Sunday, September 27, 2009

How You Play the Game

I love the quick hook on a pop song. And I often pick up dinner at Chipotle or Quiznos rather than cook – or microwave – it. Such instant gratification is a part of us.

And yet I constantly find myself thinking that the only real value is long-term value, or more extreme, that the only thing that matters in the world is long-term value. This was my first thought upon seeing Redskin DT Albert Haynesworth facedown in the grass this Sunday afternoon. At a prime age of 28, 6 foot 6, and 350 pounds – mostly muscle – this made an impressionable image, albeit one that’s not uncommon in the NFL.

Albert Haynesworth

Redskins’ owner Daniel Snyder made Haynesworth his pet-project acquisition last summer, offering him $100 million for 7-years, the largest contract ever for a defensive free agent. And Haynesworth is an invaluable contribution to this NFC East defensive line – he is fast, huge, instinctive, and can plug the run and sniff out a QB.

As Haynesworth was carted off the field today, the broadcaster’s thoughts went to the "investment" made by Daniel Snyder, who is known for throwing around large sums of money, along with coaches and players as well. But it would do injustice to view the injury of Haynesworth – who arrived with a reputation for being injury-prone – as merely unlucky.

Dan Snyder

The problem lies not so much with unfortunate circumstance but with poor underlying philosophy. The real question is why Snyder put himself in a position where he was relying on one $100 million player, rather than 2 or 3 solid players who could build depth into the roster. It’s an issue of being myopic. Of foregoing long-term value for a short-term payoff.

George McPhee

By means of contrast the city of Washington has Capitals GM George McPhee, whose philosophy of building their hockey team from the ground-up may transform the way in which sports teams are run.

Hockey teams – unlike football ones – are much more prone to being transformed by one star player. And in 2005, that star player for the Caps was Alex Ovechkin. But underneath the media circus that followed him, McPhee focused on building his team from the ground-up.

In 2003, he scrapped the team’s premier line-up of aging veterans and fading stars. He acquired younger talent, particularly focusing on the Caps’ minor league team, the Hershey Bears. McPhee explicitly eschewed short-term success:
“For starters, I should say that rebuilding and talking about being patient is easier said than done,” said McPhee. “We had a plan. It was to tear down a team and build it back up.

“The program taken to ownership (Ted Leonsis) was a four-year plan. The plan was to be back in the playoffs by then and start to contend. We made it in three years, but we were prepared to need four.”
Snyder's Brand

Over Snyder’s first 4 years, he cycled through 3 head coaches; each acquisition of a new head coach brought promises of the start of a new era of Redskins glory. In reality, Snyder was merely taking potshots into the dark – as he did with new big-ticket players – hoping that one of his moves would hit the jackpot. Not only did that not occur, but the inconsistency only helped to further break down the franchise into a gathering of high-paid stars rather than a cohesive team.

The only break to his sporadic movements came in 2004 when he was able to lure former Redskins coach and local legend Joe Gibbs out of retirement for a few seasons. Following Gibbs’ second retirement, it is not clear whether we will see a return to Snyder's old ways.

The twist is that Snyder – a self-proclaimed longtime Redskins’ fan – is known as a shrewd businessman, his rise to the top marked by executive stints with Six Flags, Johnny Rockets, and Red Zebra Broadcasting. Over his tenure he has made the Redskins one of the most valuable football teams. According to Forbes’ yearly rankings, the Redskins are currently the 2nd most valuable NFL team; they are surrounded on the list by teams that actually win like the Cowboys (ranked first), Patriots (third), and Giants (fourth). And yet Snyder's attempts to build the Redskins are anything but business-savvy, resembling something like a series of get-rich-quick schemes.

Long Term Value

Buried in this expensive mess of a football team are a few life-lessons.

All too often, individual crises and incidents are mistaken as causes for subsequent misfortune, rather than effects of past doings. The collapse of the housing market – ingrained in the public’s head as a singular event – was seen as causing the financial collapse, just as the Great Crash is often seen as causing the Great Depression. Underestimated are the factors that led up to such incidents, such as poor housing regulation of the 90’s and irresponsible monetary policy during the 20’s. Some have blamed current circumstances on the government’s willingness to allow Lehman to fall. But as The Economist points out, a Lehman bailout would’ve strained some other part of the economy. An analogy can be made to medicine, which warns of mistaking symptoms for cause of illness.

Long term growth is particularly important in football, much moreso than in hockey. As player-size has increased, so has the frequency of injuries. A 350-pound QB-chewing gorilla on defense can no longer act as a franchise savior, particularly because the sheer size of his frame poses a threat to his own legs and joints.

Another piece of advice is that it is worthless to take individual pot-shots at one’s future. Playing the lottery everyday is never a sound strategy no matter how much money you have.

There is an intellectual component to this as well: Insofar as abstract intelligence contains any value, it should be used carefully and decisively to plan ahead, utilizing current resources as best as possible.

The phenomenon of the one-hit-wonder pop band epitomizes this view. On the one hand, it is possible to produce a singular piece, one moment of greatness, which can strike it big. On the other hand, there is social acknowledgment regarding the emptiness of a one-hit-wonder. A great band is distinguished from a one-hit-wonder in its ability to produce hit after hit after hit; their work comes from a novel group of artistic minds rather than an from an instance of luck. That’s why it is somewhat rare – but not unheard of – for a non-fiction writer to be a one hit wonder, as his art depends less on muses and spontaneity than on smarts and clarity of mind. It would have been rather odd – afterall – if following the publication of A Brief History of Time, Hawkins suddenly lost his pension for theoretical physics.

The discrepancy between luck and genius is often portrayed in movies like Oceans 11, where heroes will do anything for one last chance at greatness, one last opportunity to strike it big. Their failure in these stories is marked by their myopic view: If your whole future relies on one individual con operation, one publication, one game, one football player – or even just one decision, to be made by yourself or by someone else – then you cannot blame your failure (or success) on the outcome of that one event. Rather, you are to blame for putting yourself in the sort of situation in which so much rests on so little. This is why in the best of Aristotelian tragedies the fault lies with character, not with circumstance.


Of course one cannot downplay the counterargument, particularly when it comes to living in the moment. People do win the lottery, corporations do get windfall profits, and individual athletes do save franchises.

Digging a little deeper, a primitive breakdown of the human brain reveals that its more advanced regions – the ones that distinguish human intelligence – are inhibitory in nature. In a sense, drug intoxication prevents these higher areas from functioning, leading to a lack of inhibitions.

The term lacking inhibition has cultural connotations, but it’s backed by science as well. It is a very awkward phrase when you think about it, as it implies that getting drunk or high doesn’t so much cause you to do stupid actions, as it prevents you from inhibiting those stupid actions. In the drunkard, inhibitory functions of the advanced brain are temporarily disabled; in an individual with brain damage, they’re permanently disabled.

This ties into constructs of depression and anxiety, which are often conceptualized as an over-activation of these parts of the brain: Stress is often caused by thinking too much and an inability to live in the now. Just as alcohol can turn off those advanced parts of the brain, so can other feel-good drugs, prescription or otherwise. This is all a simplification of course, but the point is to get a good look at principles that underlie long-term valuation.

Personally I tend to over-intellectualize things at times, but after seeing Haynesworth face down in the grass this afternoon, I couldn’t rid my mind of this notion of long-term value. Perhaps it is my way of not wanting deal with the Redskins’ pitiful loss to the worst team in the NFL.

'It's Not Whether you Win or Lose, But How you Play the Game'

This phrase is often seen as a euphemism to justify losing a game. And yet there is much about it that escapes the eye, such as its focus on process over outcome. The phrase usually refers to the team that loses a well-played game, but equally important is the team that wins a poorly-played game.

The latter was exactly the case last week, when the Redskins barely beat the Rams, a team whose mediocrity places them in the same class as the Lions. Embodying the phrase were the home fans’ boos to the Redskins following a touchdown-less 9-7 victory over the Rams, which was no less the home game opener.

Not unlike chess – albeit minus its us-them mentality – sound judgment and decision-making require a sober look into the future, combined with a gathering of relevant knowledge and resources, and a respect for dissenters. In many contexts - such as the price of a stock - current circumstance is only important insofar as it speaks to future value. In this sense, winning a poorly played game does more harm than good.



Media (in order of appearance)

Photo: (1)Albert Haynesworth; (2)Daniel Snyder; (3)McPhee Scowls Down, 05/01/2009, by cyldeorama; (4)An Angry Jim Zorn; (5)IH161460, 05/21/2009, chickhawkdown; (6)Arizona Lottery and Powerball, 04/22/2008, by Monte Mendoza; (7)Poster from 2001 movie Oceans 11; (8) 20060508 - Carolyn's MRI - Image 8 of 15 - Detailed Carolyn brain, 08/26/2006, Rev. Xanatos Satanicos Bombasticos (ClintJCL); (9)Depression, 05/18/2008, stillstressed; (10)Lombardi Pride, 08/25/2007, akahodag.

Video: (1)Video of the song
Sunshine (Adagio in D Minor), from Space Ambient channel, song by John Murphy, from the 2007 movie Sunshine. Sphere: Related Content

Wednesday, September 23, 2009

On Parables and Parabolas

Maya Angelou recently spoke at the NIH, where she weaved stories of her life. The speech was well-attended, its topic nebulous (“An Afternoon with”), its tone heart-warming.

Science professors often advise their students to tell a story. This is meant to unstuck students’ spinning minds, to get them thinking on a human-level, and to get them to contextualize results. “What’s the story here?” is often asked in response to research proposals and developing ideas. The question works so well that it’s become a cliché. The presumption being that there’s always a story, it’s just a question of finding it.

But the deeper presumption is that research is akin to storytelling. This interpretation over-stretches the all-too-often well-intended “what’s the story here?”, but it also uncovers the underlying dissonance between stories and research: Namely that stories are experiential while science is analytic.

When discussing scientific findings with fellow human beings, telling a research story never hurts, and certainly stories can help us get a glimpse at nature’s hidden clockwork. But at the same time they remain relatively indifferent towards nature herself, whose eternal laws and associations are not so whimsical as to be formed upon experience.

In this sense, scientific truth – the pursuit of which involves upending paradigms, half-truths, and rigid minds, albeit with Heidegger’s vision of our convergence towards the truth as if it were just beyond the horizon, all making for quite a story – in and of itself couldn’t be further from a story. In handling such truths, we need be imaginative yet thoughtful and delicate, lest we crudely weld man-made constructs of nature to fit into man-made stories. The later unfortunately is done all the time, even in science, and after long enough it strikes reality with a harsh dissonance. It is called wishful thinking.

-KJ Sphere: Related Content

Thursday, September 17, 2009

The World's 2nd Largest Economy

There are signs of what some call “a collective identity crisis” in Japan. Income disparity, growing numbers of impoverished pensioners and child poverty.
Tough economic times have highlighted the potential of developing nations, China in particular, while Europe is seen as bulky and traditional, struggling to keep up with the Jonses. Japan however is overlooked – still thought to be a victim of its ‘lost decade’ – and now – seen by some – as the setting for a modern portrayal of The Grapes of Wrath. The Economist goes on to say
Hamamatsu, a coastal town south-west of Tokyo, has its share of shattered lives. Workers were laid off right down the supply chain almost as soon as home-town outfits like Yamaha and Suzuki saw export orders slump last year. The lay-offs included many Brazilians of Japanese descent, who had flown to Japan because factories needed cheap, part-time labour rather than expensive Japanese workers on full contracts. The jobless Brazilians live with each other if they cannot pay the rent, and the church provides the neediest with food parcels. At a Catholic church recently, they were making soup to share among those, like themselves, eking out the last of their savings. That included homeless Japanese men, who, unlike the Brazilians, cannot face turning to friends or family for shelter.
Halfway through the feature, I was shocked to read that unemployment in Japan is 5.7%, “low by international standards but a record in Japan.”

Humans perpetually struggle to improve our lot in life – that’s half of the fun in living, at least half the time. When relating to fellow human beings, it’s unfair withhold empathy based on another's lot in life. Afterall, suffering is relative – no matter how bad things are they can always get worse – and suffering is subjective: Its existence cannot be denied.

And yet I could not get this 5.7 figure out of my mind. Unemployment in the US – considered dangerously high – is nearing 10%. The discrepancy points to the relative - perhaps subjective - nature of seemingly objective statistics. There’s a tendency to grasp for numbers as undeniable facts, as stable pieces of evidence which pin us to the ground in an ever shifting world. And used with care they're invaluable.

But consider now the size of this discrepancy – unemployment in the US being around 40% higher than in Japan – next to Japan’s parallel economic struggles and identity crisis: In some ways we are completely different from Japan and yet in other ways very like them. And don’t forget that Japan’s economy remains the second largest in the world.



Media (in order of appearance)

Photo: (1)Hamamatsu Castle, 11/12/2008, Pine 57; (2)Poster from 2003 film, Lost in Translation.

Video: (1) Music video, shpytahmon channel, by the Gorillaz of the song "Hong Kong" from their 2007 album D-Sides. Sphere: Related Content

Sunday, September 6, 2009

The Right to Eat Unfortified Foods and Health Care Reform

Scientists have begun to question the benefits of consuming too much folic acid. Potential risks relate to new estimates on how long it takes the liver to convert folic acid (“56 times slower than previously thought”); its ability to mask particular types of anemia; and an increased risk in “accelerating the growth of existing cancers.” Unlike strained arguments for health care reform, this really is an issue that affects us all: The FDA requires folic acid fortification in staple foods like breads and cereals.

The FDA’s original report on the matter (from 1999) reasons that folic acid fortification prevents neural tube defects among pregnant women. Even if the risks of over-consuming folic acid are all made up, the logic still escapes me for why everyone’s daily bread has to be modified.

The controversy regarding folic acid is just unfolding, and in all fairness it remains on the fringes of mainstream medicine. But you can feel a strong uneasiness on both sides of the issue: The conventional medical opinion says that folic acid fortification is a miracle of public health and you shouldn’t scare the public into believing half-truths. The opposing view, well, implies that poor regulations actively poison us through our food.

It’s too soon to jump to conclusions, but the fear of scaring the public with new info is almost always unfounded. We’re smart enough to figure things out for ourselves. If there is true skepticism about the benefits of folic acid, then we need to hear it. Afterall, we’re the ones who are being forced to consume it.

The debate raises more fundamental questions however about medical regulation, the role of government, medical science, and the rights of food consumers. It is somewhat ironic that we scrutinize new prescription medications given to subsets of the population, and yet gloss over widespread regulations such as this one, which asks the entire population to eat a synthetic diet as if they were all expecting babies.

As the health reform debate rages on, expect similar shortcut solutions, which attempt to lower health care costs through such non-conventional interventions. Already we are seeing calls to increase vitamin D and folic acid in our diet, while decreasing other ingredients that medicine deems harmful, at least at the current moment. Such actions need to be scrutinized carefully and at all levels of action, including the chance that fortification will help those who need it most, and that it'll insure that the vitamins and minerals are actually metabolized. Large-scale epidemiological studies need to make sure that negative health correlates to low levels of vitamins and minerals aren't confounded by low consumption of products like orange juice and enriched flour.

In fixing health care, there's a strong push-and-pull between ensuring that patients have the personalized attention they need, and treating everyone the same. The solution however needs to err on the personalized approach, because treating everyone the same is no way to give people what they need. Indeed, the more we try to treat everyone the same – be it by putting us all on the same medical plan, or force-feeding vitamins and minerals – the more unintentional consequences will result.



Media (in order of appearance)

Photo: (1)[Wonder Bread], 02/21/2009, Werklife; (2)Big Brother, 01/03/2008, Ian Geldard; (3)Vitamin water + energy, 05/25/2007, Ryan.
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Wednesday, September 2, 2009

Reagan Revolution 2.0?

Repetition of history is often a given. The question is not so much whether, but how and when. To the latter, our accelerated technology driven world might answer: “Sooner than you think.”

Of particular interest is the similarity between today’s pattern of economic-political events and those of the 1970’s and 80’s: Both involved broad Republican power leading to their by overreach and loss of power; the worst economic collapse since the Great Depression; England's return to conservatism. In the late 1970's, the last event preceded America's return to the Right as well. We've yet to see if the same shoe will drop today.

In 1974 Nixon left office on the heels of the largest political scandal in American history. He left the economy in sharp recession, and although you can’t blame a recession on any one person, his poor economic policy certainly didn’t help. Bitter aftertaste from Watergate allowed the Democratic Party to take charge with Jimmy Carter. The economy continued to slump over Carter’s term, while England grew restless and the conservatives took charge. Thatcher was elected prime minister in 1979, and shortly thereafter Reagan was elected in 1980 – their combination sparking the “Reagan revolution”.

Today’s sequence of events, although not the exact same, shares some uncanny similarities: W Bush left office in 2009 widely unpopular. It was not due to scandal per se, but there was a palpable sense that, similar to what occurred under Nixon, the Republican Party had gained a whole lot of power and under his lead shot itself in the foot, a blow from which it’s still recovering. Similar to Nixon, Bush also left the economy in a state of disrepair; and although you can’t blame a recession on any one person, Bush’s previous policies (particularly on housing) certainly didn’t help.

England is also witnessing a hard and abrupt shift towards Conservatism, one of historic proportion. The immediate cause of this is the expenses scandal, but that can only explain for so much. It is important to view such developments as non-coincidental, particularly in a democracy: Sometimes people need a reason to turn against a party on a dime. Sometimes parties in power become complacent. In following sequence, it is worth asking whether, similar to the late 1970's, England's conservative shift will precede the same in America.

Although one shouldn’t jump to conclusions, it’s difficult not to compare today’s events with those of the 1970’s and ‘80’s. The speculative implication, of course, is that a conservative Reagan-like personality will emerge come next presidential election.

Avoiding such fantastical speculation, the analogy further likens Obama to Carter, a president who is frequently conceptualized as a failed idealist: Perhaps one with the right mind, but in the wrong place at the wrong time to use it to address crisis after crisis.

It is still too soon to judge Obama – and the public, likewise, is giving him his due time to perform. But emerging recently – and well written in a series of Economist articles focusing on areas in which his efforts have been stifled by poor execution and lack of detail and foresight – is a lingering suspicion that Obama will leave the country in no better shape than when he entered office.

This seed of lingering suspicion grows much bigger in light of the soaring popularity with which he entered office, particularly among young people. Such a failure should it occur would be seen as widely symbolic as his election. And such a failure should it occur would no doubt leave the Oval Office wide open for a rising Republican star (perhaps along the likes of Bobby Jindal).

At present Obama’s legacy remains to be written in stone. But time is running out. Much of it will rest on his performance over this upcoming year: “Crunch Time” as The Economist puts it. In the meanwhile Americans continue to hold their breath.

Judging from output alone, it took over 10 years for the US economy to return to pre-1974 levels. These sorts of recessions have a way of working themselves out but only in the very long run. Such is often the time required for an economy to unwind and reposition itself, a process which arguably took the whole of Reagan’s first presidential term. That the rate of job and capital loss will slow down is a given, but it’s very unlikely that we’ll see the economy prop itself back up over the next few years. The speculative implication is that the recovery won’t begin until at least the next presidential term.

The worst of the crisis is likely over. And yet we still find ourselves at a crossroads with little indication of where we might be heading. Only history will be able to tell us if we’ve been here before.


Media (in order of appearance)

Photo: (1)Richard Nixon; (2)Jimmy Carter; (3)Ronald Reagan; (4)The Economist, April 1st 2009 Cover; (5)Hazy Trees, Katwingz20.

Video: (1)Carter Crisis in Confidence Excerpt from 1979 speech, 11/11/2008, metbans.
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