Archive for the ‘Stuff we know nothing about’ Category

Like the saying goes, “It’s hard to make predictions, especially about the future.”

I am in the minority view here, but I think the Court still upholds the whole law in a quite narrow opinion in a 6-3 decision authored by Chief Justice Roberts. Maybe I am naive in my belief that laws matter, but I just don’t believe that the Court is willing to limit the Commerce Clause on some made-up wacky distinction like “action” vs. “inaction.”

I’d also give about 20% odds that the Court punts entirely, either by ruling on the Anti-Injunction Act provision (rendering all the lawsuits invalid) or by delaying the decision entirely by another year.

Predicting the Supreme Court is tough, but the ones who would know think it’s looking rough for the individual mandate. I’m hoping that the judges remember that law matters.

We’ll find out Thursday, along with everyone else.

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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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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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There’s much hand-wringing today from liberals regarding the oral arguments for the Health Care Cases, with Jeffrey Toobin calling the oral argument a “train wreck” for liberals, and Dahlia Lithwick fairly pessimistic about the affair.

It’s worth asking, though, whether these oral arguments will matter at all. In smaller cases, the Court may actually care about the quality of arguments floated at oral argument, in order to better define the contours of the case for them. Let’s not kid ourselves; the Justices didn’t need to ask any questions today to get the answers they were looking for.

That’s not to say that oral arguments don’t show some sign of the arguments to come, but that’s only the case if the lawyer is totally blindsided by the arguments. For example, in United States v. Lopez, the first case since the New Deal to actually limit Congress’s Commerce Clause powers, everyone assumed that the case, which involved Gun-Free School Zones, was a no-brainer. After all, no one had challenged Commerce Clause power seriously in 60 years. But then, in the first few minutes, Justice O’Connor (the then swing Justice) asked then-Solicitor General Drew Days whether there were any limits to Congress’s Commerce power. It was a shock at the time, because everyone assumed it was a settled question.

By the time of the Health Care cases, these issues are well-known and in the open, so when Solicitor General Verrelli got the question today, he was ready with responses, even though commentators found his performance wanting.

My point is that from oral argument alone, particularly in cases where the stakes are as high as this, you can understand almost nothing. This is the grand theater of the Supreme Court, but honestly, the operation of the Court is behind closed doors and won’t really be known for a decade or so (or more).

Justice Thomas is often criticized for not speaking during oral arguments, but he’s just not willing to acknowledge that it’s mostly a sham. Justice Thomas knows he won’t learn anything from oral arguments, and that much of it is about showing off for the Justices, not about developing theories of law.

We agonize over and parse the oral arguments because that’s all we have. Tea leaf reading must occupy us while the Supreme Court does the debating in chambers.

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With modern materials, motors, etc., humans have apparently achieved flight like birds, flappy wings and all.

I wonder often about path-dependency and determination, particularly when it comes to inventions and innovations. For example, if there had been more advanced fabrics and miniaturized motors in the early 1900s, would we have seen flappy flight before fixed wing flight? Or did we need fixed-wing flight to get miniaturized motors? It would seem impossible to imagine a world with flight, but without fixed-wing flight. Yet, is it really so implausible? Certainly experimenters at the time liked the idea. With different materials, who knows what they could have done?

When the term “thinking outside the box” is bandied about, I always wonder who among the human race will actually go out and do the crazy thing that everyone thinks is stupid. Apparently this guy. Also these dudes. Flying looks fantastic:

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I was thinking about buying a probe thermometer because I would like to better assess the doneness of my meat, so I went to Amazon to take a look. I typed in “probe thermometer” and Amazon returned a set of thermometers. They vary in price and functionality, but they all have one thing in common: 3.5 stars.

The other day, I decided I wanted to try a new Indian restaurant in my area other than the few I always frequent. Lo and behold, they all have 3.5 stars on Yelp.

It seems obvious that, given enough reviewers, customer reviews should tend to mellow out around, well, 3.5 stars. But there are notable exceptions (consider, for example, IMDB).

What is it about product/service reviews in particular that seems to promote the averaging out around 3.5 stars? Let’s take one heavily reviewed Amazon product — an excellent book that I recently read called The Art of Fielding (in my opinion, the best book ever written about baseball):

5 star: (100)
4 star: (34)
3 star: (35)
2 star: (29)
1 star: (50)

It’s an odd distribution to say the least, but it highlights perhaps the problem of people who write online reviews. They are overwhelmingly very high — I enjoyed this book so much that it warranted a review — or overwhelmingly low — this book was so bad that I decided to review it. Compare this with the reviews for the digital probe thermometers and the effect is similar:

5 star: (41)
4 star: (23)
3 star: (10)
2 star: (12)
1 star: (28)

Again, lots of 5 star reviews and lots of 1 star reviews. Again, though, this points to the kind of person willing to write a review for the product. In buying the product you already analyzed it and expected it to be worth your money. If you were extremely impressed or disappointed, you reviewed it. If you were meh, why bother reviewing?

Thus, all popular products inevitably end up in the meh bin.

Weirdly, this does not apply to non-book pop culture. For example, Adele’s 21 sports a shocking 4.5-star rating, but again, this has to do with the ability to sample the wares before you buy the product (same with movies). Before listening to an album, you have heard the songs enough to know whether you like it enough to buy it.

What’s unnerving about this tyranny of the 3.5-star review is that it then makes the customer reviews essentially worthless. The whole promise of crowd-sourced reviews was that they would remove the monopoly of product-reviewers and open everything up to the masses. Instead, the incentives for responses make it such that the reviews provide little to no value to the consumer.

Whether it’s recipes or Zadie Smith novels, the “pretty good” averaging out of reviews has hurt their ability to tell us much about the product we’re buying. In the end, we either end up trusting the qualitative reviews over the quantitative (a bad proposition, if you ask me) or we buy the product and hope for a generous return policy.

Just as with a lot of the new information-heavy world does not make our decisions any easier, these reviews are just more information without any understanding of what they really mean.

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I know, Rick Perry at this point only deserves to be ignored. He has no chance of winning in South Carolina, etc.

But this quote from Perry about the Marines who allegedly urinated on Taliban corpses struck me:

When you’re 18 or 19, you do dumb things. These kids made a mistake, there’s not any doubt about it,” the Republican presidential hopeful said. He went on to note that other famous military figures acted the same way in a war environment: “[Winston] Churchill did the same thing.”

Although the Marines should be “appropriately punished” Perry criticized “the idea that this administration would go after these young people for a criminal act.”

You know what’s funny? I almost agree with Perry. Kids do dumb things and make terrible mistakes; punishments for them should be different than those for adults.

I wonder what Rick Perry would say about the case of Napoleon Beazley. When he was 17, Beazley committed a brutal murder of a 63-year-old John Luttig during a carjacking. As a result, the state of Texas in turn murdered Beazley by lethal injection for a crime he committed when he was a “kid.” (He was also convicted by an all-white jury; he was black.) Kids make mistakes and Napoleon Beazley made a terrible one. His environment was rife with violence, and he committed a horrific act of violence. His environment and his age do not excuse his act, certainly, but does his act of murder deserve a murder in kind? Surely, there must be some leniency offered to “kids.”

Except, of course, I already know what Rick Perry says about this case. 18 state legislators, as well as the original trial judge, wrote to Perry to ask him to commute Beazley’s sentence. His response?

“To delay his punishment is to delay justice.”

No leniency. No “just kids.” No “dumb mistake.”

Now, one could argue that murder is different than corpse desecration, but I doubt Perry’s response would be any different for alleged murders of civilians committed by American troops at war. When they are committing a murder that Perry likes, they are “just kids.” When they are committing a murder that he doesn’t, they deserve “ultimate justice.”

Were it not for a Supreme Court decision banning executions for crimes committed while a juvenile, I’m sure Perry would gleefully pull the switch himself.

Rick Perry, good Christian, enjoys murdering his own citizens in the name of justice. He is proud of it, whether they were kids or not.

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