lakers get crushed by every quick point guard in existence: Parker, Westbrook, Williams, Billups…I hear John Stockton is considering unretiring and putting up 20 and 15 just for fun.

Get To Poppin'

I very recently noticed that pop has reached its last logical extension. Pop is 99% about sex (the other 1% is about not having sex), so over the years we’ve had artists take every conceivable crack at the subject. And they are more-or-less done with amusing, compact takes on the subject. While you have innovators like Prince or Madonna, the real offender is R. Kelly (e. very much g. “Trapped in the Closet” and “Ignition” and so on). So, the following two songs are among the last possible songs, the last fumes of the car’s engine…:



Obviously what the Timberlandlake duo prove here is the hidden sexual frisson of takeout places. And it’s true. Many a time I’ve thought, after waiting impatiently for scowling service, “I’d like to wait impatiently to have sex with you, and scowl afterwards.” And Timberlandlake have proved it. This is a relatively subtle version of the song really perfected by R. Kelly (e. very much g. “Ignition”) in which a metaphor is used to talk about sex in a way that teenagers can sing around their parents while pretending the parents don’t get it. Teenagers are so good at self-delusion. However, even they aren’t able to delude themselves that the ‘rents don’t get this song…:



Or, as I call it, “The Ultimate Pop Song.” Everyone knows exactly what this song is about. There’s no pretending it’s about anything else. Everyone ever has thought, “Damn. That’s a sexy chick!” It’s perfect. It speaks to all peoples in all places of the globe: there are sexy chicks in Kazakhstan, there are sexy chicks in the Falkland Islands…they’re everywhere! For years and years, pop has been trying to simplify its message just a little bit more and year by year steady progress has been made, and its message about your hormones has gotten that much more elemental, until we arrived at this moment: Damn, there’s a sexy chick. Sheer perfection. Pop is dead.

Tuesday, March 30, 2010

Read This: Why Can't You Read?

I was reading a couple of articles on Geoffrey Canada’s Harlem Children’s Zone (here and here, both old), and I noticed this:
Though the conveyor belt is still being constructed in Harlem, early results are positive. Last year, the charter schools’ inaugural kindergarten class reached third grade and took their first New York state achievement tests: 68 percent of the students passed the reading test, which beat the New York City average and came within two percentage points of the state average, and 97 percent of them passed the math test, well above both the city and state average.

Obviously, I’m not going to look down my nose at gains: they’re substantial and important. But why is math so ahead of reading? I seem to recall this from elsewhere…Here’s something on KIPP (old):
For the first time, the report summarizes the results for the 1,000 students who have completed all four years at 25 KIPP middle schools. On average, they jumped from the 40th to the 82nd percentile in math and from the 32nd to the 60th percentile in reading, unprecedented results for that many poor children. Many KIPP students move out of their neighborhoods, or decide they do not want to work that hard, and do not complete the four years, but KIPP leaders say they are working on retaining more students and are showing some progress.

And here’s the most recent news on the NAEP, with the headline: Stagnant Reading Scores Lag Behind Math. Part of this is due to changes in the statistical sample, so it’s not all bad, but still, interesting, no? I don’t know why this is: could it be that teaching to the test is more effective for math than reading? Is math more amenable to grind-it-out teaching styles (both KIPP and Harlem Children’s Zones feature longer hours than public schools)? Does this have anything to do with charter schools? I’ve got a ton of questions and not much data, and I’d like to learn more.

Linkism

A couple of interesting articles on homelessness. The San Francisco Chronicle informs us that the city is considering adopting a homelessness law that would fine people for sitting or loitering on the street--$50, based on the example of Seattle. This seems like a useless fine to me, since this will, as the article notes, just shuffle the homeless around and just create busy work for the department and the homeless themselves. The New York Times reveals more of the problems with an article on Key West’s homeless. Apparently, the police there selectively enforce the laws in arbitrary laws (selective enforcement on a logical basis is of course perfectly good…). And we also learn this nugget about the Key West police force: “…the federal stimulus will ensure that the trend continues: the Key West police recently received $813,000 to add four officers to its 89-person department. Their sole mission will be quality-of-life policing.” Not exactly the best use of stimulus funds, as I think is evident: the purpose of state aid was to keep state jobs from being liquidated, and if new jobs were being created, making a tourist trap slightly more presentable was not high on the list.

Some good points from Justin McGirk of The Guardian on the challenges of urbanization. Two points worth considering. First: “…the [U.N.] agency predicts that some metropolises will join up like blobs of mercury to create "mega-regions". One of these is in west Africa, where the cities of Lagos, Ibadan, Lomé and Accra are threatening to merge. Which is fine, except that the amalgamation would sprawl across the national borders of Nigeria, Benin, Togo and Ghana.”

Second:
The cities we love most are slow burners, layered accretions of history – London, Paris or Rome, for instance. Yet here we are, in the position of having to manufacture new urban spaces, as though cities were just another type of product. The philosopher Henri Lefebvre anticipated this situation in the 1960s, when he argued that urban space was the new commodity. He saw that it wasn't just stocks and shares that were being speculated on but pieces of city. Lefebvre's theory was that industrialisation – the story of the last 150 years – was being replaced by urbanisation. Today, we talk about having moved from the industrial age to the information age. But this is also the urban age.
High inequality means low savings rates. Not sure how true it is, but I'd like it to be true, and it seems fairly plausible...so I'm absolutely certain it's true.

Jack Shafer talks about how the iPad won’t save magazine or newspaper journalism. His points are well-taken, but his criticism of Sports Illustrated’s website and practice got me thinking--of all the big media companies, there are two that I think are doing a really good job with new media content: first, The New York Times; second, ESPN. ESPN is hitting all the long tails: they’ve got an online streaming service that’s free (if it weren’t for the backwards cable companies, everyone could use it), on which I could watch Euroleague basketball or rugby or any other obscure sport; they’ve been opening their local websites one by one at a good clip; they’ve got great writers (and some not-so-great ones but still); they do the freemium stuff well…they’re just doing it well.

This New York Magazine article on Lady Gaga is either fascinating or not, depending on your tolerance of various levels of meta- and bullshit. If you’re the kind of person who’s interested in people who bullshit you, who know that they’re bullshitting you, and you know that you’re being bullshitted, and know that it’s known that the fragrance of bullshit is in the air…well, then, this will be interesting. Otherwise, not.

Winning Awards

David Brooks has certainly stirred the shit again with his latest column on whether Sandra Bullock should have preferred her marriage or her Academy Award. I’m not interested in that controversy—Brooks probably wrote in an awkward segue and now he looks like an idiot. Because the piece was that. Anyway, I had one specific focus about the article: namely, that Bullock shouldn’t care about the Academy Award. It’s probably worthless.

There are a few undeniable benefits to winning an Oscar. It’s great, short-term, for your career and the money you make from it. You get to have an eerie, androgynous statuette that can be used as a doorstop or a gardening implement. You get more freedom to choose which movies you make and you probably make more money from the ones you’re in. I don’t want to be presumptuous, but I’m guessing these things aren’t terribly meaningful for Bullock: she’s got tons of money, with which she can make whatever movie she wants, and get people to use more efficient gardening implements. So if she cares about the Oscar at all—and seeing as she cried, I’ll guess she does—it’s for other reasons. And if they’re oh, I don’t know, art and your legacy thereof, the award is basically useless. (And since you decided to enter an industry with a tournament structure—few winners, big winnings—you have to care about the art, hopefully. Otherwise you’re irrational.)

It’s not even really the Oscar’s fault in particular. Its quality as an award—the percentage of the time it gets its decisions right—is certainly higher than the Grammies. The point is general: you shouldn’t care about awards.

For my money, Eternal Sunshine of the Spotless Mind is the best movie of 2004. It got two nominations: best screenplay (original) and best actress. Can you name the best picture winner of that year? How many other nominees that year can you name? Odds are, unless you’re a trivia buff, very few. (The winner was Million Dollar Baby, which was definitely worse than Eternal Sunshine; other nominees that year included the immortal Being Julia and Maria, Full of Grace, no disrespect to either of those as I have not seen them. Suffice it to say, no one talks about these movies anymore.)

Did Casablanca win best picture in its year? You probably don’t know, but it did. Which picture won in its year, Chinatown or Godfather Part II? Godfather Part II. Which of Billy Wilder’s films won Best Picture? The Apartment, not Double Indemnity or Sabrina or Some Like It Hot. Who has a Nobel Prize in Literature, Hemingway, Fitzgerald or Faulkner? Hemingway and Faulkner, not Fitzgerald. Did Hitchcock ever win a Best Director Oscar? He did not.

I’m not trying to assault you with trivia for the sake of trivia. The point is, we think of these artworks—recognized or not—as roughly equal to one another. On the opposite side, surely we can all remember undeserving works that were rewarded (e.g. Crash, amusingly enough another Sandra Bullock movie). I simply want to make my point evident: awards are awarded to bad and good alike. We forget the bad ones and forget that the award was ever given to the good. That’s because the work ultimately stands for itself, however long it takes. So don’t worry, Sandra Bullock: we’ll remember your work for however good or bad it is based just on that—we don’t care about the Oscars if you give us enough time.

Monday, March 29, 2010

Linkism

Mike Konczal on financial regulation:
What story of financial reform is told with this bill? It isn’t a story where the financial sector isn’t too far out of control, too top-heavy and concentrated and opaque and gigantic. And it isn’t a story of regulatory failure, where regulators were asleep at the wheel, corrupted and captured through assumptions of how the world works and a revolving door of influence with the biggest firms, or where they were simply outmatched in knowing what they needed to do.

It’s a story where the regulators just needed a bit more power, a little more legal scope, and a greater extension of what jurisdiction the Federal Reserve has in order to rush in and save the day. A story where the Federal Reserve can successfully carry out prompt corrective action, detecting problems early and guiding banks back to health, on an institution with $2 trillion dollars on its sheet. A story where that institution’s off-balance sheet and the warehouse of derivatives it holds are no match for our regulator’s stare. But more importantly, it is a story where the regulators will be able to sweep in during a moment of crisis and keep the financial sector working no matter what.

Your dysfunction reading of the day: from the Wall Street Journal and Ezra Klein. Both very good.

More commentary on Iraq’s election.

Great article on the Air Force trying to instill a “warrior culture” among its drone pilots. This isn’t mentioned much, but I wonder: could you move to an air force which is made up solely of drones and bombers? I don’t really see a reason why not off the top of my head: it’d be much cheaper than the ever-more-expensive fighter jets, and of course you wouldn’t suffer pilot losses (though American planes get shot down so rarely that’s not a huge factor).

Usain Bolt is trash-talking. I am, of course, intimidated.

Democracy on the march

We’re still in the same place in American foreign policy: does the counterinsurgency doctrine work? Can you successfully build a government and a society practically from scratch? If you look at Obama’s recent trip to Afghanistan—where he pressed Karzai on graft and corruption—nation-building is the clear focus of the military operations in Afghanistan. But who knows whether it’s successful or not? The commonly cited example of the success of counterinsurgency is Iraq, but I think the evidence is considerably more ambiguous than generally given credit for. The recent election in Iraq basically reveals that that nation is a long way from a democracy, let alone a well-functioning government. Maybe it’s not obvious from one article on the elections, but if you read a few of them, as I did, you begin to get worried.

The basic facts are not worrying. Ayad al-Allawi, a secular Shi’ite, won slightly more seats than Nouri al-Maliki, with a coalition of Sunnis, some Kurds and some Shi’ites. His win was not particularly decisive: Allawi’s list won 91 seats; Maliki’s won 89; 163 is needed for a majority in the Parliament. The closeness of the vote has intensified tensions with some, ah, suspicious moves being made.

From the Wall Street Journal:
According to the constitution, the party with the largest bloc of seats in parliament gets the first chance to form a government. That had widely been interpreted as meaning the slate that won the most seats in the vote.

However, the court's nonbinding opinion appeared to widen the definition of "bloc" to mean the largest number of seats controlled by a single alliance at the time that parliament inaugurates its first session, which may not happen for several weeks.

This means that instead of Allawi getting the first chance to form a government, Maliki does. Hmmm…Let’s continue, shall we? From The Guardian:
A commission tasked with weeding Ba'athist elements from public life in Iraq is today poised to make a surprise intervention into attempts to form a government, by claiming that some candidates in the recent election, won by Iyad Allawi, should not have been allowed to stand.

The accountability and justice commission claims to have identified several candidates from Allawi's winning list who it had earlier tried to bar.

Hmm…Who’s the person running this commission? Someone who’s a nonpartisan, respected, technocratic figure, I hope…right? From the Wall Street Journal:
Mr. Chalabi said that his commission has identified 55 additional electoral candidates facing disqualification after the vote, due to evidence linking them to the Baath Party. Of that number, 22 belong to Iraqiya, he said.

However, it is "highly unlikely" that this additional purge would affect the amount of seats that Iraqiya controls because they weren't high enough on the Iraqiya's list to have won seats, Mr. Chalabi said.
Hmm…well, maybe. But surely this is only the first time that Ahmed Chalabi has tried to disqualify massive numbers of candidates, right? The Journal again:
Ahead of the election, the commission disqualified hundreds of candidates standing in the election, citing unpublished evidence linking them to Mr. Hussein's former party.

To many Iraqis, the decision smacked of a political dirty trick, especially as commission members were running for re-election themselves. Mr. Chalabi denied that the decisions were politically motivated.

Hmmm…Well, isn’t Chalabi on a different slate than Allawi? (I’m sure you’ve anticipated the answer already. From the Journal):
In an interview Sunday, Mr. Chalabi said he is advocating an alliance between INA and Mr. Maliki's State of Law, with the aim of keeping Shiites in power. Mr. Chalabi, while acknowledging that Mr. Allawi's bloc won the election, said that allowing him to form a new government would be dangerous for Iraq because of what he claims are active elements of Saddam Hussein's Baathist party within Mr. Allawi's Sunni-heavy alliance.

Hmm….The INA, isn’t that the Moqtada al-Sadr led coalition that’s Iran backed? It is. Apparently Maliki and Sadr are negotiating over whether to form a government together. The accounts differ: the Journal says that Sadr is wary of a backlash; this Guardian profile makes it seem as if Sadr and Maliki have solved their earlier differences, re: Maliki trying to arrest him and all that. Anyway, when you have followers like this (from second Guardian profile):
"If Sayed Moqtada Sadr said [to join with Maliki’s government], then we would agree with him," said a leading Sadrist and former deputy health minister, Hakim al-Zalami, who was jailed by the US military for 18 months on suspicion of being a leading member of the Mahdi Army. "But he has principles and core beliefs and I would be very surprised if he did."
You’re probably pretty well set. That said, some other articles have Sadr worried about Maliki double-crossing him and trying to have him arrested. Curious, no? Well, we'll see. Certainly not the greatest news in the world, right?

Anyway, Sadr is an authentic figure and a populist. You know what you’re going to get with him: someone who wants to help his poor Shi’a followers, is a strong nationalist, and will probably not let Iran interfere with him too much.

He can probably be restrained by a good leader, and so what’s Maliki been up to on the good governance front? Well, this New York Times blog entry makes so many assertions about the way Maliki is perceived (apparently he’s managed the rare feat of being disliked by Arabs, the West, the media, Sunnis, and Kurds…well done, sir!) the article smells like a plant…that said, this is pretty damning: “The satellite channel Al Sharqiya — one of the best Iraqi channels in terms of technical performance — was banned by Mr. Maliki.” Let’s also not forget the whole fiasco with his trying to oust a provincial governor before his term was up. Another New York Times article describes his leadership style thusly:
Still, the Kremlin-like opacity of his decision-making — his own evident paranoia, sharpened by years in exile during Saddam Hussein’s rule — have made some of his decisions appear capricious and contradictory.
Democracy on the march, my friends, from Iraq to Afghanistan.

Sunday, March 28, 2010

Madness Notes: Elite Eight Edition

The Final Four has been set, and oh gosh…what a letdown, is it? I’m not sure. The problem for March Madness is this: there are only so many thrills. Thrills early implies fewer thrills late. So now we have the matchups Butler v. Michigan State and Duke v. West Virginia. How many NBA players are in these games? How many starters? I’m sure you can count the number on one hand.

****

The Elite Eight games held my interest, that’s for sure. I’m having trouble finding the right, nuanced word. The games were all wars: players banging, shoving, and expending all their energy. What it wasn’t was pretty or even particularly good basketball. The number of threes was probably the biggest problem, but the bad passes, dumb fouls and other fundamental errors kept the game aggravating and close. Eventually, if the game is close enough, it becomes thrilling by default.

“War” basketball games can be interesting in small, occasional quantities, but too much leads to health problems. They’re only interesting to remind yourself that basketball is a tremendously physical, draining game and it’s not all just running and jumping. But admit it: you came for the running and jumping and individual brilliance. If you wanted a scrum, you’d figure out how to get rugby matches on DirecTV.

****

There are two and only two stories that can be written about the Final Four, other than the necessary ones talking about the tired-and-lame storylines. The first is (if the tournament has held to form) that chalk held! The second is (if there have been many upsets) that it’s a mid-major upset era at last! Parity rules! We’re on the dawning of a beautiful parity era!

There are many ways to show it, but only one way to say it: this is ridiculous. For one, it’s an overly results-obsessed way of looking at the bracket. If Kansas State makes a few more shots, and the Kentucky-WVA game features sane shooting from each side, then suddenly your final four is K-State, Michigan State, Kentucky, Duke. Then of course we’re still under the rule of the chalk aristocracy.

And it’s worth noting that these things are cyclical anyway. The last time around, when George Mason crashed the Final Four, we heard the same things about how March Madness had become a Parity Party and so on and so forth…and the next few years featured some dominant teams with an unfair share of the spoils. (Let’s take a moment to pause, Pac-10 fans, while we remember the absurd amount of talent stockpiled in the conference…Better now? Thought you weren’t. The wound left by your memory will never ever heal.)

Now, dominance is easy enough to observe but hard to predict. Is it just the incoming class of freshmen? Do you just need potential superstars, or will a lot of lesser stars do the trick? And how good are the upcoming classes? I’m pretty sure the freshmen issue is the most important, given that the dominant teams tend to attract a lot of those potential one-and-done players. But there are a lot of other important issues, e.g. experience of supporting cast, etc. etc. So it’s not simple. But because it’s not simple, it’s pretty simplistic to declare we’re on the verge of another midmajor era because Butler made the Final Four.

By the way, I hope for dominance. Watching the Pac-10 from 2005-08 was a rare treat, probably a once-in-a-lifetime confluence of great players and great coaches. That was a dominance era; mid-major teams didn’t really touch the Pac-10 team. And that was a lot more fun for me, and more interesting basketball to boot. Kansas-Memphis, for example, was a fine championship game in 2007, and I blame that on the quality of the teams that took the floor. So if more talent means more dominance, I root for more talent. The teams that are going to take the floor in Indianapolis? Riff-raff. I don’t want to see another Final Four like it.

Linkism

This interview on disrupting college’s business model raises some good points. It’s not really appreciated how vulnerable the current model is: it sends most graduates out to live with massive, massive debt. At a certain point, you have to wonder how much it’s worth it.

The Wall Street Journal’s report on Brazil is a good overview for someone who knows nothing, such as myself. (So, you might say, how do you know it’s such a good overview? You, hypothetical interrogator, are correct.)

One of the obstacles in the way of reform—of everything—isn’t merely public sentiment. This can be disregarded casually, of course. It’s the institutions which clog up reform like leaves in a gutter. Here’s an example from the New York Times on scientists arguing we need more nukes.

This report from The Guardian on Zimbabwe is written…well, I want to say unconventionally, but not really. It takes a sort of imagistic, pointillist method of describing Harare, which you don’t really see in newspapers that often. And it’s well done too.

This summary of a Jamie Dimon speech in the Stanford Daily (it’s fairly old) is well worth reading for the subtext. Dimon looks to be conceding a lot to the critics of the financial system while defending it weakly. The momentum appears to be shifting on financial reform, but like health care reform, it must work correctly…Here’s why it’s so important for Democrats to do well (from Chris Hayes’s report from 2004 on undecided voters):
The worse things got in Iraq, the better things got for Bush. Liberal commentators, and even many conservative ones, assumed, not unreasonably, that the awful situation in Iraq would prove to be the president's undoing. But I found that the very severity and intractability of the Iraq disaster helped Bush because it induced a kind of fatalism about the possibility of progress. Time after time, undecided voters would agree vociferously with every single critique I offered of Bush's Iraq policy, but conclude that it really didn't matter who was elected, since neither candidate would have any chance of making things better.Yeah, but what's Kerry gonna do? voters would ask me, and when I told them Kerry would bring in allies they would wave their hands and smile with condescension, as if that answer was impossibly naïve. C'mon, they'd say, you don't really think that's going to work, do you?

To be sure, maybe they simply thought Kerry's promise to bring in allies was a lame idea--after all, many well-informed observers did. But I became convinced that there was something else at play here, because undecided voters extended the same logic to other seemingly intractable problems, like the deficit or health care. On these issues, too, undecideds recognized the severity of the situation--but precisely because they understood the severity, they were inclined to be skeptical of Kerry's ability to fix things. Undecided voters, as everyone knows, have a deep skepticism about the ability of politicians to keep their promises and solve problems. So the staggering incompetence and irresponsibility of the Bush administration and the demonstrably poor state of world affairs seemed to serve not as indictments of Bush in particular, but rather of politicians in general. Kerry, by mere dint of being on the ballot, was somehow tainted by Bush's failures as badly as Bush was.

As a result, undecideds seemed oddly unwilling to hold the president accountable for his previous actions, focusing instead on the practical issue of who would have a better chance of success in the future. Because undecideds seemed uninterested in assessing responsibility for the past, Bush suffered no penalty for having made things so bad; and because undecideds were focused on, but cynical about, the future, the worse things appeared, the less inclined they were to believe that problems could be fixed--thereby nullifying the backbone of Kerry's case. Needless to say, I found this logic maddening.

I think this report from The Guardian is pretty amusing: people really are the same everywhere. An issue that would otherwise molder without notice becomes dramatized because NO MORE SOCCER PLAYERS.

An older report from Alphaville alerts me to a worry: many prominent governments have very short term financing structures. They have to keep on rolling over their debts on a yearly basis. Obviously this makes them very vulnerable to a sudden sharp shift in interest rates…which of course means less money from elsewhere, i.e. public contraction and less money in the economy in general. Something to think about.

This New Yorker slideshow on miners in Ukraine has some great photos.

Saturday, March 27, 2010

Weekend Linkism

A reading list of things I think are interesting.

A meta-reading list on cites from The Urbanophile. Highly recommended.

Brad DeLong on the long view when it comes to our economy:
If all goes well in China and India in the next generation—and if nothing goes catastrophically wrong in the rich post-industrial North Atlantic core of the global economy—then the next generation will see a real milestone. For the first time ever more than half of the world will have enough food not to be hungry and worry about famine, enough shelter not to be wet and worried about trenchfoot, enough clothing not to be cold and worried about hypothermia, and enough medical care not to be worried that they and the majority of their children will die of microparisites well short of their biblical three-score-and-ten years. The big problems of the bulk of humanity will then be those of finding enough conceptual puzzles and diversions in their work and play lives so as not to be bored, enough relative status not to be green with envy of their fellows—and, of course, avoiding and quickly disposing of the thugs who used to have spears and will have cruise missiles and H-bombs who have functioned as macroparasites infecting humanity ever since the first farmers realized that now that they had crops running away into the forest was no longer an option.

Glenn Greenwald on WikiLeaks. Like a lot of Greenwald, highly informative yet also needs the services of an editor.

The Nation on the historians who testify against Big Tobacco.

The New York Times on John Dugan, head of the Office of the Comptroller of the Currency; or, why our financial regulation system is bad and probably won’t get better. Relatedly, Paul Krugman writes about ancient Greeks and Romans and financial reform.

Why novels are getting longer.

The Onion on The Simpsons and pop-culture references. Reminded me of why The Simpsons was such a great show. Unlike, say, Seinfeld, the re-runs aren’t sufficient: they’re now showing re-runs of when the show wasn’t so good and so this only reminds you of how mediocre the show became.

The New Republic on the California governor’s race. As you have guessed, the state is fucked.

Alphaville on the charges big companies will be paying because of health care. It turns out it’s: technical accounting rules and the reduction of a subsidy big companies got to provide prescription drugs. This is a hidden subsidy most of us weren’t even aware of throughout this health care debate, which is very impressive. It’ll obviously have to be completely repealed or reworked. Add that to the list of things that need to get done in Health Care Reform: The Sequel—This Time It’s Fiscal.

Some Notes

I was thinking about Ocean's Thirteen yesterday—I try to think of the true classics from time to time—and I realized: isn’t it incredibly unrealistic? I mean, besides the things that are obviously incredibly unrealistic, like the coma plotline, the aphrodisiac plotline, etc. etc. No, what I mean is that: we’re supposed to believe that a savvy, ruthless businessman (who’s played by Al Pacino, who will cut you like a hammer) will be ruined by his creditors after one bad night at his casino. Granted, it’s his opening night, and granted, it’s a pretty bad night, but still: seems a little ridiculous to be that much in hock to your creditors. Surely a real businessman would plan for the worst when it came to his creditors, right? Then I thought about our current business elite, and I thought, well maybe it is realistic after all.

***

A clarification about Season Five of The Wire. My writing might have given you the impression it was actively awful. This is not true. It’s merely much less good than the preceding four. Which is the trouble with extending your story after X brilliant iterations of it.

Anyway, what’s so interesting is that it didn’t have to be that way. Simon could’ve chosen not to focus on journalism, which is clearly a subject that arouses a lot of passion on his part, passion that might not be productive when it comes to his story. Simon neither lacked for potential subjects nor subjects he actively contemplated: apparently he considered doing a season on immigration (but rejected it due to the research/language issues), and some guy threw out the idea of doing Baltimore’s hospitals, which is pretty interesting in of itself. It certainly would’ve been better than what ended up happening, which was wrong when it came out and hasn’t aged well either. Unlike the rest of the series, whose critiques have aged quite well.

***

Speaking of media, I’m worried the whole innovation thing isn’t working out too well, short-term. I’m an optimist about the media long-term: I think analysis is going to be more valuable, not less; information-gathering more valuable, not less, and eventually something in the market is going to sort itself out. But the short-term trends are towards ever-more annoying manifestations of the same strategies.

I see the Wall Street Journal has decided to price its iPad app at $17.99/mo: you can get a digital subscription or iPhone app subscription for less. This is the most insane version of the WE HAVE TO MAKE THEM PAY FOR OUR WONDERFUL JOURNALISM strategy, which I don’t think is completely insane, but this version certainly is. Why, exactly, should I pay for your wonderful iPad app when that same iPad can go to Google News can get the stories anyway? Yes, I know you’re going to take yourself off Google, Rupert, but let’s get real…Anyway, on the other end of the spectrum, I visited ABC News’s website—I refuse to link to it because of this strategy, and I’m sure my massive traffic will be a significant loss to them—and they have embedded videos on each of their news stories. Which is, of course, more than fine. These embedded videos start automatically. This is annoying and a transparent attempt to goose their stats, but I can deal. These embedded videos start with an ad. This is very annoying but fine, I’ll just pause it…These embedded videos don’t pause! That’s just an excellent way to annoy me past tolerance.

That said, while these strategies are incredibly annoying and make me want to punch somebody straight in their face, it’s tough to know what to tell them to do as an alternative…There’s the whole salons, fan stores, etc., etc. method of leveraging their audience, but can you see this being a really significant source of revenue? I suppose it’s possible, but…doesn’t it seem unlikely? There’s the hope that eventually online advertising will catch up to other forms of advertising, but what if it doesn’t? What if advertisers and brands decide to talk to their audience directly?

I’m reminded of a quotation by Jacob Riis (that the Spurs reference all the time, so this isn’t just me being an asshole recalling the quotation offhand), in which he says:
“When nothing seems to help, I go look at a stonecutter hammering away at his rock perhaps a hundred times without as much as a crack showing in it. Yet at the hundred and first blow it will split in two, and I know it was not that blow that did it, but all that had gone before.”
It’s something I think about re: employment and writing myself, and I ask myself this: what if the rock is unbreakable?

Friday, March 26, 2010

Linkism

An interesting essayessay from The American Scholar relating solitude and leadership. It eventually degenerates into an old-person-bashing-Twitter piece, but the beginning parts provoke more interesting thoughts. Here’s something I basically agree with:
That’s really the great mystery about bureaucracies. Why is it so often that the best people are stuck in the middle and the people who are running things—the leaders—are the mediocrities? Because excellence isn’t usually what gets you up the greasy pole. What gets you up is a talent for maneuvering. Kissing up to the people above you, kicking down to the people below you. Pleasing your teachers, pleasing your superiors, picking a powerful mentor and riding his coattails until it’s time to stab him in the back. Jumping through hoops. Getting along by going along. Being whatever other people want you to be, so that it finally comes to seem that, like the manager of the Central Station, you have nothing inside you at all. Not taking stupid risks like trying to change how things are done or question why they’re done. Just keeping the routine going.

And then here’s something I disagree with (as a factual matter):
I used to have students who bragged to me about how fast they wrote their papers. I would tell them that the great German novelist Thomas Mann said that a writer is someone for whom writing is more difficult than it is for other people. The best writers write much more slowly than everyone else, and the better they are, the slower they write. James Joyce wroteUlysses, the greatest novel of the 20th century, at the rate of about a hundred words a day—half the length of the selection I read you earlier from Heart of Darkness—for seven years. T. S. Eliot, one of the greatest poets our country has ever produced, wrote about 150 pages of poetry over the course of his entire 25-year career. That’s half a page a month. So it is with any other form of thought. You do your best thinking by slowing down and concentrating.
Joyce is, without question, a great writer—read Dubliners if you disbelieve me. But so is Hemingway—he was pretty prolific. David Foster Wallace wrote thousands and thousands of pages. Trollope, some say, is a great writer (I haven’t read him). The realists of the 19th century were extraordinarily prolific. Writing isn’t reducible like that.


Here’s a cool blog post on…well, scientific journals, the Industrial Age, and the “Information Age” (hint: not when you think it is).

Here’s a New Yorker piece on marriage therapy.

Self-recommeding: David Leonhardt on financial regulation.

Here's Mike Konczal on our continuing real-estate woes.

Underappreciated Remix

I really have no idea what's current anymore, re: music, but this is a remix from a few years back that I don't think has gotten a lot of attention.

The Era of Diminished Expectations

Warning: Spoilers of The Wire abound

What does Obama think when he watches The Wire version of Baltimore? Specifically, what does he think about its politicians? Even more specifically, what does he think about Tommy Carcetti?

The politicians of The Wire are unsurprisingly a venal lot; in the grand American tradition, the best ones we see early are portrayed as anti-politicians. So when Judge Phelan early in the first season—who’s personally a jerk, but is pretty good at his job—has to give into the whole fund-raising and groveling circuit in order to put his name on the Democratic list, we’re given to understand that politics is a dirty place that corrupts the real workings of the job. This is understandable and correct when it comes to  the law, where the parties and the interests really do have too much influence over elected judgeships, but not so much when it comes to the popular representatives.

Where I’d really be interested to hear Obama’s unedited thoughts concerns Tommy Carcetti. The obvious difference is the color of their skin—the quotation of Carcetti’s that everyone repeats is, “Every day I wake up white in a city that ain’t.”—but their characters have some eerie similarities otherwise. Both characters are outsiders; racially, partly, but they both take on the established order presumptuously. “It wasn’t your turn,” the City Council president tells Carcetti, as she was supposed to run next; one could imagine Hillary telling Obama the same thing. Both seem to be in a hurry: Carcetti is barely elected and he begins planning how he can run for governor; Obama’s run for the Presidency met a lot of skepticism from the home front. Both have a formal way of speaking or relating to their audience—in Carcetti’s case, it’s almost odd; you’d expect him to be more of a backslapping pol. Both are public idealists but private political animals.

Both inspire thoughts—in that grand American tradition I mentioned earlier—of a nonpolitical new day. That phrase—“It’s a new day in Baltimore”—gets repeated quite a bit in the closing episodes of Season Four, and you almost want to believe the poor characters, the good police and the good prosecutors, who say it. Of course politics always wins, as it usually ought to. Carcetti discovers an accounting error in the schools budget: the schools are $50 million in the red. And Carcetti, after ruling out a schools bailout—he can’t grovel in public—has a political choice: schools or police. The dreamers, those who believe that this area or that area of public concern can be run apolitically, always fall to politics because politics is about priorities, and the only way to have a durable decision about something like schools or police, or health care or jobs (a purposeful false equivalence: both pairs should be/should have been achievable within their respective realities), is to resolve it politically. The support of the stakeholders, the people and the interests, will always be necessary. That’s politics. And that’s how you get your big plans enacted.

Both have big plans…in an era of diminished expectations. Carcetti’s big issue is crime—appropriately, in the universe of The Wire, as I believe The Guardian’s onscreen murder count (that we know of) is up to 67 through the first four seasons, and Commissioner Burrell’s pressured to keep the murder count under 350 (IIRC) for the year in Season Four. Carcetti’s difficulties are entirely self-inflicted. He cannot fire the incompetent (at police work) Commissioner Burrell; he cannot take the school bailout from the unnamed Republican governor—he guts the police department instead. Obama has been savvier (did he take the lessons of The Wire to heart?) and more courageous. Afghanistan, the final push for health care reform…whatever else can be said about these decisions, they were certainly not the actions of a craven politician ready to be blown over in whichever direction the winds blow.




And yet we seem to be in an era of diminished expectations and capabilities. The health care bill is an improvement on the status quo. But there is so much more that must be done, so many crises that we know will come and must be dealt with now: the long-term deficit, unemployment, global warming, finance, innovation, the education stagnation…I’m sure the list can be added to by more perceptive readers. Perhaps the GOP has rethought its reflexive rejection of all bills, but I’ll believe it only when it happens and not before then. And perhaps some of these problems can be dealt with in an only-Democrats fashion, but some of these problems, being nonbudgetary, surely won’t fall under the Byrd rule…We may be stuck. You look at our world or The Wire’s world, you see people in bad institutions defending the right of their bad institutions to be bad, and with a creativity and doggedness that makes you wonder what they could do in the context of good institutions and good environment…

I read a very good book a few years back called Off the Books by Sudhir Venkatesh, that covers much of the same territory as The Wire, but does more: it shows a deep attention to the lives of what Omar would call “the taxpayers” or “the civilians.” And what’s truly wonderful about the book is what might be termed the entrepreneurialism of the people depicted: they live in worse conditions and yet are innovative and creative in solving their own problems. It’s an ecosystem with an equilibrium: life works. But differently—worse. People in that book, in The Wire, are stuck where they are because the system has settled and congealed in place. The same system will yield the same results. And that’s our world right now: instead of the wealth and the wonder we could be creating, the human potential that is resting, we are in the same place. In our era of diminished expectations, we need a disruption. 

Thursday, March 25, 2010

Madness Notes

I guess the backlash goes like this: Syracuse had an unfulfilling year. And yet that’s the nature of game, isn’t it? If Syracuse loses to Butler in the regular season, or Kansas loses to Northern Iowa in the regular season, it’s disappointing, but a blip. We’d all be able to put it into context and realize that both of the upset overdogs were fine teams and had fine seasons, and one of the lows was losing to an inferior team, which anyone with a basic grasp of probability should realize happens from time to time.

But since it happens in the postseason, the playoffs—well, then, now everyone gets judged a little bit more harshly. It’s where heroes are made and the weak exposed and blah blah blah…I noticed that there’s a backlash developing against Bill Self, which seems more than a little bit unfair. Everyone gets upset, and you shouldn’t necessarily take any one game as revealing the deeper, inner quality of a team, let alone use it as clues to their deeper human natures, and yet we do.

Someone like Alex Rodriguez probably shows this the best. Somehow, his consistent 162 games of excellence got thrown out the window for 13 or so games of mediocrity from time to time. It was and remains fun to hate him, so that probably plays a role, but it was nevertheless unfair to speculate about A-Rod, person because of A-Rod, occasionally bad playoff performer.

What it reveals is two competing impulses in our criticism: we want entertainment, and we want…justice, is it? information? Well, something that exposes the athlete as a person—we sometimes think sports is a show for human nature. If you’re going to want accuracy, you want a long, drawn out playoffs. For the sample size, basically. You want the NBA. These are occasionally highly rated. They’re particularly highly rated in eras with compelling superstars, i.e. human beings who have extremely rare abilities among a group of human beings with extremely rare human beings, i.e. not really a fair guide into human nature, i.e. kind of a fraud anyway. But it’s fun if you like epics, and I like epics. March Madness, however, is always highly rated. We love our random entertainment, and the Madness is skillful at that.

**

Random entertainment—did you see Kansas State versus Xavier? Most Americans—I’m one of them—couldn’t really give you an accurate scouting report of either team if it was a matter of extreme importance (perhaps, if their life depended on it?), but, judging from my Twitter feed, many Americans were compelled by the game.

I was among that “many,” but it’s always disappointing to me to see a game so poorly played. File it under the category of Wake-Texas, I think. First there was the fiasco with the down-three foul; I really hope this doesn’t dissuade coaches from trying this in general, as the execution was very poor. In fact, the execution was poor would be my sentence to describe much of the allegedly exciting parts of the game. The first play of the first overtime (I believe) was a backdoor screen in which, after the screen, Jordan Crawford dashed from the three point line to the rim, uncovered the entire way. Later, Crawford was allowed to establish deep post position off an inbounds play; he got the angle to the inbounds passer too. A Kansas State player fouled out while trying to get an offensive rebound off of a free throw. Mistakes were made.

On occasion, people will defend the college game by saying that what’s compelling is that the players often make mistakes because they want it so darn much. It’s a matter of taste, I guess, but I don’t find mistakes compelling in sports. Mistakes are compelling when dramatized—art is, after all, trying to represent the human condition blah blah blah artsy-fartsy terms here—but they feel different in a sporting event. Well, dumb mistakes—the ones above—are always annoying. Mistakes caused by choking are occasionally interesting, as they are about the intrinsic pressure and power of an otherwise well-played game. Dumb mistakes, however, are committed by worse players at random times. We just happen to remember the ones at the end more clearly. Therefore, they aren’t compelling. Therefore, I prefer professional sports nyah nyah nyah.

**

I thought it was kind of funny to hear people talk themselves into Cornell beating Kentucky. This is the kind of thing people want to happen, but won’t happen and didn’t happen. But people like to believe that the morally upright underdog can win, because people generally like to believe that they too are morally upright underdogs who are under the thumb of the Kentuckys of the world. Not to get too Ayn Rand here, but that’s bs.

Anyway, Kentucky played OK, and they remain the best team left in the tournament by survival. They rarely reach the level of outright take-no-prisoners destruction, or transcendence that was reached occasionally by Kansas this season and most consistently by the 2007-8 UCLA Bruins (personal preference: I realize Memphis was better that year in that game), but they are just better more often. What I think is amusing about this Kentucky team is that people are trying to talk themselves into that level of dominance/transcendence/importance—this is why we started hearing that Bledsoe and Orton were mid-level first round picks when they so clearly need another year (though Orton will never have it). There are really only two significant players on the team: Wall and Cousins. They’re the brilliant ones: Wall’s defense was the best part of his game today; Cousins was Cousins. Patterson is a solid third guy. The rest are, at the moment, bystanders with occasional contributions. And that’s the best team in the country right now.

Classic Joint

Unfairly ignored:

Wednesday, March 24, 2010

Trustworthy or not?

You may or may not be aware of controversy surrounding Yelp. Apparently, many people believe that Yelp’s sales staff was using, ah, Mafioso type tactics to get them to spend on Yelp’s services. Well, anyway, the founder of Yelp decided to give an interview with the New York Times. Here’s his first two answers:
Q. Class-action lawsuits have been filed that accuse your company of extortion. Do you extort people?

A. Absolutely not. The way Yelp works is very counterintuitive to a lot of folks, which is the source of the problem. In 2005, we created a review filter. It’s automated and algorithmic and screens out certain reviews that it just doesn’t know enough about. When a consumer encounters a business’s page, the reviews they’re seeing aren’t necessarily every review that’s been written about the business. It’s a selection of those reviews. It ensures that the consumer sees generally useful, trustworthy information that gives them a good idea of what to expect when they patronize that business.

Q. How does the filter determine whether a review is trustworthy?
A. We’re looking at a variety of factors, collecting all sorts of data on the users that have contributed reviews. I really can’t be very specific. The more that we explain about the algorithm, the less effective it becomes.

It’s pretty amusing that these answers are plausible on their face…and also exactly what you’d say if you were engaging in Mafia-style tactics. Obviously I don’t really know which is true, but I thought it was a funny little demonstration.

Teaching The Wire

My friend Christian sent me this Slate article on The Wire: The Complete Series moving onto university curricula, which I thought was a pretty interesting pathway to thinking about The Wire generally. If you’re teaching the show, you have to assume the show has something to teach in of itself—but what? Well, the focus of the teachers in the article (which may or may not be the focus of teachers everywhere) seems to be on how they can impart real-life lessons through the fiction of the show, which is to be expected. What the critics (and the viewers) almost always focus upon, when watching the show, is its extraordinary verisimilitude and therefore its (seeming) realism.

The show’s great achievement, though, is not its verisimilitude, or the complete world it conjures but rather its success at creating a world, a world with a mood largely fatalistic: we’re all tossed and turned on other people’s whims. There’s a great speech in the first season that exactly encapsulates it:



The show largely gets you to accept that the king stay the king, even though we know that it’s not true in real life, and it’s not even true on the show’s terms: the king is dead—long live a new king. But, from the perspective of the three characters sitting around the chess set, it’s certainly true enough: they’re just the pawns on the front line, at the beck and call of other forces far beyond them. Most of us happen to be pawns, but some of us make it to the last row and get promoted. There are exceptions; The Wire gets you to disbelieve this fact.

Most of the show does this, anyway. The extraordinary bleakness of most of the show rings true enough, and most of it has aged well. The show started in something like cheerier days, in bubble America, and now in today’s era of diminished expectations, many of its propositions seem more like axioms. Particularly, I think, its thoughts on politicians.*

(*Note: it’s been pretty well-established that The Wire is President Obama’s favorite show. This deserves far more attention, speculation, and thought than anyone has given it to date. I may take a crack at it at some time. But I think Obama’s thoughts—well, his honest ones—on Tommy Carcetti would be something I’d be willing to pay for.)

There’s an exception: The Wire caught a bad case of Godfather: Part III-itis in its final season, and while the disease didn’t afflict the show as badly as, say, Star Wars, the damage is extensive. It exposes the show, you might say. Seasons One-Four are consistently brilliant and exactly what critics are talking about when they call it the best show ever; Season Five, however, is not. Season Five—and here I’ll spare you the spoilers—introduces several ridiculous subplots and character changes for no good reason whatsoever, in a tone that clashes radically with the relatively understated tone of the rest of the series. (Are there serial killers in Baltimore? I doubt it.) The worst thing, though, is its approach to the institution of that series: journalism. Simon’s thesis, repeated often, is that journalism’s problem—newspaper’s problem, more specifically—is staff cuts and prizes. The show reflects that, of course. I won’t argue with the first, but it’s more a symptom than a cause. We all know the business model is broken. The latter is ridiculous, practically self-evidently so. Maybe the biggest problem with its portrayal of journalism is that the word “internet” is not uttered once in the episodes I’ve seen so far.

The bad writing of the fifth season exposes the patterns of the first four. For one, there’s the question of power. Some have stated that all authority figures are odious in The Wire but this isn’t quite true. Think of it this way: power is the ability to get what you want. The characters who get what they want most consistent are most odious; the reverse holds true also. So the characters with power are frequently willing to be most odious; the ones who aren’t as willing to be odious are less powerful. There are, of course, important elements of truth here: you will be pushed around in the world if you aren’t willing to stiffen your spine, but certainly it’s not always literally true.

What is true, however, shouldn’t necessarily always matter in fiction. It’s not that David Simon is wrong when he attacks journalism in this way. It’s that he’s not interestingly wrong. It fires no neurons, no synapses, no “I wonder if that’s true” in my mind. Instead, it’s something that’s merely false. The first four seasons are often wrong and often right, but it’s always in a dramatically interesting way. In fact, the first four seasons are mesmerizing. For one, you forget it’s really writing at all, simply things happening. That’s a goal of every writer, so you always have to admire it. That suggests more: it suggests, in this instance, a lack of perspective. There are, in my mind, two great schools of writing: one like David Foster Wallace, where you are always very aware that a specific argument or perspective is being argued (however well or poorly); the other, is more of that realist one, in which you simply think you’ve been given a telescope to spy on someone from a long distance. Obviously, in the latter case, you haven’t—the telescope points itself and sees selectively—but it’s a great trick and very useful to think that you have.

That’s why the focus of teaching the show should be on teaching the drama and the writing. The dramatics of the show for the first four seasons are a master class: practically every tool in the writer’s belt is deployed from time to time, and I would be useless at long lengths to tell you all of the instances. Really, watch the show—it’s brilliant. Just don’t necessarily be mesmerized completely by the spell, because the real-life portions are not quite that.

The Fifth Act of Health Care Reform

The work isn’t done. You might call this health care bill the third or fourth act of a five-act play. For those of us who remember dramatics (or those of us who can fake it, i.e. me), the climatic act is the fifth one.

There’s been some triumphalism on the left (e.g. Matt Yglesias here and here) equating this bill to the end of big government liberalism in tones reminiscent of “the end of history,” as if the left winning its primary goal somehow forces—all Hegelian-like—the end of the ideology. This, of course, is false because health care reform isn’t really done.

The one thing we know for certain that health care reform will do is coverage. We can be pretty sure that coverage will expand, and dramatically, and obviously this a great achievement. But to a certain extent that means putting everyone under the shelter of a leaky roof. It’s better to be under the roof than out in the rain, and it’s better that we’ve effectively guaranteed that people can always be under the roof, but we haven’t yet fixed the roof.

The big argument that remains about health care could be summed up by saying “cost control” but that misses the point somewhat. You could control costs by methods similar to Paul Ryan’s, i.e. cap payments and ration, but that doesn’t really fix the roof (to extend the analogy). It just says we’re not going to fix the roof because we don’t have the money. Which is one way of looking at it, I suppose, and that’s why it’s an argument, and why it’s going to be a heated one. The other way is to figure out how to fix the roof. The health care reform bill has funded some studies on the issue, and it’s definitely important to know how to do something before you try to do it, but at some point you have to do it. The fifth act is doing it.

Tuesday, March 23, 2010

New prototypes

There’s a prototype in the NBA that hasn’t quite been filled yet: the new age power forward. No position has been transformed as much by the tectonic changes in the game. Some might say point guards, and they dominate the league right now in terms of average quality, but point guards today look and play a lot like point guards did 10, even 20 years ago. Meanwhile, here’s a complete list of starting power forwards in the league:

Garnett (Boston), Jianlian (New Jersey), Gallinari (New York), Brand (Philadelphia), Bosh (Toronto), Tolliver (Golden State), Gooden (LAC), Gasol (LAL), Stoudemire (Phoenix), Landry (Sacramento), Gibson (Chicago), Jamison (Cleveland), Jerebko (Detroit), Murphy (Indiana), Mbah a Moute (Milwaukee), Nowitzki (Dallas), Scola (Houston), Randolph (Memphis), McDyess (San Antonio), Smith (Atlanta), Diaw (Charlotte), Beasley (Miami), Lewis (Orlando), Blatche (Washington), Petro (Denver), Jefferson (Minnesota), Green (OKC), Aldridge (Portland), Boozer (Utah).

Leave aside quality for a moment: what you have here is a Cambrian explosion of styles and ways of approaching the position—do Nowitzki, Randolph, and Stoudemire all play the same position? Apparently they do. This is to say nothing of rugged guys off the bench like DeJuan Blair, Craig Smith, et. al. who occupy even another space than the other three guys. What this suggests to me is that the NBA is between styles and the power forward position reflects that.

The old power forward was driven by old thinking. The idea of the big man rested on a player who was both big and skilled. But this is difficult: you’re looking for someone on the long tail of the distribution of height; within that long tail, you’re looking for three more long tails: mobility, coordination, and skill. This, of course, ignores the mental game. For all these requirements, there are only a handful of human beings alive and in prime playing condition at any given time that live up to them. So you have a choice: height or skill. Old NBA teams—and current ones still do too, apparently (see: the Daniel Orton broomlet)—chose height instead of skill. Well, the new ones are choosing differently…sometimes, at least.

So there’s room for a new prototype. As the success of the Magic proved last year, something magical (pun intended with a vengeance) happens in the synergy of a team when you go from three shooters to four shooters: the floor’s a little more spaced out and everyone has more room to operate. Rashard Lewis, though, is a small forward uncomfortably playing power forward. Also, he has something of Lamar Odom in his mentality—doesn’t want to dominate though he plainly could if he wanted to. What this suggests is that there’s plenty of room for a new type of power forward to emerge.

The new type of power forward will rebound—just like the position required traditionally—but will also be mobile enough to shoot and hedge/switch on pick and rolls. Blocking shots is nice but not required. Post moves, too, are nice but not required—in fact, two post players may be too many; the lane isn’t big enough for two post players and their defenders to share. The new type of power forward looks a lot like Michael Beasley. Except more sane.

(Questions for further exploration: why do so many multitalented forwards have mental issues? In fact, I’d argue it’s easier to think of multitalented forwards with mental issues than without.)

Monday, March 22, 2010

Rampant Speculation: NBA style

Let’s play every NBA fan’s favorite game: rampant speculation about how David Stern will fix the draft lottery. (The difference, by the way, between NBA fans and NCAA fans is that NBA fans believe and accept that the league is fixed; NCAA fans don’t even ponder the fact. The whole Duke conspiracy theory this tournament was a step in the right direction, but let’s just say NBA fans would’ve never allowed Duke-Cal to happen as it did without screaming and whining—all for entertainment, of course. I mean, did you see that loose ball foul on Jorge Gutierrez on Brian Zoubek, which was apparently given to Gutierrez because he had the effrontery to reach for the ball? I’m angry, and I went to Stanford.)

Anyway, let’s move on to our main contenders: Indiana, Philly, Detroit, Washington, New Jersey, Utah, Clippers, Sacramento, Golden State, Minnesota. Let’s throw out teams that have had their fair share of luck recently (in the fixing department): that means YOU, Sacramento and LA. We can also eliminate sheer incompetence, i.e. no Minnesota. We can eliminate Utah because there’s no way David Stern would allow an actual star to go to Salt Lake City. This leaves only intriguing choices—Indiana, Philly, Detroit, Washington, New Jersey, Golden State. These are all once-proud franchises that have fallen on hard times, that whole rap, and in many cases have nice history of fan support. Ultimately, I see three cases fitting Stern’s needs of good market, good story, and goodies: Washington, New Jersey, and Golden State. Washington, of course, has the whole Gilbert Arenas thing going on, and it would be a fitting resurrection narrative (along with a new owner to reward) for them to get a nice pick (i.e. 1 or 2). Bonus points on the market—Washington may be small, but it has an outsized importance for obvious reasons. New Jersey has a new owner, and will be Brooklyn soon anyway. If there’s any tenet in the David Stern conspiracy theory manual that must be followed while speculating, it’s that David Stern loves New York (though maybe not Queens or Staten Island or some such). Also, there’s a new, mysterious Russian owner that needs rewarding. Obviously, very promising there. With Golden State, you’ve got a great, wealthy market, and whomever finally takes the team out of Chris Cohan’s cold, dead hands deserves a housewarming gift, don’t you think? (By the way, fascinating argument for your spare time: Warriors or Raiders, who’s worse managed? Who’s crazier?).

Here’s my bet:

  1. New Jersey
  2. Golden State
  3. Washington

And there you have it.

Linkism

I think this FT Alphaville post on the British railway speculation wasn’t a bubble (and hence that it’s difficult to identify bubbles as they’re happening) is very worthwhile, though I’m not really sure how much to believe of it—it seems to argue that during the 1830s, railroad investors made a lot of money, but during the 1840s they lost a lot of money!, which, uh, may not be a bubble as much as a watery sphere filled with air. Anyway, a railroad bubble seems useful to me; housing-in-nonproductive-locations not so much.

This “rise of the red Tories” essay is thought-provoking.

This essay on New Deal denialists is good for a nice laff if you’re a liberal.

And this essay comparing Afghanistan to the Sun King’s travails in France meets my approval in seemingly farfetched historical comparisons (free reg. required).

After Health Care Reform

People don’t think strategically; instead they overreact to whatever event wallops them on the nose. The passage of health care reform is—could you have guessed from the first sentence?—a perfect example of this: several different writers, all with a variety of political perspectives, seem to believe that the bill’s passage has confirmed what idiots Republicans are. Well, this is so, but they mean the “just say no” strategy (I think Republicans should be credited for taking from Nancy as opposed to Ronald Reagan, but that’s something for some other time). But Republicans were right all along, and this wasn’t their worst-case scenario, I assume, and it’s not even all that bad.

Recall that the exact strategy won such kudos, grudging or admiring, back when Democrats were dismayed. The strategy was the same; the outcome seemed different. But we shouldn’t judge the strategy necessarily by one particular outcome because we know that a number of different outcomes is possible, and instead we should evaluate the matter probabilistically. The odds that Republicans would completely derail health care reform seems in retrospect slim: health care reform is a matter of such necessity for Democrats, their constituency and the country generally that it would be foolish to expect that a governmental troika would be unable to pass some form of it.

This leaves the question of how and what form. People have suggested that Republicans should have concentrated on the latter question, i.e. to get a more conservative form of health care reform. But it’s in many ways difficult to see what form of health care reform would have simultaneously been understood to be possible (within the mainstream), that progressives would have signed up for, and would’ve been acceptable on a cost-cutting basis. Perhaps they mean smaller things like tort reform, which Democrats had been dangling as a potential compromise for a while. Perhaps tighter intellectual property for pharmaceuticals? I’m genuinely straining, because I don’t know. Maybe I’ll be enlightened.

But consider that whatever compromises Republicans could’ve extracted, they wouldn’t have energized the base; they likely would’ve depressed it. Meanwhile, had a deal been cut, it would’ve given Democrats a victory much earlier. That victory would’ve been a validation of Obama and the Democrats. It might well have propped up their approval ratings. They then could’ve used that political capital to push through other reforms. As it stands, the Democrats can credit one major reform—health care—and the halves of two others (climate change and financial reform) to their name. Without the bruising dissension of the health care battle, they might well have found it possible to push through other dastardly liberal policies.

Instead, the political eye was trained on health care and health care only for several months. During that time, Republicans extracted the maximum possible political price from Democrats. Democrats didn’t get to push through any of their other major reforms, and it seems unlikely that we’ll get any of the others at this point. We’re gearing up for a fight over an ineffectual finance bill in the Senate and there are noises about immigration reform, but do you think there’s going to be serious liberal movement on that? I suspect not. The finance bill is far too arcane for the American discourse; it’s more complicated than health care. Immigration is a scalding political issue, and generally recessions are fuel to nativist sentiment. Confronting either or both of these issues will require political will, something that Democrats aren’t exactly likely to have in great supply after a bruising political fight; do you think they have the constitution to take another health care battle? Republicans are responsible for most of the pain in that battle. So, if I’m right, Democrats won’t want to take up any major reforms. Well done, Republicans, for so effectively stopping us from trying to solve the country’s problems.