November 30, 2008 Leave a comment
Hilarious, and not safe for work.
This is my blog. It's a real blog.
November 30, 2008 Leave a comment
Because so few common words start with the letter X, some children’s alphabet books use “x-ray” as their example X word, showing it alongside a cartoon white skeleton on black. Because of this, M. now basically thinks that the word for skeleton is “x-ray”. This is why the following question she just asked me makes sense:
“Do ghosts have x-rays?”
November 30, 2008 1 Comment
In every place I’ve ever lived that had smoke alarms, I’ve caused the alarm to go off by cooking something in the oven. Every place.
Till a few years ago I used to get phone calls from Discover freaking out about “potential suspicious activity on my card and we just want to verify” anytime I charged something more than a couple hundred bucks, till it got to the point that I yelled at the lady in annoyance. All cars I’ve ever had with that irritating “Check Engine” light have had their oh so informative “Check Engine” light come on at some point or another, forcing me to take it in to the shop to get it “Checked” (no, there’s never been anything seriously wrong). And of course like everyone else my car alarm has gone off for no reason.
The problem with false alarms is not only that they’re irritating. It’s that by being irritating they actively do more harm than good, lulling you into ignoring them.
In statistics jargon these tests all have a ton of sensitivity but not nearly enough specificity.
I’m not sure where I’m going with this so let me try to make it relevant to current events. People are fond of blaming the financial crisis on this or that; you hear that there should have been more “regulation” (whatever that means), or better “risk management”. Why didn’t the people who were supposed to watch out for these things watch out? Why did all the regulations and risk controls and warning flags fail?
I have reason to believe that there was no lack of controls and warnings and regulations at all. Seems to me the financial world is regulated and risk-measured up the wazoo and that any entity within it must navigate a labyrinthe of interlocking regulations and employ giant teams of folks to measure and flag everything in sight, while business heads are flooded daily with risk measurements, warning flags, reams of reports filled with numbers, and endless red tape.
And maybe that’s the problem.
At one point I just took out the batteries of the smoke alarm near the kitchen. Of course, I survived, but a less sensitive/more specific smoke alarm would have been far preferable.
November 29, 2008 Leave a comment
Here’s a list of The Supposed Top 100 Movies according to a magazine called Movie Notebooks (Les Cahiers du Cinema, if you speak Frog).
By my count I’ve seen only 25 of them so I can’t argue with most of it. I can make these observations though:
November 25, 2008 Leave a comment
The beginning of this post by Megan McArdle fits an increasing pattern I’ve been noticing. While the bulk of the post is actually quite interesting and informative, about what went right and wrong in the government’s approaches to the Depression, the beginning of the post is a defensive, mealy-mouthed equivocation designed to admit that the bailout has gone haywire without admitting she was wrong to support the bailout.
More and more it’s beginning to seem like the ’08 financial bailout is the financial equivalent of the ’03 Iraq invasion. Financial-world junkies and hangers-on play the role of “neocons” in supporting the controversial measure for (some would say) misguided ideological reasons; we got Henry Paulson instead of Colin Powell as the pitchman; we got the spectre of this or that market “freezing up” instead of the spectre of “a nuke detonated in a major American city”; in each case the action was pitched with (what detractors say were) dishonest arguments; and in both cases when results appeared to go off the rails, the supporters had to struggle with acknowledging reality and confronting their own thought process in their own initial support.
As someone who supported the Iraq invasion and has never felt the need to backtrack, reading Megan McArdle and others gives me an idea of what people who vehemently disagree must feel like. “Argh! Just admit you were wrong!!”
Of course I believe there’s an important difference between the two (but then I would, wouldn’t I?). Namely, the Iraq invasion had one fundamental purpose and it has achieved that purpose: to dethrone Saddam Hussein from rule in Iraq. Obviously other potential positive outcomes were sometimes bandied about by supporters of the invasion, not all of which have come to pass (but not all of which haven’t!), but the invasion itself had a clear goal and achieved it. The fact that Iraq didn’t become a stable democracy (etc.) may be disappointing but it’s not a result that compels me to decide I was wrong to support the 2003 invasion, because I did not support it specifically because of that kind of result.
While the goals of the bailout may have been a bit fuzzier, it’s a lot more clear that we’re very far away from achieving any of them. At this point as far as anyone can tell the money is just being thrown at friends of Hank Paulson – given to companies he likes (Goldman, Citi), not given to companies he doesn’t like (Lehman). What financial or social goal this is achieving, no one can say.
What there is not in the bailout case is anything resembling the achievement of “dethroning Saddam Hussein”. I know by this point nobody considers the dethroning of Saddam Hussein a big deal but it actually was. What is there to point at that the bailout has achieved? You got me. Why it should be difficult, then, for people like Megan McArdle to admit that it’s just a boondoggle at best and a disaster at worst, is beyond me.
But it does lead to a fascinating parallel. In both cases we’ve got committed supporters who are all-in this hand they’ve played. Unfortunately, while even supporting the Iraq invasion may have been a losing hand (let’s say, a pair of eights), it seems to me that bailout supporters are sitting there with, like, a 10-high. Their bluff should be called.
November 22, 2008 Leave a comment
Because Mike Mussina took the rare step of retiring after a 20-win season, the tantalizing case of Henry Schmidt of Texas, a one-year 20-game-winning major league pitcher (for the Brooklyn Superbas in 1903), seems to have been making the rounds. Wiki:
The Superbas wanted him back for 1904, but he declined, sending a note to the team (with the unsigned contract for the 1904 season) that declared, “I do not like living in the East and will not report.”
A man after my own heart.
I’d totally read a full biography of this guy, whoever he was. Heck, they should turn his life story into a movie. I can’t find any real details about the guy (if you see any do let me know!) but there just seems like there’s gotta be so much behind those twelve fascinating words.
November 22, 2008 Leave a comment
M. recently has been watching the ’80s movie version Annie. Some trenchant observations already:
“Annie sings a lot.”
“There’s too much kids!” [in the orphanage]
For some reason I now find ‘Annie’ to be a fascinating artifact of the Depression. Notice how the rich guy who adopts her is called ‘Warbucks’ – he was a war profiteer in WWI, presumably. The creator of Annie seems to have thought this just swell. Wiki also has some fascinating stuff on the original comic:
It was also about this time that Gray, whose politics seem to be either conservative or libertarian, introduced some of his more controversial storylines. He would look into the darker aspects of human nature, such as greed and treachery. The gap between rich and poor was an important theme.
The strip (and Gray, in interviews) glorified the American business ethic of an honest day’s work for an honest day’s pay. His hatred of labor unions was dramatized in the 1935 story “Eonite”. Other targets were the New Deal and communism. Corrupt businessmen often appeared as villains.
Gray was especially critical of the justice system, which he saw as not doing enough to deal with criminals. Thus, some of his storylines featured people unashamedly taking the law into their own hands.
Warbucks became much more ruthless in later years. After catching yet another gang of Annie kidnappers he announced that he “wouldn’t think of troubling the police with you boys”. The implication was that while Warbucks and Annie celebrated their reunion, the Asp and his men took the gang away to be lynched.
These views caused outrage from many quarters. The New Republic was especially critical, publishing an article by Richard L. Neuberger which described Annie as “Hooverism in the Funnies”. A later editorial went further in describing it as “Fascism in the Funnies”.
Betcha didn’t know there was ever so much controversy swirling around ‘Little Orphan Annie’. So weird. I wonder what weird artifacts our current recession will produce; it doesn’t seem to have quite hit our media yet (which still seems obsessed with mythologizing about how wrong the Iraq war was).
Of course, the ’80s film adaptation of “Annie” is also a fascinating artifact, in its own way: in Hollywood’s warped Reagan-era PC retelling, Warbucks ends up taking Annie to meet FDR, and they all sing “Tomorrow” together. The New Deal is presented as the sunny, optimistic choice, and Warbucks is a grump for being opposed to it; through Annie he appears to switch sides and then FDR nominates him to run it! Gray must have turned over in his grave.
Here’s a prediction: ‘Annie’ will be “rebooted” sometime in the next decade or so as a dark, dystopian comic-book action movie (in the same style as, say, V For Vendetta). The basic premise – girl adopted by bald rich guy – will be retained. But it will be “dark”. The girl’s age will be advanced somewhat so she can be played by a hot teenager with breasts and long legs who kicks the bad guys like Buffy, and it will be a seedy revenge story (with undercurrents of, say, rape or child abuse). And then it will become an interesting artifact of the ’00s as well.
Or maybe that’s what V For Vendetta was already like; I never actually saw it.
November 22, 2008 1 Comment
It’s never too early to start launching stupid criticisms at the incoming President, and surely Obama will be no exception. The one that’s been brewing for the past week is that Obama’s staff and appointments have too many “Clinton-era” people, or “Clintonites”, and that this somehow contradicts his promise of “change”.
First of all, just who in the heck from the civil service/bureaucracy/think tank world is Barack Obama, (D), supposed to bring into his administration that wouldn’t have been a “Clintonite” up through 2000? Someone under age 26, I suppose? Let’s just file this under Not A Real Criticism.
The deeper issue though, I suppose, is the idea that having lots of Clinton-era staffers somehow contradicts the promise of “change”. This is the sort of criticism that says more about the critic than about the target. Obama’s promises of “change” never connoted that he’d have a staff with no Clinton connections. For that matter, Obama’s promises of “change” never connoted anything whatsoever; they were completely and totally vague and undefined. This was a very good electoral strategy, of course – it worked.
But one of the ways it worked was that it allowed naive/incredulous people to project their own hopes/wishes onto the candidate and invent all sorts of fantasies for themselves regarding what “change” did or didn’t mean. For some people, it meant fantasizing they wouldn’t have to pay their mortgages or for gasoline. For others, I guess that meant fantasizing that Obama would bring in a staff made up of like, oh I don’t know, college kids and the Beastie Boys. And I’m afraid those are the people now feeling burned by the mundane/blah/Washingtonian nature of Obama’s appointments thus far; “hey! you promised change!” Well yeah, but that doesn’t mean you can just make up in your head what “change” means and then whine that Obama’s actions don’t match your fever-dream.
Not a real criticism. And believe me, I’ll be on the lookout for real criticisms of President Obama the next 8 years, and when I see one I’ll probably be among the first to come down with a roiling case of ODS. But this ain’t one.
By the way, I will say I’m thrilled by the leak of Obama’s latest Cabinet pick – Timothy Geithner for Treasury Secretary. Of course, that’s not saying much, cuz I don’t really know anything about Geithner; in my opinion Obama’s Treasury Secretary choice only had one real hurdle to clear: He had to not be Hank Paulson.
November 21, 2008 1 Comment
I starred this item from work just for later linkage and comment: Cobb explains how regulation screws the little guy. Punchline:
This is called progress. It is what Progressives pursue. It is not a Conservative priority. We Conservatives are not generally looking to find ways to declare the status quo untenable. This is the restless energy and bias for action and change that is the hallmark of Progressives, that illustrates how it screws the little guy.
My sense for a long time has been that “progressivism”/”liberalism” is essentially a coalition of the very rich/strong and the very poor/weak, against the middle class and nouveau-riche. Cobb’s post illustrates one dimension – “green”/environmental politics – along which this dynamic plays out.
November 19, 2008 Leave a comment
It’s baseball’s kinda-boring MVP-announcing time and every year we go through the same tiresome debate, whether you should give the MVP to the player who had the best overall season, or the player who “helped his team win the most”.
As if these are different! In fact, the whole idea behind collecting baseball stats is that they aren’t different.
But usually there’s a guy who had a great season for a subpar team, and people try to say that if his team was that bad, ‘he couldn’t have been that valuable’. This reasoning has probably robbed Alex Rodriguez of about 3 MVP awards. But it is wrong. If a guy hits 50 homers for a last-place team that wins 59 games, that just means it would have been that much worse without him. Right? Of course, what people can’t grasp of course is the idea of a last-place team being much much worse.
And in a sense, they’re right. Even the very worst teams are going to win at least 50-55 games. So you do a thought experiment of replacing the 50-homer guy with a AA minor leaguer all year and you figure they’d still win 55 games and come in last, and you conclude that the 50-homer guy ‘couldn’t have been that valuable’. The logic is superficially convincing.
Here’s where I think it goes wrong: When a team has an MVP-calibre player, that affects their other personnel decisions. So if the team didn’t have that star, they would have changed their roster strategy altogether; there’s no such thing as “replacing the 50-homer guy with a minor leaguer” and leaving the rest of the team unchanged. Were that 50-homer guy (and his salary) not there, the team probably would have said OMG, we need a home run hitter, and gone out and overpaid for some free agent or something.
We SF Giants fans saw this for 10 years with Barry Bonds. Because the Giants had a monster playing left field every year, a guy who cost a lot of money, this influenced their other decisions regarding free agency, trades, and minor league promotion. In the Giants’ case, it influenced those decisions for the worse, because their general manager Brian Sabean is an imbecile. The Giants constantly pursued a strategy of ‘building a team around Barry’ which involved yearly signings of over-the-hill ex-All-Star free agents, giving up draft picks, trading young players late in the season, and overpaying for mediocrity deemed to be ‘consistent’. This was all compounded by Barry’s large salary which induced a yearly ritual of complaining that they ‘don’t have a lot of room’ salary-wise which supposedly forced them to only sign over-the-hill players to play around him.
So here’s what I think often happens: when a team has one big well-paid superstar, the players they put around him have a tendency to get worse – both for salary reasons and due to silly ‘we just need to put role players around him and maybe we’ll win’ reasoning. Overall, it makes the general manager lazy and thus, the rest of the team gets worse. So in the grand scheme of things, then yes, maybe an A-Rod or a Barry Bonds doesn’t help the team win as much as his numbers would suggest.
But that’s not their fault! It’s the fault of the GM (for his laziness and flawed roster strategy), and the team owner (for his budget; notice that the Yankees haven’t had the struggles with A-Rod that Texas or Seattle had). I guess you could say that (unless the owner has deep pockets) a star player having such a big salary forces everyone’s hand in this regard. And so you could say something like, ‘A-Rod is great, but not for that salary’. But nothing about the MVP award suggests that it’s meant to be given to the guy who’s the best bang for the buck. It’s just MVP.
So there’s nothing wrong with giving it to a guy on a last-place team, if he deserves it. That won’t stop the yearly columns from appearing like clockwork, I realize.
November 18, 2008 2 Comments
Something caught my eye in a news story that came across Bloomberg yesterday about an Israeli crime boss getting whacked:
Alperon was involved in bottle recycling, construction and a range of other businesses investigated by police for links with organized crime, the Haaretz newspaper reported.
Looks like the larger Haaretz story is here, and it sheds a bit more light:
Bottle recycling adds up to a $5 million-a-year industry, according to estimates by police and environmental groups. Police say criminals sell restaurants protection in exchange for empties, which leave no paper trail and offer crime families a relatively legitimate source of income.
So, the implicit government subsidy for bottle recycling allows criminals to launder their protection money. That said, the piece(s) of a $5-million-a-year industry that are presumably left to each criminal as they continue to fight over it doesn’t seem like it can really add up to a whole lot of money to me, but perhaps in Israel it’s enough to be considered a ‘crime boss’.
Don’t know why but I find all this fascinating.
What originally got me thinking was whether the industries that gangsters are attracted to and dominate have something in common. We already know they deal in black-market contraband – drugs and the like, or alcohol during Prohibition. At a more pedestrian level, some young guys near a subway station I often pass are always out there hawking “Newports” – cigarettes (which is profitable because of the high cigarette tax rates, I assume? i.e., they are probably bought in a different state and driven across…).
Beyond that, I can only go by what I see in TV/movies, and what they (and this incident) show is that gangsters also feed off of government in a big way. Tony Soprano was officially, of course, a labor leader in the garbage-collection business – garbage collection is a government function, and he was presumably siphoning a cut of the local government’s garbage budget either directly or by forcing restaurant owners, etc. to pay him extra. He was also intermittently getting into various construction projects, usually boondoggle-type developments that were (it was implied) subsidized by local or state government. As I recall, the drug dealers Avon Barksdale and Stringer Bell on The Wire also tried to use government-funded construction/developments as a way to siphon off money and legitimize their drug profits, which often brought them in direct partnership with high government officials. More generally, mafioso families in TV/movies are often fighting over this or that “contract” – i.e., government contract.
This is all fiction, of course, so I don’t know how much stock to place in any of it. But while a cut of whatever-amount of bottle recycling profits you can generate by intercepting the bottles from Israeli restaurants may seem like small potatoes, it does fit the pattern.
So if my hypothesis is correct, you should expect to often see the fingers of organized crime involved where there is money being thrown at ‘progressive’ government projects – construction of “affordable housing” developments for low-income folks, for example. And, yes, bottle recycling – although it would probably have to occur at a higher (e.g. factory/labor) level in the U.S., because as everyone knows, the actual collection and submission of bottles/cans here is already performed by homeless people.
Unless they, too, pay protection to the mafia to keep their routes?
November 15, 2008 2 Comments
A while back was the New York City Marathon. I happened to be walking next to it with M. near 1st Avenue and she watched the runners (joggers/walkers..) going by with interest. We were a bit downstream of one of those places where they hand out water in paper cups, and evidently the throng of runners had been throwing the empty cups on the street as they finished, to the extent that by this point deep in the race the street was literally covered in trampled paper cups for hundreds of yards after the water station.
M. observed, “This isn’t a good place to run because there’s too much trash on the ground.”
She was right, of course.
November 15, 2008 Leave a comment
One reason I keep writing about the bailout is because it’s such an amazingly versatile counterexample to so many things I value in the political sphere.
1. Open and democratic decision-making, informed by public debate and a skeptical and active journalistic corps. The bailout was evidently sold to us with completely-phony arguments – i.e. that the $700bn would be used to buy troubled assets. Yet not a single “troubled asset” has been or will be bought with this money. And Congress apparently voted for it without understanding or even knowing what they were voting for – everything Paulson is now doing with the money (and authority) they gave him seems to be a complete surprise to our geniuses in Congress. Meanwhile journalists egged them on to approve the boondoggle, painting the issue as one of do-nothing, know-nothing Republicans (and by extension middle America) standing in the way of needed reform, which is ironic because while telling us this story virtually all journalists did nothing to investigate and obviously knew nothing of the subject they were lecturing us about.
2. A government that knows its limits. As far as I can tell, Mr. Paulson is now empowered to spend $700 billion on anything he damn well pleases, to accomplish ends (‘fixing the economy’) that I don’t believe to be in his or any one man’s or small group of men’s power. Nobody seems to mind though.
3. A free market reasonably undistorted by government meddling. Right now the government is basically the only thing going in the economy. Market actors are frozen because nobody knows what the government will do next. You can throw the entire notion of prices adjusting to actual supply/demand or anything remotely resembling a fundamental value when a company’s stock price can increase sixfold on the rumor that “Santa” Paulson might decide, on a whim, to bail them out. (Or not.) In many respects it is this whimsy of Paulson&co which has caused market stagnation. Imagine you ran a book of the ‘troubled assets’ that TARP was supposedly going to buy up, and you got some reasonable bids…did you take them and sell the assets, thereby keeping the market flowing, increasing liquidity and transparency? No you didn’t. Why? Because you’d be a fool to sell your stuff when “Santa” Paulson is going to come along anytime now and buy them off your book at inflated prices. (The preceding is a true story in at least one case I know of; most likely it is a story that has been repeated multifold.)
[UPDATE: Russell Roberts agrees with me:
When no one knows how the rules of the game are going to change — and they seem to change from week to week — who wants to take a risk? Who wants to borrow money? Who wants to invest? Business and consumers are hunkering down, waiting for the storm of change to pass.
The problem isn't liquidity.
Paulson doesn't realize that his erratic attempts at creating liquidity are creating the uncertainty that makes liquidity meaningless.
It’s not just that I feel like some sort of odd fish swimming against the tide with my opinions on these matters. It actually seems like every new piece of news that comes out vindicates my stance and proves what I’ve been saying.
Now I think I know what it must feel like to be one of those the Iraq war was wrong people.
November 13, 2008 Leave a comment
Oliver Kamm is a very smart British commentator/blogger whom I respect, and he supported and argued for the financial bailout that was passed in September (albeit reluctantly and preferring the British approach: of Paulson’s, he wrote after the first Nay vote that the Paulson plan was “undeniably flawed” but “ought to have been passed”).
I, meanwhile, am some dude with a blog virtually nobody reads, and I did not support the bailout.
This presented a problem for me at the time because, respecting the opinions of folks like Oliver Kamm as I do, I was forced to try to take seriously the (however unenthusiastic) arguments they put forth in favor of passing a bailout, and not to merely dismiss the whole thing as the stupid, unsupported, probably ill-motivated blunder that (I believed, and believe) it was.
For example, as I pointed out at the time, how on earth was the government supposed to figure out what price to pay? The argument that was made, which (it’s necessary to remind – because it now seems so silly) suggested Treasury would somehow buy troubled assets AND get value for taxpayers, made no sense because unless you could figure out the magic Exact Price, either you underpay (which doesn’t help banks) or overpay (which doesn’t help taxpayers).
How gratifying then it is to see Oliver Kamm start to come around to my way of thinking.
How could the Government have sensibly bid for the assets without knowing what they’re worth? And how could the Government estimate the market value of mortgage-related debt if there is no market in those instruments? The banks themselves have no idea what the assets are worth – hence their unwillingness to lend to each other in the interbank market.
Good points! And such familiar ones! Too bad Oliver Kamm did not see the sense of this counterargument to the bailout he now puts forth, at the time the bailout was actually proposed, and thus write something somewhere to the effect that it should not be passed in the first place. But maybe he’ll come around all the way, in due time.
Meanwhile, I guess we’ll all just have to wait and see to find out just exactly what the hell the money from the bailout that was actually passed, with the approval of even folks like Oliver Kamm who argued in favor of the bailout as it was claimed to be structured, will be used for. Maybe we’ll use the financial bailout money to buy up car companies now? Or maybe we’ll just use it buy a big pile of marshmallows and make a giant marshmallow pyramid? Yum! Only Henry Paulson knows for sure. He’s the one who gets to singlehandedly decide how to spend our money, apparently.
The one thing we know the money we gave to Henry Paulson won’t be used for, of course, is the purpose based on which its allocation was advertised and sold to us (and approved of by folks like Oliver Kamm): the buying of troubled assets at magically bank-saving, taxpayer-enriching prices, using reverse auctions (remember?) which somehow wouldn’t find the lowest prices. Et cetera. In other words, Congress and the public (and Oliver Kamm) debated and then approved money for doing X, and we have learned over time that that money – ALL of it – is in fact going to be used for not-X. Which just goes to show, as Homer Simpson once said, Democracy doesn’t work.
Meanwhile, I have to hope we at least get some marshmallows out of the deal. Mmmm….marshmallows.
November 13, 2008 Leave a comment
A while back, Snow Angels showed up from Netflix and I watched it. It was a great drama, wonderfully done, touching at times, and yet painful to watch because of a central dramatic event that you can feel it building towards the whole way through.
I watched it twice.
I guess I’m working backwards through the canon of its writer-director David Gordon Green (who seems like a high school kid when you see him interviewed in DVD extras), because a week or so ago I got All The Real Girls.
It is a (non-tragic this time, just slightly sad but charming) love story in a sleepy North Carolina mill town between an immature town lothario, and his friend’s inexperienced pre-college sister who just got back into town from an all-girls boarding school. The world it creates is totally believable; the editing and characters get a bit ‘quirky’, but the relationship and the things that happen are SO REAL, that…I found it excruciating. Like digging into some old wound with a barbecue poker.
And I watched it twice.
But my point is that this guy David Gordon Green is some kind of filmmaking/writing genius when it comes to certain subjects, and for this reason, I declare him a menace to society. His movies are just too real and painful, and for the good of humanity he really should be forced to stop making them (or at least putting them out there for other people to watch).
And I’m not entirely joking.
Or maybe I’m just jealous….
November 13, 2008 5 Comments
If I were President….
….I would refuse to hire, employ, or appoint anyone to any office called, officially or unofficially, the “[Something] Czar“.
This steadily-growing use of “czars” in our government has always been offensive to me. I know, I know, it’s just a word. Well what if we had a bunch of appointed government posts that were each called the “[such-and-such] Fuhrer”?
November 10, 2008 2 Comments
M., age 4: “Can we sometime go on a rocket ship?” (She had just seen one in some movie on TV or something.)
I think it’s so cool that she asked that question. I also hate that I had to answer it.