Wednesday, 16 July 2014

Liberté, Egalité, Fraternité



La Liberte - Seminal Work of Delacroix

Two days ago, in France we celebrated la fête nationale (called in the US "Bastille Day), which in truth came in to being as the national day of celebration in France during the Third Republic, not following the French Revolution, the date chosen as a sort of compromise between the radicals and the royalists.

Most are familiar with the French motto "liberté, égalité, fraternité" (freedom, equality, and brotherhood) which was informally adopted at the end of the ancienne régime (and, likewise formally was adopted during the Third Republic at the collapse of the Second Empire). It now adorns most public buildings in France.

Though a tripartite, the elements themselves are not really understood by most French to be of equal importance.  Though all are of course central, the French seem to place much greater emphasis on the middle ("equality") and third ("brotherhood") elements.  

This is important to understand when talking to or about the French, as it is not really, in fact, possible to balance the three.  When freedom is considered, of course it is naturally in conflict with the other two.  Recall, for example, the cynical quip about banning people rough sleeping: the laws were "equal," as both rich and poor were equally proscribed from sleeping under bridges.

Likewise for freedom and brotherhood - if I am perfectly free to say or do what I like, that may mean I offend.

It's a critical and important difference between American and French understanding of 'freedom.'  Americans are much more likely to ask if you can say something, whereas the French are more likely to ask if you should.

This difference from time to time will come into focus, as it indeed did yesterday, when the a local tribunal condemned a former political candidate to nine months on a prison farm, a 50,000 euro fine, and five years' ban from political life for making ostensibly racialist remarks about Justice Minister Christiane Taubira.

Anne-sophie Leclere, a former candidate at the municipal elections in Rethel (a town in the Ardennes in the north eastern part of France) for the Front National had made news when her Facebook page put, side by side, Taubira and a monkey, implicitly comparing the minister, who is black.

Leclere later tried to defend her reprehensible act by explaining that of course, she did not mean that Taubira was a monkey, and of course she has black friends.  But most observers are smart enough to put two and two together.

The incident was not the first such incident; a local satirical magazine last summer posted a photo of Taubira, who at the time was in the middle of a couple of very nasty, high-profile fights to reform (in the view of many, relax) criminal penalties with the caption:


Maligne comme un singe, Taubira retrouve la banane.


The weekly "Minute" was forcibly pulled from kiosks and fined for violating laws against racial attack.

The decision of the courts to place Leclere in prison was quickly condemned by Marine Le Pen, the head of the Front National, as a sort of "ambush" by the powers-that-be, who are quite obviously un-nerved at the growing influence of the FN.  The FN, is a populist political party that began as a thinly-vieled racist, xenophobic, and openly anti-Semitic group, but has over time tried to purge itself of the most ostentatious racists (including founder Jean Marie Le Pen, the father of Marine Le Pen) and to co-opt the anger and fear of middle and lower middle class voters who in the past have been supporters of the Socialists.  The FN, to the dismay of many opinion-makers in Europe, captured the most votes in the recent EU parliament elections, and are now seen as a legitimate threat in the 2017 national elections in France.  Le Pen asks the question of whether yesterday's ruling is not a pre-emptive move by the powers that be to try to restore a political order.

But for me as an outsider living in France, the more fundamental question is this: as reprehensible as the comments are, is it really best to make them illegal, and to put those who use them in prison?  To ban them from standing for election?  

As someone who admittedly brings the lens of an American understanding of freedom to the discussion, I would answer that the action is inappropriate at best, and stupid (and ultimately futile) at worst.  The whole point of free speech is that it protects ideas we find offensive.  It's incredibly easy to stand up for the rights of others with whom we agree.  Is it really, for example, a defence of liberty to say that we support the rights of people to declare that they like ice cream or sunshine?

A famous line attributed (wrongly) to Voltaire is that one may disapprove of the comments of another, but that one will defend to the death the right to make them (in fact, written by Voltaire's biographer).

Conservative icon William F Buckley once quipped that liberals are fond of saying that they defend the rights to have other opinions, but are then shocked and offended to discover that there are other opinions.

While I value brotherhood, pretending that ugly ideas don't exist is not a talisman against them, and pushing terrible ideas underground does not make them go away.  

Certainly, France is a free country, and I (and others) generally do not fear that Hercule Poirot - or for that matter, Inspector Cluseau - is waiting to put us in irons for making offensive statements.  But in this sense, as the French have obviously made a different bargain with respect to the balance of freedom and fraternity, it is somewhat less free than the US.

And after all, it's worth noting that the phrase "liberté, égalité, fraternité" once contained the closing phrase "ou la mort."



Tuesday, 15 July 2014

2014 Mid-Season Baseball Post (not really)



It's the middle of July, and thus back in the US of A, the baseball All-Star Game is set for tonight (it will be played at 2 AM here Central European Time).  It's the traditional point at which the season is broken (reporters refer to 'the first half' and 'second half' of the season. and player statistics are often split into pre- and post-All Star summaries), even though in truth, slightly more than half of the 162 games is in the books for each team.

My team, the Toronto Blue Jays, got off to a hot start, at one point winning 20 of 24 games (83%), but since then, have lost more than two-thirds, to fall back to about a 50/50 winning percentage.  I fully expect them to continue losing, and wind up with their 21st consecutive dismal season.  The only thing more depressingly futile for a Toronto sports fan is the fact that that NHL Maple Leafs have not made the Stanley Cup Finals since 1966, and hockey is the true first passion back there.

My interest is waning as I age, and I've only been to one baseball game in the past 15 years - we took my then three-year-old son to see a game at the old Yankee Stadium the year it was closed and demolished - so the perennial disappointment of my favourite team is less and less significant each year.

An interesting development has been reported via the internet.  Namely, New York Yankees have placed their rookie superstar pitcher Masahiro Tanaka on the disabled list, and he may miss the rest of the season. Tanaka, who signed a seven year, $160 million contract (on top of the posting fee that New York paid to his team in Japan of $20 million), has had damage to his ulnar collateral ligament (UCL).  Tanaka is that good, posting an unbelievavle 30-0 mark in his final year in the Japanese professional league, and thus far dominating in the Major Leagues (Tanaka's loss to the Chicago Cubs at the end of May was his first professional loss in two years).  The Yankees are in the unusual position (for them) of fielding an aging roster that may not be in competition much over the next few years, and the loss of Tanaka is a serious blow to their chances this year.

The report acknowledges that Tanaka may require the famous "Tommy John" surgery, in which case he would miss the rest of this year and all of next.

A couple of points about this.

First, it's hard to believe that what is now viewed as a fairly routine - if time-consuming and unfortunate - surgery was remarkable when it first occurred.  I am old enough to remember the real Tommy John, who underwent the procedure in which the UCL from his right elbow was removed and used to replace the UCL in his left (Tommy John was a left-hand pitcher).  At the time, we were living in Los Angeles, where John pitched for the Dodgers, and the surgeon, Dr Frank Jobe, estimated the chances that John would ever pitch effectively again at about 1 in 100.  Since it was the first time such a procedure was employed, one could forgive Dr Jobe for the magnitude of error in his estimate.

We were living in Los Angeles at the time, and thus my mother and older brother were Dodgers' fans; it's not an exaggeration to say that the surgery and recovery of Tommy John was considered miraculous at the time.

40 years later, the surgery is estimated to be successful about 90% of the time, but it's worth noting just how revolutionary the procedure was in 1975, and it was nothing short of a wonder that John went on to pitch another 14 years, and to win 160 more games.  Thus, today a pitcher with a torn UCL will lose a year, but will not necessarily lose the rest of his career.

An odd aside- 2012 Cy Young winner R.A. Dickey pitches with a congenital defect in which he has no UCL in his pitching arm.  No physiological explanation for this is yet available.

The second thing I was reminded of was the economics of baseball and especially the way that young pitchers today are handled.  Pitching is an action that requires an atypical motion with the pitching arm - throwing an object overhand is not something for which the shoulder and elbow were naturally designed to do, and thus, career-threatening injuries are an omnipresent.

As the contract for Tanaka - $160 million plus $20 million posting fees - indicates, teams are investing an enormous amount of money in talent, and they do not want to see that money wasted.  Tanaka will collect his salary even if he never picks up a ball again.  Therefore, all sort of regimens have come in to fashion in the days between Tommy John and Masahiro Tanaka to protect pitchers' arms.  Fewer throw 'exotic' pitches like a screw-ball, pitch counts per game are scrupulously monitered, teams carry extra pitchers on their rosters, and not one team in professional baseball has a four-man starting rotation (some even use six), which was the standard in 1975.

In the year before he was hurt, Tommy John pitched in 39 games, including 8 relief appearances.  It was common for pitchers to start more than 40 games, complete half of them, and throw more than 300 innings.  Mike Marshall - a teammate of John's, was used in 106 games one season, and Wilbur Wood of the Chicago White Sox started 49 games in 1972, pitching 377 innings.  No pitcher has pitched as many as 300 innings in a season in 34 years.  Only once in the last 10 has a pitcher thrown 250.

This approach makes some sense if you are in a situation as the Yankees find themselves now, having sunk more than a hundred million dollars into a player.  If he gets hurt, that money is gone.

But does it make sense, economically, if you are a smaller market team babying a young star?  Consider, for example, the Tampa Bay Rays and their star David Price. Price has been talked about for many years as a trade/free-agent target, and it's presumed that at some point, he will land with the Yankees, Dodgers, or Boston Red Sox for a huge contract.

If Tampa Bay 'protects' Price's arm, whose future are they hoping to assure?

I commented at one point several years ago that it appeared that the World Series was becoming out-sourced in many ways.  The opening game of the 2009 World Series featured a battle between two aces - CC Sabathia and Cliff Lee - who the year before had started for the Cleveland Indians.  It's not unusual for a player like Sabathia to play for his first few years, at a relatively low salary, for a small market team like Cleveland or Kansas City or Pittsburgh, and then when he is eligible for free agency, jump to one of the teams that can afford his price tag.

Does it make economic sense for Tampa Bay to limit David Price's innngs? For whom?

I suggest that it may not be such a smart move for teams like Tampa Bay to over-protect their young stars.  The window of opportunity for a small market team to win is relatively small.  Unlike the Dodgers, Red Sox, or Yankees who can afford to refresh their rosters when their stars get old, or when a player gets hurt, as a long-term strategy, teams without huge payrolls must either draft stars every single year, or succeed at a "Moneyball" strategy in finding under-valued talent.  The latter becomes increasingly difficult as the tactics of the Oakland Athletics become well-known and duplicated.

If Billy Beane is the only guy using this approach, it can work.  If every small-market team is doing it, then you are more or less back to the point where everyone is competing for free agents or trade prospects with equal information; i.e., the strategy is common practice and does not provide any sort of competitive advantage.

Thus, when a team like Tampa Bay or Cleveland gets a star like Price, in taking steps to prolong their careers are in a sense acting as guardians for the future of the Yankees.

This in economics is why when modelling budgets, inflation and depreciation factors are built into the models.  Put simply, because of uncertainties and currency devaluation, a dollar today necessarily must be worth more than one three, four, or 10 years from now.

I suggest that these realities at some point will dawn on baseball GMs.  Tampa Bay should pitch David Price as much as they can right now.

I expect they will eventually realise this; very soon thereafter, so will Scott Boras.


Thursday, 10 July 2014

The Return of the King?



Times have changed, and times are strange.
Here I come, but I ain't the same


I do not follow the NBA really at all, but even living in France it's hard to avoid the circus of the NBA.  So it's with some mild amusement that I read the newest saga involving basketball star LeBron James.  According to various friends on social media, it seems James, a star who plays in Miami, Florida for the Miami Heat, is considering a return to the Cleveland Cavaliers - the team where his career was launched a decade ago.

James is considered by some to be the best player in the league - some even the best since Michael Jordan retired.  You would think that the possibility that the return of such a talent would be met with anticipation and excitement.

But LeBron James has a history, and the rumours of his return are being met, in my circle of friends who follow this sort of thing anyways, with a heavy dose of vinegar.

LeBron James grew up in the city of Akron, Ohio, a mid-sized town around an hour south of Cleveland.  He was a phenomenon even as a teenager, playing in a local Catholic high school, being featured in Sports Illustrated, skipping college and heading immediately to stardom, fame, and fortune at 18. Though he is not actually from Cleveland, he became a sort of local boy does good story when the Cavaliers "won" the lottery to get the rights to his contract.  He was almost a messiah in a city where sports are raised to iconic levels, a great player who was going to bring a title - the first title of any sort for 50 years- to a decaying city who, if we are being brutally honest, has likely seen and said goodbye to its best days.

It didn't happen, of course, as Cleveland never did win a title during his time, and in fact, never even got to the NBA Finals.  Fans had begun to sour on him a bit, booing him during the playoffs in his final season (2010) with the team.  It turns out that a team is more than just one player, even a really great one.

But what earned James (perhaps eternally) the ire of the local fans was his choice in 2010 to sign a contract with the Miami Heat.  After months of courting from the local media, efforts by the team's owner and its fans to convince him to stay, LeBron James announced that he was going to take his talents elsewhere.

The reaction was immediate, and it was harsh.  In my view, incredibly harsh for a guy who, after all, is just a paid circus act when one gets right to it.

I spent eight years living in the suburbs of Cleveland, and attended high school there.  I still have some family in the area (though, they are not basketball fans at all and honestly could not care less about LeBron James or the Cavaliers).  I have many friends back there as well.  One is even an employee of the Cavaliers.

To say that people seem to hate him seems mild.  I recall words like "traitor," "coward," and worse were frequent.  People spoke of how he had betrayed them, as if the decision was a personal affront.  All during his time in Miami, the chorus did not weaken, and during the playoffs, rose to a crescendo of vituperation.  People openly celebrated his failures in Miami (the Heat won two titles during his four seasons there, losing in two other closely-contested finals).

Now that James may be coming back to Cleveland, the anger machines are warming up again.  People are vowing that they will never want him back.

I did not understand it then, and I do not understand it now.

Professional athletes are in a strange space - sports fans identify with them, speak of their exploits in tones of what "we" need to do to win the Super Bowl, or great it is that "we won" the World Series.  These guys are nothing more than well-paid gladiators, who generally have little to no connection to the cities that their teams play in (the teams don't really represent the city in any ral way).  They take contracts for a number of years, and then if they play well and can command more, go elsewhere.  If they don't play well, they are released and tossed out like expired cheese.

The guy made an ass of himself with his televised-live announcement on ESPN.  But let's be honest - the NBA is a spectacle, and it earns millions and millions of dollars because it is a spectacle.  We watch guys covered from head to toe in tattoos, who display abominable sportsmanship, strut up and down like fools and talk trash into the faces of their opponents.  Good taste is discouraged for its players - and indeed, I would not be surprised if somewhere in the league charter, it was explicitly banned.

So why do we get excited when a guy with a high school education (at best) who is paid millions of dollars to act like an adolescent acts like an adolescent?

The irony is, most of those who call LeBron James a traitor and a coward themselves left Cleveland for greener pastures.  I, too, left Cleveland in 1992, and I have not been back. Would it not be hypocritical for me to get angry at LeBron James for making the same decision as I did?

I suppose it boils down, to a degree, to what I observed a while back about the obscene amount of money Brazil spent to build palaces for the World Cup; these venues will almost immediately become massive white elephants in a nation where the need for basic infrastructure is desperate.  Having successful sports teams and facilities make a city feel like it is "big league."

We may have a weak job market, dying industries, a government rotten through with corruption, and abysmal schools.  We may have neighbourhoods so decrepit that they have begun to be reclaimed by wilderness, blocks of abandoned buildings that are the subject of urban decay porn, and residents so poor that they actually request the UN to intervene to ensure access to clean water.  But we have a winning football team and a brand-new stadium, so we're still a big league city.

As another mile marker, the city of Los Angeles refused to build a new stadium for the Raiders or the Rams, and both fled the city.  I was by then living in the Bay Area, and Oakland, another city that has aspirations to remain "big league" footed the bill to the tune of a hundred million dollars to lure the Raiders back.  Los Angeles remains without professional football, apparently convinced that it does not need the Raiders to be big league.  Indeed, it's strange to consider that Dodger Stadium is now the third oldest facility in baseball - only Wrigley Field and Fenway Park are older.  Anaheim Stadium, the home of the Angels, is the next oldest.

I don't know whether LeBron James will return to Cleveland.  As a former Cleveland resident, I would be happy for the city to celebrate a winner.  Cleveland has had five decades of punches to the gut - and I am not speaking at all about losing sports teams.  If LeBron James, the prodigal son of sorts, can help, then I for the life of me cannot see what sense it can make to be anything but positive about the potential that he will come back.

It's only basketball.



Wednesday, 9 July 2014

And so the Legend Begins



Today, 9th July, marks the birthday of a literal and figurative icon.  He is perhaps the second greatest icon in the history of games.  The character is a plumber by trade, and his task was to climb up a series of ramps, girders, and lifts to rescue a gal kidnapped by a giant gorilla who rolled barrels and oil drums at him.

Originally called only "Jump-man" by the inimical Japanese programmers at Nintendo who created him, Mario is today 33 years old.

According to many - Wikipedia included, the "Mario" franchise is the most lucrative series of games in the history of electronic gaming. Over 33 years, and including five separate branches (Super Mario, Mario Kart, Mario Sports, Mario Party, and Mario RPG) nearly a half a billion units have been sold.  445 million game units have been sold.  By comparison, the second best-selling series - Pokemon - has moved about 250 million.

To people of roughly my age, Mario, Pauline, and Donkey Kong (the 'characters' in the initial game) are sort of cultural talisman.  I was eleven years old in 1981, and I can remember, clearly, the first time I stood in line to put my quarter on the façade of the console, which was the M.O. for those waiting to play.  In truth, it was a token, as the first location in our area to have Donkey Kong was Chuck E. Cheese, itself an icon of the era.  My father had come home, practically beside himself with glee, reporting about the advent of (what he at the time called, erroneously) "Barrell Kong," and described the game he had heard about on the radio on his way home from work.  We were off to Chuck E's a couple of nights later, when Friday arrived.

Chuck E. Cheese, as an aside, was the creation of Nolan Bushnell, the guy who founded Atari in the early 1970s.  Of course, Atari produced what some consider the catalyst of the video game industry, "Pong."  Pong itself debuted in a pizza joint in Sunnyvale, California, less than a mile from the HQ of the company I co-founded twenty years later.  I think it is now a comedy club called Rooster T Feathers; it was when I fled California a few years ago.

The world of nerd-dom truly is flat.

Donkey Kong at the time represented to us a huge breakthrough in games.  The most popular game, Pac Man, was primitive by comparison - here was a game with multiple scenes and a sort of story behind it.

Some months later, a Donkey Kong upright console appeared in the local grocery store; I used to beg my mother for a quarter to play while she did the week's shopping.  It was always a risky proposition, as our town had by then passed an ordinance that those under 15 could not play video games without a parent accompanying them.  I don't know if the city fathers had decided that video games were some sort of mind-altering vice, or if they feared kids would sneak out of school to play.

In any case, the city of North Olmsted, Ohio was just next door, and it had no such restrictions.  And it had the best game room around, so my friends and I would often ride our bicycles out to the mall where "The Great American Game Room" (it was in the food court of the local mall, long ago closed) was located to partake of the corruption.

I must have spent hours and hours playing Donkey Kong, Pac Man, Dig Dug, and later, Zaxxon - itself a marvel of simulated 3D imagery.

It's funny, but I now have a son who is almost nine.  He is close to the age that I was when Mario appeared.  At the time, of course, 'Mario' was "Jump-Man," "Pauline" (the girl Mario tried to save) was simply "Lady," and Luigi did not even exist.  My son loves Mario and all of his worlds.  To my irritation, he spends more than a small amount of time watching a guy called "Zach Scott" (his real name, I think) broadcast recordings of himself playing Mario Brothers, adding an inane commentary.  It's now my turn, I guess, to be annoyed about my son's video game proclivities, just as surely as my own parents were three decades ago.

I do not know if the Nintendo people had even an inkling of what was spawned in July 1981.  I would guess not.

You really never can tell.


Tuesday, 8 July 2014

Bellum Omnia Contra Omnus



Sometimes, it is better if one does not have to be right


Late last week, I learnt a new term.  "Hobby Lobby." Now, I know what the words "hobby" and "lobby" mean, so I didn't learn anything there.  What I learnt was that there is a company called Hobby Lobby, which, prior to last Wednesday, I did not know.  

This fact is rather unremarkable, and I doubt that had I not heard of Hobby Lobby before my time on this earth is over, the over-all impact on my life would have been even insignificant.

By now, of course, Hobby Lobby is no longer just a store selling tchochkes for crafting (this I know thanks to Wikipedia, the fons et origo of all sort of trivia).  They are the causus belli of internet flame wars that have become truly nasty.

This is due not because people suddenly hate making scrap-books, but rather, because of a decision by the US Supreme Court handed down that proclaimed that Hobby Lobby is not required to provide reimbursement for a set of reproductive serives due to an application of the 1993 Religious Freedom Restoration Act (RFRA) - which simply put, states that when the government act in a way that subverts the sincerely held religious beliefs of a person, the government must demonstrate that the desired goal supports a compelling government interest, and the action is done in the least burdensome manner possible,

In this case, in my opinion (and reading the various noise machines on line, I am not alone), the case is actually more of a proxy in the argument about federal power, and its use in the case of the Affordable Care Act (ACA, "Obamacare") proximally.

There has been an enormous amount of vituperation on social media and also in the real media, with the usual memes about wars on women, separation of church and state, wars on science, and the like.  It's helpful I think to point out that the entire fulcrum on which the argument rests is a classic case of laws of unintended consequences.

The RFRA was passed as a reaction against government over-reach into the religious (and cultural) practices of Native Americans.  The law was passed, oddly enough, in reaction to the firing of two men by a rehab centre in Oregon, when it found that the men were involved in Indian ceremonies involving peyote.  They sued, claiming that their First Amendment rights to the free exercise of their religon was being abrogated, which the Supreme Court denied (ironically to some, Justice Scalia wrote part of the majority opinion, and his opinion helped spawn the RFRA).  It's worth pointing out that the RFRA was, at the time, uncontroversial, passing on a unanimous voice vote in the House (controlled at the time by liberal Democrats) and by 97-3 in the Senate.  I would remind those who go ululate about right wing fundamentalism that one of the three NAY votes was right wing bête noire Jesse Helms.  

Both Barbara Boxer and Dianne Feinstein voted YEA.

Fast forward two decades.

I personally try to avoid wading into debates about abortion rights precisely because there is so much heat and very little light surrounding the debates.  This has been on plain view with this case.  The Hobby Lobby situation is a lot more than reproductive 'freedom,' of course, including whether corporations are entitled to protections, or indeed if they can be said to have religious beliefs at all.  Of course, this simplistic argument obfuscates the truth - 'corporations' are plainly legal entities made up of real people, and so the actual point is whether those who own corporations - an in this case, Hobby Lobby is more than 50% owned by a family, and that that family can have religious beliefs is not really an argument a serious person would enter in to- give up their rights when they incorporate.  

THAT is a debate that one can have dispassionately.

There are also elements of mendacity, in my opinion, in those who claim that Hobby Lobby is denying birth control to its female employees - in fact, Hobby Lobby does provide coverage for 16 of 20 HHS-mandated forms of contraception.

So the fight is really about whether the federal government can mandate four specific forms of birth control.  It's not quite accurate that this is a "war on contraception."

One could certainly have a sanguine discussion about what the role of "insurance" is, and what the proper reach of federal power ought to be.

What really concerns me is neither of these intellectual arguments.  What I find really disquieting about the sturm und drang is just how nasty, how personal, and how facile and simplistic the arguments have gotten.

Unfortunately, this is the fallout of the current tone of what I used to call "bumper sticker politics," which has evolved recently into what might also be dubbed "Twitter politics."  Real discussion is replaced with incredibly reductive punch-lines.

Personally, I find the question of abortion incredibly complex.  I've thought about it - a lot - and I honestly am ambivalent about the matter.  On the one hand, I am a firm believer that one's freedom to do as one chooses should be close to sacrosanct.  There are limits, of course.  As the old saw goes, my right to swing my arms ends at the tip of your nose.  But I support maximal personal freedom/

On the other, there is the issue of what is life, and what is humanity.  I've written about this before, mainly in the context of end of ife issues.  One of the primary - perhaps THE single most important - roles of the state is to protect the weak from the strong.  As Hobbes and others have observed, the state evolves to bring order out of the chaos - to end the bellum omnia contra omnus (war of all against all).  Without rules and police, the strong would quickly enslave the weak, and indeed, laws, police, and courst are a form of virtual power.  The laws exist to protect the rights of the weak against the interests of the strong.

And what right is more fundamental than the right simply to live?

So then, this issue - to me - is really one of how do we define life?  At what point is an unborn baby human?  These are not legal but rather, medical and ethical issues.  Stephen Singer, an ethicist at Princeton, has drawn fire in the past by suggesting that euthenasia for the terminally ill or the profoundly disabled might in some circumstances be morally defensible.

Personally, I find that a monstrous proposition.  But even if we decide - and make no mistake, if the law codifies it, then as a republic, we are then agreeing - that the disabled are not entitled to the same protections as the rest under extreme cases, who defines "extreme?"  Is it a physical defect? Mental?  Incapacity?  What?  


In the immediate case of pregnancy termination, it's of course not necessary to presume humanity of the unborn to allow abortion in certain cases - for example, if the health of the mother is at stake, then you have competing claims to the right to live.  The unborn vs. the mother.  We have in other areas justifiable homicide, so of course, there is precedent where one may take the life of another.  I am not arguing that abortion is homicide, only that if we accept the humanity of the foetus, then one can still permit abortion in certain cases on safe, ethical ground.

But if we accept that the foetus is, in fact, human, then it's very difficult, in my opinion, to argue that it does not have, at some level a right to exist without wading into George Orwell-levels of self-parody about the inherent inequality of life.

On the other hand, if we presume that the unborn is not alive, then we face the famous Zeno's paradox. Or what the conservative writer William F. Buckley used to describe as the tomato paradox.  That is to say, presuming that what is born after nine months is a human being and not a tomato, at some point, it must become a person.  The trouble then is, when does the unborn become human, and when is he entitled to the protection of the law?

Aside from Stephen Singer, few people have argued that one could kill a brand new baby, and fewer still a week-old infant.  So, is it the moment that the baby is birthed?  Is it the ability to live independent of the mother?  Maybe, but then, is a week-old baby really capable of living apart from its mother (or some other care-giver?)  If two parents were to simply leave their baby at home for several days without feeding or caring for it, I presume that they would be subject to prosecution, and that abortion supporters and foes alike would be in accord that this is called for in a civil society.

Put simply, the issue is not simple, and certainly not to the point that the combatants on both sides would have you believe.  I propose that it is not even really a religious issue at all - religion is incidental here; a sort of moral rules to help define life in a situation where science and medicine (and thus, the law) are not currently equipped.  But of course, religion is a philosophical choice, and not one universally shared, so this approach has its own very grave, not to say legal, problems.

This is, I think, why the debate is so fraught.  All but the most fervent supporters of abortion rights - Mrs Clinton included, describe a desire to keep abortion safe, legal, and rare.  If one is merely talking about a clump of cells, I suspect one would feel no qualms about their removal.  One simply does not hear about a desire to keep appendectomies rare.

The debate is complex, and I suspect, has no real, dispositive solution.  And thus, it is not reducible to simplistic claims about 'controlling women' as many frame it.  Those who question abortion (and by extension, forcing companies to pay for medical procedures that they see as being abortifacient) are not cartoon characters who hate women or are bent on tyranny over them or their bodies.

And I think that many on the pro-choice side, if pressed, would have to admit that this is true.  The logical conclusion of the opposite is that many of their friends and family members would have to be sociopaths or worse.  If someone you are friends with is simultaneously a woman-hating control freak, what possibly could justify your friendship with them?  

I have a mother, a wife, and a sister,  I know I personally could not reconcile being friends with someone I honestly thought hated women.  Attaching malign motivations to people with a differing viewpoint is rather like going to a blind man's zoo.  We feel their words; we judge the elephant's trunk.

It might be something else.




Finally, the problem here is really policital.  There is an awful lot of screaming; it becomes more pronounced in an election year.  And the fact is, the politicians have a lot to gain by making noise.  I find that the much of the politics of the American Democratic party are at odds with my interests and personal tastes, so I will admit my bias, but I believe that they are responsible for much of the misinformaion and noise.

Data have shown two things over the past 50 years.  First, there is a large, and growing, gap between men and women in terms of voting patterns - women are becoming increasingly reliable supporters of Democratic candidates.  The second is that, had suffrage not been extended to women, the Democrats would not have won a national election since 1964.  The Democrats need women to vote for them, and one of the key levers to achieve that is the issue of choice.  

The Hobby Lobby case is being waved like a political bloody shirt, but in fact, I suspect that the vote is, for many who are the loudest opponents, like a gift from the political gods.  2014 is an interim election year, and the Democrats are, according to polls, in big trouble.  This decision gives them a new, and large, cudgel.  

The tone of politics has gotten nastier, and with the advent of social media, more personal.  I have long believed in the adage that politics is not a pillow fight, but it's new that individuals are now becoming increasingly nasty to each other - with Twitter and Facebook, even to friends.

That is not a positive outcome in my book.  

Language matters; civility matters.  Your political opponents are not your enemies.  It's not always better to be right, particularly when arguing with friends.

In the battle of words, it's OK to take prisoners.



Monday, 7 July 2014

Mirror, Mirror



Seven Years of Bad Luck?

As I've noted on more than one occasion, living in a city like Paris has several advantages.  One of those advantages, af least in my opinion, is that it is easily possible to exist without an automobile.  We don't have a  car, and I think I've driven a car on only one occasion in 2014, when we took a trip to Normandy to visit Le Mont-Saint-Michel.


Daily travel on the RER is not, of course, all wine and roses.  There are strikes (last month, the intransigent rail workers' union was out for about 10 days, thrusting nearly all of France into chaos), delays (a catalogue of causes from "incidents avec voyageurs malades," "pannes des signaux," and my personal favourite "un voyageur sur les voies."), and the omipresent risk of an over-crowded rame in which some of the people neglected to hit the can of Right Guard.


But on the plus side, I am free for 40 minutes, and in this time, I like to read one of the 'free' mini-news sheets available in the stations.  I've written before about the random assortment of information that occupies the inside front page.  These past two days, I've learnt two fascinating facts about the origins of a couple of superstitions.


The first, printed last Friday, pertains to the question of why we consider a broken mirror brings seven years of bad luck.  It turns out, this belief goes back to the days of the Romans, who created the first glass and silver-backed mirrors 2000 years ago.  The Romans believed that these devices reflected more than just our faces - indeed, your soul itself could be captured within the reflexion.  If the mirror somehow was broken, it could thus be trapped in a world of chaos.


But why seven years?  The Romans believed that your life was broken up in seven year cycles (e.g., infance 0-7, youth 7-14, adolescence 14-21, etc.), and thus, your rehabilitation would necessarily await the next cycle of your soul.  Of course, that means that seven years is the upper limit on the time, so if you were forthunate enough to break the mirror weeks before your 21st birthday, the effects were minimal.


The second, revealed in this morning's paper, is the origin of the superstition about passing under a ladder.  I had always presumed that this arose largely from empirical observation, as indeed, virtually all of our superstitions do.  Walking under a ladder increases your chances of having something fall on your head (not the least of which is the man standing on it should you bump the ladder).  Anyone whose seen an episode of "Three's Company" can vouch for this.


But it turns out, this belief originates in the days of early Christianity.  For Christians, the number three is a common theme, deriving from the Nicean and Apostle's Creeds.  The existence of God according to the faith is the concurrence of three - Pater, Filium, and Spiritu Sanctu (Father, Son, and Holy Spirit). In the early days of the Church, there was an enormous and at times violent dispute about the relationship of the Holy Trinity, which the Niceans resolved in declaring the Trinity.


The Trinity is physically manifest in the form of a triangle.  If you visit any Catholic church (and many Protestant ones as well), the ceiling will have somewhere on it, an image of a triangle.  Typically, this will incorporate the elements of the Trinity, and in the centre, the word for "God" often will appear, either in Latin (Deus) or in Hebrew (יהוה) .



A Photo of the Transept of Our Church, St Philippe du Roule,
Showing Tetragrammaton

The triangle, appears on the back of a US one dollar bill, without the obvious religious elements.


Close-up of Tetragammatron, Highlighting
God at the Centre


Since the triangle ifself was seen to invoke the Holy Trinity, persons who passed beneath a ladder were seen to be acting against God.  This could be taken as overt evidence that the person was a witch or member of a Satanic (or worse, outright pagan) cult who rejected God.

Being seen as such in the middle ages would plainly bring "bad luck" to the offender.


Friday, 4 July 2014

Changing the "Culture" of Silicon Valley



One of my friends on the social networks posted an article last night (I saw it this morning - she lives in San Francisco, California, and I live in Paris, France, nine hours ahead).  The article isn't really unique, following a rash of "why is tech so hostile to women/ethnic minorities/people who expect to have an actual life" links that have sprouted like mushrooms after a week of rain.

The basic theme of them has been that the Valley, which purports to be an objective meritocracy is in fact, a sort of echo chamber dominated by white men.  They report rampant, but unfortunately, intangible misogyny of the sort you might find in a college fraternity.  Albeit, a frat filled with nerds who would make Lambda Lamda Lambda look like a bunch of well-adjusted dancing smoothies.

Previous articles talking about how the valley is dominated by white men are actually factually inaccurate (the most risible was reported by CNET under the headline "Yahoo Workforce Mostly Male, Mostly White", and supported its findings with stats that showed that among some of the top firms - Google, Yahoo, LinkedIn, Facebook, about 50% of the workforce is white, in a country where two thirds are, so the truth is, from a mathematical angle, tech is under-represented by whites.)  You won't get much traction with articles about how there are too many Asians in tech.

For obvious (and in my opinion, legitimate) reasons.

I expect that the US president, diversity "activists," and others with certain political benefits at stake will fudge, distort, or simply fail to understand mathematics.  CNET, an ostensibly tech oriented journal should not make such egregious, obvious mistakes.

The blog post I read today, written by a man called Carlos Bueno, was better than those and not subject to the same laughable gaps in logic and reasoning.  Bueno, who spent time as a programmer at, among other places, Facebook and Google and is himself now the author of a book called Lauren Ipsen, a play on the vacuous filler Latin that anyone who has used publishing software will immediately recognise, described problems in the hiring process at tech firms under the rubric of culture.

The two are of course related, but not the same thing.  It's a minor fault, and perhaps not nearly as obnoxious as using a stock photo of a Google office that is obviously in Singapore as a stand-in for "Silicon Valley" (copy editor, clean up on aisle six).

Bueno's real argument boils down to the lack of professionalism in the 'interview' process at many start-up companies.  Using anecdotal examples, he illustrates that typically, the "process" is not actually a set of real interviews, but rather, sequences of unwritten hoops the candidates must hop through - going out for a casual coffee, a round of after-work drinks, playing ping pong (!) with some potential candidates.  Bueno rightly argues (in my opinion) that this process is not likely to identify who the best programmers are, but rather, to identify who "fits" with the biases of the team.  And, surprise surprise, it leads to what he calls a "Mirror-tocracy," or, a sort of band of brothers (and to be sure, 70% or more of those in tech are male).

This result is undeniable.  But I wonder, is it "bad?"  And by that, I mean, bad for the businesses?  Bad for the economy?

Bueno seems to imply that culture and bonding and sameness are intrinsically bad for companies, as they result in a lack of differing views, and a difference in perspective.  As evidence, he cites a study done by economics professors at the Harvard Business School.  The findings of that research indicated that the more affinity that existed between venture capital funds co-investing, the less likely the venture was to succeed.  Success was narrowly defined in the studies as "IPO."  Interestingly, two funds that were run by two investors who had worked at the same company were 17% less likely to 'succeed,' that if they had been to the same undergraduate school, 19% less likely, and of the same ethnic background, 20% less.

These facts cast serious doubt on the wisdom of having your company too similar.

But then, a few problems if you look at the fine print.  The most obvious is that the success metric was "IPO."  There is a good many startups who are very successful without going IPO (YouTube comes to mind.  It did not have an IPO, but who would call its multi-billion dollar takeover a failure?)  Then, there is the issue that the study is not about tech, but rather, investment.  VC provide the money, but they are arguably not closer to "tech" than Goldman-Sachs, save for the fact that Sand Hill Road is in Menlo Park and not New York.  And finally, the sample space, if one reads the article, is mainly about Chinese and Indian investors.  Thus, a venture where one investor is Chinese and the other Indian is more likely to succeed than one in which both are Indian.

There is a host of reasons why that might be true, and not one of them is related to the culture in a start-up.

The larger point that the author seems to want to say that programming would necessarily benefit if programmers were more 'diverse,' and by this he means that there are more women, more Latinos and/or blacks, and that fewer middle-class young people were employed.  All of these might be true; but are they necessarily so?

Like Bueno, I worked in Silicon Valley for many, many years. Part of that time, I was in a small startup.  And like, Bueno, I put in many hours writing "code," which is the mot juste for "programming" these days.  For better or for worse, the overwhelming majority of this work is commodity labour.  The "problems" being solved by programmers, with a few exceptions, do not require any particular genius or insight or skill.  People in the valley do an enormous amount of self-promotion about "disrupting" this or "changing" that.  But in reality, what the tech industry is now is mainly about slick packaging.

"Tech" is now about 90% marketing and 10% engineering (warning: estimate could have wide confidence intervals, but you get the point).

This was highlighted recently in a piece on LinkedIn about the millions of dollars being bet on an iPhone app called "Yo," which does nothing more than broadcast a text message to a friend or friends saying "yo."  That's it.

Writing the 'code' for such an application does not require any particular genius.  Someone has to come up with the idea.  Someone has to promote the idea.  Writing the software to do it is fairly simple.  I seriously doubt that a solipsistic interview process is going to overlook any necessary 'talent.'

Other 'hot' start-ups in the news include Tinder, which is a sort of internet dating site for those not mature enough for Match dot com.  It's in the news partly because of the buzz, but also because of the repulsive behaviour of the head of marketing.  Again, the company is not presenting any revolutionary new technology (Match dot com has been around for 20 years), but rather, it is offering more or less the existing world, packaged with a different marketing spin.

In short, 'tech' has evolved - it was once making transistors, then silicon chips, then the software to run the computers.  Now, it's about cobbling together a marketing vehicle disguised as an app and selling it.  Quickly.  Silicon Valley got its name, after all, due to hardware.  The last fab closed a decade ago.

In the start-up I helped to co-found back in 1997, our product was a mathematical analysis package.  It was developed not in some 'hot' programming language, but instead, in Visual Pascal, a language as old as I am.  The value we presented was in the maths behind the packaging, and we were rewarded with multiple patents in data mining.  Some of what we did in terms of programming was challenging, but few problems required particular software genius.  I recall clearly one example where the approach to a problem required some code insight rather than a mathematical one - I had to develop a UI that would dynamically place nodes in a decision tree on a screen that allowed users to click and change the analysis.  It was a bit tricky, and I recall debating with the head of engineering about my approach, which relied on a recursion algorithm.  He thought it wouldn't work, and I was sure that it would.  It turns out, I was right, but I suspect the disagreement was more because of my inability to articulate the method rather than his lack of vision.

But for the most part, programming requires a description of a problem (not, itself a 'tech' issue), for which a set of instructions can be coded to tell the computer how to execute (this is the 'tech' part).  The former can require vision; the latter almost never actually does.

What was a big part of our success, and contributor to our failures when they happened, was the cohesion of the team.  And this is where I think that Bueno undervalues the importance of 'culture.'

He may find it trivial that the programmers like to go out for a beer together.  The author of this famous piece describing the "ping pong theory of tech sexism" may ridicule the 'boys playing ping pong all day long."  But one thing I can tell you is undeniably true is that in a start-up, with very few exceptions, you will have too much work and not enough resources. That is going to mean that you will spend a lot of time with your colleagues, and relatively little time with your friends, your family, or your pets. And thus, like it or not, if people on the team do not fit in, there will be friction and bickering, and not of the constructive sort envisaged by the Harvard professors.

In Silicon Valley, people consider lack of a real life to be a badge of honour - people at times compete to boast about how little time has been spent with friends, at home, or even on basic hygeine and sleep.  

In any case, I left "Silicon Valley" many years before I physically moved away from San Jose.  I have been employed in creating models and clinical research for more than a decade.  Part of that is because what I found attractive in my 20s and single was considerably less appealing as a marrie 30-something.

There is a particular reason people choose to work in a start-up an not Microsoft.  Part of that is the culture.  And I suspect that, if the culture were to be changed, the industry itself would change in ways that are not necessarily 'good.'  The French are currently trying to incubate a 'start-up' culture in a massive former warehouse on the edge of Paris.

I say good luck to them, as culture in this sense cannot be grown in a petri dish, and it is going to have elements that people don't like.





Thursday, 3 July 2014

L'Herbe Sera Plus Verte Qu....



At the end of last week, in reading the news, my attention was drawn to an internet site called "Quora."  The site is a sort of "Ask Jeeves," quasi-wiki web page where people are allowed to post questions to various topics, which are then answered by other users.  The quality of the answers - indeed, the quality of the questions themselves - is highly variable.

The "nice" thing about the site is that it is, ostensibly at least, not anonymous.  People are asked to register using a real name and real e-mail address.  The checking is not exactly on the same level as people interviewing to bein the CIA, buy one presumes at least some of the participants are honest, and the result is that the discussions tend to be more civil than the typical internet food-fight.

I came across a question this morning that was interesting, and for our family, timely.

"What are good reasons that an American should not move to Europe?" (emphasis mine)

In a few weeks, it will be exactly a year since we moved to Paris.  For the most part, the move has been a positive one, though of course not exclusively.  Thus, it's one that I feel is more or less right up my street.

Now, I am not sure if the questioner is sincere, or if the question is a rhetorical one serving as a sort of stalking horse to provoke "what's the matter with Kansas" sorts of anti-American comments.  Judging from some of the comments that followed about McDonald's, McMansions, and McHealthcare, the invitation was taken by some even if that was not the intent.

As a person living in Paris, I am not going to make judgment or value comments such as "Americans love money," or "Europeans have real culture" or "The US is worse than a middle-eastern caliphate because of crazy, racist Christians who are more or less the Taleban," which in the end are not really measurable and are freighted with bias, if we are being honest.

To avoid coming off as a whinge, I would say that my family and I love living in France, and are happy to have made the choice to come here.  The experiences are indeed different from what we had in the US (I lived most of my adult life in the San Francisco Bay Area, and spent the past five years living just outside New York City).  The pace of life is different; the type of housing is different.  Attitudes of the people are different.  Some of the differences are positive for us (I really like not having to drive, as we do not own a car, and take advantage of things like "Auto'lib" - something I guess similar to ZipCar in the US).  Some of the changes are negative (having your child get sick on a Saturday night and not being able to easily get access to acetaminophen because Monoprix is not Safeway, and thus not open after 8, and OTC meds are only available in pharmacies anyway).

To try to answer the question presuming that the questioner was seriously considering a move and not just looking to generate "the US is full of fat, religious troglodydes" 'answers', I would offer the following opinion:


  1. People who do not have a reasonable command of the local language are going to have a very, very difficult time living.  Being a tourist in a city for a month is a long-shot difference from living there.  When our hot water tank failed, for example, getting a plumber to come and fix it would have been, at the least, difficult in English.  Remember: shopkeepers along the Champs-Elysees can speak sufficient English.  The guy who comes to repair a leak will not.

  2. As others stated, one must be prepared to face difficulties "connecting" with the local people.  One key difference between Americans and French - in my experience - is that casual friendships are not common in France. People do not make small talk on the trains, in the lobby, or on the street.

    Living in Paris means, almost surely, that you will live in a flat with many neighbours, and they will already have a full set of existing friends and very likely, family.  You will not be invited to parties or to dinner until you become real friends with them, which takes a lot of time.  One odd thing - if someone has a party in your building, you likely will get a note - it's not an invitation, but merely a pre-emptory warning that there may be noise.

    This is not to say the French are unfriendly - they just have different standards and rules around how you become friends.  Americans may - likely they will - find this shocking.

  3. The rules of etiquette are very different, and you surely will run into at least one uncomfortable situation.  There are certain behaviours in the country you move that the locals will just 'understand' intrinsically.  At some point, you will violate one of these and get 'corrected.'

  4. Rules - some of which that will make zero sense to you - will be enforced as if they were articles of faith handed to Moses on stone tablets by God and not just rules in a book promulgated by a bureaucrat selon le loi de 19 Décembre 1968.  In the US, someone at the post office or in a local park may be willing to 'look the other way' if you are 30 seconds late or an application is not perfect.  In France, civil servants observe the letter of the law, irrespective of the spirit.

    An intro to anyone moving to France will include procuring a Titre de Sejour (essentially, permission to live in France), for which you will need to submit forms and photos.  Do not make a typo on the form, make certain to use black and not blue ink, and whatever you do, make sure the photograph is *exactly* what the regulations call for.  My wife's application at first was rejected - a delay of weeks and weeks - because she was smiling in the picture.  The Préfecture de Police in Paris rejected the initial two applications because they decided the photos were not precisely to the law.

    To put this reality into an analogue most Americans can understand, imagine how the experience when travelling at an airport.  One must submit to the exercise of shoe removal, belt removal, being asked if you packed your own luggage, and (my personal favourite - an incident that actually happened to me) having to put two tiny plastic bottles of shampoo (carried on) into ziploc bags because the rules said that they liquids needed to be in ziplic containers according to the TSA, as if plastic bags somehow act as a shield should the liquids ignite.

  5. Culture shock.  There are, as others aptly said, many things to be said for life in Europe compared to the US.  One need not venture onto the rhetorical thin ice of the pros and cons of food or art or lifestyle.  But it's simply true that things are different here, and if you are not ready to deal frankly with the fact that you will HAVE to adapt, and not the other way around, then that is the best argument IMHO not to come.
Quora is, thus far, an interesting forum with manifold topics.  I recommend it.


Monday, 30 June 2014

World Cup: Green Is the Colour that Matters Most


They Spent HOW MUCH Building the Stadiums in Brazil?

The 2014 World Cup has reached the so-called "knockout round," where teams who have survived round-robin group play now face off in single-elimination brackets.  The first games of the huitième saw the Netherlands, Colombia, Brazil, and Costa Rica - the latter two on penalty kicks - move on.  As time goes by and I get older, my interest in professional sport has declined significantly, and I have never been any sort of fan of soccer.  Still, living in Paris, it's difficult not to take some interest in the games, as the French team, who barely qualified to begin with, are actually now in decent shape to make at least the quarterfinals.  Les Bleus face off tonight against Nigeria, a team that they are heavily favoured to defeat.

Nate Silver, who gained fame applying mathematical models to election cycles, has a web-site dedicated to various and sundry topics, including politics, sports, entertainment, economics.  He and his team of writers apply their models in non-traditional ways, and one I have been following is his model that estimates the likelihood for each team still in the Cup to advance to various stages, all the way to the end.  The current favourite are the hosts, Brazil, whom Silver pegs at about an even-money bet to win it all (as of this moment, a 41% estimate to win it all).  Additionally, the estimated chances for the next three teams - Argentina (16%), the Netherlands (14%), and Germany (10%) - sum to about the same cumulative chance.  

France is estimated at about 1 out of 11 (9%).  

But what caught my eye today was this piece written by Victor Matheson, an economics professor at the College of the Holy Cross in Massachusetts.  

According to Matheson's data, Brazil spent an enormous amount of money constructing the venues for the cup.  $3.6 BILLION to construct or renovate the 12 sites that will be used.  When Brazil bid on the Cup, the price tag was of course enormous - but at the time, more than three of every four dollars was supposed to be spent on infrastructure improvements - roads, public transit, communications.  Because of delays and cost over-runs, the stadiums were about a billion dollars more - which means that the long-term infrastructure projects will have a billion dollars less spent on them.

To put these figures in to some perspective, the construction of a single stadium - Estadio Nacional Mane Garrincha in Brasilia - cost $622 million.  The entire cost to France of the 1998 World Cup was $603 million.  When the US hosted in 1994 (one of the games was played in Stanford Stadium in Palo Alto, California, where I was living at the time), a paltry $5 million was spent, mainly refurbishing existing facilities, as no new venues were built.

Russia will host the next World Cup in 2018, and are expected to almost double the spending of Brazil.

This provoked Matheson to do some analyses on the return on investment that stadiums present.  It's a timely debate, as across the US, there is a semi-regular push by professional sports teams to extort request public funding for stadiums and parking. These requests are often sweetened to a degree by the economic and social benefits that professional sports bring.  Right now, the city I lived in during my high school years - Cleveland, Ohio - is involved in a debate about extending a 'sin tax' to help finance the baseball stadium and basketball arena that the local teams use.

I'm not so sure.

For example, the massive, $622 million palace in Brasilia will host several World Cup matches, but there is no professional team in the Brazilian capital.  Just who will play there when all is said and done is uncertain.  

In Matheson's analysis, a couple of meta-statistics are presented.  The first is the stadium use index (SUI), which estimates, based on seats sold for events, divided into the total capacity of the stadium, four years on from construction.  It essentially presents the number of days per year that the stadium is fully occupied.  The second is the fan cost index (FCI), which is a ratio of the amount spent to how many dollars were spent to construct the facility, divided into the number of fans who attend.  It's essentially how much it costs, per fan, to fill the stadium.

So, for example, the most expensive project for France in 1998 - the Stade de France, cost $394 million to construct for the 2002 Cup.  Four years later, the stadium - which hosts several French and Premier League matches, as well as concerts, had 612,000 spectators at 10 events during the year.  That works out to an SUI of 7.7 (according to Matheson), or that it is filled to capacity 7.7 times per year.  The FCI is then $644.  It 'costs' about $644 per fan to construct.

That seems like a fairly large investment of public money, doesn't it?

Data for Brazil remain unknown, since the stadiums are new, and four years have not passed.  It seems unlikely that a massive stadium in a city with no professional team will have a tough time to recoup the cost.  Matheson does some projection - the stadium was ready in 2012, and it hosted 7 events that year.  The total attendance for those events was 14,000.  The corresponding SUI is 0.2 - the stadium was 'filled' on less than two tenths of a day.  

This works out to a FCI of $44,565.

If these data from 2012 are projected to 2018 when the World Cup is a memory, the Brazilian government will have spent more than forty-four thousand dollars per fan to build this massive, white elephant.

Economic analyses on the impact of stadiums beyond the immediate revenues from ticket and food sales - which largely go to the teams anyway - are somewhat mixed. What these numbers show is, basically, that cities like Cleveland who spend large sums of public money on stadiums mainly do so because having a professional baseball or football team is little more than a talisman to show that the city remains a "big league city."  Sure, the schools may be awful, the roads approaching third-world status, and industry is evaporating, but hell.  We've still got a big league team.

Recently, the city of Atlanta, Georgia announced that a new stadium will be constructed for its professional team, the Atlanta Braves.  The cost - estimated to be around $600 million, will be a "private-public partnership."  The county will be kicking in nearly $400 million of the costs.

This comes, ironically, less than 20 years after the city built Turner Field, ostensibly for the 1996 Summer Olympics in Atlanta.  This was at a cost of $209 million, mostly footed by NBC who broadcast the games, and "other Olympic sponsors."  According to Braves' management, the 16 year old stadium offers an insufficient "fan experience," so the team is setting sail 10 miles outside of downtown. Key to the deal is that the Braves will control a vast commercial area around their new (public funded) stadium, whereas Turner Field, in downtown Atlanta, is surrounded by existing business that do not generate revenue for the team.

The Cleveland Browns, a professional football team, abandoned the city when they could not get a 'free' new stadium, moving to Baltimore, Maryland, who did provide one.  The loss of the Browns was a trauma for many residents in Cleveland - far more, it seems, than the loss of quality public education. A few years later, the Browns were re-incarnated, with a brand-new $290 million facility, 75% of which was paid for by the public.

Cleveland gets to continue being "big league."

Detroit, Michigan made the news last week when it cut off the water to thousands of its residents who either did not or could not pay, provoking the United Nations to declare that perhaps the Motor City was contravening a fundamental human right to clean water.  Detroit has a host of problems, but it has  professional baseball and  professional football teams.  The Tigers and Lions both play in new facilities, built to "revitalise" downtown Detroit, and financed with significant public funds.

Interestingly, the city of Los Angeles has had no professional football team since the Raiders and Rams left.  One of the problems is that the two played in the LA Coliseum, an aging relic of the 1932 Summer Olympics.  The city has refused to build a giant new stadium, and the NFL has not come back.  

But Los Angeles does not need a professional sports team to argue that it is a big-league city.  

According to Silver's blog, a big factor in Brazil's favour is that they are hosting the World Cup.  No Brazilian team has lost a major international match on its home turf since 1975.  Not one of the Brazilian players was even born at that time.

The country has spent an enormous sum of money to get the games, and one might argue that part of that investment is the increased chances that Brazil will hoist the cup this summer.

Seems to me a poor ROI, however.