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Monday, October 25, 2010

Campus "songtalk"

Bernice Johnson Reagon, who describes herself as a "songtalker," will be delivering the annual Anne Braden Memorial Lecture on Friday, November 5 at 6pm in Comstock Hall (School of Music): “The Civil Rights Movement and Students: Creating a Vital, Transformative Change in the Struggle for American Freedom.”

The event is free and open to the public.

Here's a sample of her singing an American classic tune:

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Saturday, October 23, 2010

Nostalgia for Republican Economics?

When George W. Bush inherited the White House in January 2001, the nation's unemployment rate was 4.2%. Eight years later, his administration's assortment of economic policies managed to turn that into 8%.**

That's an increase of 90% -- not quite a doubling.

Unfortunately, due to the Great Recession that began in 2008, unemployment levels have continued to increase during the Obama admininistration -- up now to 9.6% in September (the latest month with complete data). That's an increase of 20%.

It's bad, but it's dumb to blame Democrats exclusively -- especially since Republicans limited the stimulus, demanded much of it in the form of tax cuts, and won't agree to fund infrastructure projects and other spending at the level that helped the US exit the Great Depression.

Much of the debate in the 2010 midterm election is about government's role in the economy, but I assure all readers that this would simply be little more than background noise if unemployment was closer to 6 or 7%.

Incidentally, with a little help from Google, you can easily find wild (tea party) claims that the Obama administration has "quadrupled the national debt."

The U.S. government debt was $5.73 trillion on Bush's January 20, 2001, inauguration day. By the start of Obama's presidency on January 20, 2009, it stood at $10.63 trillion. Bush's tax cuts and the unfunded wars in Iraq and Afghanistan nearly doubled the federal debt in 8 years. Specifically, it was an increase of 85.6%.

The current U.S. government debt on October 23, 2010, stands at $13.67 trillion. That's an increase of 28.6% -- largely because the Bush tax cuts do not expire until January 1, 2011, and the wars remain unfunded.

The tea party's claim seems to be based on CBO estimates from March 2009 of future deficit spending forecast through 2019. The latest projections are not as bleak and are quite volatile, depending upon assumptions about economic growth, tax revenues (will those Bush cuts expire or not? -- it's a $700 billion question over a decade), etc.

In a nutshell, Republicans are poised to retake the House and perhaps the Senate because their noisiest loyalists have convinced too many members of the media and electorate that the Obama administration is somehow to blame for what they label unprecedented government spending, borrowing, and intervention into the economy.

** New presidents assume office on January 20, so it makes sense to average the monthly data for January/February as I've done here.

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Tuesday, October 19, 2010

R&D $

This election cycle has included a lot of talk about spending, deficits, and government intervention into the economy. Generally, however, participants in the debates simply (and perhaps hypocritically, given the rhetoric) favor certain government programs and oppose others. Even tea partiers like Dana Loesch reject defense budget cuts, apparently, and would exempt Social Security and Medicare. They hate the so-called "bailouts" even though economists note their stimulus value and the emergency loans were mostly repaid already.

This tidbit from Time illustrates the problem of misplaced priorities:
In mid-June, a group of corporate titans, including Microsoft co-founder Bill Gates and GE CEO Jeffrey Immelt, descended on Washington to call for U.S. spending on energy research to be tripled. They noted that the government today spends less than $5 billion a year on energy research and development — not counting temporary stimulus projects — compared with $30 billion annually on health research and more than $80 billion on military R&D.
Apparently, the U.S. values new weapons more than it does new drugs or energy sources. I don't think the new Congress is going to change that ordering.

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Wednesday, October 13, 2010


My paper (“The Buildup to the Iraq War as Farce”) for the ISAC/ISSS conference in Providence is complete.

Based on the literature I reviewed in the section, here's my summary paragraph about farce:
A farce is a fast-paced and outrageous story featuring characters that freely employ hyperbole and make nonsensical claims about their situation. Protagonists and antagonists can often be described as reckless fools or devious knaves, though the regular instances of mistaken identity may blur the distinction for members of the audience. Frequently, the threat of physical violence or aggression looms over the story.
Hopefully, I've demonstrated that the buildup to the Iraq war can readily be viewed as farce.

The paper also gives some attention to critic Eric Bentley's "comic catharsis" thesis. Here's an old (March 10, 1961) story from the Harvard Crimson, published after a Bentley campus forum:
Bentley pointed out that by picturing an absurd situation, farce fulfills repressed wishes, although in disguise. "The contrast is between tone and context: the actor threatens murder in a playful tone, but the murderous wishes are true. Farce is a dialogue between aggressiveness and flippancy."

Farce cannot function without this aggressiveness. Bentley stated. He agreed with Freud that innocent jokes do not make us laugh. "We want satire, obscenity, and attack."
Obviously, the buildup to the Iraq war seemed pretty serious at the time, but I think much can be revealed and learned by reading it as farce. I'll try to have a link to the paper next week.

Update: I put a copy on Google Docs.

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Monday, October 04, 2010

2010 Hardy House champs

I often blog about my Hardy House fantasy baseball auction/draft results in the spring of each year, but I've never blogged about the end-of-season results. This is largely because the Bolts From the Blue haven't won the league championship since 1998.

Until 2010, that is.

After week 17 (of 26 weeks in a season), the team's prospects looked pretty dismal in this 12 team fantasy American League. The league uses the ordinary 8 statistics and my team was 20.5 points behind the first place Trapper Keepers (managed by two very smart guys). That was good for second place, but TK appeared to be runaway winners and was genuinely great from top-to-bottom. TK had the best list of retained players heading into the auction and were widely expected to win the league. They had been in first place for many weeks and several owners feared the team had enough retainable talent to repeat in 2011.

Worse, that week 17, my team lost OF Scott Podsednik to the National League when the KC Royals traded him. Also, my top closer, Jon Rauch, was relegated to setup relief when the Minnesota Twins obtained Matt Capps at the end of July. As it happens, I was already next-to-last in saves and 7th in steals and had traded away some power hitters to acquire those guys to help fix the problem. Those were my team's worst categories, though the Bolts were also just 6th in batting average and tied for 6th/7th in pitching wins. My second closer, CLE P Kerry Woods, was also traded to the Yankees that week. It was a disaster.

Thanks to a good draft and a hot start, my team seemed to have plenty of RBI and home runs and because of LAA P Jered Weaver and SEA P "King" Felix Hernandez was doing very well in "ratio" (walks plus hits divided by innings pitched, or WHIP) and ERA. 42 of my 63.5 points were in those four categories.

Years of not being able to win had me feeling frustrated again, but a very careful study of the statistics after the Podsednik and Rauch deals made me wonder if I might be able to implement a mid-year "Sweeney plan," "a popular strategy where you punt the two power categories (HR/RBI) and try to win the remaining six. You buy a few speedsters who'll hit for good averages and pretty much blow the rest on buying yourself a pitching staff."

I already had a lot of points in HR/RBI and a solid base of starting pitching. What if I traded all my cheap prospects for high average "speedsters" and some relievers who garner saves?

It seemed like a possible pathway to victory. My spreadsheet showed that it could work.

The Hardy House League is a "keeper" league, which means that owner-managers can retain players for an additional season or two. Inexpensive potential "keepers" are highly valued by teams far out of the running for the current season title. Given that my team was in second place and far behind the leaders, I figured it might be a buyer's market.

Plus, that weekend, one team near the bottom of the standings sent a very pricey 1B Miguel Cabrera (DET), OF Nelson Cruz (TEX) (2011 free agent) and P Rafael Soriano (TB) ($36 in 2011) to the third place team (not far behind the Bolts) in exchange for OF Josh Hamilton (TEX), who would be $26 in 2011 and $30 in 2012.

That deal seemed to confirm that the market would be soft. Hamilton is MVP material, but it was a load of talent traded for maybe a few dollars savings at next year's auction. Who pays more than $30 for a player who doesn't steal bases?

On the morning of August 2, I made the following trades (2011/2012 prices in parenthesis):

1. Sent KC 3B Alex Gordon ($13/$16), LAA P Joel Piniero ($5/$7), TB P Grant Balfour ($3/$5) and DET P Daniel Schlereth ($5/$7) for TB OF Carl Crawford, CWS 3B Dayan Viciedo, NYY P CC Sabathia, and CWS P Matt Thornton. All the guys I acquired are very expensive to retain or 2011 free agents. Viciedo was basically a 3B throw-in until I could fix my positional needs -- but even he was very pricey (his owner, a Sox fan, paid over $30 for him in free agent cash).

2. Sent TB C John Jaso ($3/$5) and CLE OF Trever Crowe ($7/$9) for CWS P Bobby Jenks and SEA OF Ichiro Suzuki, two more pricey guys.

3. Sent CLE SS Jason Donald ($3/$5), TOR P Brett Cecil ($4/$6), and MIN P Jon Rauch ($5) for NYY 2B Robinson Cano, BOS P Jonathan Papelbon and TEX C Taylor Teagarden ($7). Cano and Papelbon have very high salaries.

That gave me two new closers and two of the league's top basestealers that also hit for high average. The trades also brought a top hitting 2B and a third ace starter to go with my top two of Weaver and Hernandez.

I also pressured some teams into including additional free agent cash as part of the deals. Why?

The week also brought some new talent into the league thanks to real baseball deadline trades. Thus, I spent $30 of my newly bolstered free agent cash for LAA P Dan Haren. Four aces? Haren has pitched like an ace in the past, but was having a difficult 2010 in Arizona. I tried to buy Capps, but someone with more resources bought him.

Rather than spending on other marginal new NL talent (mostly power), I also picked up rookie outfielders Ryan Kalish (BOS) and Mitch Moreland (TEX). Indeed, part of my strategy was now built around picking up young free agent talent for relatively low prices and then peddling those very same players in trade to fill needs on the fly.

The first place team responded the following week with a trade or two that potentially undermined some of what I accomplished.

Thus, on August 16, I made two more deals:

4. Traded SEA P Brandon League ($5) for LAA P Brian Fuentes. Unfortunately, Fuentes was almost immediately traded by LA to the Twins to become a setup reliever. League ended the season with a handful of saves versus 1 for Fuentes. This trade was a bust for me and it was clear almost immediately. The owner with Capps and NYY P Mariano Rivera was not available that morning. Sigh.

5. Traded TB 1B Dan Johnson ($3/$5) and BOS IF Jed Lowrie ($3/$5) for SEA IF Chone Figgins. Johnson and Lowrie ended up hitting a lot of September homers, but Figgins was another basestealer with a history of good batting average. This was a gamble since he was not hitting for average in 2010.

By now, Bobby Jenks was injured and it was clear I needed another closer. Plus, wins was a tight category. So, on August 23, I made these trades:

6. Traded BOS OF Ryan Kalish ($15/$18) for MIN P Capps.

7. Traded TEX 1B/OF Mitch Moreland ($13/$16) for BOS P Jon Lester. The other team really wanted Moreland and offered a fifth ace. How could I refuse now?

Our league allows owners to add a player for September and my pickings were slim. Thus, on August 30

8. Traded NYY P Kerry Wood ($17/$20) for a very pricey NYY 1B Lance Berkman. Wood has an outside shot of serving as a closer in 2011, while Berkman was definitely going to be in the auction pool at his price.

By now, the Bolts were gathering steam with steals, improving average, wins and some saves. However, a few teams were starting to mount challenges in HR/RBI. Thanks to the Jenks injuries and Fuentes trade, the saves were not increasing fast enough.

The Hardy House League doesn't have a trade deadline!

September 20, week 25. The Bolts finished week 24 in first place! TK kept making more trades (the third place team sent them Cabrera, Cruz and Soriano) and the competition for available talent was now quite fierce. TK was grabbing relief pitchers they didn't need just to keep the Bolts from garnering more saves. They also traded for a bunch of two-start pitchers to maximize their chance of pulling ahead of the Bolts in wins:

9. Traded TEX C Teagarden ($7) for BAL C Matt Wieters. I decided not to acquire more starters and stuck with my five aces, plus CLE P Carlos Carrasco, obtained as a September free agent.

September 27, week 26. Every save, homer, win and steal was potentially important for a point or two in a tight contest:

10. Traded LAA Hideki Matsui ($14/$17) and LAA P Fuentes for CLE OF Shin-Soo Choo and DET P Jose Valverde who was supposed to be healthy at long last (he was available for trade for weeks).

And that was barely enough.

In the end, the Bolts finished with 83.5 points and TK had 81.5 (down from 84 on August 2). The Bolts concluded the season with 7 of 13 original offensive players, but only 3 of 10 pitchers. One of those 3 was reserved for the stretch run to make room for Carrasco. The Bolts won batting average, ERA, WHIP, tied for 2nd in wins, and finished 3rd in HR and RBI. Steals (4th) and saves (5th) didn't go quite as planned, but still were much improved over the July totals.


Of course, the 2011 keeper list looks kind of thin....Weaver, TOR OF Vernon Wells, TB P Joaquin Benoit, maybe OAK P Henry Rodriguez, and likely one or two very pricey stars.

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Friday, October 01, 2010