Saturday, April 30, 2011

Linkism

An interview with Mohamed ElBaradei. Asked about his chances of winning the Egyptian Presidency: “I think it’s possible.” Feel the excitement!

Paul Krugman on who benefits from bubbles:
… in several years during the last decade the top 400 accounted for more than 10 percent of all capital gains income in America. Just 400 people!

And when you think about financial regulation, you similarly want to bear in mind that when asset prices rise, a tiny handful of people get a large chunk of the gains; I don’t know this for sure, but I’d bet that they somehow end up bearing a much smaller share of the losses when the bubble bursts.

India’s make-work program to help a stranded rural poor:
The Mahatma Gandhi National Rural Employment Guarantee Scheme, as the $9 billion program is known, is riddled with corruption, according to senior government officials. Less than half of the projects begun since 2006—including new roads and irrigation systems—have been completed. Workers say they're frequently not paid in full or forced to pay bribes to get jobs, and aren't learning any new skills that could improve their long-term prospects and break the cycle of poverty.

Workers in the rural employment program aren't allowed to use machines, for example, and have to dig instead with pick axes and shovels. The idea is to create as many jobs as possible for unskilled workers. But in practice, say critics, it means no one learns new skills, only basic projects get completed and the poor stay poor—dependent on government checks.

Sao Paolo is now one of the most expensive cities worldwide; also, it appears South America might be tending more in a Brazilian direction—see a Peruvian presidential candidate trying to brand himself as such.

The complexity of moving to the cloud.

The spiral in health care costs: pet insurance edition.

They invented a computer program that can understand and produce “That’s what she said” jokes.

Witold Rybczynski on density and American cities.

Looks like PayPal is entering the mobile payments market.

Things I Don't Understand

A piece of news that I’d been chewing over but hadn’t really seen much commentary on was this:
President Obama is expected to name CIADirector Leon Panetta as his new Defense secretary and is expected to make David Petraeus, the general now commanding troops in Afghanistan, head of the CIA, according to U.S. officials.

I’ve got no great quarrel over Leon Panetta to the Defense Secretaryship, especially since he’s making noises of cutting the defense budget—something that’s very sorely needed, of course. The issue I have is moving Petraeus over to the CIA directorship: I just cannot see why he continually gets moved into new, distinguished jobs (though you could make the case many of the moves are lateral, I suppose).

What has Petraeus done for us lately? The Afghanistan war hasn’t exactly been successful by any standard. His calling card, the surge in Iraq, appears to be a more dubious achievement the more time passes. And I’m just not sure how the big idea he’s associated with—counterinsurgency—is a necessary one for the CIA. Neither intelligence nor subterfuge fits in with the counterinsurgency philosophy all that well. So why? I’m not sure.

Friday, April 29, 2011

Linkism

The New York Times has the proper tone of bemusement towards the tv coverage of the royal wedding.

The New Yorker posted a pretty excellent archival piece from a year ago focusing on the Mexican drug cartel La Familia.

Don’t let fiscal policymakers off of the hook.

Does the Ryan plan curb health care spending?

Why the Ahmandinejad v. Khamenei fight is so serious.

Low hanging fruit for saving health care costs.

China’s one child policy gets criticism.

Brazil’s economy vulnerable?:
Typically, Brazilians now spend a quarter of disposable income on debt payments. At the height of the US credit boom, by contrast, American households spent about 15 per cent. If US interest rates were to rise, Brazil’s boom could turn to a sudden bust.

Managing abundance is hard. Economists increasingly warn Brazil and the region of the dangers of complacency and over-exuberance. High foreign exchange reserves provide some protection. But if the coming decade really is to be Latin America’s, more needs to be done: grinding out efficiency from the state, saving part of the commodity bonanza to maintain social programmes when tough times return, improving education and infrastructure to foster lasting productivity gains, all the while maintaining macroeconomic stability.

Sorting to stagnation?

Does the French national soccer team have a race quota? (for what it’s worth the French authorities strenuously deny the quotes in the piece.)

The uncanny valley of advertising.

Hmm...

So apparently the Europeans are ready to attack on the antitrust front again, and apparently us Americans are kind of interested. The intended target is the banks, and their perfidious behavior is derivatives. Like many wars, though, I’m not sure the war aims are well thought-through:
The result of the investigations could affect broad swaths of the economy, because banks dominate the market for many sorts of derivatives, not just credit-default swaps.

As in Europe, American regulators have expressed worries that buyers are paying higher prices for these complex instruments than they would in a more competitive market. That can affect products like airline tickets that include the cost of hedges on oil prices or local tax bills that reflect the fees cities pay to manage the risk of swings in interest rates.

This sounds good, but I’m not sure it works out. The specific reasons for this attitude of too-high-prices aren’t entirely clear from the article, but it seems that these banks have partnered together for collusive purposes—one in derivatives clearing houses (they get low fees) and one in a data provider (unclear, but somehow an exclusive arrangement?)—which means higher prices. The other side of the high-price relationship is artificially low supply, which means that regulators seem to believe that the market for derivatives is undersupplied. I suppose this is possible, but there are some very good reasons for skepticism, aren’t there? Isn’t it not a great idea to dramatically increase the complexity of the economy so that it increasingly resembles a house of cards? Or am I wrong?

The Longform boom

To hear the critics tell it, we’re in the middle of a golden age of intelligent television. Certainly it looks that way on the clean lines of genealogy: Sopranos begat The Wire begat Mad Men (and/or Breaking Bad), and so on. I don’t doubt the basics—like the critics I think The Wire is one of the wonderful storytelling feats of any medium at any time, and like the critics I admire Mad Men—but I do wonder about the details.

Recently I’ve started watching Justified and The Killing. Both are what you’d call well-made, crafted, and other terms that you’d imagine being applied to a particularly fine piece of carpentry rather than storytelling per se, but both don’t exactly transcend or pop they way you’d like, the way The Wire did practically every episode (obligatory disclaimer: except for Season Five) and the way Mad Men does less frequently but still more than sufficiently.

I wonder, in other words, whether the low-hanging fruit has been picked. The new days of any genre are in some ways easier: there are few preconceived expectations of what a certain genre or idea should look like, and so creators get a lot of latitude from businesspeople and audience alike to do what they’d like. And without the pressure of the weight of accumulated ideas—the burden of the anxiety of influence—creators don’t have to figure out the clever twist to keep everything fresh.

There’s a show about airline stewardesses in the 60s coming out, and I guess it’s been pitched as Mad Men in the air, which is a sure sign that preconceived expectations are starting to crystallize. Anytime you can reduce something to an elevator pitch you know the nuances and the weirdness have been tucked in and spiffed up. Which is a shame; all the best stuff I know is genuinely hard to describe exactly what’s important—it either seems to big to get exactly right quickly, or too small and minor, as if by saying it you’re admitting, oh, that’s it.

The boom is somewhere in the middle, so I’m quite sure we’ll continue to see interesting ideas and experiments in the future, but I doubt the success will seem quite as consistently spectacular as it was in the beginning.

Naive Deregulation

So David Lazarus has a column in which he eviscerates the claims of various conservative economists making the claim that the AT&T/T-Mobile marriage will be just great for consumers. (Speaking of which, why is T-Mobile still running anti-AT&T ads all of the time? Maybe it’s just an NBA thing, but I see like three or four per playoff game, and I’m getting to the point where I know all of the jokes before they’re being made.) I thought this particular point was worth talking about:
Douglas Holtz-Eakin, president of the American Action Forum, a conservative think tank, said the FCC should greenlight the merger and see what happens. If fixes are needed, he said, they can be made once any problems become clear.

I think this view might work in an ideal world, but it seems seriously naïve in the real world: surely the problems that would arise would be antitrust problems, and judging from the rigmarole the Justice Department went through to get Microsoft (and subsequent inactivity on the antitrust front…well, aside from hounding Google and other Silicon Valley firms), I’m not guessing regulators are particularly eager to go hunting again. It’s hard to do regulation these days, unless you want to release new absurdly onerous passport rules or something.

Commentators would do well to advocate policies that take into account the future political economy of the country. Like, we’ll take the argument over interchange fees for debit cards. The con- case for regulating debit card fees is that it’s simply shifting rents around; if that indeed is the worst-case scenario, it looks good to me: a world in which banks accrue fewer rents is a world in which banks are less powerful, less prestigious, etc., and—given the overweening tendencies of said banks these days—a good thing for our particular place and time.

Thursday, April 28, 2011

Linkism

On natural gas.

Rethinking aspects of dictatorships.

Los Angeles: 88 cities, so many corrupt (fascinating).

Kaiser has some worthwhile comparative international health statistics.

Science journals, knowledge access and copyright.

On one hand, Mexico’s census shows how far it’s come; on the other hand, its legislators are pretty lazy when it comes to confronting the key problems the country faces.

Shouldn’t the NFL abolish the draft?

Is cursive dying?

When will China’s energy use start to decrease?

Washington’s swipe fee war (great reporting by HuffPo).

The Economist with an article on America’s infrastructure gap; here’s some expansion. To expand on the expansion: much of this infrastructure gap measures the gap between what he have and what our peers have right now. Closing the gap would be—to adapt the President’s phrase—winning the present. Of course there’s another band of infrastructure beyond that that we also need to build in order to win the future. Oh, by the by: the Republican budget takes a claymore to the infrastructure budget.

Interactive map: charting Africa’s growth.

New Yorker on Obama’s foreign policy evolution, from State Senator to President.

The Greatest Season For Misinformation

The NFL draft is the sports version of those Cold War spy farces in which the spies ended up confusing themselves more than their adversaries. The amount of misinformation is really incredible. My favorite bit of misinformation this year—the right decision for wrong reasons award—is about Ryan Mallett, of whom the designator “character issues” have attached themselves like a barnacle. This is odd, since everyone at Mallett’s schools—Michigan and then Arkansas—seems to think he’s an OK guy; the real issue, to my mind, is that he moves like a three-toed sloth immersed in quick-drying concrete. It doesn’t matter what your character is if you’re getting killed by defensive linemen all year.

****

Then every year we get a lot of pseudoscientific junk purporting to, all Da Vinci Code-like, solve the draft. This year’s method comes from Slate, which is pimping the work of Achievement Metrics, which purports to predict player’s performance based on the words uttered during their press conferences.
… there are no blatant words that signify whether a player is going to be a con. The analysis does not consider regionalisms or racial inflections—in fact, most of that kind of speech is corrected in the transcripts that Achievement Metrics sifts through. These are the kinds of quotes under the microscope: "I tweaked my knee in the third quarter" or "I should have cut across the field earlier." And here are some of the words that the algorithm sifted and analyzed to produce its result: nice, hard,short, cornerbacks, talent, comfortable, catch.

This is probably only a mild criticism, but it seems very strange to parse most of the words of a speaker but refuse to parse regionalisms or racial inflections, which alter speech and its meaning considerably. It’s hard for me to believe this has no effect on the system. The real tip-off about the system, for me, is this:
Achievement Metrics' Roger Hall and Steven Hofmann were upfront about the fact that they deal in probabilities, not certainties. "If all the correlations were perfect," Hall told me, "We would be lying." Even so, they are refining their analyses and gaining more confidence. This year, they told me, they see a similar pattern to 2005. There are five supposedly solid prospects in this year's quarterback class—Cam Newton, Blaine Gabbert, Jake Locker, Ryan Mallett, and Andy Dalton. One of these men, they told me, is in the quadrant of players who have not gone on to great success in the NFL.

Hall and Hofmann would not identify which quarterback is in the quadrant of doom. They are keeping this year's data proprietary in the hopes that NFL teams will pay them for their research.

They refuse to make their predictions public? I’ll very politely call b.s. This looks more like something to hide than an effort at salesmanship; I’m guessing it’s difficult to reverse-engineer a formula from a mere prediction—it’s not as if saying “THE QUATERBACK OF EVIL IZ RYAN MALLETT” will tip everyone off to your regression analysis. It moves your analysis into “completely unfalsifiable” territory, and it looks like a good method to avoid scrutiny. More to the point, it’s completely opposite to how most sports statisticians actually get paying jobs: most sports statisticians release some cool work for free, impress everyone, and some team or media outlet pays them to do cool work for them. That’s how everyone from Voros McCracken to Dean Oliver has persuaded organizations to part with their money and I doubt these guys are substantially smarter or more valuable than the statisticians who have preceded them.

But such is draft time: any bit of compelling misinformation gets its play. I’ve decided to play the market myself—I’m willing to undercut everyone. My price is: nothing. Here’s the theory: close scrutiny of the skulls of certain high draft picks reveals a certain simian length of forehead on one of the quarterbacks, a sure sign of atavistic inclinations unbefitting a leader of men. Yes, Mr. NewGabLockMalTon the Man-Ape shan’t succeed as an NFL quarterback.

Flight

In the middle of an unexpectedly good article about—and I realize how minor this must seem—mail in Europe, this quotation jumped out at me:
‘It’s very interesting that the Germans compete with the Dutch in Holland not on product, not on the number of days they deliver: they compete solely on wages,’ the CWU’s Baldwin said. ‘And in Germany, the Dutch compete with the Germans solely on wages. And both of them cry like stuck pigs about the other.’

The popular narrative on job migration as a cause of globalization and liberalization is that it’s always driven by wages, and most of the journalistic articles seems to back that impression up. How true is this—do businesses compete on quality or services at all? And: how quickly do they shift? It’s one thing if the jobs migrate over the course of a generation; entirely destabilizing if it’s every few years or so (in fact, if it were every few years or so, you’d imagine the trend would gain strength from itself: after all, if you’re switching so quickly, you can’t get embedded and gain from network effects and the only thing left is cost, cost, cost.)

Wednesday, April 27, 2011

Linkism

Russia, world’s largest oil producer, has gas shortages. (Similar thing with Iran.)

An interesting article about Jews, sports and stats (and the Sloan Sports Analytics Conference).

Are we entering the sharing economy?

We discovered a treasure trove of previously unknown jazz music, featuring outtakes from artists like Billie Holiday, Count Basie, etc. Why can’t we release it?

On black swans and foreign policy in the Middle East.

India is restricting free speech on the internet.

Some interesting data on evidence-based approaches to heart attacks.

James Surowiecki on health care and deficits.

Turkey has announced plans to build a new canal on the Bosphorus, bigger than “Panama or the Suez.”

Restructuring Ireland’s debt.

Chinese inflation and its truckers’ strike. Also, Newsweek on an improbable genomics laboratory in China.

James Fallows with some piquant thoughts re: long-form birth certificates.

Joe Nocera has an interesting column on school reform.

Paul Allen and Bill Gates’s Seattle legacy.

Your taste is why your creative work disappoints you.

Stagnation in agriculture.

Play, Offs

The Thunder closing out the Nuggets in Game 5 almost illustrated the point that you should always seize your opportunities when you can. I refer, of course, to the Thunder not closing out the Nuggets in Game 4, due in part to Russell Westbrook’s epic hijacking of the game. Had the Nuggets taken Game 5—as they perhaps should have; to my eye they looked like the better team—the consequences of playing so foolishly in Game 4 would have been magnified: Game 6 at altitude, maybe a Game 7 in which anything can happen. Always be precise whenever you can.

Of course this lesson wasn’t quite learned and the rested Thunder will confront an undoubtedly tired Spurs or Grizzlies, a series in which you’d imagine they’d have a substantial advantage. Still: do it, do it well, and do it quickly.

(Oh yeah: for additional reminder of the folly of Westbrook’s Game 4 performance, Kevin Durant seizing the game with his scoring was a reminder what could have been. Still, a great instance of bringing the hammer down; maybe he’s ready to score on Ron Artest after all.)

New Informational Asymmetries.

It’s appropriate that this particular news come in as bland a headline as possible: “Supreme Court Allows Contracts That Prohibit Class-Action Arbitration.”

This one might provoke a “huh” in you followed by moving onto a more colorful story (“Armadillos cause one-third of leprosy cases in America? No way!”), but this turns out to be much more important. So: businesses are allowed to offer contracts that prohibit you from suing them in a class action lawsuit. (As the Times notes: the contract can require that all disputes are to be solved through arbitration and then all arbitrations must be brought one-by-one.) Only a few people will bother to go it alone to sue businesses, an outcome that surely has mixed effects.

I’m more concerned the information asymmetry here. In our information-drenched times, it seems hard to conceive of huge information gaps, but the real constraint isn’t technology, it’s time itself: you could parse your cellphone contract with sufficient time, but sufficient time would require signing over your life to parsing the contract. The company making the contract distributes the burden to squads of lawyers and phalanxes of computers who are coming up with large amounts of clauses and subclauses specifically to confuse you, the customer. We’ve focused on the ability of the information age to allow us to filter huge chunks of information but not as much on the ability of the information age to produce ever-larger chunks of information.

I’m wondering about the effect on capitalism itself. A successful capitalism presumes a reasonable equality between participants in the market on information at the very least, and it seems as if some participants in the market will be able to hide information in a mountain of excess verbiage. How is it I’m really supposed to judge between cell phone contracts owing to the massive contracts involved in signing each? It’s impossible.

But There Are Still Problems

A criticism of Tyler Cowen’s The Great Stagnation:
…Suppose we lived in the world of Harry Potter, and one day in the late 1950s RCA hired a wizard to wave his magic wand and transform all of the world’s black and white sets into color sets. This would clearly represent a large increase in the standard of living—a larger increase, in fact, than the non-magical process whereby people have to buy new, more expensive, televisions. Yet the government in the alternate universe would almost certainly have recorded a smaller increase in GDP. Our own BLS would see consumers buying more expensive televisions while in the Harry Potter universe consumers would be happy with the old, cheap ones. Hence, consumers circa 1970 would be wealthier in that universe than in ours, but official GDP statistics would show just the opposite.

Today these magic wands exist. For example, a couple of years ago, Google waved a magic wand that transformed millions of Android phones into sophisticated navigation devices with turn-by-turn directions. This was functionality that people had previously paid hundreds of dollars for in stand-alone devices. Now it’s just another feature that comes with every Android phone, and the cost of Android phones hasn’t gone up. I haven’t checked, but I bet that this wealth creation was not reflected in GDP statistics. And it’s actually worse than that: as people stop buying stand-alone GPS devices, Google’s innovation will actually show up in the statistics as a reduction in GDP.

The point here is—don’t worry, be happy!—our lives really are better, despite our official measures saying otherwise.

This may be so, but this phenomenon certainly presents problems, big problems, of its own. If you use a statistic—GDP, in this case—then by and large you’re accepting its ability to describe real life, and if you accept it and rely on it you will change your life to optimize for that statistic. We’ve changed our economic lives to orient to producing higher levels of GDP and premised our lives on the successful expansion of GDP and now that GDP, productivity and wages are not rising as promised we have problems. The problem is debt: we borrowed money to finance the present’s efforts at expanding the GDP of the future; unfortunately the technology we invented ended up being useful for purposes other than GDP. Unfortunately we can’t offer to pay our debts in units of happiness (“But my leisure time was so fun!”), and so we have a serious debt problem that has to be tending towards solved sometime during this decade.

Tuesday, April 26, 2011

Linkism

How climate change will impact the American West’s water supply.

On health literacy and its impacts.

Are the Turks overextended money-wise?

Is Berlin the next big startup hub?

David Leonhardt has an interview in which he discusses fresh ways of building wealth to counteract poverty.

Med students don’t care for general care.

How are inmates still able to escape from prison?

Malcolm Gladwell has an excellent essay on entrepreneurialism.

An American basketball player is rewriting the Chinese league’s record books.

Some interesting studies on childbirth: one discussing the increase in maternal mortality in California (and, I suppose, by implication the national trend); the other on various labor interventions—i.e. induced labor and Cee sections—and here’s the conclusion:
He found no difference in outcomes for babies born in the hospitals with the highest rates of these procedures and those with the lowest. The result suggests that routine reliance on the procedures does little to improve outcomes for infants, he said.

“I’m not saying that no interventions should be the goal,” Dr. Glantz said. “But when you see the difference in rates of these interventions with no difference in outcome, it leads me to believe that we can get by with fewer of them.”
I could almost swear this is part of some sort of pattern.

The past is dying

The LA Times notes the possibility of dynamic pricing coming to movie theaters: popular movies cost more; less popular movies cost less. Not too complicated, and basic economic theory.

That said, it feels like an effort to defend a swiftly-receding past: movie theaters these days sell stale, butter-drowned popcorn and plop you down in a theater in which half of the audience is talking and the other half is texting. And on a certain level it’s hard to begrudge them that: in a fun movie, it’s fun to yap about it with your friends. The problem is that I’m not friends with movie theater audiences, and I have little desire to be. There’s a wonderfully convenient alternative to these movie theaters—it’s streaming through Netflix and homemade food.

Plus that it’s hard to compete with nostalgia: going to the theater back in the day used to be a really fun event, partially because you couldn’t tell how bad the popcorn was back in the day and partially because cell phones weren’t around and partially because it was just plain fun.

I’d suggest that if movie theaters want to do good business, they should go upscale: serve better food, perhaps alcohol, and really turn seeing the movie on the big screen into a big event. Otherwise the movie industry is just fighting for the past, and they should consult the music, newspaper, and publishing industries how this tends to turn out.

Reconstruction and counterinsurgency

A really intriguing blog post makes the case that, in the wake of the Civil War, that the South’s subsequent backwardness was the result of the failed Reconstruction: the North introduced some modern institutions but didn’t change the Southern folkways that ultimately proved ascendant. Here’s the nub of the argument:
Before the War, Southern social networks were based on hegemonic bonds relying on power imbalances and the threat of violence. The South was heavily invested in racial subjugation – slavery directly accounted for over a quarter of the GDP. The region spent an enormous amount of resources to justify slavery, hiring silver-tongued apologists like John C. Calhoun to spin slavery as humane. In this light, slavery was an economic institution that was designed for racially hegemonic society.

While the Civil War radically restructured Southern laws to promote racial equality and property rights, the hegemonic bonds were resistant to change. This generated a major friction, Carden writes, that manifested through the racist Jim Crow laws and, most gruesomely, lynchings that openly defied the new freedoms for blacks.

The backlash against black self-determination, the politically-enforced segregation, and the conviction that one race was inferior were societal phenomena that hurt economic growth. For example, segregation and racist violence meant that markets were smaller and the division of labor shallower than it could have been. Mutual fear and distrust made contracting and doing business across racial boundaries more expensive. As a result, Carden writes, “Southern entrepreneurs, innovators, and laborers relied more heavily on kinship networks and informal arrangements than on formal markets.”

And these factors were self-reinforcing, Carden argues, breeding a cycle of mistrust, ignorance and poverty.

This history is one of the ignored warnings to the present. The name of the period—Reconstruction—should have been a tip-off: what the U.S. was engaged in at the time strongly resembled a counterinsurgency mission—rebuilding a society while establishing itself as the legitimate government while fending off paramilitary groups fighting for essentially ideological reasons. And, compared to other counterinsurgency missions, there were some reasons to believe it would be a success: a relatively common culture, a common language, and key interests at stake.

Of course none of these things ended up working because ultimately building the state and building the culture is a tough thing for any specific program of action to do, particularly when said program of action is being carried out primarily by the military, an institution that has been optimized for the purposes of killing people. The citizens became tired of the enterprise, because building a state and the culture is a hard slog with few apparent, quick results. These factors will usually surround any counterinsurgency mission and therefore it’s worth wondering what the value of the doctrine is.

Monday, April 25, 2011

Russell Westbrook has been watching his Kobe videos

There’s a certain subgenre of farce in which the main character, touchingly naïve or stupid, bumbles his way through increasingly absurd situations, often oblivious to it all, only to succeed at the end, protected by the invisible hand of the plot. (e.g. The Man Who Knew Too Little) Russell Westbrook is very similar to the hero of such a farce, except instead of a plot magically protecting him, it is his physical ability and relentless demeanor that obscures his deficient decision-making skills.

The latest example was Westbrook taking a potential game-tying three-pointer in transition and airballing it, with two defenders in the immediate vicinity. Westbrook has often felt compelled to take bad shots, frequently of the jump shooting variety. Westbrook’s overly frequent shooting would be problematic for most teams on the league; for a team including the wondrous talents of Kevin Durant, it’s the basketball version of what some politician would call a “senseless tragedy.”

The sad thing is that most hardcore NBA fans have known about Westbrook’s issues for a long time now, and the shortest summation of it was a conversation I had with a friend, who repeatedly circled around the point “There’s a reason they’re letting you have that shot!”

Russell plays like he thinks the kid who’s a couple years older than all of the other kids, except, tragically, obviously he’s not. How has Oklahoma City let him do this for so long? I’ve joked once or twice that it’s a cruel thing the universe denied us the spectacle of Russell Westbrook as coached by Scott Skiles, which would’ve led to some fascinating fights and feuds and possibly the first coach murdering his player as the tail risk. But in his inimitable way, Skiles would’ve been right and apparently the Thunder are uninterested in holding Westbrook to account and getting him to act like a reasonable basketball player.

***

The Grizzlies are up 3-1 against the Spurs and it seems like a foregone conclusion that the Grizzlies will win. In its own way it will be a more remarkable result than the Mavs-Warriors series a few years back. Aside from the first game, the series has been a boring, grinding one, devoid of drama. The Warriors upset the Mavs as a thrill-a-second, almost transgressive team. It was fun! This is moderately interesting and might only be fun if the New Orleans Chris Pauls complete their upset of the Lakers, which would confirm that we live in a mad, mad, mad world.

Linkism

Roger Ebert finally gets a winning caption to the New Yorker cartoon-captioning contest, which spawns some statistical analysis and thoughts about the practice.

n+1 makes the case that student loans are the next big bubble.

Foreign Policy has a food issue out: one article on the new geopolitics of food; another asking “are there really a billion people hungry?” (the latter is hard to summarize and very much worth your time.)

On Federal IT reform.

What can we learn from Switzerland, a relatively consumer-oriented health care system?

Is capital afraid of cities?

Nassim Taleb is interviewed, interestingly.

One underreported note from the Guantanamo files: they named Pakistan’s intelligence agency, the ISI, as a terrorist group. On the merits the decision is probably correct—the ISI emphatically does not screw around—but of course it’s a real geopolitical row ready to happen.

Why Julian Assange can’t let go of all his secrets.

Organizational lessons of the Miami Heat.

The halfway miracle of Medellin, Colombia.

Small-businesses fret about new food safety rules—not unjustly!

India and China projected to be voracious consumers of new elevators.

How Mexico and its bus companies ignored a slow-motion massacre:
Suitcases started piling up, unclaimed, at the depot where buses crossing northern Tamaulipas state ended their route. That should have been an early clue.

Then the bodies started piling up, pulled by forensic workers from two dozen hidden graves in the scruffy brush-covered ravines around the town of San Fernando, 80 miles south of this city that borders Brownsville, Texas.

At least 177 corpses have been recovered in the last few weeks, most of them, officials now say, passengers snatched from interstate buses, tortured and slaughtered. Women were raped before being killed, and some victims were burned alive, according to accounts from survivors who eventually overcame their fears and came forward.

Does the structure of the economy change faster than we can learn about it?

The flawed American scientific funding system.

New York Magazine with a profile of Paul Krugman, calling him the last of the left; Brad De Long with some interesting annotations.

Foreknowledge

I was reading the beginning of Jennifer Egan’s Look At Me; there’s a car accident, an emergency surgery, and next this:
…Calmly Dr. Fabermann explained that I was lucky; I’d broken ribs, arm, and leg, but had no intestinal injuries to speak of. My face was in the midst of what he called a “golden time,” before the “grotesque swelling” could set in. If he operated immediately, he could get a jump on my “gross asymmetry”—namely, the disconnection of my cheekbones from my upper skull and my lower jaw from my “midface.” I had no idea where I was, or what had happened to me. My face was numb, I saw with slurry double vision and had an odd sensation around my mouth as if my upper and lower teeth were out of whack…It’s fine, I wanted to say. It’s a golden time.

“If we don’t operate now, we’ll have to wait five or six days for the swelling to go down.”…

I tried to speak, to acquiesce, but no moving parts of my head would move. I produced one of those aerated gurgles made by movie characters expiring from war wounds. Then I closed my eyes. But apparently Dr. Fabermann understood, because he operated that night.

Leave aside some of the unrealistically writerly moments here—that the main character has a vivid, specific, writerly way of remembering through a coma and also that the main character, perhaps improbably, writes like a very literary writer—and focus on the reading experience. You’re probably not familiar with the plot or even the basic idea of Look At Me beyond what I’ve described, which is actually the point—perhaps you think it’s a bit unusual to be focusing on the face so much but not terribly unusual. But that ignorance about why the focus might interest you as there’s no idea what might or might not be coming next.

That ignorance is comparatively rare, at least for me. I think it’s rare for everyone, though what do I know. I know, however, that Look At Me is about a middle-aged model who’s losing her looks and therefore that the question of having her face operated upon is a crucial plot point—actually, it’s the premise. I couldn’t have known this just from reading the first few bits of pages (that paragraph is on page 4); I knew it before I even bought the book; I actually bought the book half out of interest in the writer and half out of interest of the premise (which I’ve simplified for the purpose of this post).

This is the usual experience—knowing the premise and therefore the basic sorts of moves that are necessary to set the premise up—and frequently people know quite a bit more. Movie trailers these days seem to give away like 50% of the plot before you’ve even watched the movie, which means that you’re immediately on familiar terms with the story instead of letting yourself be surprised by the ideas it has.

I wonder what effects this has on the writing and “consumption” experience (I use consumption to stand in for reading or watching). Writing-wise, since you can presume that your readers have often already bought into your premise implicitly to a certain degree, I think it necessitates being even more economical with your plot than you might be tempted to be otherwise (since “being economical” is like the first piece of advice every writer gets upon taking the craft seriously, I mean to emphasize the point of emphasis.) From the audience experience, I wonder whether this is why people get so bent out of shape about spoilers: because everyone knows large portions of what the story is about anyway, what remains—the spoilers—becomes disproportionately valuable. I’m not sure this is the best way to approach it--the premise and fleshing it out is the most rewarding part of a story for me—but it isn’t the worst way either.

Just something to think about.

One Small Step

If you despair of our political system, you can at least be mildly reassured at the news that Haley Barbour isn’t running for President. Barbour was the former lobbyist who expressed enthusiasm for white supremacists, so it’s good that we can at least filter out the obviously awful candidates.

On the other hand, it’s not-so-great that he was considered to be even possibly of presidential timber, but you know small victories and all that.

Guantanamo Files

Looking through some of the early articles on the leaked Guantanamo files, it’s hard to avoid the impression that the failure of the prison is a miniature of the failure of the entire foreign policy of the U.S. You’d think there was a relatively simple mission for the place: to lock up the most dangerous criminals and then extract whatever valuable information from them as possible. The problem for the interrogators is that there was just too much information for them to process and they had too little experience, culturally, to be able to have even a chance of doing that processing.

There’s an article with some black comedy in which the agents are presented as arresting people because they had a Casio watch, apparently the “sign of al-Qaeda.” (Apparently Casio watches can be jury-rigged into explosives detonators.) The predictable results of such theories was the arrest of senile old men and teenagers. And, once the authorities got their hands on people, they weren’t able to do much good with them:
The unredacted assessments give the fullest public picture to date of the prisoners held at Guantánamo over the past nine years. They show that the United States has imprisoned hundreds of men for years without trial based on a difficult and strikingly subjective evaluation of who they were, what they had done in the past and what they might do in the future. The 704 assessment documents use the word “possibly” 387 times, “unknown” 188 times and “deceptive” 85 times.

The last article features the predictable confusions of the authorities: prisoners will rat each other out and provide dubious information in hopes of getting better treatment or even release, and the interrogators lack the knowledge and wisdom to sense that they’ve been had. This is familiar to anyone who’s read about the drug war, for instance, which often features rival gangs dropping dimes on one another and using the police for their own ends.

There’s a haunting story at the end whereby an Tajik man is taken into custody and held for nine years—maybe he’s an al Qaeda guy; but maybe not—they can’t even figure out what his name is. The article ends by quoting a line from the assessment: “Detainee’s identity remains uncertain.”

This may be the best summary of the enterprise there is: the authorities both have too much information and too little and don’t have the tools to deal with the information at all. Meanwhile, the people they’re interacting with, the nominal adversaries, are rich with cultural knowledge about themselves and therefore likely to know much more than the authorities. This is a continuing pattern for the U.S.’s foreign adventures: if you take it upon yourself to intervene in so many situations so far away from home, your odds of having meaningful experience or knowledge of that place is so, and so there will always be an information asymmetry that is, in the final analysis, the surest barrier to strategic success.

Perfect

Rarely does an artist explain himself so well:


“…bringing back all that smart shit that’s actually stupid.” Yeah, that’s Das Racist for you.

Sunday, April 24, 2011

Linkism

The Guardian and The New York Times have a cache of files about Guantamano.

NYT on the prospect of BBC cuts.

Ethiopia vs. Egypt for the Nile.

Banks are lobbying the government to stop regulators from stripping the rules requiring banks to use credit rating agencies.

Jonathan Franzen appears to be a jerk.

Everyone always hates Congress.

China’s huge investments in the Caribbean.

Will restaurants replace waiters with tablet computers? (They’ve already started in some airports.)

Amtrak CFO appears to be bullish about Amtrak. Who could guess?

The Financial Times on the British monarchy.

Paul: Playoffs

Today provided welcome reminders of why some great players are great. Chris Paul, of course, is one: by the end he was wearied like a boxer, with a nice shiner by his face and hands on his knees, just solving the entire Lakers team on his own. Derek Fisher is decomposing as we speak.

Kobe Bryant had one wonderful move in the game: it was the play late in the fourth where Gasol dropped the pass (from Bryant). Kobe faked out Trevor Ariza, who dropped back a step; Kobe waited, Ariza recovered too close to Kobe, and Kobe blew past Ariza and delivered the perfect pass to Gasol, who squandered it. Unfortunate.

The Lakers are, of course, in a dogfight. But it’s a dogfight I imagine they’ll win: Kobe’s had two good games and two poor games; barring a complication from his rolled ankle, I imagine the rest of his games will be high quality. And it’s hard to imagine the big men will continue to play as mediocre as they have so far.

Update: Phil Jackson just said his team "punked out" tonight. Very interesting...I don't remember Jackson getting quite this worked up during the Thunder or Celtics series last year.

****

One of the underrated pleasures of the playoffs as presented by TNT is their devotion, like all TV folk, to cross-promotion of their other shows. The difference is that TNT’s shows are so implausibly bad that you know the show will be canceled within weeks. Their current promotion is for Franklin & Bash, a show apparently about a pair of frattish bros who are trial lawyers (with lame jokes)! It really can’t fail.

Amusement

The Times reports the welcome news that there’s a bipartisan group in the Senate working to reduce the number of executive appointees that need to be confirmed by the Senate. The article wryly notes that it represents a rare formal surrender of power by the Congress, but of course like most institutions these days Congress both has too much power (obstruction, for example) and too little (the whole “war” stuff). So it would be nice if this could happen, and if it does it’s because no one seems to care at the moment. Of course, there are seeds of unfortunate (and ironic) arguments being used that might turn the matter into one too many people care about:
Writing for the conservative Heritage Foundation, David S. Addington, who served as chief of staff to Vice President Dick Cheney, urged defeat of the bill, saying the drafters of the Constitution “did not give the president the kingly power to appoint the senior officers of the government by himself.”

Conservative senators have raised similar objections.

“Allowing the president to appoint czars and bureaucrats without Congressional oversight adds to the problem of an ever-expanding, unaccountable government,” said Moira Bagley, a spokeswoman for Senator Rand Paul, Republican of Kentucky, who has expressed objections to the measure.

The latter argument is unfortunate; the former is unfortunate and ironic. People with long memories will recall that David Addington was one of the principal Bush administration theorists behind the whole imperial Presidency thing (though they had the cleverness to hide it with jargon, calling it the “unitary executive”), and Addington seemed to believe that the President properly ought to control just about everything. So his current arguments is perhaps the clearest example of irony as has ever existed anywhere.

Annals of Direct Democracy, Budget Edition

The Economist has a pretty good report detailing the madness that is California’s direct democracy system, and it’s good on the theory. But what about the practice? It turns out Jerry Brown, like all good California politicians, is struggling to put his budget together. Unlike all good California politicians, he wants to raise taxes. Oddly enough, Californians appear to be in favor of such tax raises. Unfortunately, both Brown and Californians want to vote on those tax increases.

If there’s anything we know about taxes, it’s that they’re unknowable—they’re just too complicated. Given the complication, the result of a budget is likely further complication that all Californians who aren’t accountants, tax lawyers, businessmen and economists will not have much of a clue how to evaluate. The preceding groups, of course, will have a clue on how to evaluate said tax increases but their own interests will invariably color their evaluations (do you think an accountant would advocate a radically simplified tax system? Does a turkey vote for Thanksgiving?) The third option, a radically simplified tax system, disturbs the status quo too much and therefore will be rejected.

And, of course, it’s not clear California has even a basic grasp of the relevant factual issues:
Although the budget crisis has dominated the news for years, the survey found that few people have as firm a grasp on the details as they believe. Some 75% of respondents said they were following the budget debate, yet only 16% were aware that state spending has shrunk by billions of dollars over the last three years.

Nearly half thought the budget had grown in that period, with more than 1 in 4 saying it was "much bigger." In fact, general fund spending went from $103 billion in the 2007-08 budget year to $92.2 billion in the current year.

Note that this is before the inevitable confusion of an inevitably angry and raucous campaign. This is just one reason why you shouldn’t let direct democracy happen to you.

Saturday, April 23, 2011

Linkism

Downtown China. Also, China is trying to restrict opulent display in rich people’s tombs. Also, how the Chinese diet will change now that it's getting richer.

Shoot all the philosophers?

Kurds renewing their push for rights in Turkey?

More on the Ahmadinejad-Supreme Leader conflict.

How green are skyscrapers, anyway?

On the skewed health distribution.

Academic researchers using the smartphones’ ubiquity for research.

Why isn’t the MLB concerned about its low attendance?

BusinessWeek on Silicon Valley’s new trend of private share sales.

I do hope this is a bestseller

Though how many people actually buy this?

Playoffs!

So what we have for the Bulls is yet another mediocre game, with yet another comeback displaying grit and heart and what-have-you. The only change, really, was that the Bulls lost this time. Which, in of itself, is not bad. Teams drop the 3-0 game all the time. It would be nice to close out the series then and there and get everyone involved some rest and some more practice sessions with Tom Thibodeau shouting at them. But if the Bulls close it out in five—even six!—things aren’t too terrible.

The problem is—for me at least—that if you’re a great team, it doesn’t seem like a particularly tough ask to expect the team to actually play great one chance of those four. Perhaps the great game is the closeout game in game 5, in which case my anxiety level will decrease dramatically; but on the other hand, perhaps not.

I expected the offense to be a bit clogged—this is a team without enough shooters that relies heavily on the genius of its best player (its second-best player, Carlos Boozer, is what the English would call a flat track bully—i.e. a guy who only succeeds in low-pressure moments or against bad teams). But it’s the defense that has me worried—it’s just not quite as stifling as it was during the regular season. Something to keep an eye on.

****

The first half of Blazers-Mavericks was a real offensive quagmire. The Blazers have a number of decent to good offensive players, but don’t have shooters. I’m convinced that basketball teams do not, these days, sufficiently value shooters. Here’s an analogy: Facebook gains its power from network effects—i.e. Facebook is only really valuable to you because all of your other friends use it, and the density and interconnectedness of its network makes it easier to expand the network to others. Shooters, I think, are the same way: one shooter doesn’t really help spacing that much; two is about average; three should be the bare minimum; four really contorts defenses. Teams aren’t greedy enough for shooters and it’s not an accident that some of the most fearsome offenses recently have been based around the insight that it’s really good to put four shooters on the floor at the same time. A lot of people noticed that former Phoenix Suns players would get worse after leaving the team and attributed it, fairly, to Steve Nash’s puppeteering. I think the other factor there was the network effects of putting a bunch of excellent shooters on the floor simultaneously that made everyone better, at least in an offensive sense.

Friday, April 22, 2011

Linkism

Russia’s crime of the century?

The Japanese town that was nearly destroyed in 1933 by tsunami had more problems with same in 2011.

The Pope took questions on TV.

Are high taxes on the rich manifested during wartime?

The hospital markup for individual patients.

Drones in Libya: what next?

China in Africa: hated? (And a chart.)

What’s the value of price transparency in health care?

Health care lobbying is down this year.

Are Patients Consumers?

The debate has been going around recently about whether patients are, in fact, consumers like they are in other markets. There’s a very good reason to think they aren’t: information asymmetry. At the current moment the doctor knows much more than the patient about the cost of care, the relevant care, the relevant problem to solve, and his own qualifications to remedy the problem. Some of these knowledge gaps can be filled but they won’t all be filled. But, on the other hand, there’s this:
Of course it is very true that life and death situations are made in the field of medicine…probably every day if not at a single hospital, at hospitals as a whole. But the actual truth of the matter is that the bulk of medical spending of the average person does not involve death at all…just nagging, often temporary, quality of life issues. In fact, outpatient care (which includes routine and sick visits to the doctor and same-day hospital visits), drugs and non-durables (which includes things like wheelchairs and other medical supplies), and administration account for ~2/3rds of all medical spending in the US.[]

In this aspect of medical care, patients are consumers, and would benefit from price competition in a less-regulated market. Having strep throat doesn’t so much require “specialized knowledge”, as it requires a signed piece of paper so that you can get specialized drugs. Most moderately bad cuts are treated with the highly technical, and extremely specialized skill…applying super-glue.[]

A lot of this is right, I think: there are roughly two kinds of health care and they need to be split up, and a sort of market-based system might deal with the problems of non-urgent care well. (In addition, loosening restrictions around what RNs are allowed to do would be very helpful for cost containment with negligible effects on quality).

On the other hand, 1/3 of health care spending is a big deal and you can make the case it’s the most important chunk—it’s the stuff people worry about, it’s the reason we have insurance in the first place. So that needs thinking about too.

One Idea For Health Care

The Economist recaps Esther Duflo’s work on experimental economics for development—she’s noticed that a lot of NGOs and charities don’t really test what methods are effective to get people to use the services they provide consistently and effectively. One example solution:
The authors recount an absolutely fascinating series of experiments designed to get more people to immunise their children in rural Rajasthan. Again: hugely beneficial action, and thanks to the NGO they worked with, readily and freely and reliably available. But also something with a small cost—perhaps a couple of hours off work and the trudge to the clinic, and benefits that are intangible and lie in the future. Result: abysmal immunisation rates.

Their idea: a small bag of lentils given as a sort of “reward”. This was opposed by public health officials, who thought “bribing” people to do what they should do anyway was a bad way to go. Yet it had a dramatic effect—and actually reduced the cost per immunisation to the NGO, because the nurses who had to be paid for the whole day anyway were now busier. Yes, convincing people of the benefits is probably useful in the long run, but this does the trick much better and more quickly—and, possibly, experience with immunisation is a pretty valuable kind of "convincing". And yes, it's paternalistic. But a whole host of things are essentially done for us—often by a paternalistic state, which purifies our drinking water and provides sewage systems and so on. There are many, many areas where we simply do not have to take responsibility because stuff is done for us, or made incredibly easy. But the poor must actively decide to "do" them.

While there are huge rewards—probably the biggest uncollected rewards in health care—for getting the poor people of the world to consistently get vaccinated, etc., I wonder whether the idea of this experiment is applicable in the U.S. If you talk to doctors, one of their big complaints about health care is that their patients are insufficiently dedicated to the regime that the doctors have set up for them. This has particularly unfortunate results in the case of antibiotics, where a halfhearted application of the plan results in a resistant disease that’s just ready to add to the store of our future problems. People are pretty predictable procrastinators and such, and I wonder whether some sort of concrete, visible incentive might induce them to stick more faithfully to the plan. A rebate scheme seems like one potential idea.

Of course, to take advantage of this you need an incentive structure that prizes cost and care savings which gets back to the core payment issue in health care…but this is a subject for another time.

Thursday, April 21, 2011

Linkism

Democracy or finance?

How will Chinese rebalancing affect U.S. interest rates? Also, Chinese truckers are protesting over inflation. Also, China starts an aggressive natural gas drilling operation.

Looking at Massachusetts’ health reform.

What is a tree in the city worth?

Looks like Obama’s catching some complaints about his aggressive deportation policy.

On NYU in Abu Dhabi.

A connection between a mother’s exposure to pesticides and lowered IQs in their children.

How green is shale gas?

Brazil’s love for Easter eggs.

David Remnick on Malcolm X.

An anonymous op-ed on a national security gag order for his consulting business.

More Supreme Leader v. Ahmadinejad conflict in Iran. Interesting…

Did the Chicago Cubs throw the 1918 World Series for cash money?

Getting Things Done

A line at the bottom of Nate Silver’s excellent work on the poker website bust made me think a little bit:
… poker players, who tend to have vaguely libertarian but mostly indifferent views toward politics, may not be aware of how difficult it is to get anything done in Washington, even when there are a number of interests coalescing [in favor of a bill legalizing online poker].

“Some people inside the poker industry are delusional when it comes to the likelihood of legislation,” Mr. Adams said.

If it’s a delusion, it’s an exceedingly reasonable one: the poker players have a decent number of Republicans in favor, they have a powerful patron in Harry Reid, and the casinos et. al. appear to be in favor of it. More to the point, no one in particular seems to be against internet poker. Nevertheless it’s a good bet that nothing will happen and that the delusion characterization is fair; it’s not the poker players who are crazy, it’s Washington after all.

Around the same time as this piece Vivek Wadhwa, a professor at Duke who studies innovation, started complaining about Obama’s unwillingness to push hard for the Startup Visa bill (the bill would create a class of visas to immigrant businessmen who would receive them if they could secure a certain level of investment money). From Wadhwa’s perspective the signs must seem awfully good again: bipartisan support, some big companies enthusiastically lobbying for it…and no one against it. Who dislikes immigrant businessmen creating jobs again?

But the political observer can’t help but be bemused at Wadhwa’s beliefs: the worst thing Obama could do for the Startup Visa bill is actually push hard for it. Because, of course, if Obama were for it, denying it to him would be perceived as a blow and therefore someone would find value in denying it—i.e. Republicans. The less leadership Obama shows on the matter, the better.

This must seem dreadfully ironic and backwards to the casual observer and of course they’d be right to feel this way. Blame the structural incentives, as always.

Playoff Odds And/Or Ends

Watching the Hornets attempt to upset the Lakers once again last night—they are like those old boiler-driven ships, and they’re going about as fast as they can go and are bursting at the seams—it’s hard to remember that the Hornets were, at one point, the second seed in the West and up 2-0 against the Spurs in the second round of the playoffs. The subsequent fall of the Hornets has been little-noted, really, but if it were, say, LeBron in New Orleans you’d know it’d be the subject of national obsession and derision.

We overrated the talent on hand for the Hornets then, just as we overrated the talent of the Cavaliers for the past few years, and I’m convinced we’re overrating the talent of the Bulls. Bill Simmons, for example, scoffed at the notion that the Cavaliers and Bulls were in any way comparable when to my mind they are very natural comparisons: both teams are defense-driven and on offense rely on the brilliance of one singular talent. You can make adjustments here or there—Joakim Noah is better than Anderson Varejao, for example, and Tom Thibodeau is better than Mike Brown, but then again Derrick Rose is well below LeBron. (LeBron is better on offense and a very good defender; Rose is, at best, a nonfactor at defense. One of the unfortunate subplots of the Bulls-Pacers series so far, if you’re a Bulls fan, has been the surprisingly high production of Pacer point guards.)

The defense + one star formula is an excellent way to produce regular season results but I’m less than convinced of its applicability to the postseason. Title-winning teams are elite teams on both ends of the floor, and you can’t be elite on the offensive end with just one player.

****

The one thing you can rely on with Phil Jackson is an excellent diagnosis of the state of his team. If you’d just listened what Jackson had to say about each team before each series last year, you’d pretty much know what was going to happen: he began the lead-up to the Thunder series by working the referees (whom he accused of being preferential to Kevin Durant); began the lead-up to the Jazz series by saying nothing in particular; evinced slightly more concern before the Suns conference final; went back to full intensity for the Celtics series. He knows.

So it’s been interesting to read between the lines of his comments about the Lakers this year. Before the series, he took a “boys will be boys” type of line towards the Lakers’, ah, motivationally-related struggles. Now he’s got this going on:
So the Lakers are tied 1-1 in this first-round series even though they haven't regained their stride, haven't dictated how these games will be played, haven't even given their coach a clue about what to expect from them.

"Who knows?" Jackson said.

"Who knows how we're going to react to the next game?"

Hmm….maybe the Hornets will make this interesting after all.

Wednesday, April 20, 2011

Linkism

Patrick Chovanec on China’s persistently high inflation rate. Also, why all the frowning faces with China’s booming economy?

What health insurance does and doesn’t cover.

A really cool slideshow from Audi about the implications of a driverless car.

The easy credit flood swamping emerging economies.

Rortybomb on funding public universities.

Sometimes patients are consumers. Relatedly: the problems with “skin in the game” for health insurance.

Apple’s cash and the corporate commons.

A novelty: putting solar panels on the water.

What Bangladesh can teach us about runaway population growth.

Comparative beer drinking charts.

More Things Change...

So, guess what technology this paragraph quoted in James Gleick’s excellent The Information refers to:
Newspapers, heretofore the rapid and indispensable carrier of commercial, political and other intelligence…for this purpose the newspapers will become emphatically useless. Anticipated at every point by the lightning wings of the […..], they can only deal in local “items” or abstract speculations. Their power to create sensations, even in electoral campaigns, will be greatly lessened—as the infallible […..] will contradict their falsehoods as fast as they can publish them.

The writing style probably gives away the timing of this paragraph—it’s way back in the past, the 19th century—which does help you narrow down what technology it is. (It’s the telegraph.) But this does sound like the kind of complaints newspaper owners and readers make about the internet, right? The notion that newspapers will either have to go hyperlocal or get into clichéd analysis is so internet-agey, is it not?

Not to say that they aren’t right this time around, but the repetition of the complaint should make us a bit way as to the apocalyptic nature of some of the complaints. For one: throughout the doom-saying, I’ve never heard an articulation of what it is exactly we want from the news. Is it the routine news of the day? To judge from the number of websites and newspapers offering basically the same story about a Barack Obama speech, this is what news people think we want, but I never read more than one story. Usually I just read zero.

To me, from my news sources, I want to go straight to the name: I want something new. Novel. This encapsulates not just analysis but also reportage. I doubt it will ever disappear.

Sustainability

The sustainability trend typically seems like a synonym for environmentalism but I wonder whether its advocates don’t sell the idea short a bit. Modern life denies the future in so many more ways than the polar ice caps melting, to take one example.

There’s been a lot of hype over superbugs and superweeds, but they’re serious problems. I’ve written about superbugs previously, but superweeds are in some ways a similar problem. As with antibiotics, we invented a cool new device which we leveraged at just about every opportunity with initially stunning results: antibiotics, obvious; but the Green Revolution had a similarly bountiful effect. As with antibiotics, the positive effects have worn off as the pests they were supposed to squelch have become resistant to the killers. In each instance there’s a disturbing possibility of regressing into the past: infections that we have no idea how to cure aside from resting and such, or weeds that can only be removed painfully by labor.

There are many causes—all of the incentives favor convenience over long-term toil—but one of the more important is discretion. Discretion is a powerful thing to grant someone, and it’s been granted in both instances to people who have created some problems for us. The opposite force so prevalent in modern life is standardization—the favorite tool of bureaucracy. Standardization made the assembly line which beat the discretionary model of car-building. (Or, to take another example: standardization in clothes. Most clothes are standardized these days. The best clothes are probably hand-made. This seems to me to be the model modern paradigm.)

It seems to me that we would like to have more standardization over the pest-killing tools we give out so freely, and therefore would prefer the incentives align towards standardization. Easier, perhaps, for farmers—but doctors are famously independent (there are still doctors who refuse to use electronic prescription tools!). They’ve got good reason to feel that way; the traditional white collar role is all about autonomy. Well, until modern life comes after the privileges.

Unsurprising

Why am I not surprised?:
In the wake of a plea for help from besieged rebels in the Libyan city of Misurata, three Western powers have announced that they will send military advisors and one said Wednesday that it would step up airstrikes against Moammar Kadafi's military.

Italian Defense Minister Ignazio La Russa said 10 military instructors would be sent and details were being worked out. He spoke Wednesday after meeting with his British counterpart, Liam Fox.

France and Britain had announced earlier that they would send military officers to Libya to help rebel forces organize and bolster the NATO air campaign that has failed to rout Kadafi's military.

Of course it starts with military advisors, and then maybe you send some crack special units—your Delta Forces or whatever—and then, well, we all know where it goes next. (Wasn't Qaddafi supposed to be a guaranteed easy removal? Oops!) Will we ever learn this particular lesson or do we have to go bankrupt and prevent us from trying to try again?

This all seems so tempting because it’s easy to kill people but harder to win a war.

Tuesday, April 19, 2011

Linkism

What are the incentives of a university president?

One man’s quest to prove or disprove Malcolm Gladwell’s 10,000 hour rule to attaining expertise by experimenting on himself: having never played a hole of golf in his life, he’s seeking to become a PGA Tour pro after 10,000 hours of deliberate practice.

Apparently the federal government’s IT sucks.

Unfortunate facts:
ANY industry that mislays 25-30% of its product in the process of delivering it might reasonably be thought to have a problem. Yet that, according to the World Bank, is the case for the world’s water companies. Though water is cheap, it is not free. According to a report published by the Bank in 2006, leaks even then were costing $14 billion a year.
The rest of the article discusses a new method of plugging leaks.

Should you worry about a US default?

Trouble @Twitter?

Organ donors may be denied health insurance.

Smart grids expose themselves to smart hackers.

Is soccer vulnerable to comprehensive match-fixing?

A slideshow about Havana’s love of the vintage automobile (not by choice…)

This post debunking inflation hysteria contains worrying wage data.

Are patients with do not resuscitate orders more likely to die after surgery?

Lawrence Lessig with an apropos call to free up university research.

Young Men's Games

Jay-Z rather famously declared rap a “young man’s game” before “retiring.” I’m guessing, of course, his opinion has changed now that he’s back making music, but how? It’s almost an end-of-history type question: what to rap about but young man’s subjects? It’s too hard to tell, but judging by these two songs, it’s memories of being a young man:





The mood is different for each: the former is regretful; the latter nostalgic, but each seek to recreate what it was to be young and the vitality of that time. In that way the genre itself works for the song: the beats in each song are subdued but kind of remind you of more sprightly beats of the party songs, which is the mood, expressed musically.

Stones and Glass Houses, I think.

Ryan Avent pokes fun at the E.U.’s ineffective governance system (which seems sure to precipitate a genuine debt crisis in bond markets sooner or later) by saying, of the True Finns’ 19% showing in recent parliamentary elections (they want to withdraw from the EU):
How long could America maintain its dominance—or, indeed, its union—if the fact of a secessionist party winning 19% in a Maryland election could prevent the union from undertaking a step critically important to the stability of the American economy?

This only seems funny at a quick reading. Unfortunately, upon reflection it loses quite a bit of vitality. For one, the U.S. government has already shut down—during the 90s—and seemed very likely to shut down this year. It also seems as if we’ll have a big fight over the raising of the debt ceiling, a fight that’s the economic equivalent of the balance of nuclear power equation during the Cold War—one wrong move and you’ve unleashed economic apocalypse. So I would not exactly boast of our system’s decision-making structure.

And while 19% of Marylanders can’t break up the union, 19% of Senators can make themselves a huge nuisance over some question of the highest importance. The lesson here is that any system that rewards intransigence too much is prone to allowing crippling intransigence.

Monday, April 18, 2011

Linkism

Evan Osnos of the New Yorker goes on a tour of Europe with Chinese tourists in an entertaining travelogue. Apparently the top two complaints of Chinese tourists in Europe are: a) Europeans too arrogant and b) Chinese restaurants below expectations.

Your favorite education reformer…probably went to private school (and other private school thoughts).

Opening up government data on health (and its applications).

A New Yorker profile of a neuroscientist who’s looking into how the brain experiences time, with a revealing anecdote on how precisely drummers can perceive (some) measures of time.

Decoding tumors’ genomes to more effectively deliver care.

The drug war hits Central America.

The rise of the princelings in the Chinese Politburo and the ensuing crackdown.

Was a Marxist state government in West Bengal good for growth?

The oil market isn’t oversupplied, is it?

The implications of downgraded U.S. debt.

Microsoft is appealing a patent decision to the Supreme Court and arguing to make it easier for companies to challenge the validity of patents.

The unexpected pecan boom (the Chinese demand strikes).

A novel way of controlling drug violence in Mexico.

Bulls-Pacers Game 2

Derrick Rose and Kyle Korver played fairy godmother for the Chicago Bulls once again, rescuing the team from their dilemma. The low shooting percentage and high offensive rebound percentage might indicate a game won by grittiness to some, but it was more an indicator of sheer ugliness, particularly when you consider the Bulls’ 21 turnovers and the Pacers’ 17 turnovers. The turnovers, the aggressive defense and the rash of fouls (if Kyle Korver ends a game with five fouls, you know there have been a lot of fouls) all conspired to make the game more an advertisement for perseverance than artistry.

It does feel as if the Bulls are a mental block barring them from actual bona fide good play, and it’s hard to see what’s keeping them from that precision they used to have. The Pacers are aggressively attacking the ball when it gets inside, and the Bulls haven’t quite clicked on the precision passing to take it apart (and don’t have the three point shooters to bomb away). I hope it happens sooner than later, as it’s rarely a good idea to make things harder than they need to be--particularly when you’re a relatively undertalented team (by championship team standards, at least).

The most positive sign for the Bulls, sadly, might just be Darren Collison’s injury. Collison is clearly an underrated point guard, which surprises just about no one familiar with Pac-10 basketball back in the day. (This isn’t necessarily a super-meaningful predictor, but he was the best player on a UCLA team with Kevin Love and Russell Westbrook.)

In a weird way the commentary booth were a perfect match for the game: Chris Webber has potential as a color guy, but is far too chatty and casual for the occasion. Dick Stockton used to be a reliable purveyor of bland banality, but has since backslid into outright inanity and error, frequently confusing players, calls, and statistics. Sloppy commentating for a sloppy game.

Ah, Amateurism

The news that college basketball star Kemba Walker just finished reading his first book cover-to-cover this year (a book outside of class requirements, apparently) might be an occasion to fulminate against the NCAA system: I mean, really, isn’t Walker’s life all about basketball? Is this not what he is talented at? (Is there not an element of racial bias—after all, hockey, tennis, baseball and soccer players all get to turn professional whenever they please—in the disparate impact of the enforced amateurism requirement for several athletes?)

Rhetorical questions aside, you do have to do the proper comparisons here, and the relevant comparison for Walker is other college students: are they really doing all that much reading, for class or otherwise? I do a lot of reading—both of books and on the internet—but I’d never pretend my habits were widely shared. So perhaps Walker really is the average student…while also being excellent at basketball.