Thursday, March 31, 2011

Linkism

The rise of the high-tech vending machine?

The Obama administration debuted its rules for ACOs.

The great language grab—by tech companies.

India’s population rises to 1.2 billion in latest census—and will keep on growing.

Whatever happened to compassionate conservatism?

The American wireless Galapagos.

GQ reviews Wallace’s The Pale King.

A solution to bribery?: make giving bribes legal, but keep taking bribes illegal.

Do we need a battery breakthrough?

The race to do comparative effectiveness research right.

Libya

The reality of the Libyan intervention is chaos: we’re not sure who’s who, or even which people are supposed to be good and which ones are competent. It appears that the rebels are not especially competent:
The revolution lacks an organised military structure in spite of several attempts to stamp its authority on the volunteer army. Discipline is bad. Few of the fighters have proper military experience and they would need training in the use of weapons such as artillery. But the revolutionaries have made a strong point of saying they do not want foreign troops on Libyan soil.

The revolution's de facto finance minister, Ali Tarhouni, claims that there are 1,000 trained fighters among the rebels but there is little evidence of it on the battlefield where the anti-Gaddafi forces appear capable of advancing only when the way is cleared by foreign air strikes.

The problem is not solely the rebels' lack of more powerful weapons. In the past two days their disorganisation has shown as they have been badly outmanoeuvred by better-trained forces that have outflanked them with sweeps through the desert. The revolutionaries lack any cohesive defensive plan. Instead they fire wildly at the enemy and argue among themselves about what to do next and who should be giving orders before turning and fleeing.

The New Yorker corroborates this account. I’m not sure—if Libyans are against foreign troops on the ground—how the rebels win. I’m not even sure how they avoid losing. There’s the “risk” part of the problem. The “upside” part is muddled too: if Egypt is going about banning strikes and generally clamping down, how much can we expect from a Libyan government? Do we even know who these people are?

Not every bad thing can be prevented, or is even worth trying to prevent.

Central American Matters

You really owe it to yourself to read that New Yorker article about a political murder in Guatemala if you haven’t yet. I could elaborate on that recommendation, but it’d sound like I was being hyperbolic. So I won’t. I will, however, expand on a point: the murder of this lawyer in Guatemala eventually comes to implicate the entire apparatus of the state that is supposed to be dealing with law and order. Order is not something it does particularly well:
In 2007, a joint study by the United Nations and the World Bank ranked it as the third most murderous country. Between 2000 and 2009, the number of killings rose steadily, ultimately reaching sixty-four hundred. The murder rate was nearly four times higher than Mexico’s. In 2009, fewer civilians were reported killed in the war zone of Iraq than were shot, stabbed, or beaten to death in Guatemala.

The violence can be traced to a civil war between the state and leftist rebels, a three-decade struggle that, from 1960 to 1996, was the dirtiest of Latin America’s dirty wars. More than two hundred thousand people were killed or “disappeared.” According to a U.N.-sponsored commission, at least ninety per cent of the killings were carried out by the state’s military forces or by paramilitary death squads with names like Eye for an Eye. One witness said, “What we have seen has been terrible: burned corpses; women impaled and buried, as if they were animals ready for the spit, all doubled up; and children massacred and carved up with machetes.” The state’s counter-insurgency strategy, known as “drain the sea to kill the fish,” culminated in what the commission deemed acts of genocide.

Read the article long enough, and besides being impressed with what an incredible story it all is, and you come to the conclusion that Guatemala’s government is deeply fractured. This seems to be something close to usual for the region; Honduras had a coup recently, for example, and we all know about Mexico. Or do we? The New Republic has an interesting argument on the issue:
… the Mexican state is in important ways both stronger and more successful than many Americans seem to realize. In the area of public health, and, more broadly, in poverty reduction, Mexico has far more to teach than to learn. The country is generally thought to have handled the H1N1 panic better than many rich countries. And the Mexican government’s social-assistance program, now known as Oportunidades—which skillfully and creatively uses a range of assistance, from conditional cash transfers to health and nutritional support—has been enormously effective in changing the status of Mexican women (who are the program’s recipients), improving the health of children, and lifting large numbers of people out of poverty. Oportunidades’s global reputation is such that Michael Bloomberg gave the okay for an Oportunidades pilot program in New York City. The Ministry of Social Development (SEDESOL in its Spanish acronym) is a model of what such an agency should be, and development experts around the world speak of it with a respect sometimes bordering on awe. Significantly, the corruption that bedevils Mexican law enforcement has no equivalent whatsoever in the social sphere, and, despite the drug crisis, SEDESOL goes from strength to strength.

I wouldn’t want to make too strong a mention of one particular objection about its public health—Mexico is very much struggling with obesity, with its rate being second in the world, which is strange for a country that’s not as rich as the various Western countries. I don’t want to make too strong a point of it because I’m wondering whether the “failed state” designation is very useful.

“Failure” seems to imply a comprehensive, general void, but whether we’re talking about people or institutions, we know that some parts may be functional and others might be dysfunctional. I’m comfortable with the U.S. government’s ability to deliver the mail; I’m not comfortable with the U.S. government’s ability to prosecute a war and then rebuild a country successfully.

The problem is when the dysfunction infects what might be called the “moral authority” portion of the government. The authority of the government—say, the long arm of the law—is best kept unused but implied. If challenged too frequently, the government often either keeps it unused (and mock its existence) or uses it with too much force. The medium isn’t really found too often, and that’s the situation with Mexico: the state is failing at one of its core jobs and it seems to be lacking authority in a critical matter. It probably won’t collapse, but given the general pains of the Central American region, it doesn’t bode well for continued progress.

Wednesday, March 30, 2011

Linkism

China’s HSR past and future.

A massive New Yorker article about a murder in Guatemala.

Is Mexico really a failed state?

Vanity Fair has an excerpt of that Paul Allen memoir, focusing on his relationship with Bill Gates.

Introducing Iran’s next president? And where’s the outrage about the ongoing Iranian oppression?

Rortybomb on financialization and the white collar fear of uselessness.

NYT on the disgraceful mortgage modification program. One of the Obama administration’s biggest screwups.

Does algae hold promise for nuclear cleanups?

A case study on escalating pay packages (for CEOs and head coaches).

Everything you’ve ever wanted to know about free throws.

How computers may or may not beat the market.

Seems Michelle Rhee’s testing program looks more flawed by the moment.

This is good:
The rise of generic distinctions [in music] has lately reached a climax of absurdity, such that we can name off the top of our heads: house, witch house, dub, dubstep, hardstep, dancehall, dance-floor, punk, post-punk, noise, "Noise," new wave, nu wave, No Wave, emo, post-emo, hip-hop, conscious hip-hop, alternative hip- hop, jazz hip-hop, hardcore hip-hop, nerd-core hip-hop, Christian hip-hop, crunk, crunkcore, metal, doom metal, black metal, speed metal, thrash metal, death metal, Christian death metal, and, of course, shoe-gazing, among others. (Meanwhile, 1,000 years of European art music is filed under "classical.")

The best report on media piracy.

ESPN had a front-page article about Sachin Tendulkar, the cricket star, and his relationship with India. I know nothing about cricket, but it seemed like an interesting, informative article, but cannot vouch for its perfect accuracy (as if I could in general.)

Of the Virtuous Society

In a two-part essay, a fill-in for James Fallows named Kentaro Toyama asserts that we underestimate the value of virtue in creating a good society, and has an interesting chart (in the first post) comparing the use of the word “virtue” to the use of the word “technology” which is fairly good evidence. He runs into some problems, however, in his attempt to explain one of the objections to his argument:
Talk of virtue makes different people uncomfortable for different reasons. Liberals worry about blame poured on victims.

The discomfort has to be addressed head on, and I'll start with the hazards of "blaming the victim."…The issue comes up in the United States: High unemployment incites accusations of insufficient diligence and counteraccusations of blaming the victim. Deep in the American psyche lies the belief that if virtues lead to good consequences, then anyone who isn't successful must not be virtuous…Success, though, is obviously a function of both virtue and luck. Virtue alone isn't sufficient for material success (e.g., hard-working people laid off in the recession), and people with little virtue can succeed wildly (Charlie Sheen, anyone?). Luck matters -- luck of the parents you were born to, luck of talent you inherited, luck of the people you happen to know, and often, just plain vanilla luck. Virtue's link to success is partial and probabilistic, never an absolute guarantee.

This may be true for an individual level: but how could it be true at a population level? Toyama argues (probably with a level of guesstimation) that 99% of success might be due to luck and 1% up to you. But once you begin to look at populations, the randomness begins to be stripped out, and according to this argument you’d have to believe that the U.S. is a more virtuous society than Costa Rica which is a more virtuous society than India. You’d also have to have a strong suspicion that the U.S. is the most virtuous society ever to grace the Earth.

I’m not sure whether people are actually better people than they were in the past. I’m not sure how we would begin to measure such a claim. I am, however, pretty sure that our institutions are better and that our accumulated experience is so weighty that we’re equipped with better tools. Richard Florida had an interesting comment on his Twitter feed, responding to a claim that Obama was becoming just like his predecessors on war: “Structure usually trumps "great man".” That seems right to me: if great men are more constrained than they were in the past, average people are also more capable than ever they were. Given the disproportionate number of average people, it’s probably wise to design your institutions to empower them to be the best people they can be. That, I think, is a more important story than virtue. Or perhaps it’s the same one.

Things That Won't Happen, Really

There comes a time in every Presidency when a President finds himself imitating all of the old ones he swore not to. First it’s dumb dinners and then, finally, it’s ceremonial promises in which nothing new is proposed, nothing will be done about those stale proposals and no one will judge you whether your stated aims succeed or fail:
With gasoline prices rising, oil supplies from the Middle East pinched by political upheaval and growing calls in Congress for expanded domestic oil and gas production, President Obama on Wednesday will set a goal of a one-third reduction in oil imports over the next decade, aides said Tuesday.

Won’t happen, Mr. President! Sorry! (The article, in a wonderfully understated note of world-weariness, notes that Obama’s actual proposals contain…nothing new. And if a neutral article admits this fact—clearly having been leaked all of the relevant points—clearly we can all safely assume nothing will be done.)

Of course, the dependence on oil is an awful problem. Like many of the awful problems we’ve been trying to solve with varying degrees of success—kind of depressing that health care reform remains our best crack at a complex issue in the Obama administration—they are complex, with weedlike roots stretching into so much: foreign policy, propping up morally bankrupt regimes, the trade deficit, pollution, etc. etc. What makes it so rewarding to solve is also what makes it so difficult to solve, isn’t it?

Bad News For People Who Like Good News

Even the good news is secretly bad. Let’s recall the news that corporations are finally starting to spend their hoarded savings. You didn’t ask what they’re spending them on, hm?:
Takeovers topped $260 billion this quarter, the most since the collapse of Lehman Brothers Holdings Inc. in September 2008, according to data compiled by Bloomberg. Standard & Poor’s 500 Index companies authorized 38 percent more buybacks in 2011 than a year earlier and dividends may increase to a record $31.07 a share in 2013, data compiled by Birinyi Associates Inc. and Bloomberg show.

Takeovers/mergers often reduce jobs and often don’t generate much value for the economy; and of course dividends are mostly money for the capitalized class, i.e. rich people. So even spending money, apparently, will just accelerate the divergence between classes.

Tuesday, March 29, 2011

Linkism

Dacid Stern and Roger Goodell—who’s the more effective union-busting commissioner?

The White House has a revolving door…with tech companies.

Regulators to make rules on mortgage securitization.

Is the most important case of the year the Wal-Mart sex discrimination class-action lawsuit?

Brazil’s love of equity.

A fun (and possibly highly useful!) new invention: the artificial leaf.

WSJ does some top investigative reporting on an unethical surgeon doing spinal fusion surgery (and getting paid from Medicare; and then expands into the generalities of the discipline of unethical doctors).

Has the mean sitcom reached an end?

Is Europe’s immigration consensus disintegrating?

Why democracy won’t solve as many problems as you’d think.

On the liberal arts education

So Peter King wrote this in his Monday Morning Quarterback column:
One of the emerging stars of this year's NCAA Tournament has to be VCU coach Shaka Smart. Kenyon College-educated with a master's degree, he instills a lot more than basketball lessons in his players.

It’s hard to figure out exactly what King means here: does he mean Smart is able to instill his sentimental education because of his coaching ability or because of his academic credentials? I could see King meaning either, but I suspect it’s the latter.

Ideally, I suppose it might be true that fancy colleges are able to teach such an ability or be able to teach such languages. The ideal of the liberal arts education is to shape a great citizen and great person, and that’s an ideal most of our really prestigious colleges aspire to. That ideal is certainly available for students of these colleges should they be so inclined, but I’m not sure the culture encourages this ideal in clear terms. The case for the fancy college is most often unspoken but usually understood to open up all sorts of opportunities, hang out with other driven people, etc., which could be understood to be conforming to this sort of liberal arts ideal but is often understood as a status/job competition. Which is unfortunate, but true. The assumption, however, that the fancy college is primarily in the business of nurturing such citizens is precisely what gives these fancy colleges such cachet and hence allows it to be multiple things to many people. Probably the correct response is to just make fewer assumptions, but is that really realistic? Answer at your own leisure (a liberal arts education might be helpful.)

Cannot be improved

This may be the perfect headline in the Internet Age:

Stanford Sports Siblings

With the Stanford women’s basketball team reaching the Final Four for the fourth consecutive time, I felt it was a good time to celebrate great Stanford sporting siblings. We have many.* To wit:

* This list, limited by my memory, is not intended to be comprehensive.

The McEnroes: You have John and Patrick McEnroe involved with the school, and probably have the greatest collective records of accomplishment. Collegiately—among other things—they won three national championships between them. John’s pro tennis career needs no explication re: its achievements/infamy, so we’ll let it pass. Patrick was a decent pro and won a Grand Slam doubles title. So good job there, McEnroes.

The Bryan Brothers: Why is it the Bryan brothers are referred to as brothers, but not twins (as the next two entries were)? I have not quite been able to figure it out. If the McEnroes have the highest collective level of achievement, the Bryan brothers are the most egalitarian with their achievements—which makes sense as they play with each other most of the time. Two NCAA championships, 10 Grand Slam doubles titles (as a Bryan pairing), with several mixed doubles titles.

The Collins Twins: NBA fans know of the Collins twins through their outstanding record of being the backup center for every team in the league. NBA fans might even be shocked to learn the twins are a combined 64 years of age, as it seems they have been placed in the “savvy backup center who’s about 33” role ever since they got into the league. Nevertheless, they had fine college careers—three All-American spots total and a Final Four and Elite Eight in the tournament. And you have to admire the

The Lopez Twins: a faint sheen of underachievement, like the sweat of a nervous teenager, clings to the Lopez twins. Like many disappointments, it’s hard to figure out how much is bad luck and how much are personal defects. Start with college: the Lopez twins annexed the area around the rim and lost that matchup to just about no one. For most teams, a missed shot is the end of the possession; for Stanford during those two years, a missed shot was basically an entry pass. This was fortunate, because Stanford often started a total of two competent shooters, and with the NCAA rules making it easy to sag on the lane, the regular offense was an ugly, boring, ineffective affair designed mostly to get the job done—the missionary position as practiced by actual missionaries.

The Lopez twins made it to the Sweet Sixteen, but certain questions must be asked. Some of those questions have to be directed at people other than the Lopezes, but some should be uncomfortable for them too: like, why did Trent Johnson never recruit a competent point guard and/or small forward who could shoot? Why did Trent Johnson think it was OK to give a scholarship to a backup point guard transferring from USF who manifestly had few skills (other than gorgeous three-point shooting) and less athleticism when he surely must have known that the team lacked crucial ingredients? Why did the team routinely blow at least one game to an inferior opponent? Was there any way to pretend Chris Hernandez was actually a graduating high school senior and simply introduce him again as a freshman the same year the Lopez twins came in? (If the name Chris Hernandez means nothing to you…well, this clip only begins to explain the greatness that was Chris Hernandez’s 2005-6 season. I believe he won three or four games on last-second shots that year, and of course that moment to get the game to overtime was magical.) Why did the referees make such an awful call to deny Stanford the regular season Pac-10 title they deserved? Why couldn’t the team close out a UCLA team lacking Kevin Love in the Pac-10 tournament that same year? Why did the Lopez twins never learn not to hold and leave the ball somewhere around their knees instead of keeping it high?

In retrospect I’m still pleased with those years but they should’ve been so much better, starting particularly with good management. Unfortunately for the Lopez twins, bad management has blighted their career in the NBA: Robin Lopez with the Phoenix Suns; Brook with the Nets. The Suns have been unable to build past their epiphany into a sustainably good team, with the meddling of owner Robert Sarver being particularly problematic. Robin has not quite developed anything beyond his dunking and defending skills, though his injury record has not been good. Curiously, it was Brook who was more frequently injured—he missed the first half of his freshman season off of a back injury—and injury isn’t really an excuse for him. The Nets are a forlorn team, and while Brook exploded onto the scene with his first season—even earning some comparisons to Tim Duncan—he’s gotten worse each season, with his attention to such matters as “defending” and “rebounding” declining commensurately.

Is it Brook’s fault he plays for the Nets? Probably not. But, as I say: faint sheen of underachievement.

The Ogwumike Sisters: No underachievement here: Nneka has been to three Final Fours, hasn’t lost at home during her career, and has only lost once to a Pac-10 team during her career. Chiney, as a freshman, doesn’t have the same record, but one imagines she’ll have a good shot at matching it. Nneka came into school as an incredibly athletic player without many of the peripheral skills necessary to be a great basketball player; her second year she added a midrange jumpshot and a driving game from the elbow; her third year, she’s added some advanced low-post moves with counters and stuff and now hopscotches past defenders as if they were chalk lines to be jumped over. The Ogwumikes have a chance to earn distinction as the best sibling act of the bunch, if only because there are two more Ogwumikes left in the family; apparently the youngest is going to be the best, if Nneka’s words are reliable. (Assuming, of course, they come to Stanford.) This is obviously more than fine, though slightly terrifying as it suggests the Ogwumikes are representatives of a future advanced race where they all play great basketball and conquer school and stuff while still being good at other things too. (Chiney appears to be particularly terrifying from the relentless achievement perspective.)

So there you have it: based on this small sample size, if you and your sibling plays sports at Stanford, you’re destined to become a world-bestriding, conquering athlete.

Monday, March 28, 2011

Linkism

Sneaky ways companies are hiding inflation: shrinking the product and selling it for the same price as before.

NYU will be opening a branch campus in Shanghai.

Cell phones are bringing big brands to rural India.

When did humans first start brewing beer? The history is unclear.

How will we feed 9 billion people? (Is biotech the answer?)

Zimbabwe is making noises about nationalizing more businesses.

Roger Ebert had some interesting things to say about movies these days…when asked to predict the future of movies in 1987.

A tour of Carlos Slim’s Soumaya Museum in Mexico City.

The pros and cons of allowing kidneys to be bought and sold.

Fascinating article about Alex Jones, the popular paranoid radio host who claimed Glenn Beck bit his style.

How does technology impact poverty?

Is the era of the “China price” ending?

Question-Posing

From England, about black soccer coaches:
In 2007, about a quarter of all players were black, but only two out of 92 league clubs had black managers. Today, there are still only two black managers in all four [professional divisions]: Paul Ince, manager of Notts County, and Chris Powell, of Charlton Athletic. Football management is still overwhelmingly white. ….

They call for a program similar to the Rooney Rule in the NFL. This got me to thinking: what is the state of the black coach, anyway? By my count, the NFL has 7 black head coaches out of 32 jobs, which is better than it once was but doesn’t quite seem equitable. To my knowledge the NBA does not have as explicit an affirmative-action program, and yet it has 11 black head coaches out of 30 teams. The pros do better than the amateur ranks; NCAA basketball has 14 black head coaches out of 73 jobs in BCS conferences. There are only 18 black head coaches of the hundred or so jobs in D-I A football, and very few in power conferences—off of the top of my head, only Stanford’s David Shaw and Vanderbilt’s James Franklin.

Considering the variations between sports and leagues (and countries), it seems pretty safe to say that there’s something at play that individual programs can only curb slightly. Still, there are a few interesting questions: first, in this country—why are the pros better on diversity than colleges? One possible guess is that it’s much easier for a college coach to set himself up in baronial style and rule his fiefdom until years turn to decades. These barons are almost always white. But these coaches are so rare that it shouldn’t have that great an effect, particularly when turnover among head coaches in college is increasing lately. I really don’t have any good theories about that question aside from that. My other thought is: is the Rooney Rule really what caused increased hiring in the NFL, or was it partially the embarrassment that accompanied it? Not sure, again. Here’s another one: why is the NBA the best, percentage-wise, of all of these sports? Again, hard to come up with a good answer… Another question: why the difference between countries? I have a pretty good guess here, actually: the report contrasts the players in 2007 to the coaches of 2007, which is not quite the best comparisons. The coaches of 2007 are presumably at least middle-aged and in some cases are quite old, and seeing as there were fewer black players in England in their pasts, it's not exactly inconceivable that fewer of those black players would filter up. This kind of answers why the U.S. would do better than Britain, as its athletes have been more diverse for a while now, but doesn't explain the variation within the U.S. at all. So, yeah, no good explanations.

Adventures in Wikipedia Writing Style

Of Tennessee women's basketball coach Pat Summitt:

Break The Chain

In the wake of the tsunami washing into Japan, an old article by Michael Lewis from 1989 postulating a doomsday scenario after an earthquake centered on Tokyo has gotten quite a bit of attention in a display of the wonderful hive memory that the internet gives us. As with most Lewis writing, it’s pretty good though not quite as good as his current stuff—comfort for those of us who believe personal development is possible. There’s an interesting sentence in the middle:
As one metaphor-friendly Japanese put it to me, Tokyo in 1923 was an abacus; today it is a supercomputer. It is dependent on automation and on sensitive technology. Bust an abacus, you can repair it in a day. Bust a supercomputer, it’s broken for months. That will, of course, have an enormous effect on the world of money, which is completely dependent on high-tech communications.

It looks like a pretty good prediction of the future: if Tokyo in 1923 was an abacus, and Tokyo in 1989 was a supercomputer, than Tokyo of today is a supercomputer linked inextricably to the supercomputers in New York, Beijing, London, Rio de Janeiro, etc, with the possibility that if one supercomputer crashes, you risk losing all of the supercomputers. The combined effect of linking all of these supercomputers is to achieve performance that was undreamt of even in 1989, so the weakness is a strength too.

But still: a weakness. I find this report disturbing:
A representative from Apple Inc. recently called Kureha Corp.'s offices in the U.S. The problem: Apple was facing tight supplies of lithium ion batteries, used in its popular iPods, and they traced the supply bottleneck to the relatively obscure Japanese chemicals maker.

Kureha, which has a 70% global market share of a crucial polymer used in lithium ion batteries, was forced to close down its factory located in Iwaki— near the quake's epicenter—after it struck on March 11. It is the only place where Kureha produces this particular polymer.

So: one polymer is produced in only one factory and the loss of that polymer can apparently topple the supply chain of one of the most savvy supply-chaining companies in the entire world. We’ll all live without iPods, but what other products are similarly reliant on one singular node of an entire network? How critical are these products? Hopefully more important people than I are thinking about and then acting in ways to reduce the contagion risks of this sort of event.

Robert Gibbs Joining Facebook

So the news is that Robert Gibbs will be working for Facebook soon for something to do with communications, with an eye cast towards the impending IPO. Naturally Gibbs is there for his governmental connections; is this not the way of life? I suppose we should count ourselves fortunate that he’s not shilling for some financial firm—Facebook won’t bankrupt us (it’ll just suck all of our time out as we obsess over what our “friends” are “doing”—they seem so awesome! Meanwhile, of course, our “friends”, like most people, are in actuality boring and what they’re doing has little to do with what they’re “doing).

At any rate, the Dealbook article on Gibbs’s hiring includes this fascinating note about his expected lobbying activities:
Facebook has also become a focus of Washington as lawmakers and regulators grapple with online privacy issues and Internet security. Facebook has already stepped up its lobbying efforts in Washington, which have included discussions with the Federal Trade Commission, the Office of the Director of National Intelligence and the Defense Intelligence Agency.

I really do hate when someone offhandedly includes a detail that should be a full-blown story all on its own, namely: what is Facebook discussing with those intelligence agencies? I’m sure we can make some very good guesses—surveillance of private details on Facebook of suspected terrorists; perhaps the creation of Facebook sockpuppets to influence the tenor of social media in a more pro-governmental, pro-war tone; perhaps empowering the various social media efforts of various dissidents worldwide. These are guesses; I’d like facts.

And is it not a little bit sad that such a fact can be reported so offhandedly without the journalist/editor in question tapping the brakes and saying, “Wait, I think we’ve got a story here!” Or is the national security state apparatus just that normal these days?

Sunday, March 27, 2011

Linkism

What’s wrong with the Spanish art scene?

The Big Ideas Books problem. (funny! Good!)

On the academic-driven nation-building that tried to burnish Libya’s cred.

A profile of Bob Crow, Britain’s most powerful labor leader. (For some reason, FT loves to write its profile subjects in the course of having lunch.)

Some facts about VCU coach Shaka Smart which will intrigue you, but will end up leaving you asking for more facts about VCU Coach Shaka Smart (and the writer of the piece.)

Are eccentric museums in the U.S. on the decline? (I have to second the endorsement of the Getty Villa: absolutely fabulous.)

A nice picture.

Overenthused profile of a scientist doing interesting sciencey things in genes. Read, but make sure to apply a discount at all points.

The Silicon Valley history buff will find this amusing: Fairchild Semiconductor is returning to the Valley after a long absence, having exiled itself in Maine.

On Second Thought, Probably Not

I appreciate the concern here:
… in many societies today, free speech is highly valued, even at the cost of offense. “If we confine ourselves to the traditional form of the debate about ‘free speech,’ it is not difficult for those of a liberal disposition that the rights of criticism should be guaranteed in any tolerably open society, even when the activity risks giving offence to some of those being criticized.” And yet Collini sees the outlines of a problem: “Those who think of themselves as committed to ‘progressive’ moral and political causes have come to believe that two of the central requirements of an enlightened global politics are, first, treating all other people with equal respect and, second, trying to avoid words or deeds which threaten to compound existing disadvantages.”

Treating people with respect is a fine goal, but Collini notices that respect tends to be shown with special deference to so-called “out groups.” Claims of offense that would otherwise be ignored are instead given credence and even deference. Collini also correctly identifies the people who tend to fall into this trap. Very few “progressive” forces, for example, would have shown any “understanding” of hurt Christian feelings if Jesus had been mocked in a Danish newspaper. The entire force of the argument against the offensiveness of the Danish cartoons was based on the concern that Muslims were somehow less powerful than other religious believers. But this hardly qualifies as an adequate justification for a double standard.

That’s from a book review of a book contemplating the nature of taking offense. Collini apparently goes on to talk about how such sensitivity around the giving of offense is as narrowly defining as the stereotypes to which we might take offense and seek to drive out. Which is an interesting point.

I’m not sure that it’s accurate. I think it has two primary problems. There’s an empirical claim here—that we show too much deference to the offense-taking of “out” groups—and a philosophical one. I think both have flaws.

Let’s start with the philosophy. Here’s the claim:
To withhold criticism from certain communities or religions is, in Collini’s word, a form of condescension towards them. It denies these groups the ability to engage in constructive dialogue, and to fortify their own values. In the final analysis, everyone loses.
That’s a best-case scenario for such criticism. If someone takes offense to impugning of certain Muslim societies’ attitude towards women (for example), that’s all well and good. Unfortunately I’m afraid that some substantial amount of criticism is not meant in such a constructive way. Stereotypes abound about marginalized or powerless groups, and I’m sure we can all think of them easily enough: blacks are lazy; women can’t lead organizations (and if they try they’re bitches); and so on and so forth. These characterizations are hurtful emotionally, to start at the very least. There’s also some academic evidence that these stereotypes inhibit people’s flourishing (I’m thinking of the studies showing people, when primed about negative stereotypes e.g. women can’t do math before doing a test tend to underperform on said test). So taking offense at least feels emotionally justified.

Certainly, given the power of perceptions to define you despite your best efforts, it’s right of people to try to be sensitive where they can. The minimal case for political correctness is just asking you to recognize nuance, and try not to make overly large generalizations. That message has been lost, I feel, but it’s something we would do well to live by. Maybe the taking of offense so loudly is contradictory to that by inflaming passions.

Is the taking of offense the most effective response to such an injustice? By the life of me I just don’t know anymore. The number of things we could take offense to everyday feels asymptotic to infinity. Given that number, it's no surprise outrageous stereotypes are mainstream too—one comprehensive detailing of such stereotypes I linked to earlier (it’s about the proliferation of negative news reports about Africa). It’s these trends that make me feel that no, such deference is honored more in extreme cases than the day-to-day grind.

The extreme cases tend to get remembered. It’s not an unusual event to wake up and find out that some pundit or political figure or prominent person has said something spectacularly dumb and ill-informed and is now making a groveling, vague, and unapologetic apology. Usually said figure gets fired or has to move or something, and that’s the end of that—sometimes we talk of having a “teachable moment,” as if extreme moments were good ways of shaping subtle thinking about life.

I’m not sure that these explosive scandals where outrage is taken are usually deployed on behalf of the powerless, though. It’s often observed that the Tea Party (and/or Sarah Palin) is an instrument of the outrage. Their demographics barely describe a powerless group, though: they look a bit richer than the average American. Their outrage is one of the temporarily politically disempowered, which is hardly some oppressed situation.

Recent outrage controversies have involved anti-Semitic (Charlie Sheen, to a certain extent) or anti-Asian prejudice (e.g. this UCLA rant video). Most of these offenses-taken are justified: they were wrong, and got a lot of coverage for being flagrantly wrong. But while Jewish and Asian people are burdened with unfortunate stereotypes, those groups are not in general as disadvantaged in this country as are, say, blacks and Latinos. It would be interesting to study the relative frequency of these controversies, but I doubt they tilt more towards ones concerning the relatively powerless.

And if you think about it, why would it? The powerless by dint of that status are unseen and society and policy barely cares about them; when they do, it is often merely to criticize without any offers of help. I do not think there is some excess of concern for the powerless in our country, to say nothing of our lack of concern for people worldwide. There is a concern to observe the basics of such concern—polite people do not speak obviously ignorant stereotypes—but I suspect that this observation is partially about keeping one’s hold in polite society rather than any deep concern as such. Were we actually concerned, we might be working a bit harder to secure the life of the powerless.

Pretty Charts

On the subject of tech bubbles, this is an intriguing chart from DealBook:



You’d like to see this chart account for cherry-picking better—these surely aren’t the only relevant IPOs in each yearly sample (are all of these companies internet companies? and why did barnesandnoble.com file separately from Barnes and Noble anyway?)—but nevertheless it’s striking how diffuse the IPOs in 1999 are and how focused they are in 2011. In 1999 you have IPOs focusing on many things internet-related; in 2011 the IPOs are all social.

It’s also weird to think Zynga and Groupon are worth approximately $15 billion combined. Zynga, I suppose, has solid revenue already, as does Groupon…but I don’t see why other people can’t copy Goupon effectively and depress margins.

I’m unconvinced that this is a bubble; on the other hand, I’m not convinced in many of these companies’ ability to change the world .

The "Oh Really?" Headline of the Day

They couldn't score enough--so they lost? Hmm....

Saturday, March 26, 2011

Linkism

Executives of bankrupt Borders are seeking $8.3 million in bonuses:
For Borders' five highest-level executives, the bonuses would mean extra pay of between 90% and 150% of their base salaries, depending on how quickly the company exits bankruptcy or is sold as a going concern.

How private jails profit off of the deportation surge.

The editorial search engine.

Archaeologists discover arrowheads in Austin, TX that establish people hit the Americas even earlier than we thought. (Apparently these arrowheads date 15,500 years ago.)

On financialization grabbing large portions of college graduates.

Funny business in Brazil’s soccer league with a TV deal: one network submits a bid twice as high in value as its nearest rival…and loses.

The expansion of regulators in research.

Prosperity through lower wages?

Swedish inequality data point.

Google Failure

Farhad Manjoo writes very clearly in a Fast Company profile of Larry Page (and Google), and I found this specific section worth elaborating on:
Franz Och works in one of the far-flung offices on the Google campus, a leisurely 10-minute stroll from the T. rex statue, beach-volleyball court, and other trappings of life at an absurdly successful web company. This is because he's in Google's research department, whose mission is to tackle problems that are far removed from the everyday pressures of the bottom line.

Och oversees Google's machine-translation system, a spectacularly ambitious effort that analyzes text found on the web to create statistical models that can transform one language into another. Machine translation is far from perfect, but Google's project, which began in 2004, has succeeded far beyond what most experts thought possible. Including Och. Google spent a year trying to recruit him; each time, he explained to Page and other execs that what they were asking for couldn't be done. "They were very optimistic, and I tried to tell them to be cautious," he says. "It's really complicated, extremely expensive, and you need very large amounts of data."

Complicated, expensive, and large amounts of data? That’s the perfect job for Google! As frequent users of translate.google.com know, the resulting effort is imperfect but much better than you’d ever believe is possible, and a tribute to the effects of just trying junk out. Sometimes, that junk turns out to work rather well.

It seems like Google is a modern-day AT&T/Xerox—both companies, through their generously-funded, almost entirely incidental laboratories accidentally created the excitement of modern technology. Google’s efforts are perhaps a bit more focused on its mission statement, though that’s a lot easier when your mission statement covers everything related to information. (Though I’m not quite sure how self-driving cars fit in, besides just being neat and useful.)

If you look at Google’s efforts in this context, their frequent, much-publicized failures look much more reasonable and sensible: they’re just trying out that new stuff. Asking them to stop trying out so much new stuff, as some financial pundits have, is asking them to stop trying out what got Google here in the first place. That said, I do wish some of the failures had worked out: Google TV and Google Health (according to this WSJ article) especially. (Well, especially especially Google Health: someone needs to figure out electronic medical records, and that someone will make absurd amounts of money. I genuinely do not understand why there hasn’t been more innovation in this field.)

Problem Time

So a post on an FT blog explores the connection between surging global demand and rising commodity prices, a connection that seems intuitive enough. If that’s true, though, that implies some very unfortunate things for the economy in general.

If you believe the problem with the U.S. economy in general is its lack of demand, then you’d like to stimulate it. But if all stimulating it can do is raise commodity prices and thereby pass through price increases in that way, there are real troubles in the short term.

In the longer-term, there’s the real and unanswered question over whether there’s enough useful stuff on the planet for everyone to share on a reasonably equitable, reasonably prosperous basis.

Friday, March 25, 2011

Linkism

Shipping lines are avoiding Japan now because of radiation fears.

Republicans to propose “overhaul” of Medicaid, where “overhaul” means “massive cuts to a program that largely doesn’t contribute to the deficit.” Of course, Medicaid is a poor person’s program, so naturally it is the first thing to be cut.

Joe Nocera has an excellent column on one financial criminal the government is eager to prosecute.

Is there a high degree of scientific certainty in health care, and if so, do doctors know what scientists are sure about? (extremely detailed)

G.E.’s no-tax corporate strategy, and the lobbying it does to get it.

The rise of the middle class city.

How the media biases us on the subject of Africa.

Portugal truly is a nation of dropouts: (apparently only 29% of the population 25-64 has completed high school. That’s incredible. Portugal is stuck in the worst of all worlds: it’s educated like a poor country so its labor force looks like a low-cost one…except, of course, it’s on the euro. Oops!)

Medical bills need radical changing.

Apples And Oranges

An unfortunate comparison is made in an FT blog between New York (Wall Street) and Silicon Valley: after pointing out that the Triangle fire 100 years ago happened partially because the company owned insurance on the building in excess of the building’s value, he says:
… a risk-taking culture is characteristic of some places, from New York to Silicon Valley. While that produces a lot of innovation and “creative destruction” it can also lead to plain old destruction.

It’s a mistake to put Silicon Valley and New York together. Well, it’s a mistake to put Wall Street, New York and Silicon Valley together. For one, financial innovations are of uncertain value; for two, when Wall Street innovations go wrong everybody has to pay. When a Silicon Valley company goes under, it’s bad news for the fund and the founders, but no one else really. Not all innovation is created analytically equal.

Or Not.

Ed Glaeser gets snarky in a WSJ article that can be shortened to (Animal Farm style): Entrepreneurs good! Transportation investment bad! It ends thusly:
In Detroit, the very success of the Big Three squeezed out the kinds of self-starting entrepreneurs that New York had in scores. And the high wages earned on assembly lines meant that there was little reason for many to pursue higher education.

The city's big firms, with highly paid but less-educated workers, made urban reinvention difficult enough on their own. Public policies only made things worse. The defining characteristic of declining cities is that they have plenty of infrastructure relative to the level of demand. Detroit didn't need the People Mover—an expensive monorail that glides over empty streets. And today, a Light Rail project is being pitched by the federal government, which seems to have learned nothing from the failures of past follies.

Neither Detroit nor the U.S. suffer from any profound transportation problem that can only be fixed with vast federal spending. The country doesn't need more People Movers. It needs unleashed, educated entrepreneurs—and they will only be held back by taxes being funneled into fanciful make-work projects in a futile attempt to fix our economic malaise.

What Glaeser doesn’t consider is that the choice is very false: there’s nothing to stop Detroit from both building a light rail line and attracting entrepreneurs to the city. Indeed, if you believe that the creative class generally likes dense city environments, a light rail line—to encourage densification—would be genuinely beneficial for Detroit’s efforts.

But I’m not sure why Glaeser focuses on Detroit anyway; it’s a fairly clear example of throwing good money after bad. Is all of America so blighted? It’d be hard to make the case. And it’s also hard to make the case that there aren’t significant infrastructural problems in the U.S., even if you want to just focus on transportation infrastructure. Airplanes are continually late. Car congestion is rampant. Americans are most unhappy commuting, and they waste many man-hours per year stuck in traffic. While they are being so unhappy wasting time, they are also contributing to an important environmental problem that the entire world needs to deal with. This seems like a profound transportation problem to me. The country also has a profound employment problem, and many of those unemployed have exactly the skills necessary to help build infrastructure. This seems like two profound problems in search of an easy solution. But what might it be?

I’m sure I could think of billions of dollars in worthy transportation projects for New York City alone. There’s ARC, of course; there’s the Second Avenue line that New York has been waiting for since the 1920s. Then there’s the outer boroughs problem—try living in Queens and working in Brooklyn. I’m sure if you were an entrepreneur living in Queens, with your business in Brooklyn, that you wouldn’t particularly appreciate a two-hour commute.

The truth is that infrastructure of all sorts is an effective platform for entrepreneurialism of all sorts. It’s hard to invent the solution to the energy crisis if the power grid is too inefficient to take advantage, isn’t it? It’s harder than it should be to build a streaming video service because our internet is so slow, by comparative worldwide standards.

It’s hard to say, meanwhile, that the high tax-low entrepreneurialism paradigm that Glaeser constructs is all that true anyway. For one, investing money for transportation might well pay for itself and more through the money multiplier. For two, Norway seems to do just fine from the entrepreneurial perspective with very high taxes.

Basically, I’d say Glaeser is comprehensively wrong about anything other than, “Try not to be Detroit.”

Hmm.....

Here’s a study result that’s presented as reassuring but actually should provoke more thought:
This month The Journal of the American College of Surgeons published the results of a study on how well patients come through when a surgeon-in-training is involved in the operation. Analyzing the results of more than 600,000 operations at more than 225 hospitals across the country, researchers found that while resident involvement was indeed associated with slightly higher complication rates and longer operating times, those patients who had trainees participating in their operations also experienced decreased mortality rates.

That data revealed that while patients who had residents participating in surgery did develop more complications, those complications were not necessarily serious. And once one complication occurred, those patients with residents involved in their care were more likely to recover and less likely to fall prey to the so-called domino effect of complications, where one leads to another and ultimately to death. “It may be the fact of having a whole team of surgeons rather than just one that ‘rescues’ patients from these complications and even death,” Dr. Ko observed.

For example, for every 1,000 people who underwent colon surgery with trainees present, 30 patients experienced complications who wouldn’t have if they had undergone the same operation without residents. But five patients who would have died ended up surviving because trainees were involved in their surgery and care. “The question might then become,” Dr. Raval added, “‘Would you accept the risk of a urinary tract infection that required an antibiotic for several days if you knew it might save your life?’”

The blog post that I’ve taken this from posits this as a reason for optimism—that is, don’t be worried you’ve got an internist operating on you! And being less likely to die is an excellent reason to not be worried, right?

But there’s a followup-question that’s worth asking: well, if that’s true, then why? Why is it experienced doctors get better at one important measure while getting worse? Does this say a lot for the medical profession that introducing a novice to help apparently improves performance in at least one critical field? What is it we can learn from the study to decrease the number of complications and deaths in operations not blessed with an internist?

Thursday, March 24, 2011

Linkism

ThinkQuarterly, a magazine on data from Google. Haven’t read; sure it’s good.

Unfortunate tales of overregulation: “What happens when doctors think outside of the box.”

Egypt has created a new law to criminalize protests and strikes.

The Economist opposes the AT&T/T-Mobile merger.

An interesting review of an interesting book called The Globalization Paradox, of which this serves as a nice summary:
His new book, The Globalization Paradox, is simply the best recent treatment of the globalization dilemma that I've read, by an economist or anyone else. The paradox of his title is the fact that markets need states, but states are weakened, perhaps fatally, as globalization advances. When they promote ever deeper globalization, economists undermine the very markets they cherish as well as the state's capacity to reflect the democratic wishes of its citizens.

Ah: harsh justice for a Wall Street thief. (read for punchline).

Portugal’s borrowing costs are up to new heights.

More Chinese smartphones coming to the U.S.

On superbugs in LA—this one, Klebsiella pneumoniae is responsible for at least 350 cases in LA County, is one about which I’ve linked to before—but this line is, ah, interesting:
Terashita concluded that CRKP was more common in Los Angeles County than public health officials had thought (possibly because cases had not been reported accurately), that hospitals need to do a better job of reporting infections and that healthcare facilities need to raise awareness about the bug to prevent the spread of infection.
Fortunately it hasn’t really spread outside of the clinical setting but I’m sure it’s just a matter of time.

Speaking of virulent diseases: get ready for H5N1 coming from…Mexico again.

Foreign Policy is quite good on “Arrival Cities” where emigrants from villages settle.

Central America the new battlefield for drugs (Costa Rica, which doesn’t have a standing army, is particularly vulnerable.)

Republican insurance commissioner in Kansas unusually receptive to health care reform.

NCAA Iconoclasm

A cliché so real it’s not a cliché anymore?:
Stardom [for Jimmer Fredette], however, is unlikely, the scouts and front-office personnel said. Comparative players that came up were Jeff Hornacek, Steve Kerr, Kyle Korver and Jason Kapono.

Which is an, uh, what really? The only things that these five gentlemen share is pigmentation, and a fine jump shot. Other than that, the four and Jimmer are about as different as can be: Jimmer shoots from everywhere, attacks from everywhere, and has the mentality of a playmaker. He’s Stephen Curry, without the court vision; or Allen Iverson as strongman (stylistically, of course: odds are Fredette’s NBA career falls well short of either of these players). Both of these guys are black, though, so people just cannot cross over and make the comparison. Thank god Fredette has avoided the reflexive Larry Bird comparison: America, at long last, has moved beyond looking at every basketball-playing white guy and seeing Bird’s spectral presence.

But still: the NBA can't quite imagine the way they should, and perhaps as cynical bureaucrats at heart they have a point. How many unconventional NCAA players have succeeded at the toughest stage again? Still, they will always seem more notable because they are loved so--the unconventional player defies authority, and good for them.

An excellent Slate article makes the case that the reason people love players like Fredette—and Kemba Walker and Stephen Curry before him—is that they play so wrong: so selfishly, so reliant on individual brilliance to carry a limited team past all obstacles:
Sharing makes a lot of sense when you have talent at all five positions—when your team is Jimmer and the Fredette-ettes, it's a luxury you can't afford. Fredette, the great scorer and sporadic distributor, will shoot BYU into the next round or straight out of the tournament. A crossover, a jab step, a jump shot from in front of the other team's bench, 30 feet away from the hoop. Man, isn't it a beautiful travesty?

Playing the game wrong captures only part of the appeal of a player like Fredette or Curry. I’d argue the joy these players inspire is the joy of an inspired iconoclast: they have a genuinely different take on the game than everyone else, and aren’t afraid to conjure their way out of trouble. These players appear routinely; more often than we’d care to admit, in fact. Take for instance a legend that should have been, someone who fell just short:


Woodside versus Kansas was an absolutely absurd performance, the equal of anything Fredette or Curry or Morrison put up in the same genre. That Woodside’s team didn’t quite make it doesn’t take the joy out of what he did: he poured what he had into it. But more than the effort itself is the way he just wills himself into space, time after time—the perfect example is when he skips through a double team (2:22). Curry glides and floats around the court; Fredette pushes you; Woodside just gets there, in a slightly hunched over fashion. It’s great; it’s unconventional.

The NCAA routinely produces such iconoclasts because convention is so weak: you only need to lose one game; the best talent naturally wants to play in the best league; the coaching is weak as good recruiters get rewarded over good coaches, and so on. Iconoclasm flourishes in response to establishment decadence. Woodside is apparently playing in France now; I’m not sure he ever got a look with an NBA team. Say what you will about the managerial foibles of the average NBA team, but they are ruthless over time. The iconoclasts who survive there are really on to something.

(Oddly: isn’t it strange Rajon Rondo is purely an NBA player? He was nowhere near as interesting for Kentucky as he is for the Celtics, where he is the weirdest successful player in the NBA by far.)

Color

So accusations of an internet bubble are blowing up with this funding:
$41 million. From Sequoia Capital, Bain Capital, and Silicon Valley Bank. Pre-launch.

That’s how much a brand new startup called Color has to work with. Your eyebrows should already be raised, and here’s something to keep them fixed there: this is the most money Sequoia has ever invested in a pre-launch startup. Or, as the Color team put it, “That’s more than they gave Google.”

What is Color, that deserves such an intensive investment? It must really be cool, to deserve such money. It would have to disrupt not merely existing business models but ultimately disrupt the space-time continuum itself, to be worth such a huge sum! Color is…a photo-sharing app. Now, you might ask, really? What is wrong with Flickr? What, exactly, is wrong with Facebook? For those of us who are the earliest of early adopters: but why, when I just got Instagram? (That’s not played out yet, right?) Now Color has some sharing features which seem fun if you’re into sharing just about all information, but all and all seems at best to be a slightly cooler version of the stuff we already have. It’s not at all clear that we want or need a new photo-sharing app, essentially.

With that, and with huge valuations of companies like Groupon, the bubble mentality seems to be on: everything and anything internet-related is worth large sums of money. On the other hand, this very persuasive article argues that the money just isn’t there to qualify for a bubble; perhaps it’ll get there in the future, but there’s just not enough there there to inflate a bubble.

I find questions of a bubble or not to be slightly off of the mark, though. Deep down, do we really regret the internet bubble? We were laughing about the internet bubble shortly after it popped—generic Pets.com joke here—whereas we’re still pissed about the financial conflagration. That should contrast things nicely, shouldn’t it? Ultimately the internet bubble had some excesses, but all and all the nineties delivered some nice stuff that we still enjoy today. Good job nineties!

The key was that at least some of the funds were invested in genuinely useful products and services. How useful is Color ever going to be? I’m not entirely sure. But then again, I’m not entirely sure the broader economy is doing all that much in terms of investing in the big-picture stuff. Big corporations are socking huge hoards of savings away while making huge profits and are meanwhile only letting R&D budgets grow modestly. This is not the sort of bold, seek-the-frontiers behavior we probably need to grow out of our troubles.

Late Edit: In this context, this article asking "Is Wall Street to blame for our poor startups?" seems worthwhile.

Wednesday, March 23, 2011

Linkism

Attempting to predict China’s inevitable slowdown. One prediction in the referred link predicts 2017; another 2030. I think sooner than either date.

Portugal fails to sort out its debt issues.

Where the world’s poor live.

Looking at Lula’s Brazil.

The recession caused a sharp fall in start-ups.

Are curse words becoming more common?

Comparing aviation safety to health care safety.

On “net-zero” energy buildings.

Building an eBay for lawyers: potential clients post a case and lawyers bid for the right to represent them.

The internet, for better or worse.

One of the good guys in the Mexican drug war: not so good after all?

Working for the CIA (somewhat unwittingly, somewhat ambiguously).

Why is Finland so rich?

Discretion

A horrible story:
Leonel Ruiz, a landscaper in Brentwood, N.Y., was waiting atKennedy International Airport on the early morning of March 11 for his 4-year-old daughter, Emily, to arrive home from a trip to Guatemala. The plane arrived hours late, but Emily was not on it, and neither was her grandfather, who was supposed to be escorting her back.

It took several hours for Mr. Ruiz to learn what had happened. Emily, a United States citizen, and her grandfather, a Guatemalan traveling with a valid work visa, had been detained by immigration authorities at Dulles International Airport near Washington, where the plane had been diverted because of bad weather. The officials had told Emily’s grandfather that because of an immigration infraction two decades ago, he would not be allowed to stay in the country.
Ruiz is an illegal immigrant, and so he’s unable to pick up his daughter also. The consequence is to separate a family that ought to be together.

You might attribute the conflict to the problems with the laws as they are, but the truth is that the authorities have a great deal of slack about what to enforce and when in practice. How is it the authorities are checking up on two-decade-old immigration offenses anyway? Surely it is not that egregious or terrible, and since the grandfather has a valid work visa anyway, what’s the big deal? It could be done, and no one would notice anything. (For another practical demonstration of discretion among political authorities:

)

No, the truth is that this story was made possible by very deliberate shifts in policy. I’m guessing the War on Terror is one (the whole comprehensiveness of databases), but then again the Obama administration is another:
In 2009, the United States deported a record 387,790 people – a 5 percent increase over 2008. Nearly two months before the end of the 2010 federal fiscal year, the deportation rate is down slightly from 2009, but the number of removals is still likely to be more than triple what it was in 2001.
The move was widely interpreted at the time as being a concession to conservatives and Republicans worried about illegal immigration and allegedly desirous of a law that might reorganize the system into a more efficient and humane form. That didn’t happen, and it won’t happen. I’m guessing the deportation policy didn’t change. So what was the point?

Tuesday, March 22, 2011

Linkism

South Korea in a China-like quest to secure energy sources.

n+1 on the NFL lockout (very worthwhile).

David Leonhardt on Africa’s development recently.

Cost of Libya campaign could wipe out the proposed budget cuts.

The New York Times has a series on “the business of green”: how the beverage industry is reducing its water usage; how the scarcity of water interests entrepreneurs; and Scotland’s salmon farming industry.

Obama administration to do a “race to the top” for colleges, focusing on graduation rates.

The plight of the Chinese reporter.

A fun one: Guatemala’s President and First Lady to divorce, so that the First Lady can run for President legally.

A new technique examining cell membranes might have big payoffs for drug research.

Are you sicker, or did you just see more doctors?

State governments are the latest venture capitalists.

An older piece on vigilante justice in Native American reservations.

On Announcers

Structurally, March Madness is the perfect modern American event: it gives us everything, now, and leaves us to sort out what’s good from what’s not. Those who are savvy with the remotes and with their computers can’t help but enjoy the spectacle. The agglomeration is exhausting to consume and, ultimately, exhausting to produce. So you can’t help but notice how many second-tier announcers are exhumed to fill the time and space: guys who are even blander than the bland, or obviously nonsensical, or merely desperate for attention. They are to announcing what the event is to most sports: to the extreme.

Most sports fans hate most sports announcers. Why is this so? To a certain extent there’s disagreements about which announcers are bad, but on the other hand there’s a lot of agreement over which announcers are terrible. And yet one of these announcers—oh hell, call him out: Reggie Miller*--was specifically carried over from TNT’s NBA coverage to its NCAA coverage. What’s behind this?

* Reggie Miller was much more entertaining when he was a worse announcer: he frequently trafficked in the most egregious malapropisms—his favorite was that a player could “garnish” stats or award. Since then for whatever reason he’s become better, but the degree of his betterness only makes him worse at his job.

Becoming an announcer must be a difficult job to break into; it seems like previous announcers only lose their jobs when they say something spectacularly dumb, which is to say offensive. Jobs aren’t created frequently: there are only so many sports teams, and because announcers generally specialize in one sport or another, there’s only new jobs when there are new broadcasts which isn’t particularly frequent. So the field is congested by the incumbents.

This doesn’t explain why networks act that way, however: it’s not as if networks are afraid to be innovative from the presentational aspects of sports. In fact, with all of the crazy camera angles employed by production people, you could argue networks’ innovative energy is misdirected: many of their efforts are gimmicks, and they frequently refuse to change the announcers, who are omnipresent, and when they do they rarely opt for new and interesting talent.

It’s a bit of a mystery, and I don’t know why it exists. I do, however, have a proposal to enhance people’s enjoyment of the big sporting events: multiple announcing teams. I know several people who listen to the radio while simultaneously watching the telecast; why not do a similar thing with sports? Some people like Gus Johnson; some people believe he is, quote, “hip-hop.” Why not let Gus Johnson and, uh, Verne Lunquist announce different audio streams of the Final Four? People who prefer their sports to be as boring and avuncular as possible can listen to Verne Lundquist and people who prefer some excitement to accompany what is supposed to be an exciting game can listen to Gus Johnson. Everyone’s happy!

Fun With Infections!

Things that we don’t worry about nearly as often as we should: bacteria that are invincible against known antibiotics. A few recent examples—MRSA, which kills about 19,000 Americans every year (and hospitalizes 369,000):
MRSA (a lot of people just say "mersa") is a form of staph bacteria that have become resistant to almost all of the antibiotics that we use in medicine every day. It's been doing that over about 60 years, largely without our really noticing or understanding how big a threat it has become. It's a threat to people who are in hospitals, but in recent years it's also become a threat to people out in the everyday world. It kind of takes people by surprise. It often affects, for instance, people in gyms or kids who play sports.

The macro-answer is that MRSA is the leading edge of a really international epidemic of drug-resistant organisms that are getting worse and worse, both because they're getting more resistant and also because we've, for the most part, stopped making antibiotics. So as as the bugs get more resistant, were running out of ways to treat them, because there's no new drug coming along. And as if that weren't all bad enough, it takes in not just human medicine and how we use drugs there, but also increasingly how we use and misuse drugs in farming around the world.

A few recent preoccupations basically account for MRSA’s potency: for one, hospitals’ inability to keep its patients from being infected. (For more, recall this Washington Monthly article about hospital-borne infections, particularly from MRSA.) The worst aspect of MRSA—as opposed to other inefficiencies in the system—is that these antibiotic-resistant bacteria become all the more resistant the longer hospitals allow them to hang around. Scanning someone unnecessarily and exposing the patient to more cancer risk is one thing that affects only that patient alone; getting someone infected with MRSA increases the risk that someone down the line will get a nastier version of the thing. (Scientific American has a similar report—sadly only in preview version—about a bug called Klebsiella pneumoniae.)

The other recent preoccupation that accounts for its potency is the apparent lack of progress on antiobiotics, which I suppose has stagnated like the rest of the drug industry’s advances. There’s a Great Stagnation angle there, of course. Are antibiotics like some other drugs—not profitable enough to develop? Or has the drug industry just reached a frontier of knowledge beyond which they’ve had trouble trailblazing? You don’t hear a lot of media coverage about the latest antibiotic drug trial, as you do for cancer, diabetes and other media-friendly diseases; but is that because there is none or because the media just isn’t paying attention? This editorial in a Connecticut outlet suggests the problem is insufficient profits (because you only take an antibiotic for a few days) and thorny regulatory barriers, which in turn suggests, perhaps, a prize incentive rather than a patent incentive?

Monday, March 21, 2011

Linkism

How did British designer Jonathan Ive end up becoming Apple’s design guru, anyway?

The Guardian profiles Marine Le Pen, the daughter of Jean-Marie Le Pen, the far-right French nationalist, who’s now running for President in her own right.

A manifesto based on the idea of “Fail Bigger Cheaper.”

The civil war that killed cholera.

The economics of hosting spring training.

Impressive reporting: The New Yorker’s Evan Osnos is on the ground in Japan and has produced an excellent essay about it.

A look at New York City’s bike wars.

Google vs. China III. Best heavyweight fight series since Ali-Frazier?

Some progress for female professors.

The perils of leaving health care reform up to the states: the sharp changes in policy. See Wisconsin.

More info dumps: the Fed to release its emergency bank lending data from the financial crisis.

Google: the new media mogul.

Unemployment, recessions—and barter.

GOP budget to cut funding for vaccines.

Hmm...

The WSJ has a useful piece up right now revealing that the real threat behind all of this Middle East unrest is: Iran. And not only is the real threat Iran, but the government’s entire policy was shaped to stop Iran from doing Iranian things.

The worry, I suppose, is that Shi’a will take over governments in the Middle East, and will therefore be predisposed towards the Iranian point of view. I don’t think the view does as much work as the sources behind the article want it to do: Shi’a are not monolithic; Iranian influence in Iraq, for example, has not exactly been comprehensive and will probably continue that way even in the absence of the U.S. (Ayatollah al-Sistani, for example, is not particularly aligned with the Iranian government); and, of course, the revolutions have been mostly secular in character. The revolutions might make the Iranian government relatively stronger vis-à-vis its Middle Eastern rivals, but it seems unlikely that they would gain strength absolutely.

If I might be cynical: this strikes me as an attempt to plant the idea that there are important, wider strategic interests at play in the Libya intervention—namely, the continued encirclement of Iran.

What We Should Know

I’m convinced that one way of improving the world greatly—that’s just as effective as finding out the answers to our unsolved mysteries—would be to consistently apply the things we already know how to do. An admittedly minor example of the idea is here:
Harvard sophomore John Ezekowitz, who is 20, works for the NBA’sPhoenix Suns from his Cambridge dorm room, looking beyond traditional basketball statistics like points, rebounds, assists, and field goal percentage to better quantify player performance. He is enjoying the kind of early exposure to professional sports once reserved for athletic phenoms and once rare at institutions like Harvard and MIT. “If I do a good job, I can have some new insight into how this team plays, what works and what doesn’t,” says Ezekowitz. “To think that I might have some measure of influence, however small, over how a team plays is a thrill.” It’s not a bad job, either. While he doesn’t want to reveal how much he earns as a consultant, he says that not only does he eat better than most college students, the extra cash also allows him to feed his golf-club-buying habit.

An NBA junkie knows that the Phoenix Suns aren’t exactly the prize pigs at the agricultural fair, management-wise. (For example: John Hollinger and Chad Ford, in their “Future Power Rankings” feature that ranks the NBA franchises by how good they’ll be in the—you guessed it—future, have the Phoenix Suns ranked 22nd on their “Management” metric. The Raptors and Warriors are ranked ahead of them. This is equivalent to being outmanaged by bored teenagers working their first part-time job at the mall.) At this point they’re winning (though they’re not winning more often than that) based on faded memories and Steve Nash, who really needs to find a loving, peaceful home.

So if the Suns are getting the hookup in the form of interesting, advanced stats, they aren’t doing much with it. This suggests two possibilities: either Mr. Ezekowitz isn’t delivering those interesting, advanced stats or the Suns have no idea what to do with them. The sheer ineptness of their moves—moves that provoked much incredulity among fans and the media—suggests the latter. The incredulity of fans and media has been earned over many years because of many zany moves by many franchises falling closer to the “insanity” grade than the “genius” one. Most fans and most media in most sports believe they’re smarter than the GMs who run the teams; the difference about the NBA is that these fans are actually often correct.* That suggests a remarkable permanent incompetence on the part of NBA executives, and that suggests that NBA executives are not doing a particularly good job at incorporating the general knowledge that’s out there. Little new needs to be discovered about running a basketball team or valuing basketball players; instead most teams need to get better at the stuff people already know how to do.

* Of the really knowledgeable fans I know, if you put us all together, we definitely couldn’t do a better job than the top management teams of the NBA—i.e. the Spurs, Thunder, Celtics, and Rockets. But I’m reasonably sure we could do a better job than the Timberwolves and the rest of the nullities loitering at the bottom of the standings year after year. And I’m pretty sure you could say the same for other really knowledgeable fans.

The strange thing is that, for the NBA at least, I actually prefer a semi-permanent class of incompetents. While such inequality is unfortunate in a positive-sum world, where said semi-permanent class depresses everyone’s potential, the NBA is a zero-sum world, where the semi-permanent class enables greatness, which is what’s really important. Still: the lesson holds true.