2009 - %3, April

How Twitter Makes Vanity Acceptable

| Wed Apr. 22, 2009 12:06 PM PDT

I'm with Garry Trudeau all the way here. Speaking to Media Bistro:

The serious journotwits, though, are at it all day — 30, 40 tweets between breakfast and bedtime. And as someone who follows a lot of these folks, I can assure you that outside of the occasional interesting link, there's not much added news value.

It's all about fan base maintenance and trying to pump up follower counts. But high follower counts are like Mardi Gras throw beads — worthless out of context.

What amazes me is that these folks have voluntarily elected to add a new hour-a-day habit to what presumably were pretty busy schedules to begin with. Many of them Twitter about their apparently exemplary parenting, so you do wonder why they don't turn off their Berrys and recover that hour for the family — or at least make themselves a little more present for the people they're actually with.

Look, all of us are narcissists to some degree, but most find it embarrassing enough to at least try to hide it. What Twitter and its social media cousins do is disable inhibition. We expect narcissism from our movie stars and politicians and teenagers, but it's a little surprising to encounter so many otherwise personally modest journalists oblivious to how they're presenting.

Look, it's true. Twitter doesn't just make you stupid, it makes your most vain and most preening instincts socially acceptable. I realize that Twitter can be a great way to organize and build interest in a cause or event, and it provides those of us in the media with an additional way to distribute our links, and thus our content. But I preferred a world where people didn't think their breakfasts were automatically interesting to the world at large simply because they ate them.

H/T TNR.

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First Movers

| Wed Apr. 22, 2009 10:46 AM PDT

Some recent research apparently shows that the first brand of some particular good to hit the shelves in some particular area (Miller beer in Chicago, Heinz ketchup in Pittsburgh, etc.) manages to retain outsize market share for a very long time.  This prompts Matt Yglesias to look at maps showing the density of Starbucks stores and Walmarts:

You see some of the stereotype “latte liberal” stuff going on here, but it’s also clear that pure proximity to Seattle or to Bentonville is a big factor. And in the CPG market, these kind of impacts seem to last a long time. And somehow Tim Horton’s can be very popular in Canada but not make it big in the states. Why doesn’t In-and-Out Burger spread to the east coast?

I don't know about Starbucks, but a big part of the reason the Walmart map looks this way is simply that Walmart management chose to expand first and most densely close to its home territory.  In the case of In-N-Out, my understanding is that the family that owns them has declined to sell franchises, which limits their geographical reach based on how fast they can finance growth through internal cash flow.

So there's more going on than just first mover advantage.  Though there's certainly plenty of that too, especially for food items, I think, where people get accustomed to a particular taste and stick with it for a long time.  Taste in candy, for example, is famously set in childhood, which is why Americans scarf down megatons of Hershey's chocolate every year, while the rest of the world considers it barely fit for pig swill.  Lots of interesting stuff going on here.

Is Bullying a Symptom of a Crisis of Masculinity?

| Wed Apr. 22, 2009 10:30 AM PDT

These will break your heart.

From the AJC: A crowd of about 60 gathered Tuesday night at the DeKalb home of Jaheem Herrera to remember the fifth-grader who committed suicide last week. The 11-year-old boy hanged himself at his home after—according to his family—relentless bullying at Dunaire Elementary School....Keene said the family knew the boy was a target of bullies, but until his death they didn’t understand the scope."

Poor little Jaheem, on the heels of poor little Carl Joseph Walker-Hoover:

On April 6, Sirdeaner Walker came home, walked up the stairs to the second floor of her home, and saw her son suspended from a support beam in the stairwell, swaying slightly in the air, an extension cord wrapped around his neck, according to police. He apologized in a suicide note, told his mother that he loved her, and left his video games to his brother. Walker said her son had been the victim of bullying since the beginning of the school year, and that she had been calling the school since September, complaining that her son was mercilessly teased. He played football, baseball, and was a boy scout, but a group of classmates called him gay and teased him about the way he dressed. They ridiculed him for going to church with his mother and for volunteering locally.

If He's Not a Torturer, Why Is He Wearing a Mask?

| Wed Apr. 22, 2009 10:01 AM PDT

HuffPo has a Playboy writer voluntarily trying to endure 15 seconds of waterboarding. He makes maybe 5 or 6. In the prelim, he asks the heavily masked 'technician' (who appears to be military but displays no rank and insignia. For you civilians: That's HUGE) if waterboarding is torture. Nope, it's "invoking an existing fear." Which fear? "Drownding" (sic). Torture would be "invoking blood, physical pain." OK, so how how does waterboarding work? "You're going to want to breathe, but you won't be able to breathe." When the guinea pig tries to summon his yoga training, his torturer says confidently, "That won't help you here."

Nah. It's not torture.

So what's up with hiding his face?

Moral Relativism

| Wed Apr. 22, 2009 9:47 AM PDT

When the subject has anything to do with sex, the right in America is the party of moral absolutes.  We know what's right, we know what's wrong, and even if there's a price to pay we can't shirk our responsibility to set a proper example and do the right thing.

But when the subject is torture, suddenly it's all about carefully weighing the costs and benefits.  Having an honest debate about how far we should go to protect ourselves.  Understanding the context of what happened.  It's just not possible to flatly say that waterboarding and sleep deprivation and stress positions are barbarisms unfit for use by a civilized country.  It's much more complex than that.

Funny how that works, isn't it?

Oil Shocks

| Wed Apr. 22, 2009 9:27 AM PDT

Ryan Avent points today to a paper by Jim Hamilton suggesting that the real cause of our current recession is the spike in oil prices between 2007-2008.  Here's Hamilton on the implications of a model he originally constructed in 2003:

I used [] historically estimated parameters to find the answer to the following conditional forecasting equation. Suppose you knew in 2007:Q3 what GDP had been doing up through that date and could know in advance what was about to happen to the price of oil. What path would you have then predicted the economy to follow for 2007:Q4 through 2008:Q4?

....Somewhat astonishingly, that model would have predicted the course of GDP over 2008 pretty accurately and would attribute a substantial fraction of the significant drop in 2008:Q4 real GDP to the oil price increases.  The implication that almost all of the downturn of 2008 could be attributed to the oil shock is a stronger conclusion than emerged from any of the other models surveyed in my Brookings paper, and is a conclusion that I don't fully believe myself.

Well, I don't fully believe it either.  But do I believe that the oil spike played a significant role?  You bet.  I don't have any kind of background in econometrics, but I can create simple-minded charts showing how the economy responds to sharp rises in oil prices, and four years ago I did just that.  My chart is on the right, and it shows that every time since 1973 that oil prices have risen by 50% or more in a short period, the American economy has tanked — and the bigger the spike, the bigger the tank.  The far end of my chart is labeled with question marks, but of course we can now fill in that data: the rise in oil prices that began in 2003, retreated a bit in 2006, and then spiked sharply starting in 2007 did indeed touch off a recession.  And as in previous episodes, the fact that it was a big rise meant that the result was a big recession.

Plus there was the whole subprime thing, a huge credit expansion, the rise of financial wizardry, the end of the housing bubble, and so forth.  A perfect storm.  But if you want to persuade me that oil prices played a role too, I'm all ears.  I'd be pretty surprised if it were otherwise.

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Paying to Play

| Wed Apr. 22, 2009 8:43 AM PDT

Jonathan Turley tells me something I didn't know:

The King family has long been criticized for insisting on payment for the use of their father's name, image, speeches and virtually anything that they can claim for themselves or their foundation. The family reached a new low this week when it was revealed that they had been paid more than $800,000 by the Martin Luther King Jr. National Memorial Project Foundation for the use of King's image and words on the planned King memorial on Washington's Mall.

....In the latest monumental shakedown, the King family's Intellectual Properties Management Inc. was paid $761,160 by the nonprofit foundation raising money for the Washington memorial. This was on top of a "management" fee of $71,700 paid in 2003. The Kings have defended the payments by noting that donations to the foundation have been down because people were giving to the monument fund instead. The other possibility is that fewer people want to give to a foundation run by the King family.

A speech can be copyrighted, but I didn't realize that the image of a dead person — and an extremely public one at that — could be protected the same way.  Live and learn.

False Confessions

| Wed Apr. 22, 2009 8:17 AM PDT

One of the common observations of the anti-torture crowd is that, historically, torture has been used primarily to extract false confessions, not genuine intelligence.  Which is really a very tedious thing to say.  After all, even if you don't like the guy, everyone knows that George Bush was trying to prevent future attacks by al-Qaeda, not extract false confessions.  Right?

The Bush administration applied relentless pressure on interrogators to use harsh methods on detainees in part to find evidence of cooperation between al Qaida and the late Iraqi dictator Saddam Hussein's regime, according to a former senior U.S. intelligence official and a former Army psychiatrist.

...."There were two reasons why these interrogations were so persistent, and why extreme methods were used," the former senior intelligence official said on condition of anonymity because of the issue's sensitivity.

"The main one is that everyone was worried about some kind of follow-up attack (after 9/11). But for most of 2002 and into 2003, Cheney and Rumsfeld, especially, were also demanding proof of the links between al Qaida and Iraq that (former Iraqi exile leader Ahmed) Chalabi and others had told them were there."

That's Jonathan Landay at McClatchy.  I'll leave the parallels with the Spanish Inquisition as an exercise for the reader.

The CIA's Ghost Prisoners

| Wed Apr. 22, 2009 7:38 AM PDT

President Obama ordered the CIA's secret prisons closed on his second full day in office, but ProPublica reports dozens of the agency's ghost prisoners are still unaccounted for:

At least three dozen others who were held in the CIA's secret prisons overseas appear to be missing as well. Efforts by human rights organizations to track their whereabouts have been unsuccessful, and no foreign governments have acknowledged holding them.

The CIA says it doesn't comment on ghost prisoners, because lists of them are "typically flawed."

A Wee Proposal

| Tue Apr. 21, 2009 10:07 PM PDT

I propose a planet-wide ban — with prison sentences — on people who still think it's clever to write about Twitter using only 140-character sentences.  Who's with me?