Thursday, June 30, 2011

This is awesome

Of all the traditions in sports, I don't think there's one cooler than the (relatively recent) tradition of everyone on the NHL champions (woohoo, Bruins) getting a day to spend with the Stanley Cup. As a result of that tradition, the Cup has been some crazy places (like the bottom of Mario Lemieux's pool) and done some crazy things (like serving as a baptismal font).

It's been a few decades since Boston's had the pleasure of enjoying the Cup, so you can probably expect it to have an eventful couple of months. Well, let the summer of Cup idiocy begin. Yesterday, after a speculative tweet from the Shrewsbury, MA Fire Department, the Cup (and its handlers) decided it should spend the day as a fireman. Brilliant.


Wednesday, June 29, 2011

Gas taxes and you

I'm always drawn to infographics like these, so I couldn't help but share this one with you. It shows how much residents of each U.S. state pay, in average, in gasoline taxes (this is of course different, though closely related, to how much they actually pay at the pump).

As usual, I'm fairly pleased with my home state's performance, with Virginia checking in with the 13th-lowest average gas tax in the country (no, it's not quite as good as nearby South Carolina, but let's not talk about that state right now, okay?).

Of course, any time I see a map like this, especially when it's concerning taxes and tax policy, I can't help but take a look at the political angle. So, let's do that. It would stand to reason that the states that tend to vote Republican would also tend to push their state governments for lower taxes, and therefore pay lower taxes. Is it the case?

The evidence isn't necessarily overwhelming, but it's pretty irrefutable. The 14 states with the highest tax rates (and 17 of the top 19) voted Democrat in the most recent (2008) Presidential election. On average, the 28 states that voted Democrat pay 50.8 cents per gallon in tax, as compared to an even 40 cents in Republican-voting states--a 27% premium in the Democratic states.

Fun times. I like it when the intuition is borne out by the statistics.

[The Big Picture]

This is so stupid

Alright, this is getting out of control. You all know I'm a huge sports nerd--I think it's great fun, though some people apparently disagree. But lately, a number of people have just been trying way too hard to play the sports nerd game, and failing miserably. People like Josh Hamilton. And now, the New York Times' Karen Crouse, who spends 1,000 words arguing that at Wimbledon, "Left-Handers Have Edge in Slice and Singularity", whatever that means. I think it means that lefties have an advantage at Wimbledon. Let's find out.
An estimated 10 percent of the world’s population is left-handed, but in the men’s and women’s singles at Wimbledon, five of the 32 remaining players, or 16 percent, are.
Oh. Okay. So out of 32 not-quite-Wimbledon-quarterfinalists, we probably should have expected there to be 3 (9.4%) or 4 (12.5%) lefties. Neither of those outcomes would have raised an eyebrow. But instead, we've got a whole 5, which means that one lefty who was supposed to lose in the third round... didn't (we'll call him Feliciano Lopez). Meh. What else ya got?
According to the tournament’s Web site, in 125 years 10 left-handers — eight men and two women — have won a total of 26 singles titles.
Hey, you went to the tournament's Web site, that's great--puts you one up on Josh Hamilton's friends at ESPN. Unfortunately, your analysis sorta stopped there.

Because you see, 26 out of 240 total singles titles (we skipped a few years at Wimbledon while there were some wars going on) is a whopping... 10.8%. We'd expect to see 24, and we got 26. So, if one of our star lefties happened to lose instead of win a couple times, we really wouldn't even be having this argument, would we?

The point is, contrived statistical "studies" like these with naturally limited sample sizes are highly vulnerable to the occasional outlier. In this case, the outlier is of course Martina Navratilova, quite possibly the most dominant player on any surface, male or female, in tennis history. Miss Navratilova won Wimbledon NINE TIMES, including six straight from 1982 to 1987. Cut her down with an early-career injury (or, alternatively, give Chris Evert 1 or 2 victories out of the 5 Wimbledon finals she lost to Navratilova), and instead of being over-represented among Wimbledon champions, lefties would be fairly represented if not under-represented.

Really, this article should have read, "There have been a lot of great tennis players in history. Some of them have been left-handed. Sometimes, the really great left-handed players won Wimbledon. Other times, they didn't." Hey, this article kinda sucks, doesn't it? Yeah. I thought so. Instead, Ms. Crouse glossed over the statistical inadequacies of her argument, waved her hands a little bit and then started interviewing some people to make a qualitative argument instead of a quantitative one, because that's all she had.

The problem is, if you're a lazy journalist looking for a story, it's exceedingly easy to do this sort of thing. Take golf, for example. From 1934 to 2002, exactly zero of the 66 Masters champions were left-handed. Then, suddenly, 4 of the next 8 champions were. Holy crap, what happened? Clearly, something changed at Augusta that began favoring lefties... right? No, of course not. Phil Mickelson showed up, and won a few tournaments (yes, I know, Mike Weir won one of them). Mickelson is your new Navratilova. Does he change the underlying probabilities of golf and the advantages of being left-handed?

Honestly, don't answer that. I've already wasted enough words on this one, and I really don't want to get into a semantic argument over golf equipment manufacturers and whether they're making more left-handed clubs than they used to (they are). It's really not the point here.

Look, journalists, if you're going to dabble in the world of statistics and sports-nerdness, at least know your statistics, and recognize what's meaningful and what isn't. (Hint: be very wary of small sample sizes). Alright, good talk.

[New York Times]

Tuesday, June 28, 2011

Quote of the Week

Like last week's quote, this one won't be related to current events, but it amused me nonetheless. I came across this list of the "30 Harshest Author-on-Author Insults in History", and I couldn't have been more amused.

It's amazing the terrible things that writers have (and historically have had) to say about each other's work--unlike in the world of music, collaboration and cooperation simply isn't part of the game when it comes to fictional literature. Apparently, that's led to quite a bit of sniping back and forth between some pretty big names in the field.

It seems like Vladimir Nabokov didn't have a whole lot of nice things to say about anybody (he boasted three of the top 30 insults, including a biting takedown of Joseph Conrad), and there's also a brilliant back-and-forth between William Faulkner and Ernest Hemingway (who is a personal favorite of mine). But Quote of the Week goes to poet W.H. Auden, whose reproach of Robert Browning apparently went way beyond Browning's written word--it's so far out there that I couldn't help but laugh. Tell us how you really, feel, W.H.


“I don’t think Robert Browning was very good in bed. His wife probably didn’t care for him very much. He snored and had fantasies about twelve-year-old girls.”
                             - W.H. Auden, poet

Wow. Alright then. I wonder what other bloggers would have to say about me if they read my stuff...

Monday, June 27, 2011

What is the point of prison?

The Chicago Tribune passes along the fascinating story of James Verone, whose tale provides some incredibly intriguing insights into the current state of our union.
A man in Gaston County, N.C., was jailed after holding up a bank for $1 -- but the crime was all part of a larger plan, according to the robber. 
Richard James Verone is 59 and was unemployed with multiple health issues before the crime. Verone says he robbed the RBC bank in order to go to prison and get treatment -- he said it was the only way he could get healthcare. 
Verone has an undiagnosed growth in his chest, two ruptured back discs, and a problem with his foot. 
His medical ailments made working difficult after his 17-year career as a Coca-Cola delivery driver ended a few years ago. He tried living off of savings and part time jobs, but still came up short. He applied for Social Security benefits but only received food stamps which did not help his medical problems. 
When Verone robbed the bank he presented the teller with a note explaining that he was robbing the bank and only wanted $1. He did not want to scare anyone and was not doing it for the money. After receiving the dollar, Verone told the teller, "I'll be sitting right over here on the chair waiting for the police." 
When they arrived, the police found Verone sitting on a sofa inside the bank.
There's all sorts of angles that you can take in analyzing this story--the economic side, the health care side, the welfare side, even the "screw the banks" side if you feel like stretching--but I'm mostly intrigued by the prison side. I think that we rarely think about what the actual function of prison is in our society, even as we're spending ever-increasing amounts of taxpayer dollars to take care of incarcerated people.

It's remarkable--and yet rarely mentioned--that with only 5% of the world's population, the United States nevertheless boasts 25% of the world's prison population. The question is, why are they there?

For much of our nation's history (and especially the last century or so), we have been caught hopelessly between two completely mutually exclusive views of what prisons should be--prisons as rehabilitation centers and prisons as crime deterrents. It should be quite clear that prisons cannot simultaneously serve both roles, and increasingly it seems that our nation has leaned toward the "rehabilitation center" side of things.

That's what leads us to the curious case of Mr. Verone, who like many prisoners saw jail as the best of several poor options. It doesn't speak well of any society that any individual--let alone many individuals--would rather be incarcerated than live out their lives on the streets, or in the ghettos, or worse.

Therefore, we ignore Mr. Verone's story at our own peril. What does his story say about our society? What does it say about our prisons? What does it say about our hospitals? And what if health care some day becomes so expensive that a significant portion of Americans choose the same route that he did, out of sheer necessity? Will we then end up with a back-door socialized health care system after all? Food for thought.

[Chicago Tribune]

Friday, June 24, 2011


Sure, this is standard online poll ballot-stuffing, but given my previous rants on this blog, I found the results of this CNBC poll to be humorous.

Yup, that's about how I feel.

(h/t Mish Shedlock)

Counterintuitive science

Every once in a while, I come across something so baffling that I can't help but share it. Hence this optical illusion with the same-colored boxes, which many of you told me you still didn't believe even after I'd assured you it was the case.

Today's example comes from a World Science Festival discussion entitled "The Illusion of Certainty", a little symposium on risk, probability, and humans' frequent (sometimes innate) inability to properly assess said probabilities and risks. (Note: seriously, don't bother watching that whole video stream--it's a ridiculous nerdfest... ridiculous.)

At one point, one of the panelists stood up and addressed the room (there were roughly 50 spectators at that point in the show--not sure if they started with more and some tapered off, tired of the nerdfest, but I digress...), and told them that he could say with extreme certainty that at least two people in that room shared the same birthday.

The crowd of course doubted the panelist, as did I. With 365 (yeah, okay, 366 if you include February 29) possible birth dates and only 50 people in the room, it just didn't seem like something that was particularly likely. Then, he began randomly asking spectators their birthdays. Amazingly (and he couldn't possibly have planned it this way, this was just dumb luck), the first person he asked had the same birthday as him. He asked about 10 more people in the room for their birthdays, and already he had found another match. He didn't even have to go any further to show that the intuitions of all in that crowd were dead wrong.

As it turns out, this is one of those instances where the science and our intuition are simply in dead opposition with each other. Most of the other panelists (all of whom, mind you, were statisticians) even agreed that it would seem like the crowd would need to be at least 100 strong in order to have any certainty of a birthday match. But the math disagrees.

As it turns out, in a group of only 22 (or 23, depending on how you want to do the math), the probability of a birthday match has already reached 50%--in other words, even odds. By the time you reach 50 individuals in the crowd, the probability swells to an amazing 98%--hence the panelist's extreme confidence.

Even after doing the math myself, I really didn't even believe that it made sense. I needed further convincing, so I went and performed a little "experiment". If the math was correct, and any randomly-selected group of 23 people had about even odds of having at least two people with the same birthday, then I should be able to look at any list of 23 or more individuals and expect a match roughly half the time.

Where could I find such a list? Major League Baseball rosters, of course. 30 teams, each with 25 players--according to the math, with 25 players per team, the probability of a birthday match should be about 60%, which would mean 18 of the 30 teams should have at least one birthday match.

So what did I find?

For those of you that don't feel like counting, that's 16 out of 30 teams (53%) with at least one match. Three teams (A's, Diamondbacks, Indians) had multiple birthday matches, and two teams (Mets and Orioles) had birthday "triplets". The names in bold had the same exact birthdate (same year), which was even more impressive.

So there you have it. The intuition might not lead you there, but the data is definitely fairly close to what the math would predict. I'm not nearly patient enough to do this same exercise for football teams, but given their 53-player active rosters, the math suggests that over 98% of teams (in other words, nearly all of the 32 NFL teams) should have a birthday match. Anyone feel like checking into that one for me?

Thursday, June 23, 2011

Random idiocy

Sometimes my posts have no real rhyme or reason... sometimes I just feel like pointing out idiocy, and calling it out for what it is. Enter Josh Hamilton:
When it comes to hitting, it's been night and day for Texas Rangers outfielder Josh Hamilton this season -- and the reigning American League MVP has a theory as to why.
He has blue eyes.
Under the sun, Hamilton's numbers are dim. He is batting .122 (6-for-49) with no home runs, four RBIs and eight walks. He also has 17 strikeouts and a .429 OPS.
At night, it's a different story. Hamilton is hitting .374 (41-for-109) with six home runs, 28 RBIs, seven walks and a 1.076 OPS. And he only has 14 strikeouts while playing under the lights.
"I ask guys all the time," Hamilton told ESPN 103.3 FM's Bryan Dolgin when asked if he had any theories to his drastic splits. "Guys with blue eyes, brown eyes, whatever ... and guys with blue eyes have a tough time."
Oh. Okay. You talked to some guys. That's good scientific analysis, Josh. And congratulations, ESPN, for publishing this one as a headline without doing a modicum of background research on it.

Now, it's not easy to look back at all of the blue-eyed ballplayers in history to do a scientific test of Josh's theory (of all the millions of baseball statistics we have available for even minor league players, eye color doesn't happen to be one of those that we track), but we can at least take a look at a couple of obvious examples to see if it holds any water.

So let's start with the first two guys who came to my mind--Derek Jeter and Cal Ripken. Using OPS (on-base percentage plus slugging percentage)--the same category where Hamilton has an eye-popping (pun intended) 647-point discrepancy in his day-night splits--we see that Jeter has, for his career, posted an .850 during day games and an .822 during night games. Better during the day. Ripken, meanwhile, posted an .800 during the day versus a .783 at night. Also better during the day.

Hall of Fame shortstops aren't your thing? Fine, let's take a look at J.D. Drew, a left-handed outfielder (like Hamilton) who's had a nice long career in the game. Drew, over 14 seasons with 4 different teams, has posted a .908 during the day, .864 at night. Once again, better during the day.

Let's keep this going. Jason Giambi, another veteran left-handed power hitter? .938 during the day, .924 at night. Jason Varitek, a switch-hitting catcher? .787 during the day, .772 at night.

Those five guys are literally the first five blue-eyed baseball players I could think of (not including Hamilton, who, incidentally, has sucked during the day throughout his entire career so far), and not a single one of them had trouble hitting during day games. In fact, if anything, they were better. Who, exactly, are these blue-eyed "guys" you've been talking to, Josh?

Clearly, there has to be something more going on here than just eye color. Is my study of blue-eyed ballplayers exhaustive or at all scientific? No, of course not--I just spent 10 minutes wandering around a stats website (journalism is easy, right?). But it's something, and that's way more than Hamilton or the hacks over at ESPN felt like doing for this piece. Nice work, guys.


Clip of the Week

There's a few solid contenders this week. I first thought about posting Stephen Colbert's brilliant commencement address at Northwestern in its entirety, but 20 minutes is just a touch longer than the average Clip of the Week, and even I barely had the attention span to stick around for the full thing (though it was definitely worth it, if you're so inclined).

Sticking with the Comedy Central theme, I also considered posting this clip from the Daily Show, with a humorous (and, of course, terrifying) slant on the Greek debt crisis. But that's no fun, either.

No, this week I feel like we all could use a few laughs, so I went in search of some of the most mind-numbing content the internet had to offer (and if there's one thing the internet's got a lot of, well...). So I first realized that yesterday was the 30th anniversary of John McEnroe's famous "you cannot be serious" rant at Wimbledon, but decided that the use of the word "serious" meant that it wasn't nearly mind-numbing enough to win this week's honor.

This Benny Hill-esque video of a motorcycle crash in France very nearly took the cake (don't worry, nobody got hurt except the bikes), but it still wasn't quiiiite there.

Oh hey, look, it's a cat playing with a box. Yup, that's perfect. Ladies and gentlemen, your Clip of the Week.

Budget-initiated moral relativism

In case my jargon-y headline threw you off, this post is an update on an old theme, namely the one I first mentioned here, in "On budget woes and value systems".

It's been a little while since I wrote about the growing "trend" (for lack of a better word) toward the decriminalization of marijuana. It began in California with Prop 19 (which ultimately failed), gained traction with now ex-Governor Arnold Schwarzenegger's passage of Senate Bill 1449 (which, like a previous Massachusetts law, decriminalized possession of small amounts of the drug), then gained international attention this month when an interesting crew of individuals declared the War on Drugs a "failure".

Now, it seems that Congress has responded to the international criticism, with the unlikely duo of Ron Paul and Barney Frank (who have in fact teamed up on multiple occasions before) introducing legislation this week that would effectively decriminalize marijuana use at the federal level.
A group of US representatives plan to introduce legislation that will legalize marijuana and allow states to legislate its use, pro-marijuana groups said Wednesday.
The legislation would limit the federal government's role in marijuana enforcement to cross-border or inter-state smuggling, and allow people to legally grow, use or sell marijuana in states where it is legal.
The bill, which is expected to be introduced on Thursday by Republican Representative Ron Paul and Democratic Representative Barney Frank, would be the first ever legislation designed to end the federal ban on marijuana.
Sixteen of the 50 states as well as the District of Columbia have legalized the use of marijuana for medical purposes.
But planting, selling or commercially distributing marijuana remains illegal under federal law.
Regardless of your feelings on marijuana usage (Karl Denninger, who tipped me off to this article, has fairly strong opinions on the matter), this legislation is consistent with the traditional view of states' rights trumping federal control, a dynamic that has been steadily fading in recent decades.

But lest you think that this bill represents a shift away from Washington-based paternalism, rest assured that the timing of this bill's introduction means that budgetary concerns--and not political ideologies--are likely foremost in this discussion.

When financial times are tough, we are often forced to reconsider what we really want our federal government to be doing with our tax dollars. While we may not like the idea of a nation full of pot-smokers, we simply can't afford to continue legislating and fighting it the way we have--this, incidentally, is exactly what killed Prohibition back in the 1930s.

Recessions and budget crises have a way of revealing a society's true values in a way that is often impossible in boom times. It will be interesting to see how this bill is received in Congress, and I'll be sure to update you all if and when any news breaks. My guess is that we're not quite ready to pass this type of bill, but I've been surprised before.

(h/t Karl Denninger)

Wednesday, June 22, 2011

Immigration's untold stories

I don't do this often, but today I'm going to beg you all to read an article. This morning, posted the fascinating autobiographical story (seemingly an online version of a Sunday Magazine piece) of Juan Antonio Vargas, a Pulitzer Prize-winning journalist who used the article to "come out" as an illegal immigrant. His story is long but absolutely mesmerizing, and I feel like it offers a rare window into the other side of a story that we don't often see or hear (or, frankly, even bother to think) about.

I won't spend too much time proselytizing or analyzing the Vargas story, because I think the piece is strong enough to stand on its own merits. But in the ongoing debate over immigrants both legal and illegal, I think that it is often easy to generalize and stereotype, ignoring the very personal stories that are the real face of immigration. A brief excerpt:
There are believed to be 11 million undocumented immigrants in the United States. We’re not always who you think we are. Some pick your strawberries or care for your children. Some are in high school or college. And some, it turns out, write news articles you might read. I grew up here. This is my home. Yet even though I think of myself as an American and consider America my country, my country doesn’t think of me as one of its own...
I did my best to steer clear of reporting on immigration policy but couldn’t always avoid it. On two occasions, I wrote about Hillary Clinton’s position on driver’s licenses for undocumented immigrants. I also wrote an article about Senator Mel Martinez of Florida, then thechairman of the Republican National Committee, who was defending his party’s stance toward Latinos after only one Republican presidential candidate — John McCain, the co-author of a failed immigration bill — agreed to participate in a debate sponsored by Univision, the Spanish-language network.
It was an odd sort of dance: I was trying to stand out in a highly competitive newsroom, yet I was terrified that if I stood out too much, I’d invite unwanted scrutiny. I tried to compartmentalize my fears, distract myself by reporting on the lives of other people, but there was no escaping the central conflict in my life. Maintaining a deception for so long distorts your sense of self. You start wondering who you’ve become, and why.
Seriously, take a few minutes and read the whole thing. Regardless of your personal politics and your views on immigration policy, I think that this story--while almost certainly unique--is an important data point in the debate on what America was, is, and wants to be in the coming centuries.

[NY Times]

Tuesday, June 21, 2011

Quote of the Week

Alright, I already mentioned that I was having trouble coming up with a Quote of the Week, so this week we're gonna go in a different direction. A couple of weeks ago I gave a shout-out to the late George Carlin, one of my favorite comedians of all time. Sticking with the theme of deceased stand-up comics, I stumbled across a collection of quotes from Mitch Hedberg, another of my favorite comedians. His deadpan delivery was absolutely classic, and I miss having him around. Without further ado... 


One time a guy handed me a picture and said "Here's a picture of me when I was younger." Every picture is of you when you were younger! "Here's a picture of me when I'm older." You son of a bitch, how'd you pull that off? Let me see that camera.
                         - Mitch Hedberg

Slow news day

It's a slow news day, and I don't have a whole lot useful to report. In fact, I'm having trouble just coming up with something for Quote of the Week today. So for the sake of having something to post, I'm gonna get all nitpicky and take Yahoo! to task for some poor journalism (Bad journalism? On the internet!??!? Unheard of!). Sound good? Okay, cool.

From an article irresponsibly entitled "The more debt college students have, the higher their self esteem," Liz Goodwin apparently decided that sensationalizing a headline to get pageviews was more important than actually reporting the story properly. She wrote,
It turns out there is an upside to mounting college debt: self confidence! A new study shows that the higher a young person's debt, the more self-esteem he or she has.
Ohio State University researchers surveyed more than 3,000 adults aged 18 to 34 for the study, which is published in Social Science Research. Their study found that the more debt from college loans and credit cards individuals had in their name, the more control they felt over their lives.
Hey, that's great. College students go to school, think it's a great investment in their future (because they've been told so for their entire adolescent lives), and as a result they're brimming with confidence. Cool. Whether or not there's actually a causal link between the debt itself and the self-esteem isn't really discussed here--the correlation is all we're given.

But the real problem is Goodwin's burying of the lead, which comes next:
There is, however, a catch: People over the age of 28 started to show signs of stress and worry about their debt. The downshift in debtors' moods stems from the ongoing growth of their debt obligations over time--though it is of course also true that adults have a general propensity to worry more as they age.
Yeah, that's a pretty significant catch. In fact, I'd argue that it's the real finding of the study. Young people are saddled with debt without fully realizing the implications, and only a decade later when they're actually charged with paying that bill do they begin to question whether they made the right decision.

Doesn't that seem like an important takeaway here, if not the most important one? But no, instead we get a "debt makes people happy" headline, which is so maddeningly obvious and stupid that you might as well write a "Breaking News: Alcohol makes people drunk" headline, ignoring the fact that alcohol also makes people hungover.

Whatever. We'll see how confident all these students are after they've graduated, struggled to find a job, and realized (only too late) that their student loan debt is, in fact, nondischargeable. Maybe the students should do a better job of reading the fine print; maybe Yahoo! "reporters" should too.

(h/t Yves Smith)

Monday, June 20, 2011

More sportsnerdness

All thanks go to the Red Cowboy for tipping me off to this latest bit of sportsnerdness, which you all already know I'm a sucker for. For those who were unaware, Northern Irish youngster Rory McIlroy shattered Tiger Woods' U.S. Open scoring record this weekend, racing to a runaway 8-stroke victory. His triumph sparked a number of breathless articles trying (and failing) to put the accomplishment in its proper historical perspective.

Perspective? That's why Grantland is here, with one of the better bits of statistical analysis I've seen in a while. Golf? Z-scores? Standard deviations? Oh, I am in. Let's roll...
The simple method of figuring out the most dominant majors performance would be to list winners by their margin of victory over the second-placed golfer. That system is not accurate because it just compares two golfers against one another, as opposed to one golfer's performance versus the field. Take two victories by Golfer A and Golfer B, each of whom shoot 11-under-par, while the runners-up each shoot 6-under-par. They look equal, but the rest of the field's performance matters. Let's say the third-place finisher in Golfer A's tournament shoots 5-under-par, but the third-placed duffer in Golfer B's tourney shoots 1-over-par. Player B has clearly outperformed the rest of the field to a greater level than Player A, but raw margin of victory fails to capture that detail.
That's why we need to use a more complex methodology that measures a performance's standard deviations above the mean, referred to as Z-Score. Z-Score measures a particular performance against the entire field of values, accounting for both the average result and the full range of performances from top to bottom. It does a great job in capturing how much better or worse an individual score was versus the entire population, producing a value that translates across different tournaments, locales, and generations. For the purposes of this study, we analyzed the scores produced by players in every major since 1960, including only those players who completed four rounds. Performances in any sort of playoff were ignored.
As it turns out, while McIlroy's performance wasn't the most dominant Major victory of the past 50 years, it deserves to be in the discussion. McIlroy's Z-Score ended up at minus-3.07, meaning that he was 3.07 standard deviations better than the average performance at the tournament. It's the 17th-best performance by a golfer in a major since 1960, which places him in rather elite company.
Very impressive stuff, yes. McIlroy's performance places him somewhere in between Nick Faldo's 1990 British Open victory at St. Andrews and Tony Jacklin's 1970 U.S. Open win at Hazeltine. I'd be surprised if any of you casual golf fans out there have ever even heard of Jacklin, and that's sort of my point here.

Was this a great performance? Absolutely. But is it indicative of a Tiger Woodsian start to a legendary career? Not necessarily. What's surprising, in Tiger's case, is that his "Hello, world" 12-shot victory at Augusta in the 1997 Masters isn't even his second-most impressive performance at a major.

So let's hold off a bit on the gushing praise that we're all so eager to heap on Mr. McIlroy. I'll give him full marks for bouncing back in a big way from his devastating last-round collapse at Augusta in April, but I'm not putting him in the golf stratosphere just yet. Let's just appreciate this weekend for what it was--one of the best golf performances at a major in the last 50 years.


In praise of IBM

IBM is turning 100 this year, and in celebration of that fact, the company is gradually releasing a list of its 100 most significant contributions to American society (their so-called "Icons of Progress"). A bit self-congratulatory, sure, but it's a truly impressive list that shows just how adaptable and transformational Big Blue has been as the U.S. economy has twisted and turned and ambled its way through a strange century.

Technology has come a long way since the days of President Taft, and IBM has been there every step of the way. That's no small feat in the famously fast-moving and unforgiving world of high-tech (just ask Sony... better yet, ask Gateway), and I don't blame them for taking a step back to appreciate it all. From inventing the UPC code to developing the floppy disk to (of course) the creation of the PC to even creating the accounting setup that supported our Social Security system, there is almost literally no area of American life where IBM's impact hasn't been felt.

In an era where many of our biggest companies seem intent on lobbying their way to prosperity, afraid that innovation in their industries might threaten their existing business (I'm looking at you, auto and gas companies), IBM is a refreshing example of a company which has consistently viewed innovation not as a threat, but as an opportunity. They have been unafraid to make some of their older products obsolete in the process of working toward a better and more efficient world. In doing so, they have taken part in an unprecedented era of technological growth and change, with their fingerprints all over it.

In fact, their embrace of innovation and change throughout their history is in large part exactly why they're still here today--they were never afraid to fail, and that is why they succeeded. Too many companies today are stricken with the curse of mediocrity, afraid to risk what is already "good" for the possibility that they might someday be "great". IBM suffers from no such affliction, and that is why their contributions are so ubiquitous today.


Friday, June 17, 2011

Another fun infographic

This infographic, from Lapham's Quarterly, takes a look at how far one dollar will go in terms of caloric content from different food types. It's amusing and interesting, but given our recent recession (and the Fed's response to it), it's taken on special meaning for a number of Americans. (Note: I was a little confused by the graphic at first. Look at the numbers inside the pictures--and not the text below them--to see how many calories of each item a dollar will buy.)

It's hardly surprising that Coke and McDonald's food give you the greatest caloric bang for your buck, and that's bad news for our nation's health. Milk, eggs, and potatoes aren't far behind, though, so in theory it shouldn't be too hard for people to put together an at least mildly healthy diet, even on a budget (especially when you throw in other relatively cheap items, like black beans and rice). But in reality, processed foods and fast foods are an increasingly large portion of American people's diets, and this graphic helps show why.

[Lapham's Quarterly]

Thursday, June 16, 2011

Interesting USPS stats

Last month, Bloomberg Businessweek published an article about the plight of the US Postal Service that's received a significant amount of attention. It's an interesting piece that deserves a few minutes of your time, but I was dumbstruck by some of the statistics that the article cited, which helped me to appreciate the massive scope of what the USPS does. Consider these items:
  • If it was a private entity, the USPS would be the 29th-largest company in the Fortune 500
  • Average daily mail volume is 563 million pieces, 40% of total worldwide volume
  • With 571,566 full-time employees, it is the nation's second-largest employer behind Wal-Mart
  • Its 31,871 total post offices are greater than the number of domestic McDonald's, Starbucks, and Wal-Mart stores, combined
With total mail volume decreasing more than 20 percent between 2006 and 2010--and the service hemorrhaging money as a result--the USPS is of course approaching a significant crossroads. It may no longer be realistic to expect a flat-rate system to work, or to expect similar levels of service regardless of geography.

It may be tempting to blame some of USPS's problems on ever-soaring oil prices, but in reality the problems in the mail business are remarkably similar to the problems of many other bureaucratic organizations--80% of total USPS operating expenses go toward salaries and benefits, a staggering figure for just about any business. Like teachers' unions and other publicly-funded (or semi-publicly funded) institutions, it's likely that the USPS will be forced to take a hard look at their compensation strategies if they are going to remain competitive going forward.

Clip of the Week

Why bother waiting? You all know what the Clip of the Week is going to be already, right? I'm already on record as a ridiculous homer, and this has been one of the best sports weeks for me in a long time.

So, with apologies to the UVA baseball team (who played quite possibly the best baseball game I've ever seen live), and also to this video and this video, here is your Clip of the Week:

Congrats, B's. As discussed yesterday, you deserved this one. Especially you, Tim Thomas. Well played.

Wednesday, June 15, 2011

Go Bruins

Sports and statistics. I'm a sucker for it every time. This time around, though, the source for my sports nerdfest isn't the New York Times, or Time magazine, but Deadspin contributor David Roher, who also happens to be a member of the Harvard College Sports Analysis Collective (who made their first appearance on my blog here). So he's a bit of a nerd kindred spirit, which probably explains why I was interested in his post to begin with. But I digress.

With the Boston Bruins playing in the Stanley Cup Finals (and with Game 7 coming tonight, and with me doing my damned hardest not to do anything on here to jinx the B's), Roher decided to take a look at one of the more peculiar aspects of the series thus far--despite being outscored 19-8 in 6 games, the Vancouver Canucks find themselves tied up at 3 games apiece, one home win away from hoisting the Cup. If that sounds almost impossible, that's because it is.
To put Vancouver's potential feat in its proper context, we can look at every World Series (starting in 1903), NBA Finals (1950), and Stanley Cup Finals (1915) in history. Instead of using raw differential, we'll use Pythagorean expectation: how well the champion would be expected to do in a seven-game series based on its goals/points/runs scored and allowed. This allows us to translate across the three sports. Here are the 10 least-deserving champions in American sports history based on their in-series expected win total (extrapolated to seven games for shorter series):
1. 1960 World Series: Pirates over Yankees 4-3, -28 differential, 1.33 Expected Ws       2. 1996 World Series: Yankees over Braves 4-2, -8 differential, 2.39 Expected Ws
3. 1958 NBA Finals: Hawks over Celtics 4-3, -28 differential, 2.48 Expected Ws
4. 1972 World Series: Athletics over Reds 4-3, -5 differential, 2.74 Expected Ws
5. 1940 World Series: Reds over Tigers 4-3, -6 differential, 2.76 Expected Ws
6. 1912 World Series: Red Sox over Giants 4-3, -6 differential, 2.82 Expected Ws
7. 2009 Stanley Cup: Penguins over Red Wings 4-3, -3 differential, 2.83 Expected Ws
8. 1928 Stanley Cup: Rangers over Maroons 3-2, -1 differential, 2.87 Expected Ws
9. 1997 World Series: Marlins over Indians 4-3, -7 differential, 2.89 Expected Ws
10. 2003 World Series: Marlins over Yankees 4-2, -4 differential, 2.90 Expected Ws
The '60 World Series is best known for Bill Mazeroski's walk-off homer, but it's also remarkable as an extreme outlier in differential: The Yankees outscored the Pirates 55-27. Over seven games, Pittsburgh would be more likely to win zero games than four based on their runs scored and allowed. Of the 263 champions studied, the Pirates were the only ones to be outscored by such a wide margin.
But if the Canucks win tonight, Pittsburgh will have company. A 1-0 victory would give Vancouver 1.28 Expected Wins over the course of the series, which would make the 2011 Stanley Cup Finals the most bizarre in American championship history by that measure. Even a 4-0 blowout would result in 2.23 Expected Wins, still second all-time. It would be one of the flukiest Finals ever, and Canucks fans wouldn't care one damn bit.
So far in this series, every game in Vancouver has been a tight, nail-biting affair--each one was a one-goal game decided in the 3rd Period or Overtime--whereas every game in Boston has been a Bruins rout, helping to explain the huge goal differential. Hopefully for my Bruins, we'll get Game 3 or Game 6 Roberto Luongo tonight, and not Game 1 or Game 5 Roberto Luongo.

My nerves probably can't take another nail-biter (they're shot as it is after witnessing this game on Monday evening), so I'm hoping that the B's can bring some of their Boston magic out west tonight. Otherwise, we might be looking at some very strange history-making for Vancouver.


Tuesday, June 14, 2011

Quote of the Week

Oh, come on, you didn't think I was going to let LeBron off the hook without criticizing him for his amazing disappearing act on the game's biggest stage, did you?

Actually, you know, I might have, perhaps if he had (appropriately) been humbled by the whole situation, driven to recommit himself to his craft rather than focusing so damn hard on "building his brand" and crafting his image. But no, the self-appointed King is, as we've been so clearly shown before, the most narcissistic athlete of our generation, and no amount of postseason frustration will ever cut him down to size.

His latest trick? Ever-so-subtly hinting that he couldn't care less what any of the fans think about him, because he's rich and they're all presumably poor, alcoholic slobs with failing marriages.


"At the end of the day, all the people that was rooting on me to fail... they've gotta wake up tomorrow and have the same life that they had before they woke up today. They've got the same personal problems that they had today... they've gotta get back to the real world at some point."
                                 - LeBron James, Miami Heat forward

Wow. This guy really is a first-class asshole, isn't he? Hey LeBron, guess what buddy? You are rich solely because these apparently-flawed people like to leave the real world behind every once in a while and come watch a bunch of overgrown children play a game for a few hours.

Because of that fact, you can't minimize the importance of people's opinion of you (admitting that your profession is, at its core, a little bit silly) without also minimizing your own importance to the world. But then, I guess that sort of thinking is a little bit beyond your grasp, isn't it? If you really understood the very odd nature of the fan-player relationship, you wouldn't have done something so completely tone-deaf and foolish as "The Decision" in the first place, would you have? Why am I even bothering to ask? You suck.

A warning against tight borders (or, The hidden costs of the "War on Terror")

When I was coming back into the country from Jamaica back in April, I was struck by the number of menacing signs posted in the international arrivals terminal (at Charlotte/Douglas Airport), announcing our nation's policy of fingerprinting all foreign visitors upon their arrival on American soil. I didn't remember this having been policy in the past, and I guess I missed the announcement that we would be starting to do so.

Turns out, it's been our policy for the better part of the last decade, another initiative of the ever-growing Department of Homeland Security. From a news item announcing the policy change in early 2004:
Stringent new security regulations affecting most tourists have been introduced at US air and sea ports.
Everyone entering the United States with a visa will now have fingerprints and photographs taken and scrutinised...
Homeland Security Secretary Tom Ridge said the US aimed to be "open to visitors but closed to terrorists".
All 115 US airports that handle international flights and 14 major seaports are covered by the programme, under which customs officials can instantly check an immigrant or visitor's criminal background.
Of course, this is all part of a broader crackdown against immigration and foreign visitors, as visas for both travel--and perhaps more importantly, employment--purposes have become increasingly difficult to come by. Tom Ridge's assertion that the DHS wanted to be "open to visitors" is in fact laughable in the face of the ever-increasing restrictions, a point that a recent Time article picked up on.
Everyone should love Brazilian tourists. They spend more per capita than any other nationality. Worldwide, Brazilian tourists shell out an average of $43.3 million a day, dropping a gigantesco $1.4 billion last April alone, up 83% from the same period last year, according to the Brazil's Central Bank. In 2010, 1.2 million Brazilians visited the United States, injecting $5.9 billion into the U.S. economy...
Not that the U.S. has made it particularly easy for os turistas brasileiros to visit. Instead of rolling out the red carpet for the travelers from the increasingly wealthy South American nations, the U.S. makes Brazilians — and every other Latin American nationality — undergo a lengthy and expensive visa-application process that takes months of planning and can cost thousands of dollars in travel, lodging, food and other expenses — all before leaving the country...
In all of Brazil, a country larger than the continental United States, the U.S. has only four consular offices: in the capital Brasilia, Recife, Rio de Janeiro and São Paulo. That means a family living in Porto Alegre would have to spend hundreds of dollars on domestic airline tickets to fly everyone 700 miles to São Paulo, then drop hundreds more on hotel rooms, food and taxis, just to get a visa application interview, which costs an additional $140 each.
While the State Department claims the average international wait time for a visa interview is 30 days, in Brazil it can be as high as 141 days, according to Steve Joyce of the U.S. Travel Association. That's not due to bureaucratic laziness. The overworked consular staff in São Paulo is currently processing an average of 2,300 visas every day, more than any other U.S. consulate in the world. And they hope to nearly double their production level by next year to keep from falling farther behind. Brazil represents the fastest-growing non-immigrant visa demand in the world, up 234% over the past five years, eclipsing even China's 124% increase in U.S. visa issuances, according to the State Department.
Tourist industry officials say Brazil should be on the list of countries whose citizens do not need a visa to enter the U.S. There are currently 36 countries on Washington's visa waiver list, but none of them are in Latin America. Some argue it's hampering the U.S.' economic growth and global competitiveness. For example, Chilean tourism to the United States is down more than 30% from 10 years ago, while globally the number of Chileans traveling overseas to other countries is up 50%.
The article goes on to cite a U.S. Travel Association statistic that suggests that by hampering international tourism over the last decade, our nation has put itself at a competitive economic disadvantage.
The American tourism market has recovered slowly since 9-11, but it missed out on a decade of growth, according to Roger Dow, president of the U.S. Travel Association. "We call it the lost decade. If we had just stayed on pace with the rest of the world, we would have generated $606 billion more dollars and have 467,000 more jobs right now."
In an economy with millions of unemployed citizens that is struggling to generate 100,000 new jobs per month, that 467,000 jobs figure--while debatable--is no small nugget. Consider it one of the hidden costs of our dogmatic and amorphous "War on Terror".

I've of course written here before about the ill-advised tendency to crack down on immigration (and, by extension, foreign visitation) during a recession--in this recession, the long shadow of 9/11 merely exacerbated that tendency. There is a general feeling that protectionism can ensure that immigrants aren't "stealing" the jobs that rightfully belong to struggling American citizens, and theoretically that concept makes sense.

But realistically, immigrants are more likely to become entrepreneurs--spurring economic growth--and more likely to perform "complementary" work, work that enhances the value of other workers, like installing drywall or driving a taxi.

Unfortunately, the same policies that have eliminated many of those workers from contributing to the American economy are now also prohibiting foreign visitors from coming into our country and spending money as tourists, spurring the economies of the cities they visit. Maybe the benefits of keeping tight borders outweigh the costs, maybe they don't. I just don't think that most people realize how far-reaching the costs of our "War on Terror" really are.

[Time] (h/t Daily Reckoning)

Monday, June 13, 2011

How free is your state?

There's an interesting study/report from George Mason University's Mercatus Center regarding the freedoms afforded by each of our 50 states, ranking them from "most free" to "least free", based upon a host of financial and regulatory factors.

In general, it seems to me that the states with the biggest cities have a tendency to be more restrictive, whereas more rural states are a little more liberal with their policies (though they often vote "conservative"... but we'll leave that grammatical discrepancy alone for today). Not surprisingly, New Hampshire takes home top honors in the freedom poll.

I've listed the top 5 "most free" and bottom 5 "least free" below, in case you don't feel like clicking around the Mercatus Center's site. I'm happy to have learned that I now live in the 9th most free state (Virginia), after having lived the majority of my life in the 46th, 41st and 50th-ranked states (Massachusetts, Illinois, and New York, respectively). I feel so free!

1. New Hampshire
2. South Dakota
3. Indiana
4. Idaho
5. Missouri

46. Massachusetts
47. Hawaii
48. California
49. New Jersey
50. New York  

Friday, June 10, 2011

It's The Great Hamster, Charlie Brown

This is an Onion article, right? No? What's that? New York Times, you say? Oh... ok. Cool.
PARIS — France was punished on Thursday for not taking proper care of its hamsters.
The Court of Justice in Luxembourg, the European Union’s highest court, ruled Thursday that France had failed to protect the Great Hamster of Alsace, sometimes known as the European hamster, the last wild hamster species in Western Europe. If France does not adjust its agricultural and urbanization policies sufficiently to protect it, the court said, the government will be subject to fines of as much as $24.6 million.
The Great Hamster, which can grow up to 10 inches long, has a brown-and-white face, white paws and a black belly. There are thought to be about 800 left in France, with burrows in Alsace along the Rhine. That is an improvement: the number had dropped to fewer than 200 four years ago, according to figures from the European Commission, which brought the lawsuit in 2009.
Alright. Good times. Glad they don't have any bigger things to worry about over in France these days. Things must be great over in Europe, huh?

[NY Times]

Thursday, June 9, 2011

Clip of the Week

Well I've got full-on Bruins Fever after the last two games in Boston, so I was tempted to post some Tim Thomas highlights again, because that man's my hero. But things didn't go so well for the B's last time I posted a hockey highlight, so I'm gonna stay away from that and let the Red Cowboy handle those clips for now.

Of course, if the Red Cowboy would stop stealing my Clip of the Week material, maybe I wouldn't be in this situation to begin with, but clearly I digress. This is the internet, after all, so there's always plenty of entertaining clips to go around. If you're the stereotyping type, you'll enjoy this video, and if you're into simple stupid humor, you'll enjoy this video. But of course, neither of those is your Clip of the Week.

This week, I'm celebrating Major League Baseball's decision to allow certain of its highlight videos to be embeddable, a long-overdue choice that opens up a world of Clip of the Week possibilities to me. So your recipient this week is--no, not David Ortiz's bat flip--the Milwaukee Brewers' Nyjer Morgan, a colorful character who delivered a walkoff hit against the Mets last night without realizing it.

Turns out big man thought that it was the bottom of the 8th, thought his team was already winning, and really just had no idea where he was or why he was there. But it all worked out in the end, and the look of genuine surprise on Morgan's face to see his teammates storming the field is one of the funnier things I've seen on a baseball diamond in a long time. Without further ado, your Clip of the Week:

Nyjer, for future reference, there are scoreboards all over these ballparks you play in. They tell you the score, the inning, the count, the number of outs, who's pitching, all sorts of good stuff. They even tell you what city you're playing in, just in case you're confused (hint: the home team is on bottom). You should definitely check them out some time. You know, or not, whatever, apparently you're doing just fine without them.

FIFA up to its old tricks

I'll keep this one short and sweet, because I'm honestly not surprised anymore to hear about maddeningly tone-deaf behavior coming from FIFA, on the heels of this, this, and this. But this latest item is still newsworthy, and in the interest of maintaining consistency with my previous viewpoints, here we go:
Not participating in the 2012 London Olympics is a nightmare for every serious athlete, but for the Iranian women’s soccer team the defeat was extra bitter after they were disqualified right before a crucial qualifying match because they wore Islamic headscarves.
Ready to play a crucial Olympic qualifying match with Jordan in Amman on Friday, the Iranian team was dismissed by officials of the international football association, FIFA. The officials decided just before the kickoff that the tight headscarves the Iranian players were wearing to cover their hair broke the association’s dress code, FIFA said on Monday.
After Jordan was awarded a 3-0 victory, Iran’s players took to the field crying, Press TV, Iranian state TV’s English-language outlet, reported.
In the Islamic Republic of Iran all women are obliged to cover their hair, neck, arms and legs according to the state’s interpretation of Shiite Islamic tenets. Female athletes who compete internationally have to obey the country’s dress code. Iranian women athletes have excelled during international events in sports such as karate and volleyball, but are notably absent from sports such as swimming and gymnastics.
“This ruling means that women soccer in Iran is over,” said Shahrzad Mozafar, the team’s former head coach. She said that now that FIFA is no longer allowing Iranian women to wear scarves, the Iranian government will no longer send them abroad for competitions. “Headscarves are simply what we wear in Iran,” she said.
Well-played, FIFA. You continue to set a new standard for missing the point.

[Washington Post]
(h/t Deadspin)

Investment wisdom a la George Carlin

George Carlin was one of my favorite comedians growing up, and he remains so today even after his death three years ago (I can't believe it's been that long). In large part this was because my sportswriter father consulted Carlin on some of his sports-related comedy bits--and as a result our house was flooded with Carlin stand-up cassette tapes (yeah, it was before CDs and MP3s, I'm old, get over it)--but it was also because his dry, sarcastic wit resonated with me, and rubbed off significantly on my own developing sense of humor.

I was amused, then, to see a post at The Big Picture blog today with the theme of investment advice from George Carlin. A sampling:
Don’t confuse causation with correlation.
“Death is caused by swallowing small amounts of saliva over a long period of time.” ~ George Carlin
If you look hard enough for patterns and correlations, for better or worse, you’ll find them.  However a correlation should not be confused with causation. The winner of the Super Bowl, for example, does not cause a movement in stock prices.
Don’t try to outsmart the investor herd.
“Think of how stupid the average person is, and realize half of them are stupider than that.” ~ George Carlin
This wisdom extends upon the immediately preceding point.  While Mr. Carlin would advise not to confuse causation with correlation, his angle is that many people do confuse them.  There are just enough idiots that believe a Super Bowl win from the old American Football League is positive for the stock market and, as a result, they will buy stocks, hence causing a movement in stock prices.  No matter how much fundamental analysis you do, the psychology (and irrationality) of the herd can make all of your diligent and intellectual analysis useless in an instant.
Try not to live in a hypothetical world.
“What if there were no hypothetical questions?” ~ George Carlin
Most headlines in financial media are posed in the form of a question that no prudent person will spend significant time trying to answer.  Is the Bull Market Over?  Is This a Correction or the Beginning of a New Bear Market?  Should You Buy Gold Now?   Just remember that these questions are designed to get you to read the underlying article and that the media does not exist to provide useful information; it exists to sell advertising.  To accomplish this end, media sources must successfully distract you long enough to read their attractive hypotheticals.
Good stuff. I miss George Carlin, because he had a true gift in terms of being wickedly funny while also being uniquely insightful. It takes a smart man to be a consistently good comedian, and Carlin was certainly that. To consult his comedy for helpful words of wisdom is therefore not necessarily the worst idea in the world.

[The Big Picture]

Wednesday, June 8, 2011

Sorkin vs. Taibbi

If you've read me for a while, you'll know that I'm a big Matt Taibbi fan. I've excerpted his work at Rolling Stone here several times before, and I could've done so on multiple other occasions. He's crass, highly opinionated, and occasionally unfair--part of that can probably be attributed to the publication he writes for--but as a journalist he's absolutely top notch. He pulls no punches, is unafraid to take on big targets, and sets a new standard for research with his tireless due diligence on his articles.

I've got more complex feelings on the New York Times' Andrew Ross Sorkin (editor of Dealbook). I think he's also a terrific journalist, with incredible connections throughout the financial and business world. I've only read excerpts of Too Big to Fail--and haven't seen the HBO special that it inspired--but I enjoyed what I read and was left with an impression that it was well-researched and mostly fair. That said, Sorkin has a tendency to be a bit inconsistent in his analysis, at times seeming to play favorites in his coverage. It's that tendency that has now led to a showdown between him and Taibbi, which I think is fascinating to watch (and read).

On the topic of Goldman Sachs--Taibbi's biggest, most frequent, and clearly favorite target--Sorkin issued the first salvo with a passionate defense of CEO Lloyd Blankfein (he of the "we're doing God's work" decree).
The vampire squid haters won’t like this column.
For the past several weeks, I have been trying to understand if Lloyd C. Blankfein, Goldman Sachs’s chief executive, could have perjured himself — as Senator Carl Levin has suggested — when he testified last year in front of the Senate’s Permanent Subcommittee on Investigations and declared, “We didn’t have a massive short against the housing market.”
Based on the subcommittee’s report, which was referred to the Justice Department, I wrote a column raising questions about Mr. Blankfein’s comments. At the time, his testimony seemed ridiculous in the face of evidence that Mr. Levin presented, which showed that the firm had regularly made large bets against the subprime market.
But upon further reporting — talking with executives at Goldman, who pointed me to other documents, and with officials in Washington, and then poring through the report, following the footnotes to the original sources and then cross-referencing them against other public records — I have come to a different and perhaps unsatisfying conclusion for those readers looking for a big scalp: Mr. Blankfein wasn’t lying.
The "vampire squid" reference that Sorkin opened his piece with was a direct reference to Taibbi's most famous Goldman Sachs article, and it was probably an ill-advised bit of baiting by Sorkin. Not surprisingly, Taibbi punched back with serious force, tearing apart the foundation of Sorkin's defense of Blankfein.
I've been trying not to say anything bad about Andrew Ross Sorkin. I even made a point of not watching Too Big To Fail so as not to get upset -- and when I heard from friends that the film turned [former Goldman Sachs CEO and Treasury Secretary] Hank Paulson into Joan of Arc, that decision seemed to have been validated.
Now I’m bummed to see that Sorkin has written an elaborate defense of Goldman in the New York Times "Dealbook" section, arguing among other things that Lloyd Blankfein probably did not commit perjury and that the bank did not have a huge directional bet against mortgages in 2007. As evidence, Sorkin cites unsubstantiated Goldman documents and Goldman sources who claim, among other things, that the bank had $5 billion worth of long bets on MBS "in other parts of the company," offsetting the now-notorious "Big Short."
The Sorkin piece reads like it was written by the bank's marketing department, which may not be an accident. In November of last year, the New York Times announced that "Dealbook" was entering into a sponsorship agreement with a variety of companies, including ... Goldman, Sachs.
Yikes. Taibbi's intimation that Sorkin's defense was corporate-led was probably not a particularly careful accusation, and it may end up getting him in a little bit of trouble with the Times' lawyers, but I also don't think it's an irrelevant link.

The fact is, Goldman Sachs is well known for its heavy lobbying efforts in Washington, efforts that have led to a virtual revolving door between Washington and the Goldman executive suite (Hank Paulson being only the most obvious example). Given that dynamic, it's not at all unreasonable to wonder whether they would use similar tactics to exert their influence in the media world, and to therefore question Sorkin and the Times' motivations. Given the factual errors/misrepresentations that Taibbi cites later in his piece, it's pretty tough to come away from the Taibbi-Sorkin back-and-forth without at least feeling a little queasy about the Goldman-Times business partnership.

Graphic courtesy of McClatchy
I should mention here that I am an unabashed Goldman hater, and my leanings thus put me squarely in the Taibbi camp in this debate. While I have many close friends who either work or worked for Goldman, my experiences with the firm's behavior on the American Stock Exchange trading floor (via the "independent" brokers they retained) soured my opinion of them and their tactics, and the events of the past 3-4 years have only steeled my nauseous response to the Goldman name. Their duplicitous nature, their constant bullying, and their incessant insistence that they are vital to the world's existence and survival have turned me off for good, and the revelations of illegal (or at least unethical) behavior within the firm don't surprise me at all.

Regardless of your feelings, though, I find the showdown between two of the financial world's best journalists to be fascinating on multiple levels. It's the establishment paper (Times) versus the alternative-culture icon (Rolling Stone), the product of the Ivory Tower (Sorkin) against the working-class hero (Taibbi), et cetera, ad nauseum. And the fact that the target of so many people's ire (Goldman) finds itself caught in the middle only adds to the intrigue. Good stuff.

[NY Times]
[Rolling Stone]

Quote of the Week

Whoops. Wrote the Quote of the Week post yesterday but then forgot to post it. My bad. This one is another one of those out-of-the-blue Quote of the Week recipients, from a random article that was too amusing not to share.

I've touched on the issue of the ridiculous spending habits of people and their pets before, and I'm constantly shaking my head at the things that people will do for their animals (yes, I'm looking at you, Paris Hilton). As I wrote in my previous post on the topic, it's a little ridiculous to see people spending millions of dollars pampering their pets--in ways that those animals are completely incapable of appreciating--while thousands of dogs and cats are being euthanized for no good reason at shelters throughout the country.

Anyway, without further ado, here's your Quote of the Week, from a New York Times article that I highly suggest you read in its entirety.


“We actually saw that there was a gap in the market for beverages for dogs.”
            - Bonnie Senior, manager of Pet Pop of Australia

Pet Pop of Australia's response to this "gap in the market" was to introduce and sell a vitamin-infused "mountain spring water" for dogs, at an absolutely absurd price (the Times article says $3.30 a bottle, but the cheapest price I could find online was $4.95 AUD--over $5 US--for a 12-ounce bottle... so, more expensive than a beer at a typical bar).

In my humble opinion, sometimes there's a gap in a market for a reason--namely, it isn't a real market, or shouldn't be. No dog in the world needs vitamin-infused water, and any pet owner who pays that kind of a premium to get it deserves to be shot.

I'm sure there's plenty of "gaps" in the feline hospice care market, and I'm pretty sure they're not gaps that need to be filled. But good work, Bonnie Senior--you've got a great business there.

[NY Times]  
(h/t Marginal Revolution)