Sunday, November 30, 2008

Review - Bloody Confused!

Sportswriter Chuck Culpepper became disillusioned after 20 years of covering all kinds of sports. So he decided to become a fan again, to get away from the excesses of modern American sports by moving to England and becoming a devotee of a sport about which he knew almost nothing: soccer.

He has chronicled his sojourn in the delightful book, Bloody Confused!: A Clueless American Sportswriter Seeks Solace in English Soccer (2007). It begins with his mental state in a remarkable chapter that embodies pretty much everything negative about big-time sports in this country. The "rote utterances" by coaches and athletes, the dying brain cells, and, the last straw, the Congressional steroids hearing in which the lying and unresponsiveness of our great American heroes was juxtaposed with "unspeakable moment[s] in which one congressman or another would, before our very eyes, morph into blubber and start fawning over the presence of the baseball players": all of this and more sent Culpepper onto a plane, in search of a team he could believe in playing a sport he didn't know.

There is no great surprise here. Culpepper doesn't choose to follow one of the big four teams that dominate Premier League soccer (those who spend money like the New York Yankees), so I'm not giving anything away to tell you that he doesn't get to experience a championship. He simply tells us about his travels with the team, a journey he truly takes as a fan, not a writer.

About three-quarters of the way through this book, I became a bit disoriented. It's supposedly a sports book (796.33340942 in the catalog), but you will learn pretty much nothing about soccer here. We don't get to know the athletes at all. I was enjoying this trip, but it was not what I expected.

And then it occurred to me. This isn't a sports book at all, but a travel book. It's the story of one person stepping into a foreign environment for a year and describing his experiences. And the description isn't even comprehensive, we hear nothing about what Culpepper eats or how he lives or what he does when he's not at the stadium or on his way to the stadium or on his way back from the stadium. We meet some of the fans of his chosen team (Portsmouth, if you must know), and the experiences he shares with one who dresses as a blue bear are actually a bit repetitive (OK, irritating), but we don't see behind their fandom and see how they live.

This may not sound very positive, but the book is quite charming. Once I stopped expecting things and just experienced what Culpepper did, I was entranced. For one like myself who is a bit burned out on modern sports, his trip is irresistible. He fights his way back into being a sports fan again by creating a situation that is new and fresh, awakening the eight-year-old boy that has so long laid dormant.

For this is a travel book in the best sense. It takes a selective view of a new environment, since it is impossible to be comprehensive when living in somewhere you've never been before. More importantly, it highlights the changes in the writer; the success of the team is not so important as that Culpepper regains his wonder at sport. I'm not spoiling the end when I suggest he succeeds at that.

A quick thought...

on the auto industry. Isn't it possible that the Big 3 have pursued market share instead of profits, and that's driving a lot of their current problems? I say this because I worked for a short while in a company in which the CEO (a self-proclaimed "technical visionary," an assessment the press took as gospel truth) pushed for revenues beyond all else. He bought companies that were profoundly unprofitable, but brought revenues up. Eventually, the board sold the company over this CEO's objections, and many of us lost our jobs.

I don't know much of anything about the strategy of our big automakers, but I do know that the one fact that's been parroted by virtually everyone from the car executives to the politicians to the pundits is that these companies cannot be profitable because of the $1500 in retiree benefits that are built into the cost of every car.

But this doesn't sound right to me. If I'm looking for a car for around $20,000, I'm certainly going to consider a $21,500 vehicle if I'm convinced it has the features and the quality I want. So that's the case that the Big 3 could have made, that their cars are worth that premium, if they truly were better. They might have sold fewer cars, as they would have lost the Wal-Mart shoppers who purchase based solely on cost, but they could have remained profitable. I suspect I'm missing something here, oversimplifying the issue, but it seems to me they could have avoided some of these problems.

"Good Christian"

As I have stated before, I don't like to delve into religion on this blog. I have no special expertise in this area, and there are no real truths that everyone can agree upon. Faith is faith, and should be respected as something personal.

However, I am willing to say that faith and truth have to be reconciled, that one cannot deny reality just because it seems to conflict with words in a book that may have been inspired by a deity, but were recorded by people who had an understanding only of the world that existed in their particular context. That is to say, even had God (or whatever word you may use to describe your deity or deities) spoken 4000 years ago about, say, stem-cell research or nuclear physics, it's unlikely that the scribes taking down his words could have had a frame of reference that would have allowed them to write their scriptures accurately.

The religious people I have most respected make this attempt at reconciliation, and do a good job of walking the tightrope between literal interpretation of a text and the advances we have made in understanding our world. They have accepted that their faith does not require them to ignore the body of knowledge that humans have been blessed with the ability to build.

There is another group of religionists, people who use their faith as a bludgeon against anyone who does not hew to every piece of "wisdom" they've received. I happen to have someone like this in my family, and this person is the most intolerant and rigid person I've ever met. Despite a self-professed Christianity, this person has learned nothing of the true message that Jesus expressed, one of tolerance and acceptance and love.

Based on my own experience, then, I give no special credit to someone for being openly religious, nor is that an automatic negative. Ultimately, it comes down to behavior, regardless of whether it is motivated by faith or a lack thereof.

That's why I find it more than a little offensive when some public person makes the assumption that professed faith is somehow a necessarily positive component of someone's character. Therefore, I'm growing weary of the college football announcers who say, "Bubba's not only a great linebacker, he's also a solid student, and a good Christian." I heard this again yesterday, and I always find it jarring. It doesn't seem to me that the audience should be asked to accept this equation, that all of these things are somehow the same. That a collegian is devout tells me nothing about his behavior or his moral worth, but the statement does suggest that we should credit a Christian with extra points, and there is nothing in my experience which grants that as fact.


I don't know if anyone needs any more things on which to waste time, but I found another one.  You may already be enjoying Google Earth, a downloadable program that allows you to move about the earth and look at stuff.

Unbeknownst to me, about three months ago, Google added a flight simulator to Google Earth.  Somewhere, I stumbled across this news the other day, but I had no time to check it out.  Until tonight...I downloaded the new version (4.3), and there it was, Tools/Enter Flight Simulator....  It doesn't have all the bells and whistles of the current Microsoft product, but the price is right.

Now maybe you're not a fan of flight simulators, and that's fine, but I am (in fact, it is my contention that the original Bruce Artwick Flight Simulator was the most important program in the early days of PCs, but I won't fight that out tonight).  This new one is simple, offers only two airplanes, but it's still a hoot, so check it out.  Oh, and it allows you to take off from now-defunct Meigs Field in Chicago, which was the default in the Microsoft product, so you can fly around the Windy City without having to come in from O'Hare.

Saturday, November 29, 2008

Private-public spaces

The other day I was in the library. As I wandered back among the shelves of new books, a flight of shelves that is placed right in the center of the space, I heard a couple arguing. A man and a woman were sitting back by the windows, and, while not exactly yelling, were certainly speaking at a volume level that seemed surprising for a library.

The subject matter was even more surprising. Apparently this was a couple just after or in the process of a divorce, and they were discussing surprisingly intimate details of their lives. He doesn't like that her new boyfriend has been in prison, she doesn't like the influence of his new girlfriend on their daughter, he has some stuff of hers that he doesn't want to return, she doesn't want him stepping on her property: the usual sordid stuff of break-ups. (In case you think I was lingering to hear, they managed to cover this apparently well-trod territory in about 45 seconds; as it was, I inched away well before I had looked at all the new history books.)

It occurred to me that, despite the ever-increasing assertion of a "right to privacy," we are moving farther away from that all the time. Here is a crude taxonomy of the places we used to have:
  • Private-private: There was a time when a bedroom, for example, was off-limits to anyone who wasn't in the family. I'm sure this is still true, for the most part, but our common agreement that there are such spaces seems to me to be eroding. We see bedrooms on TV, not just in fictional programs (where we can tell ourselves that it's just a set), but on reality shows, and we can wonder whether these places are truly considered private.
  • Public-private: These are the places which belong to us, but into which we can invite people. These spaces have evolved quite a bit, from the formal receiving parlor through the living room to the family room of today, but they continue to fulfill their function of a space we control, but to which we can allow access to others.
  • Public-public: There are still places where there is no real expectation of privacy, though that can be modified by behavior. For example, if you're in a public plaza talking with someone openly, it would not be unusual for an acquaintance to walk up and join your conversation. (If you're speaking more furtively or intimately, we recognize that as an attempt to create an artificial place of privacy.)
  • Private-public: These are the places where, though they are ostensibly public, we maintain a reasonable illusion of privacy. For me, these include libraries and, perhaps, benches - I expect that I am in isolation in those places, I respect other people's privacy as I would expect them to respect mine.
It is these last for which I see the most change. Train passenger cars are a case in point; some years ago, a given individual would be allowed to do whatever they're doing and be left alone. Now, we hear people carrying on loud, fairly intimate cell phone conversations that violate the walls that were previously understood to exist.

There was a time it would have been unthinkable to hold a divorce discussion in the library. Today, it's seen as a real option, despite the potential for public embarrassment (did that woman really want people, some of whom might know her, hearing that "Jimmy" was an ex-con?). Perhaps they saw the library as somehow safe, given the public aspect of it, but that shows no understanding of the violation of norms that their meeting represented.

This is a topic I may return to, since my thoughts are at the moment relatively unformed. I find distinctions among the four types of space I have listed to be significant and useful (the invitation of a date to a private-private space is a clear signal, similar to the moment in a French conversation when references move from vous to tu; if everyone routinely traipses through the bedroom, it seems to me something is lost). The blurring of the lines carries with it a real social dislocation, one that will likely need to be replaced - but with what?

Friday, November 28, 2008

Public vs. private money

A few days ago, I received a fund-raising letter from a foundation attached to my high school. This foundation has been around five years, over which time they have awarded "a collective $167, student and faculty initiatives that are funded in part or not at all by the district budget." They'd like $1000 from me so the foundation can "grow its involvement with the students and faculty."

It's probably unnecessary for me to enumerate the kinds of initiatives that have been funded (an African dance and drum ensemble residency, a literary festival, various trips), but they have something in common.
  • The board of education could have allocated funds for these things, but chose to spend money elsewhere.
  • The school administration could have found money.
  • Parents (in one of the wealthiest school districts, median family income $145,000) could have written checks.
  • The students themselves could have washed cars or held bake sales.
Four different groups, each far more interested in these activities than I, each took a pass on providing funding. However, my reluctance to contribute is not my point today.

I currently live in a fairly well-to-do community, with a median income comparable to the area in which I lived when I went to high school (I'm always living beyond my means). Nonetheless, a local park was entered in a recent contest sponsored by an office supplies company, finished third (in an Internet survey), and collected $5000 for improvements - alas, we will not have a visit from a Chicago Bear.

Once again, these improvements were not deemed a priority from the public officials who spend taxpayer money on our parks. They did recently find money to erect new signs in every single park, whether the condition of the signs warranted it or not (they also found funds to redesign the park district logo).

In each of these cases, we have private money being used to augment the already-hefty funds being expended on these institutions. In the first case, they hit on alums for money (and let me assure you, my family's income is nowhere close to the median in that district). In the second, residents are supposed to go to a website and click enough times that a private company will award an already-nice park some more money.

At the same time, every time we pick up the newspaper we read that the federal government is being asked to help one company or another. We're handing money to insurance giant AIG (so they can pay "retention payments" to their top executives). We're considering lending or giving big bucks to the auto companies, assuming they come back to Congress on Tuesday with solid plans that will undoubtedly include the termination of the very employees who we're ostensibly helping. Let's not even talk about the billions pouring into the financial service firms, payments that have still not achieved their stated purpose of freeing up the credit markets.

I confess to being confused here. We have private money flowing to low-priority public projects, things that various levels of approval have decided are not important enough to command funds. On the other hand, we have public money being given to private industry, to companies that enjoy the rough-and-tumble of the free market until that market turns against them.

It is not for me to criticize how others spend their money. If you want to finance a high school faculty research project to study altruism, despite the inability of this faculty to make a case for it to people who are supposed to authorize these funds, go right ahead. If you want to vote for people who give a blank check to the executive branch to finance retention payments, that's your choice.

But if I choose to do neither of those things, well, that's my right too.

Thursday, November 27, 2008

Happy Thanksgiving

I think I'll just kick back today, enjoy the holiday, and urge anyone who happens by to do the same. I suppose I could come up with something issue-related for my Canadian readers (if there are any), but I was vacationing in Montreal once, quite a few years ago, and stumbled across the fact that Canada celebrates its Thanksgiving in October. It seems to me that, if you can't open some more things on your Thanksgiving to accommodate a traveler, there's no reason for me to come up with some Canadian-oriented stuff for you. (However, if you haven't gotten up to Montreal, go, holiday or none, because it's a fabulous city.)

I could also enumerate the list of things for which I'm thankful, or do one of those cheesy counter-intuitive things where I list the things for which I'm not thankful, but I'll save that for dinner. I am thankful for each of my readers whether you engage in conversation or not, and I'm thankful for the other bloggers who have so illuminated my thinking.

At any rate, please have a nice holiday (or Thursday), count your blessings, and I'll be back with more topical stuff on Friday.

Wednesday, November 26, 2008

Farewell, sweet unions

My previous post about the "above-market wages" of auto workers brought something else to mind. I've written before about the false wonders of privatization, the idea that companies bring inevitable efficiency to whatever they touch, efficiency that simply cannot be provided by government. I laid out that argument is some detail in the cited July post, which you can read, but I can summarize by saying that I see only two real reasons for privatization: to turn long-term assets into short-term cash, allowing more services without raising taxes (and deferring the bill); and to break union contracts. (There is also the argument that it is part of a systematic and deliberate movement of funds into well-connected hands, and you can read more about that in my review of Tom Frank's book, The Wrecking Crew.)

Now we're seeing the opposite happen in response to a crisis, the partial nationalization of several companies, a 180° degree switch in many people's thinking. If this trend continues, government will only own parts of the riskiest companies while shedding those that can easily be made profitable - I find this confusing and will leave it for now.

One thing that has run under the dialogue is a particular distaste for unions. It has been pretty much assumed in the discussion surrounding the proposed auto bailout that the unions are going to have to give back even more, that their time is over. No matter if you're left or right, you have to believe that these union contracts are ruinous, that they're destroying the domestic auto industry.

I didn't grow up in a union household, we thought of ourselves as more "professional" than that, so my impression was fairly ill-formed (and uninformed). I came of age in the era when the power of unions was often misapplied, corruption was thought to be rampant, and ties to organized crime were apparent. As I've matured, however, and seen the excesses to which Big Business is too often prone, I've come to see unions as a counterweight, something necessary in many industries (it's one of those situations where both sides can be wrong, and neither can be allowed to dominate - for example, teachers' unions have some major problems because they have assumed too much power in many districts).

Either way, though, unions are taking it on the chin right now. The process which began under Reagan (I know there are those who say the trend toward union-busting began earlier, but Reagan made it acceptable) has reached full fruit. Privatization leads to the destruction of unions, and so does nationalization.

If you believe, as I do, that unions have a place in our business world, appreciate them now, because there is a whole lot of pressure on them to go away. They're just getting in the way of our genius business executives, and we can't have that, can we?

I thought the market was always right

I have spoken well of the blog Credit Slips before; its authors provide an excellent look at what's going on in the world of bankruptcy (even if the discussion gets a little too inside for me sometimes, I'm glad there is a resource for these issues).

That said, one of the authors, Adam Levitin, seems to have made a few missteps in a post from a couple of days ago. He's discussing the merits of the Citigroup bailout and the GM non-bailout (at least so far). Discussing them from the moral hazard standpoint, he argues that we have it backwards:

GM’s fundamental problems are not the creation of current management. These are problems that go back decades and were inherited by current management. GM’s fundamental problem is not whether it was pushing fuel-efficient vehicles are not. GM’s core problem is that it was and is paying its blue collar workers above-market wages (including benefits).

Citi’s problems, on the other hand, are very much the making of many current Citi managers. Many of the same folks who made bad bets on the market and gambled on unknown and untested speculative products are still working at Citi. Bailing out Citi, but not GM thus strikes exactly the inverse moral hazard chord. We are letting people off the hook for their own irresponsible behavior while refusing to help those who inherited deep-seeded problems of others’ making that arguably helped the economy overall (see below). That's perverse.

Even if I concede Levitin's basic point here, I don't think this reasoning holds up. Moral hazard is about actions in the future, not punishment for the past - that's a whole other problem. The problem with bailing out anyone is that they will factor that into their future decisions, take on more risk than is prudent. We can't say, "GM's been good, therefore the potential for moral hazard doesn't exist for them."

More problematic, of course, is Levitin's contention that GM workers were paid "above-market wages." He cites that as pretty much the entire problem, something anyone who has bought a car in the last 20 years knows is not true. He tries to clarify in comments:
By "above market wages" I mean that GM (and other auto) line employees were getting a wage and benefit package that they couldn't get anywhere else. Blue collar workers in most other industries with equivalent skill sets and experience just don't get paid as well. That's what I mean by "above market".
This is risible. One of the casualties of the conventional wisdom that "the market is always right" is that we no longer discuss the appropriate level for wages in various professions. There used to be such discussions, as people tried to work out why teachers made so much less than professional athletes (or some such comparison). We just don't talk that way anymore; the market has decided what teachers will get, what nurses will get, what baseball players will get, what law professors will get, and so forth, and that is simply right, because the market has decided it.

In that world, there is no such thing as "above-market wages," or "below-market wages"; all wages are de facto correct because their level has been determined by the great wage determiner. If Levitin is trying to open up this discussion, he's going to have to allow a lot more into it. For example, one might argue that hiring a CEO who, in a previous job, in the greatest boom market ever seen for his products, led his company to a lower stock price (and collected a $210 million parting gift) is profoundly misguided, no matter what carryover wages they have (right, Chrysler?). I don't think we want to get off on that track, starting to compare what people "should" make.

This argument also neglects the reality of what a corporation is. A corporation gets a lot of benefits based on the idea that it has continuity, that it persists well beyond any individual's lifetime. What that means is that a CEO can't continually wander around telling everyone, "It's not my fault" (I turned off Charlie Rose's interview last night with Citigroup CEO Vikram Pandit in the first minute, when they showed the "highlight" in which Pandit insisted that his team and approach are good and solid and wonderful). When you take the job as CEO, you're adopting what has gone before, whether that is a strong brand that provides value, or a labor contract that you don't like. If you can change what you don't like, fine, work for that, but for heaven's sake stop whining about it.

To be fair, Levitin does go on and discuss whether it was a good thing that GM workers received these "above market wages," arguing that:
GM's problems are part of a story of democratized prosperity in the post-WWII years, and the bill for that party is catching up with us now. The whole country benefitted from democratized prosperity in a way we didn't from a brief exploding mortgage boom.
This seems to me a far more persuasive point, that giving blue-collar workers "more" than they might have commanded elsewhere was part of a boom in this country that we are now losing. But that's not Levitin's point here, not as he so infelicitously phrased it. A rare slip from a very incisive guy.

Tuesday, November 25, 2008

Review - The Black Swan

Some years ago, I was asked to review a paper for a mathematics journal. I agreed. The paper concerned geometry, in particular geometric constructions. For those of you who don't remember those, that subfield of geometry concerns the variety of things you can do with an unlabeled straightedge and compass. (The Wikipedia article is OK, probably more useful for the links it provides.) I don't know if this is even taught any more; if you learned it, you may remember finding the midpoint of a given line segment. This was a fairly important branch of math at one time, and still generates some interest from so-called mathematical cranks, people who believe they can do the impossible, or have "discovered" a simple way to do something hard.

[By the way, this is a major flaw in the Tom Friedman idea that we'll discover the next big thing in energy by providing incentives to garage projects. Someone will have to sift through all the energy crank-submitted ideas, and we'll be paying tax money to folks who are doing the equivalent of squaring the circle; in other words, impossible things.]

At any rate, this paper used then-nascent geometry software to slap circles and arcs and lines all over a plane, then calculate various angles that were produced. Then the author back-engineered this to create a "method" for constructing a, for example, 89.23° angle. He ended up with quite a few of these in which one could perform 36 steps to get this angle (or other angles close to significant ones like 60°, 45°, or 30°).

I don't know if I've made clear what was happening here, but, in essence, this author was putting large numbers of points on a plane, then using the software to take those points in sets of three and finding the angles that were formed. He then looked through the numbers that were generated and found those that were pseudo-significant.

If this had been an article for a mathematical Rube Goldberg competition, in which we go through a whole lot of steps to accomplish something useless, perhaps a light-hearted look at the world of geometric construction, it might have been good for a quick feature. But it was useless; there is no use for an 89.23° angle, and one is bound to find such things if enough points are generated (if you have 500 points, there will be more than 20,000,000 angles among these points - you'll find pretty much any measure you want).

If this article had been written in such a light-hearted way, or if it had been clearly intended for the April issue, or if it was being used to make a point about the lack of significance of results that come out of mass quantities of data (not to pick on Chris Anderson again), any one of those reasons might have made it acceptable.

But none of those was true. Instead, the article was written so as to make it clear that the author seriously believed his results were important, that he had in effect invented a new branch of mathematics, one in which cherry-picking almost-significant results somehow had the potential to revolutionize the field. Keep in mind he was showing nothing generally new; there was no theory behind any of this, nothing which said, "hey, want a 15° angle, here's how you might find one." It was mathematical crankery of the first degree.

The term "black swan" (meaning an event that is completely unpredictable, but has giant effects) has rapidly become almost ubiquitous, especially in light of the "unforeseeable" meltdown in the housing market, the financial market, the consumer market, and so on. The term comes (most recently) from Nassim Nicholas Taleb's bestseller, The Black Swan: The Impact of the Highly Improbable (2007).

Taleb, a successful Wall Street trader, uses the black swan as a metaphor to spin a theory (I'm sorry, he doesn't like theories, call it a conjecture) of, well, almost anything. Until people from the West went to Australia, they thought a black swan was impossible; their existence then became an exemplar of what some might call a paradigm shift, something that changes one's framework for reality. Taleb believes the black swan metaphor is central to our existence, that large-impact, unpredictable events have an effect that cannot be foreseen but that swamps any of the things that we believe important. 9/11 was a black swan in that we didn't see it coming, but it changed everything. As a result, our models of reality are useless, because a black swan will eventually happen.

And we're off for 300 pages of trips to Extremistan and Mediocristan, the saga of Yevgenia Nikolayevna Krasnova, severe criticism of Gauss and pretty much everyone else. If you plow through this work, you'll find out why everything you know is wrong, why every expert in almost every field is incorrect, why forecasts are useless, why economics is a waste of time. And a great deal of what Taleb writes is dead on the mark; much of this book is quite accurate in talking about the limitations of our knowledge.

So why did The Black Swan remind me so much of the story I recounted above? Because the tone of this book and that article are exactly the same. Taleb earnestly believes two things: 1) his "black swan" idea is new and revolutionary and significant; and 2) he is pretty much the smartest guy in the world for having discerned it.

This book carries an almost religious devotion to the temple of Taleb, the sense that we are fortunate that he has spent years poring over old tomes and selecting reality out of all the nonsense that has gone before, and been willing to share it with us. Oh, he didn't come up with this all on his own; he has his mentors, his Montaigne, his Popper, and, especially, his Mandlebrot. But it is Taleb who will rock the world, oh yes he will.

And what does this theory come down to? Essentially, the real world is too complex to be boiled down to the simplistic models that so often are used to describe it. We teach probability through casino games, then assume that the world fits those same rules - and it cannot. We can't take everything into account, so we try to create narratives that we can handle, but those narratives are incapable of modeling reality. Linear extrapolations are inherently unrealistic. And, then, always lurking in the background, is the BLACK SWAN - even if our model was perfect, in will fly the swan to upset everything.

It's difficult for me to know what to say about this. If you've read this blog for any length of time, you know that it is based on this very kind of thinking (and I claim no singularity in that, unlike Taleb). I've had any number of posts as to why economics is not a science, something that Taleb elevates to divine revelation (though he certainly seems to have a special irritation with the Nobel Prize). I've written about how the assumptions of future employment that will "naturally" result from spending on energy are based on nothing.

Again, I cite myself not to put me on the "special insight" platform on which Taleb puts himself, but because I know my arguments the best. There are others who offer counterintuitive ideas, who understand the limitations of conventional thinking, but most of us are not quite as irksome as Taleb about it (at least, I hope not).

I guess my overall impression of this book is that it contains some good ideas, but badly needed a strong-handed editor. The self-indulgence of Taleb's writing does nothing to enhance his points. There is, maybe, a 130-page book here, one without the self-aggrandizement and the pointless autobiographical side trips. (It is also the kind of book that fills me with despair that so many people find it significant, because the limits of knowledge should not be so revelatory; that there are people in high positions who are learning something from this is profoundly depressing.)

An editor might also have ironed out some of the things that are wrong or poorly-explained. How does Taleb's Extremistan produce Black Swans - it would seem that cause and effect are reversed here? The computer, the Internet, and the laser were certainly not unplanned or unexpected, though some of the effects of each were unforeseen - such is the way of all significant inventions. Microsoft's market share domination of Apple is not the result of luck, at least not to the extent that Taleb implies.

The most disappointing aspect of The Black Swan is the set of conclusions, because they are non-conclusions. Taleb says that, instead of using imperfect models to predict the future, which is impossible, we should move to empiricism. What he means, of course, is intuition - we should try things and see what works instead of reasoning from principles. This only applies to some fields, however, but we can't really know which fields are which. If this sounds incoherent, it is (Taleb apparently had some problems with a medical diagnosis, which is unfortunate, but it's a big leap to the idea that we should go with intuition). Empiricism always sounds great until we realize that there are many more NOTs in the universe, many more blind alleys than through streets.

I don't want to take the flyleaf as an important input, but it does state that, "He offers surprisingly simple tricks for dealing with black swans and benefiting from them." Taleb does nothing of the sort. He offers an investment strategy (invest 85% of your money in perfectly safe instruments, put the other 15% into wildly risky inifinite-upside Black Swan things) that is completely unhelpful (it might be possible if you're playing with a whole lot of OPM - Other People's Money - as he presumably was).

What Taleb is doing here is trying to overturn the basis on which people do things, wanting us to cast aside all those inaccurate models based on logic. But there's nothing here to replace that thinking, we're just supposed to wander around, experiencing life, and, I guess, hoping for the best.

It comes down to something simple but unstated: Taleb's success itself is a Black Swan, the result of chance. He was lucky to hit it big enough on investments to finance his self-styled epistemological research, then lucky enough again to find someone to publish a book with no editing and have it become a best-seller. He proves his own theory, which is useful, but it's unlikely any reader will learn anything that will help their own lives.

Monday, November 24, 2008

Review - The Wrecking Crew

I'm a fan of Thomas Frank. His 2000 book One Market Under God is one of the most potent pieces of work that attempts to demonstrate the extent to which democracy has been corrupted by extreme capitalism, views which now seem quite prescient. Much of what Frank wrote them has quickly become "conventional wisdom," no matter how against the tide he seemed to be swimming at the time.

I found 2005's What's the Matter with Kansas? somewhat less compelling, perhaps (paradoxically) because it represented a better job of pure reporting. In it, Frank goes home to Kansas to try to understand why the people of that state consistently vote for candidates who represent their interests spectacularly badly. Don't get me wrong, this is a great book, well worth reading, but I found that the details at times got in the way of the larger points. The obvious conclusion, that Kansans had become convinced that social issues outweighed immediate economic concerns, is something of an article of faith; you may not believe, and Tom Frank may not believe, that this is sufficient, but the people obviously do, and any attempt to change them will depend on someone's ability to turn that attitude around.

And The Wrecking Crew: How Conservatives Rule (2008) continues the trend. Meticulously reported, Frank sets out to show us how conservative ideology and effective organization has brought a certain world view to prominence, one which essentially calls for the reduction of government in any arena in which it might conceivably help people, while steering its resources to the well-connected.

There are essentially two parts to the book. The first, Insurgents, delineates the organizations that were built by the right wing to frame the nation's discussion in an essentially conservative way. The second, Saboteurs, explains how the power that was built by the insurgents was then used to tear down the very foundations of our government, existing mainly to divert resources into the hands of fewer and fewer people.

The main bad guy here is Jack Abramoff, who is presented as an opportunist. We never really find out if Abramoff has any core beliefs; he's just someone who was in the middle of building organizations that grabbed power and money, then moved into a lobbying role so that the people who had been steeped in the ideology could become his advocates (in return for which he, and so many others, became extravagantly wealthy). And it's quite clear that, despite Abramoff's current residence (federal prison), the culture remains the same and government continues to be a place that shovels out money to the few.

TWC is well-researched and quite convincing, but its main points are pretty obvious to anyone who's been paying attention. If you haven't heard of what has happened on Saipan, an island which has essentially been turned into a pure free-market laboratory, you will probably be shocked and appalled by the details. Clearly, Frank wants us to see potential parallels to trends in the United States, and there are enough of them to be frightening.

There is one disquieting omission, though, and that's the underlying assumption that conservatives have somehow been uniquely disposed to manipulate government in this way. To be sure, the far right did discover the propaganda tools (most notably sophisticated direct mail campaigns) first, and, coupled with a Reagan-inspired philosophy that government is invariably the problem in any situation, it did get there first.

One wonders whether, had Democrats held sway as technology came of age and had the intelligence to take advantage of it, results would have been all that different. Greed is a natural part of too many people, and I suspect that the left might have well been as susceptible to the same scurrilous behavior if it had been in the ascendancy. Our vigilance actually needs to increase right now, as Democrats are coming to power at a time in which we have all quietly accepted the idea that government exists to funnel funds to private hands. The potential for funny business actually seems higher now than it has before.

Something interesting in TWC is the lack of appearances by Lee Atwater and Karl Rove. This may seem to be a flaw in a book that speaks of the rise of an essentially amoral political class, but it's actually a strength that Frank explores the movement without delving into the larger figures as much. A comprehensive history of this time will have to integrate these two threads, but Frank is putting forth the less obvious side, and this will be greatly appreciated by future writers.

What I suppose I'm saying is that TWC is not so much a book you must read right now; Republicans have already been put in their place in this election cycle, and we'll just have to see if the culture is really changing. But it is an important piece of reporting, presenting in detail a side of the rise of the conservatives that gets away from the electoral narratives.

Sunday, November 23, 2008

I enjoyed it, anyway

I really don't want to belabor the deal over my former school changing its name after a big donation; I said (perhaps too much) everything here. But I wrote a comment to a post that talked about it at another site, and I thought I'd recreate the comment here:
It took this last post to Show Me the Meaning of Being Lonely if I cling to my notion of what the name should be. If Dean Ted says, “I Want It That Way,” I’ll accept that he has Quit Playing Games With My Heart. More Than That, I’m now fully on board with the name change; Dean Ted, I Just Want You to Know that I’ll Never Break Your Heart As Long As You Love Me, I’ll go Anywhere For You, and, next time you ask me for money, give me The Call, expect All I Have to Give. Otherwise, I’ll be Incomplete and Inconsolable. Chicago Booth, or Booth, Get Down You’re the One for Me. We’ve Got It Goin’ On!
I won't explain it any further; if you care, you can figure it out.

"Guru" - welcome to buzzword heaven

Just when I write a post (yesterday) about the infelicitous term "journo-guru," comes an even more egregious misuse of the term "guru." Hardly have we gotten by Newsweek's printing a story (and I use that term in its definition as "fib") seriously considering "Is Obama the Antichrist?" (prompting some intelligent people to cancel their subscription) than we move on to stupidity and word misuse.

Now, I understand that this article was written by the Associated Press, but some editor at Newsweek felt it was worth posting on their website. (By the way, I generally only link to things that I want you to go look at for some reason, Gentle Reader, but, in this case, I'll make an exception - feel free to ignore this piece of "journalism.") In it, we get the reaction of the AP's "panel of baby-name gurus" to the naming of the new child of the "pop-rock power couple," Ashlee Simpson-Wentz and Pete Wentz. This child will be called Bronx Mowgli Wentz (no comment needed).

There's a lot wrong with the preceding two sentences, but I want to know what a "baby-name guru" is. Because a "guru" is a spiritual teacher, and I don't see how these experts, people who make their money consulting to gullible couples on the best name for baby, could possibly be seen, other than in their own fantasies, as spiritual teachers. (By the way, anyone who wants to contend that the Web is an unalloyed positive needs only consider the power it gives these hucksters to extend their money-making enterprises.)

Should we really wonder that the rest of the world will rejoice when our excess wealth is pared away, leaving (one can hope) no extra money for hiring baby-name gurus?

Saturday, November 22, 2008


(The term I reference in the title is one that I fervently hope doesn't catch on.)

Andrew Sullivan points us to an article by Adrian Wooldridge that discusses "journo-gurus," the superstars who are flouting the failing-newspaper trend:
But amid all this gloom a few hacks are doing better than ever. These are the first-class passengers of the journalistic world--sitting on upholstered thrones, surrounded by adoring hostesses, while the rest of the profession is crowded into cattle class or getting hurled off the plane. These are the journo-gurus. They focus on business rather than the usual staple of high-profile journalism, politics. And they specialise in big, bold, brave ideas about world-changing trends.
To what can be no one's surprise, Exhibit A in this trend is Thomas Friedman of the New York Times, who has "chronicled" globalization "as artfully as anyone." Now, I tend to be slightly more willing than some to give Friedman some credit, but it's hard to think of the word "art" in conjunction with his overheated prose. (Wooldridge pretty much takes Friedman's arguments at face value, meaning that he misses that the essential idea, the "flatness" of the world, is profoundly wrong. The competition is not on a level playing surface as long as it is based on price, not competence. How often do I have to write this?) He then gives Friedman credit for his superior (and earlier) book, The Lexus and the Olive Tree, but fails to chastise him for forgetting it when writing The World is Flat.

Exhibit B in the journo-guru trend is Malcolm Gladwell of the New Yorker, who is credited for producing a string of "big ideas." Actually, Gladwell takes fairly little ideas and extrapolates them beyond all recognition, falsely claiming significance (though doing so quite entertainingly). And his final example is Chris Anderson of Wired, who I've discussed twice before (here and here; in each case, I deferred to Hank Williams, and I suggest you follow my links), and I'll forgo further comment.

Wooldridge goes on to express his big theory, that these journo-gurus are overthrowing two standard categories:

These journo-gurus have overturned two established hierarchies. The first is the billion-dollar management theory industry, hitherto ruled by business professors and management consultants who produced books and then turned those books into business fads. Alas, the books were often dismally written, the fads a recipe for disaster. This created an opportunity for those with sharper pens and more dispassionate attitudes. A recent Wall Street Journal ranking of management gurus, based on Google hits, newspaper mentions and academic citations, included two journalists in the top five (Friedman at two, Gladwell at four) and only one traditional management guru, Gary Hamel. The New Yorker is now a bigger generator of management fads than the Harvard Business Review.

The second overturned hierarchy is that of journalism. This used to be dominated by political journalists who hogged the front pages and secured the best book deals. But the most successful of those--Bob Woodward, George Will--are all getting long in the tooth. And younger political writers are finding it almost impossible to talk their way into the first-class cabin. The big money goes to TV journalists whose grinning faces launch a dozen worthless bestsellers. Political partisanship is tempting political writers to turn themselves into ideological water carriers rather than serious reporters. And the internet is multiplying the number of voices while diminishing the impact of any of them.

I agree that these "established hierarchies" are being overturned, but the connection between the rise of such as Friedman and this upheaval seems far more sketchy. If they are knocking such unadulterated garbage as Who Moved My Cheese? off the best-seller list, they deserve credit for that public service, but their "big ideas" hardly represent real management advice. And the contention that Friedman and his ilk have "dispassionate attitudes"? That's far more of a dream than a reality, these guys are pure advocates for their ideas.

The second paragraph, which essentially suggests that journalism is giving way to political advocacy, may well be true, but it isn't Friedman and Gladwell who are making that happen. That's the result of a desire for celebrity and passion and all those things which pop up in the Q ratings.

Wooldridge finishes with a couple of confounding paragraphs:

These superstar hacks have inevitably provoked criticism, not least from the people stuck in cattle class. Some of it is sour grapes--Friedman, jealous hacks whisper, lives in a palatial mansion in Bethesda; Gladwell collected a $1m advance for his first book.
But some of it has merit. There are legitimate worries that the journo-gurus see too little of the downside of a system that is treating them so conspicuously well. There are also concerns about substance. All these writers follow the old axiom about simplifying and exaggerating: they take one idea and illustrate it with endless examples rather than address complications. The idea at the heart of each book is as much a brand as an analytical tool. "Blink" has been the subject of an amusing send-up, "Blank: The Power of Not Actually Thinking at All". Richard Posner, one of America's public intellectuals, dismissed it as "written like a book intended for people who do not read books."

But it would be churlish not to admire these hacks for thriving in hard times. They produce big ideas that throw light on profound changes. And their books are manna from heaven for a global business class grappling with dizzying challenges. Once the height of journalistic ambition was to shape political events. Now the cleverest journalists are shaping the business world as well. Not bad for a profession in terminal decline.

I'll let the reader try to parse this mess. If there are legitimate "concerns about substance," doesn't that imply that they are not "big ideas"? Well, yes. The global business class doesn't really get much out of the idea that people make snap judgments (the subject of Gladwell's Blink); the entire field of advertising is devoted to shaping those judgments, and they were doing so long before Gladwell was born. These "big ideas" are reflective of thinking that is already happening, not work that shapes that thinking.

There's a reason that these grand thinkers engender such backlash (and it's not simply schadenfreude at the personal financial travails of Mr. Friedman) - they give philosophical cover to extant ideas that perpetuate or exacerbate some of our most ruinous trends. How can globalization be bad if Guru Friedman blesses it? How can we criticize the shallowness of commercials when Guru Gladwell tells us that it's a natural part of being human? It would be good to see more articles that work a little less hard to puff up the egos of this new pundit class.

Friday, November 21, 2008

On the nature of comments

I've written before about how disappointing I find most of the Web 2.0 talk to be (I'm defining it in the most common way, as the new user-generated content of blogs, videos, comments, etc. that actually have the populace "creating" their own reality on the Internet - or something like that). I'm not an extremist, I grant that some of it has been useful in terms of forming communities and making information more broadly available, but many of its successes are not so much revolutionary as extensional. That Obama raised so much money over the Internet implies that his people saw it as a more effective marketing channel and made it happen, which does not reflect a re-ordering of reality.

Obviously I'm not going to say anything against blogging, but there is evidence that consolidation is occurring, that it's getting harder for voices to emerge from the vast pool and be heard. This is in no small part a matter of time; I barely have time now to post a time or two a day and read the blogs I already have in my feed reader and do the other things I need to do, so I'm certainly not out cruising Blogger for new people that I then would have to keep up with. It certainly seems clear that there is this big clump of sites in the middle of the Internet, or maybe it would be more accurate to say a clump of clumps differentiated by subject matter (I'm not sure how much intersection there is between the political blogs and the entertainment blogs). Those of us not in one of the clumps have a one-way relationship to the big boys and girls, and there's little hope of that direction changing, probably less of being invited to join the clump. (I've seen some graphs that purport to demonstrate the clumping, though I am unable to find any at the moment. What would be interesting is if they would show directionality, so that we could see quite clearly that Androcass is way more likely to link to Andrew Sullivan than Sullivan is to Androcass - oh, well, his loss.)

And comments, oh, comments, the vast cesspool of profanity and scatology and various unsavory -isms. Not all comments are vile or unhelpful, but far too many are, as I discussed here in a post about Chicago Tribune columnist Eric Zorn's decision to turn them off, citing the time it took to handle and reject the out-of-bounds ones.

However, even in their most benign form, comments suffer from some structural deficiencies that make them fail to live up to their promise to provide a forum where well-intended people come together to mull over the ideas expressed in the original post.

First, there is the possibility that the "relationship" between the original poster and the commenters will become unidirectional, with the poster never actually dealing with the comments that the post generated. For example, I have stopped by Charlie Rose's comments section several times, and never once have I seen someone from the show, let alone Charlie, respond to anything there. That may be excusable - would we rather have Charlie writing comments than preparing for his program, maybe wiping down his "table"? (I have wrestled with the priority dilemma myself, as I talked about here, and I don't get many comments at all.)

There are those who would say that it is unnecessary for the instigator to remain in the conversation, that the "community" can maintain the flow of ideas, but it still seems like a cheat somehow ("I've invited you to my home, now I'm going to go up to my study and lock the door...have fun!"). And, as I've pointed out, the "community" is far too often co-opted by toxic notions.

Second, there's the matter of thread structure. If you've ever tried to hold an organized discussion via e-mail, you've experienced this. Response A comes in, response B talks about some of the issues in A, response C was written before seeing B so it rehashes some of B's points and ignores others, and so on. By the time you get to response J, you have 20 issues on the table, but only three or so which are "hot," and you end up having to schedule a meeting to resolve these threads.

Some blog software tries to deal with this by allowing the discussion to be organized into formal threads, but this solution relies on the ability of commenters to self-organize, something that works far better in theory than in practice. Other blogs or sites rely on human intervention to spin off new threads whenever necessary, but any popular site soon becomes a nightmare for that human.

I bring this up because of a curious experience I had yesterday. Kevin Drum wrote a post in which he solicited comments on more blogs to read (I know, running counter to the trend I mentioned above, but Kevin may just have more time than I do). I saw it, listed a few of my favorites (sent another, because I forgot one, but that's not material to our story), and posted. His comments are moderated, so I expected to wait to see them go up, but I went back a few times, and didn't see them. In the meantime, comment after comment is going in. About four hours after the initial post, mine still aren't there, so I write another post to see if anyone has any insight and...boom! goes up immediately, no delay at all.

I figure, glitch (though this has happened a time or two before on Kevin's site), and I turn off the computer and go about my business. This morning I hop on, and there are my two posts, in the time sequence I wrote them, apparently finally pasting muster with the Drum process.

But here's the thing. No one is ever going to see them. In the example I used above, it's as if response D was written, then it mysteriously drifted about the ether while responses E through Q went up, then it's placed back in the queue as response D. If you have an interest in the discussion, you might monitor the posts to see what there is that's new, but you're not going to go back up to see if something's been inserted between C and E.

It would, of course, be equally strange to put new messages in the queue at the time they're approved, as they'll seem totally out of context, creating random discussions. About the only solution I can see would be to hold all messages in abeyance until the fate of each one is determined, in sequence. But then I can imagine a lot of people wandering away, figuring the discussion had come to an end.

I guess the real solution is not to take 4+ hours to decide whether a message is suitable, but to try to make that approval process happen in real time. So I wonder what Kevin is doing where that isn't happening. It all makes it pretty difficult to feel a part of a discussion, and, once again, demonstrates that we still have a long way to go before realizing the potential of Web 2.0

Thursday, November 20, 2008

Review - Harlan Ellison's Watching

It's hard to believe that Harlan Ellison will be 75 next year. He has so long been known as the enfant terrible of the world of fantasy and science fiction literature, as the brash younger brother to the elder statesmen of the field. But Asimov would be 88, Clarke just died at 90, Heinlein would be 101 (!), so, in that company, Ellison is just a youngster.

And he's always been different anyway. Leaning more toward fantasy than hard science fiction (he calls what he writes "speculative fiction"), there is a biting quality to his best work. The aforementioned "Big 3" presented a view of humanity that was essentially progressive and positive (at least potentially); there is an undercurrent of misanthropic bile that lies beneath Ellison's writing.

In one important respect, he does resemble Asimov, in that both have written extensive amounts of non-fiction and have revealed much of themselves in the process. You may not feel you "know" Clarke or Heinlein no matter how many of their books and stories you have read; it's impossible to say the same about either Ellison or Asimov. Ellison, in particular, has often presented himself in his essays, a portrait which, while not always flattering, is indelible.

Movie and television reviews are, perhaps, the most ephemeral of essays; once the movie has left the theaters or the TV episode is over, it's hard to see why anyone should care (admittedly, the existence of videotapes and DVDs has changed this somewhat). For these reviews to be worthwhile, there needs to be something more, whether it be the inclusion of cultural context or writing that is simply so compelling that it remains fresh. Still, a book in which the newest contribution is 19 years old, and the reviews often barely mention the film, would seem to have questionable entertainment value.

So Harlan Ellison's Watching (2008) might seem to be a niche book, one of interest only to those who enjoy fantasy and science fiction movies of the 1960s, '70s, and '80s - and it's not even comprehensive, so sporadically timed are the essays contained within.

But it's not a niche book, due solely to the quality of Ellison's writing and the force of his personality. Opinions spill off every page (he's not a fan of either Steven Spielberg or James Garner), and they are interwoven with the creation of this character named Harlan Ellison.

For this is not really a book of reviews of the quality of a film, a director, an actor, but a memoir of a fascinatingly infurating character, Harlan Ellison. Is it accurate? I don't know if anything written here is any less opinionated than his accounts of movies, but why would I rely on critical detachment in one case but not the other?

Nevertheless, it is this quality which makes this book memorable, much in the way of Ellison's two books (here and here) on television, writing which focuses on long-forgotten shows. There is a significant amount of cultural observation in all these books, much of which still resonates today, but it is still culture filtered through the sensibilities of one Harlan Ellison.

And the writing is wonderful, passionate and witty and scathing, as you might expect if you have read his fiction. There is a palpable joy reflected in these words, the pure joy that comes from being able to express one's own self to others, and prove that, ultimately, the pen is mightier than the sword (and you know Ellison wouldn't fall back on such a hoary cliché, which is why he's he, and I am I).

This wouldn't be a critique if I didn't find something to criticize, and it concerns not the work, but the audience. If you haven't read other of his essays, Watching is a difficult place to start. He alludes several times to his battles with Star Trek creator Gene Roddenberry; if you know something about this now 40-year-old feud, these references will be meaningful to you. If you don't, you'll feel that something has been left out. If that's going to bother you, you may want to start your Ellison non-fiction reading somewhere else on the shelf. If, however, you're comfortable with loose ends and you want to watch a marvelous prose stylist turning his pen to films (and things on the periphery), read this book.

Wednesday, November 19, 2008

Quick hits

A post in which I take the easy way out and link to a few things that have come across the computer lately:

There have been several news stories the past few days about the result from a University of Chicago that uses functional MRI scans to prove that bullies like to bully. The blog called Cognition and Language Lab takes the time to point us to a Slate post by Daniel Engber which pretty effectively takes the study apart. He points out that the subjects exceed any standard one might apply for bullies; "They're more than bullies; sociopaths might be a better descriptor. Or rapists." The study didn't actually make these kids hurt anyone, it showed them pictures of people in pain. And, perhaps most importantly, the claim that the brain scans demonstrated the conclusion derived is almost certainly wrong. This kind of "test," while interesting, is not conclusive enough to qualify as science (and he provides a link to a Wired article that shows that).

Engber is not satisifed to poke holes in this hyped story, he goes on to discuss some larger flaws in science reporting by the New York Times. It's well worth reading how reporters take press releases and essentially put them wholesale into print.

I was going to write something on this two-week old article by Robert Samuelson (and has anyone ever milked confusion over his identity more effectively), but I never got around to it, then I found that Brad DeLong has already handled it for me. The article, which appeared in Newsweek and the Washington Post (and how does someone get paid twice for the same work?) is remarkably fatuous, claiming that making rich people poorer doesn't help poor people, largely because rich people are magical:
The larger truth is that much of the income of the rich and well-to-do comes from what they do. If they stop doing it, then the income and wealth vanish. No one gets it. It can't be redistributed because it doesn't exist. Everyone's poorer.
That he uses the new poverty of rich Wall Streeters to illustrate this demonstrates the weakness of the argument. The wealth that these geniuses created was the result of paper profits that they converted into real things for their benefit, but the debt that the system took on as a result is being paid for by everyone now. Much of the financial innovation we've seen over the past several years was ultimately unhelpful to society, no matter how personally profitable it might have been.

Mark Thoma points us to a book review by Robert Solow that intelligently discusses risk and economic efficiency, and certainly makes me interested in reading Peter Gosselin's book, High Wire. Even without reading the book, however, Solow makes some good points.

A lot of people have mentioned this rant of a month ago by Rush Limbaugh about the future of the Republican Party. In my opinion, this is a sure way of permanently impairing the party for decades to come; nevertheless, it's indicative of a certain mindset currently afflicting those on the right, the kind of thinking that will propel Sarah Palin into a leadership position.

And a question with no links: why do I find the music of Natasha Bedingfield kind of endearing, and the "music" of Katy Perry so irritating? (And don't get me started on the new Britney Spears "song," Womanizer.)

Tuesday, November 18, 2008

TV changes

This will be a short post due to the press of events; I'll likely revisit this topic in the future.

It's no secret that people are disgusted with Congress, mainly, I think because with all the problems we have right now, these solons have essentially done nothing. Health care? Not a big enough problem to solve, I guess. Education? No Child Left Behind's got that covered, so we're going to take a pass on doing anything else. Even Iraq has been neglected, despite the bold words of Nancy Pelosi when she took over as Speaker of the House.

But they have accomplished something, which is to mandate this switch to digital television in February. It was put off a number of times because of concerns about making the change, but now it's coming, like it or not. I'm sure we've all seen the endless number of public service spots alerting us to this, but in actual practice, this seems like a pretty poorly thought-out program.

My experience: I received a converter box a few days ago, hooked it up, and there are stations that just don't come in. After plumbing the depths of the Internet, I've found that one major station plans to move to a different frequency when they make the switch, so there's no real way to know if it will come in on February 18. (I'll leave aside for now the odd nature of these $40 government coupons, which have basically guaranteed that the price of the boxes won't drop below $40 - more profit for the box makers).

Got a VCR? Use it fully, taping one show while watching another? Wait until you see how that needs to be hooked up, and you'll still lose functionality.

15% of all people in the U.S. rely on over-the-air television. Each of those people must now presumably become hardware testers, and, as I have already pointed out, the test can't really be completed when some stations haven't cut over to their final configurations yet. Of course, those tend to be clustered in the demographics of the elderly and the poor, so there isn't a whole lot of political clout there. (And, of course, testing is irrelevant since the change is coming whether the test succeeds or fails.)

I know that this is being billed as a necessity because the government wants to sell off the bandwidth for oodles of bucks, but this seems just as much a giveaway to the cable providers and satellite companies. I realize that the kind of folks who choose to stay over-the-air or can't afford cable don't matter too much, but it seems odd to compel them to either go through the challenge of buying and installing new equipment, or pay money they may not have to keep something they already have. I feel for the older people who are going to have some big-time problems in three months.

[I'll leave this for another day, but the same kind of indifference is being shown by such bodies as the NCAA, given their willingness to sell the rights to the football bowl games to ESPN. Again, we're talking about 15% of the populace, not so small a number. But these millions of people will have a lot more time come New Year's Day 2011. At least they can console themselves that head coaches will command higher salaries.]

Monday, November 17, 2008

"Will" he say something stupid?

In a way, I feel sorry for George Will. So bound is he to the conservative line that he will forever be frustrated. If we would just try the pure-conservative line for once, something we only approached during the tenure of the great Ronald Reagan, everything would be fine. Alas, there's always something getting in the way of that purity, and so we'll never know the joys that would come from complete laissez-faire.

George has some rather large blind spots, and I've written about that before. He insists that economic crises are simply a matter of psychology, and he's down with Phil Gramm as to how we're a nation of whiners. What's worse is, his knowledge of economics is scant, with only ideology to fall back on. So it was with an element of joy (and not just from me, I gather) to see him getting slapped down by Paul Krugman on yesterday's This Week. It's not that I don't see room for disagreement on the causes and the progress of the Great Depression - in fact, I continue to be amazed at how much disagreement there is - but George's extremely simplistic view comes out of a playbook, not out of actual study or thought.

But where George really stepped in it, at least for me, was when he expressed outrage at auto company retirees being given health benefits before they are eligible for Medicare. He couldn't believe that people should get this when the companies are struggling.

George is wrong in at least two ways, and it requires a suspension of disbelief that he doesn't know either (of course, orthodoxy requires him to take umbrage at this, and we're back in the days of Reagan's fictitious "welfare queens"). First, George's bow tie wouldn't last three minutes in an auto plant. Despite advances in automation, this work is hard and demanding, with an unending load, quotas that have to be met. It's harder work than George could possibly know, even if he thinks he knows physical labor after his summer detasseling corn (actually, I made that last bit up, I doubt he's even done that, but there are a lot of self-proclaimed experts based on a small taste of something). George may think these retirees are enjoying the second house, the motorboat, and maybe there are some of those. But there are a lot more who wake up every morning hoping not to hurt, at least not too much. George Will may never have to retire, but, if he does, it's sailing and a couple of sets of tennis and mai tais at the club.

Second, does George have any idea how many of these workers were "asked" to take early retirement, with the deal being their high salaries get wiped off the books in return for benefits and pension sweeteners? Of course he doesn't. These are items that were promised to these men and women, freely agreed to by the management of these bastions of American power, and now the companies want to avoid having to live up to those agreements. And there's George Will to carry their water, to try to get the American people to feel his outrage that a corporation might actually have to live up to its promises.

I could go on, I could mention the ways in which these workers made different decisions in their lives because those kinds of benefits were pledged to them, and now they face having curtailed their opportunites "for the good of the company" with nothing to show for it. But I don't need to, George Will is just plain wrong here, and I don't need any more reasons to conclude that.

Save the cars, not the people

I haven't written anything on the proposed bailout of the auto industry, mainly because I haven't been able to decide where I come down on the topic, partially because I didn't have anything significant to say. I probably don't have any more insight than I had before, but I have been motivated to weigh in by the remarkably poor dialog on the two sides.

The argument, of course, is at its base fairly simple: do we help one of the giant industries in our nation, one which is going through some rough times right now, especially since we are assisting the financial industry through its rough patch; or do we let market discipline, which is clearly pointing toward the failure of one or more of the Big 3, do its job and let them go, the way we would any convenience store or graphic design firm?

Out come the advocates on each side, citing statistics, making appeals to our desire to help others, whatever it takes. And so much of what they say is nonsense, or wrong, or beside the point, and they're never called on it. Here's the bottom-line question I want answered: Who is this bailout for?

Proponents say it's for the people, to preserve the jobs of the good men and women who currently build our cars. But then, on yesterday's Meet the Press, Tom Brokaw cites this:
Most researchers say there are three million jobs nationwide. As you can see there in Michigan, Illinois, Missouri, Indiana and Ohio there are thousands of jobs that are involved. And then if you talk just about dealerships across the country, nationwide there are about 740,000 jobs involved with the Big Three in dealerships alone; General Motors, 325,000 jobs in their GM dealers across America.
Far be it from me to tell Mr. Brokaw to do his job as he tries to burnish his Cronkite credentials, but this last "fact" is no help at all. How do I make this clear? Jobs in dealerships are the result of the need to sell cars...people may not be buying cars now, presumably they will again one day...when they do, it really doesn't matter which nameplate is on the car they're buying, the number of people working in dealerships will be pretty close to the same. So these hordes of people won't be selling Big 3 cars, they'll be selling Hondas or Toyotas or Hyundais - the bailout has absolutely nothing to do with these people.

Needless to say, Uncle Tom's guest, Carl Levin, auto industry shill (wait a second, I've just been informed that he's a United States senator, I never would have guessed that), didn't mention that.

Here's the thing. The advocates of the bailout say that's it's all about the three million jobs that are in or depend on the auto industry. So the measure of the bailout plan has to be how much it helps those three million people (actually more like ten million if you start including families).

But the advocates also say the money will be used to "restructure" the Big 3, which as we all know means plant closings and the elimination of jobs. So who is being helped by the bailout again?

A few people have suggested using the existing bankruptcy structure to get the job done. Apparently there are some impediments to that, foremost among them the difficulty the car companies would have obtaining credit. If we could get by that, apparently through an act of Congress, they could move forward with, that's right, their restructuring. The "good" thing about Chapter 11 is that the Big 3 could shed all of those unfortunate burdens that they agreed to, things like pensions and retiree health care (George Will was remarkable on this topic on ABC's This Week yesterday; I plan to write a separate post about Mr. Will). Then they could move forward with a truly clean slate.

This is the United Airlines model of bankruptcy, in which they stiffed their creditors and stockholders, shafted their employees and retirees, did virtually nothing to improve service to their customers, but enriched their executives (8% of the new company stock went right out to upper-rank employees; their CFO, a man who enraged many with his insensitive statements, has now retired at age 50 with a $2.4 million parting gift).

However this would get done, it seems quite clear that it isn't really about the hard-working people of the auto companies, but about the corporation itself and its executives. These companies have spent a couple of decades doing everything they can to move jobs overseas, bust the unions, do more with less. Some of these things may have been necessary, some not (don't you wish they had spent fewer millions on advertising?), but they have not been actions you could call pro-worker. (To be fair, that isn't a major goal of any corporation, it's just sad that so many people think so.)

So a pro-auto company bailout is, by definition, not necessarily a pro-auto company worker bailout, and we should consider that very carefully before we throw billions of dollars into it. Personally, I'd like to see a far more extensive plan for what will happen, how many jobs really will be saved, what the companies will have to do in the way of moving to post-petroleum technologies.

See, I don't really trust the auto executives with all that money. One chairman and CEO took his previous company nowhere during the greatest boom market in its product line, alienated pretty much everyone during his six-year tenure, and walked away with close to half a billion dollars. Another big player, a vice chairman at one of the Big 3, who runs a company based on science and technology, believes that global warming is "a crock of s***." These are silly small men who are supposed to take our money and, despite years of proof that they don't know how to succeed, are going to rebuild the auto industry.

Chances are the first thing these captains of industry will do with our tax dollars is fly off to a "Management Planning Retreat" in some tropical clime, because only golf and massages can help them figure out what to do with all that cash.

I still haven't decided where I stand on this bailout. I'll be very unhappy if it is used to enable more of the same behavior we've seen, if we're just throwing it down a rathole.

But there's the other side, the side that says, "Let them fail, and we'll help the real people on the other side." But none of these wise folks ever have much to offer beside extending unemployment benefits and offering a meager amount of cash for job retraining; I mean, how many hairdressers and chefs do we need? I still haven't seen a plan which isn't, in effect, here's some money, now go away and don't bother us. And that just isn't going to cut it.

So it's a dilemma, and one which is going to cost all of us either way, and whatever facts exist are being obscured by talking points, and I just don't know.

Sunday, November 16, 2008

Goodbye to an Other place

I have written before, albeit without much insight, into the nature of Internet friendship, at least in the world of blogging. MySpace and Facebook (and, maybe, Twitter) strike me as somewhat different, and I'm sure reams of paper will be written about how they've changed human relationships, and we're probably not long from seeing a PhD in "Social Networking."

In blogs, though, there is not necessarily the symmetry of "I look at yours, you look at mine." There can be that kind of interaction (I never miss a post by Citizen Carrie, and I'm sure she never misses one of mine - well, not sure, exactly, but there is a level of interactivity there that may not rival the really cool aspects of Facebook, but means somethign to me). There are correspondents who become regulars in the comments section; mine tend to be more sporadic, but they are familiar.

But I think that level of interaction is dropping, that most of us have a one-way relationship with the blogs we read. If I read a post on Robert Reich's blog, I'll probably find it interesting, I may even feel compelled to leave a comment, but I'm under no illusion that he will respond. It would be foolish for me to believe that, and were I to start, there would be a kind of stalkerish thing going there.

Some would say that a community springs up around a popular blog, even if the protagonist never makes an appearance beyond the initial post. Personally, I've found that limited; too many good threads disappear beneath the waves of uninformed mush (my favorite: "I'm first") that sweep over most comment sites.

Nonetheless, we start to regard most of the blogs we read the way we look at a favorite magazine or newspaper columnist. They inhabit a certain space in us, and we come to count on them being there. We know the feeling when a news anchor retires, or a favorite show goes off the air. We miss those people, even though we never actually knew them; in many cases, they're completely fictional (one could make a point that, from our standpoint, the likes of a Robert Reich or a Walter Cronkite are fictional, that they have no form in our minds other than their writing or their on-screen presence, and therefore exist in no more real sense than Beowulf or Jack Reacher, but I'm not going to try to make that philosophical argument today).

That is all preface to my offering a farewell to the folks behind one of my Other places of interest (just turn your head to the rigth a little), Fire Joe Morgan. Here's what I said about it back in June:
Fire Joe Morgan has become a pretty well-known site among sports aficionados, mainly for the ability of the staff to deconstruct (oxymoron alert!) "sports journalism." The name comes from the oft-held feeling that Hall of Fame baseball player Joe Morgan should stick to card shows and get off the air as a baseball commentator (though Joe Posnanski looks a little deeper here, as is his wont). At any rate, the site is snarkily entertaining, though pretty insider baseball.
There's a goodbye message, which says in part (and in parting):
Hello, everyone.

After 21 years, and almost 40 million posts (we'll have to check those numbers, but it's something like that), we have decided to bring FJM to an end.

Although we have not lost our borderline-sociopathic joy for meticulously criticizing bad sports journalism, the realities of our professional and personal lives make FJM a time/work luxury we can no longer afford.

We started this site with two purposes: to make each other laugh, and to aid and abet the Presidential campaign of Bob Barr. Although we failed in the latter goal, we gleefully succeeded in the first, and thanks to a grassroots internetty word-of-mouth kind of a deal, we appear to have positively affected the lives of actual citizens as well, which astonishes and delights us to this day. We really never thought FJM would be for anyone but us. We are thrilled and kind of humbled to have been proven wrong.
They will be missed, dak, Junior, and Ken will.

I'll leave the link up. Humor can become dated, but it can never become old.

Saturday, November 15, 2008

Mr. Obama goes to Washington, and not a moment too soon

I happened to be in Chicago's Loop area the past two evenings, close to the Federal Building in which Barack Obama is carrying out his transition. Security is remarkable, as one might expect, with a ring of cars from various police forces ringing the actual block, and more officers and cars at various locations some blocks away. I saw police from the Chicago Police Department, from Homeland Security, from Immigration and Customs Enforcement (I understand they are within DHS, but they seem to wear different windbreakers).

The questions that occurred to me were, who decides how many officers are needed, and how do they coordinate that many different agencies (I'm guessing that the Secret Service is around somewhere, and I'd guess that they're the primary agency)? Not that I would question the need for all that, I've heard about the high number of death threats, but one does wonder if there isn't some overlap that could be pared down (a couple of times I saw a big cluster of officers standing all together, which would make me think that there may be some redundancy).

Apparently I'm not the only one raising questions like this (and I do so timidly, recognizing the need). The Chicago Police union is asking about "the number of officers who have been pulled out of neighborhood districts to help provide security for Obama."

I don't really have any insight on this, other than to hope nothing untoward happens, but, despite our civic pride and all, I think most Chicagoans will feel better on January 20 when things can return to whatever passes for normal. I'm fairly certain the Secret Service shares my view.

Friday, November 14, 2008

Review - The Post-American World

Fareed Zakaria's book, The Post-American World (2008), was something I was looking forward to reading. Zakaria has struck me, in his television appearances and Newsweek columns, as a clear-eyed thinker, though I don't always agree with him (I don't put much stock in his idea that the collapse of Wall Street will be a boon to energy industries because of the influx of previously mis-directed talent). But PAW sounded exciting, as it promised to be a guide to America's adaptation to a changing world, something I've written about many times.

And my response is, eh. A book that dealt with the changes that are coming in the world and how Americans might think about them and deal with them would have been interesting; considering Zakaria's reputation, perhaps even important. But this is not that book (I know, it's unfair to review something for what it isn't, but I didn't title the book or sell it as something it turns out not to be).

This is a book very much in the Tom Friedman mode, and it's working. Amazon still lists it as #101 on the selling list more than six months after its release. But it has many of the weaknesses of a Friedman work, foremost among them any discussion of what the great changes in the world will do to "regular" people. So caught up is it in basic geopolitics and macro- (with a capital M) economics, it fails to take its huge list of facts and argue them through to their logical implication. It is not so much a work of profound thinking as it is a long magazine article - taken that way, it's not a bad book, but neither is it significant. Part of it may be me: I'm well aware of the things Zakaria is writing about, so large tracts of the text were unnecessary. Another reader might find them useful background.

I had thought this was going to be a long review of an important book, similar to my review of Reich's Supercapitalism or Friedman's The World Is Flat. But it won't be, as there just isn't that much to say about a book which, at least to me, added very little to my understanding and did nothing to induce me to change my views.

Zakaria foreshadows his main problem with his very first line:
This is a book not about the decline of America but rather about the rise of everyone else.
And he believes this, for the most part, which is charmingly optimistic, but shows little sensitivity to those Americans who are in decline. Later on, he presents statistics demonstrating the amazing growth rates of China and India (his major exhibits in the new powers of the post-American world), and ignores the long-term trends. I believe, as do most people, that things like free trade can be part of a positive-sum game. I just don't believe in an infinitely positive-sum game.

Let me illustrate. Four of us bring $100 apiece to a card game. Through some magic, over the course of play, $100 more is thrown into the pot. And the four players go home with $200, $150, $125, and $25. The system as a whole has become richer, which is a great outcome...except for the fourth player, who has lost 75% of his stake. This is a contrived example, to be sure, but it's intended to demonstrate that multiple-player positive-sum games provide no guarantee of individual outcomes.

Zakaria's tendency to look at things politically rather than economically is a huge flaw. When he writes that the dominance of the United States in "economics, politics, science, and culture...has been unrivaled" over the past twenty years, he's looking at aggregates, ignoring the rather large number of Americans who have not shared in this dominance. The statement is true in so many ways, but tell it to the Youngstown auto worker who has seen that bounty stuffed into the hands of his former bosses.

Current events cause problems for this book, as one might expect. Zakaria makes quite a point about the stability of markets in the face of external shocks, a hypothesis that is belied by the financial crisis. Much of our apparent growth was illusory, both in the '90s (the Internet boom looked good on paper, but left a lot of rubble) and in this decade (as debt fueled much of our apparent increase in wealth).

A word here about the book's style. I have trouble understanding the choppy nature of the narrative, as sections that are positive about America alternate with sections that are less happy. We're still doing very well, but our policies have made the world hate us. The world loves us, however, you can tell by how many of them are learning English. But we still show a lamentable lack of interest in other countries, and they resent us for it. After a time, the mind begins to reel.

The center of the book is taken up with three (out of six) chapters concerning some history (how did the West, and, ultimately, America come to dominate?), the rise of China (they're growing, but in a relatively benign way), and the rise of India (they're growing too, but their own internal factionalization may prevent them from moving as fast as China). This is all fairly interesting, though suffering from the stylistic whiplash I mentioned above, but also quite basic to anyone who has some familiarity with these matters.

[A large quibble: Zakaria decries the Chinese reluctance to fully embrace Japan, arguing that they have gone out of their way to keep tensions high. I think he misses something of the Chinese character, that history has an immediacy and vividness that Americans have somewhat deliberately cast off. In the U.S., we use history to extract certain myths, then throw away the rest ("why can't those Native Americans just let it go already"). There is still active pride in the feats of Ts'ai Lun, despite his having died almost 1900 years ago. For a culture with that kind of memory, asking them to forget the atrocities of 1937, simply to advance economic interests, is a bit much.]

As for the rest of PAW, it pretty much goes on in the same vein as before. America's current plight isn't bad at all, though they better watch out. Our schools aren't as bad as everyone thinks, but other countries are getting better at education, and all the good students who go to our universities are foreign anyway. Much of this is straight out of the standard boiler-plate thinking of 2008 (we need to educate the working population "to compete in a knowledge economy"; if we can't, "it will drag down the country" - couple that with the non-knowledge jobs that are expected to be the big growth industries, which Zakaria doesn't do, and ask yourself who will do those - oh wait, he provides an answer a little later).

I could pick more nits here, but I discuss those matters all the time on this blog; as I said, his is standard-issue thinking. Zakaria has no answers to the economic problems, none at all. Friedman-esque, he says nothing to the fact that we are not losing jobs based on ability, but on price (oddly, though, he does quote the one insight along those lines from The World Is Flat, the statement whose implications aren't followed up on that Tom doesn't know how his daughters will compete with people who will work for "a fraction of the wages").

America will remain a superpower for a long time to come, mainly because of its vast military apparatus. This raises the specter that we will become the world's mercenaries, traveling from place to place with our cruise missiles and aircraft carriers to keep the peace for a grateful world. Should we, maybe just a little, be concerned about that?

More broadly, Zakaria comes up with six ways for America to operate "in this new world." I won't recount them, they're not very deep insights, and all deal with foreign policy. One of the great problems is that we're given no guide as to how we might mediate among these six oft-conflicting objectives. But all of them suffer from a common flaw, namely, they're designed around the idea that America can retain its position by doing things for the rest of the world, that we can intervene in difficult situations and make ourselves useful.

Of course, this is a new world, and involving ourselves in the world's problems, essentially for free, is no longer an option. But this is what Zakaria espouses. We'll lead the effort, we'll intervene, we'll continue to embrace the world's population. And we'll ask nothing in return but respect.

But the conclusion, I expect, is what Zakaria has been heading toward all along. As an immigrant who came here to go to college and became enthralled by this country, he feels that our openness is our most important asset. We are the first "universal nation...we offer unlimited generosity and promise."

And this is a nice thought. But we've stopped offering those things to our own citizens; heck, we have trouble getting health care for everyone. A lot of this openness has come from having the luxury to do so, from being wealthy enough to give away education, knowledge, jobs. A great deal of the uncertainty people feel comes from wondering if we really still have that luxury when we're being underbid for our livelihoods. And, sadly, Zakaria gives us no way to think about that.
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