Friday, December 31, 2010

Why Russia?

An interesting little Guardian piece argues that we in the West are obsessed with Mother Russia, with the main argument being here:
There are multiple ways to think about Russia's extremes. The obvious one is physical. Much of the vast country is lethally cold for half the year or more. Virtually any outdoor activity – starting a car; walking down the obstacle-course, snowbound streets – can be its own microdrama. This harsh environment helps to explain why Dostoevsky and others always seem to be stretching up their hands to heaven. The fundamental questions – Why are we here? Is anyone in charge? – somehow seem sharper at -20C, or on a three-day train ride.

Russia has for centuries been a distorting, fairground mirror for the west. It is both like and unlike the tamer nations. Throughout the cold war, it was alien, unknowable, the other, enemy world, and an easy setting for thrillers. Something of that menace persists, partly in the guise of the Russian mob, one of the elements in John le Carré's latest book Our Kind of Traitor. At the same time Russia is European, notionally Christian and industrialised. It has a familiar high culture and recognisable architecture. Go to Moscow for a day or two, and you might consider it a normal northern European city, with extra neon and worse roads. You have to stay a little longer to uncover the wildness. As the Marquis de Custine put it after visiting in 1839, it is "only too easy to be deceived by the appearances of civilisation".

Ultimately I’m unsure whether Russia has that great a prominence in our literature, considering it’s a nation of 141 million; France and England have nearly as much and Latin America is gaining. So this article fits into a long tradition of finding long-winded explanations for rather simple quantitative facts; but sometimes they’re worth thinking about, as this one his.

Also, this is it for this year—normal programming back on January 4th or 5th.

An Unwitting Update To The Social Network

If there’s anything we can say about The Social Network, it’s that it’s spawned an interest in the internal machinations of Facebook that was previously a niche one. So I suppose we have the movie to thank for this wonderfully amusing story about how the Winklevosses—the inventors of a rival social network that Zuckerberg “stole” the idea from and subsequently initiated a lawsuit—have decided that their very generous settlement is not enough:
The details of the new dispute, which erupted almost immediately, are less known, in part because the parties reached the settlement after a confidential mediation. But according to court documents, the parties agreed to settle for a sum of $65 million. The Winklevosses then asked whether they could receive part of it in Facebook shares and agreed to a price of $35.90 for each share, based on an investment Microsoft made nearly five months earlier that pegged Facebook’s total value at $15 billion. Under that valuation, they received 1.25 million shares, putting the stock portion of the agreement at $45 million.

Yet days before the settlement, Facebook’s board signed off on an expert’s valuation that put a price of $8.88 on its shares. Facebook did not disclose that valuation, which would have given the shares a worth of $11 million. The ConnectU founders contend that Facebook’s omission was deceptive and amounted to securities fraud.

(via Felix Salmon)

Whether or not this floats as a matter of law, I’m pretty confident as a matter of ethics it makes them seem even more ridiculous than they seemed to be before, because the Winklevosses did absolutely nothing of value in making Facebook, and the only reason they were being paid was to make them go away.

Since that’s so, we are presented with the incredible prospect that The Social Network actually went easy on the Winklevosses, who were meant to seem like honorable, yet behind-the-times social achievers. Many people complained that the movie was just a bit too mean, particularly to the coders and geeks who have inherited the earth, but of course the movie went easy on Mark Zuckerberg too (google: “Mark Zuckerberg IM” if you’re intrigued and happen not to be my Mark-Zuckerberg-hating friend you know who you are, see you in Miami). The movie went easy on practically everyone!

Does that mean we have to reassess the movie? I don’t think so, actually: I’ve long maintained that stories have to manipulate reality for their own purposes, and one of purposes was to talk about the particular generation born in the mid- to late-1980s that’s skewered there. Making the Winklevosses into huge jackasses might have been accurate but isn’t very interesting when comparing them to the other high social achievers who aren’t huge jackasses. But still: it’s pretty funny that the Winklevosses are huge jackasses.

Thursday, December 30, 2010

Linkism

Is Japan creating a sovereign wealth fund?

More dead people signing for loan companies…

What’s the point of Shanghai?

The battle for Brazil’s slums.

More casualties of the Mexican drug war: horses. Also, behavioral economics and central heating in Mexico City.

Will Harry Reid and Mitch McConnell upend filibuster reform? (The Udall proposal is disappointingly tepid.)

What’s up with academic freedom in Shanghai, and how does Yale fit in?

China clamps down on Skype.

Is the future heading medieval?

Can't Have It All

In the middle of a somewhat-goofy appearance on CNBC about how China will be richer than the U.S. in thirty years if current trends hold, as if that’s supposed to be a bad thing or something, Stanford professor Ed Lazear says the only way to save the U.S.’s bacon is this:
“It means keeping taxes low, getting the fiscal situation in order, keeping spending down, having a positive climate for business and investing in human capital.”

It’s a conservative take, but I wish conservatives would realize how amusingly utopian their prescription is—you can get a few of these things, but not all in them. Keeping taxes low and spending down is one legitimate choice, but I’m not sure you can get the last two while getting the first two. And if you can, you’d better provide hard numbers and submit them to rigorous fact-checking to prove it.

Here’s why my instincts are that these four things can’t coexist. Let’s take the last one—investing in human capital. It’s a telling formulation, and probably the right one—most people just say “improve education” and leave it at that. If that were so, you could constrain overall spending—conservatives often make the point that we do not get much bang for our educational buck, but that does not prove the point that less spending is the right way to go about it. But investing in human capital is more than just improving education; it involves stuff like universal preschool and schooling for people who have lost their jobs to help build their skills. That’s quite a bit of money. Money well spent, I’d argue, but money nonetheless.

Then you have “positive climate for business.” Conservatives typically use this to mean capitulation to any and all demands of businesses. That’s unkind, but has some grains of truth. But while there is some deregulation we can do, business would also like speedy resolution of the immigration process, patent claims and drug trials—stuff that requires more regulators and bigger budgets. It’s hard to imagine a positive climate for business in the future without a radically updated infrastructural system, and if there’s anything we know about massive infrastructure projects, it’s that they cost large sums of money, money that probably implies raising government expenditures, unless Prof. Lazear wants to radically cut the defense budget, which he’s welcome to advocate but does not do here.

Previewin': Orange Bowl

And so here we are: a few days before the big day, the Orange Bowl versus Virginia Tech. Theoretically this should be fairly close—the line favors Stanford by 3.5—but it seems to me that, were this a normal game week, Stanford would win fairly handily.

There’s the matter of Tech’s losses to Boise State and James Madison, one of which was respectable and one of which wasn’t. I’ll leave it to the reader to decide which is which. And while one bad loss can be ascribed to luck, the team did not appear particularly impressive in the other games I saw, against the famously mediocre ACC. Their quarterback, Tyrod Taylor, is kind of OK; he’s supposed to be very mobile, for example. The 637 yards he rushed for says he is; the 23 sacks he’s taken says he isn’t. Virginia Tech prides itself on its running attack, which is fine—I’m fine with Stanford’s defense playing against a running game, so that’s fine.

Their defense is somewhat weak, giving up 4.46 yards/rush and 6.3 yards/attempt through the air. This is an effective deconstruction of what Virginia Tech’s defense wants to do, but statistically they’re less effective than they’ve been, and their fans seem to think the same thing. If the theoretical version has a problem, it’s in blitzing too aggressively—Andrew Luck loves to kill blitzes. If the Stanford offense has a theoretical problem against the theoretical defense, it’s in the lack of true gamebreakers on the offense. The press has learned Chris Owusu is armed and fully operational, and as we know, the only thing separating Owusu from gamebreakdom is his weak, weak hands. So maybe not…or maybe so.

Stanford 31 Virginia Tech 17

The Internet's All Grown'd Up

A sign, perhaps, that the internet is maturing was uncovered this week when we all had a collective nostalgia trip over the Space Jam website from way back in 1996. Space Jam, of course, had a kind of craftsmanship as a crummy summer blockbuster that most summer blockbusters don’t have these days—it was funnier, for one—so it’s kind of appropriate that you can be nostalgic about summer blockbusters gone by simultaneously as you be nostalgic about the internet so long ago…

The site is sort of charmingly GeoCities, with its starry background and graphics and obvious table borders, and it’s enough to make you remember the good old days when you were using a dial-up modem and stuck in AOL and even though the internet manifestly sucked, it was pretty awesome.

It’s odd that a medium that’s so clearly growing and exploring possibilities can summon nostalgia, but the internet is, what, fourteen, fifteen years old as a mass force? It’s getting up there, certainly up there enough for people to say “remember when?” That’s probably enough to raise the question of when the internet won’t be a disruptive, unruly force. It surely will come within my lifetime, but it seems so unlikely that I can’t imagine what the boring internet will look like…

Wednesday, December 29, 2010

Linkism

China’s netizens are now in the crime-solving business, courtesy of the government.

The smart power grid needs more people to run it.

Fiber-optic networks: so hot right now.

A contrarian take on Cory Booker’s snow-rescue twitter feed.

Looking at the numbers of corporate-tax reform.

What to watch for in 2011 for China.

Mexico’s gun situation: somehow the country is flooded with guns despite having only one gun store in the entire country. But how?

Continuing on the New York Times series on the problems with radiation.

Movie Review: True Grit

True Grit turns out to be the un-Coen Brothers Coen Brothers movie, which means it’s very good in an unfamiliar way (if you’re a Coen Brothers fan) or very good in a peculiarly familiar way (if you’re not one). Stanley Fish’s essay on True Grit gets at a large reason why: the arbitrariness of the moral universe the Coens have created is right of a piece with their other works, whether it’s No Country for Old Men or Fargo or Blood Simple or whatever—the Coens’ signature is to interrupt a character’s path with an arbitrary obstacle of great force and for that arbitrary obstacle to defeat the character because that’s life, isn’t it?

So if the Coens’ storytelling beliefs always seems to come down to seeking shelter or relief from a cold, indifferent universe, their technique to hide this usually comes from quirky characters, gallows humor or showy storytelling—the former two are present, though to lesser effect (Matt Damon’s La Boeuf is very funny, though a braggart rather than sheer quirk; the gallows humor is omnipresent—the movie is more funny than any story concerning the remorselessness of the universe’s retribution has any right to be) and the latter element present not at all. You’d be hard-pressed to find a more conventionally-told movie this year; impossible to find one in the Coens’ library.

The conventionality and the sheer pluck of Hailee Stanfield’s portrayal of Mattie Ross (who is excellent) will fool some people into thinking the film is sentimental, but the ending, especially, should disabuse you of the idea: (spoiler alert!)


The movie is a series of hard lessons into frontier morality—shoot first, ask questions later, all that stuff—that tends to get overlooked by the eulogizers of the thing. To choose something seemingly unrelated: Ed Rendell complaining about the NFL postponing the Eagles-Vikings game started by noting the country had become one of “wusses” and specifically bemoaned the lack of frontier enterprise in the country. It’s a funny feat to criticize an entire country and get applauded for it, and yet the news did, at least. I hate to say one movie or one novel or whatever disproves all of that—it’s arrogant to assume your interpretation is the only one—but I think the ironies of True Grit’s title contains a bit of a rebuke. Ross is looking of a fellow of true grit but it turns out the grit’s all hers, and her grit’s all in the persuasion and talking (she threatens several people with that most 21st century of threats: her lawyer). Ross loses an arm for her trouble, and evolves from a vivacious, garrulous fourteen-year-old into a cold, all-business woman of 39 at the end of the movie. She evidently thinks the price she paid was worth it, but it’s a long way from everyone-lived-happily-ever-after. She knew what she wanted, she got it, and only her observers could wonder whether she paid too heavy a price. That’s all well and good, but it’s not saccharine. Do we lack her steel? I suppose it’s never inapplicable, but it’s less so today: the true grit we need is not of the physical kind, but in the mental work of tricking ourselves into ignoring our own weaknesses of habit and thought. Come to think of it, maybe Mattie Ross would be helpful after all….

Tuesday, December 28, 2010

Linkism

Apparently Facebook may or may not go public soon, but the trading on the secondary markets of its shares is crazy:
The frenzy is most fierce surrounding Facebook, the most actively traded company on these exchanges. Two weeks ago, SharesPost sold 165,000 shares in what it called a “significantly oversubscribed” auction that valued Facebook at $56 billion… (A sale last month by the venture capital firm Accel Partner, one of Facebook’s earliest outside investors, reportedly valued the company at $35 billion.)

A good year for books (a bad one for links?)

Mexico enters the who-watches-the-watchmen territory with reports on how it’s trying to police the police. Interestingly, tourism to Mexico is rising.

An excellent report on the revolving door between the military and the private sector.

Did WikiLeaks set back democracy in Zimbabwe?

25% of kids appear to be on prescriptions on a regular basis, raising questions of effects (most clinical studies focus on adults; kids are different than adults, obviously).

A nice obituary of Alfred Kahn, the man who made airline deregulation possible (an excellent example of successful deregulation).

Will the EPA really press ahead with its carbon rules? (The obstacle is Republicans in the House; they have an interesting little plan to review each and every one of the rules changes of the executive branch; meanwhile, they also have an, uh, interesting new proposal for reconciliation.)

Something About The Past

Every so often you wander into some establishment that insists that it’s doing things just like the past—they traffic in nostalgia, or the nostalgia of the styles of the past. (I’ve found myself thinking that as I went to a Restoration Hardware, to pick a perfectly good example). To pick another perfectly good example—and I guess the real subject of this post—take a pair of albums I just started listening to recently: “The Lady Killer” by Cee Lo and “Wake Up!”, the collaboration between John Legend and The Roots.

The latter is pretty explicitly about the past—it’s a covers album, specifically the protest songs of yore. The former is more spiritually inspired than anything else, and perhaps not coincidentally, it’s better.

The problem with “Wake Up!” is that the songs feel stale: there’s little energy in most of them (except for “Hard Times,” which has some of that Roots swing behind it with a good Black Thought verse). It makes sense that the songs feel stale—they were baked decades ago, and while the spirit of many of them feels applicable to the present, much of the specifics aren’t, and it’s my belief that art tends to succeed on the strengths of its specifics. Otherwise you’re left with generalities, and someone’s talked about most of the generalities at least once before. You need application; application is specificity. Or something.

“The Lady Killer” feels more like an inspired-by than a slavish imitation-of, which makes all of the difference. Start with the fundamental that you’re never quite sure what Cee Lo was inspired by, only that it was the past—there are Motown, disco, soul elements in the album, and the sum feels considered rather than imitated, like Legend/The Roots’ effort.

It’s probably a good idea, if you’re an artist or creator of some sort, to work out the proper relationship with the past, because chances are a good chunk of your ideas are in reaction to something to the past. Either you’re thinking about what went wrong with such-and-such novel or movie, or you’re inspired, and if that’s the case you have to wonder how to get something very old seem fresh.

Superseded By Modern Life



Now, if I recall Office Space correctly, the Michael Bolton of Office Space was named after the other Mcihael Bolton became famous, which is interesting, but one related phenomenon intrigues me: what about average people who have seen their names eclipsed by other people, fictional or real, while they’re still alive? Surely there are a lot of Don Drapers and Dick Whitmans and Michael Scotts who are unhappy about the number of TV-related jokes they’ve been subjected to recently.

Monday, December 27, 2010

Linkism

On forgiveness.

Should the CIA turn against Pakistani spies?

Revolving door, Pentagon genus.

Caracas ritzy country club v. Hugo Chavez.

What are the economics of ripoffs?

Seems neat: companies are trying to create hybrid trains.

Cool idea: cap-and-trade for fish.

Another cool idea: crowdsourcing the transcription of old documents (e.g. letters of Founding fathers, etc.)

A history of unbuilt freeways.

Lost in the clouds

I’ve been bothered by libertarianism for a while, and a pretty good article in New York Magazine on the subject of the philosophy’s centrality to our politics is very helpful in clarifying why:
No political movement deserves to be defined by its extreme elements. (For Democrats, that way lies socialism.) But middle-of-the-road libertarianism is already pretty far out. “The dominant strain of libertarianism these days is—and I’m not using these words in any kind of pejorative sense—radical and utopian,” says Lindsey. But if Libertopia is the goal, no one knows how to get there. Lindsey compares libertarians who preach purity to the “Underpants Gnomes” in South Park, a popular analogy in wonk circles: “Step one, articulate Utopia. Step three is Utopia. Step two is a big question mark.”

I’ve quoted the conclusion but not the reasoning, but the reasoning is solid: libertarians are an impractical bunch who often favor such ideas as private money, private government services, etc. etc. It’s worth noting that the most prominent libertarian in public office is a guy who wrote a book called End The Fed and appears to seriously believe it.

Impracticality often has virtues in society, though I’m not sure it’s one in a political movement. I mean impracticality in two senses: one, the evident difficulty in getting anyone to go along with you; two, the evident difficulty once everyone is convinced to implement the ideas in a workable way. (Take private money: libertarians often note that both the U.S. and Britain used private money well into the 1800s; for example, there was a small change shortage in Britain during that time period which industrialists filled for convenience’s purposes. Of course, we switched since then with nary a look back, aside from niche experiments, because private money is usually local in character, and the trajectory our economy is taking is towards an broadly connected one.)

That impracticality is a shame because libertarians do have a number of very sensible thoughts on a number of subjects: like civil liberties and the drug war or simplifying taxes or, to choose a rarely-discussed example, occupational licensing. (Why do we require, say, barbers to have licenses? They don’t require them in Britain, and as far as I’m aware there’s no epidemic caused by that fact.) So why not start with the small stuff?

More Iraq Information

So Nouri al-Maliki of Iraq gives an interview to the Wall Street Journal and inadvertently reveals what we always suspected:
Mr. Maliki defended his political horse trading with rival factions, many of which are seen as far apart on several substantial policy issues. He called the post-election process—in which he managed to prevail despite his own party bloc failing to gain the most votes—"very arduous."

He acknowledged that he expanded the number of cabinet seats just to placate the squabbling parties that he eventually cobbled together into his governing coalition, arguably the broadest since the fall of Mr. Hussein.

"I mean seven to eight ministries are, allow me to say, ministries for appeasement purposes," he said.

Two possibilities, neither of them good. One: Maliki disregards the “appeasement purposes” ministries and thereby disenfranchises an entire bloc of the country, fueling resentment against the government, possibly along ethnic liens; two: Maliki gives into the appeasement ministries, which actually do have positions of importance, which drags the government into gridlock. There’s a middle ground, to be sure, but these are I things I suspect.

Sunday, December 26, 2010

Linkism

WikiLeaks stuff: revealing cables about the international reach of the D.E.A. and an excellent essay about how WikiLeaks will break down the big organization.

An excellent Economist report on “Nollywood,” Nigeria’s thriving film industry.

What’s the relationship between crime rates and economic problems? Relatedly, crime continues to drop—see, for example, Los Angeles.

Is “peak internet” coming soon?

It looks like the Obama administration will attempt to bring back an end-of-life service to Medicare.

On Robert Mugabe’s continuing iron grip on power in Zimbabwe.

The battle over who will run Russia; also, who’s funding Russia’s skinheads?

More on Mexico’s failing drug war.

On Germany’s wonderfully booming and excellent economy, with a look at Bavaria, the most wonderfully booming of all the wonderfully booming parts:
Low salaries — and higher prices — are a core complaint of German workers who are increasingly demanding wage increases after a decade in which their real earnings dropped by 4.5 percent when adjusted for inflation, according to a recent report by theInternational Labor Organization. Exports have grown robustly in part because workers agreed years ago to reduced wages and reduced hours to make Germany more competitive.

Like workers in other industrialized nations, including the United States, Germans also have had to accept that the jobs available are not as secure as they once were. The number of people in nonstandard or atypical employment in Germany increased to 7.72 million in 2008 from 5.29 million in 1998, according to the Federal Statistical Office.

My Reputation Is Lost!

Recently added to my reading list was The Partnership, Charles Ellis’s account of the history of Goldman Sachs. It’s interesting, if not written in a particularly sparkling fashion. There is one incident, which contrasted with one of their business principles (which Ellis spends some time on), is kind of interesting:
Our assets are our people, capital and reputation.
If any of these is ever diminished, the last is the most difficult to restore. We are dedicated to complying fully with the letter and spirit of the laws, rules and ethical principles that govern us. Our continued success depends upon unswerving adherence to this standard.

The firm’s belief that reputation is the hardest thing to restore is a strongly-stated version of a pretty common belief that reputation is all-important. It’s probably good that this belief is so widespread—reputation is simply the accumulation of other people’s views of you, and that can be an important restraint on our worst impulses (similarly, it can also be a restraint on our most adventurous impulses, and the Venn diagram overlap with worst impulses is substantial though not complete). But to what degree is reputation difficult to restore?

A few chapters before Ellis talks about an executive at Goldman setting down these principles, an incident that evoked the present was covered in great detail: the bankruptcy of Penn Central. The Wikipedia page of the firm describes the affair thusly:
Another financial crisis for the firm occurred in 1970, when the Penn Central Transportation Company went bankrupt with over $80 million in commercial paper outstanding, most of it issued by Goldman Sachs. The bankruptcy was large, and the resulting lawsuits threatened the partnership capital and life of the firm. It was this bankruptcy that resulted in credit ratings being created for every issuer of commercial paper today by several credit rating services.[10]

If reputation is the accumulation of other people’s views, then Wikipedia is surely the best indicators of someone’s internet reputation. You’d think, then, that Goldman’s reputation from this incident is around neutral—not necessarily Goldman’s fault that the company went splat; just a bystander. But the Wikipedia article downplays two crucial aspects of the bankruptcy: the leadup and its effects. Effects-wise, it was very important: it caused a liquidity crisis as money dried up in the market and forced the Federal Reserve to do Fed-type things in the economy. The leadup, though, is interesting from the foreshadowing perspective: it looks a lot like what the SEC accused Goldman of doing in the leadup to our Aughts financial crisis.

To wit: Goldman was the underwriter of Penn Central’s commercial paper (i.e. short-term loans) and as such was responsible for vouching for said commercial paper’s creditworthiness to a certain extent. As the book makes clear, Goldman was quite aware of Penn Central’s precarious financial position, with a smoking-gun quotation appearing in the book noting that there was no way Goldman would be caught with commercial paper on its own books as a result of its underwriting Penn Central. Of course Goldman saw fit not to inform its clients of these facts and that’s what the lawsuits were about (Goldman lost).

Neither the book nor the Wikipedia article seem to think this caused Goldman much trouble in the future, with the business continuing to advance steadily, at least if the absence of evidence can be taken to mean evidence of absence. Perhaps the 1970s were much more friendly to the repairing of damaged reputations, but perhaps not: is the Goldman vampire squid of recent years that much in the forefront of our collective minds? Here’s Goldman’s stock price trend over the past five years. The SEC filed its lawsuit in the middle of April 2010, with Goldman conveniently achieving a short-term high the week before--$179.12. There were many predictions to the effect predicted by Goldman’s principles—that their reputation, having been lost, would be difficult to regain and that the loss of their reputation would be a significant drag on their prospects. Goldman’s most recently quoted stock price is $167.04. What a terrible thing losing Goldman’s reputation was.

Efficiency Problems

Curse the New Yorker’s frustrating tendency to feature great articles, and then confine them to the print edition (or gate them for subscribers). This week’s example has to do with the “rebound effect,” which is very helpfully summarized here and from which I’ll condense even more: it’s the idea that increasing energy efficiency actually increases energy use; because you’re able to do so much with each unit of energy, naturally, you’ll do more cool stuff. To wit, statistically:
"Between 1984 and 2005," Owen notes, American electricity production grew by about sixty-six per cent -- and did so despite steady, economy-wide gains in energy efficiency ... per capital energy consumption rose, too, and it did so even though energy use per dollar of GDP fell by roughly half."

As we know, we have to substantially decrease emissions to deal with global warming; then there’s the question of just how we’ll deal with servicing the energy needs of millions upon millions of people coming into middle-class incomes and wanting middle-class amenities. The article presents this efficiency problem as a paradox, which implies the difficulty is mostly intellectual, but I don’t think it’s very intellectually challenging at all—there are two solutions. One, you could invent a zero or near-zero emissions source of energy. Two, if you simply cap the amount of allowable emissions, then efficiency gains are realized without rebound effect. That’s what “cap-and-trade” basically is—the idea that increasing efficiency will allow us to do the same stuff with lower emissions, with no rebound allowed.

Since the problem isn’t intellectual, it’s political. And the politics are just as depressing as the solution is apparent.

Thursday, December 23, 2010

Linkism

Iran’s experiment with Reganomics.

A history of the suit.

Why aren’t you buying Venezuelan chocolate?

Beijing’s traffic controls appear to have failed.

Why wasn’t there more innovation in the Paleolithic era?

Looks like Harry Reid is planning on filibuster reform in the new year.

On the back of this article about New York state trying to crack down on Caribbean hospitals’ sending of students to the U.S. to get their license (and practice here), Ezra Klein writes an essay arguing for more doctors from Caribbean nations. (I agree; that and more medical schools here.)

A study suggests that the placebo effect holds even when you know you’re getting a placebo. (I’d suggest caution there: the study only had 80 participants, which seems low. Low, right?)

Why do Americans like to pretend they’re more religious than they are?

(Holiday stuff: won’t be posting tomorrow and the day after; posting may or may not resume next week, and will probably cease once again for a brief spate in the New Year. You’ll get the hang of it, I suspect.)

It Was A Pretty Good Year

One thing I am sick and tired about is people complaining how bad this year in movies was, which seems to happen just about every year (people complain about this year in music tend to be every other year, though if they confine themselves to mainstream radio pop, it is every year; people writing about this year in books do not complain, which is admirably restrained and practical of them). Take this WSJ review of this year in movies, which calls this year’s movies “modest” and proceeds to wax effusively about several of this year in movies; or take this Bill Simmons review of this year in sports movies, which has this paragraph (after talking about the formulaic stuff pumped out every single year):
An optimist would argue that the movie industry simply tired of making formulaic crap, which is why it's gravitating toward better stories ("The Fighter" and "The Wrestler") or quirkier, cheaply executed ideas (three good ones from 2009: "Sugar," "Big Fan" and "Damned United"). A pessimist would argue, "Come on, you're giving Hollywood waaaaaaaaaaay too much credit. It's just as formulaic and creatively barren as ever. And if you don't believe me, I have two words for you … 'Little Fockers'!"

Well, sure, “Little Fockers.” But, critically, you don’t have to watch Little Fockers. Even more critically, "Little Fockers" has always been made--they just call it something different every year.  I’ve only seen one of the five movies Simmons praises above, but I can tell you “Sugar” really is a top-quality movie filled with some affecting performances and naturalistic storytelling. To me, if a given time period has a decent number of good movies, it’s a good year! I don’t care about the amount of bad movies that are produced because, generally, I avoid them.

So, of the movies I saw this year made this year—2010 featured “The Kids Are All Right,” “The Social Network,” “Un Prophete,” “The Town,” and I’m reasonably confident I’ll think a few of “Inception,” “Easy A,” “The King’s Speech,” “The American,” and “Cats and Dogs 2: The Legend of Kitty Galore” are good. So it was a good year! That’s more than enough entertainment to me. (Admittedly, some amount of mid-tier movies are nice to tide you over on a lazy weekend, etc.: I thought “Death at a Funeral,” “Due Date” and “The Tourist” were all solid from a sheer entertainment perspective although I have no expectation that any of these will be classics.) To me, that’s a good year. Good job movie industry!

Transparency Follies

In a post about the FCC’s new rules about net neutrality, Mike Mandel makes the transparency error:
If we look back at the wreckage of the financial boom and bust of the 2000s, the big problem was not financial innovation. Rather, the big mistake made by the financial regulators was not pushing for more information about the decisions being made by Wall Street. That would have enabled regulators to put up a stop sign before things got out of hand.

This view of the crisis is incorrect: all of the information that was needed was available. As the mountain of worrying articles (the Washington Monthly was fretting about the housing bubble in 2004), the numerous investors who profited from the housing collapse, and the various Cassandras out there proved, all of the relevant information to suspect bad things was available. Many of the worst bad apples were suspected beforehand too—U.S. diplomats were worrying about Allen Stanford well before his collapse (though not, admittedly, about his Ponzi scheme). The information was there; people were just not in the right frame of mind to do anything about it, whether their frame of mind was influenced by the available cash or not.

We fetishize information because it’s an easy solution to all of our problems: “put it on the internet” sounds easy enough to do, and not worrying about people’s decision-making after that is easy too. But people aren’t the perfectly rational creatures we often act as if they are, on one hand; on the other, people releasing information don’t always present information in a comprehensible way. Technically all of the information you need to know about your credit card is on your credit card agreement; do you know everything you need to know about your credit card?

That’s why I think this view is naïve:
… an intelligently-enforced transparency provision for broadband providers—requiring them to release “accurate information regarding the network management practices, performance, and commercial terms of its broadband Internet access services”—would go an awfully long way to deterring abusive practices without interfering with innovation.

The phrase “intelligently-enforced transparency provision” is doing an awful lot of toil in this sentence, and it seems to assume a lot from an agency the writer already assumes might not be up to much good. Let’s go back to financial regulation: a while back we had the Glass-Steagall regulatory system, which separated commercial from investment banking—it was a simple rule and hence hard to ignore or fudge or evade. It did not depend on the good will of regulators or companies. If Mandel’s reading of the rules are correct, the FCC’s rules assume a great deal of good will from regulators and companies alike, and while I’m always appreciative of such beneficence, I doubt you should assume or expect it.

Sentimentalists

I have a habit of voraciously reading reviews of movies I anticipate, and, regardless of the reviews’ assessment of the movie, seeing the movie anyway. This probably obviates as least part of the purpose of reviews, though I suppose it gives me something to think about before I see the movie. This year’s version is the Coen Brothers’ True Grit, which seems to be getting positive, though not effusive reviews. One review, however, makes a pretty bad mistake as an aside. Christopher Orr—one of the better reviewers out there, mind—writes: “True Grit is a sentimental tale, at least by the standards of the genre, and the Coens are not—to put it mildly—sentimentalists.” (emphasis mine)

As I said, a mistake—flash back to the end of Fargo and Margie Grunderson’s little speech to the silent, psychotic accomplice after arresting him:
So that was Mrs. Lundegaard on the floor in there. And I guess that was your accomplice in the wood chipper. And those three people in Brainerd. And for what? For a little bit of money. There's more to life than a little money, you know. Don'tcha know that? And here ya are, and it's a beautiful day. Well. I just don't understand it.

Anti-sentimentalists don’t write this kind of thing; or, if they do, they satirize it. There’s little evidence of satire in Fargo of Marge—everything and everyone else gets made fun of while Marge plays straight woman in an eminently practical kind of a way. Sentimentalism crops up throughout the Coen’s work: there’s Raising Arizona’s obvious affection for loopy H.I. McDonough and his madcap quest for a family; there’s The Big Lebowski’s funeral scene, which has a bit of loving satire to it; there’s The Hudsucker Proxy’s appreciation for Midwestern squares. Probably I’m forgetting some. (Thought of another: O Brother, Where Art Thou?, which loves just about everyone.)

It’s just as easy to point to heartless or biting satire in the Coen Brothers’ work (e.g. the very cruel Burn After Reading, which turns the message of Margie’s speech from a low-key sermon into a vicious, satiric harangue), which I suppose qualifies as something of a problem for the reviewer, as to how to square it. It’s my belief that the Coens are reluctant sentimentalists: they started out as sentimentalists, discovered the problems and became cynical as to human nature (becoming particularly cynical about narrow-minded idiots and folly of all sorts), and then returned to the virtues of sentimentalism as an antidote to what they dislike. It is not a firm commitment; I think Grunderson’s last line of Fargo is probably the best statement of their view: “I just don’t understand it”—why can’t people be better? Don’t know.

Wednesday, December 22, 2010

Linkism

Fifteen great Coen bros. movie moustaches.

The efficiency illusion: will making our energy use more efficient just cause us to use more energy?

Pretty cool idea: a way to replace sandbags as a levee-plugging device with something that looks like a giant inflatable inner tube.

The Hazards of Nerd Supremacy: The Case of WikiLeaks.” Speaking of which: their next targets just might be Bank of America and Russia.

New Jersey courts might order foreclosure freeze.

Looks like Iran followed through with its energy-subsidy cutting ways.

China: getting more expensive—than America? Also, dismal projections on China growth rate.

Guatemala has declared itself under a “state of siege” because of the depredations of the Mexican drug gang, the Zetas.

What Japanese transit can teach us.

Looks like the EPA is staying aggressive on emissions issues.

Cash cow disease: do Google and Microsoft have it?

NYT reports on the land grab in Africa story with an example set in Mali.

The “natural laws” of cities.

Semi-review of The Black Swan

Watched The Black Swan yesterday: it is not very good, for a number of different reasons that I won’t really bother to expound upon. It is, however, more interesting than good; it’s interesting in a sort of puzzling-out of what’s-not-working-here kind of a way.

Specifically: it has some weird attitudes. The Black Swan is a movie about an ambitious ballerina, Nina Sayres (Natalie Portman) who is innocent, fragile, a goodie two-shoes who’s bullied by her dragon lady stage mother (that the mother can be described easily in this way is probably a tip as to why the movie isn’t good; would you believe that the mother once held dreams of being a top ballerina herself? That plot element has never been used before!) and Sayres’s deep ambition is to get the lead in the ballet “Swan Lake.” The ballet requires two roles: a white swan, whose character matches up perfectly with Nina’s, and a black swan, which is, I suppose, the classic bad girl-rebel role. Nina’s reticence and reservedness makes her ill-suited for the latter role; moreover, there is the suggestion that although Nina is perfectly practiced and technically perfect, she is—what, too robotic? Too self-controlled? Something of all these, I suppose. Her counterpoint is Mila Kunis’s (that’s the actress’s name; I’m too lazy to look up the character name) ballet dancer who is, would you believe, the exact sort of hard-partying, drug-using kind of a girl who seems perfectly suited for the black swan half of the role. The equal and opposite suggestion is that Kunis’s character transcends technicality (her dancing is described as “imprecise” yet soulful, or something of the sort.)

Anyway, that’s the point at which the review of the movie in of itself will stop, because the idea here—of the over-practiced robot versus the natively genius savant—is one that bothers me. As far as I can tell, variations of this idea have been floating around since Rousseau, with the idea that we were all happier when we lived in a pre-civilization state, because we didn’t have the various encumbrances of modern life, with the rules, the rush, the spontaneity shackled, and so on and so forth. It is the view, then, that there’s something wrong with civilization in itself.

At Rousseau’s time and place, the idea was much more reasonable than it did now. Rousseau was writing in the middle of the 1700s, and from that period until roughly the beginning of the 1900s might be described as surprisingly ambiguous. Yes, the total capabilities of the human race were increasing at a pace previously unprecedented, and yet contributions to human welfare, broadly defined, were muted. Consider Rousseau’s Paris—like most cities in Europe, it did not achieve self-sufficiency in population until the public sanitation movements of the latter part of the 1800s; without migration, Paris and other cities surely would’ve died. Consider that, were you born in the boomtowns of Manchester and Liverpool in the middle of the 1800s, your life expectancy would be 29 (the comparable life expectancy for all Englishmen was 45). Wage growth was hard to define, but certainly not explosive. English people were eating more, but not as much more as you’d expect, given the growth in GDP. It was not unreasonable, then, to conclude that civilization was a compromised invention.

I’d say the idea has considerably more problems today, and considerably more problems than the average if you’re talking about artists. (It’s also somewhat amusing that, for a movie that posits that Sayres’s problem is a too rigid artistic and personal self-control, we are dealing with a very technically controlled movie, in a way that echoes basically all of the horror/suspense tricks you’ve seen before, if you’ve seen the trailer of even one horror movie.) I very much doubt there’s such a thing as an artist who, with very little practice/formal technical ability, just feels his/her way to success. A bit of a straw man, to be sure, but still…practice makes perfect. The thing separating the robots, the ones who are slavish imitators who don’t feel passion, from the real great artists isn’t practice or too much practice but the right kind of practice; since that’s so, the argument is for the right kind of civilization rather than none at all.

What Look Is Mark Zuckerberg Going For Here?

Congratulations, Wall Street Journal, you've successfully made Mark Zuckerberg look twelve:

Nice Work!

So what’s behind the sudden burst of productivity of our legislative system? (Keep in mind that being grateful for this burst of productivity is wrong: to paraphrase Chris Rock—you’re supposed to pass legislation, you low-expectation-having…fine legislator). Matthew Yglesias mooted the point that perhaps dread eminence Rahm Emanuel is at fault, which is certainly plausible. In fact, it may even be likely. On the other hand, some other explanations:

The legislation was popular: in truth, basically no one thought gay people should be kept out of the military; in truth, basically no one thinks food safety is a bad idea, etc. etc.

No public pressure: The public has been distracted and the media is focusing on its yearly quota of best-of lists so they can dash out the door to their holiday parties. With the heat turned down, legislators have the space to pass bills instead of running away from the latest goofy accusation (no death panels in the food safety bill!!!!!!!)

The long culmination of lots of work: they’ve been working for a while, and, uh, now they’re ready to finish.

No more election season: Democrats who have lost their jobs have decided, instead of voting slavishly to whatever desires they think their district has, to let it all hang out and vote for their desires.

Who knows? Who cares? Despite my earlier injunction, I do feel grateful, and I feel absurd for feeling grateful: the Senate is one of the few institutions that can make you feel grateful for doing less than it needs to do.

Tuesday, December 21, 2010

Linkism

Ernst & Young accused of Lehman Bros. malfeasance (Repo 105, for those of us who remember).

Surprised to see this: turns out we’ll be getting a food safety bill after all.

While we got decent net neutrality rules, the problem is net neutrality for mobile devices (and it looks like Google and Verizon may be partially at fault).

After getting quite a bit of hype earlier this year, I found this article about Bloom Boxes and fuel cells generally to be fairly interesting.

A worthwhile anti-corruption proposal in government. Relatedly, the prevalence of corporatism.

On the supercities of Asia.

The future of computing research: not all about having the brute computing force.

An excellent essay connecting David Foster Wallace to philosophy, particularly Wittgenstein’s. (Wallace calls the first line of Tractatus Logico-Philosophicus one of the best in literature and I happen to agree.)

On the value of good teachers.

Iraq followed through with its unity government.

Christmas Music

I am, perhaps the point of cliché, a hater of Christmas music. These days especially, but I can barely stand the old stuff. I do, however, enjoy this rendition of Rudolph the Red-Nosed Reindeer:


The problem I have with the vast majority of Christmas music—and what appeals about this song—is that, like the entire season, it is brocaded and decorated to excess. Just as we think the beginning of the season begins earlier every year, so too does each additional rendition of “Silent Night” or “I Saw Mommy Kissing Santa Claus” seem to gain additional, cutesily-annoying ornaments: perhaps more breathless choral adornments; perhaps heavier strings; and on and on until one has to stand athwart the entire season and yell, “Stop!”

Anyway, appreciating the above song is probably in part an exercise in disliking other stuff, but it’s truly a less-is-more effort.

Some Rap Satire

So Lonely Island released a new joke single:


Funny, but not as funny as the all-time classic “I’m on a Boat”:


I prefer “I’m on a Boat” because Akon’s appearance in the first video could be anyone; it could just as easily be Ne-Yo or Drake or John Legend or something. It could only be T-Pain in “I’m on a Boat” because T-Pain is making fun of himself. But both are pretty excellent for similar reasons: they’re joking, but it’s a mostly appreciative take on hip-hop music. (The appreciative part is shown by the T-Pain cameo: it’s pretty perfect and someone less appreciative of the genre might well have gotten the choice subtly wrong.)

The structure of the songs is pitch-perfect: bass-heavy beats with catchy hooks and ridiculous lyrics. It’s not the genre that’s being satirized, but the relationship to it: the subject of both songs is pretty ordinary—dudes having sex! dudes on a boat!—but contrasts it with the outsized boasts of a rap song, which when translated into Lonely Island argot might well be “Dude, I had sex with so many people on a boat! In one night!”

Some people talk of having a soundtrack to their life—that is, listening to music and it seeming as if it were the soundtrack to the movie that is their life—which is precisely the kind of thing that’s been satirized here: the stories we tell are generally much cooler than the stories we live, and that’s been a staple of storytelling for a long while. (That’s also why these two videos are much funnier than, say, Weird Al’s musical absurdist parody.)

Monday, December 20, 2010

Linkism

An excellent essay in the New York Review of Books entitled “In Search of Lost Paris.”

A fun little article in The Economist about barbeque and American culture.

A complex article that I’ll probably post about later: WSJ on spinal fusions and surgeons and Felix Salmon’s reply to it.

Is Julian Assange actually getting his way?

Spain announces that its regional governments are in fine financial shape, which means that they are just about to get a bailout.

A review of the first Gates Foundation grants made five years ago.

Do older people make better entrepreneurs?

Kidnapped Mexican politician (former Presidential candidate) freed.

It seems the FCC will pass a net neutrality order.

In praise of scientific error.

Moqtada al-Sadr gaining power in Iraq.

Premature Storytelling

There are really only a few sports stories; there are even fewer that Americans like to tell about Americans. Let’s see: underdog makes good, the choker and the clutch player, toughness…and the college player who can’t quite hack it in the pros. It’s the last story that very well might be told about Toby Gerhart, and I’ve always found it to be rather sad.

Gerhart got the start in the Bears’ 40-14 abasing of the Vikings—Gerhart got 16 carries for 77 yards, a respectable 4.8 yards per carry; he added 18 yards receiving. Not a bad performance, but you got just a hint of trouble when the announcers said—with a hint of apology—that Gerhart just isn’t an explosive player. It’s a line with a hint of prejudice; Gerhart has not gotten a lot of carries, and the Vikings offensive line looks pretty bad to my uneducated eyes. So I would say the question of Gerhart’s explosiveness in the NFL has not been decided, but NFL scouts seemed to have decided the matter before Gerhart even got to the NFL—the phrase “lacks big play ability” was the inevitable followup to the name “Toby Gerhart” in any pre-draft gab session. Meanwhile, the question of Gerhart’s explosiveness in college, on the other hand, was decided affirmatively—most people might not have gotten that impression:


Seems to me there are plenty of explosive plays on that tape. (For the record: Gerhart had several runs over 20 yards, three runs over 30, and a pair of sixty yard runs in his 2009 season. His 2008 season featured a similar trail of destruction: a pair of over-forty yard runs, another pair over thirty, and several more over twenty. Obviously Gerhart is not exactly a home run back, but still: the numbers don’t really lie—Gerhart was a very explosive college runner, in a way that Stanford’s offense didn’t really have this season.)

So to a certain extent Gerhart’s story has been written for him; people seem to have cast him as the “white guy tough runner” back in the classic Mike Alstott role, which is kind of true of Gerhart in the same way that PineSol recalls the scent of lemons.

The story—independent of whether or not it should be written this early—has always struck me as a sad one to tell. Gerhart, and others like him, essentially achieved at a level that approximately 99% of athletes will never reached, and did it in such a distinctively bulldozing way that his highlight reel will always be impressive; that’s quite a bit more than even many steady NFL vets will be able to say. So: Gerhart has both high achievement and artistry—isn’t that the point of sports? And it seems to me that Gerhart’s hypothetical future story is more the norm than the exception, which means that the story is doing a grave disservice to the art of compelling fiction. Which is, again, part of the point of all of this.

More Mistaken Articles

Because I don’t quite have enough of making fun of articles I see as silly, here’s an effort from the LA Times’s Gregory Rodriguez which argues that we should be looking for politicians who are more faithful to their spouses:
Last week, after reading about the Nobel Peace Prize ceremony, I started to wonder whether we're too quick to discount a connection between good spouses and good politics. This year's prizewinner, Chinese dissident Liu Xiaobo, was in jail in China rather than in Oslo accepting his award. In his absence, actress Liv Ullmann read aloud the statement Liu released last December as he was awaiting trial for "inciting subversion of state power." At the top, he sermonized against hatred ("enmity can poison a nation's spirit"), but his ending was an exquisite love letter to his wife, Liu Xia.

"I am sentenced to a visible prison," he wrote, "while you are waiting in an invisible one. Your love is sunlight that transcends prison walls and bars, stroking every inch of my skin, warming my every cell, letting me maintain my inner calm, magnanimous and bright, so that every minute in prison is full of meaning. But my love for you is full of guilt and regret, sometimes heavy enough to hobble my steps. I am a hard stone in the wilderness, putting up with the pummeling of raging storms, and too cold for anyone to dare touch. But my love is hard, sharp, and can penetrate any obstacles. Even if I am crushed into powder, I will embrace you with the ashes."

Wow. I don't expect to find words like that in the autobiography of any American political figure.

To which my response is: so?

Politicians who have been unfaithful to their spouses: Bill Clinton, LBJ, JFK, FDR; politicians who have been faithful (as far as we/I know): Teddy Roosevelt, Truman, Eisenhower, George W. Bush, Lincoln. As far as I can tell, there’s little to no correlation between good political skills and good marriage skills; nor, for that matter, is there much of a correlation between good political skills and bad marriage skills.

This should make perfect sense. Substitute politician with “plumber” and no one would bother to argue the point. Being a politician is just having a job; a very important job with public significance, but just a job, ultimately. People shouldn’t invest the role with epic moral significance; maybe we’d all be a bit more satisfied and reasonable were we to do that.

(By the by—another example of the love Rodriguez celebrates:
When love comes up in politics, it's about brotherhood and sisterhood, the kind of emotion the Rev.Martin Luther King Jr. called for in his Nobel Peace Prize acceptance speech: "all-embracing and unconditional love for all men" as "the key to the solution of the problems of the world."King cheated on his wife frequently. He’s also one of the great Americans ever, which should prove the point to everyone’s satisfaction. The logic of justifying an interest—in terms of evaluating fitness for a job—with someone’s married life is that it somehow connects with job performance; Rodriguez writes that it’s easy to see Liu’s passion for his wife nourishing his passion to reform to China, which may be so. On the other hand, it might not be so. People like Rodriguez are obsessed with character, but they’re obsessed to the point of losing individuals to a theory. While it’s easy to assume someone who is bad to a spouse will be bad to everyone else, character is unpredictable and nonlinear, making predictions based on it unreliable. People should mind their own business, which means very narrowly assessing how someone does the job to which they’ve been assigned.)


Power of Perception

This Huffington Post article on the decline of Microsoft has convinced me that while perception isn’t everything, it’s a very important something. The company is, as the article notes, still making money at a prodigious pace; the only evidence the author offers is that is market capitalization has dropped since 2000, which sounds ominous at first but becomes entirely more explicable once you think about the things that were happening around the year 2000 (a hint: it was a soapy, liquid sphere which was gradually filling up with air until it went “pop!”).

That perception colors this recitation of failures:
For Microsoft, failures and missed opportunities have recently come to outshine its many successes. There was the delay--and disaster--of Microsoft's Windows Vista operating system, widely considered one of the worst tech debacles of the decade. The software that came to market months behind schedule was panned by frustrated customers who found the too-expensive upgrade bloated, slower than its predecessor, and incompatible with hardware. There was its failed attempt to purchase Yahoo, which rebuffed many months of advances in what became a humiliating spectacle, depriving Microsoft of a crucial expansion into Web searching. There was Microsoft's new line of Kin smartphones--a D.O.A. product the company killed just 48 days after launch. There was Microsoft's disappointing effort to launch a digital music player, Zune--which has proven no match for Apple's iPod--and its failure, thus far, to produce a credible rival to the iPad, even though Microsoft led the way with a "trailblazing" tablet PC in 2001.

A parody paragraph:

For Google, failures and missed opportunities have recently come to outshine its many successes. There was the disaster of Google Wave, widely considered to be one of the most overhyped tech services of the decade. The service came to market and was panned by frustrated customers who found the service bewildering for its uncertain purpose. There was its failed attempt to purchase Groupon, which rebuffed what some analysts considered to be an overly generous offer, depriving Google of a crucial expansion into local advertising. There was Google’s new line of Nexus smartphones—a D.O.A. product the company killed soon after its introduction. There was Google’s disappointing effort to launch a social media service, with Buzz, Profiles, and Locations all proving no match for Facebook and Twitter’s might—and its failure, thus far, to produce a credible rival to Foursquare, even though Google purchased Foursquare predecessor Dodgeball in 2005.

Some people say something similar to the preceding paragraph, but not many because it’s a selective recounting of Google’s failures while not mentioning Google’s penchant for experimenting and introducing many different products and seeing what happens next. Microsoft may not be as adventurous but they’re not totally without success—take, for instance, the Xbox, which I understand has been a somewhat successful console. If you go in with the attitude that Microsoft is a failure, then its failures look like failures; if you think it’s a success then everything just looks like the tossed-off experiments of a genius at work. But either way, it’s all about perception and confirmation bias.

Sunday, December 19, 2010

Linkism

Haven’t read this yet—it’s kind of long—but promises to be interesting: a paper on the militarization of Iran.

A Zimbabwean hospital that accepts payment in peanuts.

Why doesn’t America do big things anymore?

An excellent profile of the Italian “Northern League”, an extremist party that’s virulently anti-immigration, conservative, etc. Very interesting read.

More details about the Pakistan-burning-the-CIA agent story, including this piece of information I hadn’t learned before:
The U.S. has been working to mend ties with Pakistan after a U.S. helicopter missile strike Sept. 30 that mistakenly killed three Pakistani soldiers near the border with Afghanistan.

In retaliation, Pakistan shut down the border crossing used by convoys supplying North Atlantic Treaty Organization forces in Afghanistan, and scores of those trucks were later set ablaze by militants in Pakistan, often at truck stops where Pakistani police provided little, if any, security.
But I’m sure, just because we’ve asked nicely, they’ll go on and shut down those Taliban hiding spots along the border any day now.

An in-depth article on the Roberts Court’s business bent.

Guh.

Obviously: idiots enjoy being idiots on the internet. It's something like a foundational fact of the thing, like porn or sarcasm or cute kittens, but still, sometimes it shocks you all the same:

(From the YouTube video of Rihanna's "What's My Name?")

Bloat

If you swim in the deeper pools of academia you’ll very quickly become lost in some depressing conclusions: postmodernism (no truth!), Arrow’s theory on democracy (no democracy!), Godel’s incompleteness theorem (no logical system is self-contained!). It’s an excellent way, if perhaps a bit abstruse, to realize that there’s no complete satisfaction out there. I was thinking about that when my thoughts shifted suddenly from pop academia to, well, sports, specifically the BCS.

Basically everyone hates it. Here’s an eloquent way of disliking it (and, in so doing, proposing a preferred alternative):
Six or eight teams is still exclusive enough to enhance the stakes of the regular season (probably two or three times as many reams would carry legitimate championship ambitions into the final weeks of the season as do now) without allowing a streaky fluke into the fray, a la the New York Giants, to use the most handy example, who finished three games behind the winner of their own four-team division and had no business competing for the same title as the far superior Patriots. The equivalent of a No. 5 seed winning the basketball tournament would permanently undermine the three-month marathon/battle royale that makes college football so fascinating now; a playoff is essential, but so is the necessity that it remain exclusive.

I haven’t always thought that, and I still lean towards a playoff of any feasible configuration over the arbitrary and overly-exclusive BCS "championship." When the day comes, though, it will be just as important to state certain objecives of the enterprise, and establish some kind of precedent for limiting expansion in the name of maintaining a tense, meaningful regular season. The best approach is a balancing act.

There are something like seventy bowl teams this year, which is surely a bloated number that no longer suggests holiday decadence (a special occasion!) and now simply states everyday obesity (highly uninspiring). Various people have complained at various times how meaningless it all is and who really cares, but at the end of it all I’m wondering whether this isn’t an inadvertent benefit. If you don’t care, don’t watch; I can pretty much guarantee that the vast majority of people reading this hasn’t watched the bowls that have gone on so far (they probably aren’t even aware there are bowls going on). So no problem there.

The real problem with sports bloat is when it expands the number of significant games and turns them into boring significant games—i.e. the equivalent of the 1-v-16 game in the NCAA basketball tournament (Or, for that matter, most of the 2-15, 3-14, 4-13 games too). The problem with the NCAA basketball tournament is that there are too many games; the field really should be reduced to 32 or so and automatic qualifiers should be taken out. (The NBA should reduce its postseason from 8 teams from each conference to four; the NFL should only take the top four teams per conference—who cares about division winners? The MLB is basically the only major sports league that invites exactly the proper number of participants; naturally, they want to expand it.) As the experience of basically every league has told us, it’s irresistible for sports honchos to expand the number of competitions even though more is worse. So a hypothetical NCAA playoff would start out as an excellent, cozy little invitational of eight—we’d enjoy that for a while because the top eight teams every year are genuinely excellent and deserving of battling each other for a shot at the national champions—but would quickly grow to sixteen or even thirty-two, and do you really want to watch Auburn versus San Diego State (the 32nd ranked team in the pre-bowl AP Bowl)? You don’t.

While the BCS doesn’t give every quality team a chance to play for the championship, it does guarantee we’ll always see two quality teams facing each other for a championship, which is an underrated virtue. (And the worst vice is for a bad team to win it: as the years roll by, and Eli Manning continues to dodder around—does that Giants Super Bowl win really look all that deserved? Can you really, with a straight face, say that the Giants were the best team in all of football that year?) The bowl system satisfies those who desperately want bloat while keeping the bloat far away from significance. It’s a too-powerful minimalism, but maybe that’s what we need.

(Nah: TCU should have a shot at a national championship. Stanford too. You need to settle doubts on the field.)

Department of Missed Opportunities: Infrastructure Edition

It is possible, though rarely acknowledged, that the administration/Congress’s policy has been full of achievement but is not good enough. It’s possible because it’s true. There have been several missed opportunities in the 2009-10 period, but one of the biggest is the inability to take advantage of cheap money and cheap labor to repair our crumbling infrastructure. Knicked from Paul Krugman and Michael Mandel is this chart:




If anything, this chart underestimates matters: our infrastructure is decrepit and hence ineffective relative to the original standards; but of course the technical standards of infrastructure have advanced since their being built. This even neglects the new kinds of infrastructure that have been invented or updated recently that I suspect the statistics don’t really capture: broadband, various smart grids, etc. etc. Eventually, I suspect these things will be built, but it will be much more expensive and opportunities will have been lost along the way that make this a real tragedy.

Saturday, December 18, 2010

Linkism

The democratic Senator who skipped the DADT and DREAM votes for a Christmas party.

Another interchange fees debate.

An interesting WikiLeaks revelation: apparently the U.N. was willing to bribe Robert Mugabe to go away. Assuming you could bribe Mugabe as a one-shot deal, with no precedent involved, how much would that be worth? Nine figures? Ten? (Also, the world of corruption as revealed by WikiLeaks.)

From a column about the tilted economy, a striking paragraph:
When it comes to wages, the basic story of recent decades is redolent of Scrooge. Real average hourly earnings (excluding fringe benefits) now stand roughly at 1974 levels. Yes, that's right, no real increase in over 35 years. That is an astounding, dismaying and profoundly ahistorical development. The American story for two centuries was one of real wages advancing more or less in line with productivity. But not lately. Since 1978, productivity in the nonfarm business sector is up 86%, but real compensation per hour (which includes fringe benefits) is up just 37%. Does that seem fair?
The column goes on to talk about many other fields, but in wages—and by extension the other ones—the big story is health care, whose costs ate our paychecks.

An interesting project: a blog devoted to blogging the Civil War contemporaneously (e.g. today they’re recreating December 18, 1860).

Can airports be fun? A design experiment.

Chile’s innovation experiment.

A brazen prison breakout in Mexico—140 inmates escaped.

An analogy: Google like Bell Labs?

The ghost towns of Spain.

The doddering Europeans (financial crisis).

Panic in Orlando

What is it about the NBA: every year the thing goes crazy in the same predictable ways. What’s wonderful, I guess, about all this is that every time you have to say, “That’s totally crazy!” as if it’s unexpected when upon further reflection you’ve seen this movie before. So: the mass Magic trade for Gilbert Arenas, Jason Richardson and Hedo Turkoglu? We’ve seen this before: it’s like adding Shaq to the Cavs; it’s what happens when a GM is seduced by the theory of Big Names as opposed to, well, fit.

The Magic used to have a wonderfully fitting team: they were based on putting four three-point shooters on the floor and giving their opponents a terrible choice between letting Dwight Howard roam free or letting the Magic rain three point shots. It was a great theory—it got them to the Finals, and could’ve won with just a bit more luck (if Courtney Lee makes that difficult layup, the Magic tie the series in Los Angeles, and who knows what happens next?).

The team last year took the best point differential of the regular season into the postseason, a mark that typically predicts postseason success. So it’s far from clear the model is broken in anything but the Magic GM’s mind, and this trade is a clear indication that something is broken. Sometimes you trade for a good addition; sometimes you trade for an overhaul. The number of players indicates the latter. (What I think kicked off this particular era of panic moves was the Pau Gasol heist, which was not just a big name but also fit perfectly with the Lakers’ concept. Gasol is the exact player Tex Winter thought of when he created the Triangle Offense.)

It’s hard to see how the Magic are much improved with this sequence of trades: Turkoglu, Nelson, Richardson and Arenas are all players who want the ball in their hands, and it’s unclear whether Turkoglu and Arenas are even half the player they were at their peaks, or even half as entertaining (and while the actual quality of those two players was always slightly under question, their entertainment value was never questioned.)


So: another panic deal, and we know it won’t turn out well. The rumor has it that the Magic are worried about losing Dwight Howrad, which seems crazy, but then again LeBron James left a team with an approximately equal level of achievement. (The Cavaliers had about the same level of GM but a much worse coach—Stan Van is like a top five NBA coach right now; Mike Brown is, uh, Mike Brown.) But were I a Magic fan, I’d start worrying much more right now.

Coalition Power Pushes

The good news, I guess, is that the Sunni bloc officially agreed to join the coalition government in Iraq. It’s an agreement described as a “gentleman’s” with the point of discussion being the old standby:
Not enough time remains, however, to meet another Iraqiya condition for participation: the creation of a new national council to oversee strategic policy. The factions are still arguing over the powers and mechanisms of the body, which is expected to be headed by Iraqiya leader Ayad Allawi.

A question mark hangs over whether Allawi will take the job if it does not give him sufficient powers. Members of Maliki's Dawa Party insist they are determined to ensure the new council's role does not interfere with the prime minister's authorities.

Give it enough power to be powerful, and it’s possible the Iraqi government clogs shut; if you don’t give it enough power all you’ve done is keep Maliki powerful, which is far from optimal.

I doubt this works out—let’s recall the other recent shotgun marriage/coalition party: the Zimbabwe one. Now, Maliki is not as crazy as Mugabe, but that doesn’t make Maliki Mandela or something. So Mugabe is threatening to:
…seize all U.S. and U.K. investments in Zimbabwe if the countries don't lift sanctions for alleged human-rights abuses by him and his supporters.

The threat, in a nationally televised broadcast, was part of Mr. Mugabe's push to sever ties with his coalition partners—who have supported the sanctions targeting him and his circle—by holding new elections.

Mr. Mugabe said Friday he regretted joining a government with the opposition. "All [the opposition] wants is regime change that the British and Americans have designed," he said.

I’d suggest that Allawi watch his back (but I’m sure that he knows this already).

Great Legislative Snafus

Mixed news is good news: Don’t Ask, Don’t Tell repeal won a cloture vote and seems all-but-certain to succeed in a vote at 3 PM EST today; but the DREAM Act failed 55-41. Yes, feel free to complain about the ridiculousness of an institution that can’t pass a bill 55% of its members believe is a good one, which is why something is better than nothing. A historic something, no less. That said, in this season of good will towards men blah blah blah we’ve overlooked one of the great legislative blunders ever: the failure of the food safety bill.

Here’s what happened:
The food safety measure passed in the Senate 73-25 in November, but a procedural snafu voided the vote. In order to send the bill to the president’s desk, House leaders decided to attach it to the emergency year-end spending legislation.

What was the procedural snafu? The phrase there makes it sound quaint and innocent, and it was, if you regard following the rules of the Constitution as that. (Basically: decisions on spending are supposed to originate in the House; the bill originated in the Senate, hence #fail. Generally the Senate gets around this by—and here’s some legislative metaphysics for you—taking a dead House bill that’s lying around and putting whatever spending bill they want on the inside. They didn’t do it, which is a major cock-up.)

Of all the missed opportunities of the past two years—most of which were institutionally rather than individually determined—this has to rank as the worst, because it was so easily avoidable. Don’t forget to cross those eyes, dot those tees.

Friday, December 17, 2010

Linkism

The governor of the state of Rio de Janeiro has some interesting comments about crime and airports in Brazil. Also, obesity hits Brazil.

An update on the Start-up visa bill. (Doomed!)

Did the Pakistani intelligence agency purposefully blow the cover of the CIA’s top agent in Islamabad?

E.U. is broadening its antitrust inquiry into Google, and I found this element to be particularly dubious:
The B.D.Z.V. and V.D.Z., which count 450 newspaper and magazine publishers among their members, brought their complaint against Google a year ago at the German Federal Cartel Office.

The publishers accused Google of manipulating search rankings and have called on it to reveal its algorithm and stop giving preference to its own operations. The publishers also accused Google of failing to pay newspapers even though the company earned large amounts of money by posting advertisements next to links to articles.

How “public” is public transportation (of the past)?

The man behind the Morgan Freeman death hoax.

How Facebook got to $2 billion in revenues.

The bleakness of the report on Pakistan-Afghanistan.

Companies are shunning Mexico; a new official report has come out claiming that roughly 30,000 people have died in the drug war, but that’s a doubtful claim as:
.. that figure appeared to underestimate the toll. Federal officials announced in August that 28,228 had been killed in the war, meaning the death rate would have to have slowed considerably since then. But there has been no sign of easing violence as cartels have remained locked in fierce turf battles that have most contributed to the rising toll…Estimates by Mexican intelligence put the death count at about 32,000.

Mitt Romney and Visionary-ism

For whatever reason Mitt Romney has gotten attention—it has an odd meta-ness to it, us looking as Mitt looking at us while furrowing his brow. The question of course about Mitt’s flip-floppery: is his poll-driven flip-flopping not just a form of customer service, of giving us what we want, good and hard? Ezra Klein writes:
… customer service can be a principle in and of itself. And I'd be really interested to see a presidential candidate promise to better represent the people by explicitly using polls to steer his or her presidency. But that's not what Romney is promising. He's promising to do certain things, and uphold certain values, when in office. If he's lying about that, it's not customer service. It's betrayal yoked to a four-year contract.

Well, sure, that’s one way of putting it. I’m not sure it’s right: basically everyone who pays the slightest bit of attention to Mitt Romney knows that he’s as willing a flip-flopper as there is and that this is basically the promise he’s selling us. So it would be no betrayal to do this; it’d basically be Mitt being Mitt. So that’s not the reason it’s wrong, if it’s wrong.

There are, I think, two basic types of leaders. Or maybe people, I guess. There are incrementalists and visionaries. Incrementalists tend to do well in places where you’re not going to reinvent the proverbial wheel. They probably do well with polling and customer services because, fundamentally, we know most of what there is to know about wheels and therefore our wants are pretty accurate. The problem is for things that haven’t been invented yet: it seems very likely that many of the things that are going to impact our lives, for good or for ill, are not wanted by people. Not unwanted, but not wanted: we haven’t thought of it. And many of those who don’t want this particular unknown thing are the equivalent of Luddites, people who place their own position above the position of society in general (though of course they are usually right that their position is imperiled and perhaps even deserve sympathy). In these instances, polling and customer service isn’t inaccurate, it’s just not the right tool to use. That’s why you need a visionary leader for these kinds of problems. Fundamentally, then, the question to ask about government is whether you want a visionary or an incrementalist.