Thursday, September 30, 2010


Who is Pete Rouse? (the new White House chief of staff, naturally)

An interview with Jennifer Egan (the author who wrote A Visit from the Good Squad, which I reviewed here. Buy it!)

A private equity surge in Brazil (sorry, guys.) Brazil is also partnering with Sudan.

Farhad Manjoo on the FCC decision to open up the "white spaces" part of the spectrum.

Some telenovelas are being subtitled in English for second- and third-generation Latinos.

A coup d’etat in Ecuador, or just riots?

Chris Brown of “Smart Football” deconstructs the spread offense.

An intellectual history of Shi’ism in Iran and how it connects to Ahmadinejad.

More on rating doctor’s performance (and paying them accordingly).

Potentially habitable planet discovered.

Will Afghan farmers start reengaging in opium farming because of its price jump?

A history of failure (?): Charles Goodyear

New England’s hidden history with slavery.

Elizabeth Warren comes out in favor of principles…principles-based regulation, that is.

A pair of interviews with Mad Men actresses.

Bill Gates and Warren Buffet are now trying to get Indian billionaires to give away their money.

Nigeria at 50 (tip: download the pdf)

So when will we get Google: Implant?

An interesting little profile of Danilo Gallinari’s Italian basketball roots.

This Slate article asks why Campus Network (obscure social network) lost out to Facebook, and offers a number of complicated reasons. I hate to be reductionist, but I think this little self-related anecdote from the Campus Network founder explains everything:
In the meantime, Goldberg had launched a social network for high schools called Friendex. But he says he killed the project after a month at the request of Zuckerberg and the Facebook team. "They made me feel really bad for having launched it," he says. "So I took it down." Facebook soon expanded to high schools.
They made you feel bad?!? What a wimp.

Slumming It

Tony Curtis’s death today prompted what I assume is a pretty common reaction: looking at his wikipedia page for his filmography, and it got me to thinking. Look at some of his later credits: “Alien X Factor”, “Brittle Glory”, “Lobster Man From Mars.” I’m guessing none of Curtis’s eulogies will be focusing on the wonder that those movies inspired.

Not to do the speak ill of the dead thing, but I also happened to see the Law & Order: Los Angeles premiere last night for the reason that, well, the actors: Alfred Molina is in it! Terence Howard! Somehow I suspect that the LA Law & Order will be the near-equivalent of “Alien X Factor.” It had some of the same sardonic, understated humor, but generally one-liners are better delivered by Jerry Orbach to, say, Jesse L. Martin (or Benjamin Bratt or Chris Noth) than, well, whomever the detectives are in the LA Law & Order. Besides the humor, the other great aspect of the original series was that we knew relatively little about the characters, and what we did know was delivered naturally, without exposition (there’s a lot of stuff, writing-wise, that can be good or bad depending on the execution, but exposition is nearly always bad); whereas the revelation that Alfred Molina’s DA character’s father was a groundskeeper was particularly facepalm inducing.

It’s probably too early to judge—though you’d think if a show ever was able to get a running start, it’d be the one put out by the company that’s done Law & Order for twenty years now—but surely the people who knew rather quickly were the actors, which prompts the question: why do actors slum it? And isn’t it happening more often recently? Look at the probably-terrible Red (based on some comic book about old CIA agents hunting down the blah blah blah explosions!): somehow the production has corralled Morgan Freeman, Bruce Willis, Helen Mirren and John Malkovich (who’s having a particularly frivolous 2010 and 11: Jonah Hex, Red, Secretariat, Transformers 3. That’s three movies based on either comic books or toys and one movie that takes Seabiscuit as its inspiration. Apparently the strain of doing a good movie like Burn After Reading was too much for him: he took a two year break and then plunged directly into the hard work of the aforementioned films).

It’s unlikely that we’ll ever hold these bad choices against actors, just as everyone will prefer to remember Some Like It Hot over “Lobster Man From Mars” for Tony Curtis, but, on the other hand, the occasional snark directed at Robert De Niro or Woody Allen indicates maybe not. So is it just a straight money grab? I suppose Occam’s Razor indicates that’s the best option, but it feels unsatisfactory for some reason, which is probably the same reason it feels unsatisfactory that Red is being made in the first place.

Department of Eeww! Advertising

Maybe pull back on this advertising a little bit?

The Bloodletters

Haven’t you had enough economic anxiety in your life? If yes, I’m afraid this post won’t help. Let’s talk the bad luck of the Irish. They’re bailing out an already bailed-out bank, the Anglo-Irish Bank, which the Wall Street Journal reveals will cost them a tidy bundle:
The Central Bank of Ireland said early Thursday that the state-owned Anglo Irish Bank Corp., Ireland's most troubled financial institution, will need total capital of €34.3 billion ($46.75 billion) in a worst-case scenario.

The soaring costs of supporting the Irish banking system will cause the government's budget deficit to rise to 32% of gross domestic product this year, Mr. Lenihan said in a statement Thursday.

The size of the truly-big budget deficit will doubtlessly require more cuts, and some conservative-leaning people have said this proves the need for more austerity; in fact, Tyler Cowen and Alex Massie seem to believe this proves Ireland never tried austerity in the first place.

This is probably Internet-induced amnesia, with the events of six months to a year ago fading into some vague fog. Because of course people were praising the Irish austerity drive lustily during that time period. Examples? Of course.

April 7, 2009, The Telegraph, “Ireland imposes emergency cuts” (subhed: “Dublin has unveiled the harshest spending cuts in the history of the Irish Republic):
Brian Lenihan, the finance minister, outlined a grim package of 1930s-style retrenchment, slashing child benefit and allowances for jobseekers. Road and railways projects will be frozen. There will be a cull of junior ministers save costs. Two-thirds of the belt-tightening will come from tax rises. A pension levy of 1pc – imposed in the face of bitter protests in January – will be doubled to 2pc.

February 4, 2010, Reuters, “Ireland manages austerity, can others follow?”:
A year ago, markets were piling pressure on Ireland as its debt-fuelled property boom collapsed, with some investors speculating it could be forced out of the euro altogether. But harsh reforms have largely restored market confidence.

Crucially, the public looks to have reluctantly accepted the measures, including public sector pay cuts of between 5 and 15 percent. Fears the ruling coalition could collapse and spark elections have receded.

June 28, 2010, The New York Times, “In Ireland, a Picture of the High Cost of Austerity”:
While no one is marching in the streets, the Irish do have a tipping point: Prime Minister Cowen, whose popularity has plummeted, agreed last week not to cut public wages again in the next budget. Many voters, having experienced the pain of austerity, are expected to express their anger in the 2012 elections.

And, of course, the high priests of the austerity religion, the WSJ Editorial Page, "The Irish Example," June 1, 2010:
By April 2009 Ireland had cut public spending by €1.8 billion. It also managed to squeeze additional tax revenue out of its strapped citizens, though it achieved this largely by broadening the tax base, for instance by including minimum-wage earners, rather than targeting hikes only at the wealthy. Crucially, Ireland maintained its 12.5% corporate tax rate. By the end of last year Dublin had implemented spending cuts and tax hikes worth about 5% of GDP.

Turns out they had barely begun to slash. In July 2009, a special board commissioned by the government presented its report showing €5.3 billion in potential savings for that year alone. The suggestion that made Irish headlines was its recommendation that more than 17,300 public jobs could go, along with its note that the Department of Arts, Sports, and Tourism could be eliminated.

The government used the report to cut its 2010 budget by €4 billion and is going through its recommendations to find a further €3 billion in cuts for 2011. So far public workers have seen their pay slashed by up to 20%, the state's child benefits have been cut by roughly 10%, and unemployment and other welfare benefits have been similarly gutted.

Yes, Ireland has barely tried budget cuts. Clearly all they need to do is try harder.

Of course austerity advocates will always get new chances to advocate austerity if they get their way—they’re kind of like those medieval doctors whose only disease-fighting tool was bloodletting. Shockingly, when bleeding their patient didn’t work, this was only proof that more bleeding was needed. As you cut, the people who benefit from government spending most will find themselves with fewer resources, causing them to spend less, meaning less money in the economy, meaning that the government will get less in tax revenues, meaning it must cut more and you see where this is going, don’t you?

The idea is that the government cuts faster than the damage in the wider economy accrues, while the budget cuts force a revaluation of broader economy towards greater competitiveness, which fuels exports for an export-driven boom. Given that practically every economy of note in the world is trying some variation of the strategy, and given that not everyone can be a net exporter by definition, maybe advocating it everywhere is a less than helpful strategy?

Wednesday, September 29, 2010


Cuba is preparing to engage in offshore oil drilling. Yay capitalism!

What happened to the proprietary traders, asks Michael Lewis.

Why aren’t Chinese millionaires that generous? Because the Chinese government doesn’t allow them to be.

Employers aren’t trying hard to hire.

Facebook and Skype in talks to mesh their services; makes too much sense.

The threatened rivers of the world.

A trip to North Korea:
Pyongyang is less a city than a geometric experiment. The distances between buildings of interest are immense, yawning. Everywhere people trudge through the interstice, crossing the broad open spaces separating points of departure from points of arrival. Bicycles are a luxury, and those who inhabit this concrete savannah rely on public buses. The queues start in the early morning and stretch like snakes into the evening. Residential apartment blocs, colossal in scale, seem designed to overpower and isolate the individual, to shrink the imagination, and expand in its place the sense of awe and terror of the state that made them be.
The two Koreas are scheduled to have military talks for the first time in two years.

Chinese developers stoke Japanese insecurity. Also, the new Chinese practice of destroying barely-used buildings to build ever more luxurious replacements. Also, the history of sociology in China.

Faulkner on splendid failure.

Mary Landrieu, proving Senatorial jerkishness is truly bipartisan:
Democratic Sen. Mary Landrieu is holding up President Obama's key economic appointee in critical fiscal times over a local issue his economic team has no control over, giving Republicans campaign ammunition and throwing a wrench into budget planning just as the Senate is set to go home for the elections.

Secretary of the Interior Ken Salazar and other top administration officials have been pleading with Landrieu (D-LA) to release her hold on the nomination of Jack Lew to be President Obama's new Office of Management and Budget director. But Landrieu says she won't budge until the moratorium on Gulf Coast drilling is lifted.

Apropos of that:
Consider the case of Sen. Jim DeMint of South Carolina, the new Republican kingpin and enforcer on Capitol Hill. DeMint claims he was misquoted by Bloomberg Businessweek last week as saying that his goal for the next Senate is "complete gridlock." But you'd never know it from the way he's behaving during the Senate's do-nothing, pre-election legislative session. DeMint makes no apologies for saying that there's no place for bipartisan compromise or consensus or some "watered-down Republican philosophy," as he put it. For DeMint, this is war. The only acceptable outcome is total victory, and any Republican who dares to disagree will be treated as a traitor during the next election cycle.

Maybe there’s a problem with Senatorial rules?

Back to bad European economic news!

On what issues will we become less moral?

Why is the Gates Foundation funding Cargill and Monsanto?

The Average Man Theory of History

Going back to the David Axelrod profile I posted yesterday, I found its conclusion worth elaborating on. The article finishes by talking about Axelrod’s championing of Jane Byrne while she was a candidate for the mayoralty of Chicago, which turned about to be fairly disastrous: Jane Byrne was, to put it charitably, pretty crazy. So the article concludes thusly:
In retrospect, Axelrod’s diagnosis from 25 years ago wasn’t entirely right. The lesson of Jane Byrne isn’t that her background left her unprepared to clean up City Hall, though that’s certainly one reason she failed. The lesson of Jane Byrne and Harold Washington and George Dunne and Dick Phelan—and even Paul Simon and Barack Obama—is that cleaning up City Hall is unspeakably hard. Much more so than it appears to an outsider.

As long as he was a civilian, Axelrod could blame the pace of change on the flawed politicians he helped elect. He could always move on and invest his hopes in someone else. But now that he’s serving in government, it’s clear that the problem isn’t so much flawed people—though, like anyone, Obama has his flaws—as a ferociously stubborn, possibly irredeemable system. For an idealist like David Axelrod, that may be the most terrifying thought of all.

I thought it elaborating on because of a misguided little portion of Gregg Easterbrook’s Tuesday Morning Quarterback essay this week on the alleged faddishness of the 3-4 defense:
Tactics matter, but players are more important. Give me a 4-3 defense with good players over a 3-4 with poor players any day of the week. There's earnest debate in sports talk about whether it's harder to find really big nose-tackle types for a 3-4 or versatile defensive tackles for a 4-3. What really matters is who's good, not the scheme. There's earnest debate about whether nose tackles should employ "zero technique" (head on the center) or "one technique" (aligned to the center's shoulder). Whether the nose tackle is a good player matters far more than how he lines up!

Same for everyone else in a defense. The Jets have shown some 2-3-6 this season. What file folder does that defense belong in? Alignments run in fad cycles; the essential question is how good the players are.

The kind of person who thinks that the kind of defense isn’t particularly important is also the kind of person who tends to blame flawed politicians rather than flawed institutions they inhabit: they see the quality of people as being more important than the systems they work in. And while it’s always nice to have high-quality people, they are by definition limited in number, whether you’re playing football or practicing politics.

It would be possible to fully stock every niche in politics—from the elected officials to the bureaucrats—with superlatively talented people, except then you’d be depriving other sectors of really talented people. (NOTE: it wouldn’t matter if you did this in football, as it like all games are zero-sum.) Since that’s not really desirable, you have to figure out how to create a system that prevents the average or below-average from being liabilities.

Football-wise, it matters very greatly what scheme you play people in—the claim that really good players will be really good no matter what scheme they play in is probably somewhat true (though, question: would Peyton Manning thrive in a spread-option offense? One doubts it), but that neglects all the decent-to-average players who will be playing with alongside said really good players—their talents will be more or less suited to certain schemes. That’s why the lightweight pass rusher, for example, is only really good in a 3-4 defense (for Stanford fans: that’s why Chase Thomas is playing so well this season; he was made for the 3-4.)

You can only really sustain an only-very-talented structure in a small group, for fairly obvious reasons, and these tend to do very well (e.g. tech startups) when successful. That’s the only time talent is the first and only important factor. Otherwise, figure out how to deal with the median.

Tuesday, September 28, 2010


Reasons to be afraid of a municipal bond collapse.

The heavy weight of history in economic development:
The largest silver mines in the Spanish empire were the Potosí mines, discovered in 1545 in what is now Bolivia. Exploiting the mines was dangerous, and in the late 16th century, the Spanish introduced the mita system of forced labour. Villages near Potosí were obliged to provide one-seventh of their adult male population to work the mines, and the mita system continued until its abolition in 1812.

That is history. This is not: the former mita districts are 25 per cent poorer than apparently identical districts on the other side of a boundary that ceased to mean anything 198 years ago. A long-abolished colonial system has somehow shaped the modern world.

How text messages might improve health care.

Why India is trying to create a national ID system for its 1.2 billion citizens:
The Indian government is expected to spend as much as $250 billion over five years on programs aimed at the poor, including subsidies for food, diesel, fertilizer and jobs. But 40% of the benefits, as the system now stands, will go to the wrong people or to "ghosts" with fake identification papers, according to a report by brokerage firm CLSA Asia-Pacific Markets. Today's ration cards, for example, are issued on paper, and are relatively easy to forge or doctor.

Michael Hiltzik looks back at Xerox PARC.

Currency wars as beggar-thy-neighbor.

A rebuttal to Gladwell’s twitter piece in the New Yorker.

Insecticide from genetically modified plants is polluting waterways.

Why some banks don’t like low interest rates.

So Jim DeMint is holding the Senate hostage:
...Non-controversial legislation in the U.S. Senate gets "hotlined." That means it goes out on an internal messaging system to see if anyone has an objection. If no one does, the legislation is often passed using unanimous consent, and without any floor debate. That's done so the Senate doesn't waste a lot of time on things like post offices or -- to use an example that got hotlined recently --the Longline Catcher Processor Subsector Single Fishery Cooperative Act.

As the Senate approaches the end of a session, these non-controversial bills build up and often get passed in a rush at the end. And that's where we are now: The Senate is expected to adjourn either Wednesday or Thursday, and most expected a few non-controversial bills to pass during those final hours. But DeMint is saying he'll block any bills that aren't hotlined by this evening -- a position, according to his office, that the Republican leadership was notified of last week. Anything less than 48 hours, he says, simply doesn't give him and his staff time to review the legislation. If the bill -- and, in some cases, its CBO score -- isn't delivered by tonight, it'll have to wait until the lame-duck session.
Matthew Yglesias compares the practice to the Liberum Veto of the Poland that helped doom it to conquest and subjugation by stronger powers (come on, we don’t want Canada to invade us, do we?!?), Ryan Avent correctly notes that if the legislative process is broken continuously for a very long time ("Broken American Senate" est. 1840! Beat that, Abercrombie & Fitch!), it’s probably time to start blaming institutions rather than specific people in them, and Dave Weigel has an excellent point:
It's a new way -- if the Senate needed a new way -- for the minority to slow things down. When I asked Democrats about it, spokesman Rodell Mollineau took the chance to jab at Mitch McConnell. "If their Conference continues to follow the lead of the junior Senator from South Carolina," he said, "then the only title that will ever proceed his name or Sen. McConnell’s name will be Minority Leader." That sounds awfully optimistic: The big political story of the 2009-2010 Congress has been that there is no downside whatsoever for slowing down the majority's work in an obscure and hard-to-cover fashion.

Brazil’s central banker doubling down on the “currency war” narrative”, and a consideration of Lula’s career from the Financial Times. Also, Brazil is set to become the nation with leading coffee drinkers in the world.

How will Facebook’s worth affect Mark Zuckerberg’s donation?

An excellent profile of David Axelrod.

How much debt are we in, really?

A highly wonky post on inflation measurements and inequality.

How addressing primary care is necessary to address health care disparities.

The irony of South Carolina opening its own private equity fund.

An interactive map of Manhattan displaying where its fictional characters have lived.

The water use reckoning coming in the Colorado River.

An illustrated history of couches.

Is the solution to congestion privatization?

The hunt for the missing Gulf oil.

The Hype

Every Stanford fan either is or ought to be two parts elated and one part nervous on the subject of Stanford football’s coast-to-coast hype. Elated requires no explanation; nervous, on the other hand, is just as natural: are we really that big time? For all the plaudits, we are exactly, record-wise, where we expected to be coming into the Oregon game. Performance-wise, far better, but record-wise exactly the same. So it’s worth remaining cautious about, particularly since the emergent national hype for the team can be explained almost entirely by sportswriters’ predilections.

Predilections? Well, aside from the obvious one—sportswriters like stories that are unexpected, and from their vantage point, Stanford’s performance is unexpected and hence more interesting (you don’t see columns screaming “OHIO STATE! SO HOT RIGHT NOW!”)—there’s a less obvious one, which is that while sportswriters are presumably are politically diverse, they are predominantly conservative when it comes to their chosen field. Of sportswriters, football writers are the most conservatives. Of football writers, I suspect college football writers are the most conservative subgroup.

Football conservatism of the college football variety rests upon two ideas. In their imagination, football is a tough game; winning football is a result of outtoughing, outworking, and outmuscling inferior opponents, who ultimately do not have the physical courage of their conquerors. Trickery is tolerated only as an expression of courage; to build an offense on trickery or finesse is an admission of weakness that surely cannot profit in the long run. Football conservatives are essentially Puritans. The college football conservatives also love the academic-achiever schools, on the basis of loving the highest ideals of amateurism (not an accident football was invented by Harvard) which college football is supposed to fulfill. Hence a team like Stanford is perfectly suited to cater to their prejudices of the game. That’s why you see articles like this one in the Chicago Tribune which calls Stanford a “Big Ten” team (never mind that half of the Big Ten doesn’t play like the Big Ten anymore—or is this actually the point? What’s the point of taking pride in your ethics if they’re easy to follow?), or articles that denounce the spread as a fad or gimmick offense (never mind the really good teams, championship or near-championship teams that have basically exclusively run the spread), with the subtext that the old way of playing football is the only real way of playing football. You could hear it any time Mike Mayock called Stanford a team out of the 1970s, with admiration that went beyond the strictly professional.

The football conservatives like one way of playing football, and that’s certainly their right. But you can’t run a Big Ten team like you used to run a Big Ten team; you can certainly take the spirit of a Big Ten team, as Harbaugh has. But know this: few teams run as complex an offense, with as many personnel groups, formations, or plays as Stanford. I say “few” out of a sense of epistemological modesty—I haven’t seen the collegiate team this year that runs close to the number that Stanford has, though admittedly I haven’t seen many teams. And of course the “trickery” method of football, of relying on brains rather than brawn, is a perfectly legitimate way of approaching the game’s problems. Coincidentally enough, Stanford once embodied that way of thinking about the game when a certain coach named Bill Walsh coached, introducing a once-disdained offense called the “West Coast Offense.” And also coincidentally enough, its opponent on Saturday, Oregon, also fulfills the “trickery” ideal of football perfectly—their offense is as crazily out there as any, and it’s perhaps the most entertaining offense in the country to see working perfectly in its sorcerer’s spirit (“Now you see it…now you don’t!”).

So of course sportswriters would love a team like Stanford: it’s the kind of team they love to see. This does not equate to actual quality, which is uncertain like the outcome of the game Saturday.

The Reign of Awkwardness

Given all the pretty people in elegantly appointed modernist apartments, the trouble facing a movie maker is how to wring an interesting conflict out of them. It’s hard to believe at first that someone who’s both highly attractive and living in tastefully-designed, natural-light embraced domiciles could have much in the way of high-stakes conflicts, but they must—otherwise there’s no movie, now is there? In the past movie-makers could make their characters secret agents or superheroes or something, but some variety is always, always needed.

Hence a new modern comedy genre: the comedy of awkwardness. The first paragraph is a bit facetious; some of the examples of said comedy genre (e.g. The Office) don’t involve a surfeit of highly-attractive people living in highly-attractive real estate, but a lot of it does, certainly more than you’d expect given people’s ostensible careers in the stories. (Judd Apatow’s characters, for example, often live in surroundings that are much nicer than you’d expect: how do the unemployed slackers of Knocked Up manage to stay in a pretty nice, large house in California anyway? Just how is it that Steve Carrell can afford all that nice stuff in 40 Year Old Virgin anyway? The only really realistic living situation in Apatow’s movies was Funny People, in which Seth Rogen’s character bummed off of his friends by sleeping on their couch. Perhaps coincidentally, Funny People was the least profitable and worst received of Apatow’s directorial efforts.)

So if you’re going to have a lot of attractive people in nice living spaces, you need a conflict and it might as well be trouble on the domestic front—with families being the best example. And while families and friends have always fought about this or that, the main conflicts these days, I realized after watching The Kids Are All Right, come from exploiting the comic and dramatic potential of awkwardness. And that movie is probably the best example—“best” meaning highest quality here—of a lot of other recent movies, books, and TV shows primarily exploring awkwardness as its theme, humor, and conflict. Besides the examples I’ve listed before, I’ll note that David Foster Wallace spent quite a bit of time on awkwardness (though that wasn’t his only concern by any means), and great films like Eternal Sunshine of the Spotless Mind spent a lot of time on that. (Indie films like Little Miss Sunshine and Juno also love awkwardness.)

Having spent college hearing people denote a solid minority of situations as “awkward”—or hearing people complaining about the tendency of other people denoting situations as “awkward” when they, the situations, were not necessarily awkward and it was just people’s hang-ups causing the awkwardness—I’d say, facetiousness aside, that the awkwardness theme in art is springing from somewhere in our culture.

It’s probably time to consider the source for this essay here. The Kids Are All Right is one of the better recent works on awkwardness, and it’s better because all of the characters are good people who can’t help but begin in awkwardness, wallow in awkwardness, and end in awkwardness. The situation of the film is as such: the children of a lesbian-headed family (played by Julianne Moore and Annette Bening) decide they want to meet their sperm donor (played by Mark Ruffalo, probably the role he was born to play). They do; hilarity (and drama!) ensues. The trouble is circumstance—the parents are having marital problems and worry that their children’s desire to seek out their sperm donor is somehow a manifestation of their dislike of their family structure or some such and, well, the movie goes on and is somewhat resistant to easy summarization.

The problem—the source of all of their awkwardness—is the rules. Obviously the conventional rules have not really completely figured out how to deal with the phenomenon of the type of family depicted in the film, but that’s not really all; Mark Ruffalo’s character turns out to be the type of person who we’ve all met once: a sort of free-spirited, impulsive kind of a guy whose basic attitude towards all opportunities is “Why not?” This kind of attitude can be a fine one; what it isn’t is particularly rules-oriented, since the social rules we live with tend to work by spelling out what kind of opportunities you don’t take advantage of. So if you’re the kind of guy who doesn’t care about the rules, you probably have to at least understand that other people do care about the rules. (And if no one quite understands which rules you’re playing by, as the family that Ruffalo’s character steadily insinuates his way into doesn’t, then more misunderstandings are bound to result.)

At the risk of being too pat here in the conclusive paragraph, I think there’s a relatively simple reason for this spate of awkwardness in our art, particularly in films like The Kids Are All Right: something like modernity. It’s not exactly a secret that the economy and the culture are conspiring to radically change our vision of the family: gay people marrying (The Kids Are All Right), people having to deal with long spells of unproductivity due to youth or disability or family structure (Knocked Up, Little Miss Sunshine, The Kids Are All Right, The Office, Infinite Jest), gender roles, or sheer technological change (Infinite Jest). The rules are changing, and fast, and so no one has been quite able to keep up. And given that we should expect more changes to come, and should hope for more good changes, it would be foolish to expect a future in which we’ve precisely worked out all the rules we’re playing by in everyday life, to say nothing of the difficulty of empathy (it is a longstanding cognitive bias). What this means for art, I can’t say: perhaps we will find new conflicts for our pretty people in pretty houses to boil over—perhaps the difficulty of interior design?

Department of Pulling Out Of Context

What is this in reference to?:
“There’s a lot you can do with ape scat,” Dr. Hahn said. “It’s worth its weight in gold.”

Cooking? Gold-weighing? Collecting?

Monday, September 27, 2010


Electric bikes the solution to China’s climate change problem?

South Carolina pension fund to open up private equity fund and that sound you heard through the computer was me going “ugh.”

Is aquaponics the agricultural wave of the future? (Judging by this article: probably not. A thick sheen of hype on this article, but still kind of cool to think about.)

More prosecution of investment banks coming?

Are tech companies innovating enough?

Are the pirates of Somalia winning?

Our dumb corporate tax system.

Is the world in a currency war? Metaphorically, yes.

Wal-Mart is making a big bet on a South African retailer. Some thoughts.

Another excellent edition of Mad Men footnotes. This interview with the director of last night’s episode reveals that there’s a movie based on Then We Came To The End, one of the great novels of the last decade and probably utterly unfilmable. (At least, with the same charm as the original. It will take a lot of inventiveness to get that same feeling in the movie.)

More on the mysterious computer virus that’s infected nuclear power plants’ control systems.

Why are Americans wallowing in their own decline?

A very sound point: the failures of the education system are mostly a niche problem.

The faces of Chinese foreign policy.

Malcolm Gladwell on why Twitter and Facebook won’t start a social revolution. (Fascinating, if possibly wrong. [Is that Gladwell’s epitaph on his tombstone?])

Classical Mangling

Heather Mac Donald has a good (but at times fussy) article about how classical music has never had it better—she makes the very good and relevant points that it’s never been easier to hear great performances, whether live or recorded in mp3 or YouTube form. True enough, and something that can be said about basically any form of culture these days. News? Never a better time to get yourself informed about what’s going on. Books? Never a better time to build a library. And so on for practically every form of high or low culture extant. So there’s that, but Mac Donald’s article contains a little more that’s worth thinking about, specifically the fussiness. The fussiness in the article can be perhaps partially explained by the forum it’s published in--City Journal, the fussy conservative’s cultural organ of choice. There are a few snits she picks that are a little silly (e.g. gratuitous shots at multiculturalism) and one snit that’s more interesting than silly.

She praises the present for its respect of the original intent of the composer—of performing the composer’s piece as written, without distraction, interruption or embellishment—in contrast to the past’s tendency to do whatever with the greats:
Performers and publishers unapologetically revised works that we now regard as transcendent, seeking to correct their perceived deficiencies and bring them up to newer standards of orchestration and harmony. After describing a particularly brutal mauling of The Magic Flute for its 1801 Paris premiere and a dumbing-down of Carl Maria von Weber’s Der Freischütz, Berlioz erupts: “Thus, dressed as apes, got up grotesquely in cheap finery, one eye gouged out, an arm withered, a leg broken, two men of genius were introduced to the French public! . . . No, no, no, a million times no! You musicians, you poets, prose-writers, actors, pianists, conductors, whether of third or second or even first rank, you do not have the right to meddle with a Shakespeare or a Beethoven, in order to bestow on them the blessings of your knowledge and taste.”

Conservative pedagogues altered scores as well—on the ground that they were too modern. Berlioz headed off at the last minute what he called “emasculations” to Beethoven’s avant-garde harmonies that the influential music critic and teacher François-Joseph Fétis had surreptitiously introduced into a forthcoming edition of Beethoven’s symphonies.

I quoted a fairly large chunk there but the entire essay is rich with other historical stories of the same sort—of public performances of symphonies in which jester-virtuosos would perform the violin standing on their head interstitially, to take another example—and the initial reaction is to side with Berlioz against the philistines, but I think a deeper consideration should complicate what we think about it.

Consider that you’ve probably never heard a complete and unabridged Shakespeare performed live. (And regardless of what Shakespeare you’ve heard, you’ve never seen a Shakespeare performed entirely faithfully to what Shakespeare intended for the simple reason that Shakespeare’s company never left detailed stage directions, meaning that any stage directions that you see actors doing during the course of a Shakespeare play are mostly inferred. This is part of the reason actors love doing Shakespeare—the other part is the incredible words you get to speak. You get tons of latitude to interpret some of the greatest words ever put to paper—what’s not to love? The “latitude” idea, I think, turns out to be very interesting.) Or consider one of Mac Donald’s favorite examples: Franz Liszt, a piano virtuoso who improvised portions to add on to Beethoven’s work. I’ll admit to not being a classical music buff, but from what I can gather, Liszt is pretty well regarded.

Surely, then, this would suggest some weaknesses to a part of Mac Donald’s piece, which is that the greats are sacred. This is a conservative way of viewing things, and it’s a way of looking at things that must be quite pleased with the state of copyright law these days: the mangling that they denounce would never be possible had the classical greats published today. (In fact, judging by the plays cartel, they might try to restrict the number of performances of their work in the interest of making more work. Have you heard about the plays cartel? They basically decide on the number of performances of, say, Guys and Dolls that can be performed in a given area in a given duration of time.) This is sad, I think, because no one’s that sacred: surely with all of the people doing all that performing, many someones hit on a good idea or two. It’s a mistake as an artist to have too much fealty to those who preceded you because, well, they’re the past. We need new things as well as old. So I admire the impudence of those who would try to edit Beethoven—why not experiment? Fortunately this is an attitude that’s not exactly in deficit today, what with remix culture, but if anything’s true about history, it’s how the same ideas and conflicts keep on popping up in slightly different masks.

(For another take, the Urbanophile has some good thoughts.)

You Can't Always Get What You Want If You Don't Know What You Want

There’s a common dodge on both ideological persuasions (well, at least the politically relevant two these days): the popularity dodge. It’s a pretty American dodge as we are often by instinct a democratic and market-oriented people; we therefore tend to think of the stuff with the most votes as better, whether it’s candidates or the market share of detergent (Tide is the number one choice of Moms!). It’s a semi-legitimate perspective, I suppose, but the real abuse is—in politics—when people engage in magical thinking regarding popularity: they argue that if only the relevant decision-makers made their preferred decision, they’d be much more popular—look at the poll numbers! If centrists are making the argument it’s whatever centrist cause happens to be popular at the moment; if conservatives are it’s probably something like balanced budgets; if liberals are it’s probably something like health care, but really it can be just about anything: the dodge is the same. (One of my favorites: “Obama doesn’t fight enough! If he fought more, he’d be more popular!” as if popularity were a sheer matter of will.)

The dodge is that this argument totally avoids the merits of whatever policy is being argued for and instead substitutes cynicism by going straight to peer pressure. And if the avoidance of an actual informed debate is one problem, the other problem is the polls: for any question besides, “Who will you vote for?” (or variants), they are fairly useless. You can see it in any poll that attempts to gauge the popularity of various policy proposals; look deep enough into them and you will invariably find a pair of answers that demonstrates that a large portion of Americans has no earthly idea about various big matters of national importance. The reason that we can’t tell what our fellow Americans want is because Americans have no idea what they want. The latest demonstration:
My favorite example of this came by way of an NBC/Wall Street Journal poll in June. Asked what the government’s top priority should be, 33 percent of respondents said “job creation and economic growth” while only 15 percent said the “deficit and government spending.” But when asked whether they’d prefer that the government rein in the deficit even if it delays the recovery, or whether they’d prefer the government to focus on the recovery even if it worsens the deficit, the respondents picked the former by nearly a two-to-one margin. I mean, what do you do with that?

Well, if you’re interested in cynically indulging whatever it is you think Americans happen to want, nothing. But if you’re interested in making good policy, well, then you should cheer: you can eventually sell Americans on just about anything. The key is to make decisions because you actually think they’d be good decisions, not because other people think they’d be good decisions. Making actual good decisions means better conditions which generally means more popularity. Look how that all worked out! Now let’s see if we can get a nice half-a-trillion dollar stimulus package together!

Do You Need A Fancy Degree To Tell Us That?

Annals of, Well, You Get It:
 From the LA Times Business Page.

Can You Win New York So Easily?; Or, Why Amare Stoudemire's Rep Is Exaggerated

This fan business is a tricky one—for the enterprise to be interesting at all, you’ve got to have some hope for the future, and if you have to hope, well, you have to exaggerate. So I won’t blame a fan or a writer for slight exaggerations about the quality of the player in question, but I will blame overwrought, entitled expectation, the kind of expectation affected by, say, Notre Dame fans who believe that they’re the center of the universe. That’s why I laughed at the Amare Stoudemire profile posted yesterday, and that’s why I’m filling in more details:
The enthusiasm is understandable. He might not be LeBron James, but Stoudemire is one of those exceptional, otherworldly talents that the Knicks haven’t had in a generation. It’s been so long since someone like him has played here that I’m not sure we understand what we have. He dunks the basketball with a ferocity that seems to overwhelm the game itself; he attacks the basket as if beckoned there by evolution. Stoudemire has many facets to his game, but his signature act—driving the lane, throwing the ball down, defenders vaporized into dust underneath him—is so elemental and powerful that it may, by itself, change the trajectory of basketball in this town for the next decade. For years, Knicks fans have attempted to cheer for an endless parade of overhyped malcontents, has-beens, and never-weres, unlikable men playing an unlikable version of their game. We strove to survive the present, not daring to hope for the future. But now the future is here.

To be fair, Leitch (the author) ends up writing a more interesting piece further on in the article as he describes Stoudemire and his personality—he gets his style right—but the opening bombast is exaggerated to the point of self-satire: the entitled New Yorker who expects and demands the best for his sports teams despite repeated, profound demonstrations that that’s not the way things work in sports. On a certain level Knicks fans must realize that this is true, but given their half-pining, half-demanding pleas for LeBron to come to New York (that somehow he couldn’t be a real star anyplace but New York, something that has been proven dramatically untrue), on a certain level they apparently don’t. Which will lead to inevitable disappointment with the person of one Amare Stoudemire.

Now I suppose it’s also fair to ask what, exactly, Knicks fans think they’re getting with Stoudemire. Do they think Stoudemire can be the most important piece of a title team? If so, they are exactly the kind of crazy I’m accusing them of being (and exactly the kind of unrealistic bombast featured in the quoted graf above). Do they think Stoudemire can be an important (say, the second or third best player of a title team) piece of a title team? If so, they are subtly wrong. Do they think Stoudemire will simply entertain them while leading them to a procession of forty to fifty win teams? If so, they are realistic.

Stoudemire is a spectacular player in a spectacular game—watching Stoudemire score is exactly the reason to love basketball; Stoudemire combines inventiveness, power and agility to humiliate defenders and finish surreally. Of course it’s trite to observe that the game is about more than scoring individually. Look at any list of the great players—Jordan, Russell, Magic, Bird, etc.—and you’ll notice that while the majority of them have been great scorers, they all can do multiple things and they all are good passers for their position, if not good passers for any position. Stoudemire is wholly unidimensional and he cannot pass. He does not defend and he is indifferent to rebounding.

This makes him a type peculiar to basketball: he is a better player, in terms of creating value, than about 90% of the league, but it would be better if he were worse. Another player who may be like this who not-so-coincidentally might move is Carmelo Anthony. Anthony, like Stoudemire, is a wondrous scorer who is “big man graceful”—a bull with ballet feet. Like Stoudemire, Anthony brings little else to the game. It’s probably not an accident that Anthony will likely go to the Nets (ultimate destination Brooklyn) or perhaps to the Knicks. It’s easy to get a dominant scorer and claim you’re getting there; harder to build a team.

There are a few reasons you can’t win titles with players like Anthony or Stoudemire leading the way.* The first is the salary-cap: players like them are so good that they justly demand top dollar; however, their demanding top-dollar means that you can only afford another max-dollar star. You therefore have to get very lucky: either getting a really good other star, or somehow lucking into a third star via trade or the draft. The second is intrinsic to basketball itself. To borrow an economics term, basketball is about externalities—the value you throw off for the entities that surround you. The environment you create. That’s the reason why the greatest of the great are always good passers (but, surprisingly, not necessarily always great defenders—I’ve heard Magic and Bird’s defense lacked a certain something)—if you’re a good passer, you create value for everyone on your team. If you combine good passing with good scoring, as someone like LeBron or Dwyane does, then suddenly offense becomes easy: you distort the defense by your mere presence (watch carefully sometimes when LeBron has the ball—you’ll see all five pairs of eyes trained on LeBron, and sometimes you’ll see two or three players shaded towards him), and then you have the tools to exploit the distortion by passing. There’s no right answer for the defense. Both Stoudemire and Anthony distort the defense but can’t take advantage on behalf of their team. In this, they’re great, but it might be better if they were worse: both Anthony and Stoudemire produce less than no value for their team if they don’t touch the ball frequently.

* Addition: one of the rumored destinations is Chicago, which has a higher but still low chance of working out, where working out is defined as title or close to it. Thibodeau might be able to motivate and mold Anthony into playing better defense, which would substantially improve his value. That said, that might not be enough: playing good team defense is a prerequisite of winning a title; however, having your star player play exceptional defense is a really nice bonus but not strictly speaking necessary. Bird and Magic are reputed to be less-than-stellar defenders, and Kobe Bryant’s defense has always been highly overrated. (Kobe is merely an above-average defender and a very good defender for a primary scorer).

It’s a cruel state to be in, because they’ll have games in which they’re absolutely unstoppable—even games against elite teams—but ultimately they’ll probably fall short. You just don’t become a passer overnight. (This, by the way, is the top reason to be concerned about Kevin Durant: he is not a good passer. He might become a top-ten defender in the league if things break right, but I’m not sure he’ll become a good enough passer. And that would be very bad for that Thunder team, as they don’t have enough shooting to present a threat. Shooting and passing are underrated on offense from the perspective of what they do when they aren’t accumulating directly measurable stats.)

This analysis even holds true of Anthony or Stoudemire being the second or third best player, perhaps even more true: in this instance you’re all about the externalities, because the top player is usually the one accumulating the lion’s share of the stats. Look at the best second bananas recently—Pippen, Gasol, Ginobili, Pierce/Allen—what’s in common there? That’s right, they’re all good passers. The players who can do so much but not the right things are awkwardly strong; there will always be a situation that heavy lifting can’t solve. And this is why the awkwardly-strong will not inherit the title.

Sunday, September 26, 2010


Trade war coming?:
China’s commerce ministry announced on its Web site that it would impose import tariffs on American poultry of up to 105.4 percent. It said the tariffs reflected the result of its own antidumping investigation, which looked at whether the United States was harming China’s poultry industry by exporting chicken parts for less than it cost to produce them.

The commerce ministry started the investigation less than two days after President Obama imposed steep tariffs on Chinese tires a year ago. Chinese officials have denied that the inquiry was in retaliation, but poultry is one of the few categories in which the United States runs a trade surplus with China, making it an ideal target for Chinese trade actions.
China—internally consistent contradiction?

New York magazine has two articles to link to—well, one to just contemplate on face value; the other is an genuine link: the latter is a profile of Gawker founder Nick Denton; the former is an article subtitled, “In Amar’e Stoudemire, Knicks fans finally have a reason to believe.” I advise you not to die of laughter; very counterproductive.

A translation of that article in El Diario de Juarez that asked “What do you want from us?”, where you = drug cartels and us = news media. Relatedly, here’s a Guardian article about how new media is reporting the Mexican drug war better than traditional media. Relatedly, the Mexcian military has captured another drug lord! Why do I get an uncomfortable recollection of all of the “al Qaeda third-in-command killed” stories we’ve heard over the years?

The strangeness of electricity and Rube Goldberg.
Now it’s libraries that are being outsourced.

A case study in “the innovator’s dilemma”: how Nokia’s bureaucratic culture stifles innovation.

How women are succeeding at Islamic finance in Malaysia. (Someone is going to have to explain Islamic finance to me, because it really doesn’t make sense to me.)

Are Shi’a Muslims in the Middle East regressing from previous gains?

The huge gains from increased immigration. (More and more).

The defenders of open-source software.

Mad Men: Season Four, Episode Ten


This is about the time in the Mad Men season in which they start pulling out the closing plot threads out and making you go “Woah! Woah! Woah!” Given that there’s an element of shock-and-awe about the entire enterprise, you need to take a step back to review and rethink just what’s going on in the episode, just to make sure you, the viewer, aren’t overly impressed. It’s particularly necessary with the plots they’ve chosen, which have an element of deus ex machina (not in the sense of fortuitousness, which is the sense the phrase is typically used, but in the sense of coming-out-of-nowhere arbitrariness.)


You can sense that the firm is teetering but doesn’t quite appreciate it yet; the partners are keeping secrets from one another. But those secrets range in quality from “terrible” to “high-class soap opera” to “good.” In the former category, the Joan pregnancy combines both out-of-nowhere with a sort of highly pat feeling that I almost felt that the writer’s room overthought the matter. They’ve done the unexpected pregnancy line three times in four seasons now, and it seems as if whenever they want to disrupt a female character’s life, an unexpected pregnancy is one of their first choices.

Lane Pryce has been criminally underused this season—that episode with Don in which they both blow off steam over New Year’s is one of the best of a very good season—but the sudden way they’ve decided, “Oh hey! Let’s reinvolve his family!” really stings. The affair with a younger black woman is not entirely terrible, but very sudden; the one-note implacability of his father’s (particularly the random assault by his father on his son) stretches credulity. On balance, probably a slightly worse writing choice than the Joan-has-a-pregnancy plotline, which is convenient but not illogical or unrealistic; the Pryce plotline is convenient and illogical and unrealistic.

With that unpleasantness out of the way, let’s concentrate on the good plotlines. Don Draper’s will probably be overanalyzed about just What It Means For Donald Draper (Or Is It Dick Whitman?) but this was a very logical way to up the stakes on the question of Draper’s identity, while being (somewhat) realistic and being very suspenseful. The suspense was really well-mentioned and it’s a triumph of stretching time, writing-wise, to achieve that effect. (For those of us who’ve seen The Wire, the all-time most suspenseful sequence in TV that I’ve seen is this extended montage. “Your way, it won't work.” Brilliant stuff, that. Back to our regularly scheduled program.) What’s very good about it is the method of discovery: it makes sense that Don would be discovered this way, absentmindedly signing an application for his security clearance. It’s a conclusion: Don can’t be Don and be who he wants to be anymore. He wants to be a creative person, an auteur of ads, but there’s too much scrutiny to being Don Draper. He cannot do anything absentmindedly. Did you hear his admission to Pete Campbell that he would run the company if Don left? What a crazy decision that would be, if it’s even Don’s to make (he might be able to get away with it because of the state of the partnership, but there’s no way for him to know that he could get away with it). He can’t be the boss, he can’t have Don Draper; his powers of self-invention appear to becoming constricted. He will be limited soon, he must be—he’s defying gravity otherwise—but that’s a fascinating dilemma for the show to navigate. Don can’t be revealed for what he is; the whole point of Don is that he’s both an epic bullshitter and a pure self-inventor.

Probably the best plotline is Roger Sterling’s—and here I refer to the portion related strictly to the failing of the Lucky Strike account. We know exactly what this means—the firm is probably sunk—and Roger knows it too, hence the swinging from this emotion to that: resignation, to lashing out at Pete Campbell, to that huge, bitter, sardonic laugh near the end of the episode. He’s dinosauric, and he knows it. Doesn’t even know that one of his business contacts, the guy who could deliver him a new big account, had died. Roger is too old, and the episode confirmed it. He’s been less hilarious quipster this season, and now defines antiquated, lazy, and emotionally needy. Roger, you can’t always get what you want.

Rethinking the Naughtiness of the Aughties

I thought this was an underappreciated true comment from President Lula of Brazil, of the Petrobras IPO:
"[But] now that very same 'capitalist-eater' [i.e. me, former socialist Lula]… [is] taking part in this most positive moment for world capitalism. Never before in the history of man have we had a capitalisation of this size," the president boasted.

There’s been quite a few suggestions that the previous decade was an absolute, unmitigated disaster, and if you want to be provincial and focus solely on the U.S. and other developed country, that’s probably nearer to the truth than not. But if you look at the decade from the perspective of the BIC countries (I refuse to group “Russia” with Brazil, India and China in the BRIC designation. Quick comparison as to why. Per capita income: Russia, $14,000; China, $7,000; India, $2,900; Brazil, $10, 500. One of these countries is not like the other ones.), the decade looks awe-inspiringly good. Brazil:
In Brazil hardly a day goes by without further proof of the country's rise: record fuel sales, record government spending, record levels of consumption and income. The finance ministry expects gross domestic product (GDP) to rise by 6.5% this year and average 5.7% over the coming years. Last week unemployment levels hit a record low of about 6.7%, according to the Brazilian Institute of Geography and Statistics, while the government says an estimated 25 million Brazilians have moved into the middle class since 2002 and that the proportion of people living in extreme poverty fell from 12% to about 4% between 2003 and 2008.

If I recall correctly, extreme poverty is typically defined as a dollar a day, meaning that roughly 13 million Brazilians went from making a dollar a day at the beginning of the decade to making, well, more.

The past thirty years have seen roughly five hundred million Chinese move out of poverty, with other amazing gains being made in other important statistics.

So you can see why countries like Brazil and China would be a mite more excited about the decade and global capitalism than we are.

The problem is that while the particular arrangement promoted by our economic system has promoted such spectacular results for so many people in past ten years or so is unsustainable for a number of reasons, many of which you probably appreciate already: unsustainable as a matter of pure economics in dollars and cents, unsustainable from the environment that is a necessary fundament of our economy, and probably unsustainable for China in particular (I haven’t studied Brazil enough to comment; it seems to me their biggest problem is educational, a problem which doesn’t seem to be related to the iron logic of the economic system as, for example, China’s too-high savings rate is.) So we’ll have to change, but then again we always have to change.

Reassessing Stanford's Schedule, Part Four of Many

Another week, another exhilarating win—it’s beginning to become suspicion-worthy, like, “Hmm, how did this exactly come to pass?” Some of the sources—Mssrs. Luck and Skov—are entirely expected, but some are just, well, unexpectedly excellent. And that’s suspicious, as if it’s merely the four-game equivalent of running up a 21 point lead against #5 UCLA in 2005 in the fourth quarter at Stanford Stadium (SPOILER ALERT: UCLA won the game.) Speaking of UCLA, they provided perhaps the most positive development for Stanford: they went into Austin, Texas, and just crushed Texas, running over and through the Longhorns.

This raises one of two questions (hence the “perhaps” in the previous sentence), if you’re interested in how well the win reflects on Stanford: was UCLA always this good? or did they become that good after losing to us? I think elements of both, actually. UCLA threw the ball 21 times and ran the ball 33 times against us; against Texas, they threw the ball 9 times and ran is a staggering 56 times, with no player receiving more than 20 carries. Why the change? Part of it was the score—UCLA couldn’t run it often in the fourth quarter because that would be playing into Stanford’s hands. Part of it was poor decision-making—the Chow/Neuheisel braintrust went for long passes when keeping it simple, stupid, would have been by far the best option. The yards per carry stats are revealing: UCLA went for 4.7 ypc against Texas and 4.6 ypc against Stanford. They’re legitimately a good running team (given Stanford’s success against the other teams on its schedule against the run, I think we can tip the cap there.) So they were always that good, they just hadn’t figured out what “that good” meant yet. Which isn’t quite the extravaganza of wonder a simple application of the transitive property would lead you to believe (Stanford beat UCLA 35-0 on the road; UCLA beat Texas 34-12; therefore Stanford iz awesum!!!! Though pollsters, Heisman voters, and recruits are welcome to make this inference.)

Let’s get dynamic. How did yesterday’s results change our outlook on Stanford football?

Week One, Sacramento State, Home: WIN, 1.
Week Two, UCLA, Away: WIN, 2.
Week Three, Wake Forest, Home: WIN, 3.
Week Four, Notre Dame, Away: WIN, 4.
Week Five, Oregon, Away: Many people related to Stanford football have been crowing about yesterday’s Oregon-ASU result, in which Oregon won 42-31. They’re crowing because Oregon allowed an incredible 597 yards to ASU, and won because of 7 (!) turnovers by Arizona State, many of which were of the “What was he thinking?” variety. I share their enthusiasm. That said, I thought it was pretty interesting that Oregon was still able to get such good results while on offense—8 yards/play—while often looking less than sharp on their execution. They’re an unbelievable offense, and they’re at home. These things are difficult. Since I worry about Stanford’s ability to win in a shootout, owing to their big play ability deficiency, and since I believe Oregon is capable of playing much better than it did yesterday, I still think Oregon should be heavily favored. (Incidentally, there is one big play offensive player for Stanford: it’s the guy I once nicknamed “Big Play” as in “Big Play Doug Baldwin.” The nickname was slightly ironic: Doug Baldwin can be counted on for one big play per game, and sometimes more. The trouble is that you never know which team the big play will help. Yesterday’s it was Notre Dame’s, with Baldwin’s incredible gaffe on a punt return fumble gifting Notre Dame three points.)
Odds Of Victory: 30%
Previously-Assessed Odds of Victory: 15%.

Week Six, USC, Home: USC just had its bye week—oh wait, it played Washington State? Same thing.
Odds of Victory, Same As Before: 75%

Bye Week

Week Seven, Washington State, Home: Stanford gets two bye weeks to recuperate. That’s good of the schedule-makers, don’t you think?
Odds of Victory: 99%

Week Eight, Washington, Away: Washington had a bye week, and I’m still not quite sure what to make of them. I do feel better about shutting them down, given the defense’s strong effort against Notre Dame.
Odds of Victory: 67%
Previously-Assessed Odds of Victory: 65%

Week Nine, Arizona, Home: What to make of Arizona? Going by my USC theory—that you should never confuse performance with achievement—Arizona looks much more vulnerable. You need a last-second escape against Iowa? That’s fine: Iowa’s a good team. You need a last-second escape against Cal, and struggle to score against them? That’s a problem. That said, I’m not quite sure how Stanford’s defense matches up against Arizona’s: you need aggressive, fast defensive backs to win their one-on-one matchups against the death-by-paper-cut offense of Arizona’s, and I’m not quite convinced of ours, particularly Johnson Bademosi, who was picked on by Notre Dame. If our safeties miss any significant amount of time (both Michael Thomas and Delano Howell had to be escorted off the field after making big hits), then this game becomes far more iffy.
Odds of Victory: 55%
Previously-Assessed Odds of Victory: 50%

Week Ten, Arizona State, Away: Great news! The game was officially confirmed to start at night, which is pretty excellent from a weather perspective. Other than that? Arizona State’s defense is terrifyingly athletic, but I look at them this way: you don’t want to play defense in the same way they do just as you don’t want to use a flamethrower for barbequing—it’s far too indiscriminate. And their quarterback’s personal odyssey of turnovers does not exactly convince viewers. On the other hand, they did put up a valiant effort against Oregon and it is in Tempe, so, things might be difficult.
Odds of Victory: 75%
Previously-Assessed Odds of Victory: 80%

Week Eleven, Cal, Away: What can you say? Cal has choked two straight games in a row. This should raise serious questions about the Tedford regime, that he keeps on raising teams that make tons of mistakes, particularly in critical moments.
Odds of Victory, Same As Before: 75%

Week Twelve, Oregon State, Home: I’m tempting the gods here, but Oregon State genuinely looked bad against Boise State, and I think it’s time to confront that in the last four games against good opponents—Boise, TCU, BYU, and Oregon—Jacquizz Rodgers has looked distinctly mortal. Ryan Katz has looked either young or bad (it’s so hard to tell sometimes.) So the following rating, I’d like to emphasize, is very much a placeholder as I expect to learn much more about Oregon State at around the period they make their annual metamorphosis.
Odds of Victory: 60%
Previously-Assessed Odds of Victory: 50%

Expected Wins: 9.41
Previously-Assessed Expected Wins: 8.69 (DELTA: +.72)

Saturday, September 25, 2010


An interesting excerpt about the American-Mexican border with this line: “The cartels' war – which began here in earnest in 2005 – was for the prize corridor, the most important plaza (turf) of all. The authorities' war is against a simple logic: the more trade that comes through Veintiséis and across the border, the more drugs come with it.” Of course, this type of activity will turn out to be counterproductive: considering the more delays of legitimate cargo happen, the less sells, meaning less goes back to Mexico, meaning Mexico becomes relatively more impoverished, meaning Mexico is more likely to fall into the drug trade in the absence of other rewarding opportunities and—it’s vicious circle time. Additionally, two more mayors were shot in Mexico.

The zero-carbon cooled city rising in Abu Dhabi.

Why Mexico’s drug war isn’t like Colombia’s.

A shift in Indian policy towards Kashmir?

More from Steven Johnson on the origin of good ideas.

The legal fight over an 800 lbs. emerald stone.
Housing crisis continues to threaten Spain’s economy.

What are the low and high divorce jobs since 1900?

Looking behind the curtain on the fall in credit card debt.

What’s up with Paul Allen’s patent troll suit?

An amusing interview with Mrs. Blankenship of Mad Men fame.

The art of the Tea Party.

A mysterious malware implanted in the security systems of factories, nuclear reactors, etc., seems to have first been introduced into an Iranian nuclear reactor.

A new FDA?

More Iran Speculation

Yesterday I posted this article about fissures in Iranian government, but I wanted to elaborate, using my two-steps-above-amateur level knowledge. Here’s the news:
Ayatollah Akbar Hashemi-Rafsanjani took the risky step on September 21 and met with the families of political prisoners. Rafsanjani, the chairman of the Assembly of Experts, said he would express their concerns directly to Supreme Leader Ali Khamenei.

Rafsanjani's meeting with families of political prisoners is significant because it is believed that he and Supreme Leader Khamenei are now moving closer to each other in an effort to curb the increasing powers of President Ahmadinejad and his political faction.

Sounds vaguely bland at first blush, does it not? Iranian politics is mostly personalities, and understanding what personalities mean, symbolically speaking, what is critical to understanding just how important each maneuver and countermaneuver is. Given who Rafsanjani is, it’s pretty striking to hear him declare something like this: "Liberty and justice are among the most important goals of the Islamic Republic and some shortcomings will certainly not prevent [us] from reaching these noble goals."

Now, the article asserts that Rafsanjani and the Supreme Leader may be moving closer to one another, which may be so, but the Khamenei and Rafsanjani have been circling each other for quite a while—Rafsanjani was appointed by Khamanei to the Expediency Council in autumn 2007, which is one of many of the weird bureaucratic bodies that populate the Iranian republic for the express purpose of making its government absurdly complicated. (The Expediency Council mediates conflicts in the laws that the upper and lower chambers of the Iranian legislature pass; the upper house, by the by, also has the right to exclude candidates, should it so choose.)

Anyway, as the preceding gloss might have tipped you off—Rafsanjani, besides being chair of the Expediency Council, is also the chair of the Assembly of Experts (the body that is the very rough Iranian equivalent of the College of Cardinals in the Catholic Church), as well as being a former President of Iran—Rafsanjani is a deeply establishment figure. He’s also—as is the case in many of these dysfunctional governments—probably a crook. But no matter. The point is that Rafsanjani probably leans leftish (insofar as the left-right division means much in Iran), but is so cautious and so establishment that in practice it doesn’t much matter.

Except for now. What happened? Well, Rafsanjani is also (yes, I know) the head of the gigantic Azad University system, which controls about $200 billion in assets. That’s quite a bit of patronage to dole out and money to steal; obviously Ahmadinejad—who lacks formal power as delineated by the Iranian constitution (it’s true! Technically he neither appoints nor commands generals, for example)—would like to get his hands on this system, which is probably why Rafsanjani feels compelled to come out in a more strident oppositional mode.

Anyway, you know you’re really coming close to change when the moneycounters see where the smart money is.

They Are Who We Thought They Weren't: Stanford 37 Notre Dame 14

So: tell me before the game that Stanford turns the ball over the three times and rushes at a 3.8 yards/carry. What do I do? Probably break out the smelling salts and the hard liquor. (Fair followup question here: do I, in fact, have smelling salts and hard liquor? The answer is, I’d get some.) But of course such enhancements would be unnecessary: the game stands on its own.

Who would’ve figured a Stanford defense could be so dominant? Could generate such a dominant pass rush? The key, in any 3-4 scheme, to generating a pass rush is the linebackers: Shayne Skov and Chase Thomas had outstanding games in that respect, and probably were the best Stanford players of the game; I believe each had two sacks, with Skov’s smash-and-grab sack causing a fumble being the most critical. The run defense worked its magic. But if you’re a Stanford fan, pessimism is your natural mode (when thinking about Stanford), and Johnson Bademosi’s play was somewhat disturbing: when Notre Dame was able to pass, it attacked Bademosi’s side of the field, and were often successful. The rest of the secondary was quite good, particularly Sherman, who played a nearly-complete game (the sole lacking element was Sherman’s trash talk on the sidelines after the game is clearly over. It’s the Stanford equivalent of Red Auerbach’s victory cigar.)

Meanwhile, the offense was not quite as crisp as you’d like. It put 28 points on the board—and scored on 5 of 9 possessions—but didn’t quite finish off drives as much as you’d like, and consequently kept Notre Dame in the game much longer than they should have been. Considering that Delano Howell and Michael Thomas were shaken up later in the game, this is not entirely a style points question—if Stanford buries Notre Dame early in the game, as it should have, then the starters are chillaxing on the bench for the entirety of the fourth quarter.

So why wasn’t Stanford crisp? Was it Luck? I don’t think that’s the proper person to finger: while he did have two picks, only one of those throws could properly be called bad; meanwhile, he had some marvelous throws and some skillful moves in the pocket. He did average 7.4 yards per attempt, after all, and that’s typically more than adequate. So what was it? The tight ends were absurdly good today, combining for well over 100 yards and dominating whomever was matched up against them. To end the suspense: it was the consistent, perhaps boring, above-averageness of the Stanford wide receivers and running backs.

Consistency is usually touted as a good thing, and if you’re talking about consistently good, that generally is a good thing. But consistency is not enough. Brilliance is necessary: you need someone who can go and get you a 60 yard run or catch. These players trade consistency for upside, and the best of them make very small sacrifices in terms of consistency. At any rate, none of these players play for Stanford. Stepfan Taylor is a very tough, very smart runner who nearly always maximizes the amount of yards possible given his abilities. The problem is that his abilities are limited: that is, it seems as if he is constantly one eluded tackler away from a really big run, but he lacks that final burst or that final move to beat the final tackler and make that really big run. Chris Owusu is a fine player (and capable of big plays in kickoff returns), but he doesn’t make superbly long, brilliant plays, and that was exposed when Stanford tried a pair of plays—the “go get ‘em!” long lob pass that results in a jump ball—targeting Owusu, and both of those failed; one of those resulted in a pick. So Stanford lacks the big play player on offense; this means that the Stanford offense can only, against somewhat competent teams (or on the road) score by ripping off five, six, seven yards at a time, consistently. It’s tough to execute an entire long-ish drive by relying on only these plays, because it requires such a high degree of crispness. So it may be that Stanford’s offense was not unusually soggy (the opposite of crisp?); it just requires like a 9 on the crispness level to consistently finish longish drives. The proof is in the putting: a 14 play drive consumed only 58 yards and ended in a field goal; a 9 yard drive gained 49 yards (less than five yards a play!) and ended in a field goal…etc. There just isn’t that big play guy; injuries, such as they are, probably won’t help much. Ryan Whalen’s chief virtue—his wonderful steadiness—would probably reinforce this quality; meanwhile, Tyler Gaffney is a bit of an enigma at the running back position. (A further note on the running back position: I believe, when injuries aren’t a factor, that we can declare that there’s no longer a sufficient quorum to make the running back position by committee. Only Taylor and Gaffney need apply; Amanam is useful as a third-down back to spell them; Wilkerson is a year away, we hope. Jeremy Stewart is blander than your grandfather’s tapioca and prune juice midafternoon snack.)

The grinding required to finish and sustain drives for Stanford tends to make one of the now-congealing stereotypes true: you can hear it every time a commentator declares that Stanford is a rock ‘em, sock ‘em team (it’s like 1975! said Mike Mayock gleefully more than a few times). It’s true that results-wise the team looks an awful lot like it. But stylistically it’s not like that: it’s multiple. If the results are 1975, the execution is distinctly Saints 2009 in the crazy number of formations, personnel packages, and players getting the ball. The difference between the two teams will probably end up being the number and quality of playmakers: the Saints had several; I’m not sure Stanford has one.

Weirdly enough, the best playmakers at Stanford just might be on the defensive end of the ball. Shayne Skov and Chase Thomas are in full effect, and it’s tough to see them letting Stanford be as bad as they were last year without a brawl.