Posts tagged ‘game’

Government Agencies Run For the Benefit of Their Employees

I have written before that the single best framework for explaining the actions of most government agencies is to assume they are run for the benefit of their employees.  This certainly seems to be the case at the FAA, which can't over 10+ years complete a modernization of its computer system or match free, private Internet tools for flight tracking, but it was able to very quickly publish a web application to promote the danger of the sequester.  Public service is not even on these guys radar screens, as they have shown themselves completely willing to screw the public in a game of chicken to get more funding back for their agency

But after Mr. Coburn published his letter on his website, FAA regional employees wrote to blow the whistle on their bosses. As one email put it, "the FAA management has stated in meetings that they need to make the furloughs as hard as possible for the public so that they understand how serious it is."

Strategies include encouraging union workers to take the same furlough day to increase congestion. "I am disgusted with everything that I see since the sequester took place," another FAA employee wrote. "Whether in HQ or at the field level it is clear that our management has no intention of managing anything. The only effort that I see is geared towards generating fear and demonstrating failure." Just so.

The End of Full-Time Work in the American Retail Service Sector

My new Forbes article is up, and it is on my favorite under-reported story, the end of full-time work in the American retail sector

I don’t generally publish end-of-year predictions, mainly because I usually am wrong (a failing that does not seem to prevent any number of others from doing so, however).  But last year I made an exception when I predicted that the biggest economic story of 2013 would be the death of the full-time job in the American retail service sector.

But this was not really an exception to my rule about predictions, because this was not really a prediction at all, at least in the sense that a “prediction” is an educated guess of some future uncertain event occurring.  Late last year, within the service world, this change was already occurring – at restaurants, at hotels, and in retail stores, managers were already formulating plans.  In a large sense, by making this prediction, I was betting on the score of a game that had already been played — all we are doing now is waiting for the media to catch up and report the results to the public at large....

The tree fell in the forest months ago, but it is only just now being heard.

Sorry, link was broken, now fixed

+1 For Twilight Struggle

I have written before about how much I enjoy the physical board game Twilight Struggle.  This is not really going out on a limb, since it has occupied the #1 spot at BoardGameGeek for a while.  But over the last 3 months my son and I became totally addicted.  He is at college, but we played online via the terrific Twilight Struggle add-on in the VASSAL gaming engine  (all free).  Very highly recommended.

Some Gaming Reviews: SimCity, Bioshock Infinite

First, an update on SimCity.  I am a huge SimCity series fan from way back.  I was excited by the new release, which turned out to be a total disaster.  I wrote several weeks ago about the horrendous decision to make SimCity an always-online game, which led on day 1 to the game being unplayable for most because of server problems and overloads at EA.

Since that time, they have (mostly) fixed the server overload issues and I have been able to play.  Sort of.  The game is beautiful and the interface is pretty nice.  And the game tantalizing retains many of the elements that made the previous games so compelling to some of us.  But in the end, the game is a fail.

First, it is full of bugs.  One horrible bug ensures that over time, almost every city you build will crash on the online server.  The only solution is to accept a rollback to an earlier state, though every once in a while this leads to a total city loss.

Beyond that, almost every element of the game is broken.  Sims will suddenly stop going to school, and complain about there being no education when an empty school is right across the street.  City water tables can be drained in a matter of months, making a city unplayable -- one can avoid this only by putting their sewer plant right by their water supply.  Certain city specializations added to the game, like gambling, don't work right.   Meteor showers cities every few months and can't be turned off.  etc. etc.

It may be that this game will be playable in 6 months or so, but even then I fear that the EA team has simplified the game so much and removed so many options to appeal to the mass market XBOX set that the wonky complexity many of us enjoyed in early games will never be there.  In particular, city size is limited such that in about 20 minutes of play I can completely fill the city space.  All that one can even do with the game after that is just sit and watch density increase and expand a fire station or two as the population grows.  In fact, a lot of the game for me runs unattended, since EA had to turn off the fast speed mode.  The city now needs to just run for hours for anything to happen, so I resorted to leaving it on in the other room and checking back on it every hour or two.

Oh, and by the way.  The highly touted multiplayer features are a bad joke.  Someone in the business department told developers that the game had to be online for piracy protection, and told them to go develop some game features that justified this decision so they could tell users that the online requirement was really for their benefit and not for copy protection.  Well, they failed.

Bioshock Infinite.   I don't play a lot of first person-shooter style role-playing games, but my son talked me into playing the new Bioshock.  He has played a lot of this genre (e.g. the Mass Effect series) and said that this was the best he had ever played.  This evaluation may be in part due to his fascination with strange dystopic visions of society, because we certainly get one in this game (as in each of the Bioshock series).

I am not every far into it but I will say that is a fun experience.  So far I would say it was less of a game and more of an immersive novel -- WTF is this place I am in and what is going on.   The environment is really fascinating to explore.  I am still trying to figure out the back story, but piecing it together is a fun process.  Already I have been to several memorable locations.

SimCity 5 Now Has 1402 1-Star Reviews on Amazon

As of tonight, the new SimCitygame is still unplayable due to overloaded servers and numerous bugs even when one is on the server.  Today, the manufacturer purposely defeatured the product in a patch to try to get it to work.  As I predicted the other day, this product was not ready for market.

Update:  Via Game Skinny, this may be an example of some of the worst customer service I have ever seen.  The makers of SimCity in a press release tells users they may request a refund.  When a customer requests the refund, he is told that he can request it, so the press release is not lying, but they are not going to process it.  Unbelievable.  Extra credit for the fact that those who bought from Amazon can get a prompt and immediate refund, but those who bought directly from the manufacturer, like me, are stuck.

click to enlargeFurther, it is becoming increasingly clear that the multiplayer capabilities that supposedly require the server login are a sham - a very very thin shell of functionality that adds almost nothing to the game but provides the excuse for always-online DRM.

 

Massive SimCity 5 Fail

First, I have always enjoyed the SimCity games.  Sure, I know that these games take a planning and technocratic control approach that I find distasteful in real life, but I enjoy playing first-person shooters as well despite being a pacifist.

So I have been extremely disappointed in their implementation of their new version.  In this sort of mad rush to be like all the other games out there, SimCity built in a multi-player mode where you play online interacting with neighboring cities run by other players.   This is all fine as far as it goes, thought the appeal escapes me so far.

But the true fail is that they require players to log in and play online on their servers, even when playing solo.  What was an irritant yesterday became an enormous mess today, as every North American server for the game is full.  Run the game, and you immediately get hit with a pop-up window with a counter forcing you to wait in what is at least a 20-minute queue before you can play.  There is no offline mode - even if your intent is to play solo, you have to wait for a spot to open up on their multi-player servers.

At this point I would seriously recommend that you wait before buying this game.  Combined with other irritants (the game is not available on Steam, you have to use Origins far inferior proprietary clone), and the game's high price, I am sorry I pre-ordered and did not wait for reviews to come in.  It may eventually be a good game, but I am not going to pay $70 to stare at a 20-minute count down clock every time I want to play.

Update:  Most online games allow players to pre-load the game several days prior to when the servers are turned on.  This smooths out the load on the download servers.  Apparently Origin did not do this, and the servers for downloads crashed yesterday (these are different from the play servers which are full today).  Apparently Origin was still "polishing" the code right up to the hour of launch, which is code for, "this is likely still a bug-filled mess."

One Reason the Press is Always So Statist

Why is the media always so deferential to the state?  The reasons may be in part ideological, but there is a public choice explanation as well -- the state (particularly local police and crime stories) generate most of its headlines, and so they have a financial incentive to retain access to the source of so much of their content.

Perhaps even more revealing, though, was this:

To start, [San Diego County Sheriff's Office] spokeswoman Jan Caldwell explained to the room full of journalists why it is so important to be nice to her: "If you are rude, if you are obnoxious, if you are demanding, if you call me a liar, I will probably not talk to you anymore. And there's only one sheriff's department in town, and you can go talk to the deputies all you want but there's one PIO."

Here we have the heart of the matter. "Professional" journalists may, indeed, be brilliant, talented, well-trained, professional, with an abiding appetite for hard-hitting but neutral reporting. Yet professional journalists also depend on relationships. Ms. Caldwell calls that fact out, sending law enforcement's core message to the press: if you want access, play the game.

The game colors mainstream media coverage of criminal justice. Here's my overt bias: I'm a criminal defense attorney, a former prosecutor, and a critic of the criminal justice system. In my view, the press is too often deferential to police and prosecutors. They report the state's claims as fact and the defense's as nitpicking or flimflam. They accept the state's spin on police conduct uncritically. They present criminal justice issues from their favored "if it bleeds it leads" perspective rather than from a critical and questioning perspective, happily covering deliberate spectacle rather than calling it out as spectacleThey accept leaks and tips and favors from law enforcement, even when those tips and leaks and favors violate defendants' rights, and even when the act of giving the tip or leak or favor is itself a story that somebody ought to be investigating. In fact, they cheerfully facilitate obstruction of justice through leaks. They dumb down criminal justice issues to serve their narrative, or because they don't understand them.

This "professional" press approach to the criminal justice system serves police and prosecutors very well. They favor reporters who hew to it. Of course they don't want to answer questions from the 800-pound bedridden guy in fuzzy slippers in his mother's basement. But it's not because an 800-pound bedridden guy can't ask pertinent questions. It's because he's frankly more likely to ask tough questions, more likely to depart from the mutually accepted narrative about the system, less likely to be "respectful" in order to protect his access. (Of course, he might also be completely nuts, in a way that "mainstream" journalism screens out to some extent.)

Which is why, despite Joe Arpaio's frequent antics that make national news, it falls to our local alt-weekly here in Phoenix rather than our monopoly daily paper to do actual investigative reporting on the Sheriff's office.

US Doctor Salaries

Kevin Drum thinks he has found the smoking health care gun - US doctors are paid more than everyone else.  That is why we have too-expensive medical care!  A few quick thoughts

  • I am the last one to argue that doctors salaries are set anywhere like at a market clearing price.  Our certification system, crazy third-party payer systems, lack of price transparency, and absurd arguments over the "doc fix" and Medicare reimbursement rates all convince me that doctor salaries must be "wrong"
  • The charts he shows have absolutely no correction for productivity, at least as I read the methodology.  Per the text, they don't even have correction for hours worked.  A McKinsey report several years ago found that US doctors made more, but also saw a lot more patients in a day.  GP care cost more than expected vs. other country's experience, but is due mostly to number of visits, not cost per visit.
  • There is no correction for doctor expenses.  Malpractice insurance, anyone?  We have the most costly malpractice insurance in the world because we have the most broken system.  Doctors pay that out of their salary
  • US GP salaries in Drum's linked report are actually falling, unlike all the other countries studied.  Seem to have fallen 6% in 10 years (page 18), whereas France, for example, has increased more than 10%.

To the last point, I have a hypothesis.  When you first overlay a government health care / price control regime, you get an initial savings.  Doctors are forced to work for less and they still, out of habit and momentum, abide by past productivity standards.  But over time, productivity, like any government-captured function falls.  And over time, doctors, like other civil service groups, become better at organizing and lobbying and begin to get increasing pay packages.  After all, if teachers and fire-fighters can scare Californians into absurd pay and benefit packages, what do you think doctors will be able to do once they learn the game?

Sequester Fear-Mongering, State Version

The extent to which the media is aiding and abetting, with absolutely no skepticism, the sky-is-falling sequester reaction of pro-big-government forces is just sickening.  I have never seen so many absurd numbers published so credulously by so much of the media.  Reporters who are often completely unwilling to accept any complaints from corporations as valid when it comes to over-taxation or over-regulation are willing to print their sequester complaints without a whiff of challenge.  Case in point, from here in AZ.  This is a "news" article in our main Phoenix paper:

Arizona stands to lose nearly 49,200 jobs and as much as $4.9 billion in gross state product this year if deep automatic spending cuts go into effect Friday, and the bulk of the jobs and lost production would be carved from the defense industry.

Virtually all programs, training and building projects at the state’s military bases would be downgraded, weakening the armed forces’ defense capabilities, according to military spokesmen.

“It’s devastating and it’s outrageous and it’s shameful,” U.S. Sen. John McCain told about 200 people during a recent town-hall meeting in Phoenix.

“It’s disgraceful, and it’s going to happen. And it’s going to harm Arizona’s economy dramatically,” McCain said.

Estimates vary on the precise number of jobs at stake in Arizona, but there’s wide agreement that more than a year of political posturing on sequestration in Washington will leave deep economic ruts in Arizona.

Not a single person who is skeptical of these estimates is quoted in the entirety of the article.  The entire incremental cut of the sequester in discretionary spending this year is, from page 11 of the most recent CBO report, about $35 billion (larger numbers you may have seen around 70-80 billion include dollars that were going away anyway, sequester or not, which just shows the corruption of this process and the reporting on it.)

Dividing this up based on GDP, about 1/18th of this cut would apply to Arizona, giving AZ a cut in Federal spending of around $2 billion.  It takes a heroic multiplier to get from that to  $4.9 billion in GDP loss.  Its amazing to me that Republicans assume multipliers less than 1 for all government spending, except for defense (and sports stadiums) which magically take on multipliers of 2+.

Update:  I wrote the following letter to the Editor today:

I was amazed that in Paul Giblin’s February 26 article on looming sequester cuts [“Arizona Defense Industry, Bases Would Bear Brunt Of Spending Cuts”], he was able to write 38 paragraphs and yet could not find space to hear from a single person exercising even a shred of skepticism about these doom and gloom forecasts.

The sequester rhetoric that Giblin credulously parrots is part of a game that has been played for decades, with government agencies and large corporations that supply them swearing that even trivial cuts will devastate the economy.  They reinforce this sky-is-falling message by threatening to cut all the most, rather than least, visible and important tasks and programs in order to scare the public into reversing the cuts.  The ugliness of this process is made worse by the hypocrisy of Republicans, who suddenly become hard core Keynesians when it comes to spending on military.

It is a corrupt, yet predictable, game, and it is disappointing to see the ArizonaRepublic playing along so eagerly.

War and Stimulus

I had an argument about the (economic) stimulative effect of war the other night.  As usual, I was not entirely happy with how I argued my point in real time (which is why I blog).  Here is an attempt at an improved, brief answer:

One of the reasons that people often believe that war "improves" the economy is that they are looking at the wrong metrics.  They look at unemployment and observe that it falls.  They look at capacity utilization and observe that it rises.  They look at GDP and see that it rises.

But these are the wrong metrics.  What we care about is if people are better off: Can they buy the things they want?  Are they wealthier?

These outcomes are hard to measure, so we use unemployment and GDP and capacity utilization as proxies for people's economic well-being.  And in most times, these metrics are reasonably correlated with well-being.  That is because in a free economy individuals and their choices guide the flow of resources, which are dedicated to improving what people consider to be their own well-being.  More resources, more well-being.

But in war time, all this gets changed.  Government intervenes with a very heavy hand to shift a vast amount of the resources from satisfying people's well-being to blowing other people up.  Now, I need to take an aside on well-being in this context.  Certainly it is possible that I am better off poor in a world with no Nazis than rich in one dominated by Nazis.  But I am going to leave war aims out of the concept of well-being.  This is appropriate, because when people argue that war stimulates the economy, they are talking purely about economic activity and benefits, and so will I.

What we find is that in war time, unemployment is down, but in part because young people have been drafted (a form of servitude) to fight and die.  Are they better off so employed?  Those who are left find themselves with jobs in factories with admittedly high capacity utilization, but building things that make no one better off (and many people worse off).  GDP skyrockets as government goes deeply in debt to pay for bombs and rockets and tanks.  This debt builds nothing for the future -- future generations are left with debt and no wealth to show for it, like taking out a mortgage to buy a house and then having the house burn down uninsured.  This is no more economically useful than borrowing money and then burning it.  In fact, burning it would have been better, economically, as each dollar we borrowed in WWII had a "multiplier" effect in that it destroyed another dollar of European or Asian civilian infrastructure.

Sure, during WWII, everyone in the US had a job, but with war-time restrictions and rationing, these employed people couldn't buy anything.  Forget the metrics - in their daily lives Americans lived poorer, giving up driving and even basic staples.  This was the same condition Soviet citizens found themselves facing in the 1970s -- they all had jobs, but they could not find anything to buy.  Do we consider them to have been well off?

There is one way to prosper from war, but it is a terrible zero-sum game -- making money from other people's wars.  The US prospered in 1915 and later 1941 as Britain and France sunk into bankruptcy and despair, sending us the last of their wealth in exchange for material that might help them hang on to their existence.  Ditto in 1946, when having bombed Japanese and German infrastructure into the stone age. we provided many of the goods to help rebuild them.  But is this really the way we want to prosper?  And is this sort of vulture-like prosperity even possible with our inter-woven global supply chains?  For example, I can't see a China-Japan war being particularly stimulative for anybody nowadays.

Twilight Struggle

Over Christmas break, my son (home from college) and I have played a half dozen or more games of Twilight Struggle, the #1 rated game on Boardgame Geek that refights to US-USSR cold war from the 1950's to the 1980's.   There is a good reason for that ranking - it is a very enjoyable game to which he and I have become addicted.

I mentioned it before Christmas, and after playing it once made a couple of comments that I want to revise.  I had said I remembered it to be "complex."  Actually, for a wargame, the rules are quite simple (no zone of control rules, line of sight, tracing supply, movement costs over terrain, etc etc.).  Basically, each turn you play a card from your hand.  You may either take the effects of the event on the card, or you may take one of four actions using the operations points on the card (sometimes, if the event benefits your opponent, you have to take the event and the operations points).  Your goal is to gain influence over countries and regions, which in turn translates into victory points.

The cards are divided into early, mid, and late-game cards that are staged into the game.  This helps avoid anachronisms like Solidarity union forming in Poland in 1950.  It also creates a setting where the Russian has early advantages, while the US has late advantages.  This really befuddled me for a number of games as I played as Russian against my son, and lost more than I won despite the general sense in the playing community that the game (until recently revised) is a bit unbalanced in favor of the Russian.  The problem is that my play style in wargames tends to be methodical and defensive, and to win at Russia you have to open with an RTS-like rush and gain the largest possible lead before the Americans come back in the end game.  I finally routed the Americans in the last game when I finally got more aggressive.

The game's complexity comes not from a lot of rules but from three sources:

1) dealing with complexity of scoring possibilities, as while there are only a few types of actions one can take, there are a hundred locations on the map where one can take those actions.  The scoring dynamics causes focus of both players to shift around the world, sometimes in Asia, sometimes in Latin America, sometimes in Africa, etc.  The cards ensure that no region is ever "safe" (for example the combination of John Paul II's election and Solidarity can turn a strong Soviet position in Poland into a total mess.

2) getting rid of or minimizing the impact of events that benefit your opponent.  The latter adds a lot of the flavor of the game.  On average, half the event cards in your hand help you, and half help your opponent.  If a card helps you, you can take either the op points or the event, but not both.  This is sometimes a tough choice in and of itself, made more complicated by the fact that unused events get recycled and can come back later, when they might be more or less useful.  But if the card has an opponent event on it, you generally (with a few exceptions) have to take the op points AND trigger an event favorable to your opponent.  Managing the latter consumes a lot of the mental effort of the game, and really helps give the game its Cold War flavor of jumping from crisis to crisis.

3) the interaction of the cards.  Like most card-driven games, there are a near infinite number of card interactions.  This means that there are almost always certain card pairings where the resulting net effect is unclear.  We had to keep our iPad nearby locked into a web site of the game maker that includes rulings on each card.  Since the game is now 6+ years old, we never encountered a situation where a clear ruling was not available.

Anyway, we think the game absolutely deserves its #1 rating.  Highly recommended.

 

Counting Coup

The fiscal settlement passed last night did absolutely nothing to improve the deficit or the financial sanity of government.  Its only purpose, as far as I can tell, was to let Democrats count coup on rich people as a reward for winning the last election.  It's like telling your kids that on their birthday, you will take them to do absolutely anything they like, and Democrats chose to display their disdain for rich people as their one act of celebration.    A few other observations:

  • I had expected that they would gen up a bunch of fake savings and accounting tricks to pretend there were spending cuts in proportion to tax increases, but apparently they did not feel the need to bother.  Essentially only trivial spending cuts were included.
  • At what point can we officially declare that the reduction in doctor reimbursement rates that supposedly paid for much of Obamacare is a great lie and will never happen?  Congress once again extended the "doc fix" another year, eliminating the single largest source of savings that was to fund Obamacare.  Congress has been playing this same game  -- using elimination of the doc fix to supposedly fund programs and then quietly renewing the doc fix later -- for over a decade
  • The restoration of the FICA tax is probably a good thing.  Though I think the reality is something else, people still think of these as premiums that pay for future benefits, so in the spirit of good pricing, the premiums should reflect the true costs.  And FICA premiums have always been set about at the right level (it is only the fact that past Congresses spent all the money supposedly banked for future generations that Social Security has a financial problem).  In fact, we should raise Medicare premiums as well.
  • Apparently, though I have not seen the list, this last minute deal was chock full of corporate cronyism, with a raft of special interst tax preferences thrown into the mix.

And so ends, I suppose, the 12-year saga of the Bush tax cuts, with tax cuts for the rich revoked and the rest made permanent.   The establishment media decided early on that it was going to run with the story line that these cuts were "for the rich."  The irony, that will never get any play, is that now, at the end, it is all too clear that this was far from the case.  Reversing the tax cuts to the rich only reversed a small percentage of the original tax cuts.  In fact, if the Bush tax cuts had been mainly for the rich, then the Democrats would not have even bothered addressing the fiscal cliff.

My New Favorite Store, and I Haven't Even Been There. Plus, Christmas Game Recommendations

In my high school days, I used to play a lot of wargames from Avalon Hill and SPI.  I once spent an entire summer playing one game of War in Europe, which had a 42-square-foot map of Europe and 3500 or so pieces.     Each turn was one week, so it was literally a full time job getting through it in a couple of months.

All that is to say I spent a lot of time hanging out at game stores, particularly Nan's in Houston (a great game and comic store that still exists and I still visit every time I am in Houston).  I play fewer wargames now, but I still like strategy games that are a bit more complicated than Monopoly or Risk.  But it is hard to find a game store with a good selection (if there is one here in Phoenix, I have not found it).

But I definitely want to try this place -- the Complete Strategist in New York City.  Click through for some good game pr0n.

His list of games is good, though I have never played Gloom and I have never been a huge fan of Carcassonne.  Ticket to Ride is an awesome game and is perhaps the most accessible for kids and noobs of either his or my list.  If you recognize none of these games, it is a great place to start (there is also a great iPad app).   To his list of games I would add:

All of these games tend to present simple choices with extraordinarily complex scoring implications.  In most cases, one must build infrastructure early to score later, but the trade-off of when to switch from infrastructure building to scoring is the trick.  Five years ago Settlers of Catan would have been on any such list, but it is interesting it is on neither his nor mine.

Once you catch the bug, there are hundreds of other games out there.  My son and I last summer got caught up in a very complex Game of Thrones expandable card game.  Recommended only for those who love incredible complexity and are familiar with the books.  There are also a couple of games I have liked but only played once so far.  My son and I last summer played a fabulous though stupidly complex game of Twilight Struggle (about the Cold War, not hot vampire teens).  This is considered by many to be one of the greatest war / strategy games ever.  We also tried Eclipse (space game, again not the teen vampires) which we liked.  I have played Le Havre and Puerto Rico as iPad apps.  They were OK,  but I think the fun in them is social and the of course does not come through in the iPad app.  In the same vein, tried to play Agricola with my kids and they were bored stiff.

Update:  When in doubt, research it on Board Game Geek.  Their game ranking by user voting is here.

Making Private Labor Look Just Like Public Employment, One Industry at a Time

Workers get tax money to play cards

Workers at LG Chem, a $300 million lithium-ion battery plant heavily funded by taxpayers, tell Target 8 that they have so little work to do that they spend hours playing cards and board games, reading magazines or watching movies.

They say it's been going on for months.

"There would be up to 40 of us that would just sit in there during the day," said former LG Chem employee Nicole Merryman, who said she quit in May.

"We were given assignments to go outside and clean; if we weren't cleaning outside, we were cleaning inside. If there was nothing for us to do, we would study in the cafeteria, or we would sit and play cards, sit and read magazines," said Merryman. "It's really sad that all these people are sitting there and doing nothing, and it's basically on taxpayer money."

Two current employees told Target 8 that the game-playing continues because, as much as they want to work, they still have nothing to do.

"There's a whole bunch of people, a whole bunch," filling their time with card games and board games," one of those current employees said.

On Private Job Creation, Obama and Reagan are Tied

Obama claims to have created more jobs than Reagan.  Republicans fire back with charts that say otherwise.

Here are the true numbers for private jobs created by these Presidents in office:

  • Reagan:    zero
  • Obama:     zero

Just once I would like to see a Presidential candidate answer:

"Why, I didn't create a single private job in office.  Anyone I hire is by definition a public employee.  The best I can do is to keep government out of the way, as much as possible, of the private individuals who do create new businesses and new products and new technologies that tend to lead to more private employment.  The worst thing I can do is to try to be investment-banker-in-chief.  Every dollar I hand to some company I like is money taken out of the hands of 300 million private individuals, who collectively know a hell of a lot more than I as to what makes for a better business investment  (and by the way they have far better incentives that I as well, since they are investing their own hard-earned money, and should I develop the hubris to play the stimulus game, I would be investing your hard-earned money."

 

Life In The Corporate State

This strikes me as typical of life in the corporate state.  

  1. The Administration champions a plan to save $11.5 billion through lower Medicare reimbursement rates  (we can argue about whether this is simply sensible procurement strategy or a mindless price control, but won't today).
  2. The Administration gives back $8 billion, or 70%, of these savings to the providers through another program.  It is unclear what criteria are used to select who gets the money and who does not, so I think we can assume political ass-kissing probably comes into play

Through this right-hand-left-hand game, the Administration can claim $11.5 billion in savings that don't actually occur; claim that the "cuts" are not hurting service, since they are giving the cuts back; while creating yet another multi-billion dollar fund that can be distributed to friends and supporters.

Well, I Was Wrong

I have been a stock market bear for some months now.  I don't really think the US economy is going to double dip on its own, but I felt like Europe and Asia would bring us down.  Well, I simply underestimated both the Fed's and the ECB's willingness to goose financial assets.  If the Fed and ECB are going to inflate our way out of, uh, whatever it is we are in, then I certainly don't want to be holding bonds, particularly at these absurdly low interest rates.  Stocks are not as good of an inflation hedge as some hard assets, but they are a hell of a lot better than most bonds.  I'm  certainly not going to buy back in the current euphoric highs, but I am giving up on trying to predict that market based on fundamentals.  It seems that fundamentals are a suckers game, and you better not be timing the market unless you have an inside line to government policy, because that seems to be what drives the train.

PS-  I wish Milton Friedman were still around.  QE was as much his idea as anyone else's.   I wonder what he would have thought of the results, or of this particular implementation.

Enjoy the NFL This Weekend, You May Not Have It For Long

I think Walter Olson is dead on with this:

Steve Chapman at the Chicago Tribune looks at the cultural and legal responses to the mounting evidence that professional football inflicts brain damage on many of its players. He quotes my view that if the litigation system carries over to football the legal principles it applies to other industries, the game isn’t likely to survive in its current form.  [sorry for quoting the whole thing Walter, I just couldn't figure out how to excerpt it]

There is a very good chance that the NFL could go the way of Johns Manville or Dow Corning.  Those companies still exist after being sued into bankruptcy, but that is only because they had other businesses to shift into.  The NFL just has football.  And after reading the concussion stories recently, plaintiff's lawyers are going to have a hell of a lot better scientific case than they had with breast implants.    I honestly think it will take an act of Congress to keep the NFL alive, giving them some sort of liability exemption similar to what ski resorts got years ago.

And don't think the NFL does not know this.  If you are wondering why they handed out insanely over-the-top penalties for bounty-gate in New Orleans, this is why.  They are working to establish a paper trail of extreme diligence on player safety issues for future litigation.

As an aside, I find it frustrating that there is not a better helmet solution.

As a second aside, there is a guy here in Phoenix who was showing off an accelerometer for football helmets, with some kind of maximum single g-force or cumulative g-force trigger that would cause a player to be pulled from a game, sort of like how a radiation badge works.  Good idea.  Look for these to be mandatory equipment in high schools in colleges.    Takes the absurd guess work out of concussion diagnosis today, particularly since this diagnosis is done by people (the player and their team) who have strong incentives to decide that there was no concussion.

As a third aside, there are those who argue helmets are the problem.  Just as people drive less safely with seat belts and air bags in cars, helmets lead to less care on the field.  I will say I played rugby for years (without a helmet of course) and never had one concussion, or any head hit anywhere close to a concussion.  In amateur rugby in the leagues I played in, reckless behavior that might lead to injuries was strongly frowned upon and punished by the group.  Teams that played this way quickly found themselves without a game.  There were plenty of ways to demonstrate toughness without trying to injure people.

"Abnormal" Events -- Droughts and Perfect Games

Most folks, and I would include myself in this, have terrible intuitions about probabilities and in particular the frequency and patterns of occurance in the tail ends of the normal distribution, what we might call "abnormal" events.  This strikes me as a particularly relevant topic as the severity of the current drought and high temperatures in the US is being used as absolute evidence of catastrophic global warming.

I am not going to get into the global warming bits in this post (though a longer post is coming).  Suffice it to say that if it is hard to accurately directly measure shifts in the mean of climate patterns given all the natural variability and noise in the weather system, it is virtually impossible to infer shifts in the mean from individual occurances of unusual events.  Events in the tails of the normal distribution are infrequent, but not impossible or even unexpected over enough samples.

What got me to thinking about this was the third perfect game pitched this year in the MLB.  Until this year, only 20 perfect games had been pitched in over 130 years of history, meaning that one is expected every 7 years or so  (we would actually expect them more frequently today given that there are more teams and more games, but even correcting for this we might have an expected value of one every 3-4 years).  Yet three perfect games happened, without any evidence or even any theoretical basis for arguing that the mean is somehow shifting.  In rigorous statistical parlance, sometimes shit happens.  Were baseball more of a political issue, I have no doubt that writers from Paul Krugman on down would be writing about how three perfect games this year is such an unlikely statistical fluke that it can't be natural, and must have been caused by [fill in behavior of which author disapproves].  If only the Republican Congress had passed the second stimulus, we wouldn't be faced with all these perfect games....

Postscript:  We like to think that perfect games are the ultimate measure of a great pitcher.  This is half right.  In fact, we should expect entirely average pitchers to get perfect games every so often.  A perfect game is when the pitcher faces 27 hitters and none of them get on base.  So let's take the average hitter facing the average pitcher.  The league average on base percentage this year is about .320 or 32%.  This means that for each average batter, there is a 68% chance for the average pitcher in any given at bat to keep the batter off the base.  All the average pitcher has to do is roll these dice correctly 27 times in a row.

The odds against that are .68^27 or about one in 33,000.  But this means that once in every 33,000 pitcher starts  (there are two pitcher starts per game played in the MLB), the average pitcher should get a perfect game.  Since there are about 4,860 regular season starts per year (30 teams x 162 games) then average pitcher should get a perfect game every 7 years or so.  Through history, there have been about 364,000 starts in the MLB, so this would point to about 11 perfect games by average pitchers.  About half the actual total.

Now, there is a powerful statistical argument for demonstrating that great pitchers should be over-weighted in perfect games stats:  the probabilities are VERY sensitive to small changes in on-base percentage.  Let's assume a really good pitcher has an on-base percentage against him that is 30 points less than the league average, and a bad pitcher has one 30 points worse.   The better pitcher would then expect a perfect game every 10,000 starts, while the worse pitcher would expect a perfect game every 113,000 starts.  I can't find the stats on individual pitchers, but my guess is the spread between best and worst pitchers on on-base percentage against has more than a 60 point spread, since the team batting average against stats (not individual but team averages, which should be less variable) have a 60 point spread from best to worst. [update:  a reader points to this, which says there is actually a 125-point spread from best to worst.  That is a different in expected perfect games from one in 2,000 for Jared Weaver to one in 300,000 for Derek Lowe.  Thanks Jonathan]

Update:  There have been 278 no-hitters in MLB history, or 12 times the number of perfect games.  The odds of getting through 27 batters based on a .320 on-base percentage is one in 33,000.  The odds of getting through the same batters based on a .255 batting average (which is hits but not other ways on base, exactly parallel with the definition of no-hitter) the odds are just one in 2,830.  The difference between these odds is a ratio of 11.7 to one, nearly perfectly explaining the ratio of no-hitters to perfect games on pure stochastics.

Using the the Criminal Activity that Results from Prohibition to Justify Prohibition

Apparently, Los Angeles has tough anti-ticket scalping laws.  This means that one is able to resell virtually any item one owns but no longer has a use for except tickets.  In this case, government officials yet again don't like someone who places little value on an item selling it to someone who places more value on that item (a concept that is otherwise the basis for our entire economy).  We can see the effect of such laws in London, where stadiums full of empty seats are juxtaposed against thousands who want to attend but can't get tickets, all because for some reason we have decided we don't like the secondary market for tickets.

A great example is embedded in this line in today's LA Times about crackdowns on scalping:

Jose Eskenazi, an associate athletic director at USC, said the university distributed football and basketball tickets free to several children's community groups but that scalpers obtained those tickets and sold them "at enormous profits."

I like the coy use of "obtained" in this sentence.  Absent a more direct accusation, I have to assume that this means that scalpers bought the tickets from the community groups.  Which likely means that strapped for cash to maintain their operations, these groups valued cash from the tickets more that the ability to send kids to a USC football game  (in fact, taking them to a USC football game would involve extra costs to the community group of transportation, security, and feeding the kids at inflated stadium prices).  It was probably entirely rational for the community groups to sell the tickets -- this is in fact a positive story.  Selling the tickets likely got them out of an expensive obligation they could not afford and generated resources for the agency.  Sure, USC was deprived of the PR boost, but if they really want the kids to come to the game, they can do it a different way (e.g. by organizing the entire trip).  This is not a reason for curtailing my right to sell my tickets for a profit.

Anyway, I have ranted about this before.  Sports team owners and music promoters have out-sized political influence (particularly in LA) and have enlisted governments to clamp down on the secondary markets for their products.

What I thought was new and interesting in this LA Times story was the evolving justification for banning ticket scalpers.  Those who have followed the war on drugs or prostitution will recognize the argument immediately:

Lee Zeidman, general manager of Staples Center/Nokia Theatre and L.A. Live, said in a separate declaration that scalpers "frequently adopt aggressive and oftentimes intimidating tactics.... To the extent that ticket scalpers are allowed to create an environment that makes guests of ours feel uncomfortable, harassed or threatened, that jeopardizes our ability to attract those guests to our property."

In court papers, prosecutors accuse scalpers of endangering citizens, creating traffic hazards and diverting scarce police resources.

"Defendants personally act as magnets for theft, robbery, and crimes of violence," the filing states. "Areas with high levels of illegal ticket sales have disproportionately high levels of theft, robbery, crimes of violence and narcotics sales and use."

Wow, you mean that if we criminalize a routine type of transaction, then criminals will tend to dominate those who engage in this transaction?  Who would have thought?  If this were true, we might expect activities that normally are run by normal, honest participants -- say, for example, alcohol distribution -- to be replaced with gangs and violent criminals if the activity is prohibited.

It's amazing to me that people can still use the the criminal activity that results from prohibition to justify prohibition.

Update:  John Stossel has an article on the London ticket scalping ban

When Microsoft Was Forced to Join the Corporate State

Via Radley Balko.  He is quoting Tim Carney in turn

People think money drives politics. It doesn’t. Money is merely the vehicle. Power drives Washington. As Carney points out, Hatch has spent a good deal of his time on the Judiciary Committee targeting Microsoft. So he wasn’t mad that the company wasn’t giving him money—they weren’t giving to his opponents, either. Hatch was angry that the company wasn’t acknowledging that it needs Washington, that it needs people like him. He finds that offensive. So people like Hatch make companies like Google need people like Hatch.

More:

 . . . it grated on Hatch and other senators that Gates didn’t want to want to play the Washington game. Former Microsoft employee Michael Kinsley, a liberal, wrote of Gates: “He didn’t want anything special from the government, except the freedom to build and sell software. If the government would leave him alone, he would leave the government alone.”

This was a mistake. One lobbyist fumed about Gates to author Gary Rivlin: “You look at a guy like Gates, who’s been arrogant and cheap and incredibly naive about politics. He genuinely believed that because he was creating jobs or whatever, that’d be enough.”

Gates was “cheap” because Microsoft spent only $2 million on lobbying in 1997, and its PAC contributed less than $50,000 during the 1996 election cycle.

“You can’t say, ‘We’re better than that,’ ” a Microsoft lobbyist told me on Friday. “At some point, you get too big, and you can’t just ignore Washington.”

You know what happens next . . .

After the Hatch hearings, Microsoft complied. Its PAC increased spending fivefold in each of the next two elections. In the 2010 elections, Microsoft’s PAC contributed $2.3 million to House and Senate candidates. The PAC has contributed the maximum $10,000 to each of Hatch’s last two campaigns.

Back before the antitrust case, Microsoft’s tiny lobbying contingent sat in the company’s local sales office in Chevy Chase. Since the Hatch hearings, Gates’ company has poured more than $100 million into K Street’s economy, hiring up members of congress and Capitol Hill staff, many of whom then became top fundraisers — such as Republican Jack Abramoff and Democrat Steve Elmendorf.

And of course now that Microsoft has a strong Washington presence, it uses its influence to lobby the government to harass its competitors. Like Google, which must then open its own Washington lobbying outfit in response. And the cycle starts all over again. (If you’re really on your game, you then hire the government regulators you’ve lobbied to investigate your rival to come work for you.)

Money is not the problem in politics, and is not the root of the corporate state.  Power is.  Money in politics will never go away as long as the government has the power to micromanage winners and losers.  Take the power away, and the money would disappear.

Welcome to the Fight, Sort Of

After years of apparently being OK with California's absurd restrictions on development and crazy environmental laws that tied most everything new up in the courts for years, Kevin Drum suddenly thinks they may be flawed now that they are slowing development he likes (wind, solar, high density housing around transit stations).  Drum is a classic technocrat, who is OK with absolute state authority as long as the state is doing what he wants it to do.  I am reminded of what I wrote technocrats 7(!) years ago:

Technocratic idealists ALWAYS lose control of the game.  It may feel good at first when the trains start running on time, but the technocrats are soon swept away by the thugs, and the patina of idealism is swept away, and only fascism is left.  Interestingly, the technocrats always cry “our only mistake was letting those other guys take control”.  No, the mistake was accepting the right to use force on another man.  Everything after that was inevitable.

I am reminded of all this because the technocrats that built our regulatory state are starting to see the danger of what they created.  A public school system was great as long as it was teaching the right things and its indoctrinational excesses were in a leftish direction.  Now, however, we can see the panic.  The left is freaked that some red state school districts may start teaching creationism or intelligent design.  And you can hear the lament – how did we let Bush and these conservative idiots take control of the beautiful machine we built?  My answer is that you shouldn’t have built the machine in the first place – it always falls into the wrong hands.  Maybe its time for me to again invite the left to reconsider school choice.

Today, via Instapundit, comes this story about the GAO audit of the decision by the FDA to not allow the plan B morning after pill to be sold over the counter.  And, knock me over with a feather, it appears that the decision was political, based on a conservative administration’s opposition to abortion.  And again the technocrats on the left are freaked.  Well, what did you expect?  You applauded the Clinton FDA’s politically motivated ban on breast implants as a sop to NOW and the trial lawyers.  In establishing the FDA, it was you on the left that established the principal, contradictory to the left’s own stand on abortion, that the government does indeed trump the individual on decision making for their own body  (other thoughts here).  Again we hear the lament that the game was great until these conservative yahoos took over.  No, it wasn’t.  It was unjust to scheme to control other people’s lives, and just plain stupid to expect that the machinery of control you created would never fall into your political enemy’s hands.

Where Did the Mid-Range Jumper Go?

NY Times has a great interactive graphic of Miami and OKC shooting by location on the court (roll over the face pictures to get the actual graphics).

It provides some insight as to why the NBA game seems to be all threes or points in the paint -- the mid-range jump shot just does not have the same return on investment (ie points per shot).  Which begs the question, I suppose, as to why anyone shoots the mid-range jump shot at all  (look at Battier's and Hardin's maps - they are almost all threes and layups/dunks).  I suppose the answer likely takes the form of "you have to shoot mid-range to open up the other two zones", a sort of run to set up the pass in football strategy.  Don't know enough about basketball to say if this is true.

Update:  Also, the shot clock probably has a lot to do with it.  Given infinite time, teams would be able to get the shot they want, but in 24 seconds sometimes you just have to loft one up  as time runs out from wherever you are.

Here are the stats:  Close range -- 1.19 points per shot, 3-point -- 1.08 pps, mid-range --  0.80 pps

YouTube Mysteries

Via my daughter.  It's a suckers game to try to analyze what is popular on YouTube, but the view count for this video is just staggering.  It apparently also has about a thousand imitators.  If I am going to watch a cover video, why wouldn't I rather one with LA cheerleaders?  But I have to credit Harvard as a trendsetter.  Who knew there could be a whole new genre of videos about lip syncing pop tunes in a moving passenger van?

College Baseball Recruiting, Part 2

Back in August, when I wrote the first section of this guide, I was sitting in Long Island at a baseball recruiting camp.  Now that my son has completed the process, I want to share the rest of our experience for others who, like myself, have an athletic kid but no idea how the college sports recruiting process works.

Some reminders.  First, this is baseball-specific -- other sports work differently, I presume.  Second, this is the experience of a kid with good baseball skills but not good enough to have been scouted by a Division I baseball power like Texas or Arizona State.  Third, my son was not looking for scholarship money.  He was looking to play baseball in college, and to parlay his baseball talent into admission in a top academic school.  We were looking at division III (DIII from now on) schools like Williams, Amherst, Haverford, Pomona and a few DI Ivies.  Finally, our experience is heavily colored by the fact that he plays for one of the smallest high schools in the state, so getting attention and recruiting advice was much harder than if he had played for a baseball powerhouse.

Here were some of the lessons from our first episode:

  • The DIII baseball recruiting process does not really even begin until the summer between Junior and Senior year.  My son landed a good spot without a single coach even knowing he existed as of June 1 before his Senior year of high school.  As late as January of his senior year he was still getting emails from coaches asking him if he might be interested in their school.
  • In baseball, coaches mostly ignore high school stats and records unless it is a school with which they are very familiar.  They use their eyes to pick talent - ie from video or watching kids play at recruiting camps  (more on the video and camps in our first episode)
  • As we will see in a minute, only about three things my son did in recruiting really mattered -- see the first episode for more detail on what we did
    • He proactively contacted coaches to tell them he was interested
    • He sent coaches a 5-10 minute video of himself pitching and hitting.  We made it from game film but I think most of the videos are just taken in a cage (you can see a bunch of these on YouTube, or email me and I will give you a link to ours)
    • He went to several camps, which fell into two categories:  School camps, at schools he was really interested in; and multi-school camps run by third parties.  Of the latter, I am convinced the Headfirst Honor Roll camps are the best if you are interested in DIII or DI "smart schools" (e.g. Ivies, Duke, UVA, Stanford).

OK, so we left off with my son at a two-day baseball camp.  My son sent out emails afterwards to the coaches that were at the camp and from schools in which he was interested.  Basically he said "nice to have met you, still really interested in your school; now that you have seen me, I'd like to know what you think."  He had a few good conversations with coaches at the camp, but after that we really did not hear much until after Labor Day.  In retrospect, this delay is probably because the coaches have lots of camps and they want to synthesize their prospect list after all the camps before talking in earnest with players.

We really did not know what to expect.  Would coaches call, and if they did, what were the next steps?  It was only later that we learned what outcome we should be hoping to hear:  Basically, each coach is given some spots by the admissions office (the average seems to be 5 for the baseball guys).  If your kid can make that list, then two good things happen:  a) it means the coach wants the kid on the team. And b) it generally means the kid will get a good shove to help him through the admissions process, not an inconsequential thing at a school like Princeton or Amherst.

Here is what happened next.  This was just our experience, but since it was repeated at five or six schools, almost identically, its a good bet this is a fairly standard process at colleges with high admission requirements:

  • The coach asks my son to send his transcript and SAT scores early to the Admissions office.
  • The Admissions office vets these, and gives the coach a reading -- for us, that reading was generally "if you put this kid on your short list, coach, he very likely will get in."
  • The coach then passed this message to my kid, saying there are no guarantees (etc. etc.) but all the kids with this same read from the admissions office who have been on his list have gotten in in the past.

BUT, there is a bit of a catch.  The coach will say that he can only put my kid on his list if we will commit to applying early decision.  Early decision (ED) means that one applies in November and hears in December (so well earlier than the April 1 regular admit date), but it is a binding commitment to attend if admitted.  This means that one can only apply to one school early decision.  Coaches aren't dumb.  They can't afford to waste the few recruiting spots they have on kids who aren't going to come.  So there is a quid pro quo - the coach will commit to the kid and help him through admissions, but the kid has to commit to the program.

But we only learned this later.  When coaches started calling, we weren't sure what to expect.   A couple called early to say that my son would not be on their list.  I have to give kudos to Coach Bradley from Princeton -- he called and told my son he wouldn't make the list.  It was not the news we wanted to hear, but he was up front and honest with us so we did not waste our time.  He was also the one who really explained all the stuff I wrote above, so we were more knowledgeable when other coaches called.

Soon, however, we were getting floods of interested contacts.  Many were from the coaches he had proactively contacted.  Some were from schools we never had heard of, and some were from very good schools but in parts of the country that weren't in his college search area (e.g. Kenyon, Grinnell, Carlton in the midwest).  Many of these coaches asked for him to come to campus (on our own dime, they were not paying) for a visit, including an overnight stay with someone on the team.  Eventually my son scheduled visits at Wesleyan, Bowdoin, Vassar, and Haverford.  He chose these in some cases for the school and in some cases because he really liked the coach.  All four of these offered him a spot on the short list for admissions if he was willing to go ED.

It was at this point that we hit the highlight of the whole process.  Like many parents, I just want to see my kid gain life skills.   My son will never be a good sales person.  He is really, really hesitant to cold call adults to ask them for something.  This process was good for him in that sense, because he began to see the fruits of having proactively cold-called these coaches earlier in the process.  But I still had to poke and prod him to do it.

However, with these other visits set up, my son was apparently thinking "these would all be good schools, but they are not in the top tier of my aspirations."  He was thinking about skipping ED, and trusting his grades and resume to the regular admissions process so he could still take a shot at his top choices (places like Princeton and Stanford).

He decided that the ideal choice for him would be Amherst - he loved the school, it was top-notch academically, had a great baseball tradition and an engaging coach.  That was the school he would be willing to go ED for.  He had met the Amherst coach on a school visit and at camp and Coach Hamm had been very nice.  But in the Fall,we had not heard anything from him.  (I have to insert a story here -- way back in March my son was on the Amherst campus and dropped by without an appointment at Coach Hamm's office.  At that point, Hamm did not know who my son was -- for all he knew he might have been the strikeout leader in T-ball.  But he spent a whole hour with Nic showing him around the facility and later at practice.)

This is where the breakthrough came.  Without my prodding or even involvement, my son contacted Coach Hamm one more time, to say he had not heard from Amherst but he was still really interested and he would be touring other nearby colleges in a week or so and would still love to meet with him.

We will never know exactly what happened.  Perhaps the coach was late in kicking off his recruiting.  Perhaps another kid on his list dropped out.  Perhaps he just wanted to sit back and see which kids were the hungriest.  Whatever the case, Coach Hamm wrote back immediately and said he would love to meet my son on campus  (he actually changed around a trip to be there).  The process described above played out (grades to the Admissions office, offer to be on the "list", ED application) and long story short, Nic will be at Amherst next year.

As I mentioned earlier, there was no money offered for baseball (nor could there be in leagues like the Ivies or the NESCAC which ban athletic scholarships).  Amherst has a great financial aid program, and there are great possibilities for scholarships, grants, and tuition discounts -- but these are offered to all admits, not just to athletes.

I hope this is helpful to some folks who are just starting this process -- I know it would have been a huge help to us to understand in advance.

Postscript:  One of the hardest things in the world is to get a good honest reading on your son's talent, particularly if he does not play for a top high school team.  People have told my son that he should not have gone DIII, he could be playing DI or he should be in front of pro scouts.  You have to take all this stuff with a grain of salt.  Sure, you don't want to cut off an opportunity, but on the flip side, sort of like the fox and the cheese, you don't want to lose a good thing chasing the illusion of something better (we know folks this happened to in other sports).

I don't know how to solve this, maybe people have experiences they can put in the comments.  For us, being from a small school, several summers playing club ball in a wood bat leagues with the big school kids finally convinced us our son could play at a high level (I say convinced us as parents, our son does not lack confidence so he always knew).

PS#2:  Fun Amherst facts