Monday, December 29, 2008

Our crappy newspapers

Over the holidays, family members one generation older than me were worried about the impending implosion of print media in this country, largely spurred by reports that the New York Times was having problems, as are pretty much all papers around the country. Circulation is down, revenue is down, etc. etc. The root cause of this doesn't appear to be Americans' lack of interest in getting the news, but rather that there are so many other sources for news. Couple this to the inability of print newspapers to figure out how to adapt to the internet, and that's why there're all in trouble. Indeed, as Matt Yglesias pointed out, let's not give them a free pass on the latter:
Four — the clearest thing management could have done better was to recognize earlier what business they were in. In particular, letting the online classified market slip away was a preventable error. Everyone might be posting their free classified on had someone really smart come up with that idea. The pageviews involved would have been a huge additional asset to the website and it would have been one newspaper undercutting the competition rather than all newspapers being undercut by a guy named Craig.

Further, let's not pretend that newspapers are doing a terribly good job of reporting the news. Most newspaper stories don't tell you anything but just fill up space. For example, here's a story from today's Washington Post with the intriguing headline "Webb Sets His Sights on Prison Reform." Read this story and try to find one detail of what Webb is proposing, or a piece of analysis, or anything. 90% of the story is Webb's biography, which could have been attached to a story about Senator Webb taking a dump.

Wednesday, December 24, 2008

Since it is Christmas, a Die Hard reference

"And when Alexander saw the breadth of his domain, he wept for there were no more worlds to conquer". . . Benefits of a classical education.
Ah Hans Gruber, you capture me perfectly. Having emerged as champion of both my fantasy football leagues this year (and scoring the most points overall in both, not simply lucking my way through the playoffs) I'm wondering if I should retire. Now I know what Bret Favre feels like, except I'm winning a lot.

Sunday, December 21, 2008

Hot Stove: the staff

The Sox boast possibly the best top 3 of a rotation in the game of Beckett, Lester, and DiceK. I've already talked about the first two the other day, so a word about DiceK. He's tough to watch, and one really wonders when and if his luck is going to run out, in that he puts a lot of guys on base but pitches out of it. Last year he loaded the bases 15 times... and opponents batted 0.000 against him. If you assume that the league bats 0.300 with the bases loaded (it is actually higher than that), then you'd get this outcome (0.7)^15 = 0.5% of the time. That's a good a definition of luck as you're going to find. My main beef with DiceK is that all his nibbling and high pitch counts leave him unable to consistently go deep into games, and the Red Sox bullpen (all teams' bullpens, really) pretty much stinks. But the guy won 18 games last year and had a sub 3.00 ERA, so all in all, he's solid.

The backend of the Sox rotation is still in flux. Wakefield may or may not be back next year -- the tea leaves point towards retirement for the longest-serving current member of the Red Sox (since '95), but my gut tells me he'll be back. Wake is kinda a mixed blessing, as he's no longer the guaranteed-2oo-innings guy he once was. If he's your number 5 starter, fine, but even as a 4 that doesn't make for a very deep staff. Other arms to consider to round out the rotation are Clay Buchholz and Justin Masterson. The former stormed onto the scene with a no-hitter in his second MLB game in 2007, but was less-than-impressive in '08, ending the year in the minors. Masterson began the year as a starter for the Sox but eventually moved to the bullpen, much more a commentary on the sorry state of the Sox bullpen rather than as a demotion for his work as a starter. By the time of the playoffs, Masterson was essentially Fracona's fireman, the get-me-out-of-trouble in the middle innings guy out of the pen.

If I had to guess, I think the Sox make a play for a free agent pitcher to slide into the #4 slot -- Ben Sheets would be my first choice, because I think he's got a lot of upside, but Derek Lowe appears to be an option as well. The 5 spot is then Buchholz's to claim, as all things being equal, I'd prefer to see Masterson stay in the pen.

Saturday, December 20, 2008

Lander to advise Obama

Obama has named Eric Lander and Harold Varmus as Co-Chairs of the President’s Council of Advisors on Science and Technology. Both are incredibly distinguished scientists, and even better, both do biology. I served as a teaching assistant for the intro biology class Lander teaches at MIT (he's a really good teacher). Lander has also oggled my wife on numerous occasions, although there's a lot of evidence to suggest she is not alone in this honor.

Seriously though, these are two really good people to have the president's (large) ear.

Hot Stove: the lineup

With the exception of catcher, the Sox aren't necessarily going to see any changes in their starting lineup; of course, they could sign Texeira and jumble everything up. Left to right in the OF is Bay, Ellsbury, and Drew. 4th OF is up for grabs, with Coco having been traded away and Kotsay a free agent. Especially with DL Drew on the roster, a capable 4th OF is a high priority. Defensively I'd say this is an average OF. Bay is a bit below average, Ellsbury has great range but no arm, and Drew gets a good jump on the ball but doesn't have blazing speed, and his arm is perhaps a bit above average.

In the IF, Lowell & Lowrie will work the left side, while the Sox boast the best right side IF in all of baseball, Youkilis & Pedroia. Lurking/sucking in the wings is Julio Lugo, who is still under contract with the Sox. Lowrie is probably average at best defensively at SS, as his range is pretty limited but he has sure hands on the balls he gets to and while not possessing a cannon, throws accurately and turns the double play pretty well. Lowell, Pedroia, and Youkilis are all excellent in the field, so defensively the Sox IF is pretty darn good. There's also a decent amount of flexibility by position, as Youk can play third while Lowrie has seen action at both second and third should the situation arise. The role of backup middle infielder in the past has gone to Alex Cora, but if the Sox aren't able to unload Lugo, they might be content to let him rot on the bench in that role this year. I suppose I'm fine with that.

As for hitting, Pedroia, Youkilis, Drew, Bay, & Lowell (if fully healthy, which he appears to be) are pretty much known quantities at this point, so as much as one can predict the future, they're likely to post similar numbers as last year. Ortiz, as mentioned yesterday, has more uncertainty, but what isn't uncertain is that he'll hit third and the Sox fortunes on offense will rise and fall with him.

Ellsbury was pretty uneven last year, starting off hot but then tailing off for pretty much the whole season, and not doing much of anything in the postseason (indeed, Crisp started several games in the ALCS). Since it was his rookie year, one would hope that he'll be better this time around, especially in terms of drawing walks and getting on base, where his speed is lethal. The Sox other starting rookie, Lowrie, ended the year with a 0.739 OPS, which, if he had enough at-bats, would have put him in the top 50 in the AL. So with some improvement, Lowrie could be a decent contributor. Indeed, how much or little these two now-second-year players improve will go a long way in determining the success of the Sox lineup.

Various statistical analyses have been done to show that, over the course of a 162 game season, lineup construction really doesn't matter all that much in terms of how many runs you'll actually score, but it is still fun to think about. The heart of the Sox lineup, from 2 - 6, is pretty darn good, with Pedroia, Ortiz, Youkilis, Drew, & Bay, which nicely alternates R/L. Lowell makes for a good 7th hitter. If, and this is a big if, Ellsbury can improve the point where he's a solid lead-off hitter, then this is a truly good lineup. Heck, it wouldn't surprise me if Lowrie actually showed more improvement and he ended up leading off. The only weak spot is catcher, whether it be the corpse of Varitek or some scrub they bring in.

Last year the Sox scored 845 runs, good for second in the AL behind only Texas. Of course, that team had Manny for half the season, although Bay did a reasonably good Manny impression when he arrived in August, putting up an OPS of 0.897 with the Sox (Manny's '08 Sox-only OPS was 0.927). Given that not a heck of a lot has changed since last year (at least not yet) I think the Sox will perform about the same on offense, with some room for improvement, if either Ellsbury makes some headway or Papi stays healthy. It is not a lineup that will wow you with homers, but they work the count, get on base, and above all, actually score a lot of runs.

Friday, December 19, 2008

Hot Stove: looking back

With a snowstorm apparently imminent (quick, run to the grocery store to stock up on bottled water and Dinty Moore!), and with Mark Texeira talk burning up the WEEI airwaves, baseball has been on my mind a bit lately.

When we last left off, the Red Sox had lost Game 7 of the ALCS, sending the Rays to their first World Series. Why did they lose that series? Well, two items jump out. First, their 1 and 2 starters, Beckett and Lester, combined for 1 win and 3 losses, averaging under 6 innings a start with an ERA of 6.95 and WHIP of 1.41. Pretty much you could stop there, but their big bat, David Ortiz, put up a batting average of 0.154 and an OPS of 0.698, while another major bat, Mike Lowell, wasn't even on the roster. So let's start with these four players...

1) Beckett was clearly hurt, suffering from an oblique strain. The good news is that such an injury is unlikely to be a problem in the future (i.e. it is not an elbow or shoulder problem). So let's assume that Beckett, who'll be 29 next year, contributes what we're used to.

2) Lester was the Sox best pitcher in the regular season, pitching over 200 innings and going 16-6 with an ERA of 3.21. This wass the first year he'd ever pitched >200 innings in his career, so perhaps hitting the wall in the postseason was to be expected. At 25, Lester is still a baby so I think it reasonable to assume that you'll get another solid season out of him in 2009.

3) Ortiz... well, if there were a body type that were to age prematurely, it is the Big Papi. He played in only 109 games this year, but if you extrapolate that performance over 162 games, he'd have hit 34 homers and knocked in 132, so it is not like the played poorly when he was able to go. At 33, he is unlikely to post numbers that are better than previous years, but I'm not expecting him to be Mo Vaughn with the Mets either. His wrist bothered him during the year, but what no ones knows is if that is an injury that can ever fully heal, or if it is more of a chronic problem. Of these four, Ortiz is probably the biggest question mark; I would not be surprised if he hit 0.260 or .310, 20 homers or 45.

4) At 35, Mike Lowell isn't what he used to be, but he is not as old as he looks and he had a very good year in 2008 before getting hurt (extrapolated to 162 games, 24 HR and 105 RBI). Certainly he is a better hitter than those who filled in for him during the ALCS (some combo of Mark Kotsay & Alex Cora, when you got finished moving around Lowrie and/or Youk). Lowell's defense is above average, and in the lineup at this point, he'd be a good #7 hitter or a below-average #5.

Thursday, December 18, 2008

Tick tick tick

Jaguars are trailing by a touchdown, no timeouts left, and they complete a pass to the Colts 12 yard line with exactly 1 minute on the clock. To me, time is not an issue at this point. But the Jags spike the ball, making it second down. Stupid move, because now you only get three shots at the end zone instead of four.

Of course, as I type this, Garrard throws one out of the back of the end zone and then gets sacks to end the game, confirming that the Jags suck. In general, there's almost never a reason to spike the ball, except for stopping the clock to allow your kicker to come on to the field. If you're running your offense, then run a play, because you have to get everyone back to the line and set anyway.

Wednesday, December 17, 2008

No comment

Why is it that people don't want to make comments to the press during on-going investigations? I mean, I see why from a political/public relations standpoint, because the more you say the more the story stays alive, even if you have played no major role in said story (e.g. Obama and Blago, which is what got me thinking about this). But all these statements of "I don't want to comment..." seem to have a vaguely legal tone to them, with the implication that if I opened my mouth and talked, there could be negative consequences towards either the investigation or myself. But is that true? At all? Certainly there would be negative consequences if you lied to the press about an on-going investigation -- certainly PR-wise, possibly legally -- but could there be negative consequences to anyone or anything if you told the truth?

Corn for all

Despite the fact that he's a Hamilton grad, I'm not a fan of Vilsack as Sec. of Agriculture. Our food policy in this country is beyond screwed up, with tons of subsidies given to all the wrong entities. Further, corn-based ethanol is idiotic, but as governor of Iowa, Vilsack has obviously been a huge proponent. Here's one place where it would have been nice to get someone with a genuinely new perspective on how we deal with food and taxpayer subsidies, but it looks like not much will change. I hope I'm wrong.

Wednesday, December 10, 2008

The Idiot Tax

Every time I wait in line behind someone buying scratch-off lottery tickets, I think to myself, jeez, what an idiot. These folks are also quite annoying, as they will hem-and-haw over the exact nature of how to flush $10 down the toilet, debating between "Spin for the Millions" or "Pot o' Gold."

After loathing these mental defectives for a few minutes, I then wonder of the benefits of having a lotto in the first place. The state certainly makes money off of it, as lotto ad campaigns are quick to advertise. But from the standpoint of the commonwealth, is a lotto really a good thing?

I have two opposing thoughts on this. First, we should ban the lotto because it essentially amounts to a poor tax -- don't see a lot of executives mindlessly rubbing a quarter over a piece of cardboard and sending gray dust to the floor. Thus, we'd be better off as a society if these folks didn't have one more outlet on which to piss their money away. Sure, I'm sure that cash would be wasted on something equally as stupid, but at least it wouldn't be directly government sponsored.

But then I think that maybe the lotto is not so much a poor tax as it is an idiot tax. While it is regretable that some people waste their probably-much-needed dough on something so pointless, there are probably a lot of people wasting their discretionary funds on the lotto as well -- most people I see buying tickets aren't obvious hobos. Further, if the state is really using the funds from the lotto to hire firemen and pay teachers, then that's a win. I suppose part of the cost-benefit analysis comes down to some combination of:

a) how much overlap is there between lotto idiots and talking-on-phone-while-driving idiots, leaving-a-loaded-handgun-in-the-house-with-kids idiots, throwing-trash-on-the-streets idiots, etc. In other words, do lotto idiots inordinately contribute to various other societal maladies, or are types of idiocy independently segregating traits?

b) how much would banning the lotto encourage these idiots to leave the state and move to some other state where they could play the lotto?

Unfortunately, I think (b) has a very low probability, so from a public policy standpoint, I don't think that banning the lotto would turn the state into some sort of idiot-free utopia (not to mention the incredible political difficulty in eliminating such an 'institution').

But it does lead me to wonder if there are other potential government sponsored voluntary activities that could take money away from idiots and put it towards the greater good.

Sunday, December 7, 2008

Not unlike a liberal

Unhappy with the current political winds, George Will decides to travel back in time and pretend it is the mid-80s, writing a column attacking liberal support for the fairness doctrine. The fairness doctrine was an instrument of old-school liberalism, one of those maybe-sounds-good-at-the-time but totally ineffective subversions of the free market. Essentially, it said that television, radio, etc. had to offer equal time to both sides of an issue. Were the fairness doctrine to be enforced, Fox News and Rush Limbaugh would have been shut down years ago. Also, note that the fairness doctrine was repealed over twenty years ago.

But that doesn't stop George Will from writing a column railing against those crazy liberals. But, George, who are these liberals who want to re-institute the fairness doctrine? Well, from reading the column, you won't find any names. Nor will you find any names if you read any other news source, because no one wants to re-institute the fairness doctrine. No Congressmen, no liberal pundits, no serious human has called for this. Will might as well have written an article railing against liberals who want to put us on the metric system.

Message to George: these crazy 60s era liberals of which you write are long-extinct, just as their conservative counterparts, Goldwater-types who think that executive power should be restrained, deficits should be kept to minimum, etc. Stop living in the past. Indeed, this failure to understand a current definition of liberal is one reason why Republicans lose the votes of my generation. The messages coming from the the McCain campaign in the final days (Obama's a socialist!) are wholly meaningless to anyone born after 1975. I was 10 when Reagan left office, so the longer conservatives continue to plug their ears singing la-la-la-la and wishing that it is 1984, the longer they will lose.

Friday, December 5, 2008

The day (my) world turned upsidedown

This post for bio-nerds only... not fit for general consumption

A go-to supplier of molecular biology reagents, especially restriction enzymes, is New England Biolabs (NEB amongst friends). Their website is user-friendly, their products are well-documented, and they are just a generally easy company to deal with (in contrast to, say, Invitrogen). Every biologist knows and uses NEB.

Today, I received an order with an insert noting that NEB is changing its buffer system, such that some enzymes that were previously recommended for use in buffers 1, 2, or 3 are now recommended for use in buffer 4. This is like baseball changing the formula for ERA or switching to a 10-month calendar based on the transit of Venus -- everything I thought I knew about how this little slice of the world works has now changed. For example, by memory, here are the previously-recommended NEB buffers for some favorite enzymes:

XbaI - 2
HindIII -2
SpeI - 2
NheI - 2
ApaI - 4
XhoI - 3
NcoI - 4
EcoRV - 3
BamHI - (special)
EcoRI - (special)
AgeI - 1
ClaI - 4

Lemme see how I did... huh, 11 out of 12, the only wrong one being XhoI, which is recommended in 2 but has 100% activity in 3. But now all this info is useless (did it have value before?) or, at least, not up-to-date. Crap.

Oh, as for their recogition sites, from memory:

Yeah, it's been a productive post-college career ;)


Charlie Rangel, the long-serving Democrat from NYC, has been embattled for quite some time now, first over some rent-controlled homes he owns in the city, and now for various ethical questions, including hand-outs to his son. He is also Chairman of the powerful Ways and Means committee.

Just as with Dingel over in Commerce, this is another old Democrat I'd love to see booted. I've seen Rangel on Meet the Press more times than I can count and I've never been impressed, or for that matter, thought him competent enough to be a Congressman.

Tuesday, December 2, 2008


In the days following Sept. 11, 2001, public support for George W. Bush shot up to historically high levels, indicating that Americans did not blame Bush for failing to prevent these attacks. One might wonder how much the timing of the attacks played into this; in other words, had Bush been president for three years instead of less than one, would there have been more fingers pointing at the Oval Office?

I bring this up because of a story in today's Washington Post about a report warning of possible nuclear or biological attacks -- of course, reports such as this are issued all the time, so there's no reason to believe that anything is imminent or anything like that. Rather, it got me thinking, well, if there is an attack, what does that do to an Obama presidency? And does when such an attack occur play a role?

My hunch is that the grace period for Obama is a lot shorter than it was for Bush. Regardless of what the intelligence community was warning Bush about in August (only to be ignored), the American people were legitimately surprised by the attacks and thus gave Bush a free pass. But if America were attacked again, this would no longer be a surprise and I think fewer people would give the benefit of the doubt to Obama. Sure, Obama would (rightly so) point out that, hey, if Bush hadn't screwed things up so bad we probably wouldn't have been attacked, but that argument won't work on everyone -- anyone inclined to doubt Obama will now have their reason.

Anyway, I'd love to get the opinions of Hannity, Limbaugh, etc. on this before the Obama presidency starts, you know, just in case...

Monday, December 1, 2008

Hey, they're still making $$$

Meatloaf writes in:

Given that one of the limiting factors to your question is pretty severe (we're looking for stuff in the box of 'groups that are bigger than the Who") the answer is probably 'no," unless Richards/Jagger (or JBJ / Richie Sambora?) actually hate each other. Or you want to count Lennon/McCartney circa 1970-1975.

In all seriousness, I suppose that Plant and Page had their troubles, but that all started long after Zeppelin called it quits on perfectly amicable (albeit sad) terms. Certainly Paul Simon and Art Garfunkel utterly hated each other by the end. Probably ditto with Diamond Dave and EVH or W. Axl and Izzy Stradlin. But I suppose you are looking for people who actually continue to work together. And there's probably not a winning answer there. Don Henly and Glen Frey?

Re: palladia, I have it and I love it. It basically runs live regular concerts non-stop, plus things like "Storytellers." All in HD. Awesome.

He Hate Me

I get a channel named 'palladia' on my cable box. Have no idea what this channel normally shows, but the other day they had a Springsteen concert in Barcelona (already owned, but good effort on their part) and now they are showing The Who, and based on the grey hair and wrinkles, must be a recent show.

Which leads me to this question.... is there a more high-profile/successful group where the two front guys hate each other more than Daltrey and Townshend? Tangentially, if Pete Townshend weren't windmilling on a stage on tv, would I know that he's not a hobo?

PS Townshend looks like a cross between Loomis from 'Halloween' and Freddy Kruger. Better to burn out than fade away, I guess.

My Lucky Day

Off the upcoming Springsteen album:

Not dead yet

Not sure what made me happier in this anti-intellectual culture of ours: that 'Shakespeare' is still a category on Jeopardy! or that I got 4 of 5 in that category. Perhaps this is the most hopeful part of Obama's election -- the guy does not pride himself on being stupid. If anything, this is Bush's most lasting legacy to me and the root of his failure -- he was proud of his ignorance.