Monday, May 31, 2010


The Billionaire Boy’s Club in education:
It has the potential to become Barack Obama’s Vietnam. Not the Gulf oil spill, serious though that is. Nor Afghanistan. Other people’s mistakes are one thing. The ones that haunt forever are the ones you make yourself.

I mean the system of public education.

Remember the recipe for a policy disaster? Start with a handful of policy intellectuals confronting a stubborn problem, in love with a Big Idea. Fold in a bunch of ambitious Ivy League kids who don’t speak the local language. Churn up enthusiasm for the program in the gullible national press – and get ready for a decade of really bad news. Take a look at David Halberstam’s Vietnam classic The Best and the Brightest, if you need to refresh your memory. Or just think back on the run-up to the war in Iraq.

Andrew Ross Sorkin is on a roll recently, with an article asking questions about ratings agency failure.

The virus ravaging cassava plants:
That newcomer, brown streak, is now ravaging cassava crops in a great swath around Lake Victoria, threatening millions of East Africans who grow the tuber as their staple food.

Although it has been seen on coastal farms for 70 years, a mutant version emerged in Africa’s interior in 2004, “and there has been explosive, pandemic-style spread since then,” said Claude M. Fauquet, director of cassava research at the Donald Danforth Plant Science Center in St. Louis. “The speed is just unprecedented, and the farmers are really desperate.”

Two years ago, the Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation convened cassava experts and realized that brown streak “was alarming quite a few people,” said Lawrence Kent, an agriculture program officer at the foundation. It has given $27 million in grants to aid agencies and plant scientists fighting the disease.

The threat could become global. After rice and wheat, cassava is the world’s third-largest source of calories. Under many names, including manioc, tapioca and yuca, it is eaten by 800 million people in Africa, South America and Asia.

On how minor happenings in Spain moved the world.

Good news!:

Banks in the euro zone will suffer "considerable" loan losses this year and next, which could amount to an additional €195 billion ($239.26 billion) in write-downs and could weigh on banks' profitability, the European Central Bank said.

On brands and Chinese youth:

Hanging from a counter were a series of decorative wall posters depicting some of the essential things a child might learn in their first few years: colors, shapes, different kinds of animals. Right beside the one with colors and shapes (see the cell phone picture I snapped below) was another one — also recommended for ages 0-3 – displaying the different brands of luxury automobiles: BMW, Bentley, Rolls Royce, Porsche, Mercedes Benz, Lincoln, etc. (as an import, Chevrolet is also considered a prestigious car in China).

I’ve mentioned before that the Chinese are car-crazy, but this was ridiculous. I could sort of understand a poster that showed different kinds of cars and trucks — a fire truck or a dump truck, for instance — maybe with the brand as one detail of the illustration. But the funny part is, the vehicles on the poster are virtually the same type, as far as a child is concerned – the brands and their logos are obviously the distinguishing feature. Apparently, in China, by age 3 it’s every bit as important for your tot to be able to pick out a Rolls from a BMW as it is for them to tell red from blue, a circle from a square, or a tiger from a giraffe!

How Greece is tracking tax evaders:

…the minions of the moneyed are hauling tarps and tree branches over glistening backyard waters, scrambling to camouflage swimming pools. Under Greek law, swimming pools are luxuries that influence tax status and must be declared; there are hundreds of unreported pools in Athens alone.

But it's too late to hide them now.

Investigators have already gathered Google Earth images of the entire country and are combing through them, one fancy neighborhood at a time.

"It doesn't change anything," Ioannis said. "We already have a photographic map, whether they cover them up now or not."

His agents have been showing up at the doors of houses with undeclared swimming pools, demanding an explanation.

How the black middle and lower class is falling behind in Memphis. (unexcerptable)

Trichet: "In simple words: We are not printing money.” Maybe you should be?

Is Brazil growing too quickly?

What is it with the French and elaborate thefts: “A daring heist by armed bandits who made off with 200kg (440lb) of gold jewellery worth £5.5m has left French detectives baffled and quietly impressed.

Officers described the raid, in which a jewellery wholesaler and his family were held at gunpoint overnight, as a professional job carried out with military precision. In terms of forward planning, audacity and meticulous attention to detail, the robbery resembled the plot of the Hollywood film Ocean's Eleven.”

Are China’s workers demanding better treatment as a result of market conditions?:

That labor supply is running dry might seem strange in a country of 1.3 billion people. But the trend's been discernible for a while, as the effects of an aging population and China's one-child policy kick in. In the past 10 years, the population of 20-to-39-year-olds -- from which most manufacturing labor is drawn -- has fallen 22%, Merrill Lynch says.

How much R&D is being offshored?

The World Cup stadiums in South Africa (slideshow).

The British government is establishing a commission to examine resource depletion—among other things, it will examine:

resources at risk included timber, water, fish, precious metals and minerals such as phosphorus, which is widely used in fertiliser.

Among the countries known to be stockpiling resources, Japan has said it is storing supplies of seven rare metals it believes are "essential to modern life and industry".

Writing in the Wall Street Journal earlier this month, James Bacchus, the chairman of the WTO's appelate body, said China was also "hoarding rare elements and other raw materials", but so were many other countries and there had also been a "sharp increase" in actions to protect national resources worldwide.


China appears to be eating into some of its commodities reserves, a potentially worrying near-term trend for commodities producers and investors, analyst said.

The phenomenon could help explain why imports from China in markets such as refined copper, iron ore and lead have declined in the last few months. It also could be a factor behind the recent drop in prices for those commodities.

The NBA's Undervalued Assets

The NBA being what it is, there’s tons of talent trapped on either inadequate teams or inadequate roles. Supply your own explanation—GM stupidity, the NBA’s labor laws (long guaranteed contracts, etc.)—but it’s true. Players could be moving, and improving teams. The biggest example of this is Pau Gasol, who was stolen from Memphis; though the same-season acquisition of Kevin Garnett and Ray Allen was just as big (and, in retrospect, a steal). So, who on the NBA is worthy of being liberated (aside from the big NBA free agents about to switch teams in 2010):

Chris Paul—the biggest example. How angry is Chris Paul right now? Paul isn’t really a smiler in the best of times, and these aren’t that: he’s probably off training with a grim expression reminiscent of Wild West sheriffs. The man showed up to Inside the NBA and had to talk about how good Deron Williams was (and was left off of the top three point guard lists of Kenny and Charles). Chris Paul thinks he’s the best point guard in the NBA, and more importantly: he’s right. But we have to hear about Williams and Nash and Rondo, and it’s unfair: Paul is the real magician with the basketball. He is unfortunate: one, he’s too good—New Orleans bottomed out in the Valley of the Mediocre almost immediately after he got there—and two, the second-best player on the team is probably Darren Collison…who plays the same position as Chris Paul. The cap situation is awful. Chris Paul is trapped, Kevin Garnett-style. What this means is that sometime between now and 2012, Chris Paul will be freed (assuming he exercises his player option). And his vengeance will be terrible.

Andre Iguodala—the rumor had it, back in February, that Cleveland and Philadelphia were willing to trade: Ilguaskas and Hickson for Iguodala. At the time I thought this was a great deal and in retrospect it appears even better: you can put—if you so chose—a West/Iguodala/LeBron/Parker/Varejao lineup on the floor, which means two things: one, you have four stoppers on the floor. Two, you have Iguodala and James on the floor together, a lineup that’s born to run. As it turns out, Hickson is good but not good enough to displace the veterans ahead of him, which means not good enough to become a significant contributor. So Cleveland—as is customary—screwed up. The upside here is that Andre is—or should be—available. Like Pau Gasol, Iguodala isn’t good enough to carry his team to anything significant, but like Gasol, he’d be a great sidekick: has a distinct skill, and brings a lot of stuff to the table. Philly would (presumably) rather have Evan Turner than Iguodala, which is reasonable, but this means Iguodala is expendable, which means he can be had for an affordable price. (And if Philly takes Derrick Favors, as some of the rumors speculate, then, well, Mikhail Prokhorov is the luckiest human being at least in the United States.)

J.J. Redick—well, here’s the inappropriate role: Redick’s better than the minutes they’re giving him. Great shooter, surprisingly above-average defender.

Kevin Love/Al Jefferson and Ricky Rubio/Ramon Sessions—listen, it’s well-known by this point that David Kahn is an idiot. How he’s managed to amass so many assets is beyond me, but they’re mismatched: these pairs simply can’t play together, no matter how hard they try. Which means at least one of each should be traded. Kaaaahhhnnn might not understand the logic, so this may never happen. (By the way: Kevin Love to the Magic—intriguing fake trade, no?)

Tayshaun Prince—still good, but only on a good team. Some good team oughtta liberate him (Spurs? Doesn’t this make too much sense?)

There you have it. Undoubtedly, we’re going to have some other highway robbery shocker pulled on us, which will be delicious for the favored team.

Nadal Chugs Along

John McEnroe and Ted Robinson spent a long time comparing Rafa Nadal to Julius Erving today. It made sense on one level: greatness can only be compared to greatness, and once you’re great enough, the only ways to approximate your greatness is to switch fields entirely. And Nadal was certainly doing that, chugging along and beating Tomasz Bellucci, who seemed to fall for Nadal’s mind tricks and persistence and get broken after such scores as 40-0 and 40-15 (sometimes got broken directly after breaking Nadal).

Obviously on another level it did not make so much sense. Their comparison specifically focused on the idea that Erving, through his verticality, was an innovator in his game and prepared the way for basketball after him—every forward who carries around his own personal trampoline owes something to him. But Nadal doesn’t seem like the evolution of any particular new part of the game; instead, he’s the logical extreme of Borg and Agassi, players who were phenomenally quick and possessed unbendable, indefatigable will.

The early comparison for Nadal was a great running back like Earl Campbell (or even Toby Gerhart), a player who was willing to inflict and take so much pain that his competitor couldn’t keep up. Campbell retired early for a great player, and Nadal has been dogged by injuries nearly as much he dogs opponents. This makes his greatness of a very particular and peculiar variety: he can’t be the greatest, since the greatest invariably has a certain durability, but he can deny Federer the title of greatest.

For example, can Nadal win the U.S. Open? He’s made it to the semifinals, but hasn’t broken through yet. The common reason that’s cited is that he’s tired by the end of the year, but they’re all tired by the end of the year, no? Why Nadal especially so? He’s consumed by his own talent.

But Nadal will amass a formidable cache of other majors, to be certain—barring injury, it seems like he should win the French Open every single year. This would put him in a curious position historically: he would be in, let’s say, the top five tennis players ever—and yet be somehow less durable and more of a supernova than the rest of them. Meanwhile, if he continues to best Federer more than Federer bests him, Federer would have the curious, nearly unique status of being one of the greatest athletes ever who was frequently bested by his rival. The two players are too different and too intertwined to fulfill their otherwise-appointed roles.

Sunday, May 30, 2010

Evening Linkism

A New York feature on everyone’s favorite Russian overlord, Mikhail Prokhorov, features this wonderful sentence: “Such is the very essence of the Russian experience in New York: high-end striving mixed with Appalachian incest.” Well done Michael Idov!

More frustrating facts:
California voters are closely divided over the crackdown on illegal immigration in Arizona, with sharp splits along lines of ethnicity and age, according to a new Los Angeles Times/USC poll.

Overall, 50% of registered voters surveyed said they support the law, which compels police to check the immigration status of those they suspect are in the country illegally, while 43% oppose it. That level of support is lower than polls have indicated nationwide.

Really neat:
Hundreds and perhaps even thousands of years before Charles Goodyear discovered the vulcanization process that made commercial rubber viable, Mesoamerican peoples were carrying out a similar process to produce rubber artifacts for a broad variety of uses, two MIT researchers have found.

By varying the amount of materials they added to raw rubber, Mesoamericans were able to produce bouncy rubber balls for the Mayas' ceremonial games, resilient rubber sandals and sticky material used to glue implements to handles, the research shows.

The oldest known rubber balls from the region date to 1600 BC, suggesting that the indigenous peoples possessed this knowledge at least that far back. By the time the Spaniards arrived in the 16th century, Tarkanian said, "there was a large rubber industry in the region," producing 16,000 rubber balls each year and large numbers of rubber statues, sandals, bands and other products.

A China dispatch:
The itinerary said "rural village," but we were actually in a suburb. A nice suburb. It looked like a small slice of Northern California had been transplanted onto the outskirts of Dalian, China. Think I'm kidding? There was even a coffee shop overlooking the lake with fresh beans ground on the premises. Dalian has some sort of "sister city" arrangement with Oakland, California, and it shows.

This nice little suburb, it turned out, had been built in 2006. And like a lot of things in China, it was built all at once, on top of a village that already existed.

The obvious question with this sort of rapid development is what happens to the people who had the shack that sat on the land where the government wanted to put condos? The answer, at least in Dalian, was that they bought the previous inhabitants off. A conversation with some residents revealed that they didn't just get one free apartment in the new building. They got four free apartments, three of which they were now renting out. And medical coverage. And money for furnishings. And a food stipend. And -- I'm not kidding, by the way -- birthday cakes on their birthdays. Sweet deal.

More on behavorial economics and politics, generally:
… politicians of both parties have long taken liberties with the truth. But as even conservative political commentators have begun to point out, Republicans have lately been far more aggressive in stretching traditional boundaries. When Sarah Palin said that if health care reform legislation were adopted, her parents and her child with Down syndrome “will have to stand in front of Obama’s ‘death panel’ so his bureaucrats can decide, based on a subjective judgment of their ‘level of productivity in society,’ whether they are worthy of health care,” most people probably realized the president had made no such proposal. Her statement nonetheless shifted the terms of the debate, making it harder for legislators to focus on genuinely relevant issues.

Can anything be done? For a variety of practical reasons, legal sanctions promise little protection against blatantly false statements. It is helpful, to be sure, when journalists call out politicians who stray too far from the truth. But merely knowing that a statement is false doesn’t nullify its impact. To be effective, a remedy must act prospectively. It must discourage people from making false statements in the first place.

Malcolm Gladwell on the difficulty of cancer drug development (it was previously gated, but Gladwell has posted the full text on his website, sly dog that he is.)

Gretchen Morgenson has a helpful rundown of the loopholes in financial regulation bills.

Interesting development:
As concern increases in Washington about the amount of private data online, and as big sites like Facebook draw criticism that they collect consumers’ information in a stealthy manner, many Web start-ups are pursuing a more reciprocal approach — saying, in essence: give us your data and get something in return.

The budgeting Web site, for example, displays discount offers from cable companies or banks to users who reveal their personal financial data, including bank and credit card information. The clothing retailer Bluefly could send offers for sunglasses to consumers who disclose that they just bought a swimsuit. And location-based services like Foursquare and Gowalla ask users to volunteer their location in return for rewards like discounts on Pepsi drinks or Starbucks coffee.

Luxury is making a comeback.

The New York Times’s epic on the fight to cut down on salt in our diet.

California: ruined by supermajorities.

Pursuant to our earlier discussion of the U.S.’s plan to unilaterally strike into Pakistan, Marc Ambinder provides some helpful context:
The regular special operations forces have less authority to target ... targets than the CIA, a strategic intelligence gathering agency, ... IN A WAR. That's the embedded news in the piece. SOCOM is trying to send a message to policy-makers and the public: they've got the capacity to help a lot more then they are helping, and they're being hamstrung by legal authorities that don't make sense to them. One point of the joint task force concept embraced by the U.S. Central Command (CENTCOM) and SOCOM is to crowd out the CIA's paramilitary operations in the Af-Pak war theater.

Two related stories—on the power of data—intelligence bureaus are purchasing the same computers that Wall Street traders do (and I expect the results to be similarly bad, knowing the competence/social responsibility of the respective organizations.), and this line should strike you as particularly mehhhh:
But marketing products to traders is a bit more clear-cut, Mr. Tibbetts said. In the intelligence field, the technology is geared toward events that generally occur infrequently.

"The return-on-investment calculations are simpler in the trading space," he said. "All you have to do is show them the system makes you money and they're happy to sign the contract."

And here’s a report on genomics curing a very specific form of cancer:
"The drug that has changed everything is called Gleevec," he says, "and it was derived from our new, computer-driven understanding of the genome."

By studying a key section of the human genome, scientists realised that a mutation there produces a specific protein (called "bcr-abl") which in turn triggers a cascade of chemical reactions in a patient's body that results in chronic myeloid leukaemia. Awareness of the protein's role allowed scientists to develop a drug that could block its activity and so halt the proliferation of white blood cells.

"Patients who have the specific mutation that causes chronic myeloid leukaemia will respond to the use of Gleevec and will go into remission quite profoundly," says Adams. "It was understanding the specific genetics of this disease that led to the realisation this drug could help."

It is an encouraging tale that has since been repeated for several other genome-driven anti-cancer drugs, although it is important to note, says Adams, that the success of these drugs is hit and miss – sometimes they produce no effect. But when they do have an impact, it is invariably profound.

NBA Finals Preview

The NBA Finals: the expected has unexpectedly manifested itself. Or is it the opposite? I’m not sure. Let’s put it this way, if you predicted Celtics-Lakers at the beginning of the season, you would have seemed sane and reasonable. If you had picked the same thing at the beginning of the playoffs, you would have seemed neither sane nor reasonable.

But the latter point is well-appreciated by now. Let’s focus, instead, on the matchup. The contours have changed since last time: last time around, Bynum wasn’t playing and Rondo was a mere pipsqueak—we were afraid he’d melt down or something like that. Now, Bynum is playing and Rondo is an awesome, if hard-to-grasp force. He is the most distinctive player in the NBA, and I’d be very surprised if we ever saw another player who plays like him, at least for a very long time.

It so happens that Rondo matches up against the Lakers’ Achilles heel, Derek Fisher. You may believe—if you listened to the slobbering noises emanating from Doug Collins’ mouth—that Fisher played a critical role for the Lakers, and it’s true: he basically didn’t suck and hit his open shots. That’s good enough for this Lakers team and these Laker big men, but you should still be frustrated when Fisher decides to do things like: oh, after a switch leaving Stoudemire on Fisher and Jason Richardson on Pau Gasol, decide to jack up a fadeaway three-pointer. It’s hard to match up the conventional wisdom that Fisher is some sort of mystical winning sage—a man whose very lifeblood oozes winning—with the reality of plays such as these. Some people like to chide other fans for overrelying on stats; instead they rely on hazy ideas that a player such as Fisher who has hung around so many winners must himself possess some ineffable winning qualities. And this argument can have some truth to it with certain players at certain times—take, for instance, Shane Battier or Robert Horry, two guys whose contributions really did show up outside of the box score—but is clearly lazy in the case of Derek Fisher, who as I write is doubtlessly plotting how to ignore Pau Gasol sealing off his man. I swear, Pau Gasol loses three points off of his scoring average a game—easy points, too.

Sadly perhaps for those of us who take a delight in watching lazy conventional wisdom get punctured—i.e. me watching Derek Fisher vainly attempt to flop, fall around screens, etc.—I suspect the Lakers won’t even let this happen: Bryant will guard Rondo, Artest will guard Pierce and Fisher guards Jesus Shuttlesworth. Fisher’s best defensive skill—and he’s legitimately good at this, by the way—is fighting around screens, so he should be alright. The Pierce-on-Artest matchup is advantage Artest when the Celtics have the ball—I can’t see Pierce’s spins and herky-jerky drives working so well with Artest bodying him—so it’s Bryant on Rondo that the fate of the Celtics’ offense rests (Garnett and Perkins are around for the defense at this point in their careers, and I can’t imagine their lack of hops will serve them well against the outrageous length of the Lakers’ bigs.). Judging by the way Kobe shut down Westbrook in the first round, I’d say Kobe can keep up, though Rondo is infinitely smarter, faster and more developed than Westbrook is (by the by, Russell Westbrook: since the potentially ultra-strong Oklahoma City Thunder team rides on your shoulders—Kevin Durant could be the best player on a championship team right now--please, please, please study Rajon Rondo over the summer. That means no bad seventeen-footers off of screens—there’s a very good reason they’re letting you take it), so this potential matchup is the best of the series.

It’s when the Lakers have the ball that most of the interesting questions arise. The Celtics defense appears just as stout as it did back in the ’07-’08 days, but then again, the Lakers didn’t have Bynum then. That means Gasol gets Garnett on defense, which is a matchup he could outquick Garnett on (and if somehow it’s Rasheed Wallace or Glen Davis on him…well, let’s say I’ve seen more pleasant snuff films [note: I have not seen any snuff films]). Bynum and Perkins will be a draw, I suspect. The notable part of Artest’s insane three is that he’d been well-behaved throughout the playoffs—shockingly well-behaved, actually—so I expect him to largely be well-behaved against Paul Pierce. (Except maybe for this—one of my favorite underrated Artest moments.) Fisher will get shots largely if the Celtics choose to concede them. This leaves Bryant, and here’s a curious fact about Kobe against the Celtics since the Garnett/Allen/Pierce/Rondo era was inaugurated (not counting those games when either Garnett or Bryant was out): he hasn’t been that good. To wit, here are his stats:

11/23/2007                12/30/20076/5/20086/8/20086/10/20086/12/20086/15/20086/17/200812/25/20082/5/20091/31/2010Averages (11 gms)  

The TS%, by the way, is sub-50: 49.3%. I think it’s fair to say Bryant has struggled against the Celtics. (By the way: Bryant is obviously wonderful, but his PR might be better at this point—if LeBron James compiles these stats in the Finals or Conference Finals—we’d scream CHOKER!!!1! But for whatever reason we’ve become a bit more forgiving of his performances—particularly that epic 7/22, 3 turnover stinkbomb in an elimination game.) But as the mutual funds are at pains to remind us, past performance is no guarantee of future results—can we expect Bryant’s performances to continue? I frankly don’t know: everything is just so different since some of these performances, and the dynamics have changed. That’s a pretty fitting coda: it seems the same, but it sure has changed a lot. Who knows whether Bryant will secure his fifth ring or the current gang of Celtics their second? (By the way: counterintuitive thought: let’s say the Celtics win, giving them two rings in three years. Does Kobe’s fourth acquire a bit of an asterisk? The claim from Celtics advocates in this scenario is that if Garnett never injures his knee, the Celtics take the championship meaning Kobe doesn’t have a post-Shaq ring. Probably a bit too counterintuitive, but worth thinking about.) Lakers in six.

Efficiency and Inefficiency in government

The useful stereotype has been that government is inefficient whereas the Darwinian private world is full of efficient, killer sharks. And you certainly feel it’s true anytime you’re stuck in a long, slow line at the DMV or Post Office…but you never think about the distinction when you’re stuck on the phone with the insurance company or waiting for the cable guy to show up, do you? (Absurdly, it seems to be standard cable guy practice to give you a three-hour window wherein they might show up. Or might not.)

Of the customer service departments I’ve dealt with, the easiest to interact with have been Apple, Amazon, and Amtrak. Think about that for a second.

Anyway, I’ve been reading the first volume of Robert Caro’s biography of Lyndon B. Johnson, The Path To Power, and was struck by the section on Johnson’s leadership of the Texas office of the National Youth Administration, a New Deal program created to ease the pains of youth during the Depression: to employ them at worthwhile jobs during the summer, then to create useful part-time jobs during the school year to give them funds to keep them in school.

It becomes complicated, but that’s testament to the potential of government to come up with inventive solutions to difficult problems. First, the restrictions to the program: you couldn’t displace older workers, and the majority of funds appropriated to the NYA had to go directly into wages to the working students (and not, for example, to building materials). Johnson came up with a very clever solution: the Texas highways in those times had no rest stops and often narrow shoulders, meaning that if you wanted to stop to go to the bathroom, or have a picnic or something, you had to pull over on the narrow (or nonexistent) shoulder, which is obviously not very good. So he had the students build rest stops (the Texas department in charge of highways wasn’t planning on doing it, but was able to furnish the building materials, thus checking all the boxes in a particularly satisfying way).

But wait, there’s more (pp. 364-5):
The student aid program was…accomplishing its purpose…by June 1939, the NYA’s fourth year, more than a thousand graduating students had received NYA aid for each of their four years…[also, 11,061 high school students received aid]

The Texas NYA was, in fact, accomplishing purposes only vaguely, if at all, envisioned in Washington, where colleges were often thought of as the ivied, lavish campuses of the Northeast. Many Texas colleges, only a few years old and engaged in a continual struggle just to keep to keep their doors open, had been unable to build needed facilities. For example, ten years after the founding of Texas Tech…, its campus was still only a treeless, barren tract on the plains just below the Panhandle, with inadequate library and laboratories, and with dormitory space for only 600 of its 3,000 students. Falling enrollment from the children of the plains’ struggling farmers and ranchers had imperiled its existence. The NYA not only got Texas tech’s students back to school, but put them to work building needed facilities, planting trees and bushes, and sodding the quadrangles.

One NYA program…was designed to help young people who had never been to college and who—without help—would not be able to go for some time. There were many such youths in Texas who, after graduating from high school, had found that their families, in desperate financial straits, could not spare them from the farm and who had gone to work, intending to resume their education when the grip of the Depression eased…[T]his trend spelled tragedy. In sparsely settled rural areas, higher education was not an accepted part of life. Once youths from these areas dropped off the educational path, they were all too often off it for good, never to return.

What was the solution? What ended up being called a Freshman College Center where:

At it, students whose families were on relief and who could not be spared from the farm or ranch, were offered, upon graduation from high school, the opportunity to take one or two tuition-free college courses while continuing to live and work at home. A college could not afford to pay the professors for such a center…but the NYA could—and if the teachers hired by the NYA were those who had been laid off by colleges and were now on relief, teachers as well as students would be helped. By March 1936, twenty Freshman College Centers were operating in Texas.

Still more:

Another NYA program used colleges to help young men and women who didn’t want to go to college. Some wanted to stay on the farm; the NYA did not attempt to change their feelings, only to show how life on the farm could be better than they had known it, while giving them a little cash to ease life there. Rural youths were brought to the campus for a four-month vocational course in such areas as animal husbandry, dairy manufacturing, farm-machinery repair…

The point here isn’t just a simple refutation of the government must always or is usually inefficient, but that government too often doesn’t live up to its possibilities. (For another example, read Malcolm Gladwell’s wonderful profile of Lois Weisberg). Why is that? One thing that immediately suggests itself is Lyndon B. Johnson, and Caro makes it clear that Texas under Johnson’s leadership was unique in sophistication, energy and innovation in the NYA program, that other states repeatedly fell under quota for its basic requirements. This would not be a cheering suggestion if true, since finding a large cadre of people who are potential Presidents and putting them all in government is difficult for one, perhaps undesirable for another. So hopefully this isn’t it. But then, what is? I’m not sure, and I haven’t really seen a lot of thinking going around about how to solve such questions as, “How can we make the trip to the DMV tolerable?”

Answering such questions wouldn’t be good in of themselves—surely saving everyone hours of time is a very good thing in itself. But it would be good for public confidence in general. Trust in government, according to the Pew Center, hasn’t gone above 50% since 1978. And lack of trust in government leads to people voting—typically for Republicans--for people who profess to dislike government and want to do things like drown it in a bathtub. And, sure enough, electing people who want to drown government in a bathtub doesn’t lead to particularly good governing—you wouldn’t hire a vegetarian to be a barbeque chef, now would you? And this means even less trust in government and….well, you see where this is going, don’t you? When people don’t trust government, they look out for their self-interest first of all, which is will inevitably lead to trouble when we need to take action against the deficit. Now I don’t mean to suggest fixing the DMV is the only thing separating us from trusting government again, but certainly it’s a start? After all, how do people interact with government most—the DMV, the Post Office, police, firefighters, etc. So if we can figure out how to make the DMV a little more like the Texas NYA, we can solve many more problems than just the obvious ones.

And a Hacker Shall Lead Them--Where, Exactly?

I happened to see The Matrix on TV a while ago, and I couldn’t help it: as I watched, I realized just how dated the movie is. I remember when it was released, back in the heady days of 1999—The Matrix was something like the perfect dystopia for utopian times because well…

…it had a very ambiguous promise. Sure, the story seemed pessimistic—the computers will rule you all—but the counter wasn’t. Whereas previous versions of “the machines will conquer you all” used different premises (Terminator’s machines are just identified as machines; I, Robot has robots… Dune features evil thinking-machines, but they’re well before the main action of the story), The Matrix was a dystopia focusing specifically on computers ruling us all (and exploiting us for our energy).

Given this, you might expect an anti-technological message; this isn’t true. The hero of The Matrix--“The One” (can we get a ban for future science-fiction/fantasy stories for using variations of “The One,” “The Chosen One,” etc.? It’s getting very tired.)—is a hacker. More to the point, he’s the ultimate hacker—he can control the world because the world is literally code. The all-powerful hacker—makes sense with the optimism of the era, right? It could only be a hacker—I remember all the credulous stories about kids doing stuff with computers adults couldn’t even believe. It had to be a hacker to lead us to and from a dystopia.

That’s part of the reason the dystopia doesn’t feel that dystopic. The other part is that the oppression doesn’t feel all that oppressive: it feels fake, glommed on. For example. Early in the movie, Keanu Reeves’s character gets chewed out for being late to work, with the boss saying blah blah blah you think you’re so special like a snowflake but you’re not special, you’re a part of this corporation, etc. etc. There are multiple, obvious implications: a) Corporations, just like the Matrix! and b) He really is special. It’s an oddly empowering message for what is being set up a dystopia.

The scene is actually pretty clumsy—the dialogue particularly—because it has a message in mind and wants to deliver it. The writers of the movie have a great deal of information to disgorge and have decided that the most efficient way to accomplish this is to tell you. At the time this didn’t seem so bad from my perspective—I was young, and I think younger people tolerate expository dialogue better: one, when you’re young and in school, a pretty high percentage of your dialogue is essentially expository (it’s called class), and two, in the case of the demographics who really liked The Matrix, i.e. geeks and nerds—well, you’re one of these groups because you like learning and information so you don’t mind sometimes if it’s delivered directly rather than subtly. And geez, the dialogue is pretty terrible in that movie.

The other big factor that prevented the dystopia from feeling all that crushing was the mishmash of elements. On the one hand, you have a lot of shots that directly recall film noir and expressionism (for example, there’s a great shot of a car pulling up to a curb to deliver Neo to Morpheus from the top of the building with the long plane of the building on one side and the long rain falling down, an idea that doesn’t feel noirish as much as a good idea of what noir would look like--Sin City had a lot of shots like it too) but on the other hand you have these direct references to Asian action films, choreographically. With the clash of these genre elements, it’s distracting from what should be an oppressive film.

Oh, and speaking of the fights: they’re neat. But then, you have to ask, why exactly? The Matrix can manipulate its own code—couldn’t it simply erase the code belonging to whatever irritant happens to be trying to challenge its power at the time? Speaking of which, why even build the Matrix? Our understanding is that it constructed the Matrix as a way to distract people while feasting on the energy and heat generated by the human body. This doesn’t quite seem plausible because a) how much surplus electricity is the Matrix generating when it (presumably) has to use a ton of energy creating code, generating the images, etc. etc. and b) why even give them illusions? Why not just keep them in a coma or something?

It just doesn’t quite hold up, which is true of the other action-futuristic-dystopia of the decade, Enemy of the State. That movie plays into some happy stereotypes—we’re given to believe that the computer guys of the movie are quite powerful (running satellites whose technology is well in excess of current, 2010 technology) and yet they are played by Jack Black and Seth Green, two people who are not particularly convincing as rule-the-world types. Enemy of the State features a lot of the classic American dystopia tropes: a rogue column within the government, using super-powerful technology, which impugns a man of high character, a Cincinnatus almost—played by Will Smith. (By the way, did you know that Will Smith almost played Neo in The Matrix? This would’ve made Smith two-for-two in “good guys in dystopic action films” category)

Both of the movies comfort themselves in the knowledge that however smart the machines might be they still aren’t human, and should the day ever come when the machines do try to take us over, there will be a Will Smith out there. Weirdly enough, given all the concern about our privacy these days, we’ve yet to see techno-paranoia or even techno-worryism like The Matrix or Enemy of the State. We appear to be fairly comfortable with the entire thing—look at Arizona Gov. Jan Brewer demanding we bring some drones to Arizona to patrol the border with Mexico. Which is odd, because the abuses are very much present with technology: not blind to their potential power, but too believing of them. A lot of the errors and tragic stories around the police state we’ve erected and are erecting center around mistaken identity or just plain mistakes. Oftentimes technology just enables our prejudices.

That, incidentally, is what both of the films above miss: the idea that there is something human and weak at the controls. Some of its worries that it predicted came out, though, in much of the same ways: too much surveillance, too much information. It seems that all of our predictions about a worst-case scenario are destined to happen and then be ignored: look at The Truman Show, which more-or-less predicts reality TV and the weirdnesses thereof. (It also features one of Jim Carrey’s two best dramatic performances: the other being Eternal Sunshine of the Spotless Mind, which is a surprisingly robust resume for a guy who once got cuckolded by a black midget in Me, Myself and Irene). And yet—nothing, nothing? No eerie predictions about reality TV? I suppose not. The worst-case scenario isn’t as bad as we think, when we realize that evil isn’t all-powerful, it’s in fact just as weak as the rest of us.

Your Brunchtime Linkism

Michael Lewis brings the pain on Wall Street in a very funny article:
Shockingly, the Senate version of the bill more or less would require us to cease to trade derivatives entirely. This unpleasant idea was introduced by Senator Blanche Lincoln of Arkansas, and it leads me to a point that is worth underscoring: We do not have a problem with the American people, we have a problem with American women. Elizabeth Warren, our TARP supervisor, continues to ask questions about what we did with our government money; Mary Schapiro has used her authority at the S.E.C. to sue Goldman Sachs. Of the four Republican senators who crossed over to vote with the Democrats, two were women — and one of the guys posed naked for Cosmopolitan magazine.

Going forward, we should discourage women from seeking higher office — or indeed, any position in which they might exert influence over our activities. More immediately, in your private conversations with Larry Summers, Tim Geithner and male Republican senators, you should simply refer to Blanche Lincoln as “unhinged.” They’ll get it.

Olando Patterson, talking about Jamaica, writes about democracy and violence:
For most observers of democracy, Jamaica’s violence seems an anomaly. Democracy is held to be inherently prone to good order and peace. According to this “democratic peace” doctrine, democracies do not go to war with each other, and in domestic life they provide nonviolent means of settling differences. Violence, writes the political theorist John Keane, is anathema to democracy’s “spirit and substance.”

It may or may not be true that democracies do not wage war with each other, but a growing number of analysts have concluded that, domestically, democracies are in fact more prone to violence than authoritarian states, measured by incidence of civil wars, communal conflict and homicide.

Dennis Hopper’s photography of the march in Selma.

News that should be getting more attention than it is:
The U.S. military is developing plans for a unilateral attack on the Pakistani Taliban in the event of a successful terrorist strike in the United States that can be traced to them, The Washington Post reports.

On bombing in Afghanistan—this article has one of the most arresting first paragraphs I’ve read:
The burn ward at Herat regional hospital is the best public facility of its kind in Afghanistan. It was opened with American aid money to handle the influx of women setting themselves on fire to escape domestic abuse, a countrywide phenomenon most acute in the hardscrabble villages of the western plains. The first time I visited the hospital, in the spring of 2007, a dozen teenage girls were crowded into a dank hallway of the former building. Some were covered with third-degree burns, wrapped mummylike in gauze dressings, still breathing but condemned to die. Two years later, their desperate stories were overshadowed by the grim reason for my return visit. On May 4, 2009, the American bombardment of two villages in a Taliban-controlled area of Farah Province, about 170 miles to the south of Herat, had yielded heavy civilian casualties. Word soon reached me back in Kabul that several victims had been transported by the International Committee of the Red Cross to Herat for emergency treatment.

And, the aperitif (a mimosa, perhaps?). Consider this now-popular song:

You have questions. I do too. Here are mine:
1) Why did Usher decide to do his version of a Black Eyed Peas song?
2) Why is Usher wearing a bandanna around his mouth, like some kid pretending to be a tough hombre in a Western film?
3) Why is wearing a dress?
4) Who are the shadows dancing with Usher?
5) Why does the TV serve as a framing device?

Saturday, May 29, 2010


I love the coincidences here: there are a number of stories today about new/innovative stuff. Let’s start out with this New York Times article about telehealth, a field of health care that I think is very promising…by the way, these are the tasks that we need faster broadband coverage for, in order to make these virtual appointments that much more convenient.

Here’s the second (also an NYT story) on crowdsourcing medicine—essentially medical social networking:
PatientsLikeMe has an innovative for-profit business model, too. It sells health data, gathered from member profiles but with certain identifying information removed, to drug makers and others for scientific and marketing research.

Members can seek out patients of the same age, sex, and disease progression, whose profiles are displayed on the site, to see which drugs or doses worked for them. Drug makers can pinpoint subgroups — say, severely depressed middle-aged men — who reported the greatest improvement on a particular medication.
I think the logical evolution of medical social networking is combining them with electronic medical records, which will (among other things) be incredibly useful for researchers (assuming consent, of course).

The third, on 3-D printing:
… what if you wanted to "print out" a dinner plate, the leg of an armchair or an eyeglass frame? It may sound far-fetched and futuristic, but plastic extrusion machines that can do this — popularly known as 3-D printers — are poised to enter the home electronics market.

When you read, do you search or do you chase?

The bank failure trend does not look good.

Disturbing facts on Nigeria:
…more oil is spilled from the [Niger] delta's network of terminals, pipes, pumping stations and oil platforms every year than has been lost in the Gulf of Mexico, the site of a major ecological catastrophe caused by oil that has poured from a leak triggered by the explosion that wrecked BP's Deepwater Horizon rig last month.

With 606 oilfields, the Niger delta supplies 40% of all the crude the United States imports and is the world capital of oil pollution. Life expectancy in its rural communities, half of which have no access to clean water, has fallen to little more than 40 years over the past two generations. Locals blame the oil that pollutes their land and can scarcely believe the contrast with the steps taken by BP and the US government to try to stop the Gulf oil leak and to protect the Louisiana shoreline from pollution.

Will Spain become more like Finland or Argentina? Relatedly, will Europe have its Wile E. Coyote moment?

Co-sign, co-sign, co-sign:
The fable told by the private-equity industry, Kosman explains, is that many companies are poorly managed and sources of cost-savings could be wrung out by new management brought in by new owners. Alternatively, the story holds that their share price undervalues the parts of an enterprise that could be more profitably deployed if reconfigured or broken up. But in reality, very few private-equity owners are willing to play the role of both disruptive innovators and patient capitalists. They are interested in quick windfalls. What makes the entire business model viable is that companies, or their parts, can be bought and sold several times with borrowed money, using the subsidy of a tax break on the interest each time.

If this tale sounds vaguely familiar, it's the story of the leveraged-buyout (LBO) craze of the 1980s. When the LBO business crashed and burned, Kosman explains, LBO operators rebranded their industry as "private equity," which sounded so much more dignified. Many of the players, such as KKR, are the same. True venture capitalists, Kosman writes, "invest in growing companies, and they maintain an active oversight role as these companies grow and change." Private-equity firms, by contrast, make their big bucks on buying, loading up the company with debt, and selling -- sometimes to each other so that tax breaks can be used each time. In addition, they pay themselves exorbitant "special dividends" and "management fees," looting the cash flow that the operating company needs for its ordinary operations, not to mention investment in innovation.

The stories are grimly familiar. Thomas H. Lee Partners, one of the biggest private-equity firms, buys Warner Music, the world's fourth-biggest music company, and loads up the company with debt to finance the buyout and to pay itself $1.2 billion in dividends. One-third of the work force is fired. KKR, Merrill Lynch, and Bain Capital team up to buy Hospital Corporation of America, a long-troubled company with 170 hospitals. Staffing is thinned, standards erode, complaints increase. CD&R, The Carlyle Group, and Merrill Lynch buy Hertz, the nation's largest auto-rental company, putting up $2.3 billion in cash out of a $15 billion deal. The private-equity owners quickly recoup more than half of their down payment by loading up the company with even more debt. Funds for rental operations are cut by 39 percent, and Hertz's market share falls. Bain Capital, the company that made Mitt Romney rich, invests just $18.5 million in KB Toys, extracts $85 million in dividends, then takes the company into bankruptcy, stiffing employees, investors, and creditors.

Interesting immigration facts I hadn’t heard before:
… they have been trying to convince lawmakers that H-1Bs depress wages and take jobs away from American workers. To prove their point, they highlight examples of unscrupulous body shops that underpay their workers, and they cite questionable research published by other anti-immigrants. But a new peer-reviewed study, published in Management Science, a top academic journal, challenges these claims. This research finds that foreign-born I.T. professionals on temporary work visas actually earn more than their American counterparts; and that limits on H-1B visas cause the salaries of foreign workers—rather than of Americans—to increase. This, along with research completed by my colleagues at UC-Berkeley, Duke, and Harvard, confirms what most people in Silicon Valley already know: that foreign-born I.T. workers complement American professionals and make the pie bigger rather than take jobs away.

Bond fears?: “It's an odd gift from the Europeans to U.S. bond investors: a debt crisis that has made owning debt more appealing.” (Not sure his article supports that assertion.)

Subprime goes to college (from Steve Eisman, who you may remember from The Big Short--via Paul Kedrosky):
Do people like sprawl?

The End of West's Style.

We’ve received the answer to the question, re: the evolution of Kanye West’s musical style with his newest single:

It seems the sole constant with West’s style is that he is only a so-so rapper (with amazing beats). So it with this song, with a great chorus/hook and not as good rapping. The beat, though, the beat: it sounds like a combination of many of the elements that made West’s earlier beats distinctive and good. The best parts of 808s and Heartbreak relied on the contrast between the chilly electronics and the warm taiko/handclaps. This song uses the warm handclaps and warmer synthesizers, with wails in the background that somehow avoid the annoying, dirge-like qualities that they often acquire in lesser songs. Combine that with some of the propulsive bass-led power of “Takeover” or “Heart of the City” and even an interlude with the classical strings that he’s used throughout his traditional rap career, and you can see the beat is a synthesis of all of his previous styles and dabblings. The song, then, is something of a culmination of all his previous ideas and it sounds perfect that way.

Just Do Something

A perceptive point from Dara Lind at Matthew Yglesias’s blog, about the Arizona immigration law and racial profiling:
…racial profiling is sometimes codified in policy, but it can also be, as I put it earlier in the week, a “habit of mind” — a heuristic. A police officer doesn’t need to be told to target someone who looks likely to be a criminal; the problem is what mental shortcuts they’re going through in order to determine what “looking likely” means. I don’t think of SB 1070 as a racial-profiling law; I think of it as a law that will cause widespread racial profiling.

The Arizona politicians who passed the bill don’t agree with this interpretation, but when asked by the New York Times, a majority of the American public did. But — as Matt pointed out at the time — they support the law anyway. This, to my mind, might even be scarier than the willful ignorance of Arizona Republicans; the public understands that SB 1070 will impose on the civil rights of Arizona’s Latinos, but they think that’s less important than the fact that it “does something” about illegal immigration.

This is a point with broader implications than just immigration policy. Let’s take the oil spill at Deepwater Horizon. There were important government failures prior to the leak, and these deserve to be criticized and corrected—and, moreover, moves must be made away from oil and carbon dependence. So let’s assume that.

There is, however, a constant call for Obama to do something when it comes to the oil spill—often, the most specific this call gets is that the federal government take over both the responsibility and the operations of shutting the leak and cleaning the spill—to which my question is “Do what?” What’s your proposal? What’s strikingly consistent, no matter who’s being interviewed on the subject in the news coverage I’ve read, is a puzzlement and confusion over what exactly can be done.

So if we don’t know what can be done, why demand that Obama not do it personally? I don’t trust BP in general and I certainly don’t trust their competence: but I do trust them to try stuff because this leak is terrible for them and their industry (which, incidentally, is also pitching in). Federal scientists and engineers can and have pitched in. And while this stuff probably won’t work, it means we have to wait for the relief well to be drilled.

This may not be satisfying, but the biggest problems rarely produce satisfying solutions. This may be one of these situations—if there is a good proposal, I’d love to hear it and I’m sure the administration and BP would too. There is one proposal we know will work for sure: nuking it. Somehow I suspect the “do something” crowd is not thinking that this is the something that should be done.

The dissatisfaction with the Obama administration’s response stems from two American political traditions: the Presidential Omniresponsibility Theorem (in which all trends are ultimately answerable to the President, no matter how logically they can be blamed, e.g. “The Buck Stops Here”) and the desire for some rough justice—some poetic justice. It’s the desire to punish and do what seems right. That’s the same desire, by the by, that underlies much of the public rage at Wall Street. So it’s good that the public can hold a grudge. Just don’t let that grudge blind you from distinguishing which demands are credible and which aren’t. If you don’t know what the something is when you ask someone to just do something, chances are you’ll be disappointed by whatever something happens.

More Things That Don't Make Sense

So, now that Don’t Ask, Don’t Tell is going to be repealed, we can at least count on people not being discharged for being gay, right? Wrong:
Amid their celebratory talk, gay rights groups on Friday also warned that the ban remained in effect. Indeed, Lt. Col. Victor J. Fehrenbach, a decorated Air Force fighter pilot of 19 years, could be discharged any day under a ‘don’t ask’ investigation that began two years ago.

After being accused of sexual harassment in 2008, Colonel Fehrenbach, who had flown combat missions over Iraq and Afghanistan, admitted to being gay, even discussing his sexuality on “The Rachel Maddow Show” on MSNBC. Though the allegations were dismissed, a board recommended that he be discharged. His case is now before the secretary of the Air Force.

I get the logic behind this drawn-out DADT repeal: you need to make sure the various services are mostly behind the policy, otherwise it makes the transition more difficult (see, for instance, these comments earlier in the article:
But Keith Johnson, a petty officer first class with the Coast Guard and a former Marine, said he opposed homosexuality on religious grounds and thought repealing the ban would hurt morale. “If I don’t know, it’s a whole lot better than someone parading it around in my face and me having to deal with it,” he said.

I get it, but I don’t like it. But come on, this is just dumb: everyone knows the DADT will be repealed, so why continue to kick people out because of DADT? Can’t we have a moratorium or something like that? Or does that just make too much sense?

Friday, May 28, 2010


Well, well well: the ratings agencies cut Spain’s and Rome’s ratings, markets tumble. The economy, apparently, has decided not to let Deepwater Horizon hog all of the crisis stage.

The NBA has opened an office in South Africa to promote the game to Africans. Very good idea, of course.

California to ban plastic bags.

Israel’s hybrid fruits and vegetables, of a GMO variety (or not):
… you will find carrots shaped like potatoes, strawberries shaped like carrots, star-shaped zucchini and "watermelon" tomatoes — dark green on the outside with a juicy red flesh.

Want a lemon-scented tomato or a chocolate-colored persimmon? How about some miniaturized garlic cloves for the home chef who doesn't have time to chop, or a purple potato that tastes buttery when cooked?

Has the Tea Party done anything for the GOP? The article asks whether the purification campaign waged by the Tea Party—its straining process, if you will (pun very much intended)—is counterproductive. (I disagree, I think: the reason the Tea Party has mostly focused on kneecapping GOP incumbents/establishment choices is because that’s the only thing they’ve had the opportunity to do. Let’s wait until November.)

On Zuckerberg:
Zuckerberg seems to think that full publicity is the inevitable future. He said in January that “people have really gotten comfortable not only sharing more information and different kinds, but more openly and with more people. That social norm is just something that has evolved over time.” The problem is that actual social science research shows this isn’t true. The Pew Research Center reported this week that (in the words of Web-sociology guru danah boyd) “young adults are more actively engaged in managing what they share online than older adults.” Surely Facebook, if it wanted, could figure out that its line about a youth-driven juggernaut toward publicity isn’t borne out by the data — it’s not like it doesn’t have the user data of hundreds of millions of users at its fingertips. So what gives?

I suspect that while Zuckerberg spins publicity as a social good, he actually believes it’s a moral one. It’s a theme that’s become pretty common among execs of data-collecting, data-publicizing companies: making it so that anything anyone does can be seen by anyone they know is a way of keeping them honest.

Safety rules behind the curve on biotech innovation.

Good government vs. limited government, or, why the Heritage Foundation’s rankings of government is BS.

Consequences of Iraqi political turmoil and dithering: people can’t collect their pensions, security is low, and routine governmental tasks are going undone.

There’s been a lot of interesting commentary on colleges today. Here’s Mike Konczal commenting on DIY U, which posits that the way for disruptive innovation in university life is more of a DIY model, with internet learning, etc. Well, anyway, lest anyone doubts we’ve got a problem…:
According to the College Board’s Trends in Student Aid study, 10 percent of people who graduated in 2007-8 with student loans had borrowed $40,000 or more. The median debt for bachelor’s degree recipients who borrowed while attending private, nonprofit colleges was $22,380.

The Project on Student Debt, a research and advocacy organization in Oakland, Calif., used federal data to estimate that 206,000 people graduated from college (including many from for-profit universities) with more than $40,000 in student loan debt in that same period. That’s a ninefold increase over the number of people in 1996, using 2008 dollars.

Here’s what I think is the central problem here—here’s why colleges have to charge high prices:
Then there’s a branding problem. Urging students to attend a cheaper college or leave altogether suggests a lack of confidence about the earning potential of alumni. Nobody wants to admit that. And once a university starts encouraging middle-class students to go elsewhere, it must fill its classes with more children of the wealthy and a much smaller number of low-income students to whom it can afford to offer enormous scholarships. That’s hardly an ideal outcome either.
Also, here’s more about the problems with university endowments.

How mark-to-market will hurt the banks’ balance sheets.

CNN: losing in ratings but very profitable. This is an apparent paradox, but not really. The media loves winning, in itself and others. And it defines winning by getting the most people. But as it turns out, sometimes having fewer is better: Apple is more profitable than Microsoft, The Economist has a small circulation and yet is very profitable, Wii is more profitable than Playstation 3 or XBOX 360, etc. etc.

How dense are the places that smart people live?

The yen carry trade, in graph form.

City/bankruptcy worries. Congress is thinking about bailing out some pension funds; general pension anxieties; California municipalities are contemplating bankruptcy; and yet, oddly, municipal bonds have benefited from the flight to safety recently. And here’s an interesting/depressing big think piece:
Yet, in the longer term, the impacts of dense urbanization may not be universally useful at promoting either poverty alleviation or upward mobility. In advanced countries, this is already evident in large urban areas. Indeed, even the strongly pro-urbanist World Bank report acknowledges that as societies reach certain affluence levels, they begin to deconcentrate, with the middle classes in particular moving to the periphery.

This process reflects a shift in economic and social realities over the past few decades. After nearly a half century of sustained social progress in most advanced countries, income growth for the middle class, even among the best-educated, has slowed considerably, and by some measurements has even turned negative. As we will see, the effects have been particularly tough on the urban middle and working classes in cities as diverse as Toronto, Los Angeles, Tokyo and London.

Such concerns have been heightened by the current deep recession, which has caused wages to fall in both developing and developed countries. Yet concern over upward mobility was developing even in the relative “boom” times of the recent past, particularly in the advanced western countries, but also in the developing ones. Since 1973, for example, the rate of growth of the “typical family’s income” in the United States has slowed dramatically, and for males has actually gone backwards when adjusted for inflation. This diminishment has been particularly marked in major urban centers such as New York, Chicago, San Francisco and Los Angeles.

Similar developments can be seen in a host of European cities, including London and Berlin, and even in Tokyo, which long has been seen as distinctly middle class. In all these cities, the middle class appears to be diminishing, while the population living in poverty has increased.
I’ve started reading the attached report, which is very interesting.

A slideshow of life in Kabul in the 1950s and 60s.

Does fashion need copyright protection? (Very good TED talk)

Who pays for medical mistakes?

Every so often, journalists politely drop their pretense of objectivity to ridicule somebody. In this piece about obesity in the Mexican police force, the author of this piece treats us to an example:
“It’s good to lose weight,” acknowledged Crescencio Aguilar, 48, an 18-year veteran of the transit police who weighs just over 200 pounds, has a protruding abdomen and was interviewed near a rather aromatic stand selling beef tacos and quesadillas. “But the truth is, the way I am, I’ve been chubby since I was a boy, and it’s going to be difficult to drop down.”

He then broke into what can best be described as a belly laugh.

And later in the piece:
But when Mr. Aguilar is out directing traffic, it is hard for him not to nosh. His churning stomach, he said, compels him to leave his intersection from time to time to add another sandwich or soft drink or two.

“The truth is that you die of hunger if you diet,” he said.

We get it: you think he’s fat and somewhat delusional. No need to lather it on so thick; it trades the ease of ridicule for the difficulty of actual insight—that is, can we really be sure that Mr. Aguilar is representative of the entire Mexican police force? I mean, probably not, right? And if he isn’t, well, you’ve just made fun of him for no actual deeper purpose in terms of informing us, the audience. (For what it’s worth, the rest of the article is consistently interesting.)

Just As Much About The 17th Amendment As You've Ever Wanted To Know

The latest outlandish idea of the Tea Party’s to move into the semi-mainstream is repealing the 17th Amendment. The 17th Amendment, for those of us who haven’t memorized the Amendments to the Constitution by heart (and why haven’t you?), is the amendment providing for the direct election of Senators. Previously, Senators were elected by the state legislatures (which were, in turn, elected by the people).

So what, exactly, is the argument for this? Well, apparently, the idea is state’s rights. Any and all rights, apparently, including the ones that would take away people’s rights, apparently. The idea, writes Tony Blankley, is to “It struck me that the best way to revive the 10th Amendment is to repeal the 17th Amendment.”

The stated aim, thusly, is pretty odd. Let’s take the specific claim here: revive the 10th Amendment. Well, here’s the 10th Amendment: “The powers not delegated to the United States by the Constitution, nor prohibited by it to the States, are reserved to the States respectively, or to the people.” But indirect election wasn’t a non-delegated power at all; in fact, it was a delegated one, until it was given to the people (the other, oft-ignored portion of the 10th Amendment).

Let’s take another argument against the 17th Amendment, from Jason Radtke of the Virginia Tea Party:
A Constitutional Amendment to repeal the 17th amendment of the Constitution. This would reinstitute the process where senators are chosen by their state legislators so that states’ interests are represented in Congress. This is how it was done for the first 125 years of our Republic. Our Founders’ were intentional about making the elections of congressman and senators separate, so that the interests of the state and people are equally represented. The 17th Amendment has had a negative effect on the checks and balances that our Founders’ had in mind. They never saw a need for a recall provision for the very fact that states chose their senators and not the people.
This turns out to be historically dodgy. Invoking the Founders collectively ignores the very real differences between them—if Madison, Monroe, Hamilton and Ben Franklin had had their way, there wouldn’t have been a Senate in the first place. So it simply isn’t so to speak of the Founders’ collective will in this way. (By the way, rather amusingly, here’s one of the very next solutions he has for fixing the Senate):

A constitutional amendment to recall senators. While we don’t currently have a recall provision, there is nothing to keep us from amending the Constitution in order to insert this language.
Mr. Radtke, the Founders saw no reason a recall provision and we made do without a recall provision for Senators for the first 234 years of this republic, so I think we can do just fine without one! For further amusement, let’s contrast this argument to another argument he approvingly cites re: the evils of the 17th Amendment:

Federalist No. 62 explains the reason for senators being appointed by state legislatures: to “[give] to the State governments such an agency in the formation of the federal government as must secure the authority of the former, and may form a convenient link between the two systems.” Unfortunately, the Progressives forced the 17th Amendment upon an unknowing public in 1913 — whereby senators are now elected by the people. That means by those who will line their pockets, thereby opening the floodgates to unlimited federal power. Because of the 17th Amendment, the federal government can run roughshod over the state legislatures, passing unfunded mandates and dictating what they must do, hence, corrupting the purpose of the original Constitution.
Besides the fact that the amendment process back then was extremely rigorous—the whole three-quarters of state’s legislatures and three-quarters of the Congress, etc. etc.—his citation of this article is pretty amusing in context of his desire to recall Senators. You know who really liked—even pioneered—recall provisions? The Progressives.

So their history is off, but what about the philosophy—the theory, if you will—of their idea? Well, I think it’s pretty odd. Let’s first do Radtke and then Blankley. Radtke says that the Founders’ methods separated elections of Senators and Representatives so that “the interests of the state and people are equally represented.” But why should they be equally be represented? Why are we concerned about giving state governments as a metaphysical entity representation? Shouldn’t we be more concerned with giving the actual people representation?

Or, let’s take Blankley. His theory is that “…it has been since 1913, when the 17th Amendment was enacted into law, that the 10th Amendment increasingly began to be ignored.” But he himself cites example of the 10th Amendment being ignored previous to 1913; after, of course, is that whole thing called segregation, which was justified by, oh, you know state’s rights.

And here’s the world after the repeal of the 17th Amendment:

Senators still would be just as likely to be corrupted. But the corruption would be dispersed to the 50 separate state legislatures. The corruption more often would be on behalf of state interests. And its remedy would be achievable by the vigilance of voters for more responsive state legislative seats (typically, about less than 50,000 residences per state legislator), rather than Senate seats (the entire population of the state -- usually millions.)
This is, of course, very wrong. For one, let’s say you’re a lobbyist planning on bribing government to get a desired response. Well, you’d bribe state legislatures…but you’d still bribe Senators in Washington! If anything, repealing the 17th Amendment would increase the amount of bribery.

And, by the way, state and local government is pretty corrupt. Sandra Day O’Connor has been crusading to take judges off of the ballot for this very reason: there’s just not as much scrutiny at a local level. Here’s Jamelle Bouie on the larger point:

Not too long ago, the Daily Beast had a gallery of the most corrupt states in the union, which is worth checking out. In the last ten years, my home state of Virginia, which ranks number 2 on the list of most corrupt states, has seen 14 convictions for public corruption, 9 convictions for racketeering and extortion, 18 convictions for forgery and counterfeiting, 5 convictions for embezzlement, and a nice helping of fraud. Indeed, there seems to be a fair amount of low (or high) level corruption in state capitals around the country, which really isn’t that much of a shock.
And let’s look at the opposite claim: to the degree that there is scrutiny of our governments, it’s the federal government that receives far and away the most scrutiny, of the most minor provisions. Take Sarah Palin’s Facebook post about death panels leading to the immediate striking of anything resembling death panels in the bill, or Joe Wilson removing all coverage for immigrants in the health care bill. That’s direct accountability generated by activist coverage. The very virtue that Tea Party activists want has already been achieved. On the other hand, we know that the Department of the Interior—perhaps the least sexy department, and certainly the one that’s least Washington-y—was the very worst of the regulators in the Bush years and whose incompetence directly led to the Deepwater Horizon catastrophe. Guess some scrutiny there would’ve been nice, huh? Taking away people’s right to vote and giving their right to vote to state legislatures would achieve exactly that effect. So what’s the status of this idea? Well, apparently every Republican has to sign on to sail right off of a cliff.

Watching the Wrong Henhouse for Foxes

There’s one very odd aspect of regulatory law under the Obama administration: namely, its focus. I think it’s pretty clear at this point that the Obama administration’s regulatory apparatus is focusing much more strongly on the tech industry than previously: why, you’ve got the DOJ investigating antitrust claims on Apple’s iTunes, the DOJ investigating Apple for its banning Flash and third-party development packs in the App Store, you have Sen. Herb Kohl trying to get Comcast to spin off Hulu, you have the FTC waiting 6 months to approve Google’s AdMob acquisition (while dithering  over Apple’s Quattro Wireless acquisition), and you've got  the investigation over a “gentleman’s agreement” for big tech firms not to poach talent from one another.

I’m not a lawyer, so I can’t really comment about the legal justification for each of these actions; nor do I think all of them are wrong—I like Kohl working on Comcast and I like the investigation into the gentleman’s agreement. That said, you can’t ignore what the trend is: increased scrutiny of the tech sector.

And I suspect the increased scrutiny is not merely the average increase that accompanies the change from the Bush administration to the Obama administration; it seems to me that the increase is relative too. Recall that this entire Deepwater Horizon spill was precipitated by…a lax regulatory environment. The SEC has made some cases (besides Goldman, it just shut down a large hedge fund), but has declined to make some other cases (e.g. AIG). In fact, in this column asking “Will Wall Street Go Free?”, William Cohan demonstrates that there’s been a laxity in pursuing justice at Wall Street firms.

This, I’m sure you’ll agree, is pretty strange. Because if there’s any sector of the American economy that’s doing a relatively good job these past few years, it’s the tech sector, no? And yet it appears that it will be subject to relative increased scrutiny. I appreciate that regulatory oversight is as important in good times as in bad, and that sectors that don’t seem to be problems can turn into problems if left unwatched. But still, we know who the problem children in this economy of ours is: I’ll give a geographical hint—look in lower Manhattan and Connecticut rather than Palo Alto—and the competition between the big tech firms has been more salutary than anything else. I just don’t get it.

Thursday, May 27, 2010


David Brooks has a good column today about technological complexity; similarly fatalistic is Grist, which asks, “What if we can’t shut off the leak?”

More on congestion pricing.

The fight to bring electricity to Nigeria.

Does the popularity of the iPad and iPhone in Japan indicate a problem in Japan’s electronics sector?:
In Japan, detail-oriented consumers prefer to buy Japanese products packed with features and read thick instruction manuals from cover to cover. Most buyers outside of Japan expect new products to be simple and intuitive, and they are less concerned about a product's point of origin.

"The consumer in Japan thinks very differently than the global consumer," said Atul Goyal, an analyst at brokerage firm CLSA. "Once Japanese companies try to sell things to a global market, they need to understand how a global consumer reacts."

Greece will still have to restructure its debt.

Depressing facts:
Nearly 60% of English language learners in California's high schools have failed to become proficient in the language despite more than six years of a U.S. education, according to a study released Thursday.

On the demolition of Beijing’s historical districts:
In January, the Dongcheng District government announced plans to turn the alleys, or hutongs, surrounding the Drum and Bell Towers into a "Beijing Cultural City." Residents say they've received notice that demolition will begin in June, but representatives of the project have only confirmed that building will start before the end of the year. Plans include an underground shopping mall, parking and a museum. Most of the 625,000 residents, including Liu's family, will have to move.

To many people, including locals such as Liu, the Drum and Bell neighborhood is a slum, not a convenient place to live and nothing for Beijing to be proud of in 2010. But preservationists, many of them foreigners or Chinese who have lived overseas, say this is China's cultural heritage — not just the narrow alleys and the buildings but the people living here and their traditional lifestyle.

Residents are divided over the project. They have posted almost 2,000 comments under the thread "The Drum and Bell Tower area to be demolished" on Baidu Tieba, a popular Chinese Internet forum. Many are practical, worrying that even with compensation they can't afford an apartment in the city's sky-high real estate market. Others are attached to their homes.

Also, in China news: why are Filipina nannies in high demand by Chinese families?:
But if the market is anything to judge by, parents think the Filipinas are worth it: Beijing parents pay Rmb3,000-4,000 per month for Filipina nannies, and only half that for Chinese-only speaking staff.

Nobody wants to talk about it much, for obvious reasons. Shanghai nanny agencies that advertise Filipina nannies online suddenly clam up when contacted by the FT, and Mums with Filipina maids definitely do not want to be quoted.

But the message is clear: middle-class Chinese want Filipinas to make sure that their children have English drummed into them not only at school, but also at home.

Why, asks Frederic Filloux, does digital advertising suck? (But I encourage you to click the many wonderful ads served on this here blog by Google AdSense!!!1! Or, indeed, one of the helpful links to through Amazon Associates!)

What happens when you put three insane people together who all believe they are Jesus Christ?

Behind the production of Toy Story 3.

The flight to quality, or, why low prices of Treasuries mean the government should be spending more.

The health insurance rate hikes for small businesses:
Five major insurers in California's small-business market are raising rates 12% to 23% for firms with fewer than 50 employees, according to a survey by The Times.

Similar increases are being felt by many small businesses across the nation, including those in Texas, Ohio and Florida — mainly the result of escalating costs for medical care and pharmaceuticals, insurers say.

Will Miami go bankrupt? (Sounds overly alarmist...but, on the other hand, this is a city councilman asking the question.)

Designing better stop signs.

Should American health care imitate (some aspects of) Indian health care?

A new doctor specialty, the hospitalist:
Because hospitalists are on top of everything that happens to a patient — from entry through treatment and discharge — they are largely credited with reducing the length of hospital stays by anywhere from 17 to 30 percent, and reducing costs by 13 to 20 percent, according to studies in The Journal of the American Medical Association. As their numbers have grown, from 800 in the 1990s to 30,000 today, medical experts have come to see hospitalists as potential leaders in the transition to the Obama administration’s health care reforms, to be phased in by 2014.
Sounds in many ways similar to the “care coordinator” idea proposed by Kent Conrad for Medicare.

The history and philosophy of putting political leaders on trial.

Joe Posnanski on Paul Pierce.

S.L. Price profiles Lionel Messi, Diego Maradona, and Argentina itself:
The easy conclusion, of course, is that the country is mad. Yes, anyplace can seem bizarre to a stranger, but let's agree that Argentina's lunacy is more obvious than, say, Denmark's. Argentina is, after all, the nation with the most psychoanalysts per capita; the country whose still-feverish devotion to a long-dead First Lady resulted in a town, Ciudad Evita, built in the shape of her head; the land where citizens fearlessly consume beef for breakfast or with afternoon coffee and erupt in street protests for any reason at all. On an April afternoon, for example, picketers halted rush-hour traffic on the highway into Buenos Aires, expressing outrage over the damage caused by a recent hailstorm. "Protesting the hail," said a lifelong resident with a shrug. "Of course."

Still, it's another thing for a country to indulge its own lunacy where its most prized possession is concerned. When in October 2008 longtime Argentina Football Association (AFA) president Julio Grondona named Maradona the national team coach, he made a choice that few could imagine his counterparts in England or Brazil or Germany making. It smacked of desperation and arrogance. It was confounding, exhilarating and, for a constituency accustomed to political and economic tumult, wholly appropriate.

"Argentina is used to living from crisis to crisis to crisis, and life always goes on," says Ezequiel Fernández Moores, a columnist for the Buenos Aires newspaper La Nación. "Maybe it's crazy to put [Maradona] in that position, but maybe not. Sometimes it seems we love the crisis. We can't live without the crisis. Maradona is an icon of that."
Would it be possible to somehow create a The Real World type reality show in which Maradona, Ron Artest, M.I.A. and Dexter Pittman were forced to live together? I would be prepared to pay large sums of money to see that (and I am open to slotting in other candidates, but Maraodona and Artest must be members.)

Did payday lenders win the battle but lose the financial regulation war?