February 15, 2012

Posted by orrinj at 8:12 PM

A FEBRUARY NAIL-BITER

Why Obama Will Embrace the 99 Percent (NATE SILVER, 2/15/12, NY Times Magazine)
 
By early February, Obama's approval rating had climbed to 49 percent in the Real Clear Politics average, a six-point improvement from three months earlier. Although it's not a terrific approval rating, it may be enough to get Obama another term. In 2004, George W. Bush won a narrow victory with essentially identical metrics: G.D.P. growth of 2.9 percent and an approval rating of about 48 percent on Election Day.

Still, Obama's position isn't solid enough for him to beat just anybody. Bush benefited from running against a middling opponent like John Kerry, against whom he was able to squeeze every ounce out of his approval rating.

The model I created evaluates the strength of the opposition candidate by considering his ideology on a left-to-right scale. Candidates who are closer to the center have historically done better than those closer to the wings. (I've updated the model's measure of ideology to account for new data.)

Obama's most likely Republican opponent, Mitt Romney, continues to rate as a "generic Republican." In fact, he now scores at exactly 50 on the 100-point scale from centrist to extremist. That means an election against Romney, like Bush's against Kerry, would mostly be dictated by the fundamentals of the economy and by evaluations of Obama's job performance. With 2.5 percent G.D.P. growth from now through November, Obama would be a 60 percent favorite to win the popular vote.

Posted by orrinj at 8:09 PM

DEFINING THE CONTRIBUTION, NOT THE BENEFIT:

GM moves from pension plan to 401(k) (Aaron Smith and Chris Isidore, February 15, 2012, CNNMoney) 

General Motors has shifted its senior salaried workers away from a traditional pension plan to a 401(k) plan, said a company spokeswoman on Wednesday.

GM (GM, Fortune 500) froze its defined benefit pension plans for 19,000 U.S. salaried workers and shifted them to a 401(k) plan, said GM spokeswoman Lynda Messina.

These 19,000 workers were hired before 2001, when the automaker was using the traditional pension plan. The pension plan is not eliminated. Instead, it is frozen, so whatever funds were put into it until now will be received upon retirement.

Posted by orrinj at 6:42 PM

IT WAS A MATTER OF DERIVATIVE FRAUD, NOT OF BAD MORTGAGES:

Toxic? Says Who? Taste For 'Subprime' Returns (SERENA NG, 2/15/12, WSJ)

Investors' belief that the worst is over for the U.S. housing market is fueling renewed interest in once-toxic mortgage bonds that were at the heart of the financial crisis.

Prices of some distressed bonds backed by subprime home loans--those issued before the crisis to borrowers with sketchy credit histories--have chalked up double-digit percentage gains this year, with one prominent market index rising 14%.

Posted by orrinj at 6:27 AM

WHEN DID DUSTIN HOFFMAN GET SO OLD?:

Luck Is a Winner for HBO (Tim Surette, Jan 30, 2012, TV.com)

I've never understood some people's fascination with horses. Horse lovers can go on and on about the creatures' beauty, their gracefulness, their mystique. Me, I see overgrown donkeys that would love nothing more than to kick me in the nads. But HBO's Luck, the new drama about horse racing that debuted tonight, is taking my ignorance for quite a ride of clarity. Through the eyes of Michael Mann (Heat) and the words and characters of David Milch (Deadwood), the jaw-dropping beauty of horses and desperate atmosphere of the world of horse racing come to light in what could be HBO's best new series.

Just as Boardwalk Empire's pilot benefited from producer Martin Scorsese's directing chops, Luck's pilot benefited from Mann's. But Mann outdid his fellow Directing Hall of Famer and just about everyone else on the planet with masterful work here. Luck is absolutely gorgeous, and Mann's ability to capture the brutality and grace of the Sport of Kings with mind-boggling camera angles and how-did-they-do-that tracking shots (seriously, how DID they do that?) is staggering. Shots that dart back and forth between a wild horse's eye and an intense jockey's eye only emphasize the tenuous bond between rider and animal, and remind us that these are human beings careening around a track at ridiculous speeds on top of a frickin' beast.

But Luck isn't just about the duos racing around the track, it's about everything that goes on around the track. Milch turns his eye toward all tiers of the racetrack hierarchy; here, they involve the recently released from prison Ace (Dustin Hoffman), scheming horse trainer Turo Escalante (John Ortiz), a pair of jockeys looking to make names for themselves, an owner named Walter Smith (Nick Nolte) who just might have the next great thoroughbred on his hands, and a quartet of lowly gamblers trying to win enough to buy their next meal. In the pilot, we saw how all of their lives intersect, and how risks and gambles taken by one of them affect the lives of the others.

One of the best things about having Mann direct was that he brought in a couple of the regulars from the great series Crime Story--Ted Levine and Dennis Farina. 


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Posted by orrinj at 5:54 AM

WHAT DO GAS PRICES EVER HAVE TO DO WITH DEMAND?:

Rising Gas Prices: Not Demand Driven (Matthew Philips, 2/14/12, Business Week)

Strangely, the current run-up in prices comes despite sinking demand in the U.S. "Petrol demand is as low as it's been since April 1997," says Tom Kloza, chief oil analyst for the Oil Price Information Service. "People are properly puzzled by the fact that we're using less gas than we have in years, yet we're paying more."

Kloza believes much of the increase is due to speculative money that's flowed into gasoline futures contracts since the beginning of the year, mostly from hedge funds and large money managers. "We've seen about $11 billion of speculative money come in on the long side of gas futures," he says. "Each of the last three weeks we've seen a record net long position being taken."

Posted by orrinj at 5:32 AM

"WHAT DOES IT MEAN TO BE A MAN":

Man In Full (CHRIS BALLARD, 2/13/12, Sports Illustrated)

Powell stares at the bar, disbelieving. His entire life he's been the strongest guy in the room. Growing up in nearby Forest Park, he was doing pull-ups at age three. By four he could do handstand push-ups and had earned the nickname Mikey Powerful. In eighth grade he set a school mark for pull-ups; at Indiana he set multiple weight-room records. Angry, he tries again but doesn't make it past three pull-ups. Again the boys laugh, only this time nervously. Is Powell playing a joke on us? If not, this is weird.

This is, after all, Coach Powell. No one attacks coaching, or life, as he does. This is the man who signs his e-mails in relentless pursuit, who works 18-hour days and is the first one back in the gym, smiling and hopping around. "We may not be the most talented," Powell tells his wrestlers, "but no one in the state of Illinois will outwork us." During the regular season he ran the boys through torturous exercises, timing them as they pushed weighted sleds through the rough grass of the school outfield, the boys so drenched in sweat that they took their soggy workout clothes home in knotted plastic bags. He tacked a poster board labeled MANLINESS on the training room wall so he could track each wrestler's personal bests: how many times he could flip a 100-pound tire in two minutes, how many times he could clean-and-press half his body weight in four minutes, how many dips and pull-ups he could rip off in 10 minutes.

The boys might have bristled at the demands if they'd come from a different coach. But not from Powell, for he was right there beside them. He pushed the sled and heaved the tire and did the dips and kept going after the boys faltered. He wrestled them all, relying on his quickness against 103-pounders and his power against heavyweights. He challenged them to push-up contests. He dared them to be true warriors--to become, as he put it, "not just good but great men."

That was a theme he brought up almost every day, because Powell believed that the idea of masculinity had become twisted in modern society, that it had become derogatory to call someone macho or manly. "Try to be a different kind of man," he told them. "One who's true to his word, who's respectful to women and his family."

"Macho men can also be sissies!" he'd shout in his booming, raspy voice. "You can grind it out in a grudge match and then go read Shakespeare. You can read The New York Times and lift weights."

Once kids joined the team, they became part of Powell's family. He arranged tutors for boys who struggled in school. He drove one recently graduated wrestler 300 miles to college and helped him move into his dorm. Every summer he took the entire team on a backpacking trip, one year to Glacier National Park in Montana, the next to Zion National Park in Utah, paying for the kids who couldn't afford it. He took the ungainly boys aside and talked to them about girls; he took the cocky ones aside and talked to them about the value of finding mentors. Always he gave them love. Before every match he kissed the forehead of Ellis Coleman, one of the roughest of the rough, whose father and stepfather had both spent time in prison. Before every meet Powell said, "Character, boys, that's all it's ever been about, all it will ever be about and all it's about tonight."

The boys idolized him. They walked like Powell, as if carrying imaginary holsters on their hips. They talked like him, referring to anything subpar as jayvee, as in, "There are two options for lunch: the good sandwich place and the jayvee one around the corner." The older boys cultivated cauliflower ears, lighting up at the first bruising. Several wrestlers started a Facebook page called WWMPD, for What Would Mike Powell Do. "Whatever Powell said held 100 times the weight of a parent, teacher, anyone," says Michele Weldon, whose three sons wrestled for him. "The boys craved his approval. They would do anything they could for him."

That's why that afternoon in the workout room was so unsettling. As Brooks puts it, "We'd never seen him like that before, so weak."