Archive for December, 2008

Up In Smoke

Wednesday, December 10th, 2008

I knew the claim that smoking bans were dramatically cutting heart attacks rates was too good to be true. The data just screamed “fluke”. I wonder if all the blogs that gleefully quoted the initial study will quote this one.

Levels of Violence

Tuesday, December 9th, 2008

Suderman makes a good point over at Culture11 (fast becoming the best blog for conservatism):

The attacks in Mumbai were stomach-churning to follow while they were happening, and good information was hard to come by — there’s a good case to be made that the best reporting on the scene was done via Twitter — but the Wall Street Journal has now put together an excellent, thoroughly reported rundown of the whole harrowing affair. One of the things that always strikes me when reading accounts of terrors like these is how eerily cinematic they are. I find it difficult to contextualize violent massacres without some sort of silver-screen reference point — and I suspect that’s pretty common. There are multiple reasons for this, of course: For one thing, most of us have no frame of reference for anything like this except what we’ve seen at the movies, so it’s natural that we make those comparisons. After 9/11, The Onion grimly compared the attacks to action-maestro Jerry Bruckheimer’s movies. And it makes sense: Violence on that scale, in an American city, is something that most of us have only ever seen in movies. But the thing is, most casual movie goers have seen scenes like that repeatedly; spectacular death and destruction is one of the movie industry’s specialties.

Hollywood exploits these sorts of events for their inherent tension, repackaging them as exciting and thrilling adventures rather than ugly massacres. It usually makes me queasy and unsettled, to some extent, because I’m an unabashed fan of violent entertainment. I’ll admit: I love onscreen gunfights and shootouts, the more over the top the better. I’ve waxed ecstatic over the bullet-ridden 45 minute finale of John Woo’s Hard Boiled, which includes one of the highest death tolls of any movie in the last few decades (the sequence is set at a hospital, and at one point, the film’s bad guy walks into a room full of hostages and mows them all down with an automatic weapon). Watching a sequence like that in a movie is exciting and fun; watching a similar scene in real life is deeply disturbing. Part of me thinks this is a problem; action movies train us not to react with horror to these sorts of events. But I also wonder if it isn’t natural, a release of some sort, a way to indulge violent urges without resorting to real violence, or a way for human beings to understand the daily, life-and-death struggle for existence — long before movies, human stories revolved around death and violence, and often involved heroes who slayed all those in their way. For whatever reason, we, as a species, seem to be drawn in by narratives of calamity, destruction, and bloodshed.

This has long been my issue with those who would restrict or ban movie violence. I believe that human beings are a violent species. We have to be. We are carnivores who have come to dominate the planet. The quest of civilization is not to end those violent urges, but to channel them into less destructive paths. Hence, the pretend violence of movies or video games, I believe, is a good thing. It satisfies our violent urge without doing any real harm.

People who think that violent entertainment is new need to get some historical perspective (in fact, everyone needs to get some historical perspective about just about everything — but that’s another post).

Two thousand years ago, entertainment consisted of tossing Christians to lions. Real people, real lions, real screams, real blood, real suffering. And the Romans considered it good for children to watch — it built character.

Five hundred years ago, the Spanish were torturing heretics as entertainment. Real people, real hot irons, real screams, real blood, real suffering. And they considered it good for children to watch and see the fruits of blasphemy. Around that time, cat-burning was popular in France. This consisted of lowering a bound cat over flames and laughing and feasting as it screamed. The medieval world and parts of the modern world are replete with similar examples.

A hundred years ago in this country, we performed executions in public. It was considered good entertainment if the noose failed to snap their neck and the condemned kicked and struggled while slowly choking over hours or days. It was considered good for children to go and see the fruits of criminality.

In light of this bloody history, I just can’t get worked up over two guys firing blanks at each other on TV or some kid blowing away pixels on a video screen.

As I get older, I find myself getting more and more bothered by the casualness of movie violence, identifying with the secondary and tertiary characters who just killed as if it’s nothing. But I don’t think I will ever fail to get that visceral thrill from pretend violence. It goes right to my nature as a human being.

The Perfect Matchup

Sunday, December 7th, 2008

Dan Wetzel has a great column about the supposed wonderful BCS matchup of Florida and Oklahoma:

Pre-BCS, Florida would be in the Sugar Bowl, Oklahoma in the Orange and no one would have any idea which team was better. They’d just hold a vote at the end and pick one. It was ridiculous.

The idea back then was that since the top two teams were often easily identifiable why not create a system that could get them together?

It wasn’t the worst idea and while still full of corruption, duplicity and stupidity, it helped fuel the very surge in popularity that makes it so useless in current times.

The number of college football programs that are truly competing for a national championship has grown exponentially in just a decade. We’re talking facilities, coaching salaries, staff budgets and, perhaps most importantly, fan intensity.

College football is far more competitive than it once was. Everyone is on television so recruits will play just about anywhere. These aren’t the old days, when top players would gladly sit on the powerhouse bench for three years just for the chance as a senior. Now they go find playing time.

In the SEC just this season, coaches who owned a national title, a perfect season and the most recent league coach of the year honors were all out of their jobs. Each of them had a winning season in 2007.

That just didn’t happen in the mid-1990s.

When the suits were drawing this up, they assumed that most years, two teams would navigate the season with perfect records. That’s how it used to be. The selection process would be nice and easy.

They designed for the future based on the past. Then the future changed so quickly the past doesn’t even seem like the same sport.

What we have now is the new normal. Not only did no one go undefeated last year, two-loss Louisiana State won the championship. Every year there are an increasing number of teams that are in contention at season’s end.

So it comes down to marketing; which team can convince fickle voters they are more deserving than the other teams of essentially similar résumé.

There is no rhyme, nor reason. No strategy that makes sense. No collective sense of what the system values. Is it whom you beat and how? Is it who you lost to and how? Is it strength of schedule?

Is it OU’s mighty offense? Or USC’s incredible defense?

How can you tell when the voters make no sense.

Read the whole thing. Oklahoma and Florida are great teams. But what about USC, who allowed less than 8 points a game on a rough schedule? What about Penn State, who came within a field goal of a perfect season? What about Boise State or Utah?

Yeah, their conferences are weak? Really? What is this based on? Any fact? Or is Oklahoma impressive because they whomped an over-rated Mizzou team? Or is Florida impressive because they whomped an over-rated Georgia? There’s an awful lot of circularity in these ratings.

We only have Oklahoma and Florida because the writers think running up huge scores — even against weak opponents — is impressive. There is absolutely no reason USC, Penn State, Boise State, Utah, maybe Texas shouldn’t be included.

And for all those saying that “the regular season is the playoff”, just stop. Tell that to Texas. They beat Oklahoma but watched the Big 12 Championship from their living room. that doesn’t happen in a playoff system.

Mad Dog

Saturday, December 6th, 2008

One of the greatest pitchers in baseball history is retiring. Joe Posnanski breaks down one of his greatest games. I can’t believe it’s been eleven years.

Watching Maddux pitch in his prime was something else. He would get batters so mixed up and frustrated they’d be yelling at him from the dugout. At least once a game he’d throw a pitch that had the better saying, “What the hell was that?” It was a privilege to be a Braves’ fan back then. Three out of five nights, you were seeing a future Hall of Famer work his craft. And at least one night a week, you saw the baseball equivalent of Picasso.

Let’s also not forget: Maddux could be really funny.

More on Maddux from Neyer and Verducci (also 1995 Verducci). I really hope Mad Dog has a career as a broadcast or analyst. I don’t want to have seen the last of him.

Dancing About Architecture

Friday, December 5th, 2008

O. K.:

Ever asked an academic about their research only to be subjected to 20 minutes of nonsensical droning? Thanks to YouTube, it just got a whole lot easier to explain a complicated thesis at a cocktail party. In early October, Ph.D. students worldwide were challenged by Gonzo Labs/AAAS to re-create their dissertations through interpretive dance and post the videos on YouTube. Dozens of performances were submitted, ranging from tangos to Lindy Hops to night-vision hula-hooping. The choreography was scored on its ability to bridge the gap between art and science, though you should feel free to judge based on levels of jubilation and pure absurdity.

An interpretive dance of my thesis would have to involve a lot of beer and a lot of broken furniture. It’s difficult to describe a thesis that could be summed up as, “Eh, maybe.”

Parisbell

Friday, December 5th, 2008

I’m sorry. I know it’s a been a long time since I saw the movie Peter Pan. But I don’t seem to remember a scene involving Tinkerbell, um, getting it on with Peter.

El Mariachi

Thursday, December 4th, 2008

OK, I understand that not everyone has the same taste in music. For some people, mariachi music is charming, entertaining and fun. Fine.

But, please, if you are in a crowded restaurant, could you please PLEASE for the love of God limit yourself to three songs or fewer? Having the band surrounding your table for an entire hour is just begging to have a chair thrown in your direction.

If I’d had cash, I would have paid the guys $20 to go away. Just for a few minutes. My entire dinner conversation consisted of this:

Dad: Do you want flu shots when you’re in Atlanta?

Me: Do I want to do shots with the nanny?

Thursday Morning Linkorama

Thursday, December 4th, 2008

Ugh. So much going on. So little time to write about it.

  • Freakonomics reminds us that the government is not one to lecture the big three about unfunded pension liability. Not when staring down the $50 trillion throat of Social Security and Medicare.
  • A devastating account of what torture does to our soldiers.
  • Cato takes on the idea that college is a financial burden. $20,000 worth of debt seems reasonable for an education. But I’d forgotten that we don’t expect people to pay their debts anymore.
  • Orac talks about the long waits for mammograms. Between greedy lawyers and greedier insurance companies, the margin on mammography is disappearing. Does anyone care? Or are they too busy planning a government takeover of health care to introduce even more rationing?
  • No, Virginia, the government can’t really cure a recession — not even with tax cuts.
  • Free Plaxico Burress!
  • Free internet? Gee, I’m sure there won’t be any unintended consequences there. Since when did internet access become an inalienable right? Trial by jury, right to bear arms, free speech … at least 3 Mb/s? Whatever.
  • Better Than A Bailout

    Thursday, December 4th, 2008

    The most depressing thing about Reason’s analysis of the financial meltdown? This:

    No one fully understood how exposed the mortgage-backed securities were to the rising foreclosures. Because of this uncertainty, it was hard to place a value on them, and the market for the instruments dried up. Accounting regulations required firms to value their assets using the “mark-to-market” rule, i.e., based on the price they could fetch that very day. Because no one was trading mortgage-backed securities anymore, most had to be “marked” at something close to zero.

    This threw off banks’ capital-to-loan ratios. The law requires banks to hold assets equal to a certain percentage of the loans they give out. Lots of financial institutions had mortgage-backed securities on their books. With the value of these securities moving to zero (at least in accounting terms), banks didn’t have enough capital on hand for the loans that were outstanding. So banks rushed to raise money, which raised self-fulfilling fears about their solvency.

    Two simple regulatory tweaks could have prevented much of the carnage. Suspending mark-to-market accounting rules (using a five-year rolling average valuation instead, for example) would have helped shore up the balance sheets of some banks. And a temporary easing of capital requirements would have given banks the breathing room to sort out the mortgage-backed security mess. Although it is hard to fix an exact price for these securities in this market, given that 98 percent of underlying mortgages are sound, they clearly aren’t worth zero.

    So instead of simply tweaking the regulations, the government decided to spend great flipping wads of cash. I realize that Washington’s solution to everything — education, healthcare, terrorism, etc. — is to spend money. But this is ridiculous. We could have apparently literally saved tens of billions with a rule tweak.

    But, of course, tweaking rules doesn’t make you look glorious for suspending your campaign.

    Mumbai Lessons

    Tuesday, December 2nd, 2008

    A great post on what we can learn from the Mumbai attacks. Money quote:

    If there’s any lesson in these attacks, it’s not to focus too much on the specifics of the attacks. Of course, that’s not the way we’re programmed to think. We respond to stories, not analysis. I don’t mean to be unsympathetic; this tendency is human and these deaths are really tragic. But 18 armed people intent on killing lots of innocents will be able to do just that, and last-line-of-defense countermeasures won’t be able to stop them. Intelligence, investigation, and emergency response. We have to find and stop the terrorists before they attack, and deal with the aftermath of the attacks we don’t stop. There really is no other way, and I hope that we don’t let the tragedy lead us into unwise decisions about how to deal with terrorism.

    We need to stop reacting and start acting.

    Outliving

    Monday, December 1st, 2008

    Will Saletan makes a dumb point:

    As the latest Reuters report notes, over the last four decades, U.S. life expectancy has climbed from 70.8 to 77.8 years. By 2015, it’s on track to hit 79.2 years. Meanwhile, unlike other industrialized democracies, the United States has replaced pensions with 401(k) plans. So your retirement-income pie can suddenly shrink—as, for example, it’s doing right now—and, at the same time, the longevity you’ve gained from all this lovely industrialization requires you to carve that pie into more and more annual pieces.

    Apparently, we should prefer the certainty of pensions — these being the pensions that are bankrupting both industry and the nation. These being the pensions that are almost guaranteed to be slashed and hacked to the bone to balance budgets.

    Sorry, Will, I’ll salt my 403b into more conservative investments before I become a ward of either the state or my employer. I’ll trust my income to the vagaries of the market before I trust it to the inflationary vagaries of politics.

    Why Fans Don’t Vote

    Monday, December 1st, 2008

    Here’s why, as bad as the sportswriters are, the fans should never control the doors to the HOF. Less than 75% think Ricky Henderson is a HOF player. 10-time all-star, MVP, most runs in history, most steals in history, 2nd most walks in history, 297 HR, 3055 hits. Only 74% think that describes a Hall of Fame player.

    I’ll put off my diatribes about Tim Raines and Bert Blyleven until the writers show that they’re only slightly less dumb.

    (more…)

    Offender

    Monday, December 1st, 2008

    I probably linked to this a while ago, but it bears linking to again. These sex offender registries are causing a lot of collateral damage, aren’t they? But no one is going to stand up and potentially be told they are defending perverts.