Tuesday, November 30, 2010

Linkism

Supreme Court holds court on California’s still-overcrowded prisons, with this vivid passage from Sotomayor:
"When are you going to avoid the needless deaths that were reported in this record?" Justice Sonia Sotomayor said at arguments on Tuesday. "When are you going to get around people sitting in their feces for days in a dazed state? When are you going to get to a point where you are going to deliver care that is going to be adequate?"

Google to launch comprehensive e-book venture.

Inventions: Time chats with the coders who created various famed Internet file-sharing stuff to see what’s happened with them; more interestingly, and longer: the economic perspective on inventions.

Will the EU change intellectual property rights to jack up the prices for AIDS drugs?

Hip-hop in The New Yorker: a review of Kanye West’s new album; and a broader consideration of hip-hop in general, centered around book reviews for Decoded and the contentious Anthology of Rap.

Senate passes food safety bill. For context on how overdue: “The House first approved the food-safety bill in July 2009.” Another reminder: if we were living on the House’s schedule, we’d have a lot more done by now.

CT scan use rising dramatically at E.R.s.

Did financial reform worsen pay situation at top financial firms?

WikiLeaks reaction. Fred Kaplan has a good piece, and Ezra Klein makes a point:
Assange isn't whistleblowing or leaking. Both of those are targeted acts focused on an identified wrongdoing or event. He's simply taking the private and making it public, with relatively little in the way of discrimination. If he's really effective, the likely outcome won't be that people know more, but that they know less, as major institutions -- both public and private -- will stop sharing their information so widely internally and stop writing so much of it down. That means decision-makers will know less, bureaucrats and managers will know less, reporters will know less, historians will know less, and so on. Assange may think his target is the U.S. government, or Goldman Sachs. But at the end of the day, there will still be governments and there will still be banks. What Assange is really doing is turning them against electronic text, file storage and large internal networks.
In a fascinating essay looking at Assange’s essays and thoughts, one blogger argues that this is exactly the point.

What ideas are behind their time?

Obama to support an interesting corporate tax reform?

Odd And Strange Regulations

One of the poorly framed debates these days has to do with regulation—there’s a lot of bad rules out there, and very often they aren’t the focus of our efforts, in favor of stirring up public debate on contentious or controversial issues. I thought it was interesting, in that light, to read this article about how India isn’t doing the right work to accommodate the coming teeming urban masses:
A recent report by the McKinsey Global Institute estimated that by 2030, 70 percent of India’s jobs would be created in cities, and about 590 million Indians would live in them. To provide enough housing and commercial space, it said, India must build the equivalent of the city of Chicago every year.

But it has no such plans, and the cities already here are buckling under the strain of their new arrivals. From Mumbai to Bangalore, Delhi to Chennai, roads are perpetually choked. Sewers, water lines and electricity are lacking. Perhaps most important, housing is desperately short, especially for impoverished new arrivals, leaving India with more slum dwellers than anywhere on earth.

And while crazy regulations aren’t exactly the only problem, they’re certainly up there:
Like those of many Indian cities, Delhi’s building codes and zoning laws were written for a much smaller city in a different time, with policies that actively discourage growth.

The number of floors in most neighborhoods is capped at five stories, and in many areas fewer. The government largely controls land, and government approval for new development is difficult to obtain, even to house the wealthy and middle class, never mind the poor.

I think in many cases it’s easier to see the problems with such a policy when looking at an unfamiliar place—sometimes context helps you, but sometimes context blurs the vision by introducing irrelevant or overly emotional issues. One blog I’ve found interesting to read recently is Market Urbanism, and the top four posts right now all focus on misguided regulations, one of which happens to be a policy more-or-less exactly like Delhi’s—Washington D.C.’s cap on the height of buildings. The reason there—the context—is that they don’t want their pretty views of the various monuments, etc., to be obstructed by tall buildings. And that’s not a totally crazy attitude, but it comes with a very real price: it means that real estate is more expensive than it would otherwise be and it means that the people who belong to the D.C. regional economy are more spread out and hence drive more, which has familiar consequences in terms of emissions, auto accidents, etc. That’s not nothing, and it’s worth thinking about more explicitly. As it happens, there are all sorts of odd and strange regulations restricting city life from reaching a higher vitality, which has very real consequences.

For The Wire Fans' Eyes Only



At :08, you may feel the thrill of "What?" I wonder if the drug dealers of Baltimore drove Kias...

Department of Lashing Out, Pay Freeze Edition

Whatever the other arguments for and against Obama’s proposal to freeze pay packages for federal employees, there’s one, in my view, that doesn’t fly: the argument from fairness—that because the private sector employees are suffering, so too must federal employees suffer. Ezra Klein writes about this argument (after quoting an e-mail he received from an angry private-sector worker):
…the freeze isn't about saving money. It's about recognizing the resentment private-sector workers have toward the federal workforce.

Of course it’s not about saving money—it saves all of, like, $60 billion over 10 years, which is the federal equivalent of balancing your family’s bankrupt budget by being extra careful with your spare change. So in the end it becomes about making federal employees experience the same sensations that their fellow citizens in the private sector are.

That’s as good an illustration of the bad knock-on effects of allowing stagnation that exists—it makes people mean-spirited, wanting to cut people down to size even though it will have no conceivable positive effect on their own lives. The federal government can afford the money spent on pay raises; it is, in many cases, spending less money on talent than its private sector competitors, meaning that said talent will migrate from the public to private sectors; and of course it will take money out of the economy when we should be trying to inject it into the economy. And all to make people feel better about themselves.

Don't Know Much About History...

The New York Times published an article sure to provoke incredulity, or something, when it noted that many Southern states and jurisdictions are just about ready to celebrate the Civil War. Not commemorate, but celebrate, and to do it without acknowledging what the war was all about—slavery. This is b.s., and the Times engages in a bit of false balancing by choosing to use “liberal sociologist” James W. Loewen as opposed to, you know, scholarly consensus.

It’s a puzzler to hear quotation after quotation like this in the article:
“We in the South, who have been kicked around for an awfully long time and are accused of being racist, we would just like the truth to be known,” said Michael Givens, commander-in-chief of the Sons, explaining the reason for the television ads. While there were many causes of the war, he said, “our people were only fighting to protect themselves from an invasion and for their independence.”

Yeah, for their independence for keeping slaves. It’s fairly amazing how common the belief that the Civil War was not fundamentally fought over slavery—I’d say practically every history class I’ve been in that’s touched on the Civil War has featured at least one contentious disquisition about how, yes, the Civil War was actually fought over slavery. Amazing because discouraging: it takes a certain willful blindness and lack of empathy to insist that the War was some sort of noble enterprise on the part of the South, and while it doesn’t directly cause discouraging attitudes towards black people, it’s of the same piece as those attitudes. They say war is written by the victors, but really it’s written by the powerful, and the persistence of this narrative confirms that Southern white narratives are more powerful and more truculent than their competition.

Monday, November 29, 2010

Linkism

French electrician claims that his collection of hundreds of Picasso works was a gift from the man himself; the Picassos are suing him for theft.

A look at Rupert Murdoch’s upcoming iPad publication.

Tyler Cowen dissects the health care reform bill.

Wikileaks: was the Chinese Politburo behind the Google hacking incident?

A look in on Iraq: the Sadrists are gaining power; and a dispatch from an American visitor to Iraq.

Occupational licensing studies, dental hygenists edition.

How Baidu won China.

Don't Mourn The Golden Ages

Golden ages tend to be nostalgia manufacturers—what happened to the golden age of [blank] and how can we get it back?—but it seems to me that in many cases, the end of a golden age is a good sign for the world rather than a bad one. There’s no golden age of painters quite like the Florentine one, but there are far more artists these days hanging around the world than then. This is an introductory way of arguing against a chin-scratching article of wonderment from the Wall Street Journal asking: “Where have the great New York City basketball players gone to?” (Note: this article was more exhaustively, and better written, by Jason Zengerle in the The New Republic here.)

The article starts with the usual musings on the glorious past, transitions to the depredations of the hype, and so on, and finishes with a criticism of the people who always get blamed when a golden age is tarnished: the youth, who apparently are lazy, love video games, and are just generally feckless in living up to the high standards that their wiser elders had so wonderfully provided.

The article only generally feints at the wider picture with this quotation here:
"What New York has lost, the rest of the country has gained," noted Gary Charles, director of the New York Panthers, a summer-league program that has enrolled some of New York's most talented youngsters for the past two decades. "You see teams from Florida or Texas where it used to be just football. Is New York still the king? It could be Washington, D.C., one year, Chicago the next. No one [owns] the market."

It’s a broadminded opinion that reflects a simple reality of basketball today: the reason New York isn’t preeminent basketball mecca today is that basketball is of a much higher, more globalized standard. If anything, his opinion is overly parochial: he could’ve added “Spain” and “Serbia” and “Lithuania” and “France” and been perfectly accurate as opposed to mostly accurate. So while New York is down, basketball in general is up, and so it’s tough to feel sorry for New Yorkers—it’s possible that New Yorkers are exactly as good at basketball as they were twenty years ago; the rest of the world caught up. And that’s for the better if you’re a basketball fan, because you get to enjoy basketball being played at the highest level it’s ever been, with the stories being driven by the talent (taking itself to South Beach and otherwise) being just as if not more interesting than ever before. And while you’re hesitant to call a trend a new reality, it seems like we’re adding franchise talents to the league every year, with the outgoing talent not nearly being equal. So while the golden age of New York basketball is tarnishing, the golden age of basketball in general is being gilded and polished every day.

And that’s good, unless you’re parochial. A parochial mindset is no hindrance if it’s confined to sports, but people seem eager to adopt this attitude to life in general. It’s no threat that other countries are becoming prosperous, as it’s often framed, and the end of American dominance vis-√†-vis the rest of the world isn’t necessarily bad; indeed, it’s an opportunity—it means that just as John Walls and Blake Griffins and Ricky Rubios are joining basketball every year, so too are more scientists and artists joining the world in the wake of increasing prosperity in emerging markets. It’s all good if the golden age goes global.

Immigration Blues

The news: the gears leading to the DREAM act are starting to turn ever so slowly and if we are lucky, we might get it passed. Yet it is something of a tribute to our era of diminished expectations that this counts as a notable accomplishment—let’s look at what the act actually does:
The measure would allow students who arrived in the U.S. before age 16, have been in the country at least five years, and have a high school or equivalent degree, to apply for permanent residency after two years of college or military service.

Which is nice, to be sure, but it doesn’t cover all of the undocumented immigrants who chose to come after age 16; indeed, this formulation makes it seem as if there’s something wrong with being an immigrant and coming to our country and wanting to work hard. (One of the bill’s sponsors, Luis Gutierrez, inadvertently frames the issue in a way that supports this interpretation:
“They didn’t decide, when they were six, seven or eight years old, to come here [illegally],” said Guti√©rrez, 56, in a recent interview during Thanksgiving recess. “Should we hold children responsible for the actions of their parents?”
)

All this avoids the issue that what we really want is not merely offering undocumented immigrants a path to citizenship, but figuring out how to attract more immigrants, period. Sadly this particular strain of thought is unlikely to gain many adherents, what with the new guy in charge of immigration in Congress, Rep. Steve King:
If the GOP votes as expected this month, Steve King will be in charge of immigration legislation in the U.S. House of Representatives. For proof that a meteor hit D.C. on November 2, listen to the ideas running through the head of the likely next chair of the immigration subcommittee. King has called for an electrified fence along the border. He wants to interpret the 14th Amendment of the Constitution to deny birthright citizenship for immigrants who have children here. He has dubbed illegal immigration not just a “slow-motion terrorist attack” but a “slow-motion holocaust.” “The line of scrimmage has moved closer to our goal line,” King tells me, “and you’ve got a different team calling the plays.” What gives liberals tremors is not just that Barack Obama’s immigration agenda is dead. It’s that King’s swaggering personality will dominate the debate for years.

Sadly, with attitudes like this, we’ll have to live with small achievements.

Sunday, November 28, 2010

Linkism

A superb article on creating a consumer economy in China from David Leonhardt.

The latest WikiLeaks document dump is encapsulated by the Times and the Guardian--it concerns a bunch of diplomatic cables that includes many salacious details that was already generally known. (Arab leaders distrust Iran? Really?!?) That said, still some interesting information in there.

Tyler Cowen has some worthwhile observations of Rio.

Why do the Chinese love late Picassos?

Inadvertent Policy Arguments

A Wired article makes an inadvertent policy case in the middle of reporting about a somewhat-fun gambling trend: apparently a few sportsbooks are doing in-game betting (e.g. betting that Peyton Manning will throw a touchdown pass on the next play), and the article has a brief wag-of-the-finger over why Las Vegas would want to accept Wall Street-type trading practices (doesn’t everyone realize that casinos are gambling and that, over the long run, you’re basically going to lose?), before briefly pointing out that many Wall Street practices look a lot like gambling:
“Wall Street hates being thought of as a gambling operation, but that’s how it makes its money,” says John Bogle, founder of the risk-averse index-fund titan Vanguard Group. “One of the big trading firms just announced that its average hold time on a stock was 11 seconds. That is not investing—it’s gambling.”

That’s (more or less) true!

The reason you might say “less” true is that the reason the holding period is only 11 seconds is because computers are really, really fast about buying and selling and so advocates will claim that these computers will always be selling at whatever maximizes expected valuing, which may be gambling, but it’s of the educated sort that defines human behavior in these capitalist days. Fine, you might say. Here’s the “more”: the reason this looks good 99.99% of the time is because of the .01% is looks bad—when all the computers sell at once and “plop” goes the market, right down the toilet.

This is a problem. And what’s being gained in exchange? It doesn’t steer money to productive purposes—it’s not as if the companies/commodities being exchanged get this money. Instead it’s generally being played as a game of pattycake with other financial institutions, who collect fees all of the while. It doesn’t provide liquidity to the market (i.e. the ability to quickly buy and sell assets without too much of a hassle) because that liquidity will desiccate at important moments. It’s fairly useless, and a place at which excessive technology leads us astray. It is an argument for a financial transactions tax, or a small tax that would only really hurt the people who buy and sell stocks every 11 seconds.

To Dare Is To Do: Stanford And The Future

All we have now is the pure, sweet bliss of an unexpectedly nice future. With the BCS ranking Stanford as the number four team in the country, this would seem to guarantee all of the good things we were thinking about—no Alamo Bowl for us…instead, the Orange Bowl? The Fiesta Bowl? Yes, and yes except, improbably: feel free to dream bigger.

I mean more than the Pasadena Bowl; think the unthinkable. Yes, I am referring to the national championship. As Walter Sobchak advised the Dude, “If you will it, Dude, it is no dream.” You can sense the possible nascent argument in the talking head panel ESPN uses to puff up what should be a very bare-bones event (from “here are your rankings, good bye.” to “here are your rankings, LOUD NOISES ABOUT WHO’S GETTING SCREWED, good bye.”): notably, several people were arguing that, in fact, TCU was not the number three team in the country; in fact, Stanford was. And even the seed of the idea being planted in the national consciousness is enough of a start to take advantage of a radical happening: more than if Auburn loses—what if Auburn and Oregon loses? Sheer madness, I know, but contemplate it: the rules of BCS inertia mean—Stanford! TCU! Luck! Dalton! Your national championship, on ABC!

Of course, this radical happening is so crazy that it seems foolish to handicap how, exactly, things would play out in the minds of voters, who are the relevant people at work here. So I’ll just handicap the odds of the on-the-field stuff.

Auburn loses, Oregon wins, Then What?:
I have Auburn as 65% to win: all we learned about Auburn yesterday is that they are frustratingly, incredibly lucky, and that Alabama can’t finish off a game. As we learned with LSU, eventually, finally, lucky teams get their comeuppenance. The opening line for Auburn-South Carolina is Auburn (-5.5), which I believe implies approximately a 70% chance of winning for Auburn. Sagarin’s PREDICTOR ratings actually believe South Carolina is better than Auburn, intriguingly. I think a South Carolina win is fairly possible: they nearly beat Auburn the first time around at Auburn, and surely Atlanta, Georgia is friendlier confines than Plains, Alabama. On the other hand, Cam Newton, like a great basketball player, singlehandedly distorts reality—whomever has him on their team starts with the advantage? Anyway, I give Oregon an 85% chance of winning, meaning this scenario happens 29.75% of the time.

OK, then what? We’ve been focusing on the Pasadena Bowl in this scenario, presuming a TCU-Oregon matchup. But the voters are fickle. As I said earlier, the talking heads seemed to be hinting at being amenable to a non-TCU national championship, which would open the door to the improbable Oregon! Stanford! It’s the national championship on ABC! I don’t rate this probability, because it seems unlikely that the voters would rematch a regular-season game—though I think it would be interesting, and were both teams healthy, would provide a high-quality, entertaining matchup. The other possibility, in the event of TCU being excluded from the national championship, is a Oregon-Wisconsin matchup, which seems more likely, because the people who win in chaos are the politically connected—didn’t we learn this from the financial crisis?—and I doubt Stanford’s political chops in football are enough.

Auburn loses, Oregon loses, Then What?
Take the 15% that Oregon doesn’t win, with the 35% Auburn doesn’t win, and you get a 5.25% chance of pure chaos. The odds are perhaps a bit more favorable for a national championship appearance, since both spots in the game will be vacated, but again, chaos favors the connected—you might see Wisconsin! TCU! It’s the national championship game on ABC! (and no Stanford in the Pasadena Bowl.)

65% of the time, by the way, everything goes as planned. Boring, huh?

This post is just a detailed way of explaining all the ways we don’t know. Because we don’t. But, since Stanford has a fairly secure grip on the number four spot, it makes sense—give in to rooting for chaos.

Saturday, November 27, 2010

Linkism

The semi-triumphant return of Linkism!

Shanghai is encouraging families to go to sea burials—so they’ll have room to build more real estate.

An interview with Roberto Savio, the author of Gomorrah, the self-exiled Italian writer (the gangs are after him).

Should New York embrace development to preserve its historic districts?

Publishers are testing out “enhanced” e-books/apps.

Reports on the military intervention in Rio de Janeiro favelas to crack down on crime.

Mobile banking has arrived in Haiti

Is population growth “a genius machine”?

B.P. to do more deepwater drilling…in Egypt.

Mega study of safety in hospitals discovers:
… instead of improvements, the researchers found a high rate of problems. About 18 percent of patients were harmed by medical care, some more than once, and 63.1 percent of the injuries were judged to be preventable. Most of the problems were temporary and treatable, but some were serious, and a few — 2.4 percent — caused or contributed to a patient’s death, the study found.

Sign of the times: Meixco advises visitors to “convoy” to their destination.

Austerlitz: Stanford 38 Oregon State 0

Well, well. 38-0 at the beginning of the fourth quarter, and I’ll run the risk of a Dewey-beats-Truman headline: this game is probably over and seals the greatest regular season in modern Stanford football history. It’s the bridge from regular season to postseason and from there to offseason that seems so uncertain, if exciting.

The beginning and end of the victory started in a familiar place—the brilliance of Andrew Luck. It’s the kind of brilliance that’s destined to leave sooner rather than later, and while we can talk ourselves into scenarios in which Luck stays, it’s probably wiser to assume this is the end of his playing years at Stanford rather than the beginning. Surely less on the disappointment when he does. So since that’s true, enjoy it, richly so.

The other source of transience comes from the coach, who most assume, with ample justification from history—coaches have always left schools like Stanford so they will always leave schools like Stanford—will leave. Fair enough, I suppose. And, like Luck, you’d be hard-pressed to begrudge him leaving. With this beatdown of Oregon State, there’s not a team in the Pac-10 Harbaugh hasn’t handed a beating to at one point or another. Well done.

****

So: the future—players edition. Zach Ertz, the redshirt freshman tight end, looked like a fine mover-and-catcher out there with a real nice touchdown catch, among others. The defense looks, if not dramatically more athletic, certainly much smarter than it did before—the Oregon State screen game was suffocated with the intelligence of the linebackers and defensive linemen, who operated well as a team. Things might or might not be good in the future; who knows?

****

It might be best to define Luck’s brilliance in terms of what’s not there. Owusu missed his second game in a row, which officially brands the entire wide receiving corps as injury-riddled—all of the top three guys have missed games, multiple ones to be sure. And yet Stanford has only had one mediocre offensive performance, against Arizona State; the rest of the time it rolled like Napoleon through Austria. And just like no one could’ve predicted an army of ill-fed, tiny French peasantry could have dominated all of Europe, it would’ve seemed like madness to predict the overmatched 1-11 team would flip the record around to 11-1.

Why You Might Not Want Too Many Great Minds

The phrase: “Great minds think alike.”

Two questions:
1) Is this, in fact, true?
2) If it is true, what does this imply about great minds?

Let’s take the phrase as true just for the sake of argument. If great minds think alike, the ideal distribution of great minds would be fewer than you’d think. There’s the danger of groupthink spread wide—i.e. too many great minds thinking more-or-less the same thoughts means that no one’s thinking the completely crazy, odd thoughts that can stimulate people in fruitful directions. Much of the cool stuff we’ve done throughout history is the result of serendipity and randomness, and too many great minds endangers that.

That’s why you might not want too many great minds.

Friday, November 26, 2010

A Great Disturbance In The Force

If there’s anything that characterizes America, at its finest and its worst, it is massive overreaction—if we’re down, everyone else is like the awesomest ever; if we’re up, we’re the only superpower and all that. You might have noticed that things are down lately, and so we’re prone to overestimating the qualities of other countries. This is probably most commonly done with China—this, a country with a $4,283 per capita nominal GDP, which barely outranks such countries as Turkmenistan—but has lately been Germany, as we can see from this op-ed by Harold Meyerson. To be sure, it’s an interesting piece with many good points about Germany’s mittelstand, the small- and medium-size companies that manufacture a lot of good, interesting and innovative stuff.

What it doesn’t recognize is how Germany is able to compete. With Germany stuck in the euro, Germany always has to deal with higher prices—what with the strength of the euro—or lower-wage countries within the Eurozone (e.g. Poland). This means that the only way for Germany to be remotely competitive as an exporter is to hold down wages:
The German economy expanded a sharp 2.2% in the second quarter from the first—the fastest pace since reunification in 1990. But, despite the export-driven rebound, most German workers aren't getting any richer.

One in five are working in the low-wage sector, defined as earning less than €9 (about $11.50) an hour. Nearly a third of the job openings are temporary and often badly paid.

Average annual net income per employee has fallen steadily since 2004, reaching €15,815 in 2009, down from €16,471 in 2004.

While it’s neat that Germany is running a large trade surplus, it doesn’t seem to be doing Germans much good, given that, like the U.S., their average income fell during a long period in the aughts. Indeed, the percentage of Germans making below the thirty-third percentile wage went well up from 1998 to 2008—by about five percent, meaning that German inequality escalated during the aughts, just like the U.S. did.

This is probably the biggest indictment of the aughts’ economy for developed countries; that even the most successful country can’t seem to make its employees better off—as defined by average wage—would be a sign that something very disturbing happened throughout the countries seemingly best positioned for more good things, and it’s something that ought to be figured out.

Wednesday, November 24, 2010

Off For A While

You know why. Heat...still in crisis. Embrace the revolution.

Spiting the Revolution

As we now know, the Heat are basically in crisis mode now. The loss of Udonis Haslem for a significant period, combined with the never-had loss of Mike Miller, have deprived the team of the veterans, the proverbial glue guys of the team that will make the band of buccaneers concept work (for all the lawlessness, pirates were actually socialists; it’s something the Heat should keep in mind as they continue in their offend-just-about-everyone tour.) This has made the commentariat restless—even the people who hated the whole idea wanted, on a certain level, the Heat to be great, so they could be hated all the more vociferously and publicly. Petering out—not quite anticipated. This anger has lead some people to make up criticisms that aren’t actually true:
At any point, had Pat Riley dropped the lotion and listened to the thousands of people who said, “Hey, when you guys play a team with a great point guard, isn’t going to be difficult and exhausting for your best player to have to chase them for 40 minutes a night?” the Heat would have a point guard, Wade would guard the two and LeBron the three. And, had he spent a little more time scouting for young, developmental players the bench wouldn’t be filled with folks who could be on an episode of “NBA: Dead or Alive?” Players like Juwan Howard, Jerry Stackhouse, Jamaal Magloire and, you know, “veterans” like Eddie House.

Who are these thousands of people? People were complaining about the ethics of bringing together the team, not the mechanics. I heard exactly no one, at the time that this whole deal was coming off, complain that the Heat were being insufficiently attentive to the needs of finding a point guard. Nor were people exactly angry about the acquisition of veterans—truth is, to anyone even vaguely familiar with the NBA salary cap rules, savvy veterans were just about the only thing that was affordable, due to the veteran’s minimum. If there are young players available, and they fit in your cap space, chances are it is because they suck. The problem with these veterans is not that they are good, but that, because of injury, they are being forced into roles that require them to be good. Eddie House should only be running around shooting threes, and that’s it. The Heat are in this respect just another team, which may be depressingly banal for everyone involved.

In fact, if anything, the Heat have shown too much devotion to the idea of a traditional lineup. Somehow the “pure” point guard Carlos Arroyo gets starting minutes burn when it is beyond clear to everyone—it was clear from the very first game of the season—that Carlos Arroyo is not very good: he does not penetrate, he does not defend, and most critically, he does not shoot. The Heat need shooters; fortunately they have some that are healthy—Eddie House, James Jones—but refuse to play them. In this, at long last, they have run out of nerve. What they should be doing is this: use LeBron—or Dwyane—as the point guard. Nontraditional, yes, but the whole point—up until now—is to break the rules. But they have not; they have run out of courage. If they were the French during their Revolution, they would not execute the King. If they were cruel industrialists during the Industrial Revolution, they would stop building machines after the Luddites smashed them. Right now, they are rebels without a revolution.

Tuesday, November 23, 2010

Linkism

Why isn’t China’s life expectancy increasing as (relatively) quickly as its economy?

U.S. GDP in the third quarter revised up to the robust, strong, powerful growth rate of 2.5%.

Reflections on the much-hated new Penn Station.

Photos of the garbage crisis in Naples.

Silicon Valley is out pursuing economist talent.

Some energy companies are pledging to cut emissions independently of cap-and-trade.

Do dentists use too much radiation in scanning their patients?

On building better power grid controls.

Are Indian journalists too close to business magnates and politicians?

Annals of Bad Regulations

It’s a shame anti-regulation folk spend so much time on the contentious, controversial regulation (which always and easily devolve into arguments about how these anti-regulation folk just want to help the rich) when there are a fair number of regulations that serve little purpose at all. Here’s a Slate article about the difficulty of attracting tourists to the U.S.—unless you’re a citizen of the roughly three dozen countries whose visa requirements are waived, you have to go through an onerous visa process:
Brazil is a great example of the hassles travelers have to endure to secure visas, says Melissa Froehlich Flood, vice president of government affairs at Marriott International. There are only four consular offices in the entire 3.3 million-square-mile country, and scheduling an interview at one of them can take upward of 90 days. The USTA estimates that a Brazilian family seeking to vacation in the United States would have to shell out $2,600 just to get visas if they lived in Manaus, a 2,054-mile drive from the Embassy in Brasilia. That's $2,600 spent on travel before the trip even begins. After that, there's another wait of two to three weeks while the visa is actually processed. Faced with these kinds of demands, it's perhaps not surprising that the rapidly growing middle classes in many emerging markets choose to vacation elsewhere. The slow process hurts hotels, restaurants, stores, and other businesses at which tourists spend their money. It's also a hindrance to American exporters, since there's no way to fast-track the visa of a businessperson who wants to come to the United States to purchase American-made goods…Unfortunately, some of our biggest potential tourism markets—China, Brazil, Chile, Argentina, and India—aren't part of the visa-waiver program.

The regular logic of regulation and lobbies doesn’t really apply here; you’d imagine tourism-related businesses would be eager to expand the number of countries eligible for visas, and yet the tightness of the list seems to indicate otherwise. The countervailing force—anti-terrorism hysteria—would seem to augur otherwise, except it’s not as if the hysteria is focusing on the pressing issue of visas into the countries. I suppose bureaucrats are a risk-averse lot by nature, but still: it’s quite silly and counterproductive and where oh where are the libertarians when we need them?

The Art of Murdering

“The essence of hip-hop, the battle,” Jay-Z once declared, and when it comes to his most famous battle, everyone seems to agree that Nas won it on the back of such criticisms as “Eminem murdered you on your own shit.” Point of pride—it’s your song, you better be able to carry it.

But I always felt Eminem’s murdering Jay-Z on his own shit was a kind of weak criticism, at least on the specific song in question—“Renegade” features an all-time verse from Eminem which outshines a merely very good verse from Jay-Z. But everyone was very sensitive about the criticism, which is an interesting thing to think about in retrospect: by these standards, Kanye West has been murdered so many times on his own shit that it’s demeaning, or something. Except it’s not; by this point we don’t care and good for us. In fact, West has a long tradition of coaxing not just great verses, but the best verses a rapper’s ever given. The first time I really became aware of this was way back in Late Registration:


Like Paul Wall even knew some of those words—“immaculate” “illuminate” and “insinuate” and such, just a slithering, swaggering verse. What has Paul Wall done again, besides this? For all I know he’s become a monk sworn to an oath of silence.

West’s new album basically becomes a baroque exercise in glutting featured artists in there—someone wrote that West uses guest artists like other people use instruments—and naturally some of them give absurdly good performances, much better, I’d suspect, than they’ll give again. A curious talent for a rapper.

Strange Times Now

In today’s Earth-shattering news department—welcome, North and South Korea and Iran!.

***

Probably you’ve heard of the North Korea-South Korea confrontation that has resulted in actual exchanged artillery fire. One hopes that this is not a prelude to anything in particular, given that the region involves no fewer than three nuclear powers (U.S., China, North Korea), but it’s hard to be particularly confident when you hear comments like this:
The President of South Korea has said he believes "enormous retaliation is going to be necessary to make North Korea incapable of provoking us again".
Sounds like Cold War game theory logic come back again! (The South Korean President can’t well say, “Yeah, whatevs” because this would signal weakness and invite attack; on the other hand, signaling strength puts you on course for a game of nuclear chicken.)

It’s also hard to escape the context of all this—the two Koreas have been jousting for a while now over various territorial matters, along with that weird incident with the submarine (and the exchanged gunfire in late October right before the G-20 meeting) to conclude that, like volcanic activity, something is bubbling up and feeding on itself. Figuring out North Korea is a fool’s game, but it probably has something to do with the leadership transition, right? Or who knows?

***

The ultra-surprising news that Iran’s parliament wants to impeach Ahmadinejad but was blocked by Khamenei continues Iran’s longest-running mystery as to why Khamenei likes Ahmadinejad so much—at the beginning of the Ahmadinejad administration, they really were not fans of each other. At any rate, apparently the Guardian Council—one of many of the baroque number of entities guaranteed by the Iranian constitution (there’s the upper house and lower house of parliament, the President, the Supreme Leader, the Guardian Council, the Council of Expediency, and the Assembly of Experts. Got that all straight?)—has recommended to Khamenei that he further curb the powers of the Iranian parliament, which sure would be interesting.

Oh, by the by: Iran just issued an arrest warrant for the son of Akbar Rafsanjani, the guy who leads both the Council of Expediency and the Assembly of Experts. When last we heard of Rafsanjani, he was trying to keep his leadership of Iran’s biggest private university system too—which Ahmadinejad wanted for the $$$ involved there—and it’s not hard to see the arrest warrant against the son as anything but a move against the father. This is also interesting, given that Rafsanjani’s reputation among reformist elements in Iran was of a moderate guy who liked making money for himself and his associates. But it’s strange times.

Monday, November 22, 2010

Linkism

The disappearing apple varieties of America.

9-1-1 will soon accept texts, streaming video.

Who were worse imperialists: the British or French?

Felix Salmon informs us why Wall Street won’t shrink.

Iran cracks down on labor activists.

Should states set their own immigration quotas?

Is better health care good for GDP growth?: an example—cardiovascular disease edition.

An attack on South Africa’s ANC.

Was Boston distinctive?

On Russia’s other export industry: blonde hair.

Get Excited! Stanford Basketball!

If you are a Stanford fan and slightly apprehensive about the future, reassure yourself: you’re about to go through the same fun cycle as before, just with a different sport. I am, of course, referring to the previously-dormant but now stirring Stanford basketball team.

The trouble really began with Trent Johnson, who is a very mediocre coach. (There was a hue and outraged cry over Johnson’s nonextension two years ago; I wish we’d have a chance to revisit that. Johnson had a nice first year, winning with another coach’s guys, but quickly and deeply regressed. This year looks to be more like his second year: he just lost at home to Nicholls State. This is the Trent Stanford fans who paid attention came to know and hate—the roll call of inexplicably bad Trent Johnson losses at Stanford includes: UC-Davis, UC-Irvine, Santa Clara [by 16 at home!] and Siena. What a crummy coach. Why was I supposed to regret losing him again?) Johnson’s mediocrity and a chaotic transition ensured a poor start to Johnny Dawkins’s Stanford coaching career and nuking the 6th man club’s spirit, but now, Stanford basketball is, if not back exactly, certainly within viewing distance of it.

On his way out the door, Johnson explained—this was after leaking sympathetic accounts to friendly media about how he wanted to be buried under Maples Pavilion and other such pablum—that he just couldn’t recruit a sufficient number of athletes (he did it while calling out Mitch Johnson in particular for his lack of athleticism, which while true didn’t speak well of the man. There’s the “class” part of the question, and then there was the “judgment” part too—Mitch Johnson was Trent’s hand-picked point guard and Trent never bothered trying to find an upgrade, unless you count giving Drew Shiller a scholarship as an attempt. Since Shiller couldn’t even get playing time for USF, I’ll say that if it was a genuine attempt, Trent Johnson was spectacularly dumb in that instance.) And while you won’t confuse the current Stanford team with Kentucky, it does give the lie to Johnson’s claim that you can’t recruit athletes to Stanford: it’s got quite a bit of athleticism; whether it’ll do anything with it is quite another question.

Start, I suppose, with the older players. Jeremy Green has moved on from irresponsible gunner to responsible gunner. Last year he had an improbably low 5.3 Assist percentage, which would compare favorably with tunnel-vision-inflicted big men. This year, he isn’t really passing insightfully, but he is taking better opportunities, probably because better opportunities are being created for him. Josh Owens, the power forward, looks basically the same player as he was two years ago, which is one of the more incredible stories I’ve ever heard—Josh Owens missed the entire year last year for an undisclosed medical condition.

The problems when it comes to the older players comes with one Jarrett Mann. Mann just might be the worst free-throw shooter I’ve ever seen at the college or professional level, all things considered. You might say Shaq or you might say Andris Biedrins, what with Biedrins’s incredible 16% free throw percentage last year as a professional, and I would accept either of these responses. The problem here is that both of these guys are big men and they are not expected to shoot. Mann is your point guard, and if there’s anyone who should better a 5-for-17 mark, it’s your point guard. It’s not just the stats but the way he goes 5-for-17: he had a complete airball followed by missing wide right and hitting the padding on the underside of the rim. Compounding this problem is that Mann can’t finish; he’s the proverbial ten dollar setup, ten-cent finish guy.

It’s pretty clear that if Mann continues to play this way, he won’t get many minutes. There are young players who are playing well; the point guard, and perhaps least promising, is Aaron Bright, who looks so far like he will mature into one of those point guards whose presence you forget is even there.

The potential stars in the class are Anthony Brown and Dwight Powell. Brown is a lanky swingman who has one of those unhurried drives out of the Brandon Roy catalogue; we’ll see, we’ll see. The guy, by the way, whom we don’t have to see about is Dwight Powell, who plays like Lamar Odom does—the same versatility, the same ability to dribble for a big man that’s pretty remarkable.

A sequence in the second half of the Arkansas-Pine Bluff blowout illustrated that. It started out around 7:00 left in the second half when Powell snatched a rebound right out of a defender’s hands, elevated and got fouled for two free throws. The next play, on the defensive end, Powell grabbed the board and went coast-to-coast. The play after, Powell stole the ball on the sideline, tightroped it and sent a slick pass to Bright, who finished the layup. Powell has the same sort of uncommon grace and versatility for a big man that Odom does, and while it’s unlikely Powell will ever become as good as Odom is right now, Powell does a pretty good impression of him.

It’s too early to say exactly how good Stanford basketball will be even this season—kenpom.com has Stanford tentatively ranked fifth in a weak Pac-10 (this has become a bit of a trend, sadly)—but I do believe it’s trending upwards.

Why Men In Black Might Have Been Meant To Brainwash You

Anyone who has spent time in the humanities in college recently has either been seduced by, or narrowly escaped the clutches of Theory. You know, the stuff indicated by phrases like “paradigms of authority” or “patriarchy” or “discourses of transgression against race and gender” and stuff like that. It is generally easy to make fun of, but it’s not entirely wrong: there is a lot of stuff going on that you wouldn’t necessarily notice otherwise underneath the surface of our, uh, texts. (Oh geez, there’s the jargon creeping in.) The problem with it, I recently realized as I watched a short snippet of Men in Black on cable a few days ago, is that there’s a lot of weird stuff going on with our commonplace stories.

Men in Black, as you may have guessed, was the genesis of this particular idea: there’s a segment—when Will Smith’s character is being recruited to join the agency that essentially regulates aliens on Earth—which is basically a well-hidden (well, at least for a ten-year-old, which is what I was when I first saw the movie) libertarian manifesto.



Unfortunately the tip-off line occurs just after this scene—and no, after scrounging about YouTube I couldn’t fine this scene + 15 sconds—where Rip Torn’s character says acidly, “I see you’re all the finest government training has to offer.”

Viewed that way the entire thing becomes, well, libertarian/vaguely Ayn Rand-ish to the core. The “best of the best of the best” turn out to be trained to be bland, safe-achievers; it’s the representative from the NYPD with a problem with authority who’s a creative, outside-the-box, paradigm-busting kind of a guy who’s perfect to deal with fickle, strange aliens. Viewed from that context, Will Smith’s character’s dragging the table over to provide a writing surface is both: a) an asshole maneuver distracting his fellow test-takers and b) a clever way to get himself a writing surface. The test isn’t the real test; it reminds me of a story Michael Lewis told in Liar’s Poker about interviewing with investment banks: apparently—and if I recall correctly this was presented as an apocryphal story—interviews at a particular investment bank in the eighties would begin with the interviewer asking the interviewee to open up the window of the skyscraper the investment bank had its offices in. The interviewee invariably found it impossible to do so; windows are sealed shut in skyscrapers, apparently. Interviewees often struggled for vast periods of time before admitting defeat. The only way to pass the test was to call bullshit on your interviewer immediately—a good, practical way to sort for strong-willed individualism. Strong-willed individuals attracted to power or money tend more to the heroic persuasion of political thought, which tends toward the libertarian leave-me-alone-proles view. This is encapsulated just after that scene, when Will Smith has passed the test and is now being recruited to join the alien-regulation agency:



Most people are dumb is the necessary corollary of some-people-are-really-awesome-and-should-be-left-alone view.

The details of said (presumably hypothetical) alien agency turn out to be conveniently libertarian too: it’s private, having broken away from the government and financing itself from patents that it took out by stealing alien technology (continuing an honorable human tradition in force since at least the Industrial Revolution). (Interestingly, much of the movie makes a persuasive case for strong international law—basically our private alien-regulation agency is the Earth bureau for enforcement of space maritime law.)

The reason typically given by Theory advocates for dissecting and carping—usually carping—about the influences inherent in the canon or what have you is that the children are at risk of becoming monsters by internalizing the latent bad messages inherent in the stories. Maybe so, but it’s not so complex; if I can’t be aware until years later that a fairly popular movie had a clear libertarian slant—and I am not, to my knowledge, a libertarian—then the brainwashing effects of all those Disney movies is less than convincing. The view that the stories are going to influence our views on society seems plausible enough, but like the view that video games/rap/violent movies will turn us into soulless killers, seems to lack a certain amount of persuasive evidence (like, why has the crime rate been dropping pretty much continuously since the 1990s, even through some decent-to-major recessions?). So: more nuance, less assertions? Maybe? That makes sense to me.

Sunday, November 21, 2010

Linkism

I assume this is interesting: New Yorker’s John Cassidy asking “What good is Wall Street?”

What’s up with the hostility of potential Republican chairs of the Energy Committee towards light bulb efficiency regulations?

Startup incubators starting to go niche.

Apparently Apple and Murdoch's News Corp. are about to release an iPad newspaper, which is an appropriate time to ask: what should an iPad newspaper look like?

A horrible bit of urban planning for Moscow.

Some fun ruminations about whether “Pluto is a planet” debate.

More Afghanistan stuff: 21 parliamentary candidates disqualified for fraud.

What it feels like to be taken over by a Chinese firm.

Why is cocaine being laced by a drug used to deworm livestock? Apparently no one knows.

Annals of Senate dysfunction: no vote on food safety bill because Tom Coburn wants a vote on his earmarks amendment. (How was that ruled germane?)

A story from South Africa’s struggling experiment to distribute farmland to blacks.

Mergers in the health care system: good or bad?

Signs of a Chinese property bubble: the hot new thing is to divorce your spouse to get new property.

Reassessing Stanford's Future Part Twelve of Many

This would seem to be an awfully short post given past ground rules, but I’ve expanded its ambit to prognosticating all things future for Stanford football. So there.

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: WIN, 8.
Week Ten, Arizona State, Away: WIN, 9.
Week Eleven, Cal, Away: WIN, 10.

Week Twelve, Oregon State, Home: The team that went out and lost in consecutive weeks to UCLA and Washington State turned around and reduced USC to a wet smear beneath its spiked boots, which should be a cause for confusion and concern among Stanford fans and focus for Stanford players and coaches. Finishing the season 11-1 and securing one of the best records in Stanford history, and status as perhaps the best team in Stanford history is no given. (Better records included the immortal 1905 team’s 8-0 mark and the 1940 team’s 10-0 mark, though whether these teams are actually better is a question for the historians and nona- and octogenarians among us.)

So: Oregon State. Jacquizz Rodgers—quite the player! The rest of their pieces range from nondescript to “nice”, and I’m still not quite sure about their quarterback, of whom something doesn’t quite seem right. Still, they did destroy USC, on both sides of the ball. It’s no large achievement to score tons of points against USC’s offense—let this space remind you that Hawai’i, Minnesota, Washington, Arizona State, and Oregon all found the USC uncommonly friendly, congenial, and accommodative—but it is an achievement to shut down USC’s offense, which they did. (Matt Barkley was hurt in the second quarter, but the offense was not doing much until then, and I’m not sure it ever would’ve.) The reason for this was Oregon State’s monstrous DT Stephen Pa’ea, reminding everyone of the scary what-if of last year, i.e. “What if Ndamukong Suh transferred to Oregon State as he had threatened to do?” Anyway, USC’s offensive line is very good and seeing them bossed so thoroughly raises worries that Stanford, too, might find it difficult to get itself going. The past two weeks have not exactly been master classes in offensive line playe; against Arizona State it couldn’t block in the run or pass game; against Cal it was excellent in pass protection but only so-so in opening holes for the runners (both Taylor and Wilkerson finished under 4 yards/carry, though part of this was due to Stanford’s late-game predictability on offense as it ran the ball all the time in the interests of sportsmanship.) So I’m somewhat-to-vaguely concerned about this game, but I think we should be fine.
Chances of Victory: 70%
Previously-Assessed Chances of Victory: 80%

Expected Wins: 10.70
Previously-Assessed Expected Wins: 10.47 (DELTA: +.23)

But What Else About the Future?
I’m glad you asked. Start off with the near future (“What bowl are we going to?”), then we’ll take a tour of the navel-x-raying territory of the far future (“When will it all end?”)

What Are The Chances Of Going To The Pasadena Bowl?

Random ESPN commentator Rod Gilmore said, just now, that he heard that the Pasadena Bowl would pick TCU over Stanford, even if it didn’t have to. This exploded the parts of the internet that house Stanford people, and while I can’t completely dismiss the assertion, it seems kind of crazy. For one, for all the criticism about Stanford not selling out its stadium, it seems the citizenry of the Dallas-Ft. Worth area are equally cool to TCU—here’s the Google search for “TCU attendance”, which amusingly only returns results of people grousing about TCU’s attendance rather than actually including statistics of TCU’s attendance. You’d think, furthermore, that Stanford fans would be much closer to and much more excited about going to the Pasadena Bowl. The final little fact I’ll offer is that the Pasadena Bowl is very attached to the Big Ten-Pac-10 traditional matchup, so much so that it took a 9-3 Illinois team coached by Ron Zook. Surely a Stanford team coached by Jim Harbaugh and quarterbacked by the Andrew Luck is far more marketable than TCU. On the other hand, the little rule about the Pasadena Bowl picking the top non-AQ team only applies once until 2014; if they pick TCU this year they’re off the hook until 2014. It may be—assuming Rod Gimore’s uncited source is accurate (he didn’t even give the “SOURCES CLOSE TO THE PASADENA BOWL” thing)—that the Pasadena Bowl is thinking they might as well bite the proverbial bullet and pick an undefeated non-AQ team which would be much more marketable/likable than the riffraff it might, maybe have to pick if conditions repeated themselves again. I doubt it, but still, you have to give it some percentage of it happening: I’d guess the Pasadena Bowl picks us over TCU 80% of the time.

This complicates the rest of our math. The ideal scenario for Stanford, then, is for one and only one non-AQ team to go undefeated. Let’s break this down. TCU’s final opponent is New Mexico, which is now 1-10. Let’s say TCU has a 97% chance of going undefeated. Boise State’s next opponent is @Nevada, which is—as Cal fans will tell you—actually a pretty good team. I’ll guess Boise has a 70% chance to win that game and a 95% chance of beating Utah State, its final opponent. So Boise has a 66.5% of going undefeated, and TCU (obviously) has a 97% chance of going undefeated. So there’s about a 1.03% chance of both teams losing one game, a 64.5% chance of both teams going undefeated and a a 34.5% chance of one and only one going undefeated. So, given an 80% chance that the Pasadena Bowl takes Stanford over TCU when both Boise and TCU are undefeated, that means a 64.5% * 80% or a 51.6% chance that that happens; add that to the 34.5% chance and everything works out from the non-AQ perspective 86.1% of the time.

Oregon’s odds, by the way, remain basically the same of going undefeated: I think they beat Arizona 80% of the time and Oregon State 80% of the time. That means they’ve got a 64% chance of going undefeated.

The last team here is Auburn. They’ve got two teams left: Alabama and South Carolina. They’re playing Alabama in Tuscaloosa, which is a problem for them: I think Alabama beats them 55% of the time (NOTE: last week I had Auburn beating Alabama 51% of the time; my error: I didn’t realize they were playing in Tuscaloosa.). I think Auburn beats South Carolina 65% of the time. That means Auburn finishes the season undefeated 29.25% of the time, i.e. a 70.75% chance they don’t finish the season undefeated.



So. 70.75% * 64% * 86.1% * 70% = a 27.2% chance Stanford goes to the Pasadena Bowl
Last Week’s Percentage: 11.7%.

How iffy is my math?.

Navel X-Raying: The Far Future:

The suggestions have continued to roll in that Andrew Luck and Jim Harbaugh are just a little too good for Stanford and really should be doing bigger and better things. I suppose I somewhat agree, though the fact that they’ve led the team to a 10-1 record leads me to wonder how much better it can really get for this pair? Luck has to move on eventually; Harbaugh doesn’t. And whether or not you agree with the proposition, the real question is: why or (whether) now? The value of timing is unquantifiable but surely quite large. If both of them decide to leave, then it’s been a great ride; but still, why now?

For Luck the answer is very simple: he’s an athlete in a brutal game and any moment might cost him tens of millions of dollars. It’s a simple logic and why I expect him to leave. It’s possible he might not leave, but he’s clearly ready now.

Harbaugh is more complicated. The most important things to coaches, generally, are some combination of money, prestige and chance to win a championship. The NFL can always offer more money; other colleges offer more prestige and a better chance to win a championship. The real question is whether any of the jobs that might be offered bring more to the table.

Start with the NFL. It may offer more money, but because NFL teams do not have the same institutional advantages as elite colleges do, the jobs that open tend to be bad. Do you really want to coach the Buffalo Bills? I’m going to guess no, no matter how much money they bring in dump trucks. It’s too early to anticipate exactly which jobs will come open—besides the Cowboys, 49ers and (probably) Texans—and while not as much a hellish dystopia as the Bills or Lions, still aren’t particularly appealing. Cowboys-wise: You have to deal with Jerry Jones, Egomaniac GM, which means you won’t get an offensive line for years (literally: they haven’t drafted a offensive lineman in the first round for like a decade now). 49ers-wise: you get to deal with the Yorks, who are like Jerry Jones except not as smart. Texans-wise—well, I guess there’s no concrete reason to dislike.

So there aren’t any really great NFL jobs opening up, and at any rate it’s not clear any of them will fix upon Jim Harbaugh anyway. Some nontrivial number of NFL owners should remember that Nick Saban—who’s probably the best college coach working right now—failed in the NFL; why would Harbaugh succeed where Saban failed (not to say it couldn’t; merely to say that there’s not an obvious reason why.) Then there’s the deep bench of coaches: reputable former NFL coaches currently sitting around doing nothing include Bill Cowher, Jon Gruden, Brian Billick, Tony Dungy and Mike Holmgren. Every one of these guys has won a Super Bowl ring and are slightly better than “boring retread.” Add in the inevitable “hot NFL coordinators” category and it’s not at all clear Harbaugh is the hottest of the incandescent. This isn’t enough to rule anything out, but I think it makes things more unlikely.

Then there’s college. Harbaugh has made Stanford into a fairly good little job; there’s a fairly deep bunch of hand-picked talent, some of which looks excellent (Skov! Wilkerson! Ertz!). Since most jobs open up because the predecessor has done something wrong, that rules out schools that have approximately the same institutional advantages as Stanford (i.e.: Harbaugh isn’t going to Minnesota or Colorado.). I suspect if Harbaugh leaves Stanford for a college job, he only leaves it for a prestige college. The problem is—assuming, as the mutterers do—that if Harbaugh wants to leave right this moment, there aren’t a lot of appealing options out there. Michigan probably won’t fire Rodriguez, who has improved Michigan every year he’s been there while constructing one of the best offenses in college football. Georgia would’ve been appealing, but the FIRE MARK RICHT bandwagon appears to have stalled. There aren’t really any prestige school hot seats other than that. I’m neither sure that Harbaugh should nor will leave Stanford for another college.

All this navel x-raying is just conjecture, and fear is the default position of all Stanford fans. Logically, though, I’m not sure there’s anything to fear but…much later, folks.

Fear and Loathing in the Skies

The whole TSA maelstrom has taken the time to remind us all that we actually, deeply, not-so-secretly, hate air travel. We hate the security. We hate the delays. We hate the fees. We hate the fact that we are always either seated a) between two morbidly obese co-passengers or b) ahead of a bawling baby, or perhaps c) both. We wonder, how did it come to this? Usually we hear the media pining for the lost era of glamorous air travel, and while many of us were born after this paradise was poisoned, most of us believe, deep down, believe that the real-life miracle of launching several hundred people into the air deserves more glamour associated with it. So we wonder, how it did come to this?

It’s simple: we wanted it to. You can’t have glamorous air travel when you want many, many people to all take air travel, and for it all to be cheap. That’s the conclusion I take from this interesting New York Times article about Southwest, which they speculate may be in its middle-aged period. The article associates their adolescent growth and energy to a pretty simple formula: expand quickly with low prices, with this lesson:
“Southwest had a very profound impact on the industry,” says Robert Crandall, who led American Airlines in the 1980s and ’90s. “They disproved the notion that customers preferred service to low prices. And to their credit, they have sustained that.”

So all this time, we really got what we wanted. Or did we? I suspect that what Mr. Crandall means by service is his version of service, which is something like the glamour days. I am not particularly interested in this kind of service, and I suspect many people who are used to the mass-transit era of airline service aren’t either. What I want is no surprising fees (Southwest doesn’t charge for bags), actually tasty snacks (JetBlue’s snacks are delicious), and technological gadgetry (i.e. either TV or WiFi). And then I don’t want to be bothered. That’s Southwest service, and that’s what I like.

Anyway, I am surprised that we’re surprised we hate air travel so much. If you trap one hundred or so people in a confined metallic tube with curiously arid air, in which the in-flight entertainment is often a movie the quality of The A-Team, you shouldn’t really be surprised if the experience becomes all fear-and-loathing. (But, yes, the TSA is ridiculous.)

Saturday, November 20, 2010

Linkism

Lawless Northern Mexico.

U.S. finishing up three-year investigation in insider trading.

Why Amazon.com can outsell everyone: can sell Apple less than Apple products, etc.

Murdoch-owned TV station in Iran draws threats.

Is Apple tempting an antitrust lawsuit?

Design alternatives for traffic lights.

China investment in Zambia sparks tension.

Are high agricultural prices good or bad for poverty?

Really valuable health care.

Oh Yeah

Thanks For The Scrimmage!: Stanford 48 Cal 14

So, uh, glass half full: we kind of set the record for most points scored on Cal in Big Game.

Half empty: we only tied the Big Game record for most game scored and was just below biggest margin ever in Big Game. (A quick perusal indicates 35 points, set in 2004, is the biggest margin.) Darn it! Another year.

***

It’s a pleasure to win big and a pleasure to see Cal blownout, and yet blowing Cal out yourselves is more than the sum of its parts. It’s especially satisfying to see when one can look at the result and say something’s rotten in the state of Berkeley.

If you’re a QB fundamentalist, then the story begins and ends with Brock Mansion; but as with many fundamentalisms, this story becomes somewhat unsatisfying the more you think about it. For one, Brock Mansion looked so consistently unprepared and so wildly poor that you have to blame the coaching there. This might be acceptable were Mansion the anomaly in Tedford’s quarterbacking regime, except Tedford has consistently trotted out inconsistent-to-poor quarterbacks since the departure of Aaron Rodgers. Many of these quarterbacks were well-regarded and hyped coming into college; either Cal has recruited a disproportionate share of overrated quarterbacks over the years or Tedford is poor at developing quarterbacks, both possibilities that don’t speak well of the Tedford regime. So if your story is predicated mostly or all on Mansion’s quality at quarterback, then your story must blame Tedford.

But I think quarterback isn’t the beginning or end of the story. Cal, after all, did come close to beating Oregon, and Cal has gotten blown out while using its first-choice quarterback. The difference between the earlier blowouts and this one was that while Cal appeared to lack motivation in earlier whippings, it had motivation in this game and looked very motivated while playing. Cal, trying as hard as it could, was served humiliation anyway. It richly deserved that because it played extremely dumb: it wasn’t just the turnovers, and it wasn’t just the penalties, it was the kind of penalties. Everyone has a hold from time to time; every team will have games where the calls just don’t go your way. I’ve never seen a team suffer two “too many men in the backfield” penalties; maybe my memory isn’t good enough—I’m sure that’s happened before—but the failure of such basic skills as “counting” and “knowing the rules” does not represent the team or the coach well.

And of course at a certain point you are what you record says you are, and Cal has gotten blown out several times and never even looked good against quality opposition. Brock Mansion’s dire outing suggests that Cal will continue to experience pain in the future. Delicious.

***

And of course while around half the appeal here is schadenfreude, the other part is pure pleasure. Yes, it’s really good to watch Andrew Luck play so well. You know the part of The Matrix where Neo becomes a part of the Matrix and sees the code representing the entire world, giving him the power to manipulate just about anything, symbolized by digital numbers flashing past? Andrew Luck definitely sees the numbers.

There are certain moments when he starts throwing and gets into the flow that it seems inconceivable that he could be stopped; he truly plays like someone watching himself play from a far remove, and it’s masterful.

It was a good thing that Luck was so good, because the running game was, well, mediocre. Credit to Harbaugh for not stubbornly insisting on running into oblivion, but the running game was only occasionally sparkling, with everyone’s favorite is-that-a-flash-in-that-thar-pan? Anthony Wilkerson doing damage. Occasionally. He looks like he has all the tools, and he’s increasingly getting more carries as if he has all the tools—he actually got the most carries of everyone on the team—but he hasn’t quite put it all together for the terrifying romp he’s all capable of (I see his romp being something like a hippo through the serengeti: very large, surprisingly fast and undeniably vicious. Yes, hippos kill—they kill more people per year than lions and tigers and bears—and yes, Anthony Wilkerson will kill.)

Anyway, with another challenge disposed of, it’s time for Stanford to close out the season and start scoreboard watching. Stanford fans have become unlikely fans of such other teams and entities as:
Alabama
South Carolina
Arkansas
Michigan (well, Stanford fans have been fans of Michigan for a while…or at least should be)
Northwestern
Speedy, Hasty, Prompt And Vengeful NCAA Compliance.

Go all of you!

On Government 2.0

I put a bit of thought into the “What’s wrong with government 2.0” post I linked to and decided it could use expanding upon. The idea of government 2.0, of freeing government data and allowing it to be used commonly, is a great one and therefore criticism needs to be thought over. The author’s problems (of the five that I wanted to talk about) with government 2.0 are these:
1. Information is not always democratizing: socially connected groups are better able to use information provided by the government than socially unconnected groups
2. Information is not always the problem: government-released information may be misinterpreted or misused—gives example about how, in sex-offender lists, someone who’s 17 who has sex with a 16 year old (and subsequently charged with sodomy with a minor) will show up on the same publicly-available list as, say, a rapist.
5. The money flows to Silicon Valley: the companies that provide government 2.0 services are based in Silicon Valley and hence the money from a purely local transaction ends up going to Silicon Valley-based companies.

I completely agree with problem number 2 and to me is the only clear-cut example of a wrong of government 2.0; I think the other two, 1 and 5, would be better suited for a post entitled “What’s incomplete and/or dissatisfying with government 2.0.”

The core issue with each of these complaints is inequality: in each we have unequal rewards deriving from government to a certain class. But let’s suppose they’re true: what they mean is that a certain company (say Google) is providing a service to the government which allows a certain class to better access government services. That’s not bad; that’s good: it seems to me that many people will be able to better use government and the rest won’t have their access diminished. The problem there isn’t with government 2.0, in actuality, but with poverty itself (in the case of the first problem).

In the case of the fifth problem, the far-off company reaping the rewards of an otherwise-local transaction is to information what the Industrial Revolution was to products: just as the Industrial Revolution crowded out previously-local relationships of artisanship and what-have-you, so too is Google reaping the rewards of standardizing and consolidating information. Moreover, unlike the Industrial Revolution, it’s hard to see who’s disadvantaged here: it’s not like there was some local class of information-mongers of bus schedules that have been wiped out by a rapacious Google. This is pure something from nothing. That the something isn’t widely shared is cause for concern, but the something is good.

Friday, November 19, 2010

Linkism

Are the tides a significant potential source of electricity?

Mexico auctions off narco-bling.

Mike Konczal digs into the recent history of the regulatory state.

A funny little dissection of NFL advertising and NFL owners from The Awl.

Can you patent financial innovations?

Comparing the USSR and Iran.

Ben Bernanke v. China.

How life insurance companies are using internet cookies to formulate policies.

Dave Barry on TSA, uh, pat-downs. Self-recommending.

The Stuxnet worm that caused such a stir a while back was apparently perfect for disabling nuclear centrifuges.

Why do small countries need banks?

Ryan Avent comments on inflation.

What’s wrong with government 2.0?

The Difficulties of Book-To-Movie Adaptations, Applied: The Great Gatsby

Being someone who’s quite opinionated on the matter, I found it was interesting to answer the question, “Does there need to be another Great Gatsby remake?” in the wake of the casting announcements for Baz Luhrmann’s attempted remake. (Leo DiCaprio as Jay Gatsby; Tobey Maguire as Nick Carraway; Carey Mulligan as Daisy Buchanan. Suffice it to say that part of the difficulty in making a good film from a great novel is that people will have very strong opinions about your choices; they have those opinions because great novels are typically a mite more ambiguous than great films which therefore impacts the audience’s perception of casting choices. So all casting choices will be flawed, this especially so. DiCaprio has the right sort of ennui for it, but when put into a period piece will often go for cool—the problem here is that Jay Gatsby is not actually cool; he just thinks he is. Maguire is a total lightweight for what is actually the book/film’s most important role, if you really think about it. [An earlier remake used Paul Rudd as Nick Carraway, which is actually just about perfect.] Carey Mulligan is a fine actress; the problem is that she doesn’t seem particularly vapid, and she’s not pretty in the right way—I see Daisy Buchanan as more beautiful than pretty, if that makes any sense at all. Maybe they’ll make it work, but the problem with stepping into these roles is that they have been defined in the audience’s mind already.)

Then the other problem is Baz Luhrmann. If the primary emotion of the book is “miserable…”, Baz Luhrmann’s preferred mode is “Miserable!!!!” While one hopes he won’t have Nick Carraway and Jay Gatsby break into song, you can’t entirely dismiss the possibility.

But all these problems are mostly in execution and don’t really deal with the theoretical question, “Could you make a good Great Gatsby film?” Hamilton Stevens believes it can’t done: there are just too many thoughts there in the book—the narrator, Nick Carraway, is so introspective about himself and observant about others that it would be impossible to translate that into film. (The link provides some good examples.)

Perhaps, or perhaps not. Though Carraway seems to be just another nice, modest Midwestern boy caught up in Eastern machinations (one sentiment that won’t translate quite right into modern sensibilities, I suspect), he is terribly judgmental in a nice, modest way so you won’t notice. This turns out to be an advantage, I suspect, for an aspiring adaptor: just realize events are nudged a bit from Carraway’s perspective and, well, depict it. You’re never going to be able to get the beauty of Fitzgerald’s lyricism onto film; don’t try.

What you need to get properly into film is the sensibility of Carraway-channeling-Fitzgerald: that sadness he has for these very fallible characters. Some view the book as very romantic; this is the wrong read of it: it’s about a deep sadness you feel for people very much despite themselves. The reason it’s so hard to adapt, ultimately, is because it’s so hard to get that feeling right more than once.

Big Game Preview

On the hierarchy of old wounds requiring avenging, surely Cal deserves, at this point, the highest spot. They’ve beaten us seven of eight times. Five of those seven were during the dark old days of Buddy Teevens and Walt Harris, which meant that Big Game losses essentially were the final miserable confirmation of basically miserable seasons, but two of the seven under Harbaugh? That’s a bit galling; it’s a more than a bit galling that one of those losses probably cost Toby Gerhart his rightful Heisman trophy.

And all of the other old wounds have seen at least the beginnings of the task completed to avenge the old wound—UCLA, in particular, won’t have repaid its debt to Stanford until it loses a Pac-10 title to us in heartbreaking fashion and not before. But Cal? It’s all undone. And there has never been a better time to do it.

This team is a contender for greatest Stanford football team ever, I suspect, and all great Stanford teams must beat Cal. The gap between quarterbacks has rarely, I suspect, been so wide. Most of the factors point Stanford’s way, which is why it would be all the more embarrassing if Stanford were to lose, which is why Stanford must win.

Fortunately Stanford will probably win. Dwell on the obvious reasons why for a second: Cal did not have a very good offense before Kevin Riley was lost for the season, and now he is lost for the season. The reasons why may seem counterintuitive for the same reasons why the Cowboys seem like they should be a fearsome offensive team: they have good players at the positions at which good players are very obvious. Shane Vereen is a good running back. Marvin Jones is a good wideout. Keenan Allen will probably be the best freshman on the field as a smooth wideout (here’s a highlight reel from earlier in the season; yes, I realize the opponents are UC Davis, but still: it just gives a general idea of what he’s capable of.). Their tight ends are mediocre, but just looking at the so-called skill players, you would think Cal should have at least a good offense. It doesn’t. The problem isn’t necessarily in turnovers; Cal QBs have tossed eight (by contrast, Luck has gone with 7.) Well, as usual with such teams, the problem is in the offensive line: it’s surrendered 21 sacks, for a little more than 2 a game. By contrast, Stanford has surrendered 4. So Cal doesn’t have a good offense, and that offense was stopped cold by an underrated Oregon defense. Stanford should be able to keep Cal to low numbers, offensively. Unlike last year, Stanford has a good, fairly smart defensive coordinator who likely won’t be outwitted by Cal’s opposite number.

This isn’t why some people are restless and thinking, contemplating, wishing/dreading an upset: it’s the Stanford offense against the Cal defense, and the unfortunate memories of 2009. Big Game 2009, as I’ve argued previously, was a game in which Jim Harbaugh insisted upon running the ball on first down instead of passing the ball, which was much more successful. That was predicated on Stanford being overmatched on the line of scrimmage, because Cal had a good defensive line and Cal was running a 3-4 scheme, which at the time was unfamiliar. The other argument regarding Cal’s defense, and why it might do well against Stanford’s offense, is that Cal’s defense is very good at home. We’ll deal with each of these points in turn. I think Stanford’s offensive line is better than it is last year, while Cal’s defensive line is either about the same or a bit worse (Cal’s gotten 30 sacks this year for themselves). The 3-4 scheme that Cal runs shouldn’t be unfamiliar because Stanford sees the scheme every day at practice.

The next question, the real mystery at the heart of the enigma rapped in a riddle that is Cal football, is their defensive overperformance at home. It looks much better! Like, literally, it looks much better: you watch it on the teevee and it does that fly-about, swarm to the ball stuff so beloved of loud-mouthed commentators (and everyone else, I suppose). At the same time—and this isn’t to devalue Cal’s defensive achievements at home—they haven’t exactly faced imposing opposition: UC Davis, Colorado, UCLA Arizona State. And, of course, Oregon. How seriously to take this? It’s a feat to shut down Oregon, to be sure. But Cal has looked so badly against good opposition on the road that it’s a mystery: was it a fluke? was it something specific to Oregon? is there really something special about Cal at home? You can’t answer; you can say that the Oregon offense and the Stanford offense are as philosophically different as two very successful offenses can be, and therefore the lessons that Cal learned against Oregon might not work against Stanford (like, say, faking injury). So who knows? I do trust Andrew Luck to figure it out, because he is Andrew Luck. They say Chris Owusu might be out; I don’t think that matters too much: as long as two of the wideout triumvirate are functional, the Stanford offense will basically work. I think Stanford will be fine.

The one factor that leans unambiguously in Stanford’s direction is the rest of the game: the special teams, the coaching. A lot of people have blamed the loss to Oregon on kicker Tavecchio, as if to imply his poor performance is somehow a flue whose bearing will be nil on the next game. Except Tavecchio has been shaky all season: he’s missed three extra points, one field goal (of seven attempts) in the 20-29 yard range, two (of three attempts) in the 30-39 range, and another two (of four attempts) in the 40-49 range. Tavecchio being shaky in critical situations wasn’t surprising because Tavecchio has been shaky in all situations. Then there’s the coaching: Tedford has made increasingly bizarre decisions as the years wend on, capping in his declining a delay of game penalty on 2nd and 10. Harbaugh may make decisions I disagree with at times, but he never makes outright terrible decisions like this. If the game is close, that edge might just be enough to upset the balance. I don’t think it’ll be that close, but it is comforting to know that’s there.

Stanford 24 Cal 13

Thursday, November 18, 2010

Linkism

Ezra Klein interviews Michael Pollan about the upcoming food safety bill in the Senate.

Ireland set to accept E.U. bailout.

Why the U.S. government should be borrowing more money.

The price India pays for corruption. Setting the microfinance story in India straight.

China arrests woman and sends her to labor camp for Twitter comment. Also, China steps up its efforts against inflation. Will the “China price” rise?

A tour of London’s “Silicon Roundabout.”

When is economic growth good for the poor?

An amusing guide to the foibles, follies and faults of Dan Snyder, owner of the Washington Redskins. Stories like this convince you of the truth of Fitzgerald’s aphorism about the rich (“…they’re different than you and me.”): some of them are stupider.

I thought this interview with Jay-Z was amusing, and this one interesting:

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The rationing of the U.S. health care system.

One of the centers of cleantech in California? Welcome to the O.C.

On the “hate retweet.”

The reminders of the Mexican drug war in its poshest enclaves.

Comparing Andrew Luck and John Elway, straight from the horses’ mouths.