Tuesday, August 01, 2006

Separated at Birth?

As we all know, if the Yankees had only signed Fidel Castro, he'd have been too busy winning World Series to bring Communism to Cuba. And if Magnum P.I. had never been cancelled, Fidel's brother Raul would not be taking over during Fidel's health crisis.

Saturday, July 15, 2006

Is it Really all that Bad?

That's Monday's weather forecast. When did weather.com become so melodramatic?

Thursday, June 29, 2006


Don't you ever see female cabdrivers?

Does this seem like a good argument to its author?
Someone has yet to explain to me how an 18-year-old player (like Oden) could be deemed unworthy of the NBA, yet would be this year's consensus No. 1 overall pick if he were eligible.

It's very simple: If that many GMs are ready to draft a player, he is qualified to be in the NBA. And if a player is drafted, he is by definition "draft-worthy." Age has nothing to do with it.

That someone would be drafted is not evidence that he is qualified to be in the NBA. It is evidence that NBA personnel believe the draftee has the potential to be an NBA player- the more potential the higher your draft slot. The argument advanced is the intellectual equivalent of market fundamentalist reasoning- if a transaction occurs it must be desirable, otherwise it wouldn't have occured. Ignored every time an argument of this ilk is advanced are the stringent requirements placed on the parties involved- to be fully informed, to be an unconstrained actor, etc.

If Superman and Lois Lane had a daughter and she then became pregnant, would childbirth be painful for her? Or is this moot... are Superman's earth children like Mules and Zeedonks?

Did anyone else sign the Rain song last week? You know, "Rain, rain, go away. Come on back some other day!" If not, do you think that might have been the problem?

Saturday, May 13, 2006

Economics and the Free Market? Or an Excuse?

I'm not going to pretend to have pondered the whole 'Net Neutrality' question enough to have a full opinion. I don't want to say the broadband provider's arguments are wholly without merit. But I certainly lean in that direction. When you strip away the anti-regulation rhetoric (whatever its merits), I cannot get myself around this question: Are they not seeking to be paid twice for the same transaction? Already they are being paid by the end user to transmit the data from the content provider to the end user. If allowed, they would add payments from the content provider for that same service. That's a plan for more money for sure. But it hardly looks like a plan for a more efficient economy.

Let us not pretend that being paid twice for the same act is what any, honestly, mean when they appeal to the so-called authority of the free market. For if that is what is meant, then the free-market is nothing more than the opportunity to collect money in whatever way it can be collected. Few things can be more intellectually bereft than justifying whatever can be got away with. While there may be merit to the broadband argument, it certainly seems to be well hidden.

Thursday, May 04, 2006

Good, Meaningless Laughs and Nothing More

Let there be no mistake about the media reaction to Steven Colbert's performance at last weekend's White House Correspondent's Association dinner. Colbert's greatest offense was not kowtowing to the powers that be. In a country where the powers that be are not supposed to need to be kowtowed to no less.

For anyone late to the 'controversy', the Correspondent's Association dinner- the annual poke gental fun at each other event between the Administration and the Journalists who cover the Administration- features journalists, famous folk, and members of the Administration in their formal finest, the President joking at his own expense (for instance, two years ago President Bush was shown looking high and low, under his dek, behind the curtains for those darn Iraqi Weapons of Mass Destruction; Clinton's final appearance featured him detailing how empty and boring his White House had become), and warmish feelings all around. This year, the 'host' of Comedy Central's 'Colbert Report' was the featured speaker. He performed in character. Hilarity did not ensue.

As has been discussed and debated elsewhere (start with Dan Froomkin's White House Briefing columns this week and work through the links if you are captivated) the published reactions to Colbert's performance have ranged from not mentioning its existence, to asserting his act was inappropriate to the forum, and claiming that Colbert's jokes just were not funny. As someone who watched his act as it happened on C-SPAN (I was waiting to go out later that evening. My other option was to sit in the kitchen and listen to the girls talk about taping their breasts or which shirt to wear or about gerkin, ahem, pickles... C-SPAN seemed the better option), I didn't find Colbert to be particularly funny. Partly because you could tell how awkwardly the audience was receiving his bit; partly because his gig lacked rhythm and flow. But mostly because the subject of his routine-- the perfect marriage of a hapless Administration and a similarly hapless press-- is no longer something I can describe as funny.

Was Colbert inappropriate? Satirically, he laid out the substantive cases against the President and the media who cover the President while they listened, a captive audience. Especially the President who sat mere feet away from Colbert. Now, no one is looking to be called a child molester at their own party. And in that regard, Colbert was inappropriate. He was there to entertain not educate, at least as far as the assembled guests were concerned. At the same time, none can claim to be surprised- Colbert presented 'Comedy Central's Steven Colbert.' To be sure, a certain level of respect is certainly due (referring to the President as Sir or Mr. President rather than Bush or Bozo) and was maintained. More than anything, the reaction to Colbert reminds me of the reaction to Jon Stewart's hosting of the Oscars a few months ago. Hollywood's finest got Jon Stewart doing 'Comedy Central presents The Daily Show with Jon Stewart' and did not appreciate the jokes at their expense. Again, what did they expect, Billy Crystal?

Stewart and Colbert have been so effective at parodying the serious newsmen of our age that they have been half confused for actual newsmen (see this transcript between Stewart and Howard Kurtz from 2002- or just check out the highlights here and here). But only half confused, for they are also mistaken to be simple entertainers. As Stewart's interview on Reliable Sources makes clear, the Daily Show works because it is not merely making jokes but satirizing (Seinfeld is funny, but satire it's not). Twice now in the space of a few months we have seen that the satirized elites don't seem to realize they are more than just the punchline to a few yucks. These missed reactions are akin to the English laughing their way through Jonathan Swift's A Modest Proposal. Let's just say, this is probably a problem.

The elites- in the press, the Adminstration, and in Hollywood- invite the Colberts and Stewarts to perform as jesters in their court. A game attempt at showing they share the humor of the common man. That they are, in fact, a lot like the common man. Until the jester starts pulling back the curtains. Suddenly the problem is with the jester for not knowing his place rather than with the courtiers for having something to hide behind the curtains. Of course, we don't actually have royal courts in this country. Just elites who wish/ think we do. Also, probably a problem.

Friday, April 28, 2006

An Impressive Effort

Yesterday's mail included an impressive looking envelope:

An impressive marketing effort on the part of The Economist. So impressive I'm forced to wonder if their habit of consulting the evidence only after staking out their position is hurting the bottom line. One can only hope.

Having recently canceled my subscription the envelope did cause me to briefly reconsider subscribing. Until I noticed my name is beneath Stephen Harper's. Who the hell is that guy?

What? I'm in line behind the Prime Minister of Canada. Nevermind.

Wednesday, April 26, 2006

an elaborate procession led by elephants

That's how the Kothapalli sisters will enter their joint Sweet 16/ High School Graduation party. Just wanted to offer this little reminder of how the other half-- of the income/ wealth distribution, NOT the people distribution-- lives.

I must admit to being fascinated. Not by the lives and plots of the overprivileged children one can meet on MTV's Super Sweet 16, but rather by the level of interest evidenced by ratings and buzz. A few years ago, I thought this interest was limited to the stratopherically wealthy- Tommy Hilfiger's kid, Paris Hilton, etc.

I was naive. The gap between the masses and the stratospherically loaded is wide enough that it is difficult to tell the difference between the stratospherically wealthy and those who fall just short of that level of oppulence. Since there's a buck to made there, we can count on being fed the lives of the nearly stratospheric as if they were truly stratospheric. Somehow, this is not a comforting realization.

The Bank is Open. But Why?

The Bank in question is the New York Times' aptly named Bank of Mom and Dad. Combining anecdotal evidence with pop books and scholarly findings, the Times reports young adults- say 18 to 34 year olds- increasingly are receiving, if not relying upon, support from their parents.

But how novel is this development? What constitutes parental support? There are a lot of tangled ideas included in this piece which are not effectively identified. For instance, time. Pulling from results generated at the University of Michigan's respected Institute of Social Research we are told half of 18-34 year olds receive time donations from their parents (and significant chunks- nine full time equivalent weeks of work). To the extent that this is watching the grandkids or driving a kid back and forth from college, consider me underwhelmed. Setting aside the increased health of older Americans (Mom and Dad are now more likely to be well enough to babysit) and the long arc increase in college attendance (which increases the number of kids needing a ride home at semester's end), this is not new. But let's not totally dismiss these data points. Similarly, let's consider paying for college. Michigan's ISR finds that parents around the 70th percentile of income can expect to spend over $40,000 on their children between the ages of 18 and 34 (precisely what this means is unclear- are the 'in-kind' donations of continuing to use your bedroom rent free included in this figure in any way?). This figure, however, includes college education expenses, taking away some of the bite of this number (particularly since it's for a top 30% family and the family monetary contribution shows a distribution similarly skewed to that of income itself).

The role of sustaining cash does seem novel and new. Particularly its scale. In fact, I suspect what is new and novel about most forms of parental assistance is their extensiveness not their mere existence. Parents have been paying down payments, handing down cars, and watching the grandkids for as long as those things have existed. To what extent are those gifts now necessary? To what degree is this a reflection on broader economic conditions? Or are these trends more a reflection on the generation, affectionately, 'on the dole'?

I'd place myself firmly in the middle. Books such as Generation Debt and Strapped finger the overall economic situation and the unresponsiveness of the generation in power. They are not wrong. At the same time, as some famous economist once noted- you must bear some responsibility for your preferences- the fact that 20 somethings want is not instant validation. Take Anya Kamenetz, the author of Generation Debt. 25 or so years old, a recent graduate of Yale University. Sure, the bills might be piling up, the cost of being adult high, and the salary not much north of entry level. But her profile is hardly bleak. Among the best educated the world has ever seen and in possession of a publishing contract before her car insurance becomes reasonably priced. Which is not meant to pick on Anya. But it is meant to hold her personal and social expectations up for examination. Particularly for children of upper middle class families. They (we) are used to having their (our) wants met (so conditioned that we may be guilty of confusing wants for needs). Along comes adulthood with a harsh adjustment. The wants don't instantly change, the ability to satisfy them slams into a hard budget constraint. Instead of adjusting- or more accurately bearing the entire adjustment on still shaky shoulders- make application at the Bank of Mom and Dad. If the Bank of Mom and Dad isn't open enough, there's always the all too easy credit card offer and its income sucking debt service charges.

That said, there is something brewing here. Take a look at the categories swallowing the meager incomes of new adults: health care, education, housing, and to an extent child care. It is no accident that young adults are among the most uninsured segments of the population. They tend to be the healthiest and the least able to afford coverage. Remember, the single mid-career professional and the single 24 year old entry level staffer pay the same insurance premium under the company plan, making health insurance (though not necessarily health care) proportionately more expensive for the young. Higher education- in the form of increasing tuition costs, thus more debt, and increasing years of schooling- is taking a double bite out of incomes. Costs for housing and child care- similar to medical care and education- are increasing faster than the general level of price increases. Or, in simpler terms- these services are eating a bigger chunk of paychecks than they used to. At the same time, these are abstractly inelastic purchases (you need a place to live, education is the surest way to an adequate income, eventually health problems must be addressed, etc). Smush it all together and you've got an income crunch which hits the young hard and for the first time.

After all these words, you're probably wondering what it all means. Sorry to leave you unresolved, but I don't know. There is a problem here. Turning to Mom and Dad for cash and support cushions the blow of growing up (my couch and first car, not to mention tuition, etc during college, eased my transition from dependent child to self-supporting adult). But it doesn't solve the problem, it merely shifts it onto those with better resources. However, Mom and Dad are facing the same general crunches as well as retirement planning. It's not enough to expect personal responsibility to carry the day. At the same time, personal responsibility is more than, to borrow the Vice President's phrase, a sign of "mere personal virtue." It's the building block on which structural change is anchored.

Tuesday, April 11, 2006

Dear Abby, If You Didn't Exist, We'd Have to Invent You

Or maybe that's exactly what happened. Is Dear Abby yet another enterprise run on the Dread Pirate Roberts model? But I digress. It doesn't really matter who is responsible for this, it just has to be corrected.

DEAR ABBY: I was engaged three years ago, and shortly before the wedding my fiance called it off. My bridesmaids had all purchased their dresses.

I plan to be married this year and will use the same bridesmaid dresses. However, I am no longer as close to a couple of the bridesmaids as I was then. Since they have already purchased the dresses, am I obligated to ask them to be in this wedding? What would be proper? -- MAKING MY PLANS IN NORTH CAROLINA

DEAR MAKING PLANS: The proper thing to do would be to ask the women who bought the dresses to be in the wedding, or offer to buy the dresses from them, and select bridesmaids who wear their size. (Hint: You'll make fewer enemies if you use the original cast.)

Really, I should be applauding the bride-to-be. Normally you'd expect a certain level of superstition after a dropped near the altar situation. New ring, new church, new wedding dress, and new bridesmaid dresses. But not Making Plans. Admittedly I'm a bit out of my depth here- having never been a bridesmaid (barring a massive change in heart, a newfound love for taking hormones and undergoing surgeries, and finding an open-minded female friend who'd ask the new me to stand with her, that opportunity will never present itself). But had I shelled out money for a bridesmaid's dress for a wedding that never happened, I'm not sure I would still own that dress three years later. Heck, I'm not sure I'd still own the dress if the wedding actually happened. So her concerns may be premature.

On to Abby. Invite people who used to be friends rather than actual friends? Seriously? Make "Your Day" less than what you'd desire to placate friends with whom you are no longer close? Seriously? Find friends who are the same size? Seriously? I'm not advocating Bridezilla behavior, but three years have passed. It's a new wedding, treat it as such. That's what an Abby who wasn't new to the job would say.

Tuesday, March 21, 2006

Where Did All the Terrapins Go?

As I sit here typing, the Cincinnati- University of Minnesota game is on the television. Last night, I watched portions of the Michigan- Notre Dame game (double OT for the Wolverines). This morning I caught the highlights from yesterday's St. Joseph's- Hofstra game (OT for the Dutchmen). And I watched every minute of Saturday morning's Maryland- Manhattan game (Manhattan in a game that wasn't as close as the final score). It's safe to say, I've seen my fair share of this year's NIT.

My dominant reaction is disappointment. The games, by and large, have been well played, hard fought matchups. By and large. The glaring exception is my beloved Maryland Terrapins. Which is not to say that the Maryland players gave inadequate effort on the court. However, something was missing. Certainly, something was missing for the team most of the season. They never played up to their abilities in the most important games. Win or go home games, even in the NIT, certainly qualify.

More than anything else, the missing factor was the support. Or more narrowly speaking, the crowd. Watching Saturday's game (with, yes, an 11AM tipoff on the first day of Spring Break for an NIT game), the vast stretches of empty seats- good seats- struck me. But I told myself, it's the NIT. What can you expect?

What you can expect are packed houses (or at least packed enough that the fan at home can't tell the difference), raucous crowds, and honest to goodness home court advantages. Cincinnati, Michigan, and St. Joe's fans showed up. Pulling on my experiences as a student, many paying customers show up or don't depending on the opponent. On their own, they watch the games on campus the same way paying customers watch an NBA game. Politely, from their seats, clapping approvingly, cheering only when prompted. The students are an entirely different case. Loud, standing, yelling, stomping, chanting, going wild after defense steals, exploding after key baskets, occasionally as in need of a timeout as the players on the court, and- during the most charged of moments- causing the entire crowd to rise and yell. When I say the Cincinnati, Michigan, and St. Joe's fans showed up, I really mean the students. And the Maryland ones didn't.

One could apologize for the Maryland students and fans. Maryland, the 2002 NCAA Champions, just missed The Tournament for the second straight year after participating in The Tournament for 11 straight years. After just missing, for the second straight year, the NIT is a disappointment. The team and coach certainly sent that message, initially declaring they would decline an invitation to the NIT only to learn they had already committed themselves to playing. But is Cincinnati not just as disappointed? They also just missed the NCAA Tournament for the first time in a long while. Their fans, however, showed up for an NIT game. What gives?

I don't know how Cincinnati or Michigan or St. Joe's distributes tickets. I don't know when their Spring Breaks fall. Maybe those are the factors which really matter. Disappointed as I am- in the play of 'my' team and in the dedication of 'my' co-fans- I can't say I'm surprised. The Maryland administration/ athletic department has been seeking a more cosmopolitan crowd since the Comcast Center opened for the 2002-03 season. Prior to Comcast, when games were played in Cole Field House, students picked up their tickets ahead of time, presented their student ID and a student ticket at the door, and sat in the student section (front to back row along the bench sideline with some overflow behind the baskets). Picking up tickets for the big games involved lining up at the ticket window when distribution began two weeks or so before the game (or occasionally spending the night in Cole for the really big games). Getting good seats meant walking through the doors when they opened (two hours before game time). This system was abusable. Former students (ahem, yours truly for a season there) who still had their IDs and friends in school could go to the games (as could a visiting friend who looked a bit like someone else's borrowed ID).

With the move to Comcast, the University instituted a new distribution policy. Students request tickets on a website. Depending on availability, tickets are awarded on a lottery basis. Each ticket you get (and game you subsequently attend) earns points which increase your chances of getting a lottery drawn ticket. Your custom ticket (which can be printed up in your dorm room) has your name and student ID number on it. No transfers are possible. Additionally, students are assigned entry times (staggered to avoid lines, queuing up, etc) with earlier times given to students with more points. While theoretically encouraging and rewarding loyalty, the system strikes me as far too clean and passionless. This is exactly what the University wanted- a cleaner, less disruptive distribution plan (and for fair reasons- what school wants kids skipping class and sleeping on concrete for tickets instead of doing their work?). And now they have it and all that comes with it. The students have far less invested- in time, in preparation, in effort- in going to any single game. Cumulatively, this adds up. The fans are less devoted. The players- who in college truly do feed off the crowd- receive less of a lift. In turn, the fans devotion is even less. And on and on it spirals. Until the going gets rough and there's no one there to help pick you up. Like last Saturday. It is a sad turn of events made even more so by the love and dedication fans at a Cincinnati or Michigan are able to show their team, even under disappointing circumstances.

The game is now over. Cincinnati and its fans get to cheer another day. Hopefully Maryland's will as well.

Tuesday, March 14, 2006

Beth Orton Can't Whistle

Although her cough (aka f*ing lung infection as she called it) may have had something to do with that. Despite the difficulties, Orton put on an enjoyable, personable show. Her crowd banter was engaging if not quite funny. Her jokes fell flat, although that may be attributable to the language barrier (she's English). Her older works stood up well under the stripped down instrumentation she is now playing. The songs from her newest album, Comfort of Strangers, were more alive than they are on the disc. Especially Worms, the album's opening track and probably the high point of the evening for me (while a wonderful performance, the construction of the concert was relatively nondescript).* As the evening's most rousing number and Orton's sole turn on the piano, Worms was the only song that shook the evening's pace.

Beth, you did a wonderful job and you're quite the gamer with your two encores. Feel better (fat chance, Sunday was the first night of her tour). And, please, work with Willy Mason.

Willy Mason was the opening act. In something of a new experience for me, I was familiar with the opening act before the show thanks to my having stumbled across his precocious Oxygen. I was interested to find out if he is a real talent or just a guy who got lucky with one song. Sadly, he's neither at this point. When he sings slow, deep (voiced that is), almost rythmless songs, he's any guy on stage. When he adds pace to his music his voice and wit show themselves to be something special. The pace may simply force him to annunciate better (he's a bit of a mumbler when he speaks- I never did catch the last name of his clarion voiced violinist / accompaniest Nina something or other). Unfortunately, more of his performance was the any guy on stage than the guy you remember. But at only 20 or so years old, he's still finding himself. I remain hopeful.

*Full disclosure, I am enamored with the lyrics to this song, such as:
They [chickens] got a wishbone
Where their backbone
Shoulda grown