Friday, April 29, 2011

This is absolutely insane

This clip came across my desk a day too late to be Clip of the Week, but it still warrants a post of its own. This post describes the 37-year (!) project of San Francisco artist Scott Weaver, who built an interactive model of his home city entirely out of toothpicks--nearly 100,000 of them. I don't really know what else to say, this kind of (insane) project just sort of speaks for itself.

Scott Weaver's Rolling through the Bay from Learning Studio on Vimeo.

Thursday, April 28, 2011

God's Gift heads to New York

I can only assume that Steve Lavin committed some sort of recruiting violation here...
St. John's coach Steve Lavin has to hope his newest recruit is as impressive on the basketball court as his name.
God's Gift Achiuwa -- a 6-foot-8 power forward and first-team juco All-American from Erie (N.Y.) Community College -- is the ninth player to commit to the Red Storm for next season. St. John's has the No. 3-ranked recruiting class, according to ESPN Insider's top 25.
The Nigerian native, whose father is a minister, chose St. John's over Washington and Cincinnati.
Amazing. Lavin himself refers to the man only as "Gift", and I can't wait to see Dick Vitale screeching about this kid during a meaningless early-season game. And given that God's Gift will be playing in a league (the Big East) that boasts a whopping total of eight Catholic schools (DePaul, Georgetown, Marquette, Notre Dame, Providence, St. John's, Seton Hall, Villanova), the possibilities for creative headlines are really endless. I can't wait.


Clip of the Week

Well, this wasn't really the greatest week for video clips. Maybe that's just because I spent half the week in Jamaica, not watching videos. Who's to say?

At any rate, you can still check out this one, this one, or this one--each of which is impressive in its own right--but today I'm celebrating a big Game 7 win over an old rival, so Clip of the Week goes to my main man Nathan Horton, for his slap shot through the Canadiens' hearts.

Next up, a little revenge against the Flyers. (Oh, and bring it, LeBron).

Wednesday, April 27, 2011

On the idolatry of athletes

Last week, I came across this item from ESPN, listing the highest-paid athlete from 182 nations in the world. It represents quite the range of salaries, sports, and leagues, and of course I had a bit of fun playing around with the data.

ESPN made it particularly easy for me, since they were kind enough to list each country's per capita GDP along with the salary of their highest-paid athlete. Charting the results (for selected nations) yielded something looking a lot like this:

Obviously, there's a huge disparity between the "haves" and "have-nots", with ratios at the high end blowing away the rest of the world (I listed the top 5 highest ratios, but skipped the next several down to China at 16). In Togo, the most "uneven" country in the group, the highest-paid athlete earns a whopping 24,791 times more than the nation's per capita GDP. This puts the highest-paid American (Alex Rodriguez) and his 713-to-1 ratio to shame.

It should hardly be surprising that many of the countries with the highest ratios are particularly poor nations with star soccer players who play abroad (Emmanuel Adebayor from Togo, Yaya Toure from the Ivory Coast, Herita Elunga from D.R. Congo, Michael Essien from Ghana, etc.), since soccer is the world's most popular game, regardless of economic background.

Of the 15 nations with the highest athlete-to-GDP ratios, 8 of those countries had soccer players as their richest athletes, and 6 of those 8 played in the English Premier League. In fact, one team, Manchester City, has two of the top five "highest relative pay" athletes on their roster, and 5 of the top 32. Man City just might be the world's largest international charity organization.

For these poor nations, athletes certainly know that to leave the nation and play professional sports abroad is their best shot at a better life. Those nations' high ratios say much less about the value the citizenry places on athletics, and much more about the state of the broader economy in those states.

As for the United States, for all the hand-wringing in our country over how "overpaid" our athletes are relative to the average worker, it's clear that the United States is at best (or at worst, depending on your point of view) average when compared to the rest of the world. Of the 182 countries surveyed, the United States checks in with the 69th-highest ratio. High, to be sure, but not completely out of whack with respect to the rest of the developed world.

Because the data were so noisy what with all of the exporting of top athletes to richer nations, I thought it would also be interesting to see how far down the list I would have to go before I found a nation whose highest-paid athlete actually competed in his home nation--that is to say, the "real" highest-paid athlete in the world, in relative terms. Which country, dollar for dollar, was paying the most to watch its athletes play?

I found my answer down at #37 on the list, in India--cricketer Mahendra Singh Dhoni earns an amazing 1,674 times more than India's per capita GDP, and he doesn't have to leave India to do it. By that measure alone, it's possible to argue that India "values" Dhoni more than twice as much as the USA values A-Rod. Food for thought.

(Side note: if anyone understands the rules of cricket, like even a little bit, please let me know. It was all over ESPN-International while I was down in Jamaica last week, and I seriously have no idea what's going on out there. What the hell is an over? I digress.) 


Tuesday, April 26, 2011

Quote of the Week ("Why You Hate Your Job" edition)

Those of you who have read me for a while may remember my little battle with Harvard Business Review a few months back, where I vilified the author (both in my blog and in her "Comments" section) for irresponsible journalism only to see the article magically edited to remove much of the offending language.

Well, the HBR is back at it again, with its usual pseudo-science that focuses on an artificially narrow set of outcomes and ignores big-picture implications. If you hate your job, please recognize that studies like this (and your bosses who read them) are the reason why. From the article's Executive Summary (because reading the whole thing is frankly mind-numbing):


"Managers who inundate their teams with the same messages, over and over, via multiple media, need not feel bad about their persistence. In fact, this redundant communication works to get projects completed quickly."
                - Harvard Business Review, on research from HBS professor Tsedal B. Neeley

Oh... oh right, naggers... of course. Thanks for that very insightful commentary, Professor Neeley. You've just made all of our lives needlessly difficult by focusing only on the deliberately vague outcome of "project completion rates" and not longer-term implications like "job satisfaction" or "worker morale" or "desire to see boss fired, publicly humiliated, and/or drawn and quartered", or even, hey, how about this one, "company profitability".
Look, people, we all know that nagging is an effective, tried and true method to get somebody to do something--they will do it if only to get you to go away so that they will never have to see you, speak to you, or think about you again. That's, um... not really good management over the long term.

This study also says nothing about follow-on implications of nagging (besides the usual morale/boss-hating stuff I mentioned above). What other tasks is the employee in question being forced to ignore while catering to his bosses' incessant nagging about likely-trivial tasks? Why do we assume that the bosses' prioritization of tasks is proper, and the subordinates' prioritization improper?

Maybe there's a reason the subordinates are ignoring the bosses' pleas on the first 3 occasions, and that they only act on the 4th or 5th prodding, by which point they're probably throwing darts at pictures of their bosses' face, squeezing the life out of stress balls, or uploading their resume on while downloading an application to Dunkin Donuts University.

But no, it's sufficient for the purposes of HBR to demonstrate that naggers get stuff done! No reason to go any farther with our research, we've done enough to get our pseudo-science published. Good job, HBR, you've done it again--and another generation of workers will suffer unnecessarily as a result of your ill-found conclusions. Does nagging make companies more profitable? Who cares?!? It gets stuff done!!!

[Harvard Business Review]

Monday, April 25, 2011

On lobsters and innovation

Since I'm always writing about the developed world's continued need for entrepreneurship and innovation, I'm always thrilled to read about and pass along evidence of true ingenuity and resourcefulness at work. Today I happened to run across two such examples, and so I'm posting them both here.

First, from The Boston Globe, a very creative solution to an admittedly not-too-important problem:
University of Maine researchers want to drive the state’s lobsters back to sea — with a 3-iron.
An engineer, a scientist, a student, and an alumna have teamed up to develop a biodegradable golf ball from crushed lobster shells that could be used on cruise ships.
Inexpensive to make, the ball is designed to sink and degrade within weeks, depending on the ocean’s depth and temperature. The balls would degrade in a similar time frame in fresh water — and break down if lost in the woods, although that would take longer.
For years, a favorite cruise ship pastime was hitting golf balls from the decks into the sea, but the practice ended after an international treaty banned the dumping of plastic, including golf balls, at sea in about 1988. The biodegradable lobster balls could revive the activity, the researchers say.
“The whole idea is that we want to use every bit of a lobster we can,’’ said Robert Bayer, executive director of the Lobster Institute, a research group based at the University of Maine.
To me, the narrowness of the implications of a discovery/invention like this are of secondary importance. I'm more encouraged by the underlying creativity and persistence that went into this endeavor, solving multiple problems at once. Without encouraging this kind of thinking and approach, we have no prayer of solving any of the bigger issues that face us a society.

This, incidentally, is also an example of higher education at its best--bringing together different people with different backgrounds and areas of expertise to creatively solve a problem. Our colleges and universities should and must be fertile grounds for innovation, and experimentation on small-scale projects like this one is a fantastic way to train people how to work together to find creative solutions. Good stuff.

The second item I came across actually followed in the path of another post I wrote several months ago, discussing the possibility of embedding solar panels in our roadways in order to feed power back to the grid. It turns out that the Netherlands is already working on plans to employ just such a strategy, but one proposal goes even farther than that. Per Washington's Blog (via Barry Ritholtz),

Another use of a free, wasted byproduct to generate electricity is piezo-electric energy. “Piezo” means pressure. Anything that produces pressure can produce energy. 
For example, a train station in Japan installed piezo-electric equipment in the ground, so that the foot traffic of those walking through the train station generates electricity (turnstiles at train, subway and ferry stations, ballparks and amusement parks can also generate electricity). 
Similarly, all exercise machines at the gym or at home can be hooked up to produce electricity. 
But perhaps the greatest untapped sources of piezo-electric energy are freeways and busy roads. If piezo-electric mats were installed under the busiest sections, the thousands of tons of vehicles passing over each day would generate massive amounts of electricity for the city’s use.
Interesting stuff. It's not hard to imagine a strategy that makes use of both solar technology and piezo-electric technology to turn our roads into massive electricity providers. Put it together with electric car technology, and you could have a very different-looking landscape on the American highways (and gas stations). I'm not saying it's likely, nor am I exactly assessing its viability or scalability. But it's definitely worth a shot--it's better than throwing away hundreds of millions of dollars in Libya chasing a broken oil-centric energy policy, don't you think?

[Boston Globe]
[The Big Picture]

Sunday, April 24, 2011

Happy Easter

Happy Easter to all you religious folks out there... hope you're all enjoying the weekend.

Thursday, April 21, 2011

Clip of the Week

More good stuff this week. I can't stop watching this Justin Verlander video (I have no idea what he just did), this is mesmerizing, this is inspirational, this is unexpectedly impressive... but none of those are this week's winner.

No, I'm all about schadenfreude, so this week's title goes to golfer Kevin Na, who set a PGA Tour record by scoring a 16 on a par 4. Watch the vid for the gruesome details... it's a little hard to watch.

Wednesday, April 20, 2011


I'm on the road today (heading off to the islands for a few days, because why not), so I won't be posting. For a clue as to where I'm going, I present you with this video:

Tuesday, April 19, 2011

Quote of the Week

Following up on yesterday's Boston Marathon theme, I'll just keep things rolling for Quote of the Week and give the honors to Darren Rovell, for putting things in perspective (which can be hard to do when somebody just ran 26 miles in a tow at a sub-4:42 pace).


"The men's and women's winners in the Boston Marathon today win $150K each. Josh Beckett will make about $680K per start."
                      - Darren Rovell, CNBC reporter

Well, for what it's worth, until 1986 the Boston Marathon winners didn't get anything at all (save a laurel wreath and maybe a bowl of soup), but yet they still ran. So I guess we can consider this progress, or else just agree that people run marathons for reasons other than money alone.

That would certainly help explain why 24,000 people ran yesterday's race, even when 23,950 or so had zero chance of winning it or even coming close. I, for one, played baseball my whole life, and I loved it. But I definitely wouldn't have loved it if I'd been as hopelessly mediocre as I was in last year's marathon--which I loved every minute of.

Maybe running is one of those things (like golf and sex) that you just don't have to be good at to enjoy. Or maybe we runners just train ourselves not to derive our sense of self-worth from our victory (or lack thereof), because there's always someone faster (just ask Ryan Hall).

Or, more likely, we're all just willing to pay more to see a baseball game than we are to see a race. Yeah, considering that nobody out of the tens of thousands who watched yesterday's race actually bought a ticket, that's probably a pretty important piece to the puzzle. At any rate, congrats once again to Geoffrey Mutai for one of the more impressive feats I've ever seen--even if Josh Beckett did make more for beating the Blue Jays over the weekend.

There's always a bubble somewhere

Those of you who saw The Social Network will remember Peter Thiel as one of the early "angel investors" in Facebook, who helped re-capitalize and re-organize Facebook, leaving Eduardo Saverin on the outside looking in. While Thiel may not have made many friends throughout the years, his record as a contrarian investor is fairly hard to argue with.

But his latest call has raised more eyebrows than usual. Noting that total student loan debt now surpasses total credit card debt in the United States (it is now nearing $1 trillion in aggregate), Thiel now feels that something has to give. Per TechCrunch (emphasis mine),
Some people are contrarian for the sake of getting headlines or outsmarting the markets. For Thiel, it’s simply how he views the world...
Consider the 2000 Nasdaq crash. Thiel was one of the few who saw in coming. There’s a famous story about PayPal’s March 2000 venture capital round. The offer was “only” at a $500 million-or-so valuation. Nearly everyone on the board and the management team balked, except Thiel who calmly told the room that this was a bubble at its peak, and the company needed to take every dime it could right now. That’s how close PayPal came to being dot com roadkill a la WebVan or
“A true bubble is when something is overvalued and intensely believed,” he says. “Education may be the only thing people still believe in in the United States. To question education is really dangerous. It is the absolute taboo. It’s like telling the world there’s no Santa Claus.”
Like the housing bubble, the education bubble is about security and insurance against the future. Both whisper a seductive promise into the ears of worried Americans: Do this and you will be safe. The excesses of both were always excused by a core national belief that no matter what happens in the world, these were the best investments you could make. Housing prices would always go up, and you will always make more money if you are college educated.
Like any good bubble, this belief– while rooted in truth– gets pushed to unhealthy levels. Thiel talks about consumption masquerading as investment during the housing bubble, as people would take out speculative interest-only loans to get a bigger house with a pool and tell themselves they were being frugal and saving for retirement. Similarly, the idea that attending Harvard is all about learning? Yeah. No one pays a quarter of a million dollars just to read Chaucer. The implicit promise is that you work hard to get there, and then you are set for life.  It can lead to an unhealthy sense of entitlement. “It’s what you’ve been told all your life, and it’s how schools rationalize a quarter of a million dollars in debt,” Thiel says.
Thiel isn’t totally alone in the first part of his education bubble assertion. It used to be a given that a college education was always worth the investment– even if you had to take out student loans to get one. But over the last year, as unemployment hovers around double digits, the cost of universities soars and kids graduate and move back home with their parents, the once-heretical question of whether education is worth the exorbitant price has started to be re-examined even by the most hard-core members of American intelligensia.
Making matters worse was a 2005 President George W. Bush decree that student loan debt is the one thing you can’t wriggle away from by declaring personal bankruptcy, says Thiel. “It’s actually worse than a bad mortgage,” he says. “You have to get rid of the future you wanted to pay off all the debt from the fancy school that was supposed to give you that future.”
Of course, the importance of that last point--regarding the non-dischargeability of student loan debt--cannot be overstated. I've mentioned it here before, and I think it's an issue that devastatingly few people who hold student loan debt actually understand. Debt slavery, when it is student loan debt slavery, is particularly ironic and painful. Education is supposed to open doors for us, not narrow our field of options and potential career paths. But increasingly, it's doing the latter.

Thiel's points regarding education may be right, may be wrong, or may just be early. We should certainly know by now that the powers-that-be in our federal government are willing to spend untold billions to protect institutions that Americans hold dear. Just because something is in a bubble, therefore, doesn't mean that the bubble needs to burst. Sometimes that bubble just keeps getting bigger and bigger, and the implications of its bursting that much more far-reaching.

Personally, I don't expect the ever-spiraling costs of higher education to correct themselves any time soon, any more than I expect our nation's health care costs to start coming down (with our without Obamacare). But over the long run (how long is anyone's guess), there does have to be some correction in the math that drives higher education.

There are simply too many people believing on faith alone that college is a good investment, and too many of them are wrong--just like with housing five years ago. It will take time for them to realize just how wrong they were, and only then will we start to see any reconsideration of options or a market correction. In the meantime, Peter Thiel certainly won't be making any friends.

(h/t Mish Shedlock)

Monday, April 18, 2011

Wow, again

Maybe I'm just easily impressed today, I don't know. But this video blew my mind and I felt like it needed to be shared. Yes, this kind of stuff is typically The Red Cowboy's domain, but this one seemed worth posting here. Enjoy.


Yeah, the Sox are winning, which makes me happy, but the real news on Marathon Monday is from... well, what else, the Marathon. The men's winner, Geoffrey Mutai, ran the fastest marathon ever run, anywhere in the world.
Kenya's Geoffrey Mutai won the Boston Marathon in an official record time of 2 hours 3 minutes and 2 seconds, breaking the previous Boston record set last year by countryman Robert Kiprono Cheruiyot (2:05::52) by more than two minutes.
However, while Mutai has a world record time, it will not be recognized as such internationally in part because of the hilliness of the Boston course.
Yeah, Boston isn't recognized for world record purposes because it's technically a downhill course, with the start at Hopkinton a few hundred feet above the finish, which is at sea level. But for anyone who has run through the rolling hills of Newton, we all know that the Boston course is no picnic. It's one of the toughest marathon courses in the world, so to set a world record there is incredibly impressive.

I don't know what's in the water lately up in Boston, but this is the second straight year that the course record has been destroyed by the men's champion. The result is that the course record has come down from 2:07:14 (set in 2006) by more than four minutes in two years. That's incredible.

Pity poor Ryan Hall, who, after setting an American course record in 2010 but finishing a distant 3rd, bettered his time by nearly 4 minutes this year. His time was faster than the course record set just last year, but Hall still finished a distant 4th behind Mutai's ridiculous time (yes, 4 runners broke the previous course record today). In any other time period, we'd be hailing Hall as one of the best runners in Boston Marathon history. But in this slice of time, he's just an also-ran. Tough luck.

[Boston Globe]

Marathon Monday

Today's Marathon Monday (Patriots Day) up in Boston, which makes me nostalgic for my childhood. I loved watching the race growing up from the halfway point in my hometown of Wellesley (where the leaders just passed through, in a record split time of 1:01:54, which is just a liiiiiittle faster than I did it last year), and I loved getting to watch the early Red Sox game. Just a great Boston-specific holiday that I really miss being a part of.

Good luck to all the runners, and (of course) good luck to the Red Sox. And if I'm not posting much today, it's because I'm watching the Sox. Good times.

Thursday, April 14, 2011

Clip of the Week

Another week with a fair amount of good stuff. Jon Stewart killed it on The Daily Show with a top-notch Glenn Beck parody, a cat made friends with some dolphins, the NFL players are still locked out, and there's always more good monkey-related content.

But it's April, which means the beginning of the NHL and NBA playoffs. And tonight marks the beginning of the Bruins-Canadiens series, the renewal of an age-old rivalry (to be followed this weekend by a Celtics-Knicks series). And that means I've got a perfect excuse to post what might be the greatest commercial in television history.

Sadly, my wife and I didn't get the memo, and found ourselves on opposite sides of the Red Sox-Yankees rivalry. Yeah, we don't talk much in October. Go Bruins.

On loyalty in business

Roughly a month ago, the University of Virginia athletic department announced the resignation of Hall of Fame women's basketball coach Debbie Ryan, who had held her position for 34 years. Ryan was one of the pillars of UVA athletics and of the sport of women's basketball alike, having played a vital role in the growth of the game to the point of visibility it enjoys today.

To fully understand her impact and longevity, consider that UConn women's coach Geno Auriemma--probably the most prominent figure in the sport today--got his start as an assistant under Ryan from 1981-1985, by which point she had already been the UVA head coach for nearly a decade. Her legend rivals that of Joe Paterno in football and Mike Krzyzewski in men's basketball, which makes her resignation no small matter.

Almost immediately, though, speculation was rampant that Debbie's resignation was far from her choice alone. As Juanita Giles wrote for The Hook,
There's something rotten in the UVA athletic department. Circumstantial evidence it may be, but shrouded in the emotional farewells and hidden among the well-deserved testimonials and laurels are undeniable signs that Ryan was forced out of her job. It may be ugly, but is it necessary? 
Ryan’s Cavaliers haven’t made it past the second round of the NCAA tournament in more than 10 years, and in that time there have been five seasons the Cavs didn’t win 20 games, something that happened only once in the previous 17 years... 
It’s been an inconsistent and disappointing decade for UVA women’s basketball. So apparently, sometime during this past season, it was decided Debbie Ryan was going to get the boot... 
Debbie Ryan’s resignation seems unfair and cruel, but what should happen to legendary coaches when they start slipping? What will Virginia Tech do to Frank Beamer when he stops winning 10 games a season? What will Tennessee do with Pat Summitt when championships dry up? Penn State is chomping at the bit to get rid of Joe Paterno, and everyone knows Florida State fired Bobby Bowden. 
What should UVA have done with this amazing woman who built a well-respected program? Sentiment, respect, and loyalty may not trump winning, but as we wave “bye bye” to Debbie Ryan, it sure feels like they should.
I hear these types of arguments made frequently, often by people who haven't been in positions of management and don't fully appreciate the decision-making dynamics at play. Fair or not, rest assured that Athletic Director Craig Littlepage didn't WANT to see Debbie Ryan go; rather, his hand was forced as attendance lagged amid several consecutive losing seasons.

A failure to advance past the second round of the NCAA tournament a single time in the past decade is a record of futility that cannot be understated, given the well-documented lack of depth in women's basketball. Whatever magic Ryan used to possess had clearly passed, and attendance at the team's games showed that the fans were noticing.

It's easy for those fans, in retrospect, to bemoan the lack of loyalty shown by the athletic department in Ryan's departure. But they should do so knowing that they were complicit in the decision. Littlepage's decision was a response to the fact that fans had been voting with their wallets for nearly a decade.

As managers, there is never any reward for loyalty unless your customers explicitly value it--nobody ever says "sure, he lost money, but he was a really great and loyal guy"... it just doesn't happen. In this case, the fans' loyalty to Debbie and the women's basketball program lapsed long before the loyalty of department administrators--the empty seats told the tale. Littlepage's ultimate decision merely reflected what his fans had already been saying loud and clear for years.

Any manager who ignores what his customers are telling him (with their wallets or otherwise) isn't long for the game. We can blame those managers when undesirable outcomes arise, but we should and must do so with the realization that they are merely echoing what we as customers have told them. We may claim to want quality television, but we watch reality TV in droves, so that's just what we get. We may say that we value fresh, organic produce, but when we check out at the grocery store, more often than not we're buying Corn Pops and Mountain Dew. Managers won't produce it if you're not buying it.

But beyond that dynamic, the mistake that many people make is assuming that managers face an infinite world of choices (and alternatives) in both the short-term and long-term. If athletic department administrators had remained loyal to the end, waiting for Debbie to resign when she thought she should, in filling her vacant spot they would have found themselves at the mercy of whoever happened to be available on that day. In the meantime, many capable coaches would likely have found employment elsewhere, and there is a very tangible cost to those missed opportunities.

Littlepage knew that Ryan would be resigning sooner or later, and that he would be judged as much (if not more so) on the quality of her replacement as he would on the "loyalty" he displayed in her dismissal. So he pulled the trigger when he felt it was necessary, and hired a replacement that has by all accounts been considered a great hire.

His apparent decision to nudge Ryan out the door a couple years before she would have liked should be viewed much like the New York Yankees' dismissal of manager Joe Torre in 2007. The Yankees knew that Torre was reaching the end of his rope, knew they'd soon be in the market for a new manager, and saw that an incredibly capable replacement (Joe Girardi) was available. So rather than wait for Torre to step down and watch Girardi take a coaching job elsewhere, the Yankees took the leap and made the change. Two years later, they were World Series champions with Girardi as manager (much to my dismay).

Few fans, if any, will blame the Yankees today for making the Torre decision when they did, even if it was somewhat unpopular at the time. I have little doubt that Littlepage and the UVA athletic department will be vindicated when the Ryan decision is reviewed in several years. It's not always popular to make the right decision.

[The Hook]

Wednesday, April 13, 2011

Hippie existential crisis

Uh oh...
The analysis performed in this study finds that indoor Cannabis production results in energy expenditures of $5 billion each year, with electricity use equivalent to that of 2 million average U.S. homes. This corresponds to 1% of national electricity consumption or 2% of that in households. The yearly greenhouse-gas pollution (carbon dioxide, CO2 ) from the electricity plus associated transportation fuels equals that of 3 million cars. Energy costs constitute a quarter of wholesale value.
In California, the top-producing state—and one of 17 states to allow cultivation for medical purposes—the practice is responsible for about 3% of all electricity use or 8% of household use.
I can just picture all of the stoners in California trying to figure out what matters more to them--saving the environment or getting high. Tough choices...

[Evan Mills]
(h/t Freakonomics)

Our bizarre brains, part 2

I wrote last week about our bizarre brains, and how the mental shortcuts we use can sometimes lead us to make some strange decisions and/or determinations. Following in that same vein, I was directed to this study by multiple internet sources. To summarize the study, a pair of researchers at NYU's Stern School of Business have been engaging in ongoing research into the impact of product reviews on internet product sales. Long story short, they've found some weird stuff (emphasis mine):
In our recent (award-winning) WWW2011 paper “Towards a Theory Model for Product Search”, we noticed that demand for a hotel increases if the online reviews on TripAdvisor and Travelocity are well-written, without spelling errors; this holds no matter if the review is positive or negative. In our TKDE paper “Estimating the Helpfulness and Economic Impact of Product Reviews: Mining Text and Reviewer Characteristics“, we observed similar trends for products sold and reviewed on
What's going on here? Why would a well-written negative review increase our demand for the product in question? Could it be that we just want to buy what the smart people bought, regardless of whether or not they liked it? Or is it simply that well-written reviews lend legitimacy to the product, and let us know that others have made the decision to purchase it? Are we just constantly seeking strength in (perceived) numbers?

The researchers themselves seem to subscribe to the latter theory. They write:
A review that is well-written tends to inspire confidence about the product, even if the review is negative. Typically such reviews are perceived as objective and thorough. So, if we have a high-quality, but negative, review this may serve as a guarantee that the negative aspects of the product are not that bad after all.
I think that all of this is strange, but somehow unsurprising. Articles, reviews, tweets, and other internet information give us a relative dearth of tools with which to verify their veracity and authenticity. We are thus very vulnerable to bad information, a dynamic that I've covered here at some length before.

There are really only three pieces of information that we can rely on to determine if any internet site is reputable or not--the domain name (we'll trust "" before we trust "", for example), the quality of the site design (no Geocities pages, please), and last but not least the grammar and spelling of the site's content.

Unfortunately for us, almost all of these things can be faked. But more often than not, we're on autopilot to look for those three markers of legitimacy. If we see bad spelling and grammar, we dismiss the site in question almost immediately (assuming we actually know the rules of grammar ourselves, which is a completely different story). But if the grammar and spelling are on point, we're more likely to stick around and read, and from that point on all bets are off.

I think that's really what's at play here. It's not so much that demand, per se, increases as a result of a well-written negative review--it's just that we're more likely to stick around on the site and read some more if we perceive an aura of legitimacy.

How do I even know that the blog this information was originally posted on was real or that the research was in fact real research, done properly? I don't. But the site seemed professional enough, and their links to outside articles and items seemed to indicate that these were real people who had done real research. But then again, maybe I've just been duped. Who knows for sure? Yeah... our brains are bizarre.

[Behind-The-Enemy-Lines blog]
(h/t Marginal Revolution, Freakonomics)

Tuesday, April 12, 2011

Quote of the Week

Masters weekend is always one of my favorites of the year. Beyond my enjoyment of the tournament itself, it also means that spring is here, baseball season is underway, and good times (and warm weather) are coming.

This weekend's Masters--and Sunday in particular--was one of the more entertaining in recent memory. From Tiger's front nine 31 early in the day to Rory McIlroy's epic collapse on the back nine to the literally dozen players who had a chance to seize the tournament down the stretch, this one kept me watching the whole time.

But, of course, the story at the end of the day was poor Rory McIlroy, who like so many before him wilted on golf's biggest stage. Gracious even in epic defeat, he is the subject--though not the speaker--of this week's Quote of the Week.


"I knew exactly how he felt - I've experienced it."
                                - Greg Norman, epic golf collapser 

Yes, Greg... you certainly have. Of course, putting aside the Greg Norman comparisons, it really was hard to watch McIlroy lose his confidence completely late Sunday. Perhaps Tiger's early charge got in his head, or maybe he's just simply not mentally ready to win a major yet. But I give the kid credit--there's no way I would've posed for a picture like this--let alone post it on Twitter--if I'd been through what he'd been through. 

No, I would've been more likely to go the Shooter McGavin route, stealing Charl's jacket and running for the hills, only to be chased down by a guy who looked like this. I believe that jacket belongs to Mr. Schwartzel!!

Yeah, good times. Sorry, Rory, you'll have your day.  

[Sky Sports]

Monkey awesomeness

Okay, I may not like penguins, but I love monkeys. They amuse me, and I'll pretty much watch anything with them (um, except this). Today has for some reason become chock-full of internet monkey happenings, and I'm powerless to keep it to myself.

First, I was tipped off to this series of "Trunk Monkey" ads from an Oregon car dealership from several years ago. They're awesome. Here's an example:

This alone would have provided enough monkey-related humor for one day, but then I came across this post on the Freakonomics blog, detailing a string of thefts of sunglasses by monkeys at the London Zoo. Apparently the monkeys are vain and like using the sunglass lenses as mirrors. Of course they do.

All these videos really do at the end of the day is remind me of this article from way back in the day, which I used to have posted on my wall in college. In related news, I drank a lot in college. I also watched a lot of videos like these ones. So, yeah... slow news day. Except for monkey news.

Monday, April 11, 2011

A little context

Because it's always helpful to have a little bit of context, to allow our bizarre brains to make sense of the day's headlines, I offer you this cartoon to help frame the ongoing Federal government budget debate.

(h/t Barry Ritholtz)

Friday, April 8, 2011

Our bizarre brains

A little light reading while we sit and wonder whether our government is going to shut down...

An article earlier this week in the New York Times wondered why we (more specifically, food manufacturers) cram all sorts of artificial coloring into our foods, when they do nothing to impact the flavor and may in fact cause increased hyperactivity in children (yikes).
Without the artificial coloring FD&C Yellow No. 6, Cheetos Crunchy Cheese Flavored Snacks would look like the shriveled larvae of a large insect. Not surprisingly, in taste tests, people derived little pleasure from eating them.
Their fingers did not turn orange. And their brains did not register much cheese flavor, even though the Cheetos tasted just as they did with food coloring.
“People ranked the taste as bland and said that they weren’t much fun to eat,” said Brian Wansink, a professor at Cornell University and director of the university’s Food and Brand Lab.
Naked Cheetos would not seem to have much commercial future. Nor might some brands of pickles. The pickling process turns them an unappetizing gray. Dye is responsible for their robust green. Gummi worms without artificial coloring would look, like, well, muddily translucent worms. Jell-O would emerge out of the refrigerator a watery tan...
“Color is such a crucial part of the eating experience that banning dyes would take much of the pleasure out of life,” said Kantha Shelke, a food chemist and spokeswoman for the Institute of Food Technologists...
Indeed, color often defines flavor in taste tests. When tasteless yellow coloring is added to vanilla pudding, consumers say it tastes like banana or lemon pudding. And when mango or lemon flavoring is added to white pudding, most consumers say that it tastes like vanilla pudding. Color creates a psychological expectation for a certain flavor that is often impossible to dislodge, Dr. Shelke said.
“Color can actually override the other parts of the eating experience,” she said in an interview.
First of all, I had no idea pickles were often dyed green. That's actually kind of gross. But more importantly, this is just one of those crazy times where I have no response but to shake my head and say "people are weird". Our brains are funny, complex organs that often behave in ways that surprise, confuse, or frustrate us. Even that seems a little weird when you think about it--the brain is so bizarre that it regularly confuses itself.

But this article's finding also speaks to the power of prejudice, which I think is something that we need to be careful of in all aspects of life. We perceive something that is vanilla-flavored to be lemon, simply because we changed the color--that's harmlessly weird in this context, but it could in fact be dangerous under different circumstances. I don't want to push this analogy too far in the direction of its clear racial implications, but it's hard not to draw that comparison.

Throughout our lives, we condition our brains to operate more efficiently, which often means relying on shortcuts and heuristics that serve us well most of the time. Assuming that something is vanilla (or bland) simply because it is white saves us the effort of actually tasting and analyzing it. It's easy to put our brains on autopilot and let these shortcuts guide the way, but sometimes doing so can get us in trouble. If there are exceptions to what our brain perceives as rules, it's easy to get caught off-guard. Our brains are simply trying to do the best they can to construct order amid a world of chaos, but sometimes they fail; we need to be aware of our brains' fallibility, so that we don't become victim to it.

Then again, maybe I'm reading too much into this. Maybe Cheetos just suck.

[New York Times]

P.S.- Upon further reflection, I still refuse to believe that Crystal Pepsi would've tasted good to me if it had just had a little caramel color...that stuff tasted like poison.

Thursday, April 7, 2011

Clip of the Week

There wasn't quite the wealth of material this week that I've had to choose from in recent weeks for Clip of the Week, but in the realm of sports highlights, there's always something good to be found. This week's special something is from the first minute of a UEFA Champions League soccer matchup between Inter Milan and Schalke.

Unfortunately, I can't find a single clip of the goal on YouTube that allows embedding, so you're gonna have to click here to see Dejan Stankovic doing his thing.

Impressive. Bonus points for the German commentator and his almost cartoonishly guttural accent.

On empty malls

Sometimes similar stories come at me in bunches--this is one of those times. On the heels of Harry & David's bankruptcy filing that I wrote about yesterday, I came across a semi-related article from Bloomberg, citing climbing vacancy rates at U.S. shopping malls.
Vacancies at U.S. regional malls rose to the highest level in at least a decade in the first quarter, a sign that landlords are struggling to keep tenants after the recession even as retail sales rise, Reis Inc. said.
The vacancy rate climbed to 9.1 percent from 8.9 percent a year earlier and 8.7 percent in the fourth quarter, the New York-based research firm said in a report today. It was the highest since Reis began publishing data on regional malls in the beginning of 2000.
An eight-month rise in U.S. retail sales has failed to spur increased mall occupancy, partly because of the amount of time it takes to structure long-term leases, said Victor Calanog, chief economist at Reis. The bankruptcy of Borders Group Inc., the second-biggest U.S. bookstore chain, and closings by Macy’s Inc., the No. 2 department store, also contributed to the vacancies, he said...
Some of the recent closings reflect the lingering impact of the recession. Retailers often decide to shut stores several months after a period of declining sales, and smaller businesses within a mall might close as overall traffic slows following the departure of an anchor tenant, Calanog said.
Much of the mall vacancy rate can be attributed to frictional shifts, a normal process during the recession/recovery cycle. It will take time to assess this dynamic properly, since it will be several months before we can tell if the vacancies have begun to fill or not. But the mention of Borders in the article is not immaterial--the question now is whether there is something different this time around in the spike in vacancies, and whether the tenants will ever be coming back.

Borders, like so many retailers, has been continually squeezed by internet retail, and the recent recession was merely the straw that broke the camel's back. Other traditional retailers are struggling in similar fashions, and there is a definite question as to the long-term viability of large-inventory retail. A recent article from The Boston Globe focused on the closing of legendary Harvard Square stationery store Bob Slate, which succumbed to squeezing margins and falling sales after an 80-year run. Owner-manager Mallory Slate, who has managed the family business for nearly 40 years, had an interesting take on the matter.
“In the old days, I used to say, ‘This is a nuts-and-bolts store, we ain’t no boutique,’ ’’ Mallory said. “Now, we’re a boutique.’’
They had record years till 2001. Then online happened.
“People spend an hour looking at every fountain pen we have, then they go home and buy it on the Internet,’’ Mallory said.
That last dynamic can't be understated. Increasingly, people are beginning to wonder if traditional retailers like Best Buy have become little more than showrooms for take a look at things, play around with them, then go buy them online at a discount. That's a nice free ride for Amazon, but it is absolutely devastating for the retailers. There's no way in the long run that Best Buy can price its goods competitively with Amazon when it has to pay huge commercial rent bills while Amazon does nothing. That's true of just about any brick-and-mortar retailer.

The question is, what happens for the consumer if and when all of the "showrooms" go out of business? Will they still shop online? Or do they in fact place a value on the ability to see, touch, and experiment with their products, a value that they will only fully realize once they no longer have the opportunity to do so?

As consumers, we often make choices that are perfectly rational in the short-run, but cause problems over the long run--problems whose impacts can't be easily reversed once we've gotten there. We shop at Wal-Mart because their products are inexpensive and of a reasonable quality, not fully appreciating that the cheap Chinese labor they rely on is devastating the U.S. manufacturing industry and harming the economy at large. We take advantage of Best Buy's kindness in letting us see their products, but realistically know that the more we buy on Amazon, the fewer Best Buys there will be.

I'm on record as being a huge Amazon fanboy, but I sometimes struggle with the implications of my decision to purchase so many of my products from them. I love Best Buy, too (and shop there occasionally when I need something immediately), and I'd be sad to see Amazon succeed entirely at its expense. But while I recognize this dynamic and try to strike the proper balance between the two, I also know that most consumers do not. And ultimately that could be bad news for retail (and shopping malls). As usual, only time will tell.

[Boston Globe]

Wednesday, April 6, 2011

"Brie Syndrome" rears its ugly head

Some reasonably surprising news hit the wires last week, with the announcement that long-time fruit basket vendor (and holiday favorite) Harry & David had filed for Chapter 11 bankruptcy protection. With its sales plummeting, it became exceedingly difficult for the company to cover over its already struggling business model, culminating in last week's announcement.

For the New York Times' Jeff Gordinier, the announcement struck a rather familiar chord.
Surely it tells us something about the fickle nature of the American appetite that Harry & David is looking for ways to remind its customers of the existence of trees.
Harry & David’s fruit baskets have been a staple of American life for decades, but the firm has been going through a rough patch lately. Sales cratered during the recession, and a debt crisis forced the company to file for Chapter 11 bankruptcy protection last week...
Debt may be a serious threat on the financial front, but Harry & David... illustrates a different sort of peril for anyone who makes or sells a food product that has long been viewed as an established emblem of luxury. When there is a profusion of new choices, the allure of earlier choices can begin to dim. Sometimes it’s hard to stay smitten with a care package shipped from the Pacific Northwest in the belly of a jet when you can pick your own heirloom fruit right off the branches at a nearby orchard that supposedly provided sustenance to soldiers during the Revolutionary War.
Think of this as Brie Syndrome. Back in the 1970s and 1980s, it was de rigueur, when guests came over, to haul out a cold wheel of Brie.
“It was the first imported cheese that we knew and we could pronounce,” said Jason Tesauro, an author of the book “The Modern Gentleman: A Guide to Essential Manners, Savvy & Vice,” who curates high-end parties and tasting events from his headquarters in Richmond, Va.
Over time, though, Americans began to learn about manchego and Humboldt Fog and mimolette and Époisses. “Everybody just started getting more and more sophisticated about cheese,” said Susan Holland, a New York event producer. “There’s fabulous Brie, but Brie got pushed aside in the rush to learn new things, and it became not chic. It became the opposite of chic.”
These days, as the American gourmand becomes increasingly obsessed with the origins and purity of every organic nibble that might appear on, say, a cheese and fruit platter, it takes extra effort to fend off the vogue for shaggy, independent upstarts...
“What you see with Harry & David is that they really didn’t adapt,” said Pamela N. Danziger, a consultant and author who has focused, in books like “Let Them Eat Cake,” on the fine points of luxury marketing. “We are really evolving toward more of a connoisseur culture. Why would you buy a Harry & David pear when you can go to Whole Foods and get the same quality pear?”
Brie Syndrome afflicts a wide range of foods and drinks that have had a challenging time holding onto their Fancy Champion of the World status. Chowhounds who are old enough to remember the days when Whitney Houston and Phil Collins dominated the pop charts can attest that, yes, there was a time when a plate of cold pasta salad with sun-dried tomatoes, accompanied by a glass of Perrier and followed by a handful of Famous Amos cookies, was considered a lunch fit for a duchess.
This dynamic is hardly unique to the food industry--rather, it seems to be a universal tenet of capitalism. There comes a time in just about any corporation's life cycle when it (or its product) has exhausted its usefulness, if only because the company's success has bred imitators and eventually led to the product's expansion to the masses (think plasma televisions). Unless a company is particularly innovative, or else especially skilled at planned obsolescence (as Apple and Microsoft have been), it's likely that it will eventually find itself on the downside of the corporate life cycle.

Ironically enough, the better a corporation's product is (and the more widespread its popularity becomes), the more likely it becomes that the company will eventually find itself irrelevant, swamped by a sea of competitors and imitators. But it's exceedingly difficult for us to let these institutions die, whether because so many employees' well-being depends on their existence (hello, General Motors) or simply because we have an emotional connection to the brand.

Nevertheless, creative destruction is a necessary part of a properly functioning democracy. I've pointed this dynamic out several times here before, with Blockbuster, Borders, the music industry, and the Sony Walkman being among the most prominent examples. Brie Syndrome, then, is really just creative destruction applied to the food industry. We're all better off as consumers now with the wealth of food options at our disposal, but it certainly doesn't seem that way to purveyors of Brie, or to the executives at Harry & David. Maybe the company will turn things around and surprise us all, but maybe it's just another victim of creative destruction doing its thing.

[New York Times]

Tuesday, April 5, 2011

Fun with hypocrisy

By now you probably all know that I'm a political agnostic--I align myself with neither party, and consider myself something of a pragmatic libertarian. I just made that term up. I don't really even know what it means, but everyone needs a category, right? Good talk. At any rate, with tax season upon us, I was drawn to this infographic which was posted by the always-interesting Barry Ritholtz.

In short, it charts the per capita federal tax payments by state, matches it up with federal tax distributions by state, and then uses complex math (division) to sort the states by their status as "payers" (states whose citizens pay more than they receive back) and "takers" (states whose citizens receive more than they pay). Here it is (click for super-large version):

Not surprisingly, I was most intrigued by the bottom portion, the ranking of states by their status as payers or recipients. I noticed a couple of strange trends that seemed to be shaping up, and I decided to do a little digging (I do that every once in a while) to confirm my suspicions.

Maybe it was the red map/blue map thing that got me thinking along these lines, who knows... but I got to wondering, what does a state's status as a net payer or net recipient tell us about its likely voting behavior in federal elections? Focusing on our most recent Presidential election (Obama vs. McCain, 2008), I decided to do a quick rundown on the data. And here's what I found (ranked from 1 to 50, with 1 being the highest net payer, 50 the greatest net recipient):

Notice anything? Yeah, me too.

Of the 25 states who pay the most and receive the least, a whopping 22 of them voted for Obama, the Democrat, the man whom the right has vilified for taxing and spending us into oblivion since taking office (for what it's worth, I tend to agree with their assessment). As for those federal tax-mooching states who receive more than they pay, 19 of the 25 worst offenders (and 9 of the "top" 11) voted Republican. Huh?

Off the cuff, none of this makes any sense. Are we just a nation of self-loathing hypocrites? Or do we simply not realize just how much we receive in federal benefits when we receive them? It hardly seems logical that someone who was so heavily reliant on the federal dole would knowingly vote for the party who promised to cut them off, but that's exactly what we're seeing. And we're not just seeing one or two isolated examples, it's instead a systemic, widespread phenomenon.

I think all of this speaks to how out of sync the political rhetoric has become with the actual economic and practical reality. You'll often hear people in the Republican-voting recipient states harping on the welfare state, complaining about how the Democrats are bankrupting the nation... while riding on Medicare-funded electric wheelchairs and cashing their Social Security checks. It's an odd dissonance that Matt Taibbi covered at length in his piece about the Tea Party, and the implications for our society are somewhat troubling.

How can we expect honest and productive debate in Washington when it seems like our voters have no idea what they're voting for and why? Maybe I'm missing something here, and the Republican voters in these states are in fact voting based on other principles rather than economics and taxes. But if that's the case, then that only serves to drive home the point as to how economically f**ked up our nation is.

Any of you have any brilliant explanations? Because I'm honestly baffled.

[Visual Economics]
(h/t Barry Ritholtz)

Anyone here know how to shoot?

After suffering through last night's almost-unwatchable NCAA basketball championship game (an unworthy closing argument to what had been a fantastic tournament), I'm willing to add fuel to the fire of an old debate--should we really be playing our most important games in different circumstances than all the rest? In this case, the question is whether playing the Final Four in giant football stadiums is harming the product on the court during the sport's biggest showcase.
Walking into a football stadium and seeing 75,000 people in one place for a basketball game is an impressive sight. With such a large mass of humanity in one place, a collective energy pervades the building and immediately signals to all who are in attendance that an important event is about to take place. From an aesthetic standpoint, it makes the Final Four a tremendous experience.
However as Monday night showed us once again, the football stadium Final Four all too often also produces horrific basketball. The numbers from UConn’s 53-41 victory over Butler suggest it was the worst offensive game in Final Four history. Butler shot 18.8 percent from the field, the lowest percentage of any team in any championship game in tournament history. It was also the lowest shooting percentage of any team in this year’s tournament, obliterating the futility record set by St. Peter’s in shooting 29 percent versus Purdue. UConn may have won the game, but it too contributed to the string of horrendous bricks, going 1-11 from the three point line and becoming the first team to win an NCAA title shooting less than 10 percent from behind the arc.
But the awful shooting didn’t start on Monday. In the Kentucky-UConn game on Saturday night, the Huskies went 1-12 from three point land and won, leading to a preposterous 2-23 total for the weekend. Kentucky shot only 33 percent from the field for the game and went 2-12 from three point land in the first half, even though virtually every one of the looks was completely wide open. In fact, the entire Final Four was one consistent parade of missed open three pointers, leading to a brand of eye-bleeding basketball that does little to sell the college game while played on its biggest stage.
Our author continues,
Believe me, I understand the reason these games are played in such massive structures. With 75,000 fans on Saturday and another 70,000 on Monday, the NCAA set a new attendance record for the Final Four and produced not only a large stream of revenue, but also an atmosphere to compete with the biggest sporting events in the United States. So arguing that the NCAA should go back to something resembling a regular arena for the Final Four is unrealistic and akin to arguing that “student-athletes” should miss less class during March.
However we should acknowledge that what we see at the Final Four is not the same game that is played throughout the regular season or in the early rounds of the NCAA tournament. A game in a football stadium leads to a shooting environment that is unlike anything a player will otherwise see. Behind the basket is simply open space, often filled with temporary stands that dont raise immediately as in virtually every arena in America. With no real backdrop to create a context, the basketball goal seems to almost be floating in space. This will often cause even a great shooter to have issues with depth perception that in many cases, he has never previously seen.
To understand exactly what is occurring, imagine standing in a desert, with no trees, mountains or buildings to help your eyes and brain conceptualize how far a particular object is from you at a given point. Absent the context around you, one is generally guessing to determine distances from a given point, an effect that is exaggerated to an even greater degree in a split-second situation. This occurs on a much smaller level in these football environments, often interfering with the regular routine of a shooter who is used to a regular context in the average basketball arena. Add the additional oddity of a raised court that hovers over the fans in the first couple of rows, and the difference from the players’ norm is real.
I don't normally excerpt other articles this heavily, but this piece does a particularly fantastic job of laying out the argument in the same way I would. To be fair, the empirical evidence to support the "anti-football stadium" argument is spotty at best, in large part because there are so few games played in such settings, making any fair comparison almost impossible.

But from a fan standpoint, it's always distasteful when the business side of the game starts to impact the product on the field (or the court, as the case may be). I first wrote about this dynamic with respect to TV's ever-growing influence on the baseball playoffs (which, to me, are sacred), and there is no shortage of examples these days.

As fans, we expect and accept that the franchises, leagues, and players we love do not operate in a business vacuum, and sometimes must make revenue-maximizing choices that seem unpalatable to us on the outside. We know by now that we are "rooting for laundry" as they say, and that loyalty, etc. is in short supply. But there is a certain point at which supposedly "revenue-maximizing" decisions begin to impact and compromise the integrity of the product--at this point, what might look like revenue maximization in the short run can turn into a huge long-term mistake.

Eventually, if the product sucks, (and last night's game sucked in a BIG way), you can't sell it to anyone for any price. In the short run, before people notice that the product is starting to fall apart, you can get away with quite a bit and look like a business genius. This isn't a dynamic that's unique to sports, or any business; rather, it's universal. Cut corners on safety inspections, save money, make more profit, look like a genius... until the whole thing blows up and you end up wondering what went wrong.

Maybe it's a bit overblown to compare the NCAA to BP, but it's quite possible that last night's debacle was no accident. The apathy with which the world regarded last October's World Series was entirely of MLB's doing, all the result of supposedly revenue-maximizing decisions. A couple more title games like last night's disaster, and people will start to tune out the Final Four, too. If the only thing keeping people interested in your product is widespread semi-legal nationwide gambling on teenagers... then you might want to reconsider a couple of things.

I don't think the roof is caving in on the NCAA just yet, but it was hard to stay up and watch last night's game (oh yeah, I forgot to mention the post-9pm EST start time thanks to TV, making it hard for young kids to stay up and watch, and you know what just nevermind...) and think that it was worthwhile. Sooner or later, I'll tune out, and that's bad news for the NCAA.

[CBS Sports]

Friday, April 1, 2011

Oh come on...

Alright, maybe my last post was a little bit lame... but this is lamer.
If “Glee” and “E.R.” had a baby it would be [last night]’s episode of the medical drama “Grey’s Anatomy,” titled “Song Beneath the Song.” The staff at Seattle Grace had a patient that was one of their own. That tends to happen a lot at this hospital.
After a car accident sent Callie Torres through a windshield, the pregnant orthopedic surgeon spent much of her time on the operating table and floating around the hospital singing lite rock and pop as the staff fights to save her life and the life of her unborn child. And, of course, at one point everyone sings “How to Save a Life.” We’re not joking. It happens. At least nobody sang “Calling Dr. Love.”
Alright, look... no, I don't watch Grey's Anatomy. But my wife does, and we just so happen to live together (imagine that), so I've been forced to watch a few episodes over the years--including last night's. It was seriously one of the worst pieces of popular culture "entertainment" I've ever seen.

In the past, I've actually had a fair amount of fun openly mocking the show while my wife has watched it, since it's an amazingly easy target--I've almost begun to enjoy the show because of how absolutely absurd and generally poorly written (and poorly conceived) it is. Everyone in the hospital is emotionally crippled beyond recognition, to the point that nobody in their right mind would ever want to be treated there. Besides the ridiculous amount of back-room sex, the incredibly far-fetched and overwrought drama (not to mention mass-casualty events) that pervade the show, and the generally trite commentary that the title character provides as narration, the show actually typically succeeds at the very least at knowing its audience and staying true to its very bizarre mission.

That ended last night. The "Glee"-inspired episode wasn't just unwatchable (though it certainly was that, a point that even my wife conceded), it also reeked of a lazy network executive seeing the crossover success of a show on another network, envying that success, and then betraying the concept of his own show in order to generate some buzz and make a few extra bucks. For a show that's made sport out of "jumping the shark" (it's done so at least six times already), this marked an astonishing new low.

But what angers me the most isn't that the network executives tried the feat--it's that it seems to have worked. Predictably, the soundtrack from the episode (9 tracks of singing actor/doctors) was posted immediately on iTunes, and 7 of those 9 tracks are in the iTunes Top 200 singles today--4 of them in the Top 100. Lord help us.

The only guarantee from last night's ridiculous episode, then, is that we'll end up seeing much more just like it. If something makes money, it really doesn't matter how bad it is, or how lazy the concept was. That's what has generated the explosion of reality TV, the prevalence of hack movie sequels and remakes, and just about everything else that sucks about modern pop culture (sorry, I feel strongly about this). As a wise man once said, nobody ever went broke underestimating the intelligence of the American public.

So it doesn't matter that the episode has been panned by every serious critic from coast to coast--angry ranters like me will, as usual, go quietly into the night, overwhelmed by the spoon-fed public who lapped up last night's pre-packaged disaster. Sigh... Happy Friday.

[Wall Street Journal]

Site update

After careful consideration over the past several weeks, I've decided to make some fairly significant changes to the format and content of The Crimson Cavalier. I do not not make these changes lightly (I know that many of you, like me, despise change in all its forms), but I do expect that they will make this site more enjoyable for me and my readers alike.

Probably the most noticeable and important of these changes is that I will no longer be providing long-form content or opinion in any way. Instead, I will become a mere aggregator of content--a "best of" blog that aims to provide my readers with links to the best pictures, bike-crash videos, and articles from around the world and allowing them to draw their own conclusions.

Recognizing that this will be a dramatic change for many of my more loyal readers, I do promise to provide the occasional traditional long-form diatribe over at the newly formed Red Cowboy blog. I think this will help to support the fledgling readership of my good friend's blog while retaining a fair amount of what made you read The Crimson Cavalier in the first place.

I know that these changes are sudden, but I have been considering them for some time and I am confident that they are the right choice for me. They will also make this site easier to digest, as you will no longer be forced to slog through my irritable rants against all those who annoy me in order to get to the great content you all desire.

Like any rational blogger and businessperson, I welcome and encourage your feedback in the coming days and weeks. It will be my pleasure to reconsider these site changes in the future, if and when it seems prudent.

For those of you who wonder what I will do with the rest of my spare time now that I am free from the tyranny of posting a daily rant, I have good news. In addition to the aforementioned occasional guest post over at The Red Cowboy, I have also signed on with Fox News to be an independent blogger on their site, as part of their new initiative to provide "fair and balanced" input from around the blogosphere--consider it like Huffington Post for conservatives and radical anarchists.
Of course, I do recognize the irony that a political agnostic like myself would choose to join forces with an organization that is so well-known for its political partisanship and blatant hypocrisy. But I am always willing to provide a second chance to those who show true contrition, and I choose to view Fox News' offer of partnership as an olive branch and admission of past transgressions.

On the surface, I do recognize that you might view me to be "selling out" my original intent on this blog with my current moves. In particular, my long-standing belief that the world is rife with irresponsible journalism might seem to be taking a back seat to my own ambitions as a political and financial commentator, seeing as Fox News has historically been among the worst offenders as far as violating journalistic integrity.

Like you, I have my own suspicions, and I will be quick to pull the plug if I see Fox being anything but authentic and genuine in our partnership. But so far, I see no reason to doubt their contrition, and I look forward to being part of the solution. It's not often you get the opportunity to be on the front line of solving the problems that you see as so important, and I relish the chance to help turn Fox News into a responsible corporate citizen. I have great hope for our future together.

So with that, I move on to new things (and hopefully greener pastures), happy to continue in the original mission of The Crimson Cavalier but also eager to expand my reach to a broader audience. I hope that you will continue to read my "best of" blog here, my occasional guest posts at The Red Cowboy, and my (hopefully) ever-expanding role within the Fox family of networks. Maybe you'll even see me on The O'Reilly Factor some day soon, engaging in an honest debate over the benefits and drawbacks of government-subsidized health care... but I'm trying not to get my hopes up too much. See you on the other side... and if you haven't caught on yet, do me a favor and go back and read the first letter of each paragraph in this post. Then look at your calendar. Thanks for playing.