Monday, August 31, 2009

A band of hearty, hardy, heart-y gentlemen

Not that any of you conceivably cares at all, but my fantasy football team for 2009 is as follows:

QB - Jay Cutler (woooooooooo!)
RBs - Brandon Jacobs, Larry Johnson
WRs - Roddy White, Kevin Walter, Steve Breaston
TE - Greg Olsen (wooooo!)
W/R/T - Visanthe Shiancoe
Bench - Chad Pennington, Michael Crabtree, Correll Buckhalter, Anthony Fasano

K - Jason Hanson
Bench - Josh Brown

Defense - Pittsburgh
Bench - Seattle

Sunday, August 30, 2009

Is America in decline?

Typical of a lot of the recent wave of America's-days-are-numbered articles is this piece in San Francisco Magazine, about the growing number of Indian immigrants who've built up Silicon Valley into the capital of the world's high-tech industries, and are now moving back home to make India the next dominant player. This article is perhaps more measured than most, but it still harbors most of the same problematic, unexamined assumptions that plague the genre.

To begin with, it doesn't really address the real reason for America's ascent and descent. Briefly: we have, by far, the world's largest economy. We have the world's third-largest population. Given those two factors alone, you'd expect us to be in the global driver's seat, and neither of them is going to change anytime soon.

Even with the rise of India and China, does it make any sense at all to think that a country with a GDP the size of Japan+China+Germany+France is going to cease being highly, highly relevant? That a country with 300 million relatively well-educated, prosperous consumers is going to stop driving global demand? That such a country, which boasts (for the well-off) one of the highest standards of living in the world, along with some of the most desirable living spaces on the planet, will stop attracting foreign tourists, immigrants and job-seekers?

The foundation of most of this "India/China is the new America" worrying somehow assumes that, in the future, people will stop wanting to live in New York and San Francisco and Los Angeles and Chicago, and instead want to live in Mumbai and Bangalore and Beijing and Shenzhen. For people who grow up in India and China, that's a reasonable assumption, but having visited one of those countries (and supposedly the easier one for an English-speaker to get around in) I can tell you it's still a pretty huge leap to make for a non-native.

So why does it feel like "America's moment" is passing? Well, because it is. Our days of being the only dominant economic power in the world are coming close to their end - but is that a bad thing? Much of China and India remain desperately poor places, where human suffering and misery is vast and at a level nearly unimaginable in most of the United States. Safe water and sanitary living conditions are far from the norm for millions and millions of people in these countries. So wouldn't it be a good thing if they built more companies that started raking in some of that juicy foreign currency that could help them provide basic services to the poorest among them?

And as China and India become more middle-class and moneyed, isn't that a good thing from an American perspective? Millions and millions more consumers for our companies, our culture and our values. Millions fewer poor, unemployed young men for whom radicalism appears to offer the only way out of grinding poverty. Eventually, a higher standard of living that puts an end to the sweatshops and Dickensian factories, and reduces the salary gap that makes it so attractive to outsource American jobs.

But more than anything else, the rise of the Indian and Chinese economies simply means less suffering for millions of people, and frankly, thank God for that.

Saturday, August 29, 2009

Apparently, CIA officers hate America (or at least, are pretty meh about it)

Chris Hayes has a fantastic article in the Nation, and you should go read it.

Done? Good. There's not much I can add to it, but there is one idea I wanted to focus on a bit: This notion that oversight of the CIA (and FBI, and NSA, and the rest of the apparatus of the National Security State) is a bad idea, because it will "demoralize" the secret services, make them too hesitant and timid, and put us at risk of attack.

Richard Clarke nails it in the piece:
"What bothers me," he says, "is the CIA's tendency whenever they're criticized to say, If you do your job, if you do oversight seriously--which Congress almost never does--then we'll pout. Some of us, many, will not just pout; we'll retire early. Our morale will be hurt." And if morale is hurt and the agencies are gutted, they argue, the country will be exposed to attack. In other words: "If you, Congress, do oversight, then we'll all die. Can you imagine FEMA or the agricultural department saying we're all going to retire if you conduct oversight?" Clarke asks in disbelief.
First of all, these are people that we expect to risk their lives for their country, when circumstances compel. But we think so little of them that we can't say, "Hey, you should stop torturing people" without worrying that these fragile little violets will get all sad, and stop giving a shit if their country gets obliterated by a terrorist-planted nuclear weapon?

Second of all, these are professionals. Professionals in every other occupation on the planet expect their superiors to oversee their work, so what makes our spies so different?

Third of all, it's been pretty clear for a while now that we don't actually have a particularly effective intelligence community. Which is not to say that they haven't stopped many thousands of evil plots against us, or learned reams and reams of valuable information. But we pay more for their services every year than our next several competitors combined, and have for the last couple of decades. And yet, we routinely get outmaneuvered by every other intelligence service we ever deal with. If we didn't have all our fancy spy satellites and wiretaps and other whiz-bang gadgetry, we probably wouldn't be able to tell you who the Chancellor of Germany was. So maybe it wouldn't be the worst thing in the world if we shook these guys up a little bit.

Does "political capital" make sense?

Back when I was on my high school debate team (so young and innocent, falling asleep every night to visions of nuclear warfare sparked by an ill-timed revision of Native American blood-quantum policy), one of the ideas we fixed on time after time was that of "political capital": the thought that a President has a limited and discrete amount of influence over Congress and the broader political debate. The more... things a President does, the more political capital he or she uses up, until none remains and no further action is possible.

Now that I'm a few years out of high school debate, most of the formulations on which we used to rely appear overly simplistic and not particularly applicable to the real world. Not so "political capital": Google News records over 900 mentions of it in just the last month. Last week, the New York Times argued that Afghanistan could derail the Obama Presidency by sucking away his political capital, and noted:
George W. Bush learned first-hand how political capital can slip away when an overseas war loses popular backing. With Iraq in flames, Mr. Bush found little support for his second-term domestic agenda of overhauling Social Security and liberalizing immigration laws. L.B.J. managed to create Medicare and enact landmark civil rights legislation but some historians have argued that the Great Society ultimately stalled because of Vietnam.
Just like in high school debate, this reading of events massively oversimplifies reality and, in so doing, totally fails to explain anything helpful. Yes, Iraq (among other things) probably made it much harder for Bush to impose his domestic agenda on the country. But that's not because he expended too much political capital in order to fight the war; it's because the war was perceived as a disaster for which he was entirely responsible, and the litany of failures, scandals and corruption that dogged his presidency made it hard for the public to trust him when he tried to reform the White House easter egg hunt, let alone such political third rails as Social Security and immigration.

The LBJ comparison is somewhat more helpful, since Johnson inherited a conflict that ultimately sucked all the oxygen out of the room and made it impossible for him to enact what would have been fairly popular social reforms (popular in the long run at least, if not immediately). Of course, Vietnam was as divisive as it was in large part because of the draft, whereas a small fraction of Americans today are directly impacted by military service in their family.

But the real stupidity of the "political capital" concept is that it attempts to explain an extremely complex system by focusing on only its most trivial, horse-racey elements. If the idea made any sense at all, we'd not only already have single-payer health care reform, we'd have EFCA and a more robust stimulus and aggressive MPG requirements and the entire state of Nevada would be one massive solar farm. Why? Because who can you possibly imagine with more political capital than a young, charismatic, attractive, articulate, hyper-intelligent and beloved President taking office immediately after one of the most unpopular administrations in American history? A President who raised jaw-dropping amounts of money during his election campaign, who mobilized entire swaths of the electorate that had never been engaged before, and who presumably has more resources to lend to vulnerable members of Congress than any President since George Washington? A President who has a large majority in the House, and 60 fucking Democratic votes in the Senate? Oh, and also he's the first black President, and the media treats him like a cross between Bono and Jesus. Who could possibly have more fucking political capital than that guy?

And yet, we don't have health care reform, and the best we're likely to do is a weak public option. We don't have EFCA, and won't. We might get decent environmental legislation, but I'm not holding my breath.

And why not? Because the world is way more complex than one simple-minded idea. Because there are a million tiny little factors that matter in the real world, like Teddy Kennedy (RIP) being too sick to come to work, and they don't fit neatly into this one overarching artificial construct.

Monday, August 24, 2009


Wikipedia is full of such ridiculously interesting tidbits. For example, did you know that in pre-Victorian England, there was a class of beggars called "Abraham-men" who went around pretending to be escapees from the insane asylum at Bedlam? They got their name from the ward they pretended to have escaped from, the Abraham ward:
The author of O Per Se O (1612) reported that Abram-men made marks on their arms with 'burnt paper, piss and gunpowder' to show they had been in Bedlam Hospital: "some dance, but keep no measure; others leap up and down". The phrase Abraham-men also appears as a disguise for Edgar in King Lear (1604-05) and John Fletcher's Beggar's Bush. They were called anticks or God's minstrels, and later Poor Toms, from the popular song "Tom of Bedlam". John Aubrey the antiquary said they were common before the English Civil War, and wore a badge of tin on their left arms, an ox horn around their necks, a long staff and fantastical clothing.
It's not just that every detail of these guys (and I assume they were all men) is beyond hilarious (they wore urine, gunpowder, burnt paper and, apocryphally, a tin badge, an ox horn and "fantastical clothing" and carried long staffs: isn't that kind of overdoing it?). But what an obscure fucking subject, and Wikipedia not only has a wealth of information on it, including a link to an outside source, but it's 100% free! And it costs Wikipedia next to nothing to generate and host all this information, so there's practically speaking no limit on the amount of information it can have on just this one type of pre-Victorian crazy person.

It's truly a wondrous age in which we live.

Sunday, August 23, 2009

You should go see Inglourious Basterds

I don't want to say too much about the movie itself, since I've read so many reviews of it that give away little bits of the joy the movie offers (and really, movie critics who give away twists of films they're reviewing ought to face some sort of punishment; that shit happens all the time, and I can't count how many great scenes in movies have been ruined because a show-off critic just couldn't help him- or herself). But I will say that Basterds has to rank up there with the best Tarantino has done so far. He makes entertaining movies that are more fun, more fucking delightful and mesmerizing, than anyone else, and by that measuring stick, Basterds is as good as he's done. Pulp Fiction is my favorite Tarantino, but I'm really not sure that Basterds isn't just as strong (time will have to tell, since I just got out of a showing and am still a little buzzed from the experience).

I should also point out that if you're worried about seeing this because you think it's too gruesome, don't be; there is some gore, because that's the kind of director Tarantino is, but there's probably a lot less than you're expecting, and unless you're really, really squeamish, you're denying yourself a fantastic moviegoing experience by not going to see this.

One last point: if you're going to see it, see it in a movie theater. This isn't just a movie about World War 2, it's a movie about movies, and waiting for it to come out on DVD is just fucking wrong. Plus, I'm thinking it looks a lot better on a big screen, sounds a lot better on a big sound system, and is a lot better when seen with dozens of other souls in the room.

A theory of fantasy football

I'm about to put together my fantasy team for this season, and this will be the first time I've really given much thought to it, so I'm still pretty new and uninformed about how it works. I've come up with what I think is the optimal way to build a team, but if anyone reads this who actually knows what works, I'd appreciate it if you'd leave some better advice in the comments. I'm laying this out to see if anyone knows of a better approach, or a serious problem with this one:

Since there's not really any interaction between the different players on your team, it makes sense to focus your attention on the positions that typically result in the most points. Not sure what the best order is here, but it seems likely to be the case that this reflects the major skill positions (QB, WR, RB, CB, etc). So it should be the case that there's an ordering of positions that makes the most sense - i.e., you want to draft a QB first, then a RB, then a WR, whatever.

There are probably also an extremely small number of players who, irrespective of their actual positions, tend to rack up a lot of points, so if there's an opportunity to get one, they should be gotten.

From there, since FF is about making predictions, you should focus on 1) individual player skill; 2) fitness of a player to their team (a fantastic WR isn't going to get you much if he has Rex Grossman throwing to him, sadly); 3) strength of opposition (but I'd expect that this is so hard to predict that it should be the last thing to be taken into account.)

A good starting place would also seem to be something like, which appears to just straight-up rank players by their FF scores (I presume based on last season). Is this site to be trusted? It's the official NFL site, so...I wonder.

We need more, and better, filters

The problem of information is no longer too little access; it's now too much. As more content is generated in ever-diminishing sizes (from books to magazines to newspapers to blogs to texts to tweets to...?), and as more of it gets put online and made instantly available, the existence of information in usable form becomes more and more useless. What good is the latest awesome article on global warming, if I never see it because it gets buried beneath a thousand new RSS items a day?

While this might be a pretty obvious idea, it has yet to really become a mainstream feature of most major information-consumption tools:
  • Google Reader will either show me every new item, or only those from an individual feed or feeds, but it won't actively filter anything out (or add to my feeds). The result is thousands of feeds of seemingly equal importance, when in reality I only want to read a small number of them.
  • Facebook shows me every update from every one of my friends, but unless I want to spend forever sorting all my friends into groups and explicitly telling it who I want to see updates from, I'll see everything from everyone. My best friend's pictures of his new apartment are, to Facebook, just as worthy of presentation as an inane application invite from someone I barely know. Since Facebook is, to me, primarily useful as a way of finding out what's going on in my friend's lives, this lack of a filter has rendered the site entirely useless for me, and as a result I never use it.
  • Twitter just shows me every tweet from everyone I follow, ordered chronologically. If one tweet has been retweeted a million times, and another one has never been retweeted, Twitter won't make the distinction. The result is that Twitter seems to be tough to scale beyond a few dozen follows at once; I don't know how people who follow hundreds or thousands of others manage to keep up.
  • Gmail, and every other email client, only understands how to order my inbox by recency. Thank god for the personal-level indicators (two arrows for emails sent only to me, one for emails cc'ed to me), but there's got to be more that could be done here.
The point of a filter is to make information useful. I can learn more about what's going on in the world from one minute scanning the front page of Google News (which I work on) than I could from an hour with Reader, Twitter or Facebook. Until those services take advantage of the power of filters, they'll be little more than dumb interfaces for random blobs of text.

Is this an empty life?

What's the point of everything? That's a pretty classic question, asked as long as people have existed, and I doubt there's ever really been a great answer to it. And the mere fact that it's been asked for all of human history probably means that the answer to my question is the same as it always has been: no more and no less so than anyone else's.

Our culture (and here I refer actually to the very specific subcultures I inhabit, thinking in no way that my experience is representative of any larger American gestalt) emphasizes the importance of certain types of achievement, either in one's career or one's social life (or ideally, both). One can be a doctor or a civil rights lawyer or a humanitarian, and directly and positively impact dozens, hundreds, thousands of lives. One can create art, and inspire and touch and motivate and provoke an audience. One can start a family, have a ton of friends, build a long and successful relationship, or spend every night and weekend in a glorious worship of Bacchus.

But what if one doesn't do very many of those things? What if one's career is relatively unimportant and unimpactful; if one has a very small social circle and interacts with that circle irregularly at best; if one has no children and no party life (but does, at least, have a partner to share important things with)?

I don't think that makes one (at this point, obviously: me) a failure, but it does create an empty feeling, a sense of pointlessness. Exacerbated by all the people on the planet, or even in my neighborhood, who seem to have a point.

But at such depths of self-pity, I begin to remember that the universe is billions of years old, that the Earth is just a few less billions of years old. That multicellular life on Earth has existed for a billion years, that humanity has existed for 200,000 years and that 175,000 of those years were the age of the neanderthals (all credits Wikipedia).

In other words, if I live to be 100 my entire lifetime, compared to that of the universe, will be roughly equivalent to 30 seconds of my own life. If the universe were a person, I would be born, grow up, live, love, learn and die all in less time than it takes that person to download a new episode of Weeds.

This is to say nothing of the billions of lives that have already been lived, and will be lived, by other humans on this earth. Which is in turn to say nothing of the potential billions more lives that have been lived by sentient beings on other worlds about which we know nothing. Which is itself nothing compared to the trillions of lives that have been lived by non-humans on this, and other, worlds.

In other words, my existence will be meaningless, no matter what I do. It will be over in the time it takes the universe to visit the bathroom, but with much less impact. And if that's the case, why does it matter what I do with my fantastically short time to exist? The best I could possibly do would still be utter insignificance, and futile emptiness, even if it might "feel" better. Likewise, the worst I could possibly do would still be insignificant (and so in a sense I have no free will, since I have no ability to impact the universe, but that's another discussion).

This might be a bit of a downer to someone else, but to me it's uplifting. The pressure's off. While it would still obviously be better to do something than nothing, to improve the planet for others in some way (rather than make it worse, or have no impact at all), the stakes are low. I'm not supposed to feel much different than I do, because all of our existences are empty, pointless and fleeting. That being the case, we should seek to enjoy our time as much as possible, to live in the moment (since we can live nowhere else) and to spend as little time as possible worrying about our significance, because we have none.


Monday, August 3, 2009

California's struggles don't implicate the "blue state" model

Ross Douthat and David Leonhardt pile on poor, sickly California today in the NYT. Douthat uses California as his chief example of the "blue state basket case[s]" while Leonhardt argues that "liberals have yet to really grapple with" the implications of California's failure. This follows Joel Kotkin's piece, "The Blue-State Meltdown," last month, and the Economist's cover contrasting California's struggles with Texas' successes.

The Kotkin piece is relatively impressively-argued, though it goes dramatically off the rails by the end. The "Chicago model" of patronage/machine politics has been gutted in the last few decades, as anyone who knows anything about the city will tell you, and that's been accomplished largely by a liberal consensus that's moved past the stale and increasingly-irrelevant ethnic politics that characterized the city for most of the 20th century. People like Obama and Axelrod actually represent the newest iteration of the movement that has seen Chicago go from the capital of the Rust Belt in the 70s - a bigger Cleveland, in many ways - to one of the most vibrant, entrepreneurial and green big cities in the country. Kotkin writes this off to gentrification alone, which has certainly taken its toll - whole neighborhoods have entirely changed character, and the city has become much less affordable - but while the Chicago story is complicated, it would be impossible to live there and think the city even remotely a "failure".

I'd also like to point out that, while blue states certainly have their troubles, the economies of the red states don't exactly represent a way forward - heavily tilted towards agriculture which basically exists entirely due to federal subsidies, they comprise about 94 million people in a country of over 300 million. Using outdated 2004 figures (no time to do the current math), 79% of the states that receive more than they give the federal government in taxes voted for Bush in 2000. 69% of those that give more than they receive voted for Gore.

But this post wasn't supposed to be about Kotkin, it was supposed to be about Douthat and Leonhardt and the general tendency to assume that California's problems represent a failure of blue-state economics. In reality, the opposite is true: the chief cause of California's problems represents one of the conservative anti-tax movement's holiest of holies, Proposition 13. Prop 13 severely restricted property tax receipts for California, to the extent that the income tax in California provides nearly half of state revenue. As a result, the California budget gets hit hard in even the mildest economic downturn, let alone in one of the worst economic catastrophes to hit the country in generations.

But that's not all Prop 13 does. It also requires legislators to pass tax increases by a 2/3 supermajority (in addition to a previous requirement that budgets be passed by a 2/3 vote), which makes it practically impossible to raise taxes by even a penny. Conservative Republicans are therefore given a stranglehold over the state budget, California's "blue" reputation notwithstanding. Their intransigence and irresponsibility is what has brought California to this precipice, and the opportunism of a Republican governor intent on using this crisis to do even more damage to California's social contract threatens to push us over the brink.

In short, to blame California's problems on its "blue" economic model is to willfully ignore every salient fact of California's present condition. Republicans hold the purse strings hostage, and now Republicans and their friends in the conservative media gloat that California can't pay for its liberal policies. That makes about as much sense as blaming Obama for George Bush's economic collapse. Oh, wait...

Sunday, August 2, 2009

Happy Sunday

Sitting in one of my new favorite cafes in the Bay Area, with "Irina's" netbook (downloading Ubuntu Netbook Remix), 1300 pages of the complete Bone, Kemper's pop and delicious mochas...finished the (interesting parts of the) Nation yesterday and read a ton of the Economist today...savoring the plane tickets we bought for Bali yesterday...seeing Phish on Wednesday with Joel, saw a cool opening at the YBCA yesterday with Irina, Lenny and Luba.

My life just might be egregiously comfortable. What the hell kind of dues did I ever pay (or, scary thought, will I at some point have to pay) for all this?

I need to blog more, if only because I kind of like typing on this thing.