Monthly Archives: February 2008

An Unassisted Gag

In a surefire bid to drive away all two dozen regular readers of this blog, I’ll be indulging in the occasional post about Chicago Cubs baseball over the course of the upcoming season. And with pitchers and catchers reporting for spring training in a matter of hours, this feels like the right time to test the waters.

1) In an otherwise interesting NYT piece assessing the outcome of the Hollywood writers’ strike, reporter David Carr makes this somewhat unfair analogy by way of explaining the major studios’ threat to hire fewer writers going forward: “Perhaps there’s an instructive comparison with another business run by big egos in search of talent, Major League Baseball. Every few years, the baseball owners announce that there’s a new austerity in the air and that they won’t overspend on players. But just before spring training starts, they get nervous and suddenly a pitcher like Ted Lilly — the baseball equivalent of an assistant gag writer on ‘Two and a Half Men’ — gets something like $10 million.

OK, no doubt Lilly is overpaid. But I’ve seen an episode of “Two and a Half Men” (on an airplane), and I insist that Lilly had a much better ’07 season than any writer attached to that awful, awful show. Plus, under the terms of the analogy, doesn’t this make Lilly’s team the baseball equivalent of a Charlie Sheen sitcom? Come on — the Cubs made the playoffs last year! I’d say the more apt analogy would be to call Ted Lilly the lead writer on a few episodes of a middling hourlong drama. The Chicago Cubs are, at worst, “Gossip Girl”: enticing on the surface with more than a bit of pop, but very weak up the middle and perhaps only good due to lack of well-made rivals.

2) My real-life friends have been making pseudonyms for themselves over at my favorite Cub-related blog. Here’s the man some of you will know as my college roommate with a video of a rising Cubs star playing in the Dominican this winter (second video on the page), and the winner of my 2007 fantasy baseball league with some useless stat-head antics.

Now, back to non-sports topics…..


Sound of the Tick

Keep meaning to post about music. What with the eMusic monthly deal, I’m forced to audition albums on a regular basis. (I am, at least provisionally, devout towards the album.) Which means mixing reviews and myspace. And it’s working out pretty well.

I commend to you Deer Tick. I’m enjoying the album “War Elephant” in its entirety. For starters, check out the song “Dirty Dishes.” Track is here. Good YouTube performance video to the south.

Good Read: Digging a Hole to China

Firstly, a note: Good Read is a new semi-regular feature here at Office of Special Plans. Basically, I’ll be linking, along with an excerpt, to something I’ve read recently that I consider excellent. When you see the Good Read label, rest assured the linked article is a good use of your time. Importantly, this feature won’t take a lot of typing and novel thought on my end, since my not-for-profit writing time has been somewhat limited these days.

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James Fallows is one my all-around favorite dudes working in journalism today, and his piece on the peculiar economic co-dependency between the U.S. and China in this month’s Atlantic is really wonderful. If you’ve been following the China story, there may not be a lot here that you don’t already basically know. But Fallows’s explanation of the phenomenon is impressively clear, readable and — most importantly, given the dry subject — colorful. And, to be frank, somewhat terrifying. Particularly towards the end.

Here’s a taste:

Let’s say you buy an Oral-B electric toothbrush for $30 at a CVS in the United States. I choose this example because I’ve seen a factory in China that probably made the toothbrush. Most of that $30 stays in America, with CVS, the distributors, and Oral-B itself. Eventually $3 or so—an average percentage for small consumer goods—makes its way back to southern China.

When the factory originally placed its bid for Oral-B’s business, it stated the price in dollars: X million toothbrushes for Y dollars each. But the Chinese manufacturer can’t use the dollars directly. It needs RMB—to pay the workers their 1,200-RMB ($160) monthly salary, to buy supplies from other factories in China, to pay its taxes. So it takes the dollars to the local commercial bank—let’s say the Shenzhen Development Bank. After showing receipts or waybills to prove that it earned the dollars in genuine trade, not as speculative inflow, the factory trades them for RMB.

This is where the first controls kick in. In other major countries, the counterparts to the Shenzhen Development Bank can decide for themselves what to do with the dollars they take in. Trade them for euros or yen on the foreign-exchange market? Invest them directly in America? Issue dollar loans? Whatever they think will bring the highest return. But under China’s “surrender requirements,” Chinese banks can’t do those things. They must treat the dollars, in effect, as contraband, and turn most or all of them (instructions vary from time to time) over to China’s equivalent of the Federal Reserve Bank, the People’s Bank of China, for RMB at whatever is the official rate of exchange.

With thousands of transactions per day, the dollars pile up like crazy at the PBOC. More precisely, by more than a billion dollars per day. They pile up even faster than the trade surplus with America would indicate, because customers in many other countries settle their accounts in dollars, too.

The PBOC must do something with that money, and current Chinese doctrine allows it only one option: to give the dollars to another arm of the central government, the State Administration for Foreign Exchange. It is then SAFE’s job to figure out where to park the dollars for the best return: so much in U.S. stocks, so much shifted to euros, and the great majority left in the boring safety of U.S. Treasury notes.

And thus our dollar comes back home. Spent at CVS, passed to Oral-B, paid to the factory in southern China, traded for RMB at the Shenzhen bank, “surrendered” to the PBOC, passed to SAFE for investment, and then bid at auction for Treasury notes, it is ready to be reinjected into the U.S. money supply and spent again—ideally on Chinese-made goods.

At no point did an ordinary Chinese person decide to send so much money to America. In fact, at no point was most of this money at his or her disposal at all. These are in effect enforced savings.

Read the whole thing. And if the Atlantic’s firewall, which was just curtailed although not eliminated, proves an obstacle to your reading, drop me an email and I’ll see what can I do.

Vanity Fair Unleashed!

Well, I’ve been going on and on about this New Star Wars Videogame — and this Vanity Fair piece is like catnip for my hype receptors. Hype it more…I want to play so bad…really, this is having just the desired effect on me!

To wit:

As the consoles have become faster and better, the software developers have risen to the challenge of designing a better game experience, and one of the reasons I have come to San Francisco is to see two demonstrations of software that LucasArts is excited about incorporating into its next marquee game. The first program is called Euphoria, and was developed by NaturalMotion, a tech company based in San Francisco and Oxford, England. On a projection screen in a darkened auditorium, I watch as a digitally animated Imperial stormtrooper, the comically doomed cannon fodder of Lucas’s Star Wars universe, is lifted by an invisible force and dropped in various ways—on his head, on his back—and over various objects such as steel and wooden crates. Each time he is lifted, he struggles mightily, and then, every time he drops, he reacts differently. Dropped on his head, he grabs it with his hands before going still. And after being dropped on his back, on a metal box, he arches it in a way that suggests he is in agonizing pain.

His reactions are eerily lifelike, and I am told that what I am seeing is not animation but a kind of artificial intelligence generated by Euphoria, which enables the stormtrooper to react with an almost human uniqueness—in real time, no less—to obstacles and attacks. Dropped 100 times, the Euphoria-imbued stormtrooper will react differently 100 times, unless he is dropped in exactly the same way twice. When he is placed at the top of a sloping roof, he struggles furiously to gain purchase as he slides down, and actually grabs and hangs on to its edge for a few moments before falling to his inevitable fate. But the real pièce de résistance of the demonstration is when the stormtrooper is placed on an unsteady surface and actually begins to shift his weight and pedal his feet in order to maintain his equilibrium. “That’s not animated at all,” says Steve Dykes, the LucasArts senior engineer running the presentation. “That is actually a character trying to maintain his balance, physically simulated.”

If such things as the putative future of games is of interest to you, then you will surely be interested in the rest of it.

‘Having Said That, Do You Pop Vitamins?’

The above posed as a question to Hillary Clinton by Katie Couric on television last night. Her follow up: Do you mainline coffee?

The ironclad grip of my no-blogging-about-politics rule is loosened just enough for me to recommend tonight’s episode of 60 Minutes. (Not a remark I anticipate making, well, pretty much ever again.) We get “personal” interviews with both B. Obama and H. Clinton — and the two-parter is one of those glossy infotainment specimens that the modern campaign is all about. If you, like me, are minding the politics lately, I think you owe it to yourself to take in these two treacly video packages. It’s seasonal, like going to see a summer blockbuster.

  • VIDEO: Hillary Clinton vs. Katie Couric
  • VIDEO: Barack Obama vs. Steve Kroft.

On a personal level, I’d never really experienced the full Couric before. I chortled audibly several times, and I was watching alone. But there’s also room in Couric’s piece for deft, subtle passages, such as the “Day One” cliche pattern reinforced — as an aside — by the candidate herself. And yes, I’ll even admit an interest in learning that the New York senator likes hot chilies (me too!). And, fine, also that her old man was a tough dude. OK, the interview made butter seem stiff, but my interest was firmly held in Katie’s gentle hands.

The Obama number, meanwhile, contained a couple of funny beats of its own. (This time, not all were due to comically emotive interview questions, which is not to say it wasn’t softball city in there.) Most notably: the stolen moment of the candidate admiring himself in a “next president” caricature. Also, his unprompted self-analogy to Google — a funny thing to say.

Look Back Indifferently: Wired

The incomparable Rex at Fimoculous goes all archaeological on the debut issue of Wired, which hit the newsstands 15 years ago this month. This is interesting to me — and not because I have early 90s proto-tech nostalgia or anything. In point of fact, I was on the cusp of turning 13 when Wired 1.1 came out and wouldn’t develop even a casual interest in tech-related writings for a very long time to come.

But still, the state of the art in the Wired milieu circa 1993 is fascinating: As Rex points out, no URLs in the debut issue, Nintendo is compared unfavorably to 3D0, and a bunch of other tidbits that look whacky in retrospect. Also, be sure to check out that Apple ad!

Takings & ‘Leavings’

A video in which Jesus, hostages, weiners, ‘leavings’ and delightful Midwestern accents all combine in an alchemical stew of comedy: