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Category: General

A Day in Mass American Death

[ 86 ] October 2, 2015 |


So let me tell you about my day yesterday.

I am on one of my periodic trips to western Pennsylvania and I chose this day to do some exploring. If you are out here, most of the history is kind of depressing, although I did run across the Edward Abbey historical marker since he is actually from here. Anyway, among my destinations yesterday were the newly opened Flight 93 National Memorial visitor center (very minimalist, not sure what I think about it) and a visit to the the site where the wealthy Pittsburgh-based hunting club’s dam broke causing the Johnstown Flood. These are 2 of the 6 worst disasters in American history by death toll.* So I was feeling pretty great about our history, as you can imagine. Then while I was out, I heard about the shooting at Umpqua Community College. This hits a bit close to home, although not quite as close as in 1998 when my high school Spanish teacher was killed by her son who then went on to shoot up the other high school in town. It’s an hour south of my home town. In fact, in high school I was dragged to a hilariously awful Christian rock show in the auditorium at that school.**

So yesterday was a full embrace of the massive death that happens to the people of this nation. That it has become so common because people love their guns so much is even more depressing. There’s almost nothing to say at this point, except that I would like to see the Second Amendment repealed, the government to invade your homes and take all your guns, and those who resist should serve time in prison for breaking my new anti-gun laws. And yes, I would indeed like a pony.

But I notice that each of these three disasters have a particularly evil person behind them. So it’s time for an LGM readership poll. Who is the most evil? Is it Osama Bin Laden, mastermind of 9/11? Henry Clay Frick, the comically evil capitalist who was head of the club that did not maintain the dam that caused the Johnstown Flood? Or Wayne LaPierre, head of an organization that is the U.S. equivalent of the wealthy Saudis who fund terrorism?

Personally, I’d say it’s a tie. Wayne LaPierre and his henchmen are as evil as Osama Bin Laden and his henchmen. And Frick and his fellow Gilded Age capitalists are as evil as the other two. But maybe we can lighten up our morning by discussing who is actually the most evil.

Good times America. Good times.

*In order, it’s the 1900 Galveston hurricane, the 1906 San Francisco earthquake, the 1928 Florida hurricane, 9/11, Pearl Harbor, and the Johnstown Flood. Hurricane Katrina is 8th.

** The music was, of course, atrocious. But the real comedy came when the drummer for this band, who, even obvious to my 1990 very unhip self, was not very far in the closet for a Christian rock band, got upset that his electric drum kit was having some problems. He had to switch to real drums. He then told us how he asked God for His forgiveness over his anger and frustration over the electric drums and that it was a lesson for all of us. Truly a classic moment.


The American Way of Death

[ 147 ] October 1, 2015 |


I’m not sure I can say anything about the latest mass killing referenced by Paul below that I haven’t said before. So instead I will take the blogger’s prerogative to reiterate:

When Bullshit Was King: The 2005 NFL Draft, Insiders and Outsiders

[ 91 ] October 1, 2015 |


Paul recently mentioned the kind of extraordinary numbers Aaron Rodgers is putting up; even adjusted for era, and in substantive as well as freak show accomplishments, he’s one of the very greatest NFL players ever. It always amazes me that the Packers were able to get him with the 24th pick in the 2005 Draft. Rodgers was not a diamond in the rough. I mean, whenever someone turns into Aaron Rodgers you’re somewhat lucky, but QBs with his level of NCAA performance at his age are much more likely to become good NFL QBs than not. A QB prospect like this should go in the top 2 or 3 picks of the draft barring extraordinary circumstances.

What’s even better is that 3 running backs were selected with the first 5 picks of the draft. Could the idiots who would blow a top 5 pick on a running back — a silly decision in contemporary football even if Aaron Rodgers isn’t on the board — at least identify really good ones ex ante? Well, the picks were Ronnie Brown, Cedric Benson and Cadillac Williams, so no. Did those teams at least have solid starters at QB? Nope: they had Gus Ferrotte, Kyle Orton/Rex Grossman, and Chris Simms/Brian Griesie.  The Packers did have a Hall of Fame QB rather than a terrible one, but they jumped on Rodgers anyway because Thompson knows what he’s doing.

Bill James’s classic early essay about insiders and outsiders is, alas, not available online. But whenever someone is on the losing side of a sports argument — “trading Nick Foles and the equivalent of the 39th pick for the right to pay Sam Bradford $13 million was perfectly reasonable,” say — you can always retreat to the “the insider knows more than you do” argument. Chip Kelly stayed up all night analyzing that dogshit stock Sam Bradford game film. Who are you to criticize his actions?

But, as James said, the fact that insiders know much more about many aspects of the sport doesn’t make them more reliable analysts of everything. His example was Fred Lynn, who insisted that he would hit better in Anaheim than he had in Boston and was paid like it by the Angels, although he reliably had an OPS 300 or 400 points better at Fenway. Sometimes an intense knowledge of the details prevents you from seeing the big picture. Sometimes outsiders can see things insiders who know a lot more about many things cannot. In 2015, running backs are for the most part correctly valued by NFL teams, and the exceptions tend to be outright joke organizations like the Mike Holmgren-led Browns. But the massive overvaluing of running backs in the 2005 draft is an example of something on which outsiders were ahead of many insiders. Going back to the 1980s, any remotely sophisticated analysis of the question would show that the quality of a team’s pass offense and defense was far more important to its success than the quality of its running game and running defense; proto-sabermertics showed this conclusively.  This has been repeatedly confirmed as analysis has become more sophisticated, the marginal quality of a team’s passing game has if anything increased in importance. But a lot of insiders clung to GROUND AND POUND sentimentality for a long time. It was a prejudice — the SMASHMOUTH running game is REAL AUTHENTIC FOOTBALL and the forward pass WHY NOT PUT PLAYERS IN A DRESS — that could be supported by a statistical illusion (for strategic reasons, good teams tend to run more often, so if you use the measures of bulk yardage that were generally printed in newspapers and featured on broadcasts rather than measures of efficiency, it looks like good teams reliably run more effectively than bad ones even though they don’t.) In addition, a lot of coaches cut their teeth in the NCAA, in which there’s a much greater spread between good running games and bad ones and the attrition of individual running backs is less of a problem.

Nick Saban’s justification for taking Brown reflects a lot of this:

In four games against LSU when Saban coached there, Brown carried just 35 times for 184 yards and two touchdowns. Still, Saban liked what he saw — especially a short fourth-quarter run in a close game.

“It’s not one of the plays that are on the highlights, but he ran over about nine guys,” Saban said. “It was only about a 7-yard gain, but I had to say to myself, ‘Man, what a competitor.'”

Looking at the record as a whole, Brown didn’t even play particularly well against elite competition, but THERE WAS THIS ONE PLAY THAT ONE TIME AND HE DID THIS AND WOW. In terms of personnel evaluation, there’s no magic to game film. Sometimes it reveals things that aren’t in the statistics; many times, you lose sight of the forest for the trees. Perhaps Chip Kelly’s study of Sam Bradford game film was part of a dispassionate analysis. Much more likely is that he got tired of seeing Nick Foles’s flawed game up close, focused on Bradford as an alternative, saw what he wanted to see in the film, and then decided he had to get Bradford whether or not the cost was reasonable.  This last step is the real key, the flaw that often distinguishes bad organizations from good ones. It was completely reasonable for the Bills to evaluate Sammy Watkins as the best wideout available in the 2014 draft. It was not reasonable to think that the difference between Watkins and Mike Evans or Odell Beckham Jr. was worth an additional first round pick. There’s a reason good organizations are lot more likely to trade down than up.  I’m sure Ryan Grigson spent a lot of time analyzing that dogshit stock Trent Richardson game film,  and you can always find isolated footage showing that despite all evidence Richardson is a beast, and before you know if a first round pick you could have used to fill one of your team’s many holes is out the window in exchange for less than nothing because you have to have the player. In fairness, Saban (who wasn’t formally in charge of personnel but seems to have been the dominant decision-maker) did want to trade down — he is a Belichick disciple, after all.  But when the right offer didn’t come, he made a huge blunder that sent his NFL career on the path to oblivion.  The reason to do systematic analysis, as James said, is to avoid paying the price for believing things that aren’t true.

Sometimes insiders do know things that even sophisticated analysts don’t, and in cases where the evidence is ambiguous and someone has a good track record deference is warranted.  But a lot of times more systematic analysis is right. To reiterate, by any statistical measure Sam Bradford is a below-average QB, and the more sophisticated and context-sensitive the measure the worse he looks.  (This isn’t surprising — as an ultra-conservative thrower playing on generally bad teams, Bradford was well-situated to piling up safe yards in garbage time against soft coverages that make his numbers look superficially more efficient but don’t constitute any actual value to his teams.) This data was something Kelly should have paid more attention to.  Between the relative lack of importance of the marginal quality of a team’s running game and the relative fungibility, short shelf life and unreliability of running backs, under modern conditions it’s virtually never a good idea to invest a premium draft pick in the position, but it took an agonizingly long time for teams to figure this out.   A lot of GMs sacrificed their jobs to old-timey nonsense about the surpassing importance of the running game.

A final point of interest.  Saban’s time with Miami is generally remembered as just a bust.  But he did take a 4-12 team and improve it to 9-7, with Ferrotte at quarterback.  The improvement wasn’t quite as great as it looks in the record — “only” 80 points — but it was real (and, by the same token, his second and last Miami team was better than its 6-10 record suggests.)  His ability as a coach didn’t completely abandon him — but when you do stuff like “take Ronnie Brown with the second overall pick” all the motivational ability in the world will only get you so far, and of course when you show you don’t know what you’re doing it undermines your ability to lead the team. (Matt Williams ordering good hitters to bunt with 3-1 counts is much more damaging in making him look like a buffoon than for the direct effects of the suboptimal strategy itself.)

To be clear, all kidding and co-blogger trolling aside, I’m not saying that Kelly is doomed to a short and unexpectedly brutish career as an NFL head coach.  He has already won 10 games twice with retread quarterbacks, and the division being what it is could even return to the playoffs with his emaciated talent base this year.  I’m sure even Saban would acknowledge that Kelly is a better tactical coach (as opposed to recruiter/talent developer.)  But if he’s going to succeed in the long term, he’s going to need someone else to collaborate in picking players.  Tactical innovation just can’t overcome talent mismatches in the NFL like it can in the NCAA.   And you just can’t win in the NFL in 2015 with huge investments in running backs.

A not very well regulated militia

[ 87 ] October 1, 2015 |


Message board tips for aspiring mass murderers.

Background on the 4chan board where this thread appeared:

The board is famous for its stories of social awkwardness and nostalgia of the simpler times, as well as discussion of abnormal social behaviour. It is heavily used by NEETs[4] (Not in Education, Employment, or Training) who regret their life decisions and hold anger and disdain over males with active social and sexual lifes. it also containts [sic] Constant discussions about relationships with females and family. Dispite [sic] all of this, the board holds heavy pride in its own nature, with heavy hate over normies or “Normalfags” who do not understand their culture as well as constant calls for a “Beta Uprising”. [T]his has spawned different memes.

I’m making the right enemies

[ 44 ] October 1, 2015 |

Apologies for the pun, but come on, are you not entertained? Apparently “quoting verbatim” is the new “lying,” at least according to some people.

The “Authenticity” Tautology

[ 244 ] October 1, 2015 |


Authenticity is inherently meaningless as a criterion of value. Departures from tradition that improve something are no vice; upholding unworthy traditions is no virtue. Often, the concept is at least harmless despite being useless. But when it comes to political punditry, it’s actively pernicious:

Is Hillary Rodham Clinton not presenting her true self to voters? As with candidates like Mitt Romney and Al Gore, claims that she is inauthentic have fueled endless cycles of negative coverage of her campaign.

In reality, all politicians are strategic about the image and behaviors they present to voters. Some just hide the artifice better than others.

The refrain that Mrs. Clinton is calculating and inauthentic has recurred throughout her political career. During this campaign cycle, reporters and columnists have already questioned who the “Real Hillary” is, said that she “wrestles with the authenticity issue,” and described just being herself on the campaign trail as “a tricky proposition.” The Daily Beast’s Mike Barnicle reflected the conventional wisdom in writing that the “nagging question” that “won’t go away” is “Who is she? Really, who is she?”

The “authenticity” game is one candidates can never win once they’re in the trap, and who cares anyway?

I Guess Imperialism and Colonialism Never Happened

[ 112 ] October 1, 2015 |


One of the many people who owe the West for all the benefits of colonialism and climate change

Cass Sunstein said some no good, very bad things in his article rejecting the idea of climate reparations for poor nations. Now, one can wonder why a major figure felt the need to repudiate an idea that is never going to come to fruition anyway. And one can also suggest that climate reparations are probably not a very workable idea, to some extent for reasons Sunstein suggests. But then Sunstein decides to tell these poor nations that, despite this tiny problem of climate change, the West has brought them so much and made their lives so much better!

Their contention is that rich nations, which created the problem of climate change, have an obligation to fix it, not least by providing compensation for the high costs that, in their view, global warming has already imposed. Their argument adds that rich countries have gotten rich as a result of cheap energy (mostly coal); poor countries should be paid if they are to be deprived of the same opportunity.

That isn’t entirely crazy, but like other arguments for reparations, it runs into serious objections. For one thing, it depends on notions of collective responsibility. Most people in wealthy nations — whether rich or poor, or whether American or British or German — did not intend, and are not personally responsible for, the harms faced by citizens of India. Are they nonetheless obliged to pay reparations?

The corrective justice argument also conflates current generations with past generations. Much of the current “stock” of greenhouse gas emissions was produced by the actions of people who are now dead. The median American was born in 1979. How, exactly, does he or she owe reparations to people now suffering from warmer climates in India, Vietnam or Bangladesh?

It’s nice of Sunstein to copy the arguments of conservatives talking about it was their ancestors who owned slaves so what do we have to do with racial inequality today? Yes, the people of Britain and Germany might not have personally burned the coal that is leading to the inundation of Bangladesh–but they are sure benefiting from it in their rich nation society. The same for dead Germans and English and Americans. So this is a shockingly stupid argument. But it gets worse.

There is a subtler problem. Through industrial activity, trade, and technology, rich countries have conferred big benefits on poor ones, not least in the form of improved health and opportunity. Consider the recent response to the Ebola crisis, life-saving medical innovations or the dissemination of cell phones throughout the world.

A full accounting might require poor countries to pay the rich ones back for those benefits. No one in rich nations is asking for any form of restitution. (And they shouldn’t.) But if we are really interested in measuring who has helped and hurt whom, a claim for reparations puts the issue on the table.

So…… Rich nations have provided nothing but benefits to poor nations and maybe those poor nations should pay back rich nations for those benefits? I mean, sure 10-11 million slaves were taken from west Africa between 1500-1800, but some Nigerians owe us today because they use cell phone technology developed in the United States! And hey, sure the British let Indians starve during El Niño-induced famines in order that they maintained the proper level of exports back to the home country, but they also now speak English and call work in call centers! What gifts we have brought them!!! And let’s not forget the enormous debt the people of Congo owe the Belgians!

And certainly it’s quite clear that even though the U.S. blasted their Pacific island colonies after World War II with nuclear weapons and today those islands are disappearing because of climate change, the people who live actually owe us because they have television and sliced bread.

How did an article like this get through the editing process? Or is Cass Sunstein now like Niall Ferguson and can say any old horrifying thing with impunity because of who he is?

Irving Fields

[ 6 ] October 1, 2015 |

The other day I was listening to an album by the great Irving Fields, the brilliant pianist who merged jazz, the sort of Jewish-American popular music I associate with Catskills resorts in the 1950s, and Latin music in the 1950s, making legendary albums like Bagels and Bongos and Champagne and Bongos, which are just flat out pleasant and fun albums to listen to. I knew Fields was still working even though he is very old. I did a little research and found out that he just turned 100 and still plays at an Italian restaurant in New York. I’ve actually known about that for awhile and have never gone when I’m in the city, which is a huge error, even when time is limited as it often is there. The video in the attached article plays him up a bit as a lovable and slightly silly very old man, unfortunately not uncommon in a society that infantilizes the very old. But he can still play. And if you haven’t heard Bagels and Bongos, do it. He also recorded some excellent albums for Tzadik, John Zorn’s label, and the one with the percussionist Roberto Rodriguez is really fantastic. Highly recommended.

The Great Circle Jerk of Life

[ 72 ] September 30, 2015 |


A long-standing sycophant of Niall Ferguson and Henry Kissinger was commissioned by the NYT Book Review to review Niall Ferguson’s hagiography of Henry Kissinger. (By the way, is there anything more pathetic than being a sycophant of Niall Ferguson?) The results may not surprise you:

This Sunday, the New York Times Book Review will publish a review of the first volume of Niall Ferguson’s authorized biography of Henry Kissinger, Kissinger: The Idealist. The reviewer is Andrew Roberts.

Roberts brings an unusual level of familiarity to the subject: It was Roberts whom Kissinger first asked, before turning to Ferguson, to write his authorized biography. In other words, the New York Times is having Kissinger’s preferred authorized biographer review Kissinger’s authorized biography.


So how is the review itself? Contrary to the bet that an opinionated yet informed expert might turn in an exciting piece, Roberts’s essay is ponderous, and, if possible, even more hagiographic than the authorized biography itself.

“Kissinger’s official biographer,” writes the man Kissinger first asked to be his official biographer, “certainly gives the reader enough evidence to conclude that Henry Kissinger is one of the greatest Americans in the history of the republic, someone who has been repulsively traduced over several decades and who deserved to have a defense of this comprehensiveness published years ago.”

Henry Kissinger: greatest American of the last century, or greatest American ever? I’m sure Yahya Khan would agree it’s the latter.

Lynd on Alinsky

[ 58 ] September 30, 2015 |
Saul Alinsky in 1965. (Tribune Archive photo) ..OUTSIDE TRIBUNE CO.- NO MAGS,  NO SALES, NO INTERNET, NO TV, CHICAGO OUT..

Saul Alinsky in 1965. (Tribune Archive photo) ..OUTSIDE TRIBUNE CO.- NO MAGS, NO SALES, NO INTERNET, NO TV, CHICAGO OUT..

I have no idea why the right has so demonized Saul Alinsky as the greatest evil of all time, although that was really more a 2008-12 demon than today. But in any case, his organizing strategies were certainly influential. But there’s a strong critique to made against them from the left and the radical historian and colleague of Alinksy, Staughton Lynd, makes it. It’s not an easy thing to excerpt, so I would recommend just reading it for Lynd’s stories of trying to work in an Alinsky organization after 1968 and had quickly it all fell apart.

In so many cases, the building of the organization was actually the point of Alinsky’s style of organizing, which could be disastrous in the case of the United Farm Workers, when Cesar Chavez actively opposed empowering workers who could threaten the organization and frankly preferred working with white volunteers who would simply do whatever he told them. Chavez would purge members who disagreed with him, take resources away from the lettuce workers who actually wanted to organize to focus on the grapes where Chavez decided the fight should exist, etc. Focusing on building around preexisting issues and fostering natural leaders are certainly good strategies, but it’s long been clear to me that Alinksy-style organizing had very real limitations, including lacking a broader agenda or long-term goal, centralizing authority in a few people’s hands, and could deemphasize or even demonize the political agenda of members. Coming out of the New Left falling apart, some of that makes sense in some circumstances–organizing is hard and complicated and there’s no clear way to do it–but Alinsky and his followers went way too far. Alinsky-style organizing may provide useful strategies for current organizers but it’s hardly a model to follow to the letter.

Which brings us back to the bizarre question of why Alinsky is so scary for conservatives, but then I don’t really have a good answer for that except to say that he was key in the founding of the community organizing model, Barack Obama was a community organizer for 5 minutes, and therefore Kenyan Muslims come to power illegally or something.

Your Argument is Fat

[ 130 ] September 30, 2015 |

One of the funniest folks in my twitter feed, the fabulous Lindy West.

I follow Lindy West a little because her writing has a feminist bent, but mostly I follow her because I find her extraordinarily funny. And she handles trolls expertly, with astonishing patience and wit. But watching her defend herself against accusations that she is fat gets exhausting after awhile. As if Lindy West doesn’t know she’s fat. As if we don’t all know she’s fat. As if her being fat renders her arguments invalid. The rule at play here is pretty clear: if you’re a feminist and you’re not thin, at any time some anonymous troll can just come back with “you’re fat.” It’s a cruel and obnoxious derailing technique and it makes me livid.

If you follow me on social media, you know I recently posted a full-length picture of myself posing in a really silly pose. My son requested I pose “like a rocker.” So I did. I posted the picture because I turned 43 yesterday, because the picture was funny, and because I’ve lost a decent amount of weight in the past few months and I’m happy about that (for various reasons I prefer to keep private). But if I’m honest with myself, one of the reasons I posted the picture is because I wanted to take the the “you’re fat” card away from any potential trolls. And that makes me really sad. I shouldn’t have to worry about that. And, ideally, I’d be so strong I wouldn’t worry about that card. But frankly I’m not as strong, kind, and patient as Lindy West. (Certainly not as quick-witted, though goddess knows I’m working on it.) Even as a low-profile Internet Feminist, I find the prospect of being at the receiving end of this kind of thing exhausting and terrifying.

Internet Feminist: I think this thing because x x and x.

Troll: That may be so, but…you’re fat.

Internet Feminist: Sure, but the fact still remains that x–

Troll: Faaaaaaaat.

Internet Feminist: Ok, but can we actually deal with the fa–

Troll: Fatty fat fat fat fat…*spittle flecks*

The bottom line is that no matter where you are the political spectrum, it’s the weight of your argument that should matter, not your actual weight. But for too many women, that’s simply not the case.




[ 64 ] September 30, 2015 |


A couple of years ago, the NFL changed its kickoff rules to minimize this dangerous play. Moving the kick up has allowed for more touchbacks, which means less returns, and less damage to players’ bodies. I suppose it might have taken a little excitement out of the game and it’s certainly created a lot of bad decisions by players taking out from 6 yards deep and returning it to the 11. College football did something of the same thing by creating a stronger incentive not to return kicks by making a touchback bring the ball out to the 25.

It’s certainly time to do the same with punting, probably banning the practice entirely. It’s the most dangerous play in football.

One week earlier, a sixteen-year-old freshman football player in Winnsboro, Louisiana, was fatally injured during a punt return in the fourth quarter of a Friday-night high-school game. His neck was reportedly broken when an opposing player hit him. “He loved his family, his team, and the game of football. He will be missed,” his school’s Facebook page read. It was Tyrell Cameron’s first and last high-school football game. His coffin was decorated with the colors of his Franklin Parish Patriots.

“Sure, it’s one of the more dangerous positions,” the Atlanta Falcons return specialist and receiver Devin Hester, who holds the N.F.L. record for punt-return touchdowns and total return touchdowns, told me recently. Football is thrilling and dangerous at every level, as fans of the game are increasingly aware. A 2013 study by the National Center for Catastrophic Sports Injury Research found that a dozen high-school and college football players die each year during practices and games. There hasn’t been a death during an N.F.L. game since 1971, but the league itself expects a third of all its retired players to develop some form of long-term cognitive problem, such as Alzheimer’s or dementia, as a consequence of head injuries endured on the gridiron. And a new independent report conducted by researchers with the Department of Veterans Affairs and Boston University found that chronic traumatic encephalopathy—or C.T.E., a disease caused by repeated head trauma, which can result in depression and dementia—affected ninety-six percent of N.F.L. players and seventy-nine percent of all football players whom researchers examined. (The researchers have examined the brain tissue of one hundred and sixty-five former players.)

Obviously, the CTE problem is much larger than punting but subjecting players to getting their bodies smashed, usually for not much as the average punt return is around 8-9 yards, means that a real step forward in safety would be a “punt” that just gave possession of the ball to other team 40 yards down the field, or perhaps halfway to the goal for punts inside the opponents’ 50. Something like this anyway. That’s the kind of adjustment that can actually make the game somewhat safer.

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