Monday, February 28, 2011

Linkism

Felix Salmon talks about white-collar crime in the context of Madoff and James Altucher, whose crazy crimes I hadn’t previously heard about. (Altucher is a financier).

On the administrative bloat of the U.S. government.

U.S. government spying on journalists: obtains NYT reporter James Risen’s phone records, bank details and credit card information in order to find a leaker.

More detail on the Senate’s efforts to reform patents.

The “motor breakers” of China.

Robert Gates appears to be interested in reorienting the military towards the Navy and Air Force over the Army.

The man behind the profane, deranged, occasionally wonderful @MayorEmanuel twitter feed. (was kind of hoping he’d keep it up for the Rahm Emanuel administration.)

Iran has objected to the logo of the 2012 London Olympics because it looks like the word “Zion.” It is, to be fair, a pretty ugly logo.

China wants to slow GDP growth to 7%.

The politics of attention: Congress’s attention span.

Also, this is a really engrossing video on a community of 2,500 squatters in an abandoned skyscraper in Caracas, Venezuela:

Question Time

In the course of telling us not to worry about oil-based inflation, David Frum informs us:
But a surge in the price of one good, no matter how important, is not an “inflation.” Inflation is a sustained and general increase in the price level, not an alteration in the relationship of prices to one another.

Inflation (as Milton Friedman taught us) is everywhere and always a monetary phenomenon. The classical response to inflation is to tighten money, by for example raising interest rates.

Is there anybody who’d suggest that an increase in the interest rate is an intelligent response to a surge in oil prices caused by political turmoil? Not hardly. Oil is just more expensive. As a result, oil purchasers have been made somewhat poorer. That’s a big problem, but if we are to address it intelligently, we have to diagnose it accurately.

I’ve always been skeptical of the Friedman idea that inflation is only a monetary phenomenon, particularly in the case of oil and other commodities: could not the rise of the price of oil cause a rise in the price of stuff that uses oil—that is, the transportation system among other things—which gradually passes price increases on through the rest of the economy? Yeah, you can substitute goods for complements, but at a certain point the essentials can’t be avoided—right?

Whiners

We have come to whining season in the NBA:
"I'm a little concerned about the gravitation away from the smaller teams,'' [Herb] Simon [Indiana Pacers owner] said. "If Green Bay can win (an NFL) championship with 100,000 population, then [the Pacers] should be able to win a championship, too.''

The Pacers are indeed mediocre, and look to be mired in mediocrity for a very long time. Indianapolis is a small market by NBA standards; it’s 25th. But it’s a very bad idea to put these two facts together and declare that things are bad for the small market teams, because you’d be wrong.

First, it’s wrong—as some people have tried to do—to interpret the Super Friends troika as some sort of big-market coup. Miami is the 17th biggest TV market in the U.S. But perhaps what is meant by “big market” is the bright lights, big city of it all, and if so then that’s fair: Miami plays with the big boys in that respect. But in terms of cash—Miami’s basically playing with the same cards Indiana is. Indeed, Indiana can look down at the TV market rankings and find much more successful teams: Salt Lake City, Oklahoma City, San Antonio, New Orleans. (To be fair, the last team is no one’s example of a perennially successful team; still, they’re superior to the Pacers’ persistent mediocrity.) And if you want to take a team that’s around the same place as Indiana, Portland has been very successful.

The difference between these teams and Indiana is management; management creates good teams; good teams win; stars rarely leave good teams. The only way a star will consider leaving a good team is if momentum is stalled, and that’s demonstrated over several seasons. With LeBron and the Cavaliers, Carmelo and the Nuggets, Deron Williams and the Jazz…all of those teams looked to be nearing the end of their energies. But these are considerations that Herb Simon and his management team have never needed to think about, because Herb Simon and his management team have never been that successful.

I would have a slight bit of sympathy for Herb Simon’s whining if it weren’t his fault, somehow. But the team’s mediocrity looks deliberate: they've preferred more, ah, "nonthreatening" talent since the brawl (e.g. here) and they've allowed the same management team headed by Larry Bird to molder in their offices for a long time. An owner who was serious about winning a championship would’ve fired everyone in the front office and blown up the entire team. Herb Simon has shown little inclination of doing these things, which means that he is not serious about winning the championship. Instead, he would like to restrict other teams’ ability—small market and big market teams alike—to assemble compelling teams. You can’t have the salary structure of the Spurs or the Lakers or the Magic or whatever team you find compelling in a hard-cap world. You can’t. So the consequence of Simon’s whining about doing something he shows no inclination of even trying to do, in Simon’s mind, is to make the good teams worse. That’s not a strategy for success in business or sport.

Madoff

So New York has managed to get an exclusive interview with Bernie Madoff. I’m sure it’ll be picked over extensively, and there are some interesting bits in there, but much of it reads as the clichés of the explanation-of-evil genre (would you believe Madoff felt insecure because of the perceived failure of his father?). How much of that is Madoff purposefully shaping his story into the narratives we already understand I’m not sure. I’m also not particularly sure that most real-life evil is that interesting or insightful anyway, in a psychological sense. Instead of the banality of evil, call it the opacity of evil or something. What I am sure about is the premise of the whole thing. Let’s examine a part in the beginning:
For most of the world, Bernie Madoff is a monster; he betrayed thousands of investors, bankrupted charities and hedge funds. On paper, his Ponzi scheme lost nearly $65 billion; the effects spread across five continents. And he brought down his own family with him, a more intimate kind of betrayal….Madoff, 72, is in prison with a sentence of 150 years, which seems more than just, given the enormity of his crime.

Madoff is a bad guy and deserves going to jail for the rest of his life. Fair enough. What I’m not sure is whether Madoff deserves the outsized attention he’s garnered in terms of the financial crisis. For one, Madoff’s Ponzi scheme was only tangentially related to the financial crisis: he started the thing up during the early nineties and kept it going for a very long time. (If nothing else, Madoff was exceptionally successful at keeping a Ponzi scheme going—typically they collapse pretty quickly.) The reason his scheme collapsed was the financial crisis, true, but focusing on his role in the financial crisis is focusing on a very incidental part of it.

Then there’s the enormity of the crime. $65 billion is a lot of money in human terms; that may be why there’s so much interest in it. $65 billion is conceivable—with the number of billionaires running around, we could probably figure out the exact combination of billionaires needed to match that wealth ($65 billion = Bill Gates + Silvio Berlusconi + $1 billion or so.) In human terms, the damage sounds enormous. In economic terms, the damage is practically nothing: the financial crisis lost trillions of dollars in wealth. Madoff is the footnote to a footnote in the larger story.

So if stealing $65 billion is a crime, what is destroying trillions of dollars? It’s a tragedy. It’s a crime, too, but in the moral sense, because no one in particular is responsible for it. Trying to find one person to imprison or blame is a mistake. Certain societies at certain times have found that, after great collective crimes, that nearly everyone is to blame. That is where we are at, and the only honest atonement we can reach is to blame ourselves constantly and to introspect from there to self-improvement. Distractions are beside the point.

Poll Questions You Don't See Everyday

From the website of the Jamaica Observer:


For the record, 75% of respondents refuse to bow down to criminals.

Sunday, February 27, 2011

Linkism

This Guardian pre-Oscars interview of James Franco is notable mostly because it—rarely for the press in its interviews of stars—directly points out that Franco is a pretty terrible writer. (For most stars and most publications, the writer would play courtier and you’d read more an elliptical suggestion of Franco’s skills as a writer, e.g. “Franco is less skilled and untutored as a writer than as an actor…” or somesuch.)

Slate calls out Natalie Portman as a bad actor…because she’s just like the Millennial/Gen Y stereotype. Portman isn’t a great actor, but it’s kind of crummy to call out an entire generation because of her.

What’s up with the underreporting of the Larry Summers/Harvard/Russia scandal?

OECD believes rise in commodity prices is driven by demand, not speculation (which means all of you happy Malthusians can be happy.)

Surprisingly funny: President Obama waving grudgingly (slideshow).

Sweden retreating from pro-immigration stance?

Abraham Verghese has an interesting little op-ed about the use of diagnostic technology in medicine (and the danger of treating iPatients rather than real patients).

When are friends most important in educational outcomes?

The Most Interesting Film This Year

The sure sign that The Social Network was the most interesting film of the year—probably the best too, but let’s leave that argument for later—is that people continue to insist on their own peculiar readings of the film, usually slanted toward whatever biases the reader had. Hence you had people like law professor Lawrence Lessig complaining that The Social Network made the lawyers seem too awesome, which is odd since I can barely remember any of the lawyers besides Rashida Jones’s character, who basically was around to provide plot exposition. (Lazy-ish writing, don’t you think?)

The latest entry in the genre is Derek Thompson’s, a business writer for The Atlantic. He believes that the film actually saved Mark Zuckerberg, despite its best efforts:
The film lived up to the ominous poster, villainizing Zuckerberg as an ambitious and unfeeling genius with no more emotional depth than the computer programs he spent his life coding. "You are probably going to be a very successful computer person, but you're going to go through life thinking that girls don't like you because you're a nerd," fictional girlfriend Erica Albright told him in the film's opening scene. "And I want you to know, from the bottom of my heart, that that won't be true. It'll be because you're an asshole."

And how it was successful:
The Social Network might have slain a less savvy wunderkind. Instead, Zuckerberg emerged from the movie's opening weekends as the "boy-king of new capitalism"--uber-nerd, inventor, philanthropist, and his generation's greatest entrepreneur. "I was asked by older people again and again how I could play a character who is capable of being so mean, as if I were almost condemned by this role," star Jesse Eisenberg told the New York Times' David Carr. "But young people never had that reaction. They kept saying, 'This guy was a genius. Look what he has created.'"

Now, it may a tip-off that the film actually didn’t mean to villainize its protagonist if substantial portions of the audience find the protagonist sympathetic. It might also be a tip-off that it didn’t mean to smear the protagonist when it went easy on him. (see: the Zuckerberg IMs.) Because of course it didn’t mean to villainize Zuckerberg, it meant to portray him in a way that made for an interesting, complex (though certainly not true) story. They succeeded at that, if the response is anything to judge by.

(I’m also not sure it’s true. Do we really like Zuckerberg more? Thompson provides little direct evidence besides the Man of the Year cite, but Time has given that award to You before, despite the strenuous objections of all of the neurotics of the country. Other than that, there’s no polling or specifically quantitative evidence. Judging by the ever-reliable hard statistical evidence of “my friends,” we feel exactly the same about Zuckerberg post-film as pre-film.)

People with particular points to push, especially politically, will find a really good story resistant to such prodding. Arguments, political or otherwise, will only be able to get a small amount of purchase because we’re inherently limited in our ability to perceive the world. They’re only able to engage with a simple story. A movie like The King’s Speech, whose point basically seems to be—good job speaking there buddy!—is not so resistant to arguments about what it’s about. (That’s why most arguments about that movie centered around its accuracy rather than meaning.) Hollywood releases comparatively few ambiguous movies, so it’s hard to suppress the instinct to push and prod with limited arguments. But while they might be interesting at their best, they’re incomplete.

Lakers-Thunder Rematch

Today’s Lakers-Thunder matchup was not, truth be told, a high-quality one but it was a revealing game. It served as confirmation for several things we already knew and a question about the potential success of something we didn’t.

Start with the losers (Thunder) and what we already knew about them. We knew that the Lakers’ unique advantage over practically every team in the NBA is their big men: taller, more mobile, longer. They control the center of the floor and the rebounds too. If you’d like the real reason for the Lakers’ success in this cycle, begin with that. The Thunder in their current incarnation are perhaps the most vulnerable to athletic size and they found themselves bossed on the boards on both ends of the floor, with the familiar predictable consequences. Here’s where the question is asked: is Perkins enough to negate or at least abate this advantage? I think so, actually: alone, Perkins can’t, but the knock-on effects are positive—Perkins bumps Ibaka down to his natural power forward position and Ibaka bumps Collison down to his natural sixth man position. This is good.

The other thing we already knew about the Thunder that Perkins can’t solve is shooting: the Thunder don’t have enough of it. Westbrook is not a shooter, and when your point guard can’t shoot, it creates problems for the rest of the team. On average you’d expect three members of a team to be competent shooters; when one of the guys you’d expect on average to be a shooter isn’t one, it means that you must put a shooter at a position that normally doesn’t use one, i.e. PF or C, just to keep pace. If you don’t, teams collapse on the paint, and with the Lakers already holding a decisive advantage in length, the Thunder find it particularly difficult to score when the first teams are out there. A familiar sight repeats itself over and over: Durant or Westbrook driving into the obstacle course and losing the ball, because it’s just too hard to drive into four or five guys and not have one of the eight or ten hands strip the ball from you. So the Thunder need more shooters; if they play Sefolosha and Westbrook together, the Thunder have all of one shooter on the floor. This is a problem, and one that’s not easy to solve. It won’t be by the end of the season, that’s for sure.

****

Go with the winners. Jeff van Gundy made a very perceptive comment that was muted somewhat about one of the Lakers on offense: “It’s not good offense,” he said of this Laker’s missed shot, “to try to back someone down from the three point line.” van Gundy didn’t single out the perpetrator because he enjoys something close to sainted status in the popular consciousness of the NBA, so concerned with what looks like a winner rather than what actually is one, but it was of course Kobe Bryant.

Bryant’s ill-fated attempt to back down James Harden from the three-point line and shoot the ball from a tough angle for a midrange jumper is the epitome of all the unmentioned flaws in his game. Backing down a player from the three point line is of course desperately silly; shooting contested midrange jumpers among the worst shots in the game, particularly when shot from a poor angle.

Bryant’s miss was the most egregious of a fascinatingly ugly sequence starting at roughly 7:50 in the fourth quarter. Every time Bryant received the ball in the half court, he shot—with one exception in which he passed to Pau Gasol, who missed the finish the first time around but got his own rebound and scored on the second try. Bryant had some great lowlights in there, with an airball (he complained to the referee about standard low-post jostling) and several other perplexingly bad misses. Bryant did manage to score a couple of times, but it’s notable that one of the two times he did was when he involved his teammate in a pick-and-roll. All of the other times were isolations. Bryant apparently felt he had a point to prove about something or other, which he seems to do from time to time in his own counterproductive way. We thought the tendency had been tamed out of him but performances like today indicate that, no, Bryant will sometimes decide for no good reason that he’s going to be winning this one.* It’s a tribute to the rest of his game from quarters one through three that he can survive being so bad so frequently in the fourth quarter. (Today Bryant was 3/9 for 7 points with a TO from 7:50 on. This is not unusual, if you consult this.)

* Will Bryant actually realize he played poorly today? Probably not; they got the win after all. But that was due mostly to the great defense and efforts of the Odom/Bynum/Gasol troika on the glass.

Obviously it’s not at all clear that Bryant’s proclivities will catch up with him this postseason, or even the ongoing festering wound that is the Lakers’ point guard position. But it makes their life substantially more difficult than it needs to be, and they’re a worse team for it.

Saturday, February 26, 2011

Linkism

London’s booming French community.

More on the aerotropolis, or airport city.

David Cameron’s “Big Society”:
Their person in charge of naming should be fired and sent to study Orwell. The words "Big" and "Society" make each other sound much worse. I would have preferred "The Small Non-Society," "The Small Society," or "The Big Non-Society," or "The Medium-Sized Hook-Up," among other options.

A bizarre tale of when an entire college is plagiarized: Reed College by “University of Redwood.”

The odd protectionism of Argentina.

Is Syria next…for you know? (Entrepreneurialism and revolution)

Egyptian military crack down on protest. Hm….

Image

ESPN.com’s front page features the headline “Bobcats’ Jordan defends trade.” Many times in which one paradigm shifts to another it’s totally unremarked, and here we are at this one: at a certain point an editor felt compelled to leave out the fact that it’s Michael Jordan who’s defending the trade. Was it omitted because people wouldn’t remember Michael Jordan is the Bobcats’ owner or because people don’t particularly care about Jordan?

At any rate, the arrival of the post-Jordan era has been proposed several times, but remarking upon it—oh, like I’m doing right now—reflects that the NBA will never quite get over the epic sweep of Jordan’s career.

***

Meanwhile we’re approaching March Madness and as always a contrarian complaint has to be thrown in: March Madness basketball is objectively worse basketball and, on its own, much less interesting than its pro counterparts. There’s a reason college basketball gives the offense 30 seconds per halfcourt trip (and the number of teams that still fail to consistently get good shots despite the generosity is incredible to me). But college basketball is superbly marketed and has established a fortress in the American psyche.

It’s odd, in that context, to hear the NBA considering mandating players stay in college for two years. The rule’s often justified by appealing to the education basketball players will receive—in the classroom, and, incredibly on the court. But what does college basketball teach players? How to make slower decisions in a slower-paced game? How to get better with limited practice time and worse coaches? (The NCAA features worse coaches than the NBA because a bad coach can survive by being an excellent recruiter. See: Barnes, Rick; Hewitt, Paul; Drew, Scott.) It’s not an accident that three of the best six players are direct-out-of-high-school guys. It’s also not an accident that the NBA ultimately makes the decision during the draft by devaluing guys who have stayed a long time in college because the more time you spend in college, the slower your basketball development goes.* But the NBA does nothing but hurt its own image relative to the NCAA and hurt its game by insisting that players stay longer in college…

* Of course there’s more to life than becoming really good at basketball, football or whatever; nevertheless if we’re talking purely about how to get the very best at a particular sport, a really good way to do that would be to practice and play that sport nearly exclusively. This is why I suspect more players will go the Brandon Jennings route and develop their game in Europe.

***

Image, it’s important: despite David Stern’s frenzied marketing efforts, he’s still in the position of being second-best. How it must hurt him.

Farming and innovation...

So The Economist has a really interesting special report on how we’ll feed the world in the future; one of the articles might be of special interest to the innovation crowd. Specifically, if you think there hasn’t been enough innovation, then you’ll find corroborating evidence in the data on crop yields post-Green Revolution:
…growth in population and demand for food have both slowed down, but crop yields have slowed more. Between 1961 and 1990 wheat yields were rising at nearly 3% a year. During that period the world’s population was growing by an average of 1.8% a year. Between 1990 and 2007 population growth slowed down to 1.4%, but the rise in annual wheat yields slackened to 0.5%. The growth in rice yields between the two periods halved. Yields of mankind’s two most important crops are now almost flat.

There’s some more nuance there about the numbers; dissenting studies and all that, but the basic picture appears to be the same: we probably need to grow a lot more food in order to feed everyone and the trend lines don’t look good (which is probably at least a contributing factor to the recent spikes in food prices, no?) The trend lines also don’t take into account the omnipresent factor of climate change, which will presumably make things much more volatile. Volatile is bad if you have no margin for error, which if the past year or so is any guide, we don’t really.

Then there’s this thought:
…what if the slower rise in yields reflects something more fundamental, the approach of some sort of biological limit in plants?

The number of maize plants in a hectare has risen from roughly 40,000 to 90,000 in the past half-century. There must come a point where plants can no longer be sardined any closer together, stalk crushed against stalk. Similarly, at some point it may no longer be possible to persuade plants to put ever more energy into seeds. In animals biological limits are already clear: turkeys are so bloated that they can no longer walk; chickens grow so quickly that they suffer stress fractures. Racehorse speeds have levelled out…The evidence on whether plants are reaching similar limits is mixed.

At a certain point scarcity—of land, resources, and space—must take hold. Yes, there’s the ingenuity-of-mankind story we like to tell ourselves when we approach these limits, but there must be limits somewhere, right? The consistent, nearly across-the-board rises of commodity prices recently may indicate an economy running near its limits of resource-intensive use—at least at the current level of technology. (I can think of one possible change to get more yields without putting huge sections of rainforest to the axe, etc.: the much-discussed vertical farming. But still, surely this is not in the near-term future, right? I wonder what the practical consequences of vertical farming are…)

Friday, February 25, 2011

Linkism

Mobile banking coming to Afghanistan?

Is the ratings board biased against independent movies in favor of big studio pictures?

How the health care system discourages entrepreneurship (quantified with fancy study):
… it's a bit hard to test why someone didn't do something. Robert W. Fairliea, Kanika Kapurb and Susan Gates, however, came up with a clever way to measure it. They used a data set that allowed them to compare "business ownership among male workers in the months just before turning age 65 and in the months just after turning age 65." That is to say, business ownership before getting Medicare, and business ownership after getting Medicare. Not surprisingly, Medicare appears to make people more entrepreneurial. "We find that business ownership rates increase from just under age 65 to just over age 65, whereas we find no change in business ownership rates from just before to just after for other ages 55–75."

Is the main problem with college its cost?

What counts as enough progress?

Google announces it’s reworking its search engine results to remove the scourge of content farms, and the example used to prove it is, well, special:
Danny Sullivan, who writes a blog called Search Engine Land, said an eHow page with "shallow" content recently appeared as the first Google search result when users typed "how to get pregnant fast" into the search box. Since Google's change yesterday, the eHow page has dropped out of the top search results.
Shallow, Mr. Sullivan? I’d think you’d have to get pretty deep to get pregnant so quickly.

So, no more bragging about wait times re: the health care system, right?

The strange saga of a pair of charities merging.

If You Will It, Dude, It May Still Be A Dream

There’s a class of people who have taking to whining and moaning that Obama isn’t whining and moaning enough about the Middle East. Wait—that’s being unfair, they actually want Obama, to, uh, talk tough or something. Here’s Chris Hitchens:
Let me explain what I mean. A Middle Eastern despot now knows for sure when his time in power is well and truly up. He knows it when his bankers in Zurich or Geneva cease accepting his transfers and responding to his confidential communications and instead begin the process of "freezing" his assets and disclosing their extent and their whereabouts to investigators in his long-exploited country. And, at precisely that moment, the U.S. government also announces that it no longer recognizes the said depositor as the duly constituted head of state. Occasionally, there is a little bit of "raggedness" in the coordination. CIA Director Leon Panetta testified to Congress that Hosni Mubarak would "step down" a day before he actually did so. But the whole charm of the CIA is that its intelligence-gathering is always a few beats off when compared with widespread general knowledge. Generally, though, the White House and the State Department have their timepieces and reactions set to Swiss coordinates.

This is not merely a matter of the synchronizing of announcements. The Obama administration also behaves as if the weight of the United States in world affairs is approximately the same as that of Switzerland. We await developments. We urge caution, even restraint. We hope for the formation of an international consensus. And, just as there is something despicable about the way in which Swiss bankers change horses, so there is something contemptible about the way in which Washington has been affecting—and perhaps helping to bring about—American impotence. Except that, whereas at least the Swiss have the excuse of cynicism, American policy manages to be both cynical and naive.

Apparently Hitchens believes that the U.S. can simply issue a decree and will dictators out of office. This makes perfect sense if you’re the kind of person who believes the only thing between you and your playboy life in the French Riviera is a matter of will; to the rest of the world, however, it makes…rather less sense, namely that dictators are allowed to order people about even though the U.S. thinks they shouldn’t. Hitchens probably recognizes this, as he says:
Libya is—in point of population and geography—mainly a coastline. The United States, with or without allies, has unchallengeable power in the air and on the adjacent waters. It can produce great air lifts and sea lifts of humanitarian and medical aid, which will soon be needed anyway along the Egyptian and Tunisian borders, and which would purchase undreamed-of goodwill. It has the chance to make up for its pointless, discredited tardiness with respect to events in Cairo and Tunis. It also has a president who has shown at least the capacity to deliver great speeches on grand themes. Instead, and in the crucial and formative days in which revolutions are decided, we have had to endure the futile squawkings of a cuckoo clock.

I’m not sure what, exactly, Hitchens wants—bomb the hell out of Libya, enforce a no-fly zone or ferry in supplies—which is an awfully convenient stance for someone criticizing someone else for not acting enough. Whatever it is, it’s probably too much: because while the U.S. has goals and the U.S. also has the capabilities to perform actions, there’s no guarantee that the actual actions will result in the intended goals. Hitchens believes whatever it is he wants the U.S. to do over there will win the U.S. quite a bit of goodwill, which is certainly a kind of fuzzy thinking; on the other hand, showing force often alienates just as often as it attracts. You invade or bomb or whatever, and things become complicated because it’s war and things necessarily become complicated, and that means collateral damage, and people might quite reasonably wonder why the U.S. had to intervene in the first place. Things, they might wonder, seemed to be going fairly well in the meantime. People criticized Obama for not doing anything in Tunisia; the country seems to be doing fairly well now. People criticized Obama for not doing anything in Egypt; again, the country seems to be doing fairly well, all things considered. At no point have people considered the constructive power of doing absolutely nothing and letting a people united figure out their own affairs. Now perhaps things will turn out badly, but that might have happened had we imposed our weight on them; unless you’re proposing an indefinite occupation to keep things, Iraq-like, perched on the edge between an unsatisfactory order and messy chaos, your proposal doesn’t work.

Just because you have the weight of an elephant doesn’t mean every problem should be crushed.

A Question

So I noticed Ta-Nehisi Coates writing this: “Two And A Half Men is the show that no one I know watches--which is to say a hell of a lot of people.” The odd thing is that no one I know watches that show either. And if I bring this up, no one I know knows anyone who watches the show. Yet the show is among the most watched and profitable on TV. There are a lot of people watching 2.5 Men. But large numbers of people do not know anyone who watches it: what does this say about the interconnectedness of social networks?

All The Pretty Sad Charts

Sad chart time:


Like all good charts, the numbers and bars are clear but it might as well be a Rorschach test: what do you see here? You could see a slowdown-of-innovation thesis and not be far off (though you’d have to give an explanation for 2000-9, which is pretty easy: what awesome stuff were we doing better, exactly, in that period? Finance, housing and all that jazz were the fast-growing sectors during the period and….we know how that story turned out, do we not?). Nevertheless, that story doesn’t seem to say everything: while productivity growth is never as large as it is from ’47-’73, there’s also a large gap between productivity and wage growth which you wouldn’t expect. Productivity growth is anemic; wage growth even more so.

I wish we could see a “benefits” bar added here, because I suspect that health care insurance is taking a pretty large portion of the gap. My intuition is backed up here by the old question—what happened in 1980 with health care spending? For whatever reason, in 1980 we decided to spend a lot more money in health care we did previously, and that’s about the time we start to see a divergence between how much more we were producing, and how much better we were producing it, and what we were being paid to do all that production.

While we need to figure out how to increase productivity—which would be done via some sort of innovation or other new ideas—it won’t be particularly useful unless we figure out health care. Otherwise—and I realize this must sound a bit silly—our good decades will only be like the 90s. A fine decade in most ways; except most people didn’t get quite as wealthy as we might have hoped. If they had, perhaps they wouldn’t have had to borrow so much when the millennium turned, and perhaps there wouldn’t have been a blow-up. So, yeah, fix that health care.

The trouble is that no one has conclusively figured out what, exactly, happened in 1980 to get us on the wrong course in the first place. And not knowing what we did wrong means that we have no idea whether knowing the answer would be helpful or not to solving the problem.

Thursday, February 24, 2011

Linkism

Surprising thing to hear:
Foreign direct investment in India fell more than 31 percent, to $24 billion, in 2010 even as investors flocked to developing nations as a group.

And in the last two months, foreign investors took $1.4 billion out of the Indian stock market, helping drive the country’s Nifty 50 stock index down 17 percent from the record high it set in early November.

An interesting interview with Andy Stern on the Wisconsin situation

Fun with regulators: restaurants in San Francisco complain to regulators that food trucks should be regulated (out of existence) because they get too many customers.

Cities and inequality.

The pressure on oil prices is rising: can it be alleviated?

The Winklevosses are quickly becoming this generation’s Don Quixote, only if Quixote were money- and ego-obsessed, claiming that their quest to get $400 million in Facebook stock instead of $160 million is “a matter of principle.” Of course! Given that the issue rests on the credit the Winklevosses may or may not deserve for the conception of Facebook, this suggests that the Winklevosses rate their principles at roughly $240 million, which is an awfully high price. Most people can be had for less. In fact, I'd like to announce that I, too can be had for less: at an undisclosed price between $0 and $240 million dollars. Feel free to announce your bids through various media and if they meet the reserve price, you can have an extra set of principles to carry around with you--they're perfect for special occasions and casual gatherings alike, as well as being lightweight and extremely portable. Act now!

More Escalation

Sam Presti revealed himself as a very smart man today in his shock trade of Jeff Green and the Clippers’ 2012 first-round draft pick (top ten protected) for Kendrick Perkins. While it’s not easy to get a bad team to the point the Thunder are at right now, it’s a lot easier than taking a team from that point to the point where a championship becomes a realistic possibility. It’s more than just the opposition, more than all that; it’s the truth that the habits that took you from “bad team” to “exciting up-and-coming team” can be detrimental when trying to become “championship team.”

To become the exciting up-and-coming team, you have to accumulate lots of interesting, young pieces that you can dream on. The Thunder had that in Durant, Westbrook, Ibaka and Green. You could imagine the possibilities of what these players might become in the best-case scenario. And while everyone can imagine those possibilities, these players are the most valuable they’ll ever be: Westbrook, for example, is more valuable to the rest of the NBA as a player who might win an MVP than as a hypothetical MVP-winner. (Why? Because, realistically: it’s probably downhill from said MVP year. Sure, you’ll still be awesome. But it’s a slightly less valuable brand of awesome.) The important thing, if you’re the GM, is not to get too entranced by potential: you must be willing to trade potential into a coherent reality.

The pitfalls are illustrated by the previous two holders of the “exciting up-and-coming team” label, the Chicago Bulls and Portland TrailBlazers. Each of these teams had accumulated many fun, good players—each of these teams refused to trade them for quality players when they became available. (The Bulls, reportedly, turned down Pau Gasol and Kevin Garnett when they became available, preferring to keep the burdened-by-potential Luol Deng. I like Deng a lot, more than most I suspect, but a smart team never would’ve done it.) As it happens, the TrailBlazers are trapped in the valley of mediocrity and will probably never win a title; they’ll blame bad luck and have some reason to. But in truth they were never going to win a title even in the best-case scenario: didn’t have the horsepower. The Bulls got extremely lucky: won the number one pick in the right year and made the right choice in the right year and got Derrick Rose. (Given that Michael Beasley was considered a near equal for Rose going into the draft, this decision was more difficult than you might think. Still: luck.) Otherwise they would’ve doddered around in the 45 win range, which, as any NBA fan will tell you, is probably the most boring kind of team to follow. For the GM, these kind of teams get you fired.

You never want to count on luck, which is why you be aggressive when given the opportunity to convert potential into reality. Both Jeff Green and Kendrick Perkins are role players, and as I’ve argued before, role players are ultimately replaceable, unless they fulfill a specific, hard-to-replace role on your team. Green didn’t really fill a role; yesterday’s poor performance against the Spurs with an aimless last-shot three probably confirmed that for Presti in one of those vivid Gladwellian stories-confirming-theory incidents. Meanwhile, the Thunder wanted a mobile, defensive center who can pull down rebounds; Perkins doesn’t quite fill all of those roles—he’s not particularly mobile—but he’s close enough.

Green is a particularly interesting case of potential. If you hang out in a group enough, some of the glow shines on you too. That was Green: got to bask in that Westbrook/Durant glow. If you looked at him hard enough—and I’ve been arguing since the summer that Ibaka would eventually replace Green—you’d see a very average player, albeit a versatile average player (the versatility gave the impression that he was better than he was; in reality, instead of a jack-of-all-trades-master-of-none, he was more like a “ten of clubs of all trades, master of none.” Or something.). In essence, Green was the kind of player who, to the savvy GM, is worth more to other teams than your own. That’s what happened with the trade: if Green continues to be average, the Thunder got away with a huge theft, especially if the Clippers really stink next season (and the pick is below number ten.) Again, as I’ve argued before: number ten picks and higher are excellent ways to find mediocre players or, once in a while, get a genuinely valuable player. The Celtics, basically, are hoping to get lucky. The Thunder are choosing reality. (By the by, the addition of Nate Robinson is a very nice one. He’s had a bit of an off year, but should he recover, he’ll add some valuable scoring and moxie.)

It’s good that they are, because I felt they were in danger of falling into the habits of the Blazers and Bulls. They have the top two, but they don’t quite have the quality to fill out a team. Ibaka might become that, but it’s not worth investing all hopes in him. Hence the Perkins trade. They haven’t quite figured everything out—they still need more shooting, in my estimation—but you can tell the Thunder and Presti are exceptionally clear-eyed about their own faults. A very valuable quality, that.

Wednesday, February 23, 2011

Linkism

Brazil’s national embarrassment of infrastructure (with World Cup coming up).

What a white-collar football team would look like (satire, obvs.)

The American gas vulnerability.

Tom Friedman’s mixed metaphor alerts. (For the original and still greatest evisceration of Friedman’s mixed metaphor writing, Matt Taibbi is still the best.)

One reinsurer ranks 2010 among worst years ever, climate-wise.

South Africa to stimulate.

The iPad: better and cheaper?

Why is Arizona so extreme on immigration?

YouTube to stream NBA games? I’d be surprised if this turned out to be really robust—the NBA would effectively be cannibalizing its own revenue stream.

New Advances

An interesting anecdotal datum point about innovation/the lack thereof these days: a company got really good results (for a trial, naturally) on a drug that helps with cystic fibrosis. The caveat is this:
… VX-770 is designed to counter one specific genetic mutation that accounts for about 4 percent of cases of cystic fibrosis. Vertex is working on another drug for the most common mutation, but that one is further behind in development.

About 30,000 Americans and 70,000 people worldwide have cystic fibrosis, a disease caused by defects in a gene responsible for the transport of chloride ions across cell membranes.

Basically, about 1200 people in the U.S. (By the way, is that a typo? Why does the U.S. have 30% of the world’s population of people suffering from cystic fibrosis?) Now, obviously it’s a great thing to help these 1,200 people, but it’s a far cry from inventing, say, penicillin or anesthesia. This is purely anecdotal, but drug companies have been complaining about not inventing the latest blockbuster drug (which of course may or may not correlate well with hugely improved health outcomes—congrats to the people helped by Viagra, but that in itself isn’t huge in comparison to, say, penicillin.).

(…by the way, the news has it that this particular drug will cost tens of thousands of dollars a year—small market and all. Some have argued that drugs will end up being tailored to various genetic defects; I wonder how well economies of scale will work in this instance? You might assume a typical whine from me about high health costs, but I suspect that this is worth it. If cures like this are the wave of the future, we’ll have to be very successful at cutting costs in other areas.)

That Escalated Quickly

Now that’s how you do a blockbuster deal, Knicks. You got the part right where you went to a team with a disaffected superstar, and you got the part right where the team looking to trade is desperate…but you failed to combine those two together for the crucial ripoff trade that so often characterizes title-winning teams. (Let’s say your top five teams are, in some order, are the Spurs, Lakers, Bulls, Heat, and Celtics. Three of these teams got critical pieces from ripoff trades; we all know how the Heat brought the band together; the Spurs are the only team that looks like an homage to savvy and scouting and building a team brick by brick. The old-fashioned virtues, you might say. If you were hopelessly nostalgic.)

So the Nets gave up a pair of mediocre players—though Favors is young and mediocre, so it’s possible he might turn into middle-aged and good—with a pair of first-rounders. The first rounders sound significantly better than they actually are: the Nets’ 2011 first rounder will be a lottery pick, but the 2011 draft has been declared mediocre. And, yes, scouts can tell: maybe not the particular order, but their general sense of “good draft” or “bad draft” is pretty accurate. Even if the 2011 draft were average, the Nets’ pick is likely to be in the double-digits, and franchise players typically don’t slip below the seventh pick or so—and that’s if you get lucky. (There are, as always, exceptions—Stockton! Malone! Barkley! Ginobili! Nash!—but they are exceptions and not worth counting on.) No one has a firm opinion on the 2012 draft yet, but the Warriors’ pick is protected from 1-7, meaning that that pick has the same hazards as the 2011 pick. Essentially, the Jazz went out and traded their shiny new Mercedes for two Kias and twenty bucks.

Williams is not as good as his reputation suggests he is, but he is very good and—more importantly—absurdly healthy. For whatever reason, he is the type of NBA player who doesn’t miss games, which is a very valuable quality, though not entirely appreciated. A Williams-and-Brook-Lopez combination might prove deadly, as Lopez can either pick-and-pop or pick-and-roll.

The problem—as just about everyone’s commented by now—is that Williams hasn’t signed an extension and he’s only tied down until the summer of 2012. It’s not nearly as big a problem as people want to make it out to be, but it’s still a problem. First of all, NBA players do still like money, and the Nets can offer more of it than anyone else. Should Williams decide he doesn’t want to re-sign with the nascent Brooklyn Nets, that’s fine—they can just flip him again if they want. If not, it’s still not a big deal: all the Nets have staked are mediocre players.

In the NBA especially, where great players are disproportionately more important than mediocre ones, mediocre players are replaceable. You can find some guy to do a competent job for your team very easily; teams do it all the time. That Kurt Thomas and Juwan Howard are doing competent things for the Bulls and Heat, respectively, despite being a combined 75 years old, demonstrate this perfectly. The only way a mediocre player becomes valuable to you, as a team, is if that player offers some particular characteristic that fits into your team and your scheme perfectly. If you’re, say, the D’Antoni Suns and you need a power forward who shoots threes. Then those mediocre players become valuable, and that’s why the Bulls are scouring the league for an affordable shooting guard who can simultaneously play defense and shoot threes. (The rumors have the Bulls being particularly interested in O.J. Mayo and Courteney Lee. They aren’t great players, but I’d happily trade for either for the right price.)

But the only situation in which these mediocre players become very valuable for your team in particular is if you have a system or concept, and you only get that if you have the great players that define the space for everyone else to inhabit.* You have to be good first, basically. The Nets aren’t good; therefore they don’t have a concept; therefore their mediocre players aren’t particularly valuable to them. Who knows whether their system, in four years, will call for a Devin Harris or a Derrick Favors? No one does. But you can be pretty sure that in four years there’ll be a system for Deron Williams. That’s why you trade for him.

* I’ve always found it amusing when commentators—when talking about a team that needs to rebuild—start by saying, “Well, first you need to decide on a system.” That’s totally incorrect. A system run by bad players often won’t be any good, unless the system is one of those once-in-a-generation systems that just vaporizes the ignorant opposition, like the West Coast Offense. Chances are, if you’re sitting around trying to decide on a system, you don’t have a once-in-a-generation system like the West Coast Offense. Therefore, try to get those good players. Assuming that there’s some consistent way to identify those, which I’m guessing there aren’t.

Tuesday, February 22, 2011

Linkism

So apparently China has more internet users than there are people in the U.S.

The odd economics of scholarly journals.

David Leonhardt pens an anti-austerity column.

Apparently Xinhua is launching a search engine.

Portugal about to get nuked for its debt troubles.

On the Wisconsin imbroglio: noting the desire to massively cut Medicare; the desire to privatize anything and everything on a whim.

The Nice Stuff Theory

There’s an underreported trend in the Middle East. Underreported in the sense that while all the necessary reporting has been done, no one (to my knowledge) has picked up on the reality of a trend. I’ve noticed quite a few stories recently on several Middle East countries investing large sums of money in what look like prestige projects: Abu Dhabi is building an arts district and trying to lure famous universities; Saudi Arabia is trying to build two new districts near Riyadh that would serve as a magnet for tech and financial investment; Qatar has bid for the World Cup and recently threw a lot of money at FC Barcelona to become their first paying on-uniform sponsor; the Qaddafis of Libya invested in the Italian soccer team Juventus. Dubai’s excesses are by this point well known.

Most of these projects look pretty silly in light of recent events, though Saudi Arabia’s looks a lot more intelligent (the idea is to get high-value jobs for Saudis, and it looks to have a charter cities-type valence: “The idea is to create islands from which change would seep out, drop by drop, without antagonizing powerful conservative forces within the country.” Though Paul Romer’s idea depends very critically on the host nation ceding sovereignty to some other entity so that potential investors can be sure of a stable environment going forward.) And I suspect many of these rulers regret having made these decisions.

The spending reflects the usual dictatorial vices: dictators are real people in the sense that they like ostentatiously nice stuff too. They just have the resources to do it; they also perceive an uncaring populace re: their luxurious spending. They had an especial amount of resources at the time because, well, the price of commodities—oil but also natural gas—is high. They’re able to invest in such prestigious baubles because of globalization: finance markets are obviously very comfortable with investment from global sources and often don’t care about the reputation of said sources. And with the reputation of the rest of the world relative to the West on the increase, it looks like a good idea for certain old guard institutions—universities, the World Cup—to associate themselves with some young, vital groups.

Well, sometimes those young, vital groups decide to revolt. And prestige spending probably looks a bit silly. If there’s anything that this shows—besides “dictators are bad”—it’s that having lots of oil and cash won’t protect dictators in a real crisis, and that predicting things are really hard. After all, if anyone would be wise to a revolt within a certain country, you’d think it’d be the ruler with an iron fist. But no. I’m sure many of these dictators will rue their mistakes…while having slightly less nice stuff.

MeloDrama Over

The MeloDrama is over, and send prayers to whatever deities you find appropriate. The process was surely broken, but it’s yielded a result: who made out well? The consensus seems to be that the Knicks made a fine trade for themselves; I’m not so sure.

Mechanistically, by counting the stats, the Knicks are getting the two best players in the deal. While Raymond Felton, Danilo Gallinari and Wilson Chandler aren’t the kind of players that lead championship teams, they were well-suited to the D’Antoni ethos. It’s not certain that Billups and Anthony are as well suited.

The purest form of the D’Antoni ethos was that first year with Steve Nash. The idea always was to center the team around running as a first option, and then a pick-and-roll with an aggressive, mobile picker. Surround those two players with three shooters, and you have a near-perfect offense. It’s hard to get four shooters on the floor at once, but the Suns at one point were ideological about it. Then they compromised: they brought in Grant Hill and Shaq. At the time both players were good players who could serve a role—on a team other than the Suns. With them, the team’s style became diluted and they weren’t quite as potent (and, for the naggers: the defense didn’t get much better. Of course, the Suns were never quite as bad on defense as everyone made them out to be—they were slightly above league average—and their biggest problem on defense was Steve Nash, which you never quite heard mentioned by the commentariat because it strode on their theory that Steve Nash was all that was wonderful with the universe. That and bad luck kept the team from winning a championship; it didn’t have much to do with the system per se or even the coach. If you replaced those years’ Steve Nash with a contemporary Chris Paul the Suns have at least one title and are one of the most fondly remembered teams ever.)

The Knicks have created a reasonably good facsimile of those Suns, surprisingly enough. The problem with the four-on-the-floor shooters theory is that you (usually) have to compromise height at the power forward position, impacting the defensive end of the floor. (Though it’s been my theory for a while that the next prototype power forward will shoot threes.) That was the case with the Knicks—Chandler and Gallinari were great shooters; Gallinari brought quite a bit of offensive moxie, but neither of them were even average defenders. Still, you got four on the floor.

Carmelo is not a three-point shooter, though he shoots like he’s one. When Anthony is in sync, few scorers are as terrifyingly pure: he’s got skills and a huge body and uses the combination appropriately. He hasn’t really hit that state terribly often; perhaps the Knicks will bring it out of him. If so, the trade is a sure success. But I’m not so sure. If so, Anthony will fit awkwardly into the team, offensively speaking: he can’t really shoot, he doesn’t really keep the ball moving, and he’s not an exceptional runner.

It’s Billups who’s the bigger liability. Like a lot of veterans, Billups’s reputation has outlived his play: Billups doesn’t really play fast, and he likes to pretend he’s still an effective scorer, often calling his own number in situations that don’t warrant it. Once a formidable defender, he’s now just average. I do not see how he will make the Knicks better. The rumor has it that either Deron Williams or Chris Paul will be New York-bound in the summer of 2012, but after the owners win the lockout, there won’t be cap space room. (With injuries concerns involved, I’d urge the Knicks to take Williams over Paul, though Paul—contrary to the bizarre public debate—is the clearly superior player.)

There’s a significant upside possibility to this trade, so in that sense it’s hard to fault the Knicks for going for it. On the other hand, the downside is pretty deep too. I think gravity is more likely to win.

Monday, February 21, 2011

Linkism

Surprisingly good article on “mental athletes,” people who compete in feats of memorization. Unexcerptable.

On how the drug war “dumps” violence onto the poor.

Lawyers are now facebooking the jury pool.

Will Watson-like machines take over banking?

Why are some authoritarian regimes quick to surrender to protests and some stay strong?

The odd German narrative of the European crisis.

Tourists are all the same when it comes to taking pictures of landmarks (visual evidence of a ghostly form.)

Maersk wants to make crazy new ships:
Think of a 400m-long row of 20-storey high office blocks cruising the ocean at the speed of Usain Bolt. Or a container ship as long as the Empire State building and as wide as an eight-lane motorway that is able to carry more than 860m bananas or 18m flat-screen televisions in 18,000 containers.

While at 400m long and 73m tall the new "Triple-E" container ships will be only marginally longer and taller than the current biggest class of vessel, the 160,000-tonne ships will be able to carry nearly 20% more containers than previously because of their width. Maersk has signed a $1.9bn (£1.17bn) contract with Korean shipbuilders Daewoo for the first 10, with an option for 20 more. The first order will be completed in two to four years.
They think it will cut the cost of transportation and the emissions too. Of course, there’s a decline-of-American-infrastructure angle too: only ports in Europe and (some) ports in Asia are able to handle ships that large.

Brazil: heading towards credit trouble?

A story of a town built by patronage in Egypt.

Proving that no matter who owns the team, the Warriors can’t help but contemplate counterproductive moves: they’re thinking about trading for Yao Ming and Greg Oden. Of course!

How NASCAR conquered America by air.

How poor focus and creativity (appear) to be connected.

Building a 21st century patent office.

If You Will It, Dude, It Is No Dream

I don’t know what exactly to believe in the area of education reform, but I’m pretty sure the correct solution will turn out to be complicated. Admittedly, there might be some simple, easy solution, but the ones that are being sold these days suffer from a lot of false advertising. False advertising like this:
Rhee's message about education reform is very seductive because it's simple and optimistic. Childhood poverty and economic school segregation, in Rhee's world, are just "excuses" for teacher failure. If we could just get the unions to agree to stop protecting bad teachers and allow great teachers to be paid more, she says, we could make all the difference in education. The narrative is attractive because it indeed would be wonderful if poverty and segregation didn't matter, and if heroic teachers could consistently overcome the odds for students whom everyone agrees deserve a better shot in life.

The education-reform movement that focuses on charter schools and teacher accountability as its favored solutions loves the “no excuses” rhetoric as applied to childhood poverty and segregation. You can tell from the other inspirational-messianic branch of the movement—Teach for America—which appears to screen out applicants based on their commitment to that rhetoric. (I did an interview with TFA with questioning that focused intensively on that subject; several of my friends had a similar experience.) While a no-excuses attitudes is helpful for teachers to adopt—after all, they can’t change childhood poverty and segregation, and so they should focus on what they can control, i.e. their teaching—it’s not a particularly helpful attitude for society to adopt. Being realistic, there’s no way children’s outside environment has little effect on their performance in school. It doesn’t make sense to believe otherwise. What your favored response to this fact is should be a matter for debate; whatever it is, it’s not a no-excuses policy.

In some ways Rhee’s attitude is not totally illogical. A single variable often does have a disproportionate effect, and changing that variable often can unleash a virtuous/vicious circle. If you have the mentality of, say, a Silicon Valley entrepreneur, you think your particular revolutionary idea can change the world, and you might even be right. The problem is that it’s easy to go backwards and look at all of the successful revolutions; harder to identify the revolutions before they happen. So instead of just looking for the one miracle change that unleashes changes as a consequence—and especially instead of just believing that more will gets the job done--the prudent society should be trying to look for miracles while doing the daily drudgery.

Har

“Common sense isn’t so common,” goes the cliche—usually delivered with a chortle—but rarely do you hear the retort: “Then why do we call it common sense?” The phrase must be a misnomer, if the cliché is true—and I think the cliché has at least a small point (well, you never hear people acknowledging others’ common sense used well—“Good common sense there dude!”—so there’s a bit of a bias there.).

What’s the right replacement, usage-wise? Well, most of the cases we criticize others for lacking common sense, the person hasn’t really thought about whatever it is s/he’s made a mistake on. We never really notice our common sense working successfully, but I think it’s the same way: largely an unconscious response for whatever situation has presented itself. There’s another word for our first reflexive response to a situation that requires action: intuition. So let’s go with intuition?

Technically Challenging

So I wanted to go back to that Radiohead review of King of Limbs, with its notion that serious listening had become its brand:
The funny part is that they basically trained the world into this, by spending their career moving in the opposite direction from most of their peers. Most bands like this start off as something marginal, then grow into popularity. Radiohead kicked off by proving they were a good big rock band — then started pulling their many fans, some of them kicking and screaming, off into new places. They taught people how to enjoy that. They made music good enough to satisfy their left-field music-geek peers and their everyday fans at the same time. Their main emotional register — which sits somewhere between abject world-weariness and a kind of itching, wriggling-in-your-skin discomfort — has turned out to be more relatable, to more people, than anyone would have guessed. And their election as the arty rock group of consensus means we get to watch something really rare and amazing: A band that can do whatever it wants, and do it really well, and have it matter on a big scale.

There was another artist who was a lot like this, and it was David Foster Wallace. Having listened to King of Limbs all the way through and a bit more, I feel the comparison all the more strongly. Both explore similar emotional states—I can’t improve on the description of “abject world-weariness and a kind of itching, wriggling-in-your-skin discomfort”—though Wallace has a wider palette, I think (Wallace’s protagonists feel much the same way as Radiohead, but Wallace does humor much better than Radiohead and he also does earnestness much more. To put it pithily: Radiohead talks about world-weariness while Wallace recognizes world-weariness and tries to cure it.). Both can do conventional very well but seem to prefer difficult technical modes. Both have a subset of fans that prefers the conventional stuff (Wallace:nonfiction::Radiohead:In Rainbows) that is, oddly, smaller than the small-scale cults that likes just about everything from the difficult to the easy (Wallace:short fiction::Radiohead:Amnesiac, say.)

You would think hardcore Radiohead fans would correlate well with hardcore Wallace fans and vice-versa for this reason, but I’d categorize myself as more in the latter group than the former. Indeed, I disproportionately favor the “easy” Radiohead stuff, which is why I found In Rainbows to be some of the best stuff Radiohead has done on a consistent basis. I’d make a more definitive statement, but I’d be worried about said Radiohead fans branding me with the mark of Cain for such heresy.

One seminal experience I had with a Radiohead probably says a lot. A large group of us are hanging around and said Radiohead fan is zooming through various songs in OK Computer: “Electioneering,” “Karma Police,” “No Surprises,” etc. Suddenly he stops at “Fitter Happier” which for the uninformed is this:


(This video has 83 thousand views! Another version has 218 thousand views! Madness!)

So we sat through about a minute or so of the dirge, everyone wondering what the hell is going on, said Radiohead fan with a straight face daring all of us to disagree with him…until he burst out laughing and changed it. “Come on, you don’t really believe I thought this was good?”

Well, you never know. Anyway, such are the perils of intense fandom—and, yes, there are people out there who enjoy “Fitter Happier.” At least, judging by the YouTube comment section there are.

I suspect Radiohead know very well that they’ve done something inaccessible; why do it anyway? Well, probably they think they have a point—which I suppose they do, except it’s delivered so boringly that no one but the converted will think it interesting. But analyzing it in terms of its impact on the audience is probably missing the point somewhat; most artists create at least partially for themselves, and highbrow-type artists take that part more seriously than most. (They know they won’t get the audience.) When you create for yourself, the fun of writing these inaccessible yet technical works is the challenge of having done them. Write a novel without using the letter “e”? Awesome, dude, nice job.

I don’t, however, value these technical tricks unless they’re used well. “Fitter Happier” is the kind of song that’s easily decoded intellectually and provides little scope for further contemplation; to say nothing of any emotional effects. (It’s kind of the intellectual equivalent of the resolutely unfunny skits in hip-hop albums. Thank god those have mostly been dropped.) Wallace’s technical tricks may not work all the time—many of his short stories do this—but when they do, they get you twice: suddenly, then gradually. (See: “Good Old Neon,” to say nothing of Infinite Jest.) That’s something the airiest Radiohead stuff doesn’t do. What makes it worse—for me, at least; plenty of smart people disagree with me—is that they’re perfectly capable of doing a smart take on a pop song. That might not sound like a huge achievement, but there’s an underappreciated value to craftsmanship relative to the totally appreciated value of masterpieces.

Sunday, February 20, 2011

Linkism

A WSJ op-ed advocates eating insects.

The Economist sums up the dangers of smart cities.

A pretty good review of Radiohead’s new album:
… can we just take a moment to marvel at how totally unlikely this is? Radiohead have a large, broad, devoted fan base, on a scale most proper pop stars struggle to muster. They have this while making a kind of music that, when it's coming from anyone else, tends to get dismissed as marginal, obscure, and pretentious, or even a pointless, hookless, self-important snooze. They're the one act normal rock fans trust to introduce them to sounds and ideas from further afield — from electronic music, experimental music, contemporary classical, wherever. No other band makes so many fans turn quite so studiously patient and open-minded. It's as if the world has agreed that this is the one flagship group everyone will turn to for that experience — the band people will enjoy taking seriously, approaching slowly, and pondering as art rather than entertainment. The whole concept of "serious listening" has somehow become this one act's brand. How improbable is that?

Retracing Orwell’s The Road to Wigan Pier.

Another football player, Dave Duerson, committed suicide.

The ambitions of Abu Dhabi’s art distract.

How the government was duped by a computer programmer with a bad gambling habit.

Hmm:
The new funds stand out in what is a bleak environment for most venture firms. Hit by the financial crisis and poor returns over the past decade, just 119 new venture funds were raised in the U.S. last year, totaling $11.6 billion in assets, according to research firm VentureSource. That was down from 215 new venture funds totaling $40.1 billion in 2007.
Think I’d hold out on those predictions of a bubbly internet market.

A profile of James Murdoch, the presumed heir to the throne.

Afghanistan Reporting

So if you read Dexter Filkins’s reporting on the mess that is the Kabul Bank, and the connections that bound it and the government, you might have noticed this detail:
Politics and business in Kabul are increasingly dominated by criminal networks and their patrons in the Afghan government. The vast majority of the loans [from Kabul Bank] appear to have gone to Kabul Bank’s sixteen shareholders. One of them is the President’s brother Mahmoud Karzai. He spent most of his adult life in the United States, eventually owning a number of restaurants, until returning to Kabul after the Taliban were driven out of the city, in 2001. He has an American passport and is currently under investigation by federal prosecutors in the United States for failing to report income. Another shareholder is Haseen Fahim, the brother of Mohammed Fahim, who is one of Karzai’s two Vice-Presidents. For the Obama Administration, such official connections make something like the Kabul Bank scandal difficult to confront but impossible to ignore. “I’m really hoping that something positive comes out of this,” the senior NATO officer said. Then, after a pause, he added, “Maybe it’s too big to turn away from.”

Now you might ask: was Mahmoud Karzai the Karzai brother who was reported to be on the CIA’s payroll? The answer to that question is no, that’s the other corrupt Karzai brother. This Karzai brother is described as one of “Afghanistan’s most prosperous businessman,” which we’re all certain was acquired completely legitimately.

The corruption and inefficiency of the Afghan government is already well known, but bears repeating from time to time, because if we’re to take the principles that underlie the war in Afghanistan seriously, the effectiveness of the Afghan government is our first priority. If it doesn’t succeed the entire enterprise doesn’t succeed. And it’s hard to read Filkins’s article and come to the conclusion that the Afghan government can succeed. You know how you can tell? Because Filkins’s government sources basically admit it, with the deceased Richard Holbrooke summing it up:
“We have had long conversations about [corruption] with President Karzai,” Richard Holbrooke, Obama’s special envoy, told me in Kabul not long before he died, in December. “They’re completely useless.”

Generally, all of the reporting from Afghanistan indicates that they’re completely useless for more than just dealing with corruption. The most important corroborating evidence for their uselessness is that so many important people are ready to go on the record talking about various discouraging aspects of the government’s performance. It is an open and accepted fact.

This should be a puzzling thing to contemplate. We have invested and will continue to invest hundreds of billions of dollars and tens of thousands of soldiers into Afghanistan, and we should be doing it in the expectation that there is something worth doing there. But the people in charge seem to be disillusioned from that and are simply waiting until an opportune moment to give up. But, crucially, no one seems to care. There is no great debate about this; no one’s screaming themselves hoarse about it. Why? Shouldn’t a nation concerned about the deficit and supporting the troops—probably the two most repeated catchphrases of the recent political vocabulary—be outraged that its dollars and its soldiers are being deployed in a cause that seems to have no hope?

The Vietnam War reached a similar stage, in which everyone concerned was convinced that nothing more could be achieved. The Vietnam War took ages to wind down after that—as I think may be happening here—but all the while there was an intense awareness about what was going on, with an intense debate, and officials were not officially admitting their failure, as they essentially are in the New Yorker. That seems a more appropriate process. What’s changed?

James Dolan and the Owner Problem

So the rumor has percolated past the active mind of Adam Wojnarowski and into the The New York Times and, just now, the All-Star broadcast: James Dolan is taking the advice of Isaiah Thomas and is calling the shots to trade for Carmelo Anthony, and has in fact dramatically increased the bid to do so—despite the reality that the leverage should be the Knicks’, if only they were patient. But patience is a quality that Dolan has amply demonstrated he doesn’t have; worse, it seems, he’s doing the deal because he has convinced himself he has to do the deal, because of image. The beautiful thing about sports is that, ultimately, image doesn’t matter very much: there’s no spinning the scoreboard.

So Dolan appears to be making the same old mistakes again. It’s surprising that someone would continually make the same mistakes over and over again, but then again Charlie Brown kept on trying to kick the football. Tragedies have been made out of less. The real question is why James Dolan is allowed to make so many mistakes.

Say what you will about other forms of business, but generally—granted, as the finance sector can tell you, not always—if you keep on making mistakes you’ll go out of business. Either you run out of money or someone buys you out against your will (assuming you’re a publicly run company). Not so in sports. James Dolan is hardly the only incompetent sports owner. He may not even be the worst in his own league. There’s the likes of Michael Heisley, the Grizzlies owner, the departed Chris Cohan, the Warriors owner, Michael Jordan, Glen Taylor and Robert Sarver are among his peers in dysfunction. At least James Dolan isn’t a completely awful human being to go along with his incompetence, as Donald Sterling is. That’s just the NBA, by the way. I’m sure fans with deeper knowledge of other sports can write up similar lists of owners who have no conception of how to run a good team.

Having an awful owner is the worst kind of disadvantage in American sports. Players are transient; GMs and coaches slightly less so. Owners linger like an unwanted party guest. And because owners hire the executives who pick the players, sooner or later the incompetence rolls downhill and flattens the organization.

So why do they linger? Well, there’s no real incentive to. Let’s take Donald Sterling, perhaps the best worst owner ever. Sterling is an awful owner from the perspective of being a good human being and producing wins; I wouldn’t be surprised to hear that Sterling has made the most money of any owner in the NBA during his tenure. For one, there’s the year-by-year revenue stuff: Sterling spends almost no money and then receives TV money and other revenue sharing from the league. I’m guessing he usually makes a profit. And I’m sure the resale value of the club has increased dramatically too: if the Clippers ever had a serious owner, who (hypothetically) did a very good job building the team and (to throw out an idea) moved the team to Anaheim and became Orange County’s team in the same way the Angels are Anaheim’s team, you’d have a really valuable team. Not as valuable as the Lakers, of course, but a substantial amount of money. So Sterling has done very well for himself while failing about as badly as anyone could fail, at least by the standards we should be caring about.

The problem, then—to take a page from the Tea Party playbook—is American sports socialism. Donald Sterling is supported in so many ways despite his evident lack of interest in doing anything better than he did before. And now, because of the quality of players like Blake Griffin and Eric Gordon—gotten because the draft tries to distribute players to teams in need—the Clippers are probably worth more than they’ve ever been. Is this enough to overturn a system that, all things considered, have worked pretty well for American sports? Perhaps not. But these are the costs.

Saturday, February 19, 2011

Linkism

Dexter Filkins reports on the fall of Kabul Bank.

Boeing learns that outsourcing can be bad for the bottom line; Felix Salmon expands upon the idea.

Are art collectors ready to shop online?

Cuba freeing more political prisoners.

What can Watson learn from the human brain?

On Londonism.

Talking back to the smart city.

Groupon going to China?

America’s poor infrastructure holding back the economy (we’re ranked behind Barbados!)

The effects of China’s interest rate hikes.

British drug makers cutting back on R&D:
“The markets treat drug companies as though research and development spending destroys value,” says Jack Scannell, an analyst at Bernstein Research. “People have stopped distinguishing the good from the bad. All those which performed well returned cash to shareholders. Unless the industry can articulate what the problem is, I don’t expect that to change.”

Good Idea Fatalism

These days, innovation seems to be everyone’s favorite solution to practically every practical problem facing the country. It seems that a bit of human ingenuity can overcome nearly every economic problems, and perhaps some of the non-economic ones too. There’s a convenience to nominating innovation to the status of chief problemsolver, because in the popular imagination it’s a kind of miracle-worker: one eureka moment and with the speed of thoughts, problems are solved and mountains moved. Besides the miracles, there’s a convenient amorphousness about where, exactly, innovations come from. From smart people, presumably. But where else? No one seems to know.

In the crudest imagination, the free market has something to do with it. Magic of capitalism and all that. That’s the genesis of intellectual property protections: you’re upping the rewards for perceived innovation; incentives matter; more innovation. This may be so, but it doesn’t answer why we seemed to have so little innovation during the past few years. Or else you’d be forced to explain why so many good ideas translated in to so little physical wealth…besides, you know, empty houses in Las Vegas and Phoenix and places like that.

That, at least, is something like The Great Stagnation thesis. I just finished reading Steven Johnson’s Where Good Ideas Come From, and he seems to take a more cheery view of things, though he doesn’t commit himself to the Singularity-is-Coming viewpoint.

But if you’re interested in concrete steps large numbers of people can take—whether it’s policy or market-based—reading The Great Stagnation and Where Good Ideas Come From will make you less rather than more cheery.

The Great Stagnation’s prescription is to raise the social status of scientists. Cowen thinks scientists don’t get enough respect: few people dream of growing up to become a scientist; few people want to date or marry one, etc. etc. As to Where Good Ideas Come From, the last line of the book is a good summation:
The patterns [of coming up with good ideas] are simple, but followed together, they make a whole that is wiser than the sum of its parts. Go for a walk; cultivate hunches; write everything down, but keep your folders messy; embrace serendipity; make generative mistakes; take on multiple hobbies; frequent coffeehouses and other liquid networks; follow the links; let others build on your ideas; borrow, recycle, reinvent. Build a tangled bank.

Of these, nearly all of them are non-political and non-market. Only the last two really suggest politics (that is, of loose intellectual property laws), and the rest can only be stimulated very indirectly—perhaps by allowing for greater density, one can boost the kind of “liquid networks” that he’s referring to. (I’m guessing it is—Johnson is full of praise for Jane Jacobs.) Mostly, the list sounds like the innovation equivalent of all those self-help books. Which is certainly fine; what it isn’t, is a prescription of how we, as a society, can come up with more good ideas, except to try and provide the infrastructure and get out of the way. The problem of waiting for superman is that superman has his own unknowable schedule.

Probably that’s the right attitude to take. The main motivations we tend to throw around, these days, are monetary anyway. Yeah, there are medals and stuff, but when it gets down to it, we care about money. Which is certainly one way to reward people; for one, it’s neutral territory: there are very few lifestyles out there that are actively hostile to money. Indifferent, perhaps, but hostile, no. Good ideas may be one of those things that are relatively indifferent to money. The people who have good ideas; they have them because they like experimenting and creating. It’s not an accident that so many industrialists started out as tinkerers. It’s not an accident that the artists are starving. But if these things are true, and fresh ideas are the only way to advance under capitalism, it suggests that capitalism isn’t the all-conquering force we thought it was. It needs fuel, fuel it cannot really produce.

So what is capitalism good at? Well, I don’t think capitalism comes up with the good ideas; rather, I think it does a very good job of turning those good ideas into money, and employing people with them. That’s a very good thing, but somewhat less awesome than its advocates said it was. It means that much of the free-the-rich-free-the-economy rhetoric you hear from certain quarters doesn’t contain a lot of substance. What it does suggest is there’s not much we can really do except spend a fair amount of money, and wait until something happens.

Small Ironies

In Daniel Triesman’s The Return, his history of Russia after the fall of Communism, there’s a funny little irony in there. In the narrative, Gorbachev is facing restive elements from various apparatchiks and satellite republics of the USSR:
Leaders of the republics, suddenly aware of the fragility of their new freedoms, were racing to secede. But Gorbachev still hoped to negotiate a new union treaty. As he told the Egyptian president, Hosni Mubarak, he thought the nationalist grandstanding in the republic legislatures was just a “temporary phenomenon.”
I wonder whether Mubarak ever recalled that incident.

Stanford And The Governor: Not Leland--The Island

Via the WSJ, it seems Stanford has submitted plans to open an applied-sciences branch in Governor’s Island in New York. Nothing’s certain yet, obviously—perhaps Stanford is just the only school to float its interest publicly, and so there’s still a competition to be had—but the piece sounds like it’s inflating a trial balloon (e.g. “School officials cautioned that Stanford has not yet decided whether it will apply, and that it plans to debate the issue with faculty, students and alumni in the coming weeks.”)

That’s appropriate, certainly. Opening a satellite campus on a completely different coast is a huge change for the school. The article mentions cost, but I’m not sure that’s the relevant important variable: Stanford has the money right now to do it; if it needed more I’m sure people would raise it; and I’m quite certain the Bloomberg government would make the financing easier. If Stanford wills it, it is no dream. No, the important variable is simple. Some might call it brand; others might refer to it as a public trust or some such. The point is that Stanford is California and sunshine and hordes of bicycles, as surely as Oxford is old buildings and punting down the river and as surely as Harvard is miserable Bostonian winters. Expanding to New York represents a risk: is it a good one?

The traditionalist in me says no. The maximalist in me says yes.

Start with the maximalist. Yesterday I posted an article asking “Why is college so expensive?” Well, as Tyler Cowen points out, part of the problem is that colleges don’t really expand, and it’s hard to open a new college. The consequence of these two facts is that the volatility of college’s status is relatively low: it’s kind of crazy that some of the great colleges of the medieval era are still great, important colleges now. That may seem natural at first, but upon reflection it should be much stranger: how many other institutions have successfully endured so long (then ask yourself: how many of these enduring institutions don’t seem like anachronisms or worse?)? Unfortunately, if the hierarchy of colleges is relatively fixed, that means that many people who want a good education and who could benefit from a good education, don’t get one.

And there’s very little reason why they shouldn’t get one. Schools like Stanford have tons of monetary resources; in fact, all things considered, they probably have too many resources allocated to them. A school like Stanford could educate many more people than it currently does, and charge them almost nothing, were a school like Stanford so inclined. Expanding to a place like New York would therefore be a way for Stanford to educate many more people at a relatively affordable price while contributing to the manufacture of new, interesting ideas that could change the world. If you think Stanford’s comparative advantage is in innovation—and that’s probably Stanford’s most distinctive set of alumni—then the expansion just might help there.

That’s the maximalist case; there’s a pretty good traditionalist case in there too. There’s something special about place, and it’s more than nostalgia. Nostalgia will always live on in the mind; no reason to preserve physical remnants for it. No, the reason is that there’s something special about the culture in the Bay Area. If you’ve read Regional Advantage, you’ll know the reason Silicon Valley took off was the tight integration of Stanford, the tech companies and the venture capitalists. Moreover, the right values were there too: cooperating on what’s new and exciting (oftentimes replacing competition); tolerating failure as necessary for stunning success; and fluid movements between jobs and industries. These are a hard set of circumstances to duplicate, as many places have found out after trying. So what reason should we believe that Stanford itself can pull it off? I’m not sure.

But it sure sounds interesting.