Sunday, October 31, 2010


The debt collection robo-signers funny business has been going on quite a while.

Lessons from the Giants: if you’re going to build a ballpark and want it to actually benefit people economically, make sure it’s in a good, downtown location.

Is Google’s problem these days that it doesn’t get stuff done?

The first loyalty card is set to start in India, though there are quite a few logistical challenges.

Why big-time CEOs make terrible politicians.

An interesting new search-engine startup is taking on Google by offering simpler search, i.e. by stripping out a lot of the content farm/useless junk that’s SEO-influenced (e.g. Bleacher Report or Demand Media). I found the observation of which fields to be most clogged by said junk to be revealing: “…health, recipes, autos, hotels, song lyrics, personal finance and colleges…”

Obesity is coming to China.

The intelligence budget of the U.S. is greater than the GDP of such countries as: Iraq, Kenya and Costa Rica. (And many more!)

Dilma was duly elected President of Brazi, and here are the reaction articles from the Guardian and NYT

It’s confirmed: the plague came from China.

Daunting highway projects: the Transoceanic Highway covering 3,400 miles from Brazil to Peru; and a highway through Tanzania’s Serengeti National Park.

And Apple’s suing Motorola for patent infringement. Not very fourth quadrant behavior, now is it?

Reassessing Stanford's Schedule Part Nine of Many

After a lull in the schedule—Bye, Washington State, Washington being about as soft a three weeks as you can get in the Pac-10 these days—it’s back to the difficulty for Stanford, and optimism has rightly returned to the fanbase. The once-injured players we were worried about have basically returned and looked more-or-less OK (Gaffney had nice runs, Howell had a pick, and Owusu ran really fast), and the team came out with a shutout and a huge win.

It’s tough to complain about these things, but there were a few odd or disturbing grace notes. For one, Johnson Bademosi continues to play very poorly, or about as poorly as you can while still being a starter for a unit that pitched a shutout. He was targeted on a few of the few successful passes for Washington, and compounded that targeting with a terribly dumb personal foul of the 15 yard variety. For two, Coby Fleener had a couple of poor drops (this is pretty much a whatever, since Stanford seems to have at least three basically interchangeable tight ends. This is especially impressive since Stanford’s nominal starter, behemoth Levine Toilolo, went down in the very first game of the season.)
For three, Jim Harbaugh had some odd choices in terms of playcalling that ultimately didn’t matter much but still mystified for no real reason. A quick rundown: first, sending Ryan Whalen into a deep pattern for a one-on-one jumpball. Whalen is a player of many gifts; he is the wide receiving equivalent of the old guy in the pickup basketball game who can neither run nor jump but somehow, with a complex choreography of moves, ends up scoring every time as you scratch your head (“What the hell just happened?). Whalen just makes moves and is always open on the 8-to-15 yard route, and always catches it. However, this doesn’t mean you try bombing to Whalen; a weird decision. There was Harbaugh’s odd redzone play-calling in which he, on the five yard line, called two passing plays that—crucially—weren’t actually attempts in the endzone. One of these was a first-time-I’ve-ever-seen-this playcall: he attempted a tight end screen in the middle of the field, a play which doesn’t have enough room to develop and hence was a real Huh? for all observers. Then there was his continued running of Andrew Luck, even though the team was 28 points up against a team that had basically quit two hours ago. (You might protest that Harbaugh called read-option plays, but you only call a read-option if you’re willing to let the quarterback call his own number on the option and hence get hit.) Are these terribly consequential errors? No, not really. But they were errors and slightly weird ones, at that, and so deserved to be called out. Most coaches make errors of convention; Harbaugh makes errors of idiosyncrasy. I’ll leave it to the reader to determine which type of error is preferable.

On to the games.

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: LOSS, 1.
Week Six, USC, Home: WIN, 5.
Week Seven, Washington State, Home: WIN, 6.
Week Eight, Washington, Away: WIN, 7.

Week Nine, Arizona, Home: With the continued poor performance of UCLA, Wake Forest, and Notre Dame (let’s pause here to note that Wake Forest just lost 62-14, and, most gallingly of all: to Maryland, a program whose name is very close alphabetically to mediocre.), the middle core of Stanford’s schedule looks more and more unimpressive as time passes by. USC is a nice win that Arizona has, but USC is all offense and no defense, and just got shown up by Oregon.

Arizona, on the other hand, did manage to beat Iowa, which is a pretty good team, certainly better than any of the teams that Stanford’s beaten. Arizona’s offense is probably a little worse than Stanford’s, but compensates by owning a much better defense. Obviously football is a game of matchups—Stanford offense versus Arizona defense and vice versa—and that doesn’t give a lot of reason to be reassured. Stanford should be able to score on Arizona’s defense; they generate a lot of heat from their defensive line, but Stanford’s offensive line specializes in cooling pass rushes. On the other hand, the ‘Zona offense-Stanford defense matchup hardly looks good for Stanford: Arizona’s offense, which is based on the quick-hitting, short-yardage play can only be stopped by an aggressive secondary making tackles and disrupting passes; the defensive line rarely gets a chance to get pressure. Considering quality Stanford defensive performances have usually featured domination of the line of pressure and lots of pressure (this is why Chase Thomas usually plays very well in quality Stanford defensive performances), and considering the secondary’s well-documented issues with sound tackling and tight coverage, Arizona’s offense is perfectly positioned to score tons of points. We’ll probably see a reprise of last year’s matchup, which Arizona won in a 43-38 heartbreaker.

The past two years of the series have basically come down to the last play, with Alex Loukas rushing for the winning touchdown with something like 30 seconds remaining two years ago, and I really don’t see any reason to believe this year is different.
Chances of Victory: 50%
Previously-Assessed Chances of Victory: 45%.

Week Ten, Arizona State, Away: Arizona State beating Washington State is your do-they-really-have-to-play-that-game? game of the week.
Chances of Victory, Same as Last Week: 80%

Week Eleven, Cal, Away: Cal suffered another blowout victory on the road, this time to Oregon State. It really is a mystery to just about everyone as to why this happens. Some people believe it’s the home field at play; after all, Cal has blown out Colorado and UCLA at home. This is certainly possible, but it’s not as if the schedules exactly line up evenly: it’s not just that Cal is on the road, it’s also that they’re playing much better opponents on the road. So is the reason that they’re getting blown out that they’re on the road or that they’re playing much better opponents? Seeing as Kevin Riley blew out his knee, we may never find out the exact reason why (Brock Mansion came in and looked overmatched while running about the field as a confused stork might, were it to strap on pads and play football.) It’s looking like this kind of season for Cal:

With the n00b at quarterback, the blahness of the offensive line, I’m not particularly worried about Cal’s players at the skill positions, such as they are. The defense is OK, and we’ve done very well against OK defenses. This should be a win.
Chances of Victory: 65%
Previously-Assessed Chances of Victory: 55%

Week Twelve, Oregon State, Home: Oregon State is very much the same every year; surely this has to stop at some point. Or are they really? I’m still not entirely convinced by Ryan Katz; if Cal is getting blown out, I’m fairly sure random armless students plucked out of the stands could pass for 300 yards were they sufficiently bloodthirsty (and with such hapless opponents, running up the score is very much discouraged). So we just don’t know: Oregon State—Provincial Men of Mystery.
Chances of Victory, Same as Before: 50%

Expected Wins: 9.45
Previously-Assessed Expected Wins: 8.3 (DELTA: +1.15) (NOTE: if you take out the post-Wazzu freakout, the expected wins were 9.34 heading into that week. Basically we’re back to where we started. Should tell you something about the value of a good freakout.)

The Fourth Quadrant

The Steven Johnson all-conquering media barnstorming tour continues in the New York Times today when he talks about a curious fact of innovations: it’s often born in nonprofit situations, which you’d think is odd if you’re a fan of greed-is-good style capitalism. He elaborates:
…[T]here is what I call the “fourth quadrant”: the space of collaborative, nonproprietary innovation, exemplified in recent years by the Internet and the Web, two groundbreaking innovations not owned by anyone.

Why has the fourth quadrant been so innovative, despite the lack of traditional economic rewards? The answer, I believe, has to do with the increased connectivity that comes from these open environments. Ideas are free to flow from mind to mind, and to be refined and modified without complex business development deals or patent lawyers. The incentives for innovation are lower, but so are the barriers.

I’ve only started to read Anna-Lee Saxenian’s Regional Advantage, her account of why Silicon Valley surpassed Boston’s Route 128, even though they appeared to be evenly matched at the outset of the 1970s, and many of the points match Johnson’s ideas well: before the region became Silicon Valley, it was primarily agricultural—it grew almonds, mostly—and as such had little experience with industrial or technological economies; the founders of the big companies in those days were Midwesterners who were quite willing to migrate out West alone, far outside their familial structures; moreover, they despised the “Eastern Establishment.” (For more in this vein, see Tom Wolfe’s “The Tinkerings of Robert Noyce”). This kind of environment is many things, but probably the most important is a tabula rasa. The products they pursued were fairly far removed from ordinary experience and as such did not exactly have established interests claiming their pieces of turf.

I think the turf war concept is an important one to keep in mind about the innovation that didn’t happen in the previous decade. The innovation that did happen was mostly in fields that no one had turf to claim, or where those who held the turf lacked the legal power to force would-be innovators off of it.

What innovation happened? Google happened, but before the internet the idea of a search engine was incredibly farfetched. You might say “the media” but this is exactly my point. Print media gets disrupted easily—wikipedia kills encyclopedias; Craigslist and various new media ventures disrupt newspapers; one presumes the Kindle and other e-readers will do to the book what the iPod did to the CD (interesting little digression: it’s also interesting that of the disrupters of print media, there’s a high proportion of not-for-profit ventures, as Wikipedia and Craigslist are. I have no idea what to conclude to this, but found it relevant to mention.). Music has been disrupted because the .mp3 is such a small piece of media that it’s easy to handle for a computer; combine that with some decent copyright law (legal to copy, not legal to distribute, though good luck enforcing the latter on a consistent basis on account of the former) and you have an industry that is fairly easy to use the platform of the internet to build off of.

Compare this to the hassle of watching TV on the internet and you’ll see the innovation that didn’t happen and perhaps will happen these days. (See Google TV troubles and the Hulu-in-Europe troubles for reference.) I should be able to watch ESPN 3 regardless of what ISP I use; I should be able to watch TV shows at whatever time I want; I should be able to do similarly for movies, and be able to own or stream at my discretion. These things are difficult to do legally, so many people do them illegally. The reason they’re difficult to do is because of the interlocking lattice of rights and copyright law that give various stakeholders the right and ability to block people from watching video the way their audience would like.

The same platform that’s been built off of for print, music, travel, and so on through this recitation of “NOW That’s What I Call The Internet’s Greatest Hits” hasn’t quite been able to conquer TV, and it hasn’t quite been able to conquer health care either, for similar reasons. (If you’d like to see why in a quick demonstration, ask to see your electronic medical record next time you go to the doctor. You either don’t have one, or, if you do, it probably looks like it was designed in 1995, which is not particularly reassuring for its overall functionality.) Of course that too has a nexus of rightsholders who very jealously guard each piece of turf; if you have to ask for everyone’s permission to take their turf away, chances are you won’t get it, and if you do—well, the result will not be close to optimal (SEE: Health Care Reform, 2009.)

So how do we go about the business of creating more fourth quadrants?

Saturday, October 30, 2010


Steven Johnson on the power of cities.

Surprisingly, DOJ files brief changing government’s position on genes: it believes they shouldn’t be patentable.

Tyler Cowen has an excellent column on how immigrants deliver benefits for everyone; The Economist also has an article on the subject. It appears the GOP is preparing itself for an all-out war on immigration: it asked the CBO about the projected cost of deporting every illegal immigrant in the U.S.

Will the Germans take center stage in international politics?

A look at the “Amish hackers.”

The critical process that all deepwater drilling uses—it’s called “cementing”—is very prone to failure, according to new study.

Why does the U.S. dominate almond farming?

73 million people visited the World Expo in Shanghai.

On Roger Ebert’s hatred of film lists.

Brazil is undergoing a Pentecostal boom (I believe this is a trend all over the West; if I remember correctly, it’s the fastest growing denomination in the U.S. at the least.)

Well Then: Stanford 41 Washington 0

For the record, that was unworrying. I’d say the exact moment of my not being worried was 14-0 when Stanford looked unstoppable and Washington looked exceedingly stoppable, and from there it was 27 more points of sheer dominance: Stanford executing well and Washington not-so-well. The running backs were good—Taylor continues to run well, though I remain worried about Taylor’s quality against quality defenses—as was everyone associated with the offense (with the quiet exception of Coby Fleener, who had two awful pass drops; were the Stanford offense not so precise and the Washington defense not so bad, Fleener’s extremely poor pass drops would have mattered; meanwhile at tight end, Zach Ertz looked impressive. Does Ertz end up taking Fleener’s position?).

It’s the defense that’s worth focusing on, and the specific reasons why the production was so good. It wasn’t that Stanford’s secondary aced its test; it was that Stanford’s secondary was never tested at all: Washington’s offensive line was so poor that Stanford placed Locker under near-constant pressure, with Chase Thomas in particular having a monster of game, as he always seems to have in great Stanford performances. The imperious defensive performance does nothing to confirm which one of the two hypotheses I’ve been entertaining about it: either the defense is much better than last year but just isn’t quite good enough versus the best offenses in the country; or the defense is just like last year in that it is bad versus good offenses and very good against bad ones. The game versus Arizona next week should tell us which one of these two hypotheses is true, and I am very worried about which one it is.

But the beatdown of Washington seems to move Stanford away from the pessimists’ scenario entertained earlier.

Some Sniping

One thing I hate is when a potentially good debate is sidetracked to take shots at a silly, minor portion of someone’s argument. So it is with Peter Orszag’s argument about why quantitative easing won’t work. Orszag argues that quantitative easing—the policy measure of a central bank buying bonds in order to reduce interest rates and inject money into the economy—won’t work because, well, interest rates are already really low. Here’s the silly part of Orszag’s argument:
Ironically, QE2 could make the right policy mix less likely. In particular, any substantial additional stimulus will probably not (and should not) be enacted without a medium-term deficit reduction package — and that medium-term deficit reduction package is less likely to be enacted when interest rates on long-term government bonds are so low.

In other words, by perpetuating an artificially low 10-year government bond rate, the Fed may be delaying (even if very modestly, given the modest impact of the action on long rates) the very fiscal policy action that the nation most needs, while doing little to boost an economy whose principal problem is not high long-term interest rates.

The political reading here is so far off and disconnected from reality that it’s really incredible. It would be very odd indeed were Orszag a member of press and failed to pick up on the political dynamics here (really, Republicans are about to compromise?), but Orszag was a member of the administration and hence really should know better from day after grinding day of Republicans not compromising and preferring to fight in the trenches. It’s really odd and there’s no good explanation as to why he believes this.

Of the blogospheric reaction I’ve seen to Orszag’s piece, most has focused on the odd passage quoted above, but his substantive argument hasn’t really been dealt with as satisfactorily as I’d like. Orszag is right that interest rates aren’t really a problem: we know that banks and big companies are sitting on tons of money; indeed, we know companies like Microsoft have borrowed large sums of money at extremely low interest rates (30 basis points above Treasuries for a three-year bond, truly a discount rate), only to not do anything with the money once borrowed. It seems to me that lowering interest rates does little to address this problem, which surely stems from the lack of confidence businesses feel about the direction of the economy.

Ryan Avent argues that the important thing about quantitative easing is that it will raise long-run inflation rates, which might actually deal with the pent-up savings problems by making their savings worth less over the long run, but we’re not sure how much inflation is necessary or whether this will actually make a decent dent on unemployment.

I think that quantitative easing is a necessary policy, but something short of a silver bullet—there needs to be other bullets in the chamber, and I’m talking about stimulus. Ben Bernanke agrees. And of course I doubt it will happen.

Lupe is Back

If you’re wondering what the riff and hook is from, it’s from the Modest Mouse classic “Float On.”

Hopefully Lupe’s next album avoids his general compulsion to sermonize in favor of his storytelling abilities, and if this song is any indication…well, we don’t know. I think it’s a positive direction.

Friday, October 29, 2010


Mark Twain’s attitude towards intellectual property:
…[H]is iconic white suit developed from commercial objectives: he first wore it to appear before Congress, arguing that copyright, which he viewed as a patent, should be extended in perpetuity. When that failed, he incorporated his pen name to establish it as a trademark, prompting the New York Times front-page headline: "Mark Twain Turns Into A Corporation". He designed his own board game, as well as "Mark Twain's Patent Self-Pasting Scrapbook", which sounds like something the Duke and Dauphin in Huckleberry Finn might sell. It is no accident that so many of Twain's characters are hucksters and hustlers, or that deception and opportunism are abiding themes in his writing.

Roger Ebert has an interesting interview with Justin Timberlake re: The Social Network.

Pakistan’s court system vs. its insurgents:
To find the office of the prosecutor in charge of putting Islamabad's bomb builders and terrorist masterminds behind bars, visitors must wend their way through the midday bustle of shoppers and descend into a dingy basement alcove, next to the Valley Tour travel agency.

There, Mohammed Tayyab will confess that he isn't at all proud of his track record. He has handled 45 cases in the last year. He has won just four.

The problems of industrial policy (a good article, but I think the problem here is a failure to define what, exactly, we mean by industrial policy.)

Californians with high-deductible plans may be forgoing needed care.

Things England has but we don’t: wifi in the Tube. (Well, on a test basis. And only if you subscribe to the right mobile plan. But still.)

The privatization-industrial complex.

More on the urban revolution.

The U.S. Southwest will enter a state of permanent drought when the full force of climate change hits.

Volcker’s still behind his rule, still lobbying regulators to make sure it’s strong.

The policy hurdles to solar power.

Obstacles of One's Own Design

The Politico had an unappreciated story a couple of days ago about how the Republicans plan to do business: unlike Democrats, who simply allow the most senior Democrat on each committee to become chairs, Republican leadership simply chooses who the chairs will be. It’s a vastly superior method of choosing Congressional leadership and Democrats would do well to ape it for both chambers of Congress.

There are several problems with the Democratic system. The first is that it’s not particularly democratic: someone who’s voting for a representative ends up empowering people the voter had no real desire, or perhaps even an active antipathy, to empower. The problem was worse during the fifties and sixties when northerners and blacks voted for Democrats who in turn empowered segregationist Southerners. That problem is nowhere near as salient today, but it’s not entirely irrelevant—I suspect most Democrats voting for their Senators don’t want Joe Lieberman being Joe Lieberman as a committee chair, which he is. The system is not particularly sensible either: hanging around for long periods of time is no guarantee of effective performance as a legislator generally or as a chair specifically. The last problem is probably operational, and related to the Joe Lieberman problem—the reason most Democrats would prefer Joe Lieberman not to be a chair is that they perceive him not to be the most helpful Senator in the chamber; well, it’s an odd party system that empowers people who are active anchors on the leadership’s or on the party’s interests, yet that’s what Democrats do. The Max Baucus Gang of Six purposeless snoozefest to try to maybe get a Republican vote for health care wasted quite a bit of the Senate’s time—time which possibly cost the Obama administration a major piece of legislation and/or several confirmed nominees—and it could’ve been completely avoided with a different, better chair, one that wasn’t there simply because he’d hung around for a while.

In this, Democrats individually have set up an obstacle for themselves not unlike the filibuster and have probably ended up denying themselves accomplishments that could have been and diluted the ones they ended up achieving.

Stanford-Washington Preview

It’s maybe a bit strange that there’s still an air of mystery about this Stanford team and the Pac-10 in general (well, aside from Oregon: there’s no mystery that they’re really good, maybe the best in the country—the only befuddlement involved comes from their offense), but here we are going into Stanford’s eighth game of the season and I’m not entirely sure what to expect.

Theoretically, this should be a somewhat easy game. We know Stanford will put up points—we have a good offense and Washington has a bad defense (they surrender a robust 6.2 yards/play. By way of comparison, Washington State gives up 6.8 yards/play)—which means that the ante is high for Washington’s offense to play this game. It should be reassuring that Stanford completely shut down Washington last year at Stanford Stadium, and it should be reassuring that Washington may start two true (!) freshmen on their jumbled offensive line, but I remain in need of assurance.

Start with the Delano Howell problem. He’s listed as a starter on Stanford’s depth charts, but most vaguely informed observers believe that this is just a continuation of Harbaugh’s insistence, to the point of absurdity, that all players are completely healthy. So I don’t expect to see Howell, which means I should expect to see quite a bit of Austin Yancy and Taylor Skaufel, which is truly a traumatic experience for everyone involved and definitely requires a bit of mental preparation to witness, as one might steel oneself to see a horror movie or Precious or something. The problem isn’t that Howell is so great—he occupies the Bo McNally Endowed Chair of Good Run-Supporting But Bad Pass-Defending Stanford Safeties—but that Austin Yancy and Taylor Skaufel are that poor. People say Jake Locker is injured and so may not be as effective as expected, to which I respond: Can he throw?

So I suspect Washington will score his fair share of points. (The counter-theory being that this season is an extension of last season’s defensive pattern: hold bad offensive opponents below their season averages and allow good ones to generously exceed theirs. This would explain the implosions vs. Oregon and SC, which leaves the Wazzou fourth quarter unexplained, unless you chalk that up to blowout-induced indifference, which is plausible.)

I’m a little worried about the offense, too. Luck was held below 7 YPA last week without Chris Owusu (also working through some issues, apparently, though the beauty of the “he’s working through some issues” formulation is that that could mean anything from “stubbed toe” to “decapitation.”) Luck has thrown five interceptions in the last four games, and if individual ones are excusable as the product of adverse circumstance, the pattern isn’t: that’s a lot of picks to be throwing, too many picks to be throwing, actually.

I think Stanford is the better team, but that doesn’t guarantee victory, merely make it likely.
Stanford 31 Washington 21

Thursday, October 28, 2010


Striking facts:
...[N]early 404m Indians currently live without any electricity at all, compared to 8m Chinese.

What’s more, while China is projected to achieve universal electrification by 2015, India won’t be fully electrified until 2030, according to a new report from the International Energy Agency.

Apparently private equity is making a comeback.

Berlusconi is facing a loss of confidence over his inability to take out the trash. (see: Gomorrah)

The big winners in the Brazilian presidential elections: evangelical voters.

A nice article on Google’s investments in odd stuff (e.g. driverless cars), but this attitude from the stock analyst missed the point quite a bit:
"We don't spend a lot of time analyzing automated vehicles and wind farms. These are not needle movers like the core business," said John Lutz, senior research analyst with Frost Investment Advisors, which owns Google shares. "But it's less than 1% of cash flow, so let them have their fun. They've earned it."

But, he cautioned, Google does not have a blank check. "As long as the core search business remains strong, investors are more inclined to look the other way," Lutz said. "Once the core business matures, you will see investors scrutinize investments to a greater degree."
It’s deadly wrong, I think, to characterize Google’s various far-flung projects as a bit of fun—though that fits into the Googler stereotype. The point of the far-flung projects is, in essence, to disrupt themselves so that once the search business matures they’ve figured out the next cash cow business. They are basically using their massive profits to fund a venture capital operation with in-house talent, and I wouldn’t put it past them to succeed. (Though if you look at the examples of successful R&D operations like Xerox PARC, you do have to wonder whether they can successfully capture the profits from that. No matter: the public benefits either way, so I’m happy that they’re doing it.)

Speaking of driverless cars, apparently some group has done it with vans traveling from Europe through the Russian steppe to Shanghai for the World Expo.

U.S. reveals total intelligence spending figure per year: $80 billion, tripled since 1998.

On the differences between the Chinese and Russian Soviet Parties and what that means for the future.

A nice ticktock of the Team Conan-Team Jay business of last fall in Vanity Fair.

McChrystal speaks out, refers to Karzai as a “great partner” which is a bit of a “hmmm….” statement.

Yes! This New York Times nine-page profile of Mikhail Prokhorov, the new Nets owner, is full of so much win that it’s pure wonder.

An interesting article on federal building expenses.

Is there a nano solution to energy vampires? (No, I won’t explain.)

Top five Constitutional amendments the Tea Party is after.

U.S. not tracking Afghanistan spending.

Are we having another food crisis?

What’s the meaning of the Halloween candy vandal stories? (e.g. “I heard there are razors hidden in some people’s candy.”)

Why does China’s new Five Year Plan focus so much on culture?

Posturing or Policy?

Obama’s interview on the Daily Show last night was a good one, I thought, in laying out the issues (I can't embed for some reason, so watch here.). As he says, the problem isn’t a lack of courage on Democrats’ parts—tons of Congressmen and women took tough votes on policies that they knew would get them in hot water—but structural instead. I would’ve appreciated, but wasn’t surprised, to hear Jon Stewart follow up on Obama’s repeated assertion that the filibuster was both wrong and not in the Constitution. Both of these things are true, and it’s interesting to hear the point framed in this way—framed, I think, in advance for people who would be loathe to let go of the filibuster because of tradition or the Constitution or what-have-you. Perhaps this is a signal of support for Tom Udall’s "Constitutional Option" to reform the filibuster? (If so, Senators better read up on their Master of the Senate to avoid another Richard Russell-esque attempt to nuke the Senate by grinding everything to a halt.)

It was also interesting, by the way, to hear Obama admit his views on gay marriage might “evolve.” Mere posturing? And why?

Frank Sinatra's Grade Inflation

It’s a good thing most people are not exceptionally deep Sinatra listeners; otherwise, they’d realize Sinatra is an exceptionally easy grader when it comes to cities. The most famous example of Sinatra's city-raise:

There are two big reasons why this is the most famous example of Frank’s fulsome city-praise: first, New York will unhesitatingly hype anyone and anything vaguely associated with it that in any way makes it, the city, more important (LEBRON JAMES MUST GO TO NEW YORK IF HE WANTS TO BECOME A REAL SUPERSTAR); second, it is actually a good song featuring several specific reasons for enjoying New York, written and sung in a vivid, memorable fashion. Were this Sinatra’s only instance of lavishly praising a city, it would be a fine song. Sadly, it isn’t:

Chicago is Sintra’s “kind of town,” apparently because it has very nice people, a neighborhood right next to a meatpacking districts (the Union Stockyards), and somehow “calls him home” even though he was born in New Jersey and in no way was associated with Chicago throughout his life. You could, with slight rearrangements, sing the exact same song about Dubuque, Iowa, which is an insult to both Chicago and Dubuque. More:

The song mostly focuses on the romance “that happened” rather than the “Monterrey”, of which apparently all we need to know about is that it’s “in Old Mexico” and has many “guitars.” Sinatra’s San Francisco song is a bit more vivid:

Apparently all we need to know about San Francisco is that it’s on a hill, with cable cars, with morning fog…which is not bad, but still. Then there’s this song, which I wasn’t even aware existed until approximately two seconds ago (WARNING: is terrible):

LA is a lady…and that’s, uh, about it re: relevant information as to why we should like it. Sign me up!

All of these songs mixing fulsome, nonspecific praise of cities leads one to believe one of two things: either Frank Sinatra is an exceptionally easy grader; or Frank Sinatra has fun just about everywhere he goes. Either of these things suggests that Sinatra’s sentiments are not particularly applicable for our own, which suggests that his masterpiece song praising a city—“New York, New York”—is also not particularly relevant. Of course, “New York, New York,” unlike all of the other songs on the list, basically fits New York’s preferred self-image and hence has been enthusiastically adopted, which is interesting all of itself, don’t you think? Still, while you’re pondering this, just remember: Frank Sinatra is an exceptionally easy grader.

The problem with being an exceptionally easy grader isn't just the exaggeration of qualities inherent to whatever you're grading, but the nonrecognition involved--if everything's just GOOD! then there's very little differentiation between it. (An easy grader is the kind of person who thinks vanilla and chocolate are SUPER AWESOME.)  The problem with Sinatra's songs is that his praise obscures everything interesting about the city or place in question, so that Chicago or Monterrey or wherever just becomes a convenient set-dropping, which is no connoisseur's attitude, that. In the grand scheme of things, writing boring songs about interesting cities is no big deal, but I think it's a helpful attitude to carry on otherwise: discretion is the key to greatness.

Wednesday, October 27, 2010


A fun little series from Marginal Revolution about visiting El Salvador.

Mad Men fans: Roger Sterling’s memoir, Sterling’s Gold will actually be published; you know, in real life.

The NYT attempts to remind us how life is bad for Spain (so much debt, and such crazy rules) and Greece (the same?).

The environmental problems of Dubai.

Peter Orszag appears to be anti-quantitative easing.

Seeing as it’s that time of year: an excellent slideshow from Life of the 1955 World Series (Brooklyn Dodgers v. New York Yankees).

Apple introduces App Store in Chinese.

Chris Christie, up to his old tricks: he just killed the train tunnel, again.

Is there a conflict among Chinese elites about introducing more democracy in China?

A nice interview with Elizabeth Warren.

Michael Lewis on how bankers will try and get around the prop trading ban.

The other outsourcing: from Europe to America. (It’s singularly depressing to be called a “low wage environment” relative to Germany.)

Will we get a bipartisan education policy after the midterms? (HINT: No.)

On Derrick Rose and the Bulls Opening Game

It was a good game for the Derrick Rose skeptics. Bob Ryan used to describe certain boxscores as “Dantleys”: heavily on the free throws, light on the field goals (say, 4-9 plus 20-23 for 28 points); the “Rose” seems to be the exact opposite—heavy on the field goals, light on the free throws. The problem is that while making shots is certainly more entertaining than making free throws, getting and making free throws is the true source of efficiency for a great basketball player. That’s what makes Kevin Durant, for example, the imperious scorer that he is.

Rose started off the game torching the Thunder, slicing through their defense and finishing spectacularly. It’s odd, but his array of versatile finishes—starting on one side of the basket, finishing on the other—means that he gets fouled less; he’s almost too good at maneuvering to get finishes. Rose finished his first half 8-15 for 20 points; the rest of the game it took him 13 more shots to get 4 more points, as the offense became constipated in a manner reminiscent of Vinny Del Negro.

The temptation for Bulls fans is to panic at this point, as the endgame—good defense; not enough offense—was all too familiar, with Rose’s play in particular transforming from inspiring to muddled, but it’s too early yet, I think. I don’t like Carlos Boozer much, but he’s surely an improvement over Taj Gibson, and hopefully he will be a difference. When his hands heal, at least. Until then, we’ll be stuck with Rose looking like an MVP one moment and a frustrating player the next.

Health Care Roundup: Price Edition

One of the big problems for the nascent health care reform process is that success and failure look so very similar at an early stage. If you seriously wanted to change the payment structure, for example, you’d set up an experiment or a trial period to see what worked best. On the other hand, if you only wanted to seem serious about changing the payment structure, you’d set up an experiment or trial program to “see” what “worked best.” That’s perhaps an overly-nefarious interpretation, but it’s hard not to keep in mind when you read this WSJ description of how Medicare prices get set:
Three times a year, 29 doctors gather around a table in a hotel meeting room. Their job is an unusual one: divvying up billions of Medicare dollars.

The group, convened by the American Medical Association, has no official government standing. Members are mostly selected by medical-specialty trade groups. Anyone who attends its meetings must sign a confidentiality agreement.

Yet the influence of the secretive panel, known as the Relative Value Scale Update Committee, is enormous. The Centers for Medicare and Medicaid Services, which oversee Medicare, typically follow at least 90% of its recommendations in figuring out how much to pay doctors for their work. Medicare spends over $60 billion a year on doctors and other practitioners. Many private insurers and Medicaid programs also use the federal system in creating their own fee schedules.

Bust out the Adam Smith!: “People of the same trade seldom meet together, even for merriment and diversion, but the conversation ends in a conspiracy against the public, or in some contrivance to raise prices.”

As predicted, the physicians usually end up approving a large round of raises for themselves, typically biased towards fancy new gadgets (that don’t work better than the fancy old gadgets they replace) and away from primary care and towards surgeons and other specialists. Anyway, you can read the article for some of the crazy stories in there (e.g. the panel prices stents as if it were a two-hour procedure, while the average today is forty-five minutes).

(The relative salaries for doctors if they get paid according to Medicare’s fee schedule: $101/hr for primary care; $161/hr for surgeons; $193/hr for radiologists, and of course: $214/hr for dermatologists. Everyone’s most important doctor, of course, is the one who gets the acne to go away.)

There’s a natural corrective, you’d hope, to relying on the recommendations of a secretive doctor’s panel to determine prices—which is figuring out the prices of stuff on your own and comparison shopping. That’s the subject of this Los Angeles Times column. Turns out there are a few problems, but the biggest one, in my mind, is this:
...[I]t remains a lot tougher to shop for medicine than it is to shop for electronics. Whereas you can do apples-to-apples comparisons from one store to the next when buying a digital camera, few commercial sites offer physician-to-physician pricing based on set procedures. And the handful of sites that do compare physician-to-physician or hospital-to-hospital pricing are usually doing comparisons among only a small group of medical providers.

[T]he nature of medicine makes it tough to compare prices. Individual factors such as health history, family history and age vary so much from patient to patient that a site couldn't guarantee a price to treat conditions such as diabetes. One patient might need a ton of intensive medical help, whereas another might require only occasional visits to the doctor.

Some procedures turn out to be susceptible to price-comparison and prices have fallen correspondingly—for example, LASIK surgery, which is much cheaper now than it was when first introduced. Some procedures could probably fall by the same principle—e.g. teeth cleaning—but cartel politics have gotten to them (a dental hygienist could do the procedure alone and even have a self-run operation; licensing requirements, however, forbid that.).

The fundamental problem is that while some procedures can work by the pressures of the free market, it seems unlikely that all will. We’re unlikely to be doing much price-comparisons on our chemotherapy regimen—for one, we’re insured and hence somewhat price-insensitive; for two, well, we tend to trust our doctors in such stressful situations. If the problem is that we are trusting of experts, perhaps the hope is to find better experts—at least, this seems to be the hope of much of the health care reform bill. You can either find better experts or create better ones, and that’s why I found this article about electronic medical profiles to be so interesting. I’ve said before that the company or person who figures out electronic medical records/profiles is going to make him/her/itself billions upon billions of dollars, which would be nice for just about everyone (except, perhaps, for the administrative assistants who might find themselves without a job). Electronic medical records don’t just have the benefits you’d expect of transferring information from paper to digital form—that is, reducing storage and the labor associated thereof—but they have all the other benefits you’d expect from digital records, that is that information is easily shareable and portable. Here’s an example from the article:
One Saturday night, Michael Adamik, a retired engineer, was recording his weight and blood pressure when he discovered a startling gain of nine pounds from the day before. Sudden weight gain for someone who has congestive heart failure, as Mr. Adamik does, could indicate the condition is worsening.

So the Cleveland Clinic, where Mr. Adamik is a patient, asked him to sign up for Microsoft HealthVault, an online personal health record, or PHR. Now the 66-year-old from Brecksville, Ohio, enters his daily numbers directly into the online tool, which the clinic monitors in real time. If Mr. Adamik is in any danger, the clinic contacts him immediately.

It doesn’t mention this anywhere in the article, but I’ve long imagined a potential benefit was helping university researchers. Have you ever seen, around your town, those flyers advertising, say, a drug trial or study focusing on a highly specific subset of people with a highly specific disease/problem (say 30-40 year old women with eczema?) I see these flyers around in various cities fairly often, so I assume it’s pretty common. Of course this is a really inefficient practice and is begging to be replaced. An electronic medical record future is one in which patients and researchers are connected far more easily. (Yes, privacy concerns: these can be figured out, I think.)

Anyway, looking at the welter of health care data confronting us, I always see a system that is so poorly-run that its stagnation drags on the rest of the economy and country at large; therefore improvement there can’t help but improve the country additively.

Tuesday, October 26, 2010


Scientists working to create artificial blood.

Chile’s plan to attract foreign entrepreneurs to create startups there.

A good review of A Visit From The Goon Squad.

George Soros splurging: giving $1 million to the pro-Prop 19 (the marijuana proposition) campaign.

New E.P.A. standards to regulate emissions from heavy vehicles.

Vietnam, like China, is trying to move up the value chain.

The dangers of gridlock in economic policy.

One way to combat software piracy in China: dramatically lower prices.

French Senate passes pension bill.

The U.K. just passed a cap-and-trade scheme, with no debate or anything. See how much easier policy is when you don’t have a filibuster or other procedural obstacles? (NOTE: we would’ve had an immigration bill and cap-and-trade in 2009 had there been no Senate.)

Apparently the cassette Walkman just tied, and here are two obits.

Permanent loan modifications inching forward at unacceptable pace.

Can China survive without coal?

How libraries are adjusting to a lower-funded, new techology future.

Some Notes On NBA Opening Night

David Stern just now, re: NBA players complaining:
”Players don’t complain in high school, don’t complain in college, and they go to the NBA and earn their master’s in complaining. Play the game.”

Stern appears to be dogwhistling here, and the idea that high school or college players don’t complain is hilariously bad spin. Of course the rule is aimed at appealing to college basketball fans who prefer to watch an inferior basketball product for their own reasons. I’ve made my thoughts known previously on this issue, and David Stern’s little comment makes me think the worst of it.


Quick notes on the Miami destruction: some people are suggesting chemistry was the issue, which may be true on the offensive end of the floor, but I felt their defensive chemistry was good—there were some tight, playoff-level rotations in there. (The least impressive defensive part of Miami’s game was how it kept on getting hung up on screens—Ray Allen was torching Wade on the screen game, and Wade was a superb defender last year. May have just been his injury issue?) So it may just be the weirdness of the first game of the season.

That said, I think it’s worth examining the coach, Eric Spoelstra. Spoelstra has been a pretty good coach the past two years, but being a good coach for a bad team requires an entirely different set of skills than being a good coach for a good team. So that situation worries me, and I wonder when Riley will decide to take the reins?

Commonplace Interest

It’s hard to write a story about commonplace things; probably harder to write a song about commonplace subjects. Which is why the above song being good is such an achievement, I think: the story is basically, “I took a cross-country trip, went to a restaurant, and left my wallet there. It was El Segundo.” Boring, no? But it turns out to be a great song, at least as A Tribe Called Quest end up doing it.

Then there’s their tribute song to one Lucien:

Nothing like goodnaturedly busting on a friend.

Advice is often given to aspiring artists to write about what they find interesting, which can be perilous indeed if the aspiring artist has no sense of what’s interesting, or, worse, has no sense of how to present interesting things interestingly. As it happens, the subjects of the songs above don’t seem to be very interesting on their faces, which is proof of the notion that most artistic rules or advice can be safely contradicted when in good hands.

Private Equity Follies

One of the Obama administration’s underappreciated policy decisions is their rescue of GM and Chrysler. There were plenty of people—and not just conservatives—who felt that rescuing them was throwing good money after bad, and events have contradicted them. For that reason, I found Malcolm Gladwell’s article reviewing Steven Rattner’s Overhaul to be highly worthwhile; while most have credited Rattner, a private equity honcho, with masterminding the overhaul, Gladwell thinks the actual overhaul occurred years before, when GM reduced labor costs and increased productivity. In the end, he quotes someone crediting the old GM regime with 85% of GM’s current success and Rattner with 15%, with that 15% being Rattner’s financial wizardry. It was here that Gladwell wrote a very suggestive passage that I wish he had room to expand upon, because the implications are fairly obvious to me and so I assume Gladwell shares some of my thoughts:
…[C]ar companies stand or fall, ultimately, on the strength of their product, and teaching a giant company how to build a quality car again is something that can’t be done on the private-equity timetable. The problem is that no private-equity manager wants to be thought of as a mere financial engineer. The mythology of the business is that the specialists who swoop in from Wall Street are not economic opportunists, buying, stripping, and selling companies in order to extract millions in fees, but architects of rebirth.

The private-equity timetable, Gladwell explains earlier, is about three to five years. And once you think about it, it’s probably hard to teach most struggling companies to create a good product within that time frame. If it’s worth targeting by a private equity company, it’s not just struggling, but it’s also a large struggling company, which suggests that it’s fairly old too. It’s easy to imagine a young company turning from “struggling” to “successful”; indeed, that story is basically told every year in Silicon Valley. It’s a little more difficult to imagine this about a struggling company. A car is a complicated product, but I wouldn’t say it’s the most complicated product in the world. In fact, while it’s probably fairly complicated to build, it’s markedly simpler to sell: you have the benefit of millions of consumers needing to buy them periodically, year after year, which means you get quick feedback.

Contrast that to, say, this story about the private equity tragedy of Simmons Bedding Company: mattresses are often kept for years and years and don’t see the same kind of turnover that cars do, and you see that cars aren’t the most forbidding product for private equity firms to get into, and the three-to-five year timetable looks, well, more ambitious from the perspective of actually improving the product.

And if you’re not improving the product, what are you offering anyway? As Gladwell notes, financial engineering. In the case of the car companies, it’s fairly clear that that’s what they needed, because financial engineering could dramatically reduce the cost structure of the companies. The problem is that most private equity takeovers, unlike the government’s takeover of the auto companies, involve leveraged buyouts and hence more debt. More debt means more costs for companies, not less.

These are often hidden from view for a while—read this Sam Zell profile in the New Yorker about his takeover of the Chicago Tribune with your retrospective glasses on for a while for a sample of what this means (Zell concocts a scheme in which he converts the Tribune into an entirely different kind of company in order to reduce its tax burden. It doesn’t work. Speaking of not working, his meddling, if anything, makes the product even worse. See: INFORMATION IS THE NEW ROCK N’ ROLL. The Tribune’s website, it must be said, isn't all that appealing. And in a media world in which a few giants will consolidate vast media share, there was little reason before the crash that the Tribune couldn’t get into the LA Times-Washington Post tier of papers.)

So if private equity doesn’t improve the product, and it often doesn’t really offer financial engineering that works, what does it offer? Well, it offers firing many, many people (to meet the interest payments)  and the harvesting of tons and tons of fees and bonuses. In fact, private equity bosses often take out debt—putting it on the books of the companies they own—to pay themselves handsome bonuses before they've even done anything.  Essentially, they are less than worthless.

Monday, October 25, 2010


Pair of New Yorker articles: Seymour Hersh on the cyberwars that weren’t; Malcolm Gladwell asking “Who saved GM”?

Some nice pictures here of Iran’s roads.

Solar project approved in Southern California that’s projected to double solar electricity production…in the entire U.S.

Amusing: iTunes sells three separate tracks for the complete triptych of 4’33” for $1.99 each. Read this wikipedia article for an explanation as to the amusement here (also amusing: apparently one of the most popular searches on Google for 4’33” is “4’33” sheet music,” which is oh so delicious.)

The industrial organization of the Miami Heat (overthinkin' it).

How geography explains history so far.

How to raise productivity through R&D.

Indian billionaire builds 27-story personal mansion for a cool $1 billion. (Plus more in Indian conspicuous consumption.)

Apparently the Michelin Guide is prepared to award the restaurateurs of Japan the most number of stars in the world; one of them has this sentiment:
"It is, of course, a great honor to be included in the Michelin guide. But we asked them not to include us," says Minoru Harada, an affable young Osaka chef. His Sakanadokoro Koetsu, a fish restaurant with a counter and 10 seats, just earned a single star, its first. Loyal customers have sustained the restaurant over the years, he says, adding: "If many new customers come, it is difficult."

More on the Germany immigration-integration debate, from Foreign Policy and The Economist.

New tools for comparing the price of medical procedures.

Looking like the world food crisis will be deep, and last for quite a while.

Google TV has some problems with the networks, who are understandably worried about innovation totally disrupting their business. Resistance is maybe, possibly futile.

Apparently the U.S. government knew all the while that Karzai was taking straight cash from Iran.

The less you know about finance, the better: the counterintuitive thesis about financial education.

This Is How I'll Be Wrong, NBA Edition

My NBA predictions will almost certainly be wrong; in fact, I assume the majority of them will be wrong. So now I will attempt the task of predicting exactly how I’ll be wrong.

If the Heat aren’t champs, who will be?
I’ll guess the Thunder, actually. Great defense, on the upward trend; they match up well with the Lakers; the Heat are a different beast, but I like the Thunder’s speed on the perimeter—might be able to exploit the third guy in the James/Wade/? Axis.

If Kevin Durant isn’t MVP, who will be?
No one. Barring injury, Durant is basically a lock. He’s a top-five player in the league, and has locked down the “good guy” award (in comparison to the Heat Three’s “bad guys” awards), meaning that he’ll almost certainly get more votes than he warrants. Howard would be a worthy candidate, but I believe the commentariat has written him off with the “loser” label. Howard probably has to win a championship before he wins an MVP.

If John Wall isn’t Rookie of the Year, who will be?
DaMarcus Cousins. The question about Cousins is, “is he crazy?” Probably the wrong question. The NBA has proven that you can win with crazy guys and crazy guys have been capable of succeeding. The question is whether Cousins is bad crazy or good crazy, and that question hasn’t been answered. The positive part is that Cousins appears to actually care about winning—that’s where his temper comes in—which is the bane of so many unsuccessful crazy NBA players. Cousins has great post moves, is a voracious rebounder, and is big-guy-mobile like, say, Andrew Bynum.

So with these alternate predictions entered into the record, I’m quite sure that even these will be proven wrong by the facts. Such is the fate of the NBA. It’ll be an exciting ride this season, and I’m not sure anyone knows quite what to expect.

(Well, the NBA knows what it wants: JAMES! BRYANT! IT’S THE LAKERS AND HEAT IN THE FINALS ON ABC! and you can be sure it will fix everything it can to make sure it happens and oh wait that joke is old? Well so are the referees who will be enforcing Stern’s will.)


Apparently tax-grousing season has come early this year. Come to think of it, with the elections coming up, it’s actually right on time. Whatever the timeliness of the taxing debate, it’s certainly appropriate: the tax debate, like so much else in our politics, is weirdly framed and debated. Conservatives want whatever benefits rich people, which is generally low rates and a lot of loopholes; liberals try not to think about taxes too much, owing to the general unpopularity of anyone who advocates for higher taxes.

Sadly this isn’t really a sensible way of conducting tax policy, and it largely ignores the fact that our tax system is a crazy, complicated mess that distorts the economy and wastes a lot of people’s time trying to figure out all of the loopholes to maximize their savings.

That’s why I found the reaction to the Google-barely-pays-any-taxes story to be so frustrating. For those of us who didn’t follow the story, here’s a helpful recap:
Google Inc. cut its taxes by $3.1 billion in the last three years using a technique that moves most of its foreign profits through Ireland and the Netherlands to Bermuda.

Google’s income shifting -- involving strategies known to lawyers as the “Double Irish” and the “Dutch Sandwich” -- helped reduce its overseas tax rate to 2.4 percent, the lowest of the top five U.S. technology companies by market capitalization, according to regulatory filings in six countries.

As it happens, businessmen—whether it’s about the federales or, say, California—love to complain about their high taxes; but they don’t, effectively, pay a lot in taxes. The difference is in the number of loopholes (and Ezra Klein writes about a disturbing effort to create another one). Everyone assumes the primary problem is in the lost revenue, which is part of it; but the bigger problem might be in the resources that are devoted to figuring out ways to lower your tax rate.

And what’s true of corporations is true of individuals, which is why I’m glad the probably-useless deficit commission is tackling tax expenditures. We really do deserve far less of a tax hassle than the one we get.

How To Get Some Ideas

Most spin tries to convince us what we thought was untrue is actually true, or vice versa; great spin tries to convince us what we think is true is actually good (or bad, as the case may be). LeBron’s ad above falls into the latter category: acknowledges the problem and tries to turn it into a positive. LeBron’s his own man, the ad tells us, which is probably the intended message of all celebrity endorsements. It works within the LeBron advertisement oeuvre also: remember the LeBrons? He’s always been a pretty gifted patische actor—he’s got a lot more range than, say, Jordan.

It’s a bit far afield, perhaps, but I couldn’t help thinking of Mad Men after watching it. The ad’s essential message, as noted above, is ambiguous-to-negative: it acknowledges that you might not like LeBron, and doesn’t even necessarily try to convince you that you should (it asks you, instead, to respect him, which is a different question, now isn’t it?). The ad world as interpreted by Don Draper allows for little such ambiguity: the product is good and little ambiguity is tolerated about that essential fact. Some ambiguity is allowed in why the product is good, but not that it’s good.

The ad isn’t just more complex in terms of the message, it’s also very ambitious in terms of storytelling and its allusions. It requires a media-savvy consumer, one who’s tolerant of rapid jump-cuts and elaborate fantasy. This basically conforms to Steven Johnson’s argument in Everything Bad Is Good For You: that today’s popular culture, by weight of accumulated experience, has developed a complexity that would be unknown to people in previous eras.

Which may or may not be so, but it’s certainly the argument Mad Men subscribes to: Draper starts out the series as a revolutionary maverick, and he seems to end this season as a staid establishment figure. “He was smiling like he was the first guy to marry his secretary,” Joan acidly noted after Don’s shocking announcement, and probably the worst thing about Don’s transformation is that he doesn’t even seem to realize he’s losing pace with the times. How many truly interesting campaigns did Don devise this season? Most were variations of his familiar themes, and perhaps Don’s ambitions (to be an auteur of the ad world, talking to the basic fears and desires we have) have outstripped his abilities. Draper was always a Gatsby-like figure, but now he’s what Gatsby would’ve been if Gatsby ran out of ideas.

It’s odd to think about, but most celebrities, being not to the manner born, become that through self-invention. LeBron already went through that, at a young, precocious age; but now it seems—if we’re to think about it—that he’s doing it again, trying out roles. You’ll notice that he doesn’t seem to provide much of answer to the question “What should I do?” (with the implied question, “Who am I?” behind it.) Maybe the answer is that there isn’t really one, but that part of the joy is in trying out new ones from time to time. So: LeBron, don’t become Gatsby—don’t run out of ideas.

Sunday, October 24, 2010


“What was the hipster?” asks Mark Greif in New York

Health care and motorcycle use in delivering it in rural Africa.

Department of too-good-to-be-true: a Slovenian town elects Slovenia’s first black mayor, rather conveniently named “Peter Bossman.” Mayor Bossman, really?

More incompetence from the high speed rail people in California: now they can’t document who’s paying for their trips.

Public housing repairs can’t keep pace with demand, due to lack of funds. But where would they come from? And why would we want to put people to work doing useful things?

Some funny jokes from David Brooks re: Chicago.

Indian small towns are apparently trying to flaunt their wealth.

Those of us who have read Gomorrah recognize the import of this story: Italian government can’t open up new waste dump in Naples due to what's rather understatedly called "violent protests."

More war logs reporting: much tension on the Kurdish-Arab borders.

Dave Weigel does deep undercover reporting in a shadowy corner of a shadowy building in which a shadowy elite gathers: an academic symposium in Berkeley focusing on the Tea Party.

Microfinance comes to the U.S. Speaking of which, it seems microfinance might be undergoing a bit of an unsettling experience.

Bluntly effective: Iran pays Karzai’s chief of staff in cash-filled suitcases.

Will big businesses’ use of cloud computing put a damper on IT spending?

Hawai’i is a guinea pig for alternative energy storage.

The detestable, lamentable history of the phrase “I could care less.” Right up there with “touch base with” for me.

Policy innovations from smaller countries.

Is highbrow movies’ fiercest competition…themselves?:
… I don’t think it’s that movies as such are in decline as elite entertainment, but that technology has effectively forced new highbrow movies to compete with the cinema’s ample back catalog. Twenty years ago, if you wanted to have a “home entertainment center” that could serve as a decent substitute for the theatrical experience, you pretty much had to be willing to drop ten grand and devote a room of your house to it. Now a 50″ high-definition TV can be had for a few hundred dollars, and will fit against the wall of an apartment living room. It’s not a perfect substitute: If you want to get a big group of people together and make a social event of seeing a big flashy action movie with the latest special effects, the theater is still probably your best bet. But if you want to watch The Seventh Seal or Citizen Kane with a couple other people, it’s a viable alternative in a way that the smaller standard-def TV you’d find in an equivalent middle class home circa 1990 just wasn’t. Moreover, for the cost of a $10 monthly Netflix subscription, you’ve got an ample and growing library of both classic and recent movies available on demand. Once those costs are sunk, and once the audio-visual quality is high enough, a lot of people will actively prefer to watch a quieter or more thoughtful movie at home with a glass of wine.

Here, again, if you’re in the mood for (say) a big flashy sci-fi action movie, improvements in filmmaking technology mean that the latest theatrical release is going to have enough of an advantage to be competitive with the back catalog. Whatever else you might say about it, Inception is visually a lot more impressive than most old action sci-fi movies. (There are exceptions—Blade Runner springs to mind—but not a ton.) But if you’re looking for a smart, artistically shot film with smart dialogue? Unless you’re a truly voracious film buff, there are probably a couple hundred Criterion Collection films you haven’t seen that are superior on those dimensions to anything made this year. Time and tech do a lot more at the margin to improve flicks than films.

Reassessing Stanford's Schedule Part Eight of Many

I’m going to warn you ahead of time: this week featured a fearsome diminution of Stanford’s chances to get beyond 9-3. Let’s run down the reasons why. The narrow win against Washington State is somewhat disturbing, but not overly worrying in isolation. Perhaps the more worrying factor is the continuing mediocrity (at best) of Stanford’s previous opponents. UCLA received a piledriver-delivered beatdown from Oregon, and UCLA’s best win, Texas, just lost to Iowa State. I think it’s fair to say UCLA stinks. Notre Dame just lost to Navy for the second year in a row. I think it’s fair to say Notre Dame stinks. Wake Forest had a bye but has lost five straight. I think it’s fair to say Wake Forest stinks. The only Stanford win that hasn’t seen its reputation diminished is USC, and with the Oregon Death Star visiting the Coliseum soon, I think its embarrassment is soon to come. The “strength of schedule” part, therefore, doesn’t look good. The final worrying thing is the injuries, which have afflicted Stanford far more heavily this year than last. Chris Owusu didn’t play at all yesterday. Tyler Gaffney, same. Most worryingly: Delano Howell not only didn’t play at all, he was apparently spotted on the sidelines wearing a heavy cast. Given that less Delano Howell necessarily means more Austin Yancy and Taylor Skaufel, we should be highly pessimistic about the defense’s chances to regain its early-season mojo.

Let’s move on to exactly how the odds will be suffering.

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: LOSS, 1.
Week Six, USC, Home: WIN, 5.
Week Seven, Washington State, Home: WIN, 6.

Week Eight, Washington, Away: Let’s be real here. Washington has looked awful-to-mediocre when I’ve seen them, and Jake Locker is apparently injured. He should hope so, because if his level of play is his healthy self, he’s a very limited player. Washington’s defense is very mediocre. Yet, offensively, all of the elements are there. They have good wide receivers, a nice pair of running backs…it’s away in Seattle. This will probably be tough, but the sheer mediocrity of Washington over these last two weeks has me reassured about this win.
Chances of Victory: 67%
Previously-Assessed Chances of Victory: 63%

Week Nine, Arizona, Home: So Arizona destroyed Washington this week, and Matt Scott—most recently seen looking dazed and confused last year as a first-year starter—ran over and around Washington. He was able to throw well, and I’m sure he’ll be able to throw just as easily against Stanford. This is the problem if Nick Foles doesn’t come back. If he does, we can be fairly sure the offense will be excellent. The hope I have is that Matt Scott is like the hitter who gets on a hot streak his first time through the league, but who gets figured out the second time around. (By the way: Arizona’s defense looks fairly good.) I don’t think Stanford has enough firepower to compensate for its dodgy defense. Fortunately, the game is at home.
Chances of Victory: 45%
Previously-Assessed Chances of Victory: 65%

Week Ten, Arizona State, Away: Some things that we know about the world are still true: Arizona State still stinks. They just got murdered by Cal, fifty something to like 17.
Chances of Victory: 80%
Previously-Assessed Chances of Victory: 73%

Week Eleven, Cal, Away: Their destruction of Arizona State reinforced the meme that Cal is awesome at home and terrible away. Sadly, this edition of Big Game is being played in Berkeley. Happily, they haven’t yet played or beaten a good team there. I’m going to stick to my read of, CAL: NOT A GOOD TEAM. Sadly, I’m not sure Stanford is much better.
Chances of Victory: 55%
Previously-Assessed Chances of Victory: 73%

Week Twelve, Oregon State, Home: Still not an easy game to get a read of. Oregon State took a bye this week, and while I felt their mediocrity compared well last week, the secular trends mentioned in the introduction means their mediocrity compares poorly to ours. This analysis doesn’t even take into account Oregon State’s well-known tendency to gather strength going towards the end of the season.
Chances of Victory: 50%
Previously-Assessed Chances of Victory: 67% .

Expected Wins: 8.3
Previously-Assessed Expected Wins: 9.34 (DELTA: -1.04)

Go Ahead, Be Crazy

Who could disagree with a little more sanity? That question seems to be the premise of Jon Stewart’s “Rally to Restore Sanity,” and while more sanity is always welcome in our crazy little world of ours, I’m not sure it’s the most relevant obstacle separating us from, well, something better.

We’ve been crazy before. One of my history teachers a while back noted—perhaps apocryphally—that the country seems to lose its mind every hundred years or so (roughly: 1770s, 1860s, 1960-70s…which means the 2009-10 craziness, if it blossoms from an annus horibilis to a decade horibilis, would be roughly 50 years early. Damn you pat explanations of the cycle of history! Though now that I think about the matter a bit more, the 1880s-1910s were underratedly crazy)—which is a useful historical fact to keep in mind: the country was far crazier in those preceding periods (the Civil War probably requires no explanation, but for a fuller appreciation of just how crazy the late 1960s and early 1970s were, consult Perlstein’s Nixonland) than it is right now. And while these periods weren’t exactly pleasant for anyone to live through, we managed to emerge in relatively decent shape, all things concerned.

The critical difference, I’d argue, was the relative spryness of government in those days. In fact, if the lethargy of government to accomplish anything resembling maximal progressive aims resembles anything, it’s the Gilded Age government of the 1880s-1910s. The problem here with this comparison is that conservatives (and the rich who purchased them) explicitly controlled the majority in both houses of Congress, irrespective of the actual expressed democratic will of the people. On the other hand, while the progressives of Congress aren’t exactly Soviets come again, they do control the majority of Congress and so would reasonably be expected to dictate much more of government policy than they currently do. The problem is the rules, of course, and the way Congressional figures have obeyed the incentives set out for them by the system ever more rigorously, and strangled government functions.

The problem isn’t the craziness; we’ve been crazy before and we’ll be crazy again. If anything, it would be odd for us not to be crazy. Americans ought to be angry about what’s going on, and if the anger isn’t particularly desirable, the economic conditions that cause them aren’t either. The problem with the craziness is that it’s got all of the wrong targets: be a radical, go to the roots of things—the rules.

Saturday, October 23, 2010


In praise of the episodic short story.

A Brookings Institution symposium on innovation in health care.

Patents and green technology.

Thought Ross Douthat had a good take on Mad Men.

A pair of Mexico cartel stories: a massacre in Ciudad Juarez; the Salvadorean ex-commando advising Calderon.

A pair of interesting interviews: with Judd Apatow; with Mark Ruffalo.

U.S. apparently pushing wider C.I.A. role in Pakistan.

Dilma appears to be on track to win the Brazilian Presidency.

This article doesn’t explain what it purports to explain (re: Mike Singletary and a certain infamous incident.)

This is incredibly wonderful: Joe Posnanski on a great infomercial, for a product called the Hawaii Chair. Trust me when I say this will immeasurably enhance 3-5 minutes of your life, at least.

More on Gov 2.0.

If space tourism ever makes it big, what will it mean for climate change?