Thursday, May 31, 2012

Clip of the Week

Good solid week for clips this week. This guy swimming with a polar bear was pretty cool, and this celebrity illusion really messed with my head.

And since it's time for college baseball's postseason, we've got a few good clips coming from that world as well--like Vanderbilt's triple steal, which I've never seen before, and this absurd game-saving catch.

Also, I learned this week that the cat video meme dates back to the days of Edison, and that Tom Brady is hysterical. But this week's winner is a clip of something that I not only haven't seen before, but didn't even think was possible--Cincinnati Reds rookie Todd Frazier hit a home run on a play where he actually threw the bat at the ball. At the point of impact, Frazier isn't holding the bat at all. That's... amazing.

For this feat of oddly superhuman strength, Todd Frazier is the winner of this week's Clip of the Week.


Wednesday, May 30, 2012

Quote of the Week (I love Washington)

Washington, D.C. amuses me. The culture there is just... special. Having lived in New York for several years, I became used to the concept that everyone who lives there either thinks they own the world, or thinks they will some day. In D.C., a similar attitude prevails, except that everyone seems to think that they run the world, or some day will. That's an interesting distinction, but it makes for two vastly different cities and cultures.

This week's Quote of the Week is a brief window into the culture that is D.C., and it comes courtesy of Tyler Cowen of the Marginal Revolution blog, citing an article in Time.


"Most of the people who have moved to Washington since 2006 have been under 35; the region has the highest ­percentage of 25-to-34-year-olds in the U.S. 'We’re a mecca for young people,' [George Mason University economist Stephen] Fuller says. One recent arrival says word has gotten out to new graduates that Washington is where the work is. 'It’s a place where a ­liberal-arts major can still get a job,' she says, 'because you don’t need a particular skill.'"
                                               - Andrew Ferguson, Time 

That last sentence is somewhat terrifying to me, and I can't think that I'm alone in that regard--if our nation's capital is becoming the last refuge of our least skilled workers, then its days are almost certainly numbered.

I've written here before about the impending death of the liberal arts degree, and I don't think Washington or any other city has enough job-creating power to change that dynamic any time soon. I also don't think that Washington can survive for very long by continuing to be a mecca for people who "don't need" or "don't have" any particular skills.

While I don't think we should be encouraging our younger people to over-specialize at a young age, I also don't think that we should be producing thousands of unskilled workers every year who have no idea how to operate in any world outside of the weird little Washington bubble. Our education system is pretty badly screwed up, and this week's Quote is just one more piece of evidence.

[Marginal Revolution]

Friday, May 25, 2012

Song of the Week(end)

The long weekend can't get here soon enough, so I'm posting the Song of the Week(end) now, in hopes that it will get here sooner. This week, I'm going off the map with a random blast from the past. I heard the opening notes to this song playing on the old televisor this morning, and I realized I hadn't heard it in forever.

So here's some Cypress Hill, to take you all off into the weekend. Happy Memorial Day, people. See you all on Tuesday.

Still looking good, Arizona

Sure, I pick on Arizona here a lot, but let's be honest... they sort of ask for it. At any rate, when I looked at this map from Zillow showing the concentration of "underwater" mortgages in the country (remember, it's a lot easier to end up with negative equity when you hardly have any equity to begin with), Arizona really jumped out at me.

I expected to see a sea of red in California and Florida on this map, as well as in the Las Vegas area, but I was surprised to see the entire state of Arizona outlined so nicely for me, particularly when many of the surrounding states are almost perfectly clean. But so it is in Arizona, where they're seemingly still determined to scapegoat the immigrants for all of their problems.

Our increasing urbanity, revisited

In this post (which is amazingly 18 months old already, seems like I wrote it just yesterday), I talked about America's inexorable march toward city living, and the consequences of that increasing urbanity. I wondered whether cities themselves had become "too big to fail", and whether a reversal of the trend on the following chart was overdue.

I presented my opinion that technology should enable us to reverse that trend (think telecommuting), and to move out of the cities and back out to the countryside. But increasingly, it seems that my opinion is flat wrong... or at least way too early. Urbanization continues to sweep the globe, and there is no shortage of opinions that this urbanity is in fact the key to future economic growth.

While I personally question whether cities are in fact as efficient as they may seem (which I covered to some degree in my previous post), I certainly agree that the collaboration that occurs in those settings has consistently proven to be an essential aspect of innovation and societal progress. But maybe that's not the only reason our cities are growing--maybe, it's just out of economic necessity.
“Unfortunately for car companies,” Jordan Weissmann noted at a couple weeks back, “today's teens and twenty-somethings don't seem all that interested in buying a set of wheels. They're not even particularly keen on driving.” 
Now a major new report from Benjamin Davis and Tony Dutzik at the Frontier Group and Phineas Baxandall, at the U.S. PIRG Education Fund, documents this unprecedented trend across a wide variety of indicators. 
Their two big findings about young people and driving: 
- The average annual number of vehicle miles traveled by young people (16 to 34-year-olds) in the U.S. decreased by 23 percent between 2001 and 2009, falling from 10,300 miles per capita to just 7,900 miles per capita in 2009. 
- The share of 14 to 34-year-olds without a driver’s license increased by 5 percentage points, rising from 21 percent in 2000 to 26 percent in 2010, according to the Federal Highway Administration. 
Young people are also making more use of transit, bikes, and foot power to get around. In 2009, 16 to 34-year-olds took 24 percent more bike trips than they took in 2001. They walked to their destinations 16 percent more often, while their passenger miles on transit jumped by 40 percent. 
Part of the reason for this shift is financial. The report calculates the average cost of owning and operating a car as north of $8,700 dollars a year, and that was before gasoline passed $4.00 per gallon. In the wake of the financial crisis, many underemployed young people have decided that they either can’t afford a car or would rather spend their money on other things. The report cites a Zipcar/KRC Research survey, which found that 80 percent of 18 to 34-year-olds stated that the high cost of gasoline, parking, and maintenance made owning a car difficult.
Of course, living in a city makes eschewing a car much easier, which could be a contributing factor to our continuing urbanization. Furthermore, most of the jobs that help young people to quickly pay off debt are also concentrated in those urban settings, which makes them even more attractive. So in that sense, it's completely unsurprising to see that rather than fleeing cities, young people are flocking to them.

My expectation that technology would enable us to leave the city may indeed be wrong-headed. Maybe we CAN leave the city, but we just choose not to. And if we can figure out a way to grow food on a large scale in the city, there may in fact be no need at all for the rural settings of our past.

But for me, I'm more than happy to use technology to allow me to live out in my semi-rural setting (okay, fine, I live on the outskirts of a "city", but believe me... NYC this is not), avoiding the headaches that city living presented. It's not for everyone, clearly, but I enjoy being liberated from the city, and I suppose that choice alone is all that really matters. Technology affords us flexibility, and we can do with that flexibility what we choose.

[The Atlantic]

Thursday, May 24, 2012

Clip of the Week

Not a ton to work with this week, but just enough. First of all, as a former third baseman, this play by Josh Donaldson (yeah, I don't know who that is either) had me applauding. And Shaq cracks me up (but seriously, don't hire him as a GM... bad idea).

But this week's Clip of the Week goes to Kerry Wood, the former Cubs pitcher (if you don't know who he is, watch this) who retired last week in the most awesome way possible. On Friday morning, news hit the wires that Wood would be retiring effective immediately... but that he wanted to have one last appearance before he did. He got that appearance in that day's game, he struck out the only batter he faced, and the Wrigley Field organist played Frank Sinatra's "My Way" as he walked off the mound and hugged his son.

All endings in life should be this appropriate and awesome. Congrats to Kerry for his storybook ending and for a career that, while somewhat disappointing, was incredibly entertaining. I hope my eventual retirement is half as cool as his.

Tuesday, May 22, 2012

Quote of the Week

It isn't often the case, but this week we've got a loaded field for Quote of the Week. We had a fun fact about Greece as well as a random but interesting quote about government policy-making. I also came across an excellent quote from Karl Marx (yes, that Karl Marx) and another great rant from Ozzie Guillen, who cracks me up.

But today's Quote of the Week comes from the campus of Stanford University (and its football team), as relayed by Sports Illustrated's Andy Staples.


"Thanks to an anonymous donor, Stanford's Offensive Coordinator position will now be known as the Andrew Luck Directorship of Offense."
                                                     - Andy Staples, Sports Illustrated

That is excellent, and appropriately nerdy for Stanford. I wish Luck well in the NFL, if only because I would love for him to outplay Peyton Manning, whom I've always disliked. I'd also love for this trend to catch on, if only because I'd love to see Baylor hire the "Robert Griffin III Director of Defensive Indifference".


Public opinion surveys, too?

Last week, I ran a post arguing that just about all scientific studies (or at least, their "conclusions") were warmed-over B.S. designed to confuse a public with limited knowledge or understanding of statistics. This week, I came across an article from the Pew Research Center that indicated that public surveys are in danger of becoming similarly unreliable.
For decades survey research has provided trusted data about political attitudes and voting behavior, the economy, health, education, demography and many other topics. But political and media surveys are facing significant challenges as a consequence of societal and technological changes. 
It has become increasingly difficult to contact potential respondents and to persuade them to participate. The percentage of households in a sample that are successfully interviewed – the response rate – has fallen dramatically. At Pew Research, the response rate of a typical telephone survey was 36% in 1997 and is just 9% today. 
The general decline in response rates is evident across nearly all types of surveys, in the United States and abroad. At the same time, greater effort and expense are required to achieve even the diminished response rates of today. These challenges have led many to question whether surveys are still providing accurate and unbiased information. Although response rates have decreased in landline surveys, the inclusion of cell phones – necessitated by the rapid rise of households with cell phones but no landline – has further contributed to the overall decline in response rates for telephone surveys.
The folks at the Pew Center also included this handy chart, which shows just how much deterioration has occurred in just the last 15 years:

There's a lot more to the article than just that blurb, and I'll admit that I'm not fully doing it justice by focusing only on this one dynamic. But I think it's an incredibly important trend, and one that most people are completely unaware of--nobody really knows these days how their statistical sausage is made (let alone their actual sausage, but let's just leave that for another day).

The problem with unreliable public opinion surveys, much like unreliable scientific studies, is that their results often impact future behavior. For example, if I'm considering voting for Ron Paul in an upcoming election, but opinion surveys show that he is polling only about 10%, I'll likely re-consider my vote because he looks "unelectable", regardless of whether or not this is actually the case. On the flip side, a poll that overstates a candidate's popularity could perversely make him more popular among other voters (in fact, I'm pretty sure this is what happened with Rick Santorum). Therefore, public opinion surveys can at times become self-fulfilling prophecies, which is always a bit of a problem.

But response rate isn't even the only problem that opinion polls are currently facing. I've recently participated in multiple phone surveys (one political, one economic), and both times I was literally laughing at the questions as I heard them because they were structured in ways that couldn't possibly reflect my actual thoughts or beliefs--they required overly simplistic answers, or else falsely limited my universe of possible answers. (An example: one caller asked if I aligned myself more closely with the Republican or Democratic party platforms. I responded "neither", and she told me that wasn't an option. I asked her if she was serious. She said she was. I laughed and said fine, flip a coin for me. She refused. So I flipped a coin. It came up tails. I went with the Democrats.)

Our problem is that we've all become increasingly obsessed with data, even as the quality of that data has steadily declined. But if you demand that your data tell a story, they'll tell one for you, even if it's an imaginary story. With response rates this low, that's basically what public opinion surveys have become--imaginary stories to be reported in national news outlets as if they were real news. It's sort of sad, really.

[Pew Research Center]

Friday, May 18, 2012

Song of the Week(end)

This weekend, in honor of Facebook's IPO and the market in general, I'm going to send you all off with a little Blood, Sweat, and Tears with "Spinning Wheel". Because what goes up... must come down.

Have a good weekend, people. I'm scheduled to do some civic duty up at the federal court on Monday, so I probably won't be around. You'll survive without me, I promise.

(Almost) all studies are B.S.

Since I've written here so many times about bad math and bad science and how people use it to confuse the broader public (and often themselves), I felt the need to share this piece from Science Daily that backs up a lot of what I've been saying.
The largest comprehensive analysis of finds that clinical trials are falling short of producing high-quality evidence needed to guide medical decision-making. 
The analysis, published May 1 in the Journal of the American Medical Association, found the majority of clinical trials is small, and there are significant differences among methodical approaches, including randomizing, blinding and the use of data monitoring committees. 
"Our analysis raises questions about the best methods for generating evidence, as well as the capacity of the clinical trials enterprise to supply sufficient amounts of high quality evidence to ensure confidence in guideline recommendations," said Robert Califf, MD, first author of the paper, vice chancellor for clinical research at Duke University Medical Center, and director of the Duke Translational Medicine Institute.
People (and companies, and governments) these days are increasingly desperate for "data", but they generally don't have a clue how to interpret it--or, to handle the fact that most studies are, by their nature, "inconclusive". This Freakonomics post similarly pointed out another troubling trend, the increasing rate of research retractions (due to improper methodology, improper interpretation, or both).

Feeding off of that dynamic, journalistic outlets often find ways to massage or outright manipulate the "data" from these studies to suit their storytelling goals. There are, after all, a lot of ways that we can frame statistics in ways to make them misleading--there's the basic crime of omission, where we leave out a lurking variable that actually makes our "conclusions" meaningless, but there are countless other ways in which we can manipulate study results in ways that make them seem more meaningful than they are, or that obscure the actual truth of the matter (I'll save a deeper discussion for another day).

As consumers of media of various types, we all need to be incredibly careful about how we read study results when they are published. We need to educate ourselves about how the studies were performed, determine what the statistics are actually telling us, and decide how we should interpret those statistics, rather than allowing a biased party to mislead us with a headline interpretation. When you read an article that says (for example) that drinking coffee triples the risk of dying from a lightning strike, ask yourself whether that makes any sense at all, or whether there could've been something else going on that explained the study results.

Please, people, don't take "studies" at face value. There's just too many ways to manipulate the results, and too many people with too great an incentive to manipulate them. Remember, scientists who continually return "inconclusive" results from their studies generally won't keep getting grants to perform further studies. It's to their benefit (and can often bring great fame) to report incredibly surprising and unexpected study results--but that doesn't mean their "results" are in any way correct.

Be careful out there. Defrauding the public can be an incredibly profitable business, if you allow it to be. Educate yourselves, and don't buy into the scams. That way you'll be that much more capable of identifying the things you really have to worry about in the world. Like the penguins.

[Science Daily]

About that Facebook IPO...

Today's much-hyped Facebook IPO (see here for evidence of the hype) turned out to be the non-event of the year, as the stock (and the broader market) fizzled. As my main man Ted pointed out over on the Twitter, Facebook was one underwriter bid away from the most embarrassing IPO in history.

What does he mean by that? Here's two pictures that tell the whole story:

The first one is today's 1-minute chart for the stock, which literally looks like somebody cut off the bottom portion of the chart, right at its IPO price of 38. Charts aren't supposed to have floors like that.

The second picture tells you why that happened--it shows the bids and offers for Facebook stock during those few minutes (courtesy of BusinessInsider). I've circled the monstrous size of the 38.00 bid for you--that is so big that it could only be the underwriters of the IPO, protecting the stock to make sure that it didn't trade below the IPO price (which would be an epic embarrassment).

Without that bid, the stock easily could have traded down into the mid-30s if not lower.

I'll get back to my usually scheduled programming to send you into the weekend, but I felt like I had to share this, because I know a lot of you are (and were) following the hype on this one. Very, very strange day, and one that has to be somewhat ominous for Facebook and its shareholders.

Thursday, May 17, 2012

Clip of the Week

Busy couple of days, so I haven't been posting much. I've got a few ready to roll for tomorrow, so get ready for another "flurry of posts" into the weekend. Until then, it's time for Clip of the Week.

This week had a couple of fun sports-related clips, including this awesome day of soccer over in England. We also had an absurd MLB tirade (bad calls, sure, but easy fella...) and a six-year old kid turning an unassisted triple play. Sign him up.

Also, this girl made her prom dress entirely out of recycled soda tabs. So that's pretty cool, I guess.

But I like to give Clip of the Week to things that make me shake my head, and this... makes me shake my head. This is climber and daredevil Dean Potter, walking a tightrope across China's Enshi Grand Canyon. Don't look down, Dean. Don't ever look down.

Tuesday, May 15, 2012

Quote of the Week

My initial plan was to "award" Quote of the Week to the idiots at Our Lady of Sorrows in Arizona, who decided that their baseball team should forfeit the league championship rather than have their players take the field against a team that had a girl playing second base. This decision was made under the guise of respecting religious beliefs and teaching values to the kids, which is simply a laughable excuse. Either way, looking good, Arizona. You continue to amaze me.

But instead, I'm going to give a belated nod to Mother's Day to all the mothers out there, including my lovely wife who, incidentally, is the speaker of this week's Quote of the Week. Without further ado...


"You know, when you think about it, the Star-Spangled Banner is a lot like the Itsy-Bitsy Spider... they're both survivors".
                                    - My Wife

True enough.

One thing I've noticed in my incredibly brief time as a parent is that kids have a tendency to force you to look at the world in an oddly simplistic manner--through their eyes, really. Interestingly enough, you can often get some really amazing insights by thinking about life like a kid would.

The older we get, the more likely we are to accept some fairly irrational thoughts because "that's just the way it is". Why is the sky blue? Why do we have to go to work and make money? Why do we need money at all? Why do we do anything? There's something strangely clarifying about re-thinking all of your assumptions about the "real world", and I've been enjoying the ride so far. And if that means that I end up drawing parallels between our national anthem and a kids' song in the process, then so be it. It's fun.

So to all the mothers out there, I hope you all had a wonderful Mother's Day. And to my own mother, I hope I was as much fun to deal with as a kid as my daughter has been so far. And if I wasn't, I'm sorry. I'll just blame it on my older brother, because that's what younger siblings do.

Monday, May 14, 2012

How JPMorgan profited from its massive trading loss

Yes, the title of this post is intentionally nonsensical. That's because we have clearly crossed over from the bizarre into the downright absurd, as was pointed out in this item on the Sober Look blog.

For those in need of a primer, on Thursday evening JPMorgan disclosed a massive $2B trading loss in a portfolio whose ostensible purpose was to "hedge" underlying bank risk, though it clearly does nothing of the sort (read Barry Ritholtz for more on that point). The bank's stock price plunged nearly 10% on Friday, and its bonds were hit hard as well. That last part is where the crazy comes in.
With all the talk about JPMorgan's losses out of the CIO's office, nobody is discussing the money the firm made on Friday due to the accounting magic called DVA. After all, CIO's positions were (at least in principle) meant to act as an offset to this earnings volatility. 
As an example the chart below shows the price action for JPM's newly minted bond (issued just last month). It's a 4% coupon bond maturing in 20 years. 
Source: Bloomberg
With roughly $12bn of this bond outstanding, JPMorgan will record a gain of some $350MM based on Friday's price move just for this bond. It's important to note that this bond represents only a fraction of the $2.3 trillion balance sheet funding. Since the firm's long-term debt is some 12% of total liabilities, one can do a quick back of the envelope estimate. A two point drop (which is lower than the bonds above moved on Friday) in JPMorgan's long term bonds results in roughly $5bn in DVA gains. This more than offsets the reported losses on the CIO's portfolio. Welcome to accounting magic.
That is absolutely amazing. By disclosing a $2B trading loss and sending its own outstanding debt to the woodshed, JPMorgan will actually get to disclose a paper profit as a result (as they did last fall, along with just about every other bank).

The concept of DVA is simple, but also completely retarded. Essentially, the downward movement in the bond price is interpreted as reflecting an increased likelihood that JPMorgan will default on its outstanding debt. In bank accounting land, that means that it won't have to pay back money that it previously expected to have to pay... free earnings!

Of course, in order to ACTUALLY realize these "earnings", JPMorgan will have to actually default on its debt, which would tank the company in every way imaginable. But in the magical short-term world of bank accounting, a $2B trading loss can instantly transform itself into a big-time profit.

And hey, that $5B DVA gain that was calculated in the blog post assumed only a 2-point decrease in bond prices (i.e. from 100 to 98). Just imagine what JPMorgan's earnings would look like if their bond prices REALLY got whacked, like... oh, I don't know... Spain?

So remind me again, how exactly am I supposed to know when a bank is actually making money these days? And why should I ever trust a bank earnings report? Shaking my head...

[Sober Look]

Friday, May 11, 2012

Song of the Week(end)

There was really no question on this one. In case you missed it, Harvard Baseball blew up the internet this week, with this YouTube video that's already up over 3 million views. I think you could add up all the fans at all of the Harvard baseball games since long before I was there, and you'd still have trouble getting to 3 million views. Moneyball and 14 NCAA tournament appearances aside, this is quite possibly Harvard Baseball's finest hour. I'm so proud.

So here's to my old team, and to Carly Rae Jepsen, whose song has been in my head all week. Go Crimson.

Jay Leno's 3-D Printer

I've posted about 3-D printing here once before, and it's awesome. I don't particularly like Jay Leno (especially after what he did to Conan), but this is also awesome.
Jay Leno has a lot of old cars with a lot of obsolete parts. When he needs to replace these parts, he skips the error-prone machinist and goes to his rapid prototyping 3D printer. Simply scan, print and repeat. 
"One of the hardships of owning an old car is rebuilding rare parts when there are simply no replacements available. My 1907 White Steamer has a feedwater heater, a part that bolts onto the cylinders. It's made of aluminum, and over the 100-plus years it's been in use, the metal has become so porous you can see steam and oil seeping through. I thought we could just weld it up. But it's badly impregnated with oil and can't be repaired. If we tried, the metal would just come apart.  
So, rather than have a machinist try to copy the heater and then build it, we decided to redesign the original using our NextEngine 3D scanner and Dimension 3D printer. These incredible devices allow you to make the form you need to create almost any part. The scanner can measure about 50,000 points per second at a density of 160,000 dots per inch (dpi) to create a highly detailed digital model. The 3D printer makes an exact copy of a part in plastic, which we then send out to create a mold. Some machines can even make a replacement part in cobalt-chrome with the direct laser sintering process. Just feed a plastic wire--for a steel part you use metal wire--into the appropriate laser cutter.  
Inside the printer, the print head goes back and forth, back and forth, putting on layer after layer of plastic to form a 3D part. If there are any irregularities in the originals, you can remove them using software. Once the model is finished, any excess support material between moving parts is dissolved in a water-based solution. Complexity doesn't matter, but the size of the object does determine the length of the process. Making a little part might take 5 hours. The White's feedwater heater required 33 hours.  
Any antique car part can be reproduced with these machines--pieces of trim, elaborately etched and even scrolled door handles. If you have an original, you can copy it. Or you can design a replacement on the computer, and the 3D printer makes it for you. 
That is so completely awesome, and I can't wait for stuff like this to become more widespread (and it will, eventually, as resistant as we all may be to change).

When I see amazing innovation like this, I instantly become a little upset at our societal tendency to continually prop up old failed businesses with terrible business models (like airlines, banks, and car manufacturers). In order for our economy to make progress over the long run, we need to be willing to let older companies die off. In this case, traditional car repairmen would certainly resist the introduction of NextEngine scanners and printers on a wide scale. But if we cave to their concerns, we'll never get anywhere. This technology is awesome, and I want it.

[Popular Mechanics]

Clip of the Week

Alright, Clip of the Week time. You've actually got co-champions this week, but one of them I'm holding back for your Song of the Week(end). So stay tuned for that.

In the meantime, Bryce Harper is a tool but he amuses me. Go Nationals (and thank God one of my teams is playing well, because the Sox are killing me right now). We've also got one of the better internet video mashups I've seen in a while, combining the "Rent is Too Damn High" guy with the movie "Up". And SNL continued its recent revival with a vulgar but hilarious fake Mother's Day ad for Amazon.

But this week's Clip is going to be another one from the world of animals, because this clip is awesome. Note to current and aspiring parents: don't dress your kids up in outfits that make them look like baby zebras. It's not safe.


Thursday, May 10, 2012

Jon Huntsman and the (mayyyybe?) third party

This post has been chilling in the queue as a half-written draft for a couple of weeks now, but finally today I was inspired to finish and publish it (though it's a little shorter than I'd originally planned). The source of my inspiration was this post over at Politico, which I'll just let speak for itself:
Bristol Palin thinks it’s laughable that President Barack Obama’s children influenced his decision to support same-sex marriage. 
“While it’s great to listen to your kids’ ideas, there’s also a time when dads simply need to be dads,” Bristol, the eldest daughter of former Alaska Gov. Sarah Palin, wrote in a blog post titled “Hail to the Chiefs – Malia and Sasha Obama” on Thursday...  
"In this case, it would’ve been helpful for him to explain to Malia and Sasha that while her friends parents are no doubt lovely people, that’s not a reason to change thousands of years of thinking about marriage.  Or that – as great as her friends may be – we know that in general kids do better growing up in a mother/father home. Ideally, fathers help shape their kids’ worldview... 
Sometimes dads should lead their family in the right ways of thinking. In this case, it would’ve been nice if the President would’ve been an actual leader and helped shape their thoughts instead of merely reflecting what many teenagers think after one too many episodes of Glee."
Alright, that's it. I've had enough now. Regardless of what you think of Obama's statement yesterday (personally I agree with supporting same-sex marriage, but I have some issues with the timing and manner of his comments), I think what's really laughable is that Bristol f*cking Palin thinks that she's an appropriate person to be giving parenting advice to anyone, let alone our President.

The fact that this kind of stuff passes for political conversation these days with all of the significant problems that we're facing (ignoring) in our country right now is pretty sad, and it shows just how badly we need at least a third party, if not a complete overhaul of our political process. And maybe, just maybe, that's not too far off (here begins the original post).
“My first thought was, this is what they do in China on party matters if you talk off script.”  
Those words were spoken Sunday night by Jon Huntsman, the former Utah governor and Republican presidential candidate, in a public interview with me at New York’s 92nd Street Y. Huntsman was describing how his comments about the potential appeal of a third party got him disinvited to speak at a Republican National Committee event in Florida...
Why does this add up to a conviction on my part that Huntsman has one foot out the door of the Republican Party, and is likely placing a bet on his belief that a third party will be increasingly attractive to the electorate, perhaps not this year, but by 2016? 
One reason is how he contrasted Republicans from Teddy Roosevelt to Dwight Eisenhower to Richard Nixon with the current party orthodoxy. Could Ronald Reagan be nominated today? I asked. “Likely, no,” he said.  
And here’s what he said when a member of the audience posed this question to him: “Given the present direction and positions the party has taken ... is there room for people like you?” 
Well, he answered, “I’m sitting here as a Republican.” But after he talked with great enthusiasm about the rise of the unaffiliated voter and the challenge to the political duopoly, I posed one more question. 
“Why do I get the feeling,” I asked him, “that if we have this conversation a couple of years from now, you will not be sitting here as a Republican?” 
“Because,” he said with a smile, “you’re a good journalist.”
I suggest you read the whole piece, in part because it's tough to excerpt but also because it's generally interesting. I think Huntsman is far and away the most intriguing figure to have passed through the political realm this year--his knowledge and experience with China is particularly interesting and important, as is his take on scientific matters--and yet somehow he's not even the most popular Mormon in the Republican party right now.

I think Huntsman would have an easier time running as an independent (or trying to launch a third party), and I think he knows it. Our bizarrely polarized political climate has led to some truly strange outcomes and statements, with everyone oddly competing for fringe elements while largely ignoring the majority (well, a plurality anyway) of Americans.

I'm really not sure if a guy like Huntsman or Ron Paul or anyone who openly questions the two entrenched political parties can honestly gain any real traction in today's America, but I'm holding out hope. Because right now, I've got no idea who I want to vote for in November (or if I'm bothering to vote at all), so I'm waiting for inspiration. And I don't think I'm alone in that regard, although maybe I am.


Wednesday, May 9, 2012

On models

Last week, I wrote a couple of posts that touched on the usefulness of economic models (and other models) in our daily lives. I essentially argued that we need to take responsibility for our own decisions, rather than hiding behind spreadsheets and models that "tell us" what to do (and then asking for bailouts when the model gets things wrong). A quick reminder:
We all use models in our daily lives, because they help us to make sense of what are often very complex problems. Models simplify, organize, and categorize the variables in an uncertain world so that we can better understand the impacts of our decisions. But they DO NOT, ever, have the power to tell us what to do. You don't even need to know a thing about Black-Scholes (and trust me, a lot of people who should know a lot about it... don't) in order to accept that assertion as fact. 
The intelligent person knows to use a model only as a guide to confirm (or refute) what our intuition tells us. Very often, our painfully simple heuristic models (which you can learn or hear more about from Gerd Gigerenzer's speech, if you're a nerd like me) actually outperform very elegant statistical models. 
I still like what I said, but I came across an old line this week from statistician George Box that was significantly more efficient and eloquent than my rambling polemic. Said Box,
All models are wrong, but some are useful.
Yeah... that's what I meant to say. I think I'm gonna tack that one up on my wall, just in case I ever forget it.

The changing business of education

I've come across a couple of interesting articles recently that have made me wonder if (some) schools are actively anticipating the bursting of the student loan bubble, and responding in advance by streamlining their processes and making education less expensive (and more democratic). The most intriguing of these articles was cited in this post on the Marginal Revolution blog, discussing a new approach to math classes at Virginia Tech.
There are no professors in Virginia Tech’s largest classroom, only a sea of computers and red plastic cups. 
In the Math Emporium, the computer is king, and instructors are reduced to roving guides. Lessons are self-paced, and help is delivered “on demand” in a vast, windowless lab that is open 24 hours a day because computers never tire. A student in need of human aid plants a red cup atop a monitor. 
The Emporium is the Wal-Mart of higher education, a triumph in economy of scale and a glimpse at a possible future of computer-led learning. Eight thousand students a year take introductory math in a space that once housed a discount department store. Four math instructors, none of them professors, lead seven courses with enrollments of 200 to 2,000. Students walk to class through a shopping mall, past a health club and a tanning salon, as ambient Muzak plays... 
Virginia Tech students pass introductory math courses at a higher rate now than 15 years ago, when the Emporium was built. And research has found the teaching model trims per-student expense by more than one-third, vital savings for public institutions with dwindling state support. 
“When I first came here, I was like, ‘This is the dumbest thing ever,’” said Mike Bilynsky, a freshman from Epping, N.H., who is taking calculus. “But it works.” 
No academic initiative has delivered more handsomely on the oft-stated promise of efficiency via technology in higher education, said Carol Twigg, president of the National Center for Academic Transformation, a nonprofit that studies technological innovations to improve learning and reduce cost. She calls the Emporium “a solution to the math problem” in colleges.
This is an interesting development, particularly in light of Stanford and Harvard's recent decisions to begin streaming online courses for free to the masses over the internet.

While Stanford and Harvard's programs' ostensible purpose is to "democratize education", it's hard to understand why they would be so willing to give their product away for free (of course, we could argue that their real product is "diplomas", not "education", but that's an argument for another day). One answer might be that they're experimenting with new (and cheaper) ways of delivering their educational product to consumers, using the public as guinea pigs rather than their tuition-paying students. It's just a theory, but I think it makes a lot of sense.

The simple fact is, the traditional model of education (professor lecturing to a room full of bored students) has in many ways outlived its usefulness (a topic I first explored in this blog post). It's wildly inefficient, and it's now becoming overly expensive to deliver. Many schools on the cutting edge of education are wondering whether there might be a better model out there, and they're beginning to experiment with new options.

Granted, the schools are only doing this experimentation out of necessity, recognizing that the trend of ever-skyrocketing tuition costs simply cannot continue forever. If the schools don't adapt now, they risk being left behind (or left for dead) if and when the bubble bursts. But regardless of the reasons for the experimentation, the outcomes are nevertheless intriguing, and I'm interested to see if projects like the Math Emporium start to catch on elsewhere.

I'm certain that similar experiments will face an extraordinary amount of pushback in the short term (particularly from professors who earn their living from the old model), and maybe they should. But I'm hopeful that a new and more efficient higher education model awaits--and that I won't have to mortgage my house to send my daughter to receive it.

[Marginal Revolution]

Tuesday, May 8, 2012

Quote of the Week

I really, really, really wanted to give Quote of the Week to Berkshire Hathaway's Charlie Munger, who issued a bizarrely tone-deaf quote about the gold market this week that somehow managed to insult Holocaust-fleeing Jews in Vienna (among others). I also could have shared Tim Iacono's response, which pretty well summed up the strange arrogance of Munger's words.

But given that it's graduation season and about to be election season, I thought this "10 Things Your Commencement Speaker Won't Tell You" piece from the Wall Street Journal was a more seasonally appropriate source for this week's quote. The article itself is nice enough and probably worth a read--I actually think the guy makes some very solid points--but I initially had a lot of trouble getting past the author's first paragraph without shaking my head uncontrollably. Therefore, that first paragraph... is your Quote of the Week.


"I became sick of commencement speeches at about your age. My first job out of college was writing speeches for the governor of Maine. Every spring, I would offer extraordinary tidbits of wisdom to 22-year-olds—which was quite a feat given that I was 23 at the time."
                                      - Charles Wheelan, Wall Street Journal

That's brilliant--a 23-year old penning inspirational speeches to be delivered to 22-year olds, spoken as though they were informed by a lifetime of public service. That's pretty much politics in a nutshell, as far as I'm concerned.

It's not like any of this is news to me--I'm well aware that politicians' speeches and letters are essentially written for them by low-level staffers and strategists, which is why we rarely get anything out of them except for stale talking points. But doesn't it seem like our politicians, as public servants, owe us better than that?

We seriously need to get away from politics-as-usual (including political-speeches-as-usual) and get back to focusing on simply good governance--there IS a way to separate the two, I promise. Maybe someday soon we'll see that it's not only possible but necessary to do so.

[Wall Street Journal]
(h/t Falkenblog)

YouTube takes over the music industry

Given that I've posted about the rapidly changing music industry a few times before, I was intrigued by my old friend The Red Cowboy's post this morning about the increasing number of musical acts that are getting discovered on YouTube these days. He wrote:
You've all seen the video of the group playing one guitar and singing Gotye's Somebody That I Used to Know and it's extremely impressive. I didn't post the video here because the song simply isn't one of my favorites but on a long drive to Louisville this weekend one of my buddies shared with me that they cover a bunch of songs. So check out Walk off the Earth because some of their other covers are more impressive than the Goyte one, like this one... 
As you can see the video is from October of 2010 and this just goes to show what YouTube has done to the music industry. Soon to be gone are the days of touring to get noticed and here is a time where you can make a name for yourself and get signed by playing on YouTube.  The one thing that I really enjoy about these successful covers is that the bands tend to be really, really good musicians which is something that has been sorely missing from mainstream music. I'm looking at you Beiber.
I thought the Cowboy's take in the second paragraph there was both interesting and ironic, and I couldn't help but post a comment on his blog, which I'll reprint here:
It's ironic that you finish off your post with a shot at Bieber, who (along with Soulja Boy) basically pioneered the YouTube-to-stardom path in the music industry.  
You'll still see plenty of untalented acts in the YouTube-ized music industry (see Rebecca Black). In fact, you'll probably see more of them than ever before, because there's no need for a label to make any upfront investment. But it's also less likely that true talent will remain undiscovered for very long, and that's a good thing. Unfortunately, I don't think we can get the good without accepting some of the bad. Nature of the beast.
Progress in the music industry has been and will continue to be uneven, as it tends to be in all areas of society and the economy. Sometimes good developments bring unintended consequences along with them, and we simply have to accept those unintended consequences (or else figure out how to deal with them).

In the case of the music industry, YouTube has helped break down the significant barriers to entry that previously existed (and those barriers were stronger in the music world than in almost any other industry). That means that it's easier for ALL artists--both talented and untalented--to get noticed these days. Sometimes, it's difficult for us to sort out the good from the bad, especially since we as consumers aren't used to having to do this kind of sorting (we're accustomed to having been force-fed whatever the labels wanted to sell).

Untalented acts like Rebecca Black will sometimes find a way to slip through our filters, and we won't necessarily pick up on all of the truly talented acts that are out there. There will be growing pains as the artists and consumers both adjust to the new paradigm, but I think it's clear that the more democratic system is better for all parties in the long run. But in the meantime, we're probably going to have to deal with more crappy music, not less. So be it.

[The Red Cowboy]

Monday, May 7, 2012

More on life inequality

Racking up $4,000 monthly restaurant tabs didn't impress you? You didn't care for the private plane transportation to summer camp? Don't worry, there's more...
The trend of celebrity-style pet pampering is one the rise, producing ever-greater demand for freakily fancy products and services. You can fly dear Fido in high style on a specially outfitted pet airline. Whiskers can relax in gold-plated splendor at Disney’s recently launched Best Friends Pet Care luxury dog and cat resort. An attentive "certified" camp counselor will care for his every whim. 
But the biggest emerging trend of all? That would be giving dead pets the star treatment. Even in a sluggish economy, companies are making a fortune from the rituals and services sought by grieving pet owners. Clever marketers are finding new ways to give adored pets a glamorous send-off into the afterlife... 
The modest backyard burial has given way to the professional ceremony, complete with lace-trimmed casket and religious readings. If you’ve ever seen documentary-maker Errol Morris’s indelible Gates of Heaven, you know that pet cemeteries have been around for a few decades. But the International Association of Pet Cemeteries and Crematories in Georgia reports that pet funerals are dramatically increasing. 
In the U.S., costs for a pet funeral starts at around $800 — and sky’s pretty much the limit from there. The "Royal Pet Casket," boasting three layers of foam and waterproof materials, is sold on the PetHeavenExpress Web site for $458. The elegant "Gold Cherry Blossom Hour Glass Cremation Urn," available from Perfect Memorials, comes in at $499.95. Does all that seem a bit cheap for Precious? Then go Nile-style and have your dog mummified for $30,000. Freeze-dried preservation is a less expensive option, but it will still run you several hundred dollars. 
Perhaps you’d prefer to wear your dead pet. You can do that by having the corpse rendered into a synthetic diamond with a company called LifeGem. For realz.
This is good stuff, especially when you read that 25% of Americans expect to out-work their own life expectancy. Good times.

Granted, just because somebody's selling this dumb shit doesn't actually mean anyone's buying it--but hey, it's worth a shot, right? On the plus side, maybe we can solve our long-term unemployment problem by simply creating more pet-related businesses...

[Naked Capitalism]

10 years ago today...

No, I can't believe this was 10 years ago. I'm getting old. I also can't believe that fat Derrick Coleman was the second-leading scorer on that Sixers team, or that Matt Harpring started 81 games for them. If I was Iverson, I would've lost my mind months before this rant. Either way, enjoy.


Friday, May 4, 2012

A quick word on Mariano

One last quick post and then I'm done for the weekend (seriously, I'm done... four posts in one day is out of control for me, and somehow I still haven't worked down my backlog of old material at all).

I just wanted to say a brief word about Yankees closer Mariano Rivera, who might well have ended his career last night when he tore his ACL shagging flies during pre-game batting practice. Despite my obvious Red Sox bias, I've never had anything but the utmost respect for Rivera, something I've made clear here on two previous occasions. As I wrote in one of those posts,
Despite his playing for the Yankees, I respect and admire Mariano. Like many other Dominican [uh, sic] ballplayers, he came from almost literally nothing and therefore has a terrific attitude about the game. His utter lack of a sense of entitlement is refreshing, and it comes across in every interview that he conducts (like this one, which is a personal favorite). He truly seems to appreciate how lucky he is to get paid his huge salary to do what he does, and I wish there were more athletes like him.
I of course realize that I'm a complete idiot, because Rivera is from Panama, not the Dominican Republic (which I knew all along, but somehow screwed up in that post because I was thinking of Pedro Martinez... stupid Red Sox bias). But my points still stand--I can't think of many other Yankees that would be as gracious in defeat as Mariano was in 2004/2005. Rivera is humble, laid-back, friendly, and--to hear my father tell it--incredibly good at dealing with the media. Guys like Mariano are the reason we watch sports, regardless of our affiliations as fans.

At any rate, the brutal irony of Mariano's injury is that it was a well-articulated dream of his to play center field for the Yankees at least once before he retired. Now, he may never get his chance, all because of an injury that was sustained while "playing" center field. For a guy with as accomplished a career as his, it's a shame if this is how it all ends.

To honor Mariano, I'll now post the Clip of the Week that never was, a clip of the man showing us all how to make a baseball glove out of a cardboard box. This is useful info, people... take notes.


Song of the Week(end)... R.I.P. MCA

I had a song all ready to go for the weekend, but now it looks like that one's going to have to wait a week or so. That's because earlier today, founding member of the Beastie Boys Adam Yauch (better known as MCA) passed away at age 47 from cancer of the salivary gland.

Therefore, I have no choice but to recognize this sad news (what a crappy week, huh?) by honoring MCA with a Beastie Boys tune. Let's go with "Fight For Your Right", an appropriate enough song heading into the weekend. R.I.P., MCA. Your music survives you.


The carbon footprint of flowers (WTF??)

I was listening to this Freakonomics podcast yesterday when I heard host Stephen Dubner offer up a factoid that absolutely shocked me.
With Mother’s Day coming up, we thought it’d be interesting to look at the cut-flower industry. Americans spend about $12 billion a year on them. Mario Valle, a wholesaler at the L.A. Flower District, tells us that Mother’s Day is easily his biggest day of the year: “It’s 30 percent of my year. Everyone has a mother!”  
So where do all those flowers come from? It turns out that about 80 percent of all cut flowers sold in the U.S. are imported. The leading producers are Colombia, Ecuador, and Costa Rica, places where the sun shines roughly 12 hours a day, year-round. The flowers must be refrigerated immediately after they’re cut; most are flown to the Miami International Airport, which handles about 187,000 tons of flowers a year, and then trucked to their destination. 
We live in a day and age where people are obsessed with “food miles” and the carbon footprint of everything they consume. So where is the outrage over these globe-trotting Mother’s Day flowers? 
You read that right... the flowers are flown to Miami, and then TRUCKED all the way across the country to Los Angeles, where Mario sells them to local florists and other mother-lovers. You can only imagine how much fuel is used in a year to bring these flowers from Costa Rica to our lovely mothers and wives for Valentine's Day, Mother's Day, anniversaries, etc.

It says a lot about our modern society that we actually have to think about the carbon footprint of flowers--somewhere along the line, I think we got some things backwards here.

It's amazing how infrequently things like this are mentioned when we discuss our nation's energy policy and what we can do to become more energy-independent. Ultimately, very few of us spend any time at all thinking about how the things we buy end up in the stores we buy them from (not to mention thinking about energy hogs in our own homes). If we did, we might make different decisions.

Sure, we might intellectually know that our toys are "Made in China" or that the shrimp we're buying is from somewhere in Vietnam (or, if they have no eyes, Louisiana).  But do we actually think about who exactly is farming those shrimp, or how they're managing to get them all the way to us in the middle of the United States (or how long it takes, or how much fuel it requires, or how many people touch those shrimp along the way)? Usually, the answer is no. So how can we be expected to change our behaviors if we simply don't know what exactly is going on (and might have trouble finding out even if we wanted to)?

For my part, the Freakonomics podcast certainly made me think twice about buying flowers for my mother this year. Yes, I probably still will, because I'm in Virginia and she's in Massachusetts and what the hell else am I going to do, but there has to be a better way... right?


On Junior Seau and smoking

I'm still shocked by the news of Junior Seau's suicide on Wednesday. Seau was well-liked at every step of his career (this anecdote gives you a pretty good idea of why), and his premature death is an unspeakable tragedy, especially to those in his hometown of San Diego. It's even more troubling to learn that Seau followed in the lead of Dave Duerson by shooting himself in the chest, so that his brain could be studied to better learn the impact of head trauma (concussions) on long-term mental health.

Naturally, incidents like the Seau suicide tend to spur many of us into action, in hopes that we can learn some kind of lesson that will help prevent future tragedies. That reaction was evident in the following Twitter post from Hall of Fame running back Emmitt Smith, re-tweeted by Sports Illustrated columnist Peter King:

Smith makes a fair point, but as I replied to him (and King), the information is, for the most part, there--it's just that many players choose to ignore it, because their careers often depend on such ignorance.

Concussion awareness organizations like the Sports Legacy Institute (founded by Chris Nowinski, a former pro wrestler whom I knew in college) have existed since the mid-2000s, inspired by a growing body of evidence surrounding head trauma. Their findings have clearly had an impact on the NFL, and the league has tried its best to respond to their recommendations.

To be fair to players like Seau and Smith (not to mention Duerson), their careers began and essentially ended before they could have benefited from the most recent research. But there's no excuse for current players to be engaging in this kind of behavior, given the NFL's new emphasis on preventing serious head injuries:
A four-month look at how the NFL handles concussions in a more tightly controlled environment shows that following the new rules remains extremely arbitrary. Many times, players ignore them. Sometimes, teams do. In other instances, there is a pact between the two to skirt them. 
While NFL teams have enacted smart and thorough mechanisms to help players deal with the dangers of concussions, some have found a way around them by simply waving off doctors on the hits that aren't clearly visible or where the player doesn't lose consciousness. Some are hiding concussion symptoms from doctors, players said in dozens of interviews. 
"In some cases, if you avoid the doctors, you can avoid the concussion exams," one AFC North player said, "and the doctors know you're avoiding them, but let you." 
Said one player, who is also a player representative: "The concussion rules are the best they can be. The league and the union have done a good job protecting players, but the truth remains, players are still hiding concussions, because they want to protect their careers. In some cases, teams know a player is concussed and let it go. Yes, that still happens." 
The NFL and players union might soon respond to holes in the policy by placing independent doctors on the sidelines during games, taking the decision out of the hands of the interested parties: the teams and players. But until then, some players will continue to put themselves at risk by doing whatever they can to stay on the field.
In this regard, I see significant parallels between concussions in the NFL and the smoking of cigarettes.

In this day and age, everyone knows the dangers of smoking, and everyone (at least, everyone in the NFL) knows the dangers of football and concussions. But for various reasons, people continue to light up, just like they continue to buckle up their chinstraps and take the field. Simply put, some people just don't care about the risks--they want the rewards. That's why people continue to take steroids, and it's also why people continue to invest in the stock market (though that's probably a topic best left for another day).

The only way this dynamic will change is if people stop watching football because of incidents like the Seau suicide, whether as a means of protest or simply out of disgust. Until that day comes, the rewards of an NFL career will continue to be so great (particularly for uneducated or under-educated kids from lower class families) that many players will simply overlook the risks, hoping that maybe they'll be one of the lucky ones.

Simply knowing about the risks isn't enough to prevent future tragedies like the Junior Seau story--knowing is indeed half the battle, but that still leaves the other half. We as a society need to actually respond to those risks in a way that affects future behavior. Otherwise, we'll be doomed to learn nothing from the Seau tragedy, just as many of us learned nothing from millions of smoking-related deaths around the world over the past few decades.

In a sense, maybe that's okay. NFL players are consenting adults, and if they choose to put themselves in harm's way despite knowing the risks, then that's certainly their choice. But we shouldn't pretend that they don't know better, because by now, they absolutely do. If nothing else, Junior Seau's death has at least assured us of that much. Hopefully, it will do even more.

[CBS Sports]

Thursday, May 3, 2012

Clip of the Week

I'm working on a couple of other posts that I should hopefully have ready for tomorrow (another flurry of posts to send you into the weekend, one of which concerns the shocking and tragic news about Junior Seau from yesterday), but until then, it's Clip of the Week time.

The NBA Playoffs are underway, which... yeah, I'm really having a hard time caring about, especially since Derrick Rose got hurt. Stuff like this from LeBron James makes me care even less, although I do get a kick out of Rajon Rondo (at least when he's not trying to fight refs).

Luckily, basketball isn't the only sport in town... we've got soccer, which produced yet another ridiculous goal, and also an awesome tennis/soccer hybrid that unfortunately only exists in the imaginary world of Nike advertising. We've also got baseball... which... well... sometimes umpires get things wrong.

This polar bear is happy to provide your weekly animal-related clip, and Barry Ritholtz shares yet another brilliant Jon Stewart takedown of political hypocrisy. You'll find this video entertaining if you're into economics or you're otherwise a nerd (which you're probably not, so I don't know why I'm posting it), and this time-lapse of a young girl growing up from newborn to 12 years old is mesmerizing, especially for the father of a newborn (and rapidly growing) daughter. Which I am, and you're probably not.

Alright, whatever. Those last two videos may not have been relevant to all of you, but this week's Clip of the Week certainly will be. It will also make you never want to step onto an airplane again. You're welcome.

Wednesday, May 2, 2012

Catching up on old drafts (a link dump)

I recently promised you all that I had a huge backlog of post-worthy material that I hadn't yet gotten around to writing about. Well today, I took a look at my unfinished draft posts... and it turns out I've got 17 of them, just from the last six weeks. Yeah, I may have the best of intentions, but there's no way I'm going to make it through a 17-post backlog without doing a link dump. So... here goes nothing.

Why Don't Women Patent?
Alex Tabarrok; Marginal Revolution

In this blog post, Tabarrok passes along a recent NBER paper that argued that if women studied science and engineering at the same rate as men, our total number of patents would increase by 24% and GDP would increase by 2.7%. Tabarrok points out that this argument is incredibly specious on multiple levels, and he mocks the finding by suggesting that if we churned out more female construction workers, the construction industry would boom and we would be building tons more houses.

While gender inequality is a serious issue that requires deeper discussion, doe-eyed (and naive) estimates like these only cheapen the argument. I'm reminded of Rob Reid's brilliant TED talk on the "$8 billion iPod", which points out the absurdity of "Copyright Math". This NBER study seemingly suffers from many of the same statistical shortcomings, and Tabarrok and I think it's another clear example of bad math.

Yelp, You Cost Me $2000 by Suppressing Genuine Reviews, Here’s How You Fix It 
Justin Vincent;

Justin Vincent passes along his personal story about how Yelp's user reviews caused him to make a terrible decision when choosing a moving company, largely because the site's algorithms had blocked a number of negative user reviews that were, in fact, genuine.

I think this is an interesting follow-up to my previous post about "astroturfing" and the difficulties of determining which web product reviews are legitimate, and which aren't. I think we're all still figuring this puzzle out (both as companies and as consumers), and until we do figure it out, our best bet is simply to rely on good old word-of-mouth marketing. Yes, I mean word-of-mouth from real actual people that we know and talk to, not faceless "people" on the internet...

For Regulars and Restaurants, Many Happy Returns
Richard Morgan; Wall Street Journal

The Wall Street Journal's Richard Morgan shares a feel-good story about a loyal New York City man (Bruce Davis) who sits down at the same bar stool at the same Greenwich Village restaurant every night of his life, racking up an average of... wait a minute, $4,000 a MONTH in charges? Are you serious?

If ever there was an article that displayed the obvious gap in our country between the haves and have-nots, this article was it. Recall that median HOUSEHOLD income in the United States is just a hair over $30,000 (in pre-tax dollars, of course), while Mr. Davis spends nearly $50,000 in after-tax money at one restaurant alone. Yes, Mr. Davis' America is not most people's America, but then again, the Wall Street Journal is not most people's newspaper. It's been making that fact abundantly clear in recent months...

Joey Votto's New Contract Is Like a Mortgage-Backed Security
Jack Dickey; Deadspin

This post from Deadspin almost certainly deserves better than to be buried here at the bottom of a link dump, but so be it. In discussing Joey Votto's monster contract extension from the Cincinnati Reds in early April, Dickey made the comparison to a mortgage-backed security. I didn't see the parallels at first, but he did a terrific job of laying them out, and I think that the whole piece is worth a read, especially if you're a cable TV subscriber (yes, this impacts you whether or not you're a sports fan).

This just may be the best piece of sports-related journalism I've read so far this year--it in fact crosses over into financial territory, and it makes a whole lot of sense (it's also sort of terrifying). Given that the recent eye-popping $2 billion purchase of the Los Angeles Dodgers by a Magic Johnson-led group used similar modeling assumptions (and we know those are never wrong, right?), it's clear that the math around cable rights fees is a very pertinent topic. Read this piece and you'll understand how you're footing the bill for Joey Votto's contract, even if you don't know who Joey Votto is.