February 24, 2013

Posted by orrinj at 6:36 PM


The Enigma of Mr. 105 : In which we ponder the sometimes crazy, occasionally confounding, reliably complicated life of Aroldis Chapman, the fastest pitcher on earth. (Craig Fehrman, 3/1/2013, Cincinnati Magazine)

Keith Law, a baseball analyst at ESPN, attended a September game where Chapman muscled his way up the velocity ladder--102, 103, 104, and, finally, 105 miles per hour, a new major-league record. By the end, even the opponent's fans were cheering him. "I remember sitting there, thinking, I could spend 30 more years in the game and never see a guy throw this hard," Law says.

Before Law went to ESPN, he worked in the Blue Jays front office. Once, he asked an older scout to name the best pitching prospect he'd ever seen. "Without really hesitating," Law recalls, "he said, 'Brien Taylor.' " Taylor was baseball's top draft pick in 1991, and he remains an almost mythical figure for talent evaluators, in part because he ruined his pitching arm in a brawl. Yet Taylor is the first comparison Law reaches for in explaining what makes Chapman so special.

"I'd almost emphasize the looseness more than the velocity," Law says of Chapman's arm. In other words, it's not just that Chapman throws 100 MPH--it's that he throws 100 MPH and looks like he's playing catch. That easy delivery comes from Chapman's rare athleticism; one gets the sense that, had he stuck with boxing, Chapman would have made a terrific light heavyweight (or a terrific wide receiver, or a terrific shooting guard). Law calls Chapman's fastball "electric" and praises his "wipeout slider." "And I've always thought his changeup is better than he gets credit for," he says.

In 2012, Chapman combined those skills with a new one: accuracy. People forget that Chapman's 105 MPH pitch was actually a ball, but last year, aided by that easy motion, he traded in a little velocity for precision control. It led to a season so remarkable fans can rotate and analyze it, like a diamond. At one point, Chapman's catchers recorded 15 straight put-outs--that means nothing but pop ups, foul outs, dribblers, and strikeouts. And speaking of strikeouts, according to ESPN, Chapman got 50 of them on pitches of 100-plus MPH. The rest of baseball managed only 52, combined.

Somehow, watching Chapman was even more impressive than his numbers. I reviewed every one of his saves (38) and blown saves (5) from 2012, and the weird thing is, you can't tell a difference. Not in his appearance, at least. Chapman's no longer the guy who threw a tantrum against Japan and drove his Louisville defenders nuts. He's remade himself, becoming not so much unflappable as simply detached. Take a game last June, against the Astros: Chapman secured the save in an astounding 3 minutes, 54 seconds. He needed 13 pitches to strike out the side. Yet his demeanor never changed, and throughout the season there was rarely any separation between "good" Chapman and "bad" Chapman, at least in the aesthetics.

Where you could find evidence of the good and the bad was in the numbers. He went on long streaks where every opponent looked like the Astros, but he also went on streaks where he completely fell apart. Oddly, those streaks never overlapped. In 2012, Chapman toggled between amazing and awful like a light switch. In fact, his season can be divided into four tidy sections: From Opening Day through June 6 (let's call it Streak A), he threw 29 dominant innings: no runs, nine walks, 52 strikeouts. But from June 7 through June 24 (Streak B), Chapman struggled: 6.1 innings, eight runs, four losses. The double somersault? Chapman meant it to mark the end of that swoon, and it did: from June 26 to September 4 he threw 30.2 innings with one run, 6 walks, and 56 strikeouts (Streak C). But the end of the season saw him slip again: more runs, more walks, even a long period where the Reds shut him down (Streak D).

This analysis may seem unfair; after all, no pitcher has ever kept up Streak A or Streak C levels for an entire season. But given what is known about Chapman's makeup--that he can get rattled, distracted, derailed--it seems important to note that his season was forcefully shaped by momentum. I noticed this while reviewing his outings as well. During Streaks B and D, Chapman's pacing and control eroded. In a game with the Detroit Tigers in June, he hit a batter with the bases loaded then walked a fringe player on four pitches--all while Miguel Cabrera (who went on to win the American League MVP) waited on deck; in a late-season appearance against the Pittsburgh Pirates, he threw 10 balls in his first 11 pitches.

Of course, baseball's a funny game, and a bad outing, especially for a reliever, can stem from something as simple as a grounder scooting past Zach Cozart's glove. So I asked Harry Pavlidis, a PITCHf/x expert with the website Baseball Prospectus, to analyze Chapman's streaks. PITCHf/x is just as high tech as it sounds: a two-camera system that lets people like Pavlidis track the movement and effectiveness of every single pitch--and dig deep into the performance of every single player.

"Selective endpoints are a classic danger in analysis," Pavlidis says. "Still, some things did pop up." When Chapman was at his best, during Streaks A and C, hitters would swing and miss at his fastball 40 percent of the time. "That's insane," Pavlidis says, "just crazy." During Streaks B and D, however, that percentage fell into the 20s (though for relievers that's still considered good).

This pattern repeated with other arcane measures--Chapman's ability to get groundballs with his fastball, the outcome of his two-strike sliders--and always switched with the various streaks. According to multiple forms of evidence, then, Chapman became a markedly different player during the two types of streak. "And that," Pavlidis admits, "is really curious."

Posted by orrinj at 11:39 AM


Napster: the day the music was set free (Tom Lamont, 2/23/13, The Observer)

"It's difficult to describe to people... how much material was suddenly available," the technology guru John Perry Barlow tells Alex Winter, the director of Downloaded, in his new documentary. Speaking to me on the phone from the US, Winter added: "There was no ramp up. There was no transition. It was like that famous shot from 2001: A Space Odyssey, when the prehistoric monkey throws a bone in the air and it turns into a spaceship. Napster was a ridiculous leap forward."

They're right, it was seismic. I was part of the web-straddling generation. The internet, when it came in our teens, was welcome, exciting and fathomable, but it changed things briskly and sometimes bewilderingly. Music was something you bought after protracted debate with friends in the aisles of Our Price, and then, suddenly, songs were accessible from home. They didn't cost anything. We were wilfully blinkered, probably, on the exact details of this last point.

I asked colleagues of a similar age what they remembered of Napster's arrival. "The thrill," said one, whose first download was by Smashing Pumpkins, "even when I listened to the music through my mum's tinny computer speakers." Another quickly sought to mine Marlena Shaw's backlist and "couldn't believe it worked". For my part - plundering singles by Artful Dodger, by Semisonic - I have a memory of actually looking over my shoulder. How was this possible? It was as if the door to a bank vault had been left open, no guards in sight.

Working in a warehouse in a rural area gives us extraordinarily limited radio options--two stations come in well, one's contemporary country.  This Winter we've used my Spotify account, run off our laptop through and old iPod docking clock/radio.  We've had access to darn near every song ever written. Of course, the flip-side of that is that choosing what to listen to can become time-consuming and divisive, so now we're streaming stations off the net (like The Current from Minnesota Public Radio).  Sometimes you just need a curator.

Posted by orrinj at 11:25 AM


Environmental Groups Target Ernest Moniz, President Obama's Likely Choice for Energy Secretary (Miranda Green, Feb 24, 2013, Daily Beast)

President Obama is widely expected to nominate Ernest Moniz as Energy secretary any day now, and environmental organizations are girding for a fight. 

"We're not sure Mr. Moniz will keep his eyes where they should be: on a no-carbon future where we are relying on wind and other forms of energy," says Mitch Jones, a program director at Food and Water Watch.

The anti-fracking organization, began an effort to block Moniz's nomination after reports surfaced that the long-haired MIT professor is the president's likely pick. The organization lambasted Moniz for his preference for fossil fuels as an energy source and for being a fracking "cheerleader."

Posted by orrinj at 11:19 AM


Obama's sequester deal-changer (Bob Woodward, 2/22/13,washpost.com)

Why does this matter?

First, months of White House dissembling further eroded any semblance of trust between Obama and congressional Republicans. (The Republicans are by no means blameless and have had their own episodes of denial and bald-faced message management.)

Second, Lew testified during his confirmation hearing that the Republicans would not go along with new revenue in the portion of the deficit-reduction plan that became the sequester. Reinforcing Lew's point, a senior White House official said Friday, "The sequester was an option we were forced to take because the Republicans would not do tax increases."

In fact, the final deal reached between Vice President Biden and Senate Minority Leader Mitch McConnell (R-Ky.) in 2011 included an agreement that there would be no tax increases in the sequester in exchange for what the president was insisting on: an agreement that the nation's debt ceiling would be increased for 18 months, so Obama would not have to go through another such negotiation in 2012, when he was running for reelection.

So when the president asks that a substitute for the sequester include not just spending cuts but also new revenue, he is moving the goal posts. His call for a balanced approach is reasonable, and he makes a strong case that those in the top income brackets could and should pay more. But that was not the deal he made.

...and after they're made offer a deal for more cuts and some (tax credit and exemption removing) revenue boosts.
Posted by orrinj at 11:08 AM


Did Walker Percy Really Write the Last Self-Help Book? (PETER LAWLER, FEBRUARY 24, 2013, Big Think)

[S]elf-help books work well for a while but eventually fail, as all diversions do.  They claim to but do not really tell us who we are and what we're supposed to do.   They can't extinguish the experiences of self-consciousness or the self or soul by denying that what's distinctively human about each of us really exists.  They can't take out what the existentialists, such as the philosopher Heidegger, truthfully describe.  We're not organisms in an environment, and so we can't really lose ourselves--our personal identities--in some environment, in some COSMOS in which each of us is merely a part. We can't lose BEING LOST.  That's why the master psychologist Aleksandr Solzhenitsyn heard just beneath the surface of all our happy-talk pragmatism the howl of existentialism.

For Percy, the resulting ANXIETY--the experience of being an inexplicable or absurd leftover in the world the EXPERTS describe--ought to be a prelude to WONDER about how strange the human self or soul is.  But for the experts, anxiety that has no environmental cause (such as being isolated from the other social animals) must have a physical or chemical cause.  So there must be a physical or chemical remedy--a mood-altering or mood-elevating drug.  As Percy explains, for our experts psyche-iatry--discovering who we are and what we're supposed to do through attentive conversation--is replaced by a kind of chemo-therapy. For Percy, Socrates and Freud were old-fashioned doctors of the soul;  the expert objection to their approach is that was time-consuming and expensive and the results uncertain or unreliable.  Who cares about the so-called REAL CAUSE if we can effectively manage the SYMPTOMS?   Why shouldn't we CHOOSE the moods that make us upbeat and productive?

Self-consciousness doesn't become the enemy, but something to be controlled or managed through technology.  But the truth is that even the drugs or chemo-therapy don't work better than diversions.  It's easy to zap self-consciousness out of existence, but that would make the zappers the masters and the zapped the slaves. The zappers, as a result, would be more miserably lonely than ever.  And, in our irrational pride and our love, we don't really want to surrender our personal identities.  We want to be able to manage our self-consciousness the way we can techno-control everything else.  But our experts don't really know what engineered mood or judicious mixture of moods would really make us happy or at home.  It turns out that our moods--the moods we've been given by nature--are indispensable clues to the truth about who we are and what we're supposed to do. That's why Percy says, against the cheomotherapists, that he has a right to his anxiety. It's his right to liberty that might lead to real truth and real happiness.

The other self-help books can't tell each of us why we have that right, because they don't even admit each of us is invincibly LOST IN THE COSMOS without help we can't possibly provide for ourselves.  We're born to trouble as the sparks fly upward.  Our alienation doesn't have an environmental or physical or political or Historical cause; it's part of and caused by our self-consciousness or personal identity.  It's at the core of our REAL psychology.

So every self-help book has been a failure until Percy's.  His is the first truthful and effective self-help book.  For that reason, it's also the last self-help book.  Percy explains, quite scientifically, why each of us is homeless, and, by so doing, he helps us be at home with our homelessness, and so free to be as at home as we can be with the good things of this world. 

Here's a great clip from another "self-help" author worth reading:

Posted by orrinj at 10:41 AM


Home prices in Broward and Palm Beach counties continue rapid rise (Donna Gehrke-White, 2/22/13, Sun Sentinel)

The median house price catapulted to $224,088 last month, up from $180,000 in January 2012, the group reported. The median price for condos and townhomes jumped even more -- 26.5 percent -- during the same period. Palm Beach County's median sales price of single-family houses also surged, up from $179,950 to $218,000.

Overall, the housing market in South Florida continued to rebound with the number of closings, pending sales and new listings up for every sector --- single-family homes, townhomes and condos, Realtors in both counties reported. [...]

A sign of a sellers' market: Inventory was down 26.5 percent from a year ago, with Broward houses only having a 3.8 months' supply.

Posted by orrinj at 9:40 AM


A Golden Rice Opportunity (Bjorn Lomborg, Project Syndicate)

Finally, after 12 years of delay caused by opponents of genetically modified (GM) foods, so-called "golden rice" with vitamin A will be grown in the Philippines. Over those 12 years, about eight million children worldwide died from vitamin A deficiency. Are anti-GM advocates not partly responsible?

Golden rice is the most prominent example in the global controversy over GM foods, which pits a technology with some risks but incredible potential against the resistance of feel-good campaigning. Three billion people depend on rice as their staple food, with 10% at risk for vitamin A deficiency, which, according to the World Health Organization, causes 250,000-500,000 children to go blind each year. Of these, half die within a year. A study from the British medical journal The Lancet estimates that, in total, vitamin A deficiency kills 668,000 children under the age of five each year.

Yet, despite the cost in human lives, anti-GM campaigners - from Greenpeace to Naomi Klein - have derided efforts to use golden rice to avoid vitamin A deficiency. In India, Vandana Shiva, an environmental activist and adviser to the government, called golden rice "a hoax" that is "creating hunger and malnutrition, not solving it."

The New York Times Magazine reported in 2001 that one would need to "eat 15 pounds of cooked golden rice a day" to get enough vitamin A. What was an exaggeration then is demonstrably wrong now. Two recent studies in the American Journal of Clinical Nutrition show that just 50 grams (roughly two ounces) of golden rice can provide 60% of the recommended daily intake of vitamin A. They show that golden rice is even better than spinach in providing vitamin A to children.

Posted by orrinj at 9:34 AM


I can't stop my cyber loafing (Lucy Kellaway, 2/24/13, Financial Times)

One day last week I was sitting at my desk reading an academic paper on cyber loafing when I glanced at my screen and saw a colleague had tweeted: "This shouldn't be funny but it is." I clicked on the link and found a series of pictures of ships with silly names. There was HMS Gay Viking, HMS Spanker, SS Lesbian, USS Saucy, SS Iron Knob. At first I laughed but, as I read on to HMS Cockchafer and HMS Grappler, I thought: surely not? Thus I found myself checking on Wikipedia and discovering HMS Cockchafer was the fifth Royal Navy ship of that name, that it was built in 1915, defended the southeast coast of England during the first world war and was later part of the Anglo-Soviet invasion of Iran.

Having established that, I saw Twitter was suggesting I follow someone whose name was dimly familiar, so I Googled her and started reading her dull CV until I was distracted by a non-story on the BBC website about David Cameron weighing in on the non-story of Hilary Mantel having said the bleeding obvious: that Kate Middleton looks like a shop-window mannequin. What the hell was I doing? It was the middle of a working day and I had quite a bit to do, but had just squandered a whole hour on nothing.

The reason I'm flaunting this disgraceful theft of time from my employer is that I was reading (before I got distracted) a shocking piece of research telling me that when it comes to cyber loafing, I'm an amateur. According to Joseph Ugrin from Kansas State University, the average US worker spends 60-80 per cent of their time online at work doing things unrelated to their jobs.

Enhanced by Zemanta

Posted by orrinj at 9:27 AM


The workers are revolting (Ade McCormack, 2/22/13, Financial Times)

Over 12,000 years ago, humans existed as hunter-gatherers. Mastery in this field was paramount to survival. These hunter gatherers were highly mobile (lunch literally had to be pursued) and highly social. Poor collaboration resulted in escaped prey or repeated mistake making in terms of eating poisonous berries. You might say that productivity was measured in meals eaten. You literally ate what you killed.

Circa 12,000 years ago, both hunter and prey gathered around the oases and this gave rise to the agricultural revolution. Mobility was still required as livestock and crops did not occupy the same 'office block' as the workers; though more recently industrial agriculture has endeavoured to eliminate the mobility requirement. Sociability remained high and productivity could be measured by livestock sold or bales of corn harvested.

In the eighteenth century the ability to harness steam gave rise to the industrial revolution. Mobility was no longer a requirement. Workers simply needed to turn up to a building defined by the property portfolio manager. Sociability was discouraged because now workers were being paid for their time rather than their productivity. This model encouraged the workers to do as little as possible to get the best return on their time. In response to this management science was created. Collaboration was constrained to the channels defined by the 'corporate' organogram.

Up until very recently this was the default model. However, as if by force of nature, technologies have emerged to enable mobility and being social.

...having mastered productivity will people seek to use their time for increased sociability or more labor? 

Posted by orrinj at 8:58 AM


The Food Threat to Human Civilization (Paul & Anne Ehrlich, 2/21/13, Project Syndicate)

Humanity faces a growing complex of serious, highly interconnected environmental problems, including much-discussed challenges like climate change, as well as the equally or more serious threat to the survival of organisms that support our lives by providing critical ecosystem services such as crop pollination and agricultural pest control. We face numerous other threats as well: the spread of toxic synthetic chemicals worldwide, vast epidemics, and a dramatic decline in the quality and accessibility of mineral resources, water, and soils.

Resource wars are already with us; if a "small" nuclear resource war erupted between, say, India and Pakistan, we now know that the war alone would likely end civilization.

But our guess is that the most serious threat to global sustainability in the next few decades will be one on which there is widespread agreement: the growing difficulty of avoiding large-scale famines.

Anti-GM foods activist sees the science -- and the light (Gwyn Morgan, 02/7/201, Winnipeg Free Press)

 When British environmentalist and author Mark Lynas gave a speech to the Oxford Farming Conference on Jan. 3, he was instantly transformed from an organizer of the movement against genetically modified foods into a high-profile apostate.

The text of his speech, available on his website (www.marklynas.org) and widely circulated on the Internet, should be read by all who worry about how farmers will be able to feed the world's growing population.

In the address, Lynas explained the reasons for his dramatic shift from a passionate opponent to a supporter of GM foods. His account reveals how a group of clever activists used fear-instilling tactics to turn millions of people against the only technology that offers any hope of preventing mass starvation.

It's an astonishing account of how anti-capitalist, anti-corporate ideologues campaigned against genome research, one of mankind's most significant scientific advancements, without even looking at the science. "In 2008, I was still penning screeds... attacking the science of GM," Lynas said. "I don't think I'd ever read a peer-reviewed paper on biotechnology or plant science."
He recalled how he and other anti-GM activists exploited fears about genetic manipulation: "These fears spread like wildfire, and within a few years GM was essentially banned in Europe... Africa, India and the rest of Asia. This was the most successful campaign I have ever been involved with."

He described how GM opponents "employed a lot of imagery about scientists in their labs cackling demonically as they tinkered with the very building blocks of life. Hence the Frankenstein food tag -- this absolutely was about deep-seated fears of scientific powers being used secretly for unnatural ends."

Lynas said he began to reconsider things when he decided to look at the science. He found genetically modified plants produce higher yields, thereby reducing the loss of biodiverse natural areas to agriculture. He learned GM requires less fertilizer, thereby reducing nutrient-rich runoff that threatens rivers and streams.

He learned pest-resistant seeds reduce insecticide use and drought-resistant plants lessen the unsustainable depletion of aquifers. And he found GM research is safer and more precise than traditional plant-breeding methods.

Posted by orrinj at 8:53 AM


The Rise of the Robots (Robert Skidelsky, 2/19/.13, Project Syndicate)

So, what are people to do if machines can do all (or most of) their work?

Recently, automation in manufacturing has expanded even to areas where labor has been relatively cheap. In 2011, Chinese companies spent ¥8 billion ($1.3 billion) on industrial robots. Foxconn, which build iPads for Apple, hopes to have their first fully automated plant in operation sometime in the next 5-10 years.

Now the substitution of capital for labor is moving beyond manufacturing. The most mundane example is one you will see in every supermarket: checkout staff replaced by a single employee monitoring a bank of self-service machines. (Though perhaps this is not automation proper - the supermarket has just shifted some of the work of shopping onto the customer.)

For those who dread the threat that automation poses to low-skilled labor, a ready answer is to train people for better jobs. But technological progress is now eating up the better jobs, too. A wide range of jobs that we now think of as skilled, secure, and irreducibly human may be the next casualties of technological change.

As a recent article in the Financial Times points out, in two areas notoriously immune to productivity increases, education and health care, technology is already reducing the demand for skilled labor. Translation, data analysis, legal research - a whole range of high-skilled jobs may wither away. So, what will the new generation of workers be trained for?

Not work.

Posted by orrinj at 8:49 AM


The Coming Atlantic Century (Anne-Marie Slaughter, 2/21/13, Project Syndicate)

Western fortunes are rising, slowly but surely. Together, Europe and the US account for more than 50% of global GDP, have the largest military force in the world by many multiples, and control a growing proportion of global energy reserves. They also have a formidable diplomatic and development-assistance capacity, representing a peaceful community of democracies that share a common commitment to the rights, dignity, and potential of all human beings.

Imagine that community spreading down the east coast of Latin America and the west coast of Africa. It might be an Atlantic century after all.

Posted by orrinj at 8:39 AM


Interview with a writer: John Gray (JP O'Malley 22 February 2013, The Spectator)

In your new book you say: 'to think of humans as freedom loving, you must be ready to view nearly all of history as a mistake.' Could you elaborate on this point?

Well there is a certain common view nowadays which says: what human beings have been until quite recently is different from what they really are. And only now do human beings have the chance to be what they are, which many people think is to be free. If we think of Homer; or the way things are described in the Bible; or medieval life: all these other ways of life are somehow today seen as not fully human. There is supposed to be a kind of essence to humanity, in which human beings want to shape their own lives.

So are you denying that it's a natural human impulse to crave freedom?

Of course not. Otherwise we wouldn't have the periods of freedom that we've had in human history. I'm just saying that it's not the only human impulse, and rarely is it the most powerful one. You begin to see that when life becomes unsettled, when there are dangers, especially that people cannot understand. It's then that human beings tend to look at solutions to these problems that typically involve restricting freedoms. In other words: when life gets rough, the need for freedom, or the impulse for freedom, which is real --it's part of the human constitution you might say-- tends very commonly to be eclipsed by other needs.