Wednesday, June 30, 2010

Linkism

Well well well: study shows that the number of times the news has categorized “waterboarding” as “torture” has dropped dramatically right around the same time we started doing it. Entirely coincidental, I’m sure.

n+1 on Argentina.

Biologists are finding dead zones in the Gulf.

Is the current system for commercializing university research effective? And should there be a free market in it?

Turns out the British government is underwriting loans for Brazil’s deep sea oil drilling. Also, how big can Brazil grow?

The star architects of the age of Gehry.

We can stabilize the debt by…doing absolutely nothing!

How should we feel about dogmatism?

California school districts are edging towards insolvency:
Of the state's 1,077 school districts, 14 are classified as in especially dire condition. They are unlikely to avoid bankruptcy based on their current approved budgets. L.A. County has one such system, the Lynwood Unified School District, officials said. Other districts in this category include Hayward Unified in Alameda County, Vallejo City Unified in Solano County and Natomas Unified in Sacramento County.

An additional 160 school systems have a "qualified" financial outlook, meaning that they are at risk although probably not in danger of immediate bankruptcy. L.A. County districts in that situation include L.A. Unified, Burbank Unified, Culver City Unified, Glendale Unified, Inglewood Unified, Montebello Unified, Norwalk- La Mirada Unified, Pomona Unified, Santa Monica-Malibu Unified and South Pasadena Unified.

About 26,000 teachers were notified in March that they might be laid off, according to data collected by the California Teachers Assn. At least 9,000 of those notices have been rescinded so far. Last year also brought teacher layoffs, leading to a decline of about 15,000 in the union's membership. The state has about 300,000 teachers.

Karzai is making efforts to make up with the Taliban.

Blimps: air freight of the future?:
Airships would be too slow for some high-speed airfreight, and would not be needed to carry the majority of cargo for which much slower ships are suitable. But with a speed of 125kph (78mph), and much lower fuel costs, plus a carrying capacity potentially many times that of a standard Boeing 747 plane, blimps could in future carry much of current air freight.

A recent report on mobility by the Smith School, for example, quoted an estimate by one developer, UK-owned SkyCat, that it could carry twice the weight of strawberries from Spain to the UK of a standard cargo plane, with a 90% reduction in greenhouse gas emissions, much of which is from avoiding the huge fuel burn a jet engine uses to take off.

Doesn’t look like the Congo is doing particularly well.

News Sensibilities, Revealed

My favorite part of this spy ring story is how it's decisively revealed (confirmed) the various sensibilities of different news organizations.

To wit, The New York Times:

Not Harvard friends! How outrageous! A nation of bobos is weeping into its breakfasts of steel-cut granola the moment this was published.

Meanwhile, in the New York Post: 
 Not their best headlining work, but oh, it'll do.

And the Guardian: 
 Nothing like the faint whiff of decadent classism. (Sadly, the News of the World also goes with the ultra-boring "The London Connection." Where's your sense of whimsy and outraged snarkery?)

And there's your media, summarized. 

Electronic Medical Records Follies

One of those oddities—I’m being kind here—of the health care system is that a doctor, after doing a treatment, does not actually know when, if or how much he or she will be paid for said treatment. It’s all up in the air, thanks to that wonderfully efficient system called America’s health insurance industry. Moreover, the inefficiencies caused by that goofiness are more than just the first-order oh-you-have-to-wait problems: the insurance company will frequently try to lowball doctors on payment, which leads to negotiation which leads to an epic of lost time and lost man-hours. It’s no wonder that about $300 billion is spent on administrative tasks in health care.

Now, the NYT article linked to above attributes the problems to electronic medical records and their relative disuse among doctors (and, when used, the tendency to update them at the end of the day rather than at real-time which slows down the whole claims process). And apparently a strong number of Americans (42%) don’t even realize whether their doctors use electronic medical records or not (I'm one of them!) And there are a disturbing number of studies that show that the electronic medical records don’t do what they promise: improve care while slashing costs.

The theoretical case for electronic medical records remains more than strong; why hasn’t the practice fit the theory?

I’m afraid that the execution of electronic medical records has been more than lacking. It’s that lack of quality execution, by the way, that represents a very lucrative opportunity to whatever business figures it out.

The first problem is who’s to organize it. Part of the problem is that electronic medical records are often pushed by insurers, who (naturally) design them to meet the needs of insurers:
"When you're trying to read the notes of your colleague [in an electronic record], it's almost impossible to figure out what happened to the patient," says Rushika Fernandopulle, an internist, instructor at Harvard Medical School and co-founder of consultant Renaissance Health. "You have to read through two pages of all this junk that's put in to increase billing."

Dr. Fernandopulle gives an example of a note a doctor might write on a paper chart after seeing a patient with a sore throat: "Patient has a sore throat, no fever. I think this is viral pharyngitis. No need for treatment. I reassured the patient." But if a note for that visit had been generated by an electronic system designed to maximize billing, it could be pages long. "You would have to wade through an awful lot of stuff about whether they had stomach pain, diarrhea, weakness in their muscles—almost any question imaginable, most of which wouldn't be relevant to the problem at hand," Dr. Fernandopulle says.
Anecdotally, I have it on good authority (Hi Mom!) that some electronic medical records do not allow you to create graphs. My guide to life is that if Microsoft has figured out how to do it (Excel!) than it’s a pretty good bet that a common-sense solution exists; furthermore, if your functionality is worse than Microsoft’s relevant product, you have huge problems. Let’s dwell a little more on the graphs problem: the reason has to do with the fact that the relevant graphs are for a little-used corner of medicine (i.e. it’s not like tracking blood pressure over time). Now, you—being perfectly sensible—have a very good question: well why can’t you just input whatever variables you’d like? As I said, it’s irrational and dumb.

Probably there’s room for a third-party—whether it’s a startup or someone else—to do this right and design a proper medical record.

The second problem is cultural. Older doctors are rather famously technology adverse (do you realize how many jokes there are about doctor’s handwriting?), meaning that the records have to have that Apple-like quality of being immediately understandable and intuitive. Moreover, (as mentioned above) doctors have to commit to using the records immediately on the spot so as to save the redundancy of administrative upkeep later.

The third problem is universality and sharing. The highest ideal of electronic medical records would be for everyone to have one, and every relevant medical personnel to be able to call it up when relevant. This suggests cloud computing to me. Even more so than, say, Facebook, the privacy concerns are pretty much ubiquitous. The key is to be able to give and manage the requisite permissions (you could, for instance, allow all emergency room types to access your records with a code? I’m not sure here.), which should be very doable. What's more, the best electronic medical records system would allow you access to your own medical records at will--the fact that 42% of Americans don't know whether their doctors use electronic medical records is one suggestion of how one-sided the relationship with health care system is.

Beyond the obvious effects of properly designing and propagating a standard medical record—more productivity! less costs! fewer errors!—there’s the less obvious stuff. One example that comes to my mind is the absolute usefulness to academic researchers: users could opt-in to allow academic researchers some access to their data (who could, say, search for white males in their sixties to recruit them to examine, uh, cholesterol and its relationship with cancer or something.) And I’m sure there are even more effects that I just haven’t thought of yet.

As with so much in health care—hell, the entire economy—it’s something of a wonder that we do so much so incompetently when we could do so much more so much better. The gap from here to there represents a permanent, massive upgrade to both our national wealth and health. Let’s figure these things out.

Tuesday, June 29, 2010

Linkism

The medical-industrial complex and the device industry.

The National Gallery in Great Britain is exhibiting all of its counterfeit paintings.

Mexico news. Wachovia and Bank of America helped launder tons of cash for the cartels:
Wachovia admitted it didn’t do enough to spot illicit funds in handling $378.4 billion for Mexican-currency-exchange houses from 2004 to 2007. That’s the largest violation of the Bank Secrecy Act, an anti-money-laundering law, in U.S. history -- a sum equal to one-third of Mexico’s current gross domestic product.
There’s some speculation Wachovia wasn’t prosecuted because of “Too Big To Fail” in the article. Also, here’s a Wall Street Journal article with more on the candidate shooting. And will the drug violence scare away investors?

David Brooks makes some interesting points on that Wired A.A. article I posted earlier.

David Petraeus to relax rules of engagement to allow for more aggressive troops.

The Obama administration’s policy towards rape in the Congo: working?

A smart review of Mallaby’s More Money Than God contains this interesting thought on the hedge fund type:
Not that this cocksure breed is reticent about describing how they made money at someone else's expense. I have a bit of firsthand experience with this. In 1998, Malaysian Prime Minister Mohamad bin Mahathir famously accused hedge funds of colluding to destabilize Asian currencies and asked the International Monetary Fund to investigate. The fund put me on the job. Armed with a corporate credit card and an IMF rolodex, my little team traveled to London, New York, and Greenwich, Conn., to interview the usual suspects.

I assumed our interlocutors would be less than forthcoming, confronted by a posse whose opening was essentially "Hi, we're from the IMF, and we'd like to know whether you caused the Asian crisis." In fact, they were refreshingly straightforward, used as they were to being judged on their results, not their methods. When we asked, "do you and your colleagues at other funds talk to one another about what countries and currencies are vulnerable," we got answers like "Sure, guys are always calling me and asking what other countries we can blow up."

Posnanski has a very good article on Messi: he has been on fire recently (vague pronoun very purposeful here).

Brazil’s fading infrastructure.

More on “The Best Party.”

A very good review of Although Of Course You End Up Becoming Yourself which has some nice thoughts on David Foster Wallace's work. 

The infamous “rubber rooms” ended on Monday.

Celebrating Airplane!’s 30th anniversary.

On Economics

Robert Samuelson makes a show of being epistemically humble in asking, “Do Economists Really Know What They’re Talking About?” but really misses the beat: the arguments he uses the showcase the fractious debates among economists aren’t exactly the best examples.

His basic example for the argument is about that hoary old subject, the stimulus; namely, he says that:
The Keynesian logic seems airtight. If consumer and business spending is weak, government raises demand through tax cuts or spending increases. But in practice, governments' high debts impose financial and psychological limits. The ratio of government debt to the economy (gross domestic product) is 92 percent for France, 82 percent for Germany and 83 percent for Britain, reports the Bank for International Settlements in Switzerland.

This means that the benefits of higher deficits can be lost in many ways: through higher interest rates if greater debt frightens investors; through declines in private spending if consumers and businesses lose confidence in governments' ability to control budgets; and through a banking crisis if bank capital—which consists heavily of government bonds—declines in value. There's a tug of war between the stimulus of bigger deficits and the fears inspired by bigger deficits.

Based on favorable assumptions, the Obama administration says its $787 billion "stimulus" program created or saved up to 2.8 million jobs. This might be. Lenders haven't lost confidence in U.S. Treasury bonds. Interest rates on 10-year Treasurys are just over 3 percent. But in Europe, financial limits have bitten. Greece's huge debt (debt-to-GDP ratio: 123 percent) resulted in a steep rise of interest rates. Germany and Britain are debating plans to cut their deficits to avoid Greece's fate.

But in demonstrating toughness for those fainting, uncertain markets, governments might merely mistake the signals that the stock market is sending. To wit: both Germany’s and England’s bonds look more than stable. The market was basically fine with not cutting deficits and fine cutting deficits…Meanwhile, as Ireland will tell you (or, indeed, the U.S. in the Great Depression), austerity is a dangerous path to venture down: it means fewer teachers, police officers, firemen etc. now; which permanently reduces output in the future too: think of all the kids who could’ve had a better education but didn’t and so on and so forth. And all because the markets might maybe decide that it’s not all right.

There are dangers to not cutting; but there are dangers to cutting too. Moreover, at least in the United States, the dangers that the deficit poses are long-term dangers called “health care.” That’s it. Calling yourself a deficit hawk and focusing on anything but health care is ignoring the true problem.

I don’t think Samuelson’s broader point holds true either, at least not in the way Samuelson means. Disagreement does not equal obsolescence. The disagreement of economists about economics is more than a little bit odd and disturbing, but isn’t necessarily fatal: after all, members of every intellectual discipline inevitably argue and prove to be fractious. Even arguments over basic points aren’t necessarily fatal to short-term usefulness or long-term progress. These things are looking at the results of arguments rather than the process; a well-followed process that leads to debates is healthy whereas one with a bad or haphazard process isn’t

So the debate to have is one of the process that leads to various economic conclusions. Economists are, at their best, wonderfully inventive and interesting at pursuing answers to interesting questions. But oftentimes they settle for the usual criticisms we’ve heard before: bad models, unrealistic assumptions or faulty data.

At its base I think economics often relies on willfully incomplete views of human nature, human history and the ways to measure it. We know that G.D.P. is not a particularly helpful statistic in truly measuring the wealth of nations—that it can mask income inequality or other oddities—and we know that there are various problems with various forms of measuring unemployment (there are 6 measures of unemployment, yet as far as I can tell, only one—an incomplete one—is readily used in debates). Furthermore we know that history isn’t well-used or represented in economic thinking on a practical level (think of the computer programs used by subprime traders that didn’t allow them to enter negative values for home prices) or on an academic level either. And of course human beings are not particularly well represented by economics in ways that have been elucidated before: people aren’t always rational, of course, and yet economics insists they are. Economics usually responds to problems with its models by insisting that it’s real life that’s at fault, when of course this isn’t the best process to integrate the world with one’s theory of it. So until you solve these problems, you don’t solve economics.

The Metaphysics of Free Agency News

Nothing allows you to consider the metaphysics of news better than the free agency silly season. ESPN reports that OMG, the free agent summit has occurred in Miami and it’s going to be LeBron/Bosh/Wade! But wait! Dwyane Wade was in Chicago with his kids! The New York Times thinks LeBron to Chicago is a done deal!

None of these stories can be true at the same time, of course; moreover, it’s difficult to even sort out how you feel about the relative likelihoods of any of the possibilities. It’s the news equivalent of Schrodinger’s Cat (pop physics version)—both true and untrue with no falsifiable way of evaluating whether or not the version is particularly worthwhile or credible at all. We will have no idea which news is meaningful and which isn’t until afterwards, and even then there are good reasons to doubt the veracity of individual reporters: I mean, who would spill the beans to Stephen A. Smith about anything of greater consequence than, say, what you would like for dinner? Because you, spiller of beans, would know that Stephen A. would scream it from the rooftops as well as the nearest radio station/TV hit in that compellingly, annoyingly grating scream of his? (Tangent: Stephen A. Smith’s scream is something of a terrifying wonder of the world: how? why? We don’t know how, and we don’t know why—the existential horror is equivalent to No Country for Old Men with its vicious murderers who murder because they’re EVIL! No explanation can be given beyond evil is evil. Similarly, Stephen A.’s dulcet tones are self-justifying.)

Here's the ultimate confirmation on why all the news cannot be evaluated: sportsbooks have decided not to accept bets anymore on it (insider). 

Everything is left up to the authority of the “sources” and with the identity of the sources left hidden, there’s no way of assessing the sources at their word…instead you have to hope that the journalists themselves are responsible and judicious with their reporting, obviously often a difficult proposition (not to mention all of the times that journalists are responsible and judicious and are simultaneously taken for a ride by a source with an agenda).

The reliance on anonymous sources here is complete: unlike other instances with anonymous sources where their assertions can be compared to an actual record, here the sources are reporting on the feelings and preferences of the free agents, something that’s volatile at the best of times.

So literally no news is to be trusted between now and the press conference with the free agents proudly holding us a jersey.

Monday, June 28, 2010

Linkism

Libraries begin loaning e-books.

Candidate for a Mexican governorship shot and killed.

An idea: solar panel leasing.

A great history of the Pecora Commission—scary to read it and see how many themes have been repeated today.

Berlin: bohemian paradise.

Obama administration: still using Blackwater.

NYU to start up start-up fund.

Moqtada al-Sadr’s Madhi Army is back. (The surge worked!)

An interesting thought—migration is shaping the world:
Perhaps no force in modern life is as omnipresent yet overlooked as global migration, that vehicle of creative destruction that is reordering ever more of the world. Overlooked? A skeptic may well question the statement, given how often the topic makes news and how divisive the news can be. After all, Arizona’s campaign against illegal immigrants, codified in an April law, set off high-decibel debates from Melbourne to Madrid. But migration also shapes the landscape beneath the seemingly unrelated events of the headlines. It is a story-behind-the-story, a complicating tide, in issues as diverse as school bond fights and efforts to isolate Iran. (Seeking allies in Latin America this month, Secretary of State Hillary Rodham Clinton had to emphasize the dangers of a nuclear-armed Tehran while fending off complaints about the Arizona law.)

China is roping together its coalition of the willing—to take over international governance:
What's less well known is the key role such states as Brazil, Kazakhstan, Nigeria, South Africa, and Venezuela are playing in China's international diplomatic game. Over the past decade and a half, while few in the West were paying attention, Beijing has built a coalition of countries -- a great many of them in Africa -- that can be trusted to vote China's way in an increasingly clogged alphabet soup of international fora. It's a bloc reminiscent of the one the Soviet Union assembled during the Cold War, though focused on economic and trade advantages, not security issues.

So far, China's strategy is working, and nowhere more so than with Beijing's campaign to delegitimize Taiwan as an independent state. In 2008, for instance, Malawi announced it had cut diplomatic relations with the island would-be nation; Taipei couldn't match China's offer of $6 billion in aid. Senegal broke relations in 2005, signing an agreement that reportedly included an initial $600 million in financial assistance from China. Chad followed suit after a series of secret meetings with Chinese officials and an undisclosed amount of aid. Today, just four African countries still recognize Taiwan as the one true China: Burkina Faso, Gambia, São Tomé and Príncipe, and Swaziland, down from 13 in 1994; the global number has declined from 68 states in 1971 to 23 currently. Even Panama and Nicaragua, two of the few Latin American states that still officially recognize Taiwan, abstained from a vote on its 2007 bid to join the World Health Organization. Taipei's list of friends is headed rapidly toward zero.
Positively Robert Moses-esque.

How African radio is used as a tool for dictators.

The Flight Forward, Afghanistan and the New York Knicks

The Afghanistan war and the New York Knicks are surprisingly similar: they’re both suffering from the flight forward syndrome. The flight forward describes a situation in which an actor is committed to a course of action, discovers that that course of action is difficult and success is improbable, and then recommits to the course of action all the more intensely. Typically a phrase like “failure is not an option” is invoked when, in fact, failure is always an option—the question is its relative benefits versus committing strongly. But declaring that “failure is not an option” or variants typically serves as a method of closing one’s mind to other possibilities.

Take Ross Douthat’s column on Afghanistan today. I’ll give him the benefit of the doubt and assume he’s being descriptive rather than prescriptive, but here’s the first two paragraphs:
Here is the grim paradox of America’s involvement in Afghanistan: The darker things get and the more setbacks we suffer, the better the odds that we’ll be staying there indefinitely.


Not the way we’re there today, with 90,000 American troops in-theater and an assortment of NATO allies fighting alongside. But if the current counterinsurgency campaign collapses, it almost guarantees that some kind of American military presence will be propping up some sort of Afghan state in 2020 and beyond. Failure promises to trap us; success is our only ticket out.
Which is probably true insofar as the description goes. But it’s worth asking, if all you do is failure, is the problem the execution or the strategy itself? Obviously it’s too early to say for certain, but it seems to be heading in that direction. One of the regrets I have over the Rolling Stone controversy was over the war debate. McChrystal’s comments were the perfect controversy: simple, easy to understand, reducible to sound bites. And he should’ve been fired. The totality of the article, however, is really about why the war is essentially unwinnable. But because failure is unthinkable, it makes failure all but inevitable. And when that failure comes, it’ll be all the worse. Something approximating success will not be as sweet as was imagined at the beginning of the endeavor.

Consider this idea within the context of the other example I promised at the beginning: namely, the New York Knicks. It’s been clear ever since Donnie Walsh was hired that the Knicks’ strategy revolved around signing LeBron James. This was a more effective strategy when the Knicks were the only game in town; but the Bulls and Heat quickly began to reorganize their rosters in order to prove more attractive destinations than the Knicks. So what did the Knicks do? Failure was unimaginable—it would have meant the waste of three years of rebuilding and millions of dollars wasted. But success, too, was destined to be a poisoned chalice: the Knicks had to trade Jordan Hill to the Rockets along with the rights to several high picks to the Rockets in order to clear the requisite cap space. Now what? Success won’t be any utopia: a LeBron/Bosh top two is formidable, but who else on that team looks like a championship caliber player? Maybe Danilo Gallinari. Maybe. And because the team would be too good to have good draft picks, there would be no hope for improving the team through the draft. The Knicks would be dependent on another stroke of good luck—e.g. a Pau Gasol type trade, or making several successful midlevel exception signings in a row—to even think about contending for a championship. Meanwhile, the flight forward represented by the trade devastates a future in which top-tier free agents don’t choose the Knicks: suddenly the Rockets have raided you for top-5 picks two years in a row. It would take five years at least to rebuild the team after that, with luck. Walsh has bet the entire future on a not particularly appealing future.

These are the types of things that happen when you commit to a bad strategy so completely. The strategies pursued above allow no room for flexibility—the Knicks could no more decide to build through the draft than a pig decide to fly—meaning that any change in circumstances is bound to ruin said strategy. And, more importantly, the mental commitment of “failure is not an option” means that the actor in question cannot conceive of the time that it’s important to concede gracefully. Sometimes failure happens.

Very Amateur Legal Speculation--Second Amendment Edition

There’s been much liberal gnashing of teeth over the Supreme Court’s decision to invalidate Chicago’s gun control laws today, and justifiably so: the results are terrible and likely mean more guns and more violence. Lost in the discussion, however, is that the decision was the right one. The law is generally more interested in means rather than ends (and properly so, I’d say), and that’s why the decision was the correct one.

For a very long time, the Bill of Rights was generally understood to only apply to the federal government. This meant that (theoretically) state or local governments could infringe upon free speech, free expression of religion, or even establish churches (indeed, the early religious history of our country features many states with an official religion: if I remember correctly, Virginia was officially Episcopalian; Massachusetts was Congregationalist—i.e. the Puritans—etc. etc. Which is why the earliest fighters for the establishment clause were Methodists and Catholics who felt they were unfairly excluded from public life. Which attitudes they promptly shed when they found themselves on the inside.). As you can probably tell from the proceeding disquisition, this was probably a bad thing and the 14th Amendment was commonly interpreted to mean that the states had a responsibility to protect the same rights that the federal government does.

As it happens, the Second Amendment happens to be a part of the Bill of Rights, making it just as eligible for incorporation as all of the rest of the amendments. Which means, by the way, that the decision was right. No, where liberals should be focusing their efforts is not on this decision, but the decision that established the interpretation of the Second Amendment favored by the Roberts Court which is essentially Gunz are Kool! (exaggerating.) I don’t think that was the intention of the Founders, nor do I think that’s the most common-sense interpretation of the text of the Second Amendment. Nor is it a result that leads to particularly beneficial outcomes. That’s where the problem lies, not in this decision.

Sunday, June 27, 2010

Linkism

Obama administration to auction off 500 mhz of broadband spectrum.

Romania, in attempt at austerity, to raise VAT to 25%. Look for actions like this to become more the norm than the exception (and naturally, therefore, to put the brakes on the economy.)

Great article on universities fostering innovation through “proof-of-concept centers.”

On the other hand, this article on the burgeoning pot economy in Colorado is generally well-thought-out, well-written and all that…but the writer can’t help himself with grafs like this:
As supply met demand, politicians decided that a body of regulations was overdue. The state’s Department of Revenue has spent months conceiving rules for this new industry, ending the reefer-madness phase here in favor of buzz-killing specifics about cultivation, distribution, storage and every other part of the business.
I SEE WHAT YOU DID THERE! YOU’RE SO VERY CLEVER! The author has a tendency to play cute with his writing at several points in this article because hee-hee it’s just pot. Which, again, just shows how objectivity is a pretense newspaper journalists can’t follow through on.

Turns out that B.P. isn’t just reckless when it comes to drilling, it’s a reckless energy financial markets trader.

Interesting thoughts on the future of the book: rethinking the slate computer and releasing add-ons to books (e.g. “director’s cut”-type stuff, or notes, or the author explaining things, etc.) as iPhone apps.

How was your country's recession?

China and Africa:
Let's go back to Kinshasa. Congo's got problems. The Western way of helping has been with aid — multilateral, bilateral or through self-funding religious groups and NGOs. To stem the fighting in the east, Congo has a 21,000-strong U.N. peacekeeping force — MONUC — the biggest in the world. These efforts have had mixed success. The war hasn't ended, and the world's loans to Congo have helped fuel corruption. Little has been done to address Congo's infrastructure deficit. Coordinating aid among so many groups and nations remains difficult.

Enter China. Beijing doesn't do gifts; it does deals. In Congo, China's infrastructure-for-mines deal irked the International Monetary Fund (IMF). The Fund argued that Congo's guarantee to China that it would recoup at least $3 billion in minerals was an IOU on Congo's national assets and therefore a new debt. That fell afoul of debt-write-off conditions, which require that the debtor take on no new loans. "If the Congolese take the Chinese deal," said a Western official familiar with the negotiations in mid-2009, "they will not get any more [Western] support." A standoff ensued. An earlier deal, in 2007 with Angola, also outraged the IMF. It had been negotiating a new loan with Angola for years, with carefully calibrated conditions to block corruption and alleviate poverty. By paying Luanda $5 billion in return for oil concessions and infrastructure contracts, China effectively made the IMF redundant. Diplomats across Africa like to say the continent offers space for everyone. But what's happening in Angola and Congo is a new scramble for Africa. Xu, the translator, has no doubt that he is engaged in an intense rivalry. "Not everybody is pleased to see us here, that's for sure. But we are not going to lose."
Also, on the idealistic Chinese media group that tried to buy Newsweek.

Choose your deficits.

The greatest thing about soccer referee controversies is invariably that the referees are far more entertaining personalities (to hate) in soccer, e.g. the dude who screwed the pooch for England: “Bizarrely he also has a private zoo and cites his favourite hobby as animal-breeding.” Isn’t that a lot more fun than Tim Donaghy?

Related stories: will we be seeing the world’s first genetically modified salmon on our tables soon? And, will we be seeing the end of tuna soon? (very good):
Until the 1970s, fishing in the high seas tended to be based on the principles of Hugo Grotius’s 1609 treatise “Mare Liberum” — a document that advocated free use of the oceans by all. But in the last 40 years, Grotius’s “free sea” has grown progressively more circumscribed. Today, high-seas and highly migratory fish are overseen by 18 regional fisheries-management organizations. These “consensus-oriented” institutions, in which each member nation has equal status, can be guided more by political horse-trading than by sound science. A former chairman of the scientific committee of the International Commission for the Conservation of Atlantic Tunas (or Iccat), the body responsible for Atlantic bluefin, told me, “Even though scientific advice says you should stick to a specific catch number, in order to negotiate a deal they tend to nudge that number over a little bit.” That little nudge can be enough to put a population of tuna in jeopardy.

9 dead in a drug clinic in Mexico by shooting…and here’s a sad story about a Mexican state security director who can’t trust the police to do their job from personal experience (she was shot at in an armored SUV—nearly 3,000 bullets—while the police dithered.)

The Schadenfreude Express Rolls On!

You may have heard England's hopes and dreams were extinguished again, as they always are every four years. Like a too-hopeful Sisyphus, England is doomed forever to just...about...get that rock to something looking like success...before it rolls right back down. Too bad: for England.

For the rest of us, that's just wonderful. England is the Notre Dame or New York Knicks of soccer: convinced of a glorious history that isn't quite as glorious open closer inspection; convinced that this glorious history entitles them to a glorious future. So it's a real pleasure to see the tabloids react in force...No, it's a lame reaction.

Too bad. However, there are several possible stops on the wonderful schadenfreude express. To wit, here are the possible stops in the next year or so:
July Sometime: New York Knicks strike out on 'Bron/Wade/Bosh; settle for Joe Johnson and Amare Stoudemire. The question here is how much spin will we get? Will we get writers halfheartedly talking themselves into the era? Or will the New York media go into full rip mode? I'm eager to find out.

Sometime next fall: The inevitable Notre Dame flameout. Other amusing possibilities: the possible USC flameout, the possible Dallas Cowboys flameout, the possible Indianapolis Colts flameout. Off the Board, Sadly: The possible Vikings flameout. Toby Gerhart has gone to Minnesota to redeem Brett Favre's sins.

Sometime next spring: The highly-probable Los Angeles Lakers flameout, the hopefully possible Duke Blue Devil flameout.

The shame of being a fan of the schadenfreude is what if they actually succeed. Let's say, for example, LeBron actually does sign with the Knicks. The gloating would be unbearable and annoying, particularly because every New Yorker you know will be talking about how awesome New York is, etc., etc. as if the rest of the country wasn't aware New York had such a high regard for itself. Fortunately this is one of the more likely (and amusing) stops on the schadenfreude express. While the yearly Notre Dame flameout is inevitable, it is unfortunately less entertaining year after year because gradually people have begun to catch on. Ah, well, there are always great figures to take pleasure in their failures.

On "Negative" Sports

A couple of days ago I briefly touched on the idea of “negative” soccer—i.e. soccer that’s played in a manner that increases the chances of victory while simultaneously being unbearably boring and anti-entertaining (by means, typically, of congealing the entire defensive end of the field on hoping for a mistake on your opponent’s part when you have the day). This got me to pondering a bit: what’s a “negative” way of playing other sports.

Tennis: “negative” tennis would be something like moonballing or retrieval tennis while having almost no offensive skills. This method of tennis typically becomes ineffective after about age thirteen or so, when players gain the patience and offensive ability to string together several penetrating shots in a row. “Negative” tennis, therefore, is ultimately punished.

Basketball: “negative” basketball as a historical era started with Pat Riley’s Knicks and ended just before Steve Nash’s Suns. Riley’s Knicks inaugurated a league full of shoving, pushing, hand-checking combined with slow-it-down isolation play game after game. The style gradually infected the league but ultimately was it that successful? Consider the champs in that era: Bulls, Spurs, Lakers, Pistons. Only the Pistons could be considered to have played anything like “negative” basketball and that characterization would be exaggerated. At any rate, that era was killed dead with David Stern’s rules changes combined with the influx of top-tier point guards—these trends are inextricable and you can’t separate them. The era might have been dead anyway.

Football and baseball: this, I think, is interesting. Take football. You have almost theological claims raised against the spread offense in college football, claims that resemble the criticisms of “negative” soccer. But in truth these claims are the ones of fussy traditionalists: who among us is bored by the Oregon offense? And of course it wins at the college level.

Baseball is similarly afflicted by fussy traditionalism—though their numbers have thinned, there’s still a substantial population who against all common sense argue against statistics like on-base percentage (and think the quantification of the game somehow reduces their aesthetic appreciation of the game). Which I think can be silly—accurately quantifying what’s good and what’s bad on the baseball field doesn’t necessarily demean the aesthetic appreciation of the game. The problem might be if we find out that the best way to win a game of baseball turns out to be the most boring method of winning. What might diminish the aesthetics of the game is this: we all know baseball games take too long. This is non-controversial. It seems to me that at least part of the reason has to do with hitters working the count and pitchers being placed on a pitch count, decisions that have been subjected to much statistical analysis and verified thusly. The problem is that in aggregate the game might become more boring. This (ironically) is something that can be found out pretty quickly statistically: namely, are there more pitches in an average game than before? More pitchers being used? Etc. And what effect does that have on the length of a game (or is it something else, like commercials)? As you can tell by these questions, I’m very uninformed.

In truth, even the prevalence of “negative” soccer has been overstated. Who’s negative? Greece. Switzerland. Both of these nations have been helpfully shown the door in favor of more dynamic sides. And so far the Round of 16 games have been very entertaining, as well as (by definition) featuring winners. Meaning that “negative” soccer results in negative results, which is a welcome fate.

Saturday, June 26, 2010

Linkism

A wonderful NYT profile of Reykjavik’s new mayor, who is a comedian:
Last month, in the depressed aftermath of the country’s financial collapse, the Best Party emerged as the biggest winner in Reykjavik’s elections, with 34.7 percent of the vote, and Mr. Gnarr — who also promised a classroom of kindergartners he would build a Disneyland at the airport — is now the fourth mayor in four years of a city that is home to more than a third of the island’s 320,000 people.

In his acceptance speech he tried to calm the fears of the other 65.3 percent. “No one has to be afraid of the Best Party,” he said, “because it is the best party. If it wasn’t, it would be called the Worst Party or the Bad Party. We would never work with a party like that.”

Why does A.A. work?

The carried interest loophole, sadly, lives. Clearly the only way to balance the budget is on the backs of the poor.

Violence in Mexico is deterring universities from scheduling trips to Mexico; meanwhile, this program (which canceled its program due to lack of interest) has this brilliant piece of advertising:
It is not hard to understand why few students signed up for the Ciudad Juárez program, which is intended to highlight issues like immigration and trade. The promotional material for the program, in the interest of full disclosure, noted, “Currently Ciudad Juárez is under a virtual state of siege.”
Way to sell guys! Always be closing!

English isn’t uniquely positioned to take over the world.

B.P. has decided to ignore any fraudulent claims on its money.

Iran is about to strike a deal with Gazprom. Glad to see the whole “isolate Iran economically and politically” thing is working out.

Blood diamonds are back:
Born at a time of great bloodshed on the African continent, the 75-nation Kimberley Process was initially lauded for its commitment to human rights. Rebel movements had seized control of diamond regions in Angola, Sierra Leone and the Democratic Republic of Congo and used the gems to finance marauding guerrilla armies. Facing a public-relations nightmare, world diamond companies agreed to buy rough stones only if they are certified by internationally recognized governments. The Kimberley Process says well over 99% of the world's rough-diamond trade is now "conflict-free."

But critics say there's a big loophole in that definition: It doesn't take into account human-rights abuses in diamond territory controlled by governments themselves. "The Kimberley Process cut the financial lifeline of rebels, but at the same time it gave legitimacy to corrupt governments that abuse their own people," says Rafael Marques, a human-rights activist who has worked extensively in northeastern Angola.

Searching for North Korean fans at the World Cup. Some new details, like this:
And maybe rent-a-fans would be better than the real ones. In a 2005 World Cup qualifying loss to Iran, North Korean fans threw rocks and bottles at the Syrian referee, a shocking display of public disorder in such a tightly-controlled country. A subsequent "home" game for North Korea against Japan had to be moved to Bangkok, where the two teams played before an empty stadium closed to public view.

David Cameron announces there’ll be no British withdrawal from Afghanistan before 2015. So I guess we can regard the Emanuel/Biden promise of July 2011 as B.S.?

Chinese manufacturers are moving because of the wage demands of coastal workers.

Top ten movies that should’ve been made and thankfully weren’t.

How do counterinsurgencies end?

Groupthinking and Morality

Felix Salmon tosses out a very interesting question on his twitter feed today: “Is ethics a kind of groupthink?”

Start out by defining what we actually mean: how you answer the question depends on what your definition of “ethics” is and what your definition of (with apologies to Bill Clinton) “are” is. “Ethics” could indicate either general “morality” or it could indicate something like professional “ethics,” e.g. the ethical doctor, lawyer, journalist, etc. Meanwhile, “are” takes on a different complexion depending on which form of “ethics” we’re talking about: if we’re talking about general morality, we might be in for an argument of how “real” morality is (i.e. are there immutable laws of morality or are they more situational?); if we’re talking about professional ethics we’re more in for a debate regarding a description of what, exactly professional ethics happen to be and how they’re influenced by the composition of whomever is in the profession at that particular moment…

It might not surprise you to hear that I think it’s a mix of high-minded motives and not-so-high minded motives that comes with the formation of a code of ethics. I think the easier part to tackle—being less abstract—is professional ethics. The professions that are generally most concerned with ethics do so for two reasons: 1) they see themselves as a public-minded profession that has big effects on society (you don’t, for example, see a barista’s code of ethics); 2) piggybacking on the second, they see themselves as important and therefore somewhat exclusive (and needing protection from the riff-raff who might otherwise try and burst into their profession). Let’s take the AMA for example: not an accident that the second highlight in its chronological history on its website is about protecting the public from quackery. That’s obviously a good thing insofar as a group’s professional ethics are promoting good practices. The problem is when a system of professional ethics is ruling out perfectly good practices, since these perfectly good practices are often the ones that hurt the incumbent’s bottom lines.

The best example of this is probably the established journalist’s code of ethics. The Wire inadvertently showed up the profession: it was a reverent depiction of the old guard that obsessed over such things as whether you could “evacuate” people from a building (according to the show: you can’t. you evacuate the building, not the people.) More broadly, there are a lot of people who obsess over a fussy way of writing stories (the inverted pyramid and what-have-you) and worst of all, false objectivity by balance. At best you can merely achieve a superficial balance by including demonstrably false claims and spinning and what have you. That’s the best case scenario; the other, more common, scenario is that the reporter’s biases shine through. Take this story on obese cops in Mexico City in the New York Times about a month ago. It’s an interesting story on a worthy topic, without question, and the bulk of the story is well-reported, well-written and well-researched. But, well, the human interest part of the equation is off:
“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.

Mr. Aguilar, the corpulent officer in the capital, said his wife had been assisting the department’s official weight-loss effort by hiding cookies, cupcakes and other sweets at home. The department cut the calories on the official meals they issued him. The sandwiches grew thinner, he said, and his sodas were replaced with water. Instead of a sugary snack, he got a piece of fruit.

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.
Perhaps it’s just me, but I view this section as somewhat condescending to its subject: it engages in evident irony (particularly in the last line) to laugh at the subject. Who, to be fair, is funny as presented in the article. But it’s not worthwhile to claim that you’re maintaining a balanced objectivity by allowing reporters to undermine people like this while reverently quoting verbatim the words of various officials. In total, the effect is one of scrutinizing regular people and allowing officials their space to say whatever the hell they want. (note for example the experts in the article aren’t contradicted at all and their words are never unfavorably contrasted by reality).

This style succeeds by enforcing one standard of writing and one standard of approaching writing. And I’m sure you can foresee the consequences of the internet in puncturing this style and bringing down the barriers to individual expression, who are free to condescend to their subjects of whatever rank honestly and forthrightly should they so choose…Or not; the point is that a variety of expressions are allowed, unlike the generally homogenizing effects of the media.

Professional ethics naturally involve collaboration between people; but it’s a special kind of fallacy—call it the “success fallacy”—to call it groupthink. If you like the results (say, stamping out quackery), you’re liable to call it collaboration or cooperation or something of the sort. If you don’t, you call it groupthink. In truth the two processes are more similar than you’d care to think; it’s simply the differing environments that determines their relative success and failure oftentimes.

Professional ethics are in many ways morality in general writ small. And here a debate breaks out: what does “is” mean? A surprising number of people are moral relativists—I remember having a debate in college over whether we could call Andrew Jackson a terrible President for pursuing the Trail of Tears (the argument beginning with the idea that Jackson merely reflected the values of his times; the counterargument being that if that’s true, the values of the times were wrong; the counter to the counter being how can you judge someone else’s morals or something of the sort—I admit my memory may be hazy.) But of course something like 99.9% of people (an underestimate) would prefer living today to the 1820s, for the very good reason that modern times are better than that time. And while a large amount of it is due to the wonders of technology and what-have-you, you’d have to admit a not-inconsiderable amount is due to morality, or more concretely the lack or relative diminishment of such practices as servitude, chattel marriage and corporal punishment. Some systems of morality tend to promote happiness and welfare better than others.

Morality tends to be groupthink, i.e. collaboration if you like it, in that the morality of a particular time is formed by consensus and conversation. And like professional ethics it has strengths and weakness, insofar as it’s nice that torture is a comprehensively awful process, it doesn’t do you much good if the 24 watchers of the country don’t believe in it. Which is why overhauling morality is a long, hard process which tends to conclude in your believing that most people are groupthinking idiots.

Who's Up For A World Cup U-S-A! Roundup?

Mistakes add up. That’s what the U.S. soccer team should have learned today. Mistakes from long ago can add up and gain their own momentum such that further, more damning mistakes later are practically inevitable. If you’d like, you can bemoan these belated mistakes but the truth is that those first ones were the ones that set everything wrong.

The first mistakes, it seems, happened on the very last day of qualification against Costa Rica. One mistake was a tragedy: I’m referring to Charlie Davies’s nearly-fatal car crash. Every time you saw Robbie Findley making some dumb mistake this World Cup? Just remember that could’ve been an assured Davies making moves and finishing clinically. Perhaps this mistake was one of those unavoidable misfortunes that happens and can’t be wished away. The other mistake, Bob Bradley’s mistake, was very much evitable. On the last day, the U.S. already had its World Cup berth in hand. It was presumed by many that the U.S. would take the opportunity to rest critical players. Bradley didn’t choose this route: he chose to try to win the CONCACAF qualification tournament. Bradley’s rationale was that hey-it’s-always-good-to-win. Which is a wonderful sentiment and something I agree with, except hey-it’s-better-to-win-at-the-World-Cup. If Bradley’s sending out the full complement of players out was an attempt to win a seed, he was very misguided: the U.S.’s previous World Cup performance was far too weak to deserve a seed from FIFA. So Bradley sent out the full complement of players for a meaningless game. And Oguchi Onyewu got injured and tore his ACL. Onyewu, remember, was coming off of a dominant Confederations Cup and was working his way into the rotation with AC Milan. And remember the (unfortunately) starring role Onyewu played in the first three goals scored against the U.S.: in each time, the goaIl wasn’t totally Onyewu’s fault, but it was at least partially his fault. And at each time, Onyewu’s error wasn’t a physical problem, but a positioning one: one, essentially, of rust acquired during a long layoff. If Onyewu doesn’t get injured because of a misguided attempt for a meaningless win, then these errors might not have occurred; had these errors not occurred, then those games might well have been wins instead of draws. And were they wins instead of draws, the U.S. doesn’t have to play with an insane level of intensity against Algeria—because it was truly win-or-go-home in that game—which means, perhaps, it comes in fresher against Ghana. And, incidentally, if a fresh Onyewu is playing against Ghana, suddenly you have a big defender to battle with Gyan, the goal scorer in extra time. Mistakes add up.

The second mistake was the infamous Coulibaly’s. The logic, again, is similar. If he allows the goal, it’s safe to say the U.S. wins. If the U.S. wins, it would have nearly clinched a spot in the knockout stages; it would’ve only taken a draw to win. That would’ve meant a less-than-insane-intensity for that final Algeria game, which would have meant fresher legs against Ghana and you see where I’m going here, don’t you?

The final mistake was made in choosing the lineup, and is again Bob Bradley’s mistake. Practically everyone knew—well, except Bradley, apparently—that Robbie Findley was very ineffective at anything other than running very fast in a straight line. Findley, by the way, can’t even score in the MLS—why are we to believe that he can suddenly start scoring in the World Cup? But Bradley persisted. Practically everyone knew that Clark was an offensive liability prone to bad turnovers and not nearly as good at defense as his reputation indicated; in fact, Edu does every good thing Clark does and more. This was pretty easily confirmed when Edu came on and the U.S. immediately became much better. According to Grant Wahl’s twitter feed, Bradley elected to start Clark because of fresh legs. Which, of course, was a BS reason: Edu had played all of 109 minutes spread over two games. He was fresh—and he proved it by playing fairly well when subbed on. Give credit to Bradley for rectifying his mistakes; but mistakes add up: Bradley spent two substitutions early in the game in a game that went to extra time. Altidore, in particular, is someone who was crying for a substitution: from the first time the cameras picked him up on screen, you could tell he was incredibly tired from the physical pounding he’d taken in good efforts against Slovenia and Algeria. There’s no fault in that; but Altidore’s production was neither sufficient nor up to par. He needed to be substituted well before the end of regular time—but couldn’t, because Bradley decided to try to see whether playing bad players yielded good results. Mistakes add up.

***

The other mistake is one of interpretation. The common interpretation is what happened to the forwards? Both Bill Simmons and Bob Bradley shared this interpretation. I disagree strongly. The first place to blame for the bitter taste left in the mouth by the U.S.’s departure isn’t the forwards at all; it’s the defense.

The forwards, it’s true, didn’t score a goal. That’s not great. But Altidore created tons of chances with his passing (he had the header to Bradley with Slovenia, he had the pass to Dempsey that led to the rebound to Donovan against Algeria, and he played two passes to Feilhaber and Bradley against Ghana that resulted in very good situations) and earned tons of fouls and cards in every game, including his last and worst game. And Altidore had plenty of shots at goal; sometimes they just don’t go in. Obviously Findley, Gomez and Buddle weren’t that good, but they weren’t necessarily supposed to be: remember that’s where Davies used to be. At any rate, the broader goals—offense—were fulfilled. Let’s say you count the two goals that should’ve been allowed were it not for referee incompetence: then the U.S. scored seven goals in four games. That’s a prodigious pace, particularly when you consider the number of missed chances; clearly there’s nothing wrong with the offense.

No, what was wrong was the defense. While the U.S. scored seven goals, it allowed five. Of those five, only Gyan’s strike in extra time could be classified a “good goal”. (And even that involved defensive errors.) The rest were characterized by substantial defensive errors that other competent World Cup teams just didn’t make. Like the forwards, the defense had a hole in the lineup caused by injury (mistakes, after all, add up), but the non-injured defense were simply not athletic or good enough, frankly, to do a proper job. Of the starters on the back line, three were over thirty, the wrong side of the line. And it showed: they were often slow, whether it was a step in speed or a step in thought. Consider, also, that Tim Howard is one of the better goalies in the world, one capable of stopping many shots that others aren’t. Tim Howard made the defense look good, and it looked bad. It’s surprising that our country missed this, given that what we like to remind each other is “Defense wins championships” (it doesn’t: elite teams win championships; elite teams have elite defenses and elite offenses). But we missed it here. Hopefully we don’t miss it in 2014.

On African soccer and Ghana

Jonathan Wilson has some interesting ideas about why African soccer struggled in this World Cup in which they were expected (well, more hopes than expectation) to do well:
"African football suffers from chronic organizational problems," he said. "There, politicians are interfering in absolutely everything, especially football. The reasons are obvious: Football is very popular, particularly on the national level, and some marginal political characters are using football to collect political points.

"Expectations are utopian," Pfister said in a recent interview with DPA, the German Press Agency. "Nigeria's president, for example, said, 'We want to become world champions.' Football has so much power in Africa that even heads of states must fear for their jobs if their team fails. The African nations have world-class players everywhere, but the officials tear lumps out of each other. And the officials are not in their posts because of their knowledge but for political reasons."

That leads to a desperation for success and the short-termism, which has reached such absurd levels that the six African sides at the World Cup have had between them 18 coaching changes since the beginning of 2008 -- and these are, by definition, the most successful sides on the continent.

It is perhaps also significant that of those six, only Algeria has a domestic coach. Japan and South Korea, notably, after success with foreigners in the 2002 World Cup, have qualified for the second round this time with local coaches. The reasons are partially political -- in Nigeria, for instance, an Igbo coach would be accused of bias against Hausa or Yaruba players, whereas a European is assumed not to make such distinctions -- but also because of a lack of coaching infrastructure. Put simply, there is nobody coaching the coaches, and even if there were, it would be extremely hard for those coaches to secure the positions at European leagues that are probably necessary to raise their status sufficiently to handle the egos of players playing and earning in Europe.

Interesting that such poor governance can negatively affect the performance of the team. Well, interesting and counterintuitive if you accept the romantic view of soccer: that splendid poverty breeds great players who make up great teams. But thinking about it without such romanticism leads to believe…that it’s pretty reasonable.

At any rate, I don’t think it’s an accident (if this theory is correct) that Ghana simultaneously is regarded as one of the best African governments and one of its most successful soccer teams: it's qualified for the knockout stages twice in a row now, which is a pretty good feat.

A further note on the game today: it will be very tough, nearly a tossup to win. They’re a very good team with a tough defense; it’ll be a tough nut to crack. I hope everyone doesn’t let their expectations (well, more hopes than expectation) outrun reality.

Friday, June 25, 2010

Linkism

Mark Thoma includes reasons to be disturbed by the financial reform, including the fact that it relies on regulators to be effective, but adds this novel point:
With Obama’s apparent lack of interest in filling key agency positions with qualified people — there are many, many unfilled positions that don’t even have a nominee — it’s not clear that there is the kind of emphasis from the top that will be required to reform these agencies and make them effective.

Iraq’s antiquities are being stolen again:
The looting of Iraq’s ancient ruins is thriving again. This time it is not a result of the “stuff happens” chaos that followed the American invasion in 2003, but rather the bureaucratic indifference of Iraq’s newly sovereign government.

A new antiquities police force, created in 2008 to replace withdrawing American troops, was supposed to have more than 5,000 officers by now. It has 106, enough to protect their headquarters in an Ottoman-era mansion on the eastern bank of the Tigris River in Baghdad and not much else.

“I am sitting behind my desk and I am protecting the sites,” the force’s commander, Brig. Gen. Najim Abdullah al-Khazali, said with exasperation. “With what? Words?”

Indians are seething about the Bhopal disaster, years later.

The advantages of Tourette’s.

How the Taliban is succeeding at reconquering Afghanistan:
Certainly it is becoming clearer than ever that the once-hated Taliban, far from being swept away by General Stanley McChrystal's surge, are instead regrouping, ready for the final act in the history of Hamid Karzai's western-installed puppet government. The Taliban have now advanced out of their borderland safe havens to the very gates of Kabul and are surrounding the capital, much as the US-backed mujahedin once did to the Soviet-installed regime in the late 1980s. Like a rerun of an old movie, all journeys by non-Afghans out of the capital are once again confined largely to tanks, military convoys and helicopters. The Taliban already control more than 70 per cent of the country, where they collect taxes, enforce the sharia and dispense their usual rough justice. Every month, their sphere of influence increases. According to a recent Pentagon report, Karzai's government has control of only 29 out of 121 key strategic districts.

Woody Allen’s favorite Woody Allen films: “Purple Rose of Cairo, Match Point, Bullets Over Broadway, Zelig, Husbands and Wives, and Vicky Cristina Barcelona.” Yes, there’s no Annie Hall, Take the Money and Run, or Bananas on that list. Yes, you are free to assume that all of Woody’s forthcoming films will set a low standard. Yes, this is further evidence for the proposition that artists are not very good judges of their own work.

China is buying a little piece of Ireland:
The Athlone project, which has yet to gain planning approval, involves shipping 2,000 Chinese workers to build a "Chinese hub" of factories on a 600-acre stretch of land outside the County Westmeath town that will eventually employ 8,000 Irish staff. The manufacturers would gain access to the lowest corporation tax rates in Europe and the M6 motorway to Dublin, and doorstep-access to the eurozone for their products. Tariffs and quotas imposed by the EU and individual countries would be bypassed.
Another aggressive move by China to invest in Europe—they’ve also bought a parcel of land in Greece with the intent of developing a port. That’s two letters in the “PIIGS” acronym, leading me to speculate: what will they be developing in the other ones? Resorts in Spain? A chain of Chinese restaurants in Italy? …something relating to whatever it is they do in Portugal? (Presumably, given the looks of their soccer team, flopping and then fighting dirty.) Anyway, it’s an interestingly aggressive move on the part of China abroad, given that China is often seen as insular and focused on the bottom line for its own country—this kind of action is sort of interestingly far-sighted.

The fight for the Nile:
For a decade the nine states in the Nile basin have been negotiating on how best to share and protect the river in a time of changing climates, environmental threats and exploding populations. Now, with an agreement put on the table, talks have broken down in acrimony. On one side are the seven states that supply virtually all the Nile's flow. On the other are Egypt and Sudan, whose desert climates make the Nile's water their lifeblood. "This is serious," said Henriette Ndombe, executive director of the intergovernmental Nile Basin Initiative , established in 1999 to oversee the negotiation process and enhance co-operation. "This could be the beginning of a conflict."…The sticking point between the two groups is a question going back to colonial times: who owns the Nile's water?

More on the comprehensive financial reform.

Ten years after the Human Genome Project, what’s going on?

Insane Mahut-Isner fact: Mahut, in qualifying (he played three qualification matches to get into the tournament, and oh by the way this is just an oh by the way to the true insane fact) had to play a 24-22 final set in order to win one of his matches. Insane!

Apparently, the Dudus Coke picture I made fun of wasn’t just a one-off: he’s a cross-dresser. (The link is a fuller consideration of cross-dressing gangsters in Jamaica in the NYT. By the by, who's going to be the first person to make a movie of this? You've got a cross-dressing gangster who rules politics and a gang with an iron fist. With an accent. Screams Best Actor Oscar-bait, doesn't it? Secondarily--from the Hollywood perspective--it actually appears to be a good story.) 

The tragedy of Alberta’s tar sands.

Michael Pettis on the inevitable euro breakup.

Any hope for bees in Britain?

A school for North Korean defectors to South Korea (very sad).

Against Parity

A very compelling myth has seized soccer journalists, and it’s one of the few I feel qualified to puncture: this World Cup has been one dominated by parity. It’s not true, but it sounds good—feels good. Journalists generally embrace parity without reference to the means of parity: i.e. why exactly is there a more egalitarian relationship between the former upper class of sport and the former lower class. Are they leveling up or leveling down?

But parity is a factual claim just as much as a qualitative claim. If the elites and the regular old teams really were as close as everyone thought, then you’d expect all sorts of crazy results, with the top teams bowing out early. The World Cup features seven teams seeded on the basis of quality (the eighth seeded team, South Africa, got its seed by being a host): of those seven teams, six advanced. The one that didn’t—Italy—was something of a mess before it opened the tournament, with many people speculating that it just wasn’t their year this year. While they got drawn into a soft group, sometimes poor quality is enough to doom you. The other team that has caused most people to cry “parity!” is the fall of the French, but again, this is not particularly surprising: they only qualified because the referees missed a red card against Ireland, and the press was full of tales about the dysfunction of the French team and its manager before the World Cup. Given that they got drawn into a quality group, it’s not exactly a surprise that they failed to advance.

At any rate, the pundits generally overestimate the positive effects of parity. “Leveling up” parity has, in my experience, rarely happened in sports. Most parity is of the “leveling down” parity. Take the most famously egalitarian pro sports league, the NFL. Most NFL teams these days are bland, slightly manufactured teams with little to no personality whatsoever—the equivalent of room temperature tapioca. Some NFL teams avoid this curse—I’d say the Saints and Colts (as well as the dominant perfect Pats of a few years back) had plenty of personality, whether for good or for ill. That’s just entertaining. But who, besides people hailing from Cincinatti, found the Bengals last year an especially memorable or interesting team? Very few, I’d wager.

Soccer has the same phenomenon, particularly in the group stages. Draws are sort of a necessary evil for non-knockout games in soccer tournament, and the consequence of this is to encourage what soccer journalists term “negative football,” i.e. the congealing of the game to play for a draw or a swift counterattack. What these journalists fail to realize is that parity and “negative football” are, if not family, certainly close kin. They want the Brazils and Spains of the world to win; they’re just afraid to admit it.

Fortunately, my favorite sport and my favorite sports league—the NBA—shows little inclination to favor such a system. Unlike the NCAA, it doesn’t rely on a superficially exciting but ultimately deadening system (i.e. “March Madness”); its playoff system is well-designed to ensure that quality wins out. And quality in basketball is typically unevenly distributed: there’s a greater functional difference between the best basketball player in the world and his counterparts in, say, baseball or football. So quality is important. And, in general, quality means personality in sports. You might be an egalitarian in politics; but in sports, there is only one fair stance to take: elitism.

Unfunded Mandates and Europe

An interesting little factoid from The Guardian:
The City of London has been found to be one of the most polluted places in Europe after monitoring equipment recorded dangerous levels of minute particles for the 36th time this year. Under EU rules, Britain is allowed no more than 35 "bad air" days in the whole year, and now faces court cases and unlimited fines by Europe.

It’s another small step towards the federalization of Europe: the E.U. is allowed to set environmental rules for cities and penalize them harshly should they not obey. In this, it resembles nothing more than the “unfunded mandates” that conservatives liked to complain about back in the day when states’ rights were more of a salient issue than they are today (at least, as a matter of formal policy debate; the Tea Party doesn’t count.). And in many ways they’d have a point about the E.U.: who elected the E.U. bureaucrats and who scrutinizes them? Certainly input is low.

The ends, in this case, are good, but good means are the only way to consistently assure yourself of good ends.

Thursday, June 24, 2010

Linkism

Ahmadinejad seeks to put private Iranian university under government control.

It appears unlimited data accounts for smartphones are dying everywhere: Great Britain is shifting to a metered system.

A nice basic overview of the challenges facing China in rebalancing. The U.S. is complaining about Chinese stonewalling at the Doha round of trade talks. Google is trying to get in on the Chinese mapping licenses. How China’s banks make investors nervous. And the weirdness of Chinese rural farmer’s residences:
…[there’s] a Jetson-style rendering of a proposed “farmers apartment” building that is nearly the size of the Empire State building—proposed for a site in rural China. You’re probably thinking “Sure, the Chinese love those gee-wiz drawings, but how many actually get built? If you open up this link (post #255), you’ll see that the project is already mostly built. Question: Is there anywhere else in the world where a 1076-foot skyscraper would be built for “farmers” and located not in a city, but in the “countryside?”

The high cost of parking:
…minimum parking requirements are based on a form of "circular logic," in which planners estimate parking need by looking at the highest levels of parking demand at suburban locations with free parking and no transit options. As a result, the space devoted to cars often exceeds the space devoted to humans (one study found mall parking lots were 20 percent bigger than the buildings they serviced), and the country is awash in a surplus of parking supply. In Tippecanoe County, Ind., for example, a group of Purdue University researchers noted, "[I]f all of the vehicles in the county were removed from garages, driveways, and all of the roads and residential streets and they were parked in parking lots at the same time, there would still be 83,000 unused spaces throughout the county." And as Shoup argues, there is nothing free about this parking—everyone, even those who don't drive, pays for it in one form or another, whether the invisible parking surcharge is built into retail prices or the various costs associated with parking-lot storm-water runoff.

The vuvuzelas are spreading to the SEC. Someone stop these things!

The urban revival.

So, this article on captured Jamaican drug lord Dudus Coke is interesting…but look at his mug shot. That’s is a feared drug overlord? Really? We're supposed to believe this? Are we sure that's not a stunt double? Or the man's accountant? (Unless of course Dudus Coke or one of his associates happens to be reading this at this moment right now, in which case I can assure you that that's a very intimidating wig you've got there.)

On Petraeus.

More on the anti-strategic defaulters campaign. Is aid to the unemployed facing foreclosure too little too late?

Who’s doubting John Wall? (Authorial Note: And why?!? Incomprehensible to me that anyone’s decided that Wall’s ceiling is lower than “potential Hall of Famer.”)

Bad Fish Things Watch: the Asian carp has made it to the Great Lakes, and to put it into perspective of how bad politicians think this is, several want to cut Lake Michigan off from the Mississippi River, disrupting a vital trade route. In other news, the bluefin tuna—the most expensive fish in the world due to the Japanese’s ravenous appetite for the stuff—may be placed on the endangered species list due to the Gulf of Mexico spill. I believe the population was already overfished anyway, so it’s a tough blow and another step closer to our fishless future.

Why—as a matter of pure political calculation—Gen. McChrystal should have known better.

Britain to launch an addendum to the Human Genome Project, in which they sequence the genomes of 10,000 disease to look for stuff that’s going wrong.

What Africa does with cell phones and why it needs the iPhone:
The best-kept secret about Africa in the last decade is the continent's rapid and creative adoption of modern technology. African countries have for the most part leapfrogged the technologies of the late 20th century to adopt those of the early 21st en masse. There are now 10 times as many cell phones as land lines in sub-Saharan Africa, and since 2004, the region's year-over-year growth has been the highest in the world. When Nokia's billionth handset was sold in 2000, it was in Nigeria.

What could the iPhone contribute to this ongoing renaissance? The iPhone4 may serve these developmental functions better than anything else on the market, if its features are as described. The new FaceTime feature, for instance, which allows videoconferencing directly from a mobile device, could do much to support the distance education projects being pioneered at the University of South Africa and Makerere University in Uganda. In addition to GPS and access to the mobile Web, geotargeted applications could help traders find market prices, businesses find customers, and make news delivery and political organizing easier. All-in-one video shooting and editing software makes the iPhone4 a powerful media tool that competing smartphones like the BlackBerry or Nokia Nseries just can't duplicate. Even the longer battery life will add value in places where electricity is unreliable.

Most importantly, the iPhone's application development ecosystem would engage the talented, tech-savvy demographic on the planet's youngest continent. According to a paper from the Institute for Development Policy and Management at the University of Manchester, software production is an industry "essential for the growth of the economies of developing countries"; the $1.43 billion iPhone application market, with its low barriers to entry and friendliness to entrepreneurs, is ideal for Africa's burgeoning class of small-scale software programmers. In Kenya -- a country where software tinkering is popular enough to warrant a prime-time cable TV show -- some eager programmers created applications for the first iPhone well before it was even available in the country. "We're going to see people developing applications that solve specific challenges in the African context," says Oviosu. "If the iPhone comes here and catches on, of course we'll build [one]."

Draft Review

The crowd was surly for no apparent reason. (Unfortunately, many of them decided to bring on a vuvuzela. They're the next Thunderstix, I swear it.)  The suits were as safe as the picks. Even the errors weren’t flagrantly, amusingly wrong. The draft in of itself was a bit of a disappointment. But the draft is about the future and positioning your team for the future, and some of the related draft events held the promise of interest and zest for the NBA.

I’m of course referring to the Heat and Bulls. I believe the typical cliché in such circumstances is “pushing your chips to the center of the table,” which is appropriate. They’re further confirmation of the idea that we’ll be seeing a surprising amount of movement this summer: Riley is too savvy to make many dumb, huge gambles, and Jerry Reinsdorf is too cautious to gamble. They have a pretty good idea they’re getting something. In fact, the real tip-off is trading Kirk Hinrich: it’s common knowledge that Hinrich is Reinsdorf’s and Paxson’s boy, and so they’d only trade him if they were relatively certain they could use that cash on someone. Let’s just hope (let’s = Bulls fans here) that these special someones are LeBron and Bosh; if Joe Johnson and Carlos Boozer are the picks, my basketball self will sulk for eons.

In a draft dominated by bids for glory, it’s the subtle moves you have to appreciate, and the best ones were delivered, as usual, by the Oklahoma City Thunder. To recap: they turned a marginal amount of cap space into Daequan Cook (a guy who might turn into a rotation player) and a free first round pick. They turned that first round pick into the Clipper’s first round pick next year—i.e. they picked up a lottery pick next year. Then they turned those other two first round picks into Mo Pete (the NBA’s most generic three-point-shooting swingman) and Cole Aldrich (underrated because he looks like he should be a stiff, but in fact is not a stiff). And that’s how brilliance is done.

By contrast, the incompetent NBA organizations played to type. Why did the Warriors draft Ekpe Udoh again? Because old big men whose only college skill is blocking shots are going to transition into the NBA well? Why did Minnesota draft Wes Johnson? Because Wes seems like a nice kid, but doesn’t have any super NBA skills. And it seems like Portland is poised to join their ranks, with their 11th-hour palace coup of very good GM Kevin Pritchard. But, bizarrely, he was still expected to run the draft. Yes, making a lame duck manage one of the important events of the season is a great idea. Well done: even the Clippers thought that was poor management and poor form.

So the folly was a bit more low-key this year—certainly nothing like last year’s bravura performance by David Kahn—but still there. Because that’s life in the NBA.

Business as Usual

So did you hear about the judge who stopped the oil drilling moratorium? You did. Did you hear he owned stock in Transocean? Well you might think that would be the end of that: a major embarrassment for the judge for not recusing himself, but likely to end there. Turns out the answer is no, the judge refused to stay his order, something that may (note: I am not a lawyer) expose him to ethics charges (if my reading of this case is correct, and assuming he still owns Transocean stock.)

Whatever the case is about that aspect of legal wrangling, one thing we can say about the actual logic underlying his legal logic: it’s patently wrong. Let’s examine it, shall we? His stated basis for the claim is that a moratorium on offshore drilling would cause “irreparable harm.” This seems silly: if you can drill today—guess what? You can probably drill tomorrow. That oil’s been underground for millions of years now and surely it can wait several months to years more. He claims that the economic damage to not drilling would be irreparable (i.e. the jobs and such) is true, were it not for the economic aid flowing into the region flowing in as a consequence.

But it’s this paragraph that I think displays a misguided attitude towards risk:
"If some drilling equipment parts are flawed, is it rational to say all are?" he asked. "Are all airplanes a danger because one was? All oil tankers like Exxon Valdez? All trains? All mines? That sort of thinking seems heavy-handed, and rather overbearing."
But the point of the moratorium isn’t that all of the offshore drilling is flawed, but that some of the set probably are. And given the difficulties associated with the deep offshore drilling of the type B.P. was engaged it, and given the fact that oil companies seemingly have no idea how to stop a gusher once it’s started, it’s very clear that the risk represented by merely one oil well failure is of a completely different tenor than the risk posed by these other examples.

Feldman’s decision is yet another example of elite capture. Feldman is a judge based in Louisiana, and he, like the politicians of the region, seem to be eager to resume business as usual. There’s nothing this behavior resembles more than that of our financial crisis, wherein elites seem eager to go back exactly as before. And why not? Business was good, right? Ultimately, the key is to make bad morals bad business.