Archive for May, 2012

A look at the latest market cap numbers for Facebook’s IPO suggest that Facebook’s total shares are worth >$100 million–more than Amazon, Visa, and McDonald’s. This seems fucking crazy.

Consider Facebook’s price-to-earnings ratio. At $100 billion/($205 million*4 quarters), that’s a P/E ratio of 100. (Yes, I know P/E ratio is not a great indicator of true stock value, but it is a great comparison of how a company is doing compared to how stock speculators think the stock is doing.) Which means that everyone thinks Facebook’s profits are going to skyrocket:

Sundaram says judging from this price these investors seem to believe that the company’s profits will double, and then double again, and then double again — all within the next few years.

For that to happen, Facebook will need to attract 10 percent of all advertising dollars spent on the planet “across all media – print, billboards, radio, television, Internet,” Sundaram says. While this is theoretically possible, Sundaram says it’s “an extremely low probability.”

Last year, Facebook had just over $3 billion in global ad sales. TV ad sales in the U.S. alone last year were $68 billion.

Facebook has convinced investors that its 1 billion users and deep data mining on its users will make it an advertising gold mine. Unfortunately for Facebook, it’s not a fledgling start-up with lots of room to grow. Instead, Facebook is plateauing, without a clear vision of how advertising will expand at a dramatic rate.

I’m not saying that buying Facebook stock is a bad bet. It may well be a good bet, as everyone else seems to be betting the same thing, thus raising stock prices. Irrational exuberance is all part of the game. But I am wondering why people consider Facebook such a “sure thing.” As far as I can tell, Facebook doesn’t actually make that much money, which doesn’t seem to be a recipe for long-term success.

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If you have been near a radio, in a store, or anywhere where one could hear Top 40 music, you have probably heard “Call Me Maybe,” the inexplicable Top 10 hit by Carly Rae Jepsen, a Canadian singer-songwriter whose other songs don’t really hint at the pop genius of this one.

At first glance, just another disposable pop song. But it’s worth gathering what that means these days. One glance at the top of the Billboard Charts suggests that after years of hearing Euro dance beats and the tyranny of LMFAO and Katy Perry, the Top 10 is getting weird. Gotye featuring Kimba? fun.? Goofy British boy bands? The other shocker here is the return of legitimate melody — songs with catchy tunes rather than catchy beats (contrast Kelly Clarkson with, say, Pitbull). Consider Gotye’s “Somebody That I Used To Know,” a slow, undanceable song with a monster singable chorus:

OK, but back to Carly Rae. What’s so great about “Call Me Maybe”? Well, to sum it up in one word, it’s the “maybe.” Al Green, Aretha Franklin, Petula Clark, Blondie: they all asked us to call them in songs titled “Call Me,” but they either came from a place of desperation or solicitation. In Jepsen’s case, the solicitation, if it exists at all, is hesitant and non-committal:

Hey, I just met you
And this is crazy
But here’s my number
So call me, maybe
It’s hard to look right
At you baby
But here’s my number
So call me, maybe

It’s a song about the queasy feeling of making the first move, of making yourself vulnerable. The inarticulate lyrics are exactly the point — who has not become tongue-tied when confronted by the object of their desire? Not everyone can sound like Debbie Harry, blithely asking people to “roll [her] in designer sheets.” For the Facebook generation, increasingly mediated in its human contact, there’s no imagery or directness, just staring at our shoes and asking the other person to call us, maybe.

Musically, the song understands that chorus is the key. The verses are kept to a minimum (15 seconds) with almost no backing, save for a generic drum beat and those repeated pizzicato strings, before we get to the pre-chorus when the song truly opens up. “Call Me Maybe” understands the fascistic nature of the pop song; it demands our allegiance and we will sing along, whether we like it or not. In come the cheesy strings, in comes the dance beat, in comes the middling keyboard figure: along with the lyrics of the song, the instrumentation suggests a sort of stasis, unwilling to commit one way or another. The vocals in the verse hover around the same note, and the chorus does the same flailing — climbing ever higher like a cracking voice before zeroing in on the tiny downward steps of “call me, maybe.” Consider the structure of the song, which features so many repeated parts that it’s not much more than window-dressing for the chorus.

  • Intro (pizzicato strings) (4 sec)
  • Verse 1 (“I threw a wish in a well…”) (16 sec)
  • Pre-chorus (“Your stare was holding…”) (8 sec) (in comes hint at the bigger beat and slow crescendo)
  • Chorus (“Hey I just met you…”) (15 sec) (the beat, the strings all come in)
  • Chorus (again!) (another 15 sec + 5 sec outro) (add noodly guitar line)
  • Verse 2 (“You took your time with the call…”) (16 sec)
  • Pre-chorus (8 sec)
  • Chorus (15 sec)
  • Chorus (15 sec)
  • Bridge (kind of) (“‘Fore you came into my life…”) (15 sec)
  • Chorus reprise (5 sec intro + 7 sec)
  • Chorus (15 sec)
  • Bridge again (15 sec)

That is to say, in a full 3:20 pop song, only 30 seconds give or take are lines not repeated elsewhere in the song. Verses, who needs that? The song is essentially nothing but sing-along! Even the choruses themselves are half just “Here’s my number/so call me maybe.” Through sheer repetition and melodic dog whistles, “Call Me Maybe” worms its way effortlessly into your brain, with just enough generic dance beat to throw your hands up.

In the tradition of “A-B-C” and “MmmBop!”, Jepsen’s tune is a perfect pop song for its moment — disposable verses with a heavily-repeated middle section, capturing somehow the non-committal of modern relationships with the machinery of pop songs. It’s worth noting that the song’s popularity derived from a Youtube video shot by Justin Bieber and his friends in which they sing along to the tune while goofing around.

For its noncommittal and tentative attempts at initiating contact, “Call Me Maybe” outro seems oddly deflating: Rather than a fade-out, the song simply peters out, but this seems to encapsulate the moment perfectly. A queasiness, a tepid solicitation, then a fantasy of all that happens in a relationship in the space of a three-minute pop song, followed by ultimate deflation. The only way to bounce back from the deflation? Why, we must play the song again and relive the experience! And so we do.

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In the run-up to a general election, there are many, many stories of the day. I’m talking about the scandals, the moments of outrage, the ones that get all the blogs chatting. Do these matter? In one obvious sense, no. The only people who follow these are the insiders and political junkies (like me). Most voters don’t care, will never hear of these stories, and even if they did, the election is so far away from now that Grenell will be long forgotten, anyway.

But it still matters for another reason. It’s not the specifics of the story, per se, but what it tells about Mitt Romney and the Romney campaign. Consequently, what it tells us will inform future media coverage of his campaign, which I absolutely do believe has an impact.

So what was this story? Richard Grenell is a very conservative guy (he used to work with John Bolton) tapped by Romney as a spokesman for foreign policy. He also happens to be gay, and supports marriage equality. He resigned from his post just the other day. Why? The NYT reports:

It was the biggest moment yet for Mitt Romney’s foreign policy team: a conference call last Thursday, dialed into by dozens of news outlets from around the globe, to dissect and denounce President’s Obama record on national security.

But Richard Grenell, the political strategist who helped organize the call and was specifically hired to oversee such communications, was conspicuously absent, or so everyone thought.

It turned out he was at home in Los Angeles, listening in, but stone silent and seething. A few minutes earlier, a senior Romney aide had delivered an unexpected directive, according to several people involved in the call.

“Ric,” said Alex Wong, a policy aide, “the campaign has requested that you not speak on this call.” Mr. Wong added, “It’s best to lay low for now.”

For Mr. Grenell, the message was clear: he had become radioactive.

“It’s not that the campaign cared whether Ric Grenell was gay,” one Republican adviser said. “They believed this was a nonissue. But they didn’t want to confront the religious right.”

Grenell is a neoconservative tapped for a foreign policy position, and didn’t go off the script and talk about gay marriage. By all accounts, he is the guy the Romney campaign thought best for the job. But they nevertheless are so terrified of the conservative wing of their party that they muzzled him. No wonder he felt he had to resign. It just underscores the fact that there is no place in the Republican party for gays, and that Mitt Romney won’t stand up for what he believes when conservatives apply pressure to him.

That in turn brings up another point. I’ve heard people say things like, “Romney’s not as bad as Santorum, or Paul or Bachmann. He seems way more reasonable.” In politics, I don’t care what’s in a politician’s heart. I don’t care what they actually believe. I only care about what they do. And I wouldn’t trust Mitt Romney to govern differently than any Tea Partier.

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With each month, it seems the answer shifts closer and closer to “no.”

Today the legendary linebacker Junior Seau died of a gunshot wound to the chest. It is presently being treated as a possible suicide. It is eerily similar to the death of Dave Duerson, who played safety during the 80s and 90s. Duerson shot himself in the chest, and indicated before his death that he wanted his brain to be used in research. Subsequently, researchers found evidence of brain damage.

The type of damage observed in Duerson, and in 14 out of 15 NFL players tested by this research group, is called chronic traumatic encephalopathy, or CTE. CTE can come about not just because of multiple concussions, but due to repeated, sub-concussive head trauma – exactly the type that NFL players are subjected to routinely.

It’s also worth noting that today a New Orleans Saints player was banned for the 2012-2013 season for his part in a scandal where Saints defensive players were paid “bounties” for delivering maximally violent hits that knocked opposing players – particularly quarterbacks – out of the game.

I like watching football. But by doing so, I worry that I am contributing to a system that results in the neurodegeneration of a large group of athletes who are essentially being used and chewed out by a morally indefensible system. I am not yet at the point where I refuse to watch football on principle. But maybe I should be.

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Well that was fast. A week ago, Romney appointed openly gay national security spokesman Rick Grenell who had all the right conservative bona fides. It “signal[ed] a new attitude” towards gays in the Republican party. At least until it didn’t:

I have decided to resign from the Romney campaign as the Foreign Policy and National Security Spokesman. While I welcomed the challenge to confront President Obama’s foreign policy failures and weak leadership on the world stage, my ability to speak clearly and forcefully on the issues has been greatly diminished by the hyper-partisan discussion of personal issues that sometimes comes from a presidential campaign.

As with other minorities, Republican outreach continues to be stifled by the bigotry that the party has stoked and exploited for years. A perfect attack dog, earnest in his hatred of Barack Obama’s foreign policy, Grenell should have been the right man for the job, but it was too much to ask for the Republican activist base.

Why can’t Marco Rubio get traction on his watered-down DREAM Act? Why did Colin Powell endorse Obama instead of his friend John McCain? Why do Latinos continue to leave the party in droves?

The Republican party has encouraged and condoned bigotry in order to create its current electoral coalition. Eventually, it will pay the price in human capital and long-term electoral success.

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Someone mentioned that since Barack Obama became President, there are no longer any elected Black senators or governors (Gov. Paterson in New York was installed in response to Gov. Spitzer’s resignation; Sen. Roland Burris was appointed to fill Obama’s seat). Why, though, are Blacks so unsuccessful at seeking statewide office? In the House, Blacks comprise a fraction almost proportional to their general population proportions (9.5% in the House; 13% generally).

Latinos (Govs. Sandoval and Martinez; various Senators) and Asian-Americans (Govs. Haley and Jindal; Sens. Inouye and Akaka) have had more success in recent years, despite similar problems — gerrymandering, for example.

So, why does this happen? A few hypotheses:

  1. Gerrymandering pushes Black House members too far to the left: Most Black Representatives come from districts that are majority-black, and these districts also tend to be urban heavily Democratic districts that push the left spectrum of the party line, thus making them even less palatable to the median voter.
    • BUT: How do you explain the success of white rural conservatives, who often come from districts as far on the right side of the spectrum as urban districts? Why aren’t they punished for their conservatism? (Consider, say, Sam Brownback.) Why wouldn’t a Black candidate be successful in a similarly liberal state (New York, say)?
  2. Majority-Black districts tend to be in big states: The barriers to entry in state-wide races in big states are bigger — more fund-raising required, more statewide organization, and more pull within the state party apparatus. Again, the odds seem long for a Representative with a comfortable margin of victory every year having the organization within the state party to guarantee the nomination.
    • BUT: How do you explain the success of Latinos, who presumably suffer from similar circumstances? Mel Martinez and Marco Rubio have been successful in Florida, while Ken Salazar represented Colorado and Bob Menendez represents New Jersey, all of which are in the top half of states by popualtion.
  3. Latent racism against Black politicians: Possible, or at least some variation thereof. For example, people may consider Black politicians more radical than their counterparts, despite similar policy platforms. (Compare reactions to Herman Cain with reactions to Rick Santorum, say.) Additionally, Black politicians may face increased scrutiny from rural and suburban whites, who would be essential in any statewide race. Latent racism would probably be most detrimental in statewide Southern races (see the Alabama gubernatorial Democratic primary in 2010). Media representations of Black candidates can reinforce this latent racism.
    • BUT: The Bradley Effect has largely vanished, and Barack Obama’s presidential election victory suggests that racism is not an insurmountable barrier, especially in liberal states that one imagines Black Democratic candidates could win (New Jersey or Massachusetts, say).
  4. Bad demographic luck: Of the top ten states in proportion of African-Americans, seven are in the old Confederacy, and Tennessee is close. Because of party affiliation barriers, ideological fissures, and latent racism, Blacks cannot get traction in these states.
    • BUT: Shouldn’t they at least do OK in states like Maryland, Delaware, Florida, New York, and Illinois, that aren’t quite as Old South? And why aren’t there more successful Black Republicans from the Old South states? There are Latino Republicans despite the national immigration policy. Does history of southern white racism run that deep?

There might be other reasons, too, such as broader party affiliation (Blacks tend to be heavily Democratic, even moreso than other demographic subsets).

I think some combination of the above probably does it, but it’s hard to say the exact chemistry of it. Consider the prime counterexample — Barack Obama — who was elected in a statewide, then nationwide race. He never represented a House district, so he could never be pulled heavily left by the local party. He never had a record to trail him as he ran for Senate (#1). He ran in a big state, but he lucked out when his opponents either disappeared (Jim Ryan) or became jokes (Alan Keyes) (#2). The state apparatus was glad to have Obama rather than scandal-plagued Ryan. Latent racism is less of a problem in Illinois, one of the more currently reliable liberal states (# 3 and 4). Additionally, latent racism may have simply diminished over the years (as compared to, say, the response of the country to Jesse Jackson’s presidential campaign).

Anyone have any better ideas?

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