Tuesday, August 31, 2010

Linkism

Note: I am voyaging to New York for the US Open from Wednesday to Friday; hence, posting will likely but not certainly be light.

So why the heck do people want to copyright cocktails?

The squeamishness of the New York Times regarding Cee-lo’s “Fuck You.”

How well will the Volt work in China?

Is the U.S.’s elevated C-section rate due to impatience?

Pictures from Venice’s architecture Biennale.

Making greener Champagne.

How are the scientific method and democracy related?

On when the printing press-created book was first created:
Inventing the printing press was not the same thing as inventing the publishing business. Technologically, craftsmen were ready to follow Gutenberg’s example, opening presses across Europe. But they could only guess at what to print, and the public saw no particular need to buy books. The books they knew, manuscript texts, were valuable items and were copied to order. The habit of spending money to read something a printer had decided to publish was an alien one.

What you’ve got to do once you’ve got 300 identical copies of a book is you’ve got to sell it to people who don’t even yet know they want it. And that’s a very, very different way of selling.

And whereas the printers were taking advice from 15th-century humanist scholars, who said, “Wouldn’t it be good to have this? Wouldn’t it be good to have that?” they weren’t in any position to give them any advice on how to dispose of these 300 copies. And in due course they found that the only way to do this is to create a market which is trans-European.

It’s this classic example of how you get technological innovation without people really being aware of the commercial implications, of how you can make money from it. There’s quite a little similarity in the first generation of print with the dot-com boom and bust of the ’90s, where people have this fantastic new innovation, a lot of creative energy is put into it, a lot of development capital is put into it, and then people say, “Well, yeah, but how are we going to make money from the Internet?” And that takes another 10 years to work out.

How does defense win championships (in basketball)?

Has there been a breakthrough in making microchips? Matt Yglesias writes of the development:
Something interesting to consider is the kind of changes we could expect to continue seeing even if the cost of computational power did stop falling. After all, the pace of these technical advances has been so jaw-dropping that it’s almost certainly been impossible for the rest of society to fully work-out what the best way to deploy the information technology we have. In other words, though business practices have certainly changed a lot since 1995 in response to a thousandfold drop in the price of computing power, they almost certainly haven’t fully adjusted to the full implications of that change. And as Peter Orszag observed in a CAP speech earlier this year, the federal government has done even less to fully seize the available opportunities.

An interesting point:
A now-famous cartoon on the xkcd “webcomics” site shows a stick figure typing away at his computer keyboard as a voice from outside the frame says, “Are you coming to bed?” The figure replies: “I can’t. This is important. . . . Someone is wrong on the Internet.” I have thought a lot about why people get so hostile online, and I have come to believe it is primarily because we live in a society with a hypertrophied sense of justice and an atrophied sense of humility and charity, to put the matter in terms of the classic virtues.

Late modernity’s sense of itself is built upon achievements in justice. This is especially true of Americans. When we look back over the past century, what do we take pride in? Suffrage for women, the defeat of fascism, Brown vs. Board of Education, civil rights and especially voting rights for African-Americans. If you’re on one side of the political spectrum, you might add the demise of the Soviet empire; if you’re on the other side, you might add the expansion of rights for gays and lesbians. (Or you might add both.) The key point is that all of these are achievements in justice

Why do people dream of Lauryn Hill to come back strong?

Kim Jong-il appears to have a successor ready.

Cost Centers

It’s important to compare and contrast, which is why I invite you to compare and contrast these two articles that I posted yesterday for, you know, deeper consideration: that is, the WSJ article about governments selling off their public hospitals and James Surowiecki in the New Yorker about why customers hate customer service (and employees hate customers). I hope you haven’t gotten my point yet, because, uh, I haven’t even made it. Let’s start with the relevant graf from Surowiecki:
…customer service is a classic example of what businessmen call a “cost center”—a division that piles up expenses without bringing in revenue—and most companies see it as tangential to their core business, something they have to do rather than something they want to do.

In some areas, the push for efficiency can be a boon—the shift toward just-in-time production has helped transform American manufacturing by making it leaner and more efficient. But this approach isn’t well suited to solving customers’ problems. Modern businesses do best at improving their performance when they can use scalable technologies that increase efficiency and drive down cost. But customer service isn’t scalable in the same way; it tends to require lots of time and one-on-one attention. Even when businesses try to improve service, they often fail. They carefully monitor call centers to see how long calls last, how long workers are sitting at their desks, and so on. But none of this has much to do with actually helping customers, so companies end up thinking that their efforts are adding up to a much better job than they really do. In a recent survey of more than three hundred big companies a few years ago, eighty per cent described themselves as delivering “superior” service, but consumers put that figure at just eight per cent.

As you might have guessed from the WSJ article reference, this is in fact a health care post, and about the different ways of thinking about “cost centers.” One way that some reformers push for alternative payment strategies like ACOs is that it will turn hospitals from revenue generators to cost centers. These reformers have a point, I think: if you look at Mayo Clinic, Kaiser Permanente, or Intermountain in Utah, they indeed treat their hospitals as cost centers—they’re looking for ways to make sure patients get good care and minimize the amount of costs they run up there. And it’s easy to make a case for good things; harder to make the case when you consider all the bad things.

The bad things, I think, are contained with the reference to public hospitals. Governments are selling them, in essence, they cost too much. There are too many uninsured patients and Medicare and Medicaid are too expensive. And let’s take one of the case studies of the article:
Residents of Kenai Peninsula Borough in Alaska are debating in letters to the local papers and on a radio call-in show a proposed joint venture that would sell more than half of 40-year-old Central Peninsula Hospital in Soldotna to for-profit LHP Hospital Group Inc. of Plano, Texas.

Mayor David Carey is opposed to the move, as are many residents. He worries that LHP may wind up shrinking or closing the 49-bed hospital, forcing residents to travel 150 miles to Anchorage. "Health care is a major economic engine for us. It's the No. 1 employer in the city,'' he said. "The idea that the hospital could be sold again…or even shut down, is unacceptable.''

Ryan Smith, the hospital's CEO, wants to build a cancer center and expand cardiology and a partner would bring needed capital. Mr. Smith, who said the deal's value is about $105 million, said, "Being part of a system could benefit us."
I don’t know a ton about the specific conditions of this particular town in Alaska, but that’s a worrying trend: they aren’t thinking about how to cut costs by delivering better care; they’re thinking about expanding their cancer center and cardiology center, which are the big bucks makers in the health care economy—big bucks because they sell a lot of drugs and have a lot of involved treatments. That’s not the model we want to extend and expand. Moreover, the costs that they end up centering on? Probably the ones that will hurt the poor: no more Medicaid patients and the like. That’s not good.

The sad truth is that while a lower cost-better care equilibrium is both possible and highly desirable—highly desirable as in critical to the fate of the country’s economy—but that it’s easy to imagine other, alternate universes, and the WSJ article details an unfortunate other universe with more expensive, proliferated devices delivering uncertain results.

Monday, August 30, 2010

Linkism

More immigration, better economy.

How does corruption affect a firm’s productivity? (Really interesting, and counterintuitive, in a good way.)

How using cell phone minutes as an informal currency will change Africa.

The NYT probes the mysteries of bedbugs.

Drug violence is raising fears for Mexican business. Meanwhile, Mexico has fired 3,000 police officers for corruption-related reasons.

This:
Campaigns are built to fool us into thinking that we're voting for individuals. We learn about the candidate's family, her job, her background -- even her dog. But we're primarily voting for parties. The parties have just learned we're more likely to vote for them if they disguise themselves as individuals. And American politics would work better if we understood that.

Is China’s control of the rare earth supply chain a national security risk? How a Shanghai school is mixing work and play. More on the state-owned sector and China. China: recruiting the CEOs of the world, to work for the government of China. Who will be the next President of China?

Why do employees hate customers and customers hate customer service?

How the Empire State Building will be joined by new big buildings in New York’s skyline.

Why it’s better to be from a small city if you want to be a professional athlete (unsurprisingly, the effect is weakest for the NBA: it’s always been a city game.)

More Mad Men footnotes.

Google: sellout on Net Neutrality.

Why cities are ditching public hospitals.

How insurance companies will screw up the coming age of mixing genetics and medicine.

What are the obstacles to being a landlord?

Haven’t read, assume it’s good: New Yorker profile of Francis Collins, head of NIH.

USA-Brazil: Basketball Edition

An axiom of bad basketball coaching: if the coach allows elderly point guards free reign to be bad, then, well, you’re a bad basketball coach. The reason for this is pretty simple: a point guard (or primary ball handler) playing poorly infects the entire team by implication; a point guard playing poorly affects every single play and the lack of quality every single play afflicts the entire offense. A player playing poorly at another position can make it up in other ways, or play as a decoy, or do something—but there’s no place to hide a bad point guard, except on the bench. Assuming you have options, of course. And if there’s any place Coach K is blessed with top-caliber options, it’s at the point with this 2010 edition of Team USA. Hence his affection for aging points through these two cycles must strike the objective observer as faintly ridiculous.

Team USA’s close shave might be excused in some circles at proving resilience and therefore proving what top-class winning winners who know how to win (winning close games has been pretty conclusively shown to be mostly luck—Bill Russell’s last Celtics team went .500 in games decided by five points or fewer; Michael Jordan is a shade over .500 in those games; and so on. Some might fulminate in response to these numbers, but they are what they are: better players have a better chance of winning in close games because they’re better, but the edge is pretty small. If you disbelieve, try this thought experiment: would you rather try and beat Michael Jordan in a one-on-one game in a thirty-second game or a thirty-minute game? You’d choose the former, right? And you’d be right to choose that, because you could make your jumper and Jordan could miss his, simply by luck alone; whereas over a thirty-minute game, well, the luck is more likely to even out. And yet if you accept this thought experiment you must also accept that winning close games contains a large degree of luck.). So the US got a little lucky—they were lucky before the game even started, as Brazil lacked defensive force Anderson Varejao (it would’ve been interesting to see Varejao exploiting international refereeing—and by interesting, I actually mean infuriating.) But of course in matters this close, the U.S. was a little unlucky too—Brazil was on fire behind the arc in the first half, because that’s the underdog’s favored tactic.

But Coach K made the game much closer than it needed to be by playing Chauncey Billups excessive minutes, just as he made a mistake by relying on Jason Kidd in the 2008 Olympics. Elderly point guards are a weakness of bad coaches, like, say, sweets or fast cars, and while you can’t call Coach K a bad coach you can note he exhibits many of those traits fairly often.

So: Billups. As you might have guessed, he was awful. Statistically he appears to have an average game—5-for-12, 15 points, 3 assists on two TOs. But while the numbers can tell you that he missed, they aren’t terribly helpful in telling you how he missed: i.e. poorly, and selfishly. Billups is the rare player who has played stupider the older he gets; last year he appeared to be playing intelligently and in his role in the offense, but the stuff between his ears has shrank since then culminating now, with poor three point shots and too many “I’ve got this!” plays. Mediocre on defense—often failing to play well on pick-and-roll situations—it’s truly a mystery why he was played at all; heck, even picked for the roster, given the abundance of options at point guard: given the zones the U.S. faced, why oh why was there no role for Stephen Curry in this game? (Or, for that matter, Eric Gordon?) (To say nothing of the neglected Kevin Love—it’s practically coaching malpractice. It’s odd, too—you know how someone might be a coach’s coach or a player’s player? Love is a coach’s player.)

The other flaws for the team we’ve seen before: how there’s mass confusion at the prospect of a backpick or zone at this level is somewhat dispiriting. While part of this is undoubtedly unfamiliarity with one another, part of it I think is a distinctly American problem: we are very good at producing elites of categories but often awful in producing median quality. So our elite are among the most basketball smart in the world and can stand up to foreigners, who are developed well, particularly given the relative paucity of resources; our median good player—the players who are just worse than the guys on this team—is not particularly smart at all.

****

The most impressive Brazilian player in the game was Tiago Splitter, who’s now property of the San Antonio Spurs. Somewhere I imagine Gregg Popovich, R.C. Buford and Tim Duncan cackling together as they watched this game, because Tiago Splitter is as Spurs-like a player I’ve seen of the players who are not currently Spurs. In fact, Splitter is more Spurs-like than some current Spurs. He showed good mobility and better intelligence as well as some bruising post moves with impressive variety. (A concrete example of poor development: there were moves that Splitter was doing with counters, and switching hands, and in general showing off a refined post game, and there just aren’t that many guys in the NBA, right now, who know as many post moves as Splitter does.) I can’t believe I’m about to write this sentence but: I’m excited to see how the Spurs play next season. Darkhorse championship candidate, for sure. It’s going to be a rough-and-tumble West, as usual.

While You Can Fight City Hall, It's Not Necessarily Recommended (Book Review: Chicago: A Biography)

Has Chicago ever had a good government? And if you don’t think it has, what does that say about the importance of good government? These aren’t the only questions or even the most important questions (indirectly) proposed by Dominic Pacyga’s Chicago: A Biography, but they are the ones I found the most fascinating to think about while reading it.

Chicago politics are the stuff of popular political imagination and became especially relevant during the 2008 campaign, when the G.O.P. attempted to claim (and still attempts) that Obama was somehow a consummate Chicago politician, with the insinuation that he was somehow from the Al Capone-era of look-the-other-way government, with a nice cash supplement to get the head so turned. That was an amusing claim at the time and I’d say it’s still pretty amusing now, because it overlooks two important facts: first, Obama was allied with the Hyde Park reformer faction; second, Chicago reformers prove the adage wrong—you can fight City Hall, you’ll just probably fail.

Let’s start with the first question: has Chicago ever had a good government? This seems like a terribly loaded question to propose so baldly, as whatever flaws Richard M. Daley (mind the initial) has, he’s certainly not as bad as some of his forebears. No: the question is relative. By good government, I mean relatively good government—i.e. government that’s better than its peers. Daley the Younger has had his moments (see, well, the book I’m reviewing, or, alternatively, the New Yorker article which sadly is gated by our Condé Nast overlords), but ultimately: there’s still a lot of violence in Chicago—twice the homicide rate of New York—the school system is still pretty bad, and there’s still corruption. For all of the rejuvenation of Chicago, you still can’t avoid these facts.

But what about its peers? New York has had some howlers (e.g. Robert Moses) in official or unofficial charge, and Los Angeles’s city history is underratedly seamy (see: Chinatown; for the longer version, read Halberstam’s The Powers That Be and focus on the sections about the Los Angeles Times. Crazy stuff), with petty corruption, high-handed authorities and a general oligarchical structure contested only ineffectively by reformers and regular people, who often are more than a bit nutty themselves. So if Chicago appears bad, it looks slightly less so in comparison to its big city peers that it so deservedly stands among.

Which of course raises the question: just how important is good government anyway? If the governments of these three cities leaves much to be desired in terms of wisdom, competence and empathy, and these three cities are, on balance, pretty awesome places today, just what does that say about the importance of governance? I suppose the claim you have to make, if you’re concerned about the quality of governance, is that these three cities would be that much awesomer with a legacy of effective, nimble, honest governance, but this is a hypothethical that you can’t go beyond in terms of arguments—it scarcely proves anything. The cities that are failing these days—say, Detroit—are probably failing for reasons that have nothing to do with the quality of governance therein (though, there too, Detroit’s government left something to be desired—see Thomas Sugrue’s The Origins of the Urban Crisis). Maybe the biggest success story for good governance is beautiful Portland, Oregon, which decided what kind of city it wanted to be in the 1970s and became exactly that.

The only conclusion that seems supported by the evidence doesn’t really answer the question: that cities are in many ways remarkably robust environments because they get so much power from the communities that stay there, year after year, and create memories worth treasuring and extending.


****

(A note: I’m aware that the typical book review weighs on the merits and demerits of the book in question. Chicago: A Biography is really quite excellent and well-written, and alive to the importance of Chicago in national history, both in affecting it and mirroring it. I recommend purchasing the dead-tree version of the book, as it’s well-stocked with illustrations and maps, and my last knowledge of the Kindle is that it’s still deficient from the illustrations perspective.)

Sunday, August 29, 2010

Linkism

Foreign Affairs has a pair of interesting articles: the first, on the possibilities of a revival of the Green Movement in Iran includes a helpful recapitulation of the various reform movements in Iranian history; the second argues that Kenya’s new constitution might just be the one that does the trick.

Orange County, CA: not that conservative anymore?

China: turning to its state-owned businesses for economic growth. Also, are prices in China so high now that Mexico can offer similar cost levels for manufacturers?

Another Mexican mayor killed; drug cartels are apparently recruiting good-looking women as hitwomen; Mexico launching investigation of massacre of 72 migrants.

Interesting news: Justice Department investigating whether the Comcast-NBC merger would retard development of online video (probably yes, which is why I’m cheered by this.) Speaking of online video, looks like Google is planning pay-per-view video.

Why are there more startups started in LA?

Looks like Cal’s President is helping himself…to $700,000 worth of personal housing expenses. Clearly, however, tuition must be raised!

How American credit cards make the poor subsidize the rich.

New York Times does not, generally, have very good sports coverage, but I thought these articles on Ricky Rubio and Andrew Luck were very good. And—in an entirely different newspaper—I thought this comparison of Jim Harbaugh and Jeff Tedford was very apt.

Mad Men: Season Four, Episode Six

The usual: spoilers spoil Mad Men Season Four Episode Six

The Greeks call it hubris; Don Draper calls it getting drunk. And if it was never quite clear to the unlucky afflicted of that condition in the plays, so too is it not quite clear to Don what he’s got: he’s an alcoholic and a cocky one. The end of the episode finds Don working off a lost weekend by hiring a joke of a copywriter who only got an interview because he’s Roger Sterling’s cousin by marriage and who only got a job thereafter because Don drunkenly stole one of his lines in a hubristic, drunken slurring together of various pitches to Life cereal.

Does Don appreciate that things aren’t quite right? It’s hard to tell, particularly in a clever framing device for the episode—showing Don as he just started out, trying to break into the business by convincing Roger to hire him. It’s a framing device that (obviously) demonstrates the contrast between Don, eager applicant and Roger Sterling’s joke of a cousin-by-law (though one suspects that this kid won’t have anything near the same aptitude as Draper), and, less so, demonstrates just what a good actor Jon Hamm is: he’s forced to act in three different modes during the episode—imperious Don, drunken Don, elated Don (by winning the Clio) and eager Don—and he nails all three, particularly the last one, which is a new trick for him. And if the drunken haze that obliterates his memory of his lost weekend (while getting him into this entire trouble in the first place) is one kind of forgetting, the episode demonstrates the forgetting that rules Draper’s life—it seems he’s so wrapped up in the costume he’s created for himself (the mysterious genius/alpha male) that he’s forgotten he was once someone very different. If the old rap on Don was that he lacked empathy for others (a curious quality for an advertiser, someone who uses empathy for, ah, less than honorable ends in practice), the new one must be this: Don lacks empathy with himself—he increasingly doesn’t know who he is or what he was in this crazy world of ours.

***

Respect—there’s a surprising thing that unites Don and Peggy (come to think of it, Pete too, in his clumsy Michael Corleone imitation with Ken Cosgrove. Lane Price thinks Pete’s a pragmatist, but a true pragmatist knows respect is a tool like any other), though Don seems to be trying his best to exasperate Peggy into…some eruption, you’d think? At any rate, both are vaguely-to-truly Midwestern in background and certainly outside the WASP elite mainstream.

But while they want respect, their success and reactions to getting it are starkly different. Don secretly craves respect while acting like an asshole most of the time (on purpose, you’d imagine at least half of the time); see his genuine elation at winning the Clio. He’s done it—what, exactly? It’s a vaguely Buddhist, or, hell, Greek lesson that awaits him: respect doesn’t mean much if the rest of your life isn’t straightened out. But Don’s protected—while he thinks of himself secretly as some lowly outsider, everyone else sees him only as the Man in the Gray Flannel Suit. So while Don wants respect and finds it’s not everything that it’s supposed to be, Peggy wants respect and can never quite get it, no matter what. She thought part of the credit for Don’s Clio was hers? Well, tough luck: it’s Don’s ship to steer. She thinks maybe the jerk art director should be a bit more civil and civilized? Tough luck: she has to adapt to him because he’s got the status. If Don demonstrates the risks of being rewarded, Peggy demonstrates the risks of going unrewarded: your desires are constantly thwarted and you’re only seen as a tool for others to manipulate for theirs. Duck Phillips getting drunk—he’s gone well down that rabbit hole; is he a preview for Don? (you’d imagine only a little bit—but just a little bit; the show is premised around the idea of Don Draper, conflicted genius, Gatsby of advertising in the fifties)—is an uncomfortable reminder for the audience of one of the few characters that seemed to like Peggy for Peggy, though it was never quite clear why Duck wanted Peggy so much. And if that’s the most wanting you can get out of your life, something is seriously wrong.

***

A note on the writing: a superbly paced episode that somehow combined the drive of a late-season barnburner with the luxuriating in detail of a Raymond Carver short story. One of their best episodes, I thought, and it’s a credit to the show that they keep on finding ways of keeping themselves fresh and not falling into a rut.

Not One of Those Good Problems

I have little patience for the conspiratorial theories about the failings of the Obama administration, as I think they’re misguided and miss many flaws. Let’s say you believe a bankers’ cabal runs the Obama administration—well, then why would said bankers’ cabal allow any financial reform at all, even of the moderately strong variety that ended up passing? And while I’m aware that the preceding sentence is a debate in itself, there’s a way in which focusing on, say, an alleged bankers’ cabal or conspiracy or what have you misses some other, odder flaws: say, for example, Obama’s refusal to nominate or push through judges and Federal Reserve directors.

Here’s the grisly details:
Today? District court vacancies without a nominee have reached 53; circuit court vacancies without a nominee are up to 9…By my count, five appeals court nominees and twelve district court nominees are ready for floor action; one (Jane Stranch, for the 6th circuit) is scheduled for action when the Senate returns, but the rest remain in limbo. Which leaves 22 waiting for the Judiciary Committee to clear them.
And of course several seats on the Fed board remain empty, leaving the doves outnumbered by the rapacious inflation hawks. That’s a significant barrier to good liberal policy (if you think Obama is more liberal than not) or to enacting the agenda of the bankers’ cabal (if you think Obama is a slave to the bankers and Bushies). Seeing as that deadlock is a significant barrier to someone’s desires, and seeing as Obama has shown very little interest in getting it done, you’re left with a riddle in a mystery in an enigma.

The gaping holes serves no one’s interests besides Republicans, and it’s awful that, nearly two years into the Obama administration, there’s still a surfeit of qualified nominees waiting to be confirmed and posts requiring confirmation. The performance of government obviously suffers for lack of people filling crucial jobs, and given that good governmental performance is an excellent way to convince people about the potential merits of government (and hence help dispose them for more liberal government), it’s particularly mystifying that no one seems to care that critical governmental posts are going unfilled and left to wither.

It’s also particularly bad in this instance for the President, who can legitimately blame Senatorial lethargy on many of his problems with government, but who has not shown the proper initiative to do his end of the bargain: giving the Senators nominees to advise and consent on. And given that it’s so bad, it sort of defies explanation: no one gains here, and the problems that have no good reason to exist are the most frustrating at all.

Saturday, August 28, 2010

Linkism

Nice redesigns of the country’s currency—completely speculative, but it’s a hell of a lot nicer than the new stuff that’s floating around now.

On the manufacturing fallacy, and on the idea that somehow the U.S. is doing especially poorly manufacturing-wise:
The manufacturing sector remains vibrant and innovative. Manufacturing output has been rising at a solid pace over time. Most of this growth, especially over the past 30 years, has been achieved by improving productivity. Of course, for some workers and towns, this increase in productivity has been a double-edged sword, since highly productive operations can achieve their output goals using fewer workers. Nonetheless, higher productivity has fostered a globally competitive U.S. manufacturing sector with the ability to produce more goods with relatively lower price increases, which has benefited U.S. households and the overall economy.

Why are the French deporting the gypsies?

This article on Google trying to make a Facebook killer is interesting, I suppose, for the amount of focus Google has on Facebook—it seems like a similar mental relationship that Microsoft has to Google.

Interesting article on Usain Bolt which has this revelation:
His team say, without a hint of a smile, that once he knuckles down he can break 9.4 seconds. Bolt himself says he can run faster. So does that mean he's lazy? "Yeah," he says enthusiastically. "Yeah, I am lazy. There's no doubt about that."

Only 2% of hospitals meet the administration’s standards for electronic health records.

Paul Allen is declaring patent war…on the internet.

I thought these were perceptive Glenn Beck points. This:
Where Beck differs from the lot, from Rush Limbaugh, who has been much more successful (over time) in galvanizing Republicans, is that Beck attaches a distinctly Christian millennialism to everything he does. This means that there are no shades of gray; everything Beck is doing is THE MOST IMPORTANT THING EVER at that moment. He is given to extreme comparisons, to Nazi analogies and MLK analogies. The graphics for the 8/28 event are dark, menacing, and declarative. This is Beck's edge. He is not a political guy. He is not an ideological guy. He is a philosopher. He is an author of master narratives. There is a Beck way of looking at the world. (There is not a Limbaugh way of looking at the world, or if there is, it's exactly the same thing as a political conservative's way of looking at the world.) Rush has policies; Beck has motivating ideas.
And:
The rally confirms what the crowd already knows about America: "America is good," says Beck, "not just because America is great, but because we are good! When we are good, we make America great!" He affirms this by reminding the crowd of the portraits of Thomas Jefferson, George Washington and Benjamin Franklin that "came to him" over the 2009 holidays, with the words faith, hope, and charity. He bestows awards of merit in each category on a reverend, a baseball player, and a philanthropist, all of whom praise him as they accept the honor. When Sarah Palin is introduced, it's as a "military mom" who only makes a few obscure political references as she tells stories about brave war veterans.

The Democrats who pre-butted Beck's rally by predicting an overtly political hateananny were played for suckers. They didn't pay attention to Beck's "Founder Fridays" episodes on Fox, his high-selling speaking tour, or his schmaltzy children's book The Christmas Sweater. It's not his blackboard that makes him popular. It's the total package he sells: membership in a corny, righteous, Mormonism-approved-by-John Hagee cultural family. The anger is what the media focus on, he says, joking several times about what "the press" will do to twist his words.

More on those corporate savers.

New ultranationalist group in Japan, because they just weren’t chauvinist enough already.

Karzai dismisses prosecutor for being too aggressive pursuing anti-corruption cases.

You can’t beat Brazilian comedians at politics.

Africa—the next Bric?

From Jordan to James

Owing to happy circumstances, I didn’t get to see the 30 for 30 documentary Jordan Rides The Bus, but I would’ve liked to. Irrespective of the actual merits or demerits of the film itself, I found one piece of information interesting: the way many people (on Twitter and in reviews) said the best thing the documentary did…was humanize Jordan.

And that’s probably the surest confirmation of Jordan’s status, that we felt he was slightly inhuman before and was (slightly more) human now: Jordan is close to the last NBA superstar that can be built up so comprehensively and completely that he’s become practically Olympian; while it was said during his playing career that Jordan’s best opponent in the public imagination was Jordan himself, it seems now that that’s a special kind of armor: nothing, really, has managed to barge its way into the public imagination about Jordan about Jordan—he’s just a monolith, mythic in that way.

At the risk of sounding the note of just-can’t-happen-anymore (that note is often nostalgic, and I don’t think either the mythic mode or overexposed mode of covering athletes is particularly worthwhile), well, it just can’t happen anymore. The closest we’ve come to that figure is Kobe Bryant, who is described as Jordanesque (note that he’s merely an imitator rather than a successor), with relatively little criticism directed his way about anything in particular these days, his status as world’s biggest basketball predator, a big cat in the jungle, fairly secure though undeserved. (Look: if you’re disposed to favor Bryant in the Bryant-James argument, I’m not interested in this argument—I think you’re wrong. In fact, I’m not even sure why we’re debating Bryant versus James since Paul and Wade are better players right now. So if you believe it, feel free to mentally edit the last sentence before the parentheses to something more mentally palatable). At any rate, we can be fairly sure Bryant is close to that status with interviews like this:


Yes, I realize it’s his own teammate asking the questions, but I do think it’s interesting that no one bothered to call bullshit on one of Bryant’s key assertions: asked about whether he would’ve pulled a LeBron, he said, “No. I’m just not that player.” While Bryant was at pains to emphasize that it was a personal decision, along the lines of preferring chocolate to vanilla, he seemed also to invite the idea that Bryant’s refusal to stoop so low as to join with a superteam or to call out fellow members of the NBA fraternity was a virtuous one, which is of course so much fragrant BS. Because—airbrushed in the popular imagination—is the fact that Kobe Bryant once demanded a trade. Chicago Bulls fans remember this well, as the speculation re: Kobe submarined an entire season. Lost in that whole discussion is the very relevant fact that only two players prevented Kobe from strutting around Chicago with the same three rings he had before the hypothetical trade (I presume; I don’t think that Bulls squad + Kobe = championship, though who knows?): Luol Deng and Andrew Bynum. Deng, because the Lakers insisted that any Bulls trade for Bryant had to include Deng and Bryant insisted that any trade to the Bulls had to leave Deng in Chicago (Bryant has a no-trade clause, with which he threatened to use to get the right trade). Bynum, because he decided to leap up a quantum into the dangerous though oft-injured center he is. If either of those things break differently, well, guess what? Kobe is traded, and he’s just another guy who got traded because he wanted to go to a winning team. Just like LeBron.

So if Kobe’s something of a transitional figure—Jordan’s narrative doesn’t allow for, say, rape charges in Colorado or prima-donna feuds with fellow stars—LeBron is squarely in a new world: the complaint we have about LeBron isn’t that he’s not humanized enough, but that we don’t like the human he is. (NOTE: “we” is meant as a general we—I’m more neutral re: LeBron as human being.) And that’s the evolution from Jordan to James.

The person who has the best chance of breaking through this slightly tiresome, slightly stringent set of rules of NBA Asskicking Superstar (win championships and prosper; make sure you always take last shots, etc.) is Kevin Durant, whose brand of laid-back genius seems to harken back to an earlier time, when men were men or something of that nature. But of course Durant is an avid Twitter user, which he appears to use mostly to communicate with fans about this and that—somehow Durant is both quiet and a frequent Tweeter, which seems interesting, don’t you think? At any rate, I have no doubt that if Durant were double-teamed in a last-second situation, he would have no qualms with trying for the assist. And that’s because Durant might be different.

Friday, August 27, 2010

Linkism

This NYT article talks about the perils of high-deductible insurance plans. I found this part revealing:
Since Philip Derrow, owner and chief executive of Ohio Transmission Corporation in Columbus, switched to a high-deductible H.S.A. plan for himself and 300 employees four years ago, his firm’s health insurance premium costs have increased by an average 2 percent or so a year, compared with 10 to 12 percent increases in previous years.
Of course, the costs that are being cut here are probably the stuff of rationing: the check-ups, the dental work, etc. And an average of 2%? That’s better than the 10-12% alternative, but it’s not ultimately acceptable: only cutting costs through better care is ultimately going to get the job done.

The Brazilian consumer, debt-laden:
According to the central bank, loans outstanding to private individuals amount to 22 per cent of Brazil’s gross domestic product. The truly shocking figure is that less than half of this (9.7 per cent of GDP) consists of amortisation. The rest is interest. Brazilians really are paying way over the odds for their consumption boom.
Apparently Brazil hasn’t experienced a rash of nonperforming loans because interest rates are coming down? That’s a surprise, as I thought inflation was a problem in Brazil? At any rate, like China and India, Brazil is a country with significant drawbacks to its apparent anni mirabilis of late.

How start-ups are changing the way they’re hiring.

A great read: ProPublica’s investigation on how CDOs propagated themselves, like robots in some dystopia movie.

How Holland got a 85 foot sculpture nicknamed “the shitting man.”

Blockbuster is preparing for bankruptcy, a victim of disruptive innovation. Really, it’s never been easier and better to rent movies, with stuff like Redbox and Netflix being excellent. What I find interesting—in a classic disruptive innovation story—is that Blockbuster had an opportunity to buy Redbox but didn’t as it feared cannibalizing its own business.

Heh, on the Facebook movie (and how Mark Zuckerberg is resisting efforts to have the movie come out in its current form):
The internal logic the Facebook founders guide their personal lives and their business by is fascinating, and contradictory. To some extent, there's a free-market element to this all. Facebook users are given the tools to humiliate themselves, but there's certainly no requirement that they do so. At the same time, even discretion isn't enough to ensure that your privacy will be protected, given the company's internal controls, or lack thereof. The founders seem to largely operate on principals of self-protection; they abide by their own internal rules. But they also seem to dislike it when other people force them to live by the second part of the functional rules that govern their product: there's only so far you can lock up information. The debate might be different if the movie was based on credible source material, instead of a book so speculative that it gives Zuckerberg & Co. an excuse to cast doubt on true events as well as falsified or misemphasized ones. But it's still an intriguing one. If you build a big chunk of the world, you tend to get stuck living in it.
I find the Facebook movie to be highly intriguing: there’s a lot of talent around it—David Fincher, Aaron Sorkin, Jesse Eisenberg—and the fact that it’s written by notorious, ah, bullshit artist Ben Mezrich doesn’t bother me at all—look, if “truthiness” ever has a proper, unquestionably right home, isn’t it a work of fiction?

The following two stories are interesting on their own rights, but feature such great “newspapery” moments that I felt I had to draw attention to them on their own. The first is about the “casket cartel” in Louisiana that’s trying to stop an order of monks from making caskets that they can sell to people (cheaper, naturally, than undertakers). It being the Wall Street Journal, there’s a stipple portrait…of one of the monks in his habit. The second story is about (what the newspaper calls) an effective police commander in Tijuana that might get ousted for political reasons. What I found amusing here was nothing about the actual situation, but a general trend: in many newspaper articles requiring technical knowledge, there’s always an expert quotation that’s a little too good, as if the expert in question sat around trying to figure out the perfect colorful quote to get his name in the paper. This article’s version:
"There are occasionally miracles in Mexico — the Virgin of Guadalupe and a law enforcement effort in Tijuana that has been effective," said George W. Grayson, an expert on Mexico's drug war at the College of William & Mary in Williamsburg, Va.
My compliments, Professor Grayson. Would’ve tried to end the quote with “in Tijuana,” so something like “…and an effective law enforcement effort in Tijuana”—it’s snappier, after all—but yours is just fine. Hats off.

How the Pentagon is resisting wind turbine projects...everywhere in the U.S., apparently.

Only The Talented Tenth Have The Skills To Pay The Bills?

Raghuram Rajan has one of the more interesting theories of the financial crisis: he thinks inequality happened; that politicians addressed inequality by expanding the lower- and middle-class’s exposure to debt; that that debt blew the system up. It’s a neat, attractive theory in many ways, and it leads him to focus on education as a panacea.

While I’m not against education by any means, or improving education, I do think that Rajan’s take is a false trail. Here’s his point on inequality:
Since 1968, income inequality has been steadily increasing in the United States. I am not referring to the Croesus-like income of a John Paulsen, the hedge fund manager who in 2008 netted over $3 billion, about 75,000 times the average household income. I refer to a more worrying everyday phenomenon that confronts most Americans, the disparity in income growth rates between a manager at the local supermarket and the typical factory worker or office assistant. Since the 1970s, the wages of the former, typically workers at the 90th percentile of the wage distribution in the United States, have grown much faster than the wages of the latter, the typical median worker. Or consider the table below, which shows that the wages of occupation groups that are paid more than the national average in 2002 have grown much faster since then than the wages of occupation groups below the average…
And let’s reproduce the graph he uses here:


See that graph? I think it undermines his entire point. Is the top 10th percentile really that much more talented than the 10th-25th percentile? You’d have to believe that for Rajan’s theory to make sense—after all, his graph that his entire argument rests upon has the upper tenth making 2.4% more in wage gains from 2002-8 than the fifteen percent just below that. Does it have that many more skills? I’m very skeptical of that account. (Also, since I’ve never really seen the data presented in this way—you could make the case that the upper tenth didn’t get that great a deal from the inequality years either. 1.7% gain in 6 years…is not very good. I’ll have to look at the data elsewhere, but I suspect that comparatively it doesn’t stack up well, when you compare it either to the past or to peer countries.) And of course what Rajan’s graph obscures is that the top 1% made out better than the 9% just below them. Again, I think you’d be hard pressed to argue that the difference between those two groups in talent is really that large, and (of the ones who are that much more talented) this isn’t really reproducible.

So while I agree that inequality is one of the root causes of the crisis, I can’t agree with the prescription: I’d argue the prescription happens to be…health care and stiff financial reform. (Education reform, while a great idea to do well, is not strictly relevant to this exact argument.)

Rise and Fall

Ever since I’ve been following hip-hop—let’s say the middle of high school here—it’s been a genre desperately searching for its future, the next great M.C. Kanye West was it once. Common too, I think. Drake is just about to transition from rapper of the future to rapper of the ambiguous present (the present is never quite as good as you think it would be when it was the future). J. Cole, I guess, is the new rapper of the future. There is one rapper of the future that’s met the most interesting fate: Lupe Fiasco.

Lupe Fiasco never quite became bad, but he did go from exciting to kind of bland awfully quickly. Maybe it was because Drake and Kid Cudi recognized the cultural niche Lupe was going for and helped fill the space; at any rate, you’d think a Muslim comic book geek would be able to ride an interesting backstory and wonderful verbal talent of days and days. Now the guy is reduced to begging his fans on Twitter to request his songs or force his label to release his third album. And you’d think if Lupe were the rapper of the future, comments like these on current events like the Manhattan mosque would get more attention:
Everyone has the right to worship where they please, but you do have to question the wisdom of it when you look at the reaction that it caused. I'm Muslim, so I understand the importance of practicing the faith. But that is something that is sensitive to Americans. I don't trust polls, but there was such an overwhelming sentiment that maybe it's not the best of idea. I think the people who are building it should take that under consideration. Would they be setting themselves up for vandals? Because now it's become a target. But on the other side, I think it's a great opportunity because Islam is in the forefront. This mosque situation is a good chance to spread what Islam is really about. People can give commentary on how much of a peaceful religion it is. I look at the situation as a win-win. Just by you talking to me about the controversy, I get to spread the fact that Islam is a wonderful religion. The majority of Muslims are not even in the Middle East. The majority of Muslims are in South East Asia. The point of Islam is to promote peace. But there are a lot of emotions in New York. I've visited Ground Zero so I understand that it's a sensitive subject.
Nuanced! (I disagree, but certainly nuanced!) Surprising, considering this is the same guy who released “American Terrorist.” Lupe has always struck me as the guy or gal in college who can’t stop banging on about all the terrible things that have happened in the past, which is annoying because that guy or gal…is almost always right. (Well, right about the outrage; typically wrong about how to address the whole situation).

It’s a bit of a shame that this is the case—that Lupe can’t really get any attention at this point in time, even on a sensitive subject. The plan was, that his third album was to be his last. As far as I can tell, this was always the plan—which is an interesting comment on self-perception. As far as artists go, there are so many who have worn out their welcome by writing one too many novels (Fitzgerald), one too many movies (Allen), or one too many albums (Nas). And while you can’t exactly begrudge an artist’s best work for being accompanied by too many mediocre descendants, it does diminish the artist in our memory. So if Lupe’s self-assessment was that he was always only good for three albums (assuming, of course, he wasn’t planning to unretire before he retired the whole time), that’s quite the comment on his abilities.

Probably an accurate one, as it turns out. Lupe has wonderful tools but precious few materials to use them on, and I suspect after two albums and a mixtape, he’s run out of subjects: there’s the conscious rap and the story rap. You’ve heard the rap on the conscious rap—think leftist politics of the Howard Zinn persuasion—but the storytelling songs were always, I thought, the best of his abilities: he had a gift for, well, telling a good story in vivid language; you know, that Creative Writing 101 shit.



His second album probably exposed the poverty of his building materials: billed as a concept album with (according to wikipedia) three characters called, sigh, “The Cool,” “The Streets,” and “The Game,” which apparently are supposed to be archetypal characters representing…uh, did you see their names? It turns out to be tiresome, and then there’s that poor decision to rap from the perspective of a hamburger (“Gotta Eat”). That’s a bad decision, advice-wise, don’t you think? (Almost as bad as Nas’s decision to rap from the perspective of Chief Wiggum [well, that’s what the voice sounds like] in “Who Killed It?”)

It wouldn’t be far beyond comprehensible for Lupe to turn his career around and come up with new ideas, but new events are making his old decisions seem smart.

Thursday, August 26, 2010

Linkism

Joe Posnanski compares Hal Sutton to Tiger Woods…and makes it work. Really good.

WSJ article notes that credit cards’ profits are likely to go down: combination of delinquent payments and regulation.

Things the recession is taking away from us but shouldn’t: our fire stations.

Pakistan’s infrastructure is going downhill; Indian consumer likely to be a juggernaut? INDIA v. CHINA: the world’s next great rivalry? And, oh, wow, look at this graph of Chinese coal consumption.

Is the world close to a food crisis?

Does the Chinese government have any friends in the Obama administration now?

Are immigrants not changing their names as frequently to Anglicize them anymore?

More on how income inequality may (or may not) have fuelled the crisis.

Mark Zuckerberg: trying to copyright the word “Face,” joining the Pat Riley Useless Copyrights Hall of Fame.

Pentagon seeking “modest” budget growth. I’d accept a “modest” cut.

Anthem Blue Cross allowed to raise its rates.

Does the recovery depend on housing?

Why do more people think Obama’s a Muslim these days?

On Early Failures

It’s funny how the first major piece of work you do as an artist affects/defines/reflects on the rest of your career—the published one, that is; every artist has embarrassing juvenilia that has hopefully, for everyone’s sake, been incinerated or otherwise disposed of by the time it becomes very clear it is embarrassing juvenilia (i.e. immediately; or, less cruelly, a year or so afterwards.) Radiohead is an interesting example—they’re the intellectual rock band that’s probably—if you’re a critic or listen to one frequently—the defining band of the aughts. So here’s their first hit:



It is a good song that has been, well, less than warmly embraced (though not totally disavowed) by the group’s ringleader:
Kids still yell for ''Creep'' at Radiohead concerts, which is an indication of how important a hit single can be in building a fan base. Radiohead won't play ''Creep'' anymore, and when I brought it up with Yorke, he lit into American radio, and how modern-rock D.J.'s tormented him with questions as to whether the ''Creep'' was him, and what had his parents or somebody done to him, did he think, to make him turn out this way: the pop-analysis inquiries of the grunge era. ''You can't imagine how horrible that was,'' he told me. ''And the thing about being a one-hit wonder: you know, you do come to believe it. You saw you don't but you do. It messed me up good and proper.'

It’s interesting because you can define the song in one of two ways: either a really good, say, angry Coldplay song; alternatively, a very clumsy Radiohead song. The song does the bleakness and experimentalism of Radiohead songs (e.g. the random blasts of noise in the middle of the song as it’s building up to the bridge), but it’s clumsy: it’s direct. The first time you listen to it, you can tell exactly what the song is about; you can tell what the story is like; you have essentially figured out the emotional contours of the song within one or two listens of the song. That’s a consequence of both musical directness (a pretty conventional verse-chorus structure) and lyrical directness (it’s more like Hemingway than Joyce, say). That doesn’t exhaust the song’s vitality, but it does differentiate it from the rest of the Radiohead canon.

Differentiates it, mind you, in both good and bad ways. One of the virtues of being a critical darling is you get the intellectual equivalent of fuck-you money: you can kind of do whatever and get credit for being, well, daring and such. And while the concept of fuck-you money sounds liberating—it’s the amount of money you need to say fuck you to the random, annoying obstacles the world throws in your path—in reality it probably enslaves you by becoming the new normal; once you have the amount of money that looks like fuck-you money, well, now the real fuck-you money is that plus a whole lot more. Similarly, I’d argue, critical approval sounds like it should free you to do whatever you’d like; in practice, I suspect many critical darlings try to cultivate as much critical appeal as possible. That’s natural—who among us doesn’t enjoy approval, particularly when it can also drive money and power our way?—but it doesn’t quite deliver everything it promises.

I suspect, in a roundabout way, that critical approval ended up doing a bit of that to Radiohead. A bit because while their reputation is a bit overstated in my mind, they’re still quite excellent. But a band that’s uninterested in critical approval doesn’t make “Fitter Happier,” otherwise known as the buzzkill between “Karma Police” and “Electioneering.” On a certain level, however, you don’t mind and even want Radiohead to make “Fitter Happier,” because it can always be skipped or deleted—the great stuff, the stuff that artfully mixes experimentation with, well, the fundamentals. Part of liking a great artist is ignoring what fails (and where the artist started).

Let's Get Hip

In an ongoing effort to recall every product they’ve ever made (NOTE: SPECULATION), Johnson & Johnson has recalled its artificial hips made by its subsidiary, DuPuy because, well, they’re not very good:
…In some patients, the hip implants failed just a few years after surgery, forcing them to underg a second round of costly and painful replacement operations.

About 12 to 13 percent of patients needed a second hip replacement after the ARS devices failed, the statement from DePuy said, citing new unpublished data from a national registry in Britain. Previously reported follow-up data, including internal company information and clinical trials, had reported lower rates of second hip-replacement comparable to similar devices by other companies, the statement said.

Given that business executives would rather vote for Dennis Kucinich than willingly recall a product, I’m guessing the previously unpublished data is completely accurate, possibly even understating matters.

Now, it’s possible to view this as an isolated case about a particular company and a particular product made by that company: but in truth artificial joints are, like the rest of the health care system, completely screwed up. Did you see how it was Britain’s data from its registry that ended up being cited? Really, there’s no reason that American data can’t augment that store of data—while more data isn’t always better, I can’t think of a good reason why more data in terms of artificial joints would be particularly misleading. And, make no mistake, the U.S. is behind. The Swedes started up the first registry, as far as I can tell, and the Australians followed suit next, with various other countries doing their own efforts; only the most innovative have done it over here:
In this country, Kaiser Permanente has used its registry in a variety of ways, said Dr. Donald Fithian, who helps direct that program. Seeing failures in one type of knee procedure, it discovered that most involved doctors new to it, so there is now greater supervision.

While that’s cool, there’s no wide adoption of the system with all of its virtues—which leads to companies selling products in the U.S. that have failed abroad, or leads to hospitals doing procedures in the wrong way. And when artificial joints don’t work out—they’re supposed to last fifteen years and sometimes last as long as two—the makers don’t have to pay a warranty, meaning that they’re indifferent at best, hoping for failure at worst, as to the eventual success or failure of their product:
The million or so artificial hips and knees implanted each year in the United States, they say, are normally not guaranteed. Instead, the costs of replacing implants that fail early because of design or mechanical problems — devices that sell for as much as $15,000 each — are largely paid by Medicare, insurance companies and patients.

Implants can fail for many reasons, but if only a small percentage of them fail prematurely because they are substandard, the costs to taxpayers, policyholders and patients can run into the tens of millions of dollars each year, health care experts estimate.

Orthopedic producers may sometimes even profit from the failures because they sell the replacements at full price.

“Companies have dumped these costs into the health care system,” said Dr. Lawrence D. Dorr, an orthopedic surgeon in Los Angeles who two years ago took the unusual step of drawing attention to one problematic hip device. “They don’t have any skin in the game.”

So, given the state of these incentives—is it any wonder DuPuy had to recall its artificial knees?

Wednesday, August 25, 2010

Linkism

An interesting comment about race in Brazil:
In Brazil, you are what you describe yourself to be. Officially we have five different colors—black, white, yellow, indigenous, and pardo (meaning “brown,” “brownish,” or “gray-brown”), but in reality, as research has demonstrated, we have more than 130 colors. Brazilians like to describe their spectrum of colors as a rainbow and we also think that color is a flexible way of categorizing people. For several years, I have been studying a soccer game called “Pretos X Brancos” (Blacks against whites), which takes place in a favela of São Paulo, called Heliópolis. In theory, it pits eleven white players against eleven black players. But, every year they change colors like they change socks or shirts—one year a player will choose to play for one team, the next year for the other, with the explanation that, “I feel more black,” or “I feel more white.” Also, in Brazil, if a person gets rich, he gets whiter. I recently talked with a dentist in Minas Gerais. As he is becoming old, his hair has turned white, and he is very well recognized in his little town. He started smoking cigars, joined the local Rotary Club, and said to me: “When I was black my life was really difficult.” So one can see how being white even nowadays is a powerful symbol...

The rise and fall of American Apparel.

I found this Kanye West “profile” to be interesting on its own merits, as well as formally inventive.

What caused the 60 mile long Beijing traffic jam? And here’s what life’s like inside the traffic jam:
This particular and spectacular jam began on 14 August. At one point vehicles were moving half-a-mile a day with some drivers taking five days to clear it. Now it is slowly easing, said Zhang. He should know. He has been through it once already in the past 10 days. "It took me three days last time," he said. "I am prepared. I have plenty of water."

Local villagers come on motorbikes to take advantage. They are selling simple boxed meals of rice, vegetables and pork for 10 yuan (£1) each. "It's not cheap. It's not filling. But we have no choice," said Zhang, of the food on offer.

Why aren’t cop shows in more places than New York and L.A.?

How good are those microbes at cleaning up the Gulf oil spill? Pretty good, maybe.

Monte Carlo simulations apparently aren’t very good at describing stock market reality.

Why aren’t there enough civil engineers in India?

Were spies behind a 2008 cyber attack?

Does bipartisanship just subvert democracy?

A superb interview with Bill Gates on energy policy features this interesting thought:
Almost everything called renewable energy is intermittent. I have another term for it: "energy farming." In fact, you need not just a storage miracle, you need a transmission miracle, because intermittent sources are not available in an efficient form in all locations. Now, energy factories, which are hydrocarbon and nuclear energy--those things are nice. You can put a roof on them if you get bad weather. But energy farming? Good luck to you! Unfortunately, conventional energy factories emit CO2 and that is a very tough problem to solve, and there's a huge disincentive to do research on it.

Will Facebook become Brazil’s other social network?

This NYT article on how people around the world perceive the Manhattan mosque controversy is highly interesting and subtly done.

Distinguished People Are Wrong On The Internet About The Beatles!

Speaking of being wrong, Rolling Stone has done a grave disservice to the cause of, well, truth, justice, beauty, love, apple pie and just about everything good on this earth (and presumably around the entire universe and, should they exist, other universes at alternate times and places) by ranking the Beatles’ songs and then making a complete hash of it.

Here’s their ranking:
1) A Day In The Life
2) I Want To Hold Your Hand
3) Strawberry Fields Forever
4) Yesterday
5) In My Life
6) Something
7) Hey Jude
8) Let It Be
9) Come Together
10) While My Guitar Gently Weeps

Fully half of the list doesn’t belong! I Want To Hold Your Hand is a significant song, in the same way that, say, N*SYNC was significant, but that by no means makes it a great song, the word choice of which presumes a certain aesthetic quality that the song doesn’t have. (It’s a good song, but not in comparison to the rest of the Beatles’ catalog). (The other undeserving: Strawberry Fields Forever, which is a good but not great song; Yesterday, which is so saccharine it’s a leading cause of American obesity; and Something, which is a blander Yesterday.)

Now I’m a firm believer in alternatives: if I’m going to sit here and criticize Rolling Stone for their awful decision-making, I’ve got to make some of my own to demonstrate exactly how poor it was. With a catalog of music as great as the Beatles’, it’s somewhat foolish to rank the songs exactly, so I’ll refrain; in fact, I’ll accept acceptable alternatives—if you think, say, “Across the Universe” is a top-ten song, more power to you, it could very well be. That’s how great the Beatles songs are. I’m just saying these are obvious alternatives like, oh, god what the heck is Eleanor Rigby doing missing here? That song might well be the best Beatles song ever and it’s excluded from the top ten? What are you thinking?

Anyway, the full list of my personal alternatives, with emotion and instinct prized over sober overthinking:
Eleanor Rigby
Revolution
When I’m Sixty-Four
Got To Get You Into My Life
Back In The U.S.S.R.

The Defenseless Pac-10

My personal mission in this blog is probably summed up by that xkcd cartoon which ends, “I can’t leave. Someone is wrong on the internet.” Today that someone is Stewart Mandel, and he is wrong, wrong I say about Stanford football and the Pac-10. Mandel is fairly knowledgeable but not particularly insightful about the media-glamour conferences (i.e. SEC and Big 10) but knows little about the Pac-10 and is even less insightful on that subject.

Mandel picked Stanford to finish 7-5, which is reasonable enough, and even gave a pretty good beginning of a reason: the defense stinks. (Mandel’s picks are in general quite reasonable, except I’d be surprised to see Cal finish below UCLA and very surprised to see Arizona to finish third.) It’s the rest of his logic that’s a little odd:
It's that defense -- ranked 110th against the pass last year, with more experience than this year's unit -- that makes you cringe. Stanford got away with it a bit last year because most Pac-10 defenses stunk, but you're going to see a lot of improvement around the league on that side of the ball, from Washington to Oregon and Oregon State to USC. But like Tyler said, the offenses will only be getting more potent with all those returning QBs.
Stanford’s defense, apparently, will get worse because: a) it will have less experience and b) because other defenses will be better. b) is odd and a) is just factually incorrect: the only starter lost is Bo McNally, who was never much of a defender anyway; the rest of the starters are returning, though it’s an open question whether or not they start.

(It's also odd to call Stanford a media darling. Really? By the standards of overhyped media darlings, Stanford is positively undercovered: can't anyone remember OLE MISS, POSSIBLE NATIONAL CHAMPIONSHIP CONTENDER from last year? Anyway, everyone talking about Stanford goes with: oh cool Jim Harbaugh oh cool Andrew Luck but what about Toby and defense? Which is very sensible and nothing like inflating expectations.)

b) is also odd because it’s hard to tell exactly why he thinks Pac-10 defenses will get better from their so-so 2009. Why will there be so much improvement? The typical thing in these situations is to cite returning starters and new coaches and call it a day; except of course there are fewer returning defensive starters this year and almost everyone has new coaches, including Stanford. And of the 22 All-Pac-10 first and second team defensive players last year, 16 aren’t in college anymore, whether because of graduation or the draft. And given the incredible amount of talent at QB—there are probably three first-round QBs projected to start in the Pac-10 as of right now—it’s tough to expect any defense to do well. All defenses are going to get shredded in this conference, and if you paid attention to the conference, you’d know that.

At any rate, the depth and diversity of offensive attacks in the Pac-10—the conference features everything from the power rushing of Stanford to the dink-and-dunk of Arizona and the buccaneering raids of Oregon—means that a bad defense is not much of a handicap while a good-to-great defense is a huge advantage. This is another reason to consider Oregon a solid, if not appreciable, favorite; it’s also another reason to expect Stanford, which should get better if only by regression to the mean, to do just fine in a very competitive Pac-10.

Tuesday, August 24, 2010

Linkism

Ireland gets another whack to its credit rating—remember that Ireland is perhaps the earliest and deepest cutter. This, of course, is proof of the need to cut now.

The New Yorker’s latest online issue is out: this Jane Mayer article on billionaires v. Obama has all the right leading indicators of worthwhile reading (but I haven’t read it and hence I cannot confirm), while Adam Gopnik on Winston Churchill is certainly worthwhile reading, if only for Gopnik’s remarkable ability to turn a phrase.

California: the victim of a swindle?

The media (the internet media, amusingly often)’s hysteria over the way that the internet may or may not be causing us all to be ADD-ridden goldfish is often overstated on that awful, awful internet; however, I find this article about how the constant stimulation culture abetted by the internet and personal devices (e.g. iPhones) warps creativity to be plausible:
The technology makes the tiniest windows of time entertaining, and potentially productive. But scientists point to an unanticipated side effect: when people keep their brains busy with digital input, they are forfeiting downtime that could allow them to better learn and remember information, or come up with new ideas.

“Almost certainly, downtime lets the brain go over experiences it’s had, solidify them and turn them into permanent long-term memories,” said Loren Frank, assistant professor in the department of physiology at the university, where he specializes in learning and memory. He said he believed that when the brain was constantly stimulated, “you prevent this learning process.”

Who innovates more, Apple or HP?

How Much Is Left (Of the Earth’s Resources)?

China time: why the critical conflict with China is over the Mekong River, why there’s a housing bubble in China, why the 60-mile traffic jam to Beijing might last until September, and South Africa’s (futile?) attempt to attract manufacturing investment from China.

Why all-out geoengineering won’t stop rising sea levels.

Why the recent spate of mergers isn’t a good sign for the economy.

The Italian battle over genetically-modified corn.

A trek to Don Draper’s nonexistent apartment.

Brooks Flab On Iraq

Speaking of David Brooks, he is rarely so infuriatingly wrong as when he is wrong about politics. Naturally he is that when speaking about politics in the previously-linked op-ed about the lack of introspection about mankind’s flaws that people engage in nowadays:
The ensuing mental flabbiness is most evident in politics. Many conservatives declare that Barack Obama is a Muslim because it feels so good to say so. Many liberals would never ask themselves why they were so wrong about the surge in Iraq while George Bush was so right. The question is too uncomfortable.
The real unasked, uncomfortable question for David Brooks is—why must he insist on a false balance? It’s clear that conservatives’ belief that Obama is a secret Muslim and liberals’ belief that the surge didn’t work reside on completely different planes: one is a easily-disprovable assertion of fact; the other is more of a philosophical debate. It would be one thing, too, if said philosophical debate were a goofy or otherwise misinformed one (e.g. “How do we know your green and my green are different, man?!?”), but it’s not at all clear that the surge-didn’t-work argument is that level of goofy; in fact, I’m about to make that case! At any rate, the mental flabbiness that needs exercising away is Brooks’s, as he just can’t stop the empty calories of media cliché: all faults are shared equally by both parties. Poppycock.

At any rate, it is an interesting debate as to whether or not the surge “worked,” as I really think it hinges upon what you mean by the word “worked.” Does a partial success count as “worked”? If it does, how partial does the success have to be for it to “work”? The surge was premised on a pretty reasonable idea—I say reasonable not because I agreed with the decision at the time, but because it was a not-completely-goofy plan—that a surge in troops could improve the security situation in Iraq, which would allow the government the time and space to sort its political problems, e.g. al-Sadr, Kurdish issues, etc.

So what does it look like now? Well, the security situation is better—but it’s not great: there have been a few bombings in recent days, and it really never got perfect. And the political situation is really just as bad, if not worse, than it was at the time of the surge—there’s no actual government in charge, Moqtada al-Sadr is the kingmaker, and Kirkuk and other Kurdish areas are still problems. In fact, let’s let quote some observers to show the scope of the problems:
"The Americans are leaving, and they didn't solve the problems," said Falah al-Naqib, a Sunni legislator from the secular Iraqiya bloc. "So far they've failed and left Iraq to other countries."

"In Washington, I told them, 'It would be embarrassing if you left and there's no government in place,' " said Foreign Minister Hoshyar Zebari. "The U.S. will still have a substantial force here, but it needs to use it to produce results. . . . The Iraqi leaders are at an impasse, and we need help from our American friends."

"It's a terrible time," said Joost Hiltermann, an Iraq expert with the International Crisis Group. "We always argued that the coincidence of a political and security vacuum would present a dangerous situation, and that's where we are now. If violence continues and insurgents get a foot in the door, what are the Americans going to do, with the limited resources they have?"

But yes, Mr. Brooks, the surge was such an unqualified success that people who oppose it are the political equivalent of flat-earthers. Yes, this is clear, from the favorable quotations shown above.

I suspect Brooks’s flabbiness on the subject comes from the lack of attention that Iraq has received recently. Iraq really did look like it was on the right track a couple of years ago, and you could perhaps attribute that to the surge. But obviously conditions change and as they change you have to reevaluate previous policies in that light: I believe that’s the kind of introspection and question-asking Brooks is asking of himself.

Darling, We Just Don't Hate Each Other For Our Venality Anymore

One person who hasn’t written anything enormously foolish recently is David Brooks, who has a torrid, on-again, off-again relationship with said condition—his other steady is with actually interesting content. Today—you might have guessed by the fact that I’m writing this—it’s the “foolish” category.

Brooks thinks that today, as compared to our enlightened ancestors, we are
…less conscious of our severe mental shortcomings and less inclined to be skeptical of our own opinions. Occasionally you surf around the Web and find someone who takes mental limitations seriously. For example, Charlie Munger of Berkshire Hathaway once gave a speech called “The Psychology of Human Misjudgment.” He and others list our natural weaknesses: We have confirmation bias; we pick out evidence that supports our views. We are cognitive misers; we try to think as little as possible. We are herd thinkers and conform our perceptions to fit in with the group.

But, in general, the culture places less emphasis on the need to struggle against one’s own mental feebleness. Today’s culture is better in most ways, but in this way it is worse.

Part of the flaw here undoubtedly comes from the op-ed format, which is really an enemy to the kind of writing David Brooks wants to do here: he wants to write a long-form…essay, at least, I’d venture, but has to write a roughly five hundred-to-one thousand word disquisition. That’s barely enough time to get all of the assertions in the right place.

But I’m afraid that’s only a partial excuse; it doesn’t, for example, excuse his lack of truly comparative thought. That is, while people today aren’t particularly conscious of their mental shortcomings, I’m quite certain that’s because people generally aren’t particularly conscious of their mental shortcomings.

Part of the problem, too, lies in improper comparisons. Let’s take Brooks’s example of character-building activity:
People were held to be inherently sinful, and to be a decent person one had to struggle against one’s weakness. …In the mental sphere, this meant conquering mental laziness with arduous and sometimes numbingly boring lessons. It meant conquering frivolity by sitting through earnest sermons and speeches. It meant conquering self- approval by staring straight at what was painful.
If there’s anything that describes, it’s northeastern Yankee culture, that descendant of straight-backed, eat-your-vegetables-because-you’re-probably-damned Puritanism. If you think part of the problem today is coastal elitism—and, really, how can anyone deny it?—then coastal elitism looks even more parochial, for better or worse, in 1811. (I will agree with Brooks—well, I presume Brooks thinks this—that the Puritans of the era are significantly underrated in the popular imagination these days, when they are thought of at all.) And that parochial nature means, well, for one, that Brooks’s favored people are not as good as he thinks re: thinking uncomfortable, metacognitive thoughts. And that’s without considering the people Brooks doesn’t mention, the people who did their best not to think uncomfortable thoughts about such phenomenon as slavery or women’s lack of representation or opportunity (and obviously the northeasterners were scarcely better on that front than their Southern cousins.)

Besides, the “God We Suck” genre still exists today; it’s just got different tropes and tricks, just as a James Bond movie today has different gadgets than one of forty years ago. If you’re a member of the stuff white people like class, you probably either read Malcolm Gladwell or at least have heard of behavioral economics through assiduous reading of the New York Times, which means you’re at least aware of all of the ways people can screw up and frequently do. If you’re not a member of this class, you’re probably familiar with motivational speaking and the like, which usually starts with the premise that’s there’s something wrong. You might read websites like Lifehacker. And so on and so forth—man is still a self-improvement animal, and still is prone to wallowing in the mires of how much it all sucks.

The problem of how much we regard ourselves and how much we’re exposed to other people’s thoughts may have strengthened or it may have lessened, but it’s altogether unclear at the level of evidence David Brooks and I am dealing with whether that’s true. Certainly the opportunity to correct this problem has never been more present—it’s so easy to read interesting people of differing political persuasions if you so please—and so I think it requires a persuasive explanation as to why these opportunities have, in the writer’s estimation, gone untaken. Brooks’s explanation isn’t persuasive; it’s barely the beginning of one.

Monday, August 23, 2010

Linkism

Justin Fox reviews more of the income inequality literature, and I found this (as he does) to be most interesting:
Hacker and Pierson, though, are the ones who deliver the goods. In their dense but engrossing book Winner-Take-All Politics (forthcoming from Simon & Schuster this month), the two political scientists start by making the case that economic forces fail to explain why incomes have skyrocketed at the very top of the distribution (the highest 0.1%, and even 0.01%) while going nowhere for the bottom 90%. “Those at the top are often highly educated, yes,” they write, “but so, too, are those just below them who have been left increasingly behind.” They contend that government decisions encouraged this income explosion at the top. The crucial turning point, they say, came not in 1980, when Ronald Reagan was elected, but two years before. The business community, reeling after years of labor victories and regulatory encroachments, had begun to organize over the course of the 1970s and focus its energy on politics. The Chamber of Commerce tripled its budget. The Business Roundtable and the American Council for Capital Formation were born. The first two big legislative wins came in 1978, when the Democrat-controlled Congress killed off a proposal to create an office of consumer representation and a union-backed revision of labor laws.

After that there was no turning back: Business groups had figured out how to work the new levers of power in Washington, while the mass-membership organizations that had represented working America—not just labor unions but also the likes of the American Legion and the Elks—fell into sharp decline.

Where have all African revolutionaries gone?

What are the top occupations for the educated young?

Speaking of the educated young, how are they paying for college? Disturbing little fact: students whose parents earn $100k+ get $6,019 in scholarships and grants; students whose parents earn less than $35,000 get $6,571.

So, a U.S. district court has granted an injunction to Obama’s stem cell program. Weirdly, a judge had decided that the people who were suing had no standing:
"Embryos lack standing because they are not persons under the law" and the unborn have no right to life protected under the Constitution's 14th Amendment, U.S. District Court Judge Royce Lamberth ruled in October, Bloomberg reported.
But which judge decided to grant the injunction?:
A US district court has issued a temporary injunction blocking plans by the Obama administration to increase funding for stem cell research.

Judge Royce Lamberth said lawsuits brought against the new guidelines could now go ahead.

"ESC (embryonic stem cell) research is clearly research in which an embryo is destroyed," Judge Lamberth said.
So, since October Judge Lamberth has changed from embryos not people therefore no standing to “clearly” one in which embryos are destroyed (and presumably human)?

Why aren’t we frightened of quicksand anymore?

Moore’s Law and videogames (skimmable at parts, but overall very interesting).

Rich people: afraid of fear itself.

Is Mike Bloomberg a latter-day, successful John Lindsay?

How the Pittsburg Pirates profit by losing. I’m of two minds on this: on one hand, seeing as sports is a zero-sum endeavor, you’d hate that the only way to profit on owning a baseball team is by owning a winning team? On the other hand, a system that encourages people to lose in sports…not really a good one, now is it?

A nine-day traffic jam in Beijing reached 100 km long on Monday.

Hedge funds: more secure than banks?

Deep, deep report about what Treasury is thinking right now. Somewhat disturbing.

The WSJ has an overview piece about privatization in the U.S. due to debts; Suzy Khimm talks about how privatizing prisons doesn’t save money; and—you’ll really have to trust me on this one, as this really is really interesting—the Urbanophile looks at risks and rewards of privatizing parking meters in a long, in-depth manner.

European economy slows down.

Footnotes from yesterday’s Mad Men episode.

U.S. reviewing tech spending on (what seems like) wasteful programs.