Thursday, January 31, 2013

Snowmobiler Caleb Moore dies a week after crash

CNN is reporting sad news out of Aspen, Colo.

Snowmobiler Caleb Moore died Thursday, a week after a crash that has raised new safety concerns about the X Games. He was 25 years old. ... Moore, a freestyle snowmobiler, was attempting a backflip at the Winter X Games in Aspen, Colorado, when he couldn't rotate his machine enough to land properly. The skis dug into the lip of the slope, bringing the 450-pound snowmobile crashing down on him. The vehicle slammed into Moore's head and chest.

What X Games athletes do is incredible. And incredibly dangerous. And as they push the envelope, adding more and more difficulty, the danger level keeps growing.

So it is no surprise that someone died. Unless the promoters prohibit some of the more perilous tricks, more X Games athletes are bound to die. It's the choice they make for thrills ... and in some cases for good money.

Tuesday, January 29, 2013

With Timbuktu Retaken, France Signals It Plans to Pull Back in Mali

The world as a whole, and particularly the people of northern Africa, owe France a great debt of gratitude. The French had nothing to gain from routing the Islamists in Mali. They simply acted because Mali was formerly a French colony and France wanted to do what is right and good.

The New York Times is reporting this morning that French and Malian troops have captured the famous desert city of Timbuktu from the Islamists who, before France intervened, had taken over the northern half of Mali and had been imposing its totalitarian brand of religion on that nation.

SEGOU, Mali — French paratroopers arrived in the ancient desert oasis of Timbuktu on Monday, securing its airport and main roads as thousands of residents poured out of its narrow, mud-walled streets to greet French and Malian troops, waving the two countries’ flags, with whoops, cheers and shouts. ... The rapid advance to Timbuktu, a day after French and African troops took firm control of the former rebel stronghold of Gao, may spell the beginning of the end of France’s major involvement in the conflict here.

Pretty soon, the French expect to depart.

The French president, Fran├žois Hollande, suggested on Monday that French troops might soon stop their northward advance, leaving it to African soldiers to pursue the militants into their redoubts in the desert north. “We are winning this battle,” Mr. Hollande said in televised remarks. “When I say, ‘We,’ this is the Malian army, this is the Africans, supported by the French. ... They’re the ones who will go into the area of the north, which we know is the most difficult because the terrorists are hidden there and can still lead operations that are extremely dangerous for neighboring countries and for Mali,” he said.

The forces associated with Al-Qaeda did not put up much of a fight.

French airstrikes had preceded the ground operation and French troops met no resistance, said Colonel Burkhard. The militants who had been controlling the city appeared to have fled northward. ... To the east, the city of Gao is now under the full control of French and African troops, he said, with a contingent of 450 Malian soldiers joined by 40 soldiers from Niger and 40 from Chad. French special forces killed about 15 fighters in what were described as brief but intense firefights when they arrived just south of the city late Friday night, and perhaps 10 more militants on Sunday night on the city’s outskirts.

Partly because of the religious extremism of the Islamists and partly because Mali is divided on racial lines--the south is black and the north is olive-skinned Arabs, Berbers and Tuaregs--the liberated Malian population has been taking revenge on everyone whose skin matches that of the Islamists.

Angry crowds shouted at suspected Islamist extremists in the back of an army truck in Gao, Mali, on Tuesday, after the four suspects were arrested. Malian soldiers prevented the mob from attacking them. ... Television footage from Timbuktu captured scenes of jubilation as thousands of people drove cars, trucks and motorbikes through the streets, honking their horns.

France24 has a more extensive report regarding widespread looting going on in Mali.

A day after French and Malian troops gained control of Timbuktu from rebels, tensions were rising in the historic northern Malian city as hundreds of people broke into shops owned by ethnic Arabs and Tuareg on Tuesday in a backlash against perceived collaborators. “After Timbuktu fell yesterday, the situation is now very different,” said FRANCE 24’s Matthieu Mabin, reporting from the centre of Timbuktu. “It’s a time of revenge here and we can see people – everybody, children, old men, women – attacking Arab shops in a misguided idea that those shops were linked to Islamist fighters, which is absolutely not true in many cases.”

While the northern forces which had been ravaging northern Mali were Islamists, the war in the north had begun as a movement by the non-Islamist Tuaregs to gain independence. Because of that, the current backlash is also anti-Tuareg.

A vast, multi-ethnic West African nation, Mali is home to a variety of ethnic groups, including the Tuaregs and other ethnic groups of North African Berber origins, which comprise about 10 per cent of Mali's total population of 14 million. Signs of a backlash against the Tuareg and other lighter skinned groups – commonly called Arabs – were evident nearly 10 months ago in the capital of Bamako shortly after northern Mali fell to a motley mix of Tuareg and Islamist rebels.

Sunday, January 27, 2013

Gingrich: Republicans "clearly have to change"


On the television program Face the Nation this morning, former Republican Speaker of the House Newt Gingrich told host Bob Schieffer that his party needs to repair itself, if the GOP hopes to win moving forward.

Gingrich ... pointed to overly conservative policies as the GOP's 2012 curse. "When I said as a candidate we're not going to deport a grandmother if she's been here 25 years, we had a nominee who said yes, we would, that she would self-deport," Gingrich said. "I think at that point we lost Asians, we lost Latinos. You can't lose Asians, Latinos, African Americans and young people, and think you're going to be competitive. I think we have to come to grips with the reality," he continued. "We have to learn to communicate in the world of young people on their terms but we also have to understand that we need to be a country of immigrants where Republicans are seen as welcoming, hard-working, competent people, not prepared to kick grandmother out."

It's not going to be easy to fix the Republican Party. What it is today started in the mid to late-1960s, when, following the adoption of civil rights legislation, conservative Southern Democrats drifted into the Republican Party and slowly took over its culture. It became less a party of businessmen and more one of right-wing preachers. It has abandoned balanced budgets for Jesus jingoism.

If the GOP hired me as a consultant to make its message and style more palatable, here are some suggestions I would offer up:

1. Primaries. They are low-turnout affairs dominated by extremists. The Republican primaries have served to defeat conservatives and moderates who could win a general election in favor of troglodyte morons who could not. My suggestion is that the national party needs to back sensible candidates in every important primary with money and it needs to work harder to raise turn out in their primaries. If necessary, the GOP also needs to spend money to tarnish extremist candidates. The party cannot simply sit back and see what happens when these nut-jobs have a chance to win.

2. Social conservatism. All the right-wing preachers need to be sidelined. The Republicans would be a lot more attractive if they could live with a separation of church and state. The GOP platform needs to focus on finance, investment, taxes, defense and foreign affairs. The party which says it believes in individual liberty needs to get out of the nation's bedroom and out of the offices of gynecologists. It may still play in the deep South to hate abortion and gays. But more and more that is a losing strategy nationally. Gays should be welcomed for the first time.  Republicans ought to have no dogma on a woman's right to choose.

3. Science. Gov. Bobby Jindal recently said that Republicans cannot succeed as long as they are the stupid party. Nothing says stupid more than the Republican aversion to science. When virtually every climatologist agrees that burning fossil fuels is filling our atmosphere with excessive carbon dioxide and that in turn is causing global warming, the Republican Party has adopted its most aggressive stance against science. If Republicans want to be the smart party, they have to be led by scientific consensus, not bloviating that science is a liberal conspiracy.

4. Clean energy. Republicans need to become a party which accepts that there is a serious external cost when we burn coal and oil. To internalize that cost, Republicans should be calling for a stiff carbon tax, one which would make cleaner forms of energy (including nuclear power) more cost-competitive and would generate revenues to pay down our debts. Being the party of drill, baby, drill makes the Republicans come across as one which does not care about our nation's future.

5. Immigration. Newt Gingrich spoke to this. The GOP cannot succeed if it turns off tens of millions of Hispanics. Republicans need to advocate a sensible reform, where those who are here illegally and are productive workers can transition to legal status. Additionally, the GOP should push for a jobs-based immigration program, where employers (including farmers) can sponsor workers to come here legally, and those workers can stay as long as they are needed by their employers.

6. Media whining. Republicans have been complaining about the liberal media for 40 years. Even with Fox News pushing the right-wing message all over the place, they keep complaining that reporters are biased in favor of liberals. There may be some instances of this. However, a lot of those complaints are unmerited. A report which is entirely neutral gets called liberal if the conclusions are not in line with conservative thinking. It harms the GOP--makes it the stupid party--to incessantly complain about liberal media bias. Instead, Republicans need to simply tell a better story.

Saturday, January 26, 2013

Hackers take over goverment website to avenge Swartz

CBS News reports today that Anonymous is out for revenge for the death of the young computer programmer who helped write the software for Reddit ("a social news and entertainment website where registered users submit content in the form of either a link or a text") and as a 14-year-old boy wrote the software for RSS ("Rich Site Summary: a family of web feed formats used to publish frequently updated works, such as blog entries, news headlines, audio, and video, in a standardized format"):

The hacker-activist group Anonymous says it hijacked the website of the U.S. Sentencing Commission to avenge the death of Aaron Swartz, an Internet activist who committed suicide. The website of the commission, an independent agency of the judicial branch, was taken over early Saturday and replaced with a message warning that when Swartz killed himself two weeks ago "a line was crossed."

From what I have read about the crimes of Mr. Swartz, it does not seem that they were all that serious. Yet he faced a long time behind bars (up to 35 years) and a large fine ($1 million) for illegally downloading research documents (which Swartz said were paid for with taxpayer funding) from an MIT library system, most of which MIT has since made freely available to the public.

On that score, I understand the anger of the supporters of Swartz.

However, I don't buy the notion that he committed suicide because he was being oppressed by the government. Millions of people all over the world face far more serious oppression and don't kill themselves. The problem for Aaron Swartz was that he suffered from depression, and that is why he took his life. Untreated, he likely would have killed himself had he faced no prosecution for anything.

What Aaron Swartz wrote about his own mental anguish is telling:

"Everything gets colored by the sadness. You feel as if streaks of pain are running through your head, you thrash your body, you search for some escape but find none."

Complicating matters is the fact that his father refuses to accept that fact that his son's depression was psychiatric mental illness. Robert Swartz mistakenly thinks Aaron killed himself entirely because of the unfairness of federal prosecutors (never mind whether he did the crime he was accused of).

"He had never been diagnosed as having depression; he was never on medication for having depression. So the notion, the narrative that people are going to say -- is that he’s somebody who just has depression -- is just wrong. You’d be depressed too if you were under a 13-count federal indictment and you go see your mother, who’s in a coma."

It seems likely to me that had Aaron Swartz been diagnosed and prescribed medication for his depression, he would be alive today. Robert Swartz cannot see what is obvious to me.

Thursday, January 24, 2013

Why are some people gay?

I was probably in my mid 20s when I first heard the term "gaydar," meaning the ability to sense if someone you just met is gay. I know that, before I was 30, I had no gaydar. It's not that I didn't know gay stereotypes or recognize those in other people. It's more that the idea of same-sex attraction was completely outside of my realm of thinking. So if someone was stereotypically gay or sent off some other signals of his or her homosexuality, I never gave such clues any thought at all. I more-less sized up other males as friendly or unfriendly and females my age as hot or not.

When I was a bit older, and had met more gays, I gave a bit of thought as to why I was straight and why they were not. No one ever had to explain to me to be attracted to girls. It just happened as a normal course of puberty. It was certainly an expression of my biology. It was never the case that I could go either way. Like almost every guy I knew, I had zero attraction to males.

This realization about myself made me sympathetic to gay males. They surely were not homosexuals (or in some cases, I suppose, bisexuals) because they had chosen that orientation. It's really, truly impossible to choose. No biologically straight man wants gay sex in any form. Rather, I became convinced--and still am convinced--that their being gay is an expression of their biological impulses, very much like mine is to be heterosexual.

Yet the scientific proof of what makes some people gay has been lacking. A new theory, reported in the latest issue of Popular Science, says that chemical "switches" attached to genes may explain why someone is gay.

Gayness may not be in our genes, but in the molecules that regulate them. New research suggests that epigenetic factors -- chemical "switches" attached to genes that turn them on or off -- are a more plausible heritable mechanism behind homosexuality than DNA itself. Non-genetic changes to gene expression are called epi-marks, for epigenetics, the field of research dealing with the molecular on/off switches. Epi-marks are normally erased between generations, but there's recent evidence that they're sometimes passed from parent to child.

The key hormone seems to be testosterone in the womb.

Researchers at the National Institute for Mathematical and Biological Synthesis (NIMBioS) looked at how epi-marks that influence testosterone sensitivity in the womb might contribute to homosexuality. Late in pregnancy, natural variations in testosterone levels can alter a fetus' sexual development. Sex-specific epi-marks protect female fetuses from masculinization in the presence of too much testosterone; boys are protected from feminization if too little testosterone is present.

The theory suggests that lesbian girls inherit testosterone-buffering epi-marks from their fathers and gay boys inherit them from their mothers.

According to computer modeling by the group, testosterone-buffering epi-marks passed from a parent to an opposite-sex offspring may result in the reverse effect: Girls who inherit sex-specific instructions from their fathers will be partially masculinized, while boys who get epi-marks from their mothers will be partially feminized. In this model, homosexuality occurs when stronger-than-average epi-marks influencing sexual preference from an opposite-sex parent escape erasure and are then paired with weaker-than-average sex-specific epi-marks produced in opposite-sex offspring.

Many researchers have looked for a gay gene and have not found it.
Study co-author Sergey Gavrilets, a professor of ecology and evolutionary biology and mathematics at the University of Tennessee, Knoxville, and associate director for scientific activities at NIMBioS, says there could still be a "gay gene" or genes, but that there are problems with the idea: "Nobody has been able to present solid experimental evidence for this in spite of significant effort."

Despite their being no evidence for a specific gay gene, that does not mean that gayness does not tend to run in families. It does.
The search for genes that control sexual orientation is based on increasing evidence of a strong genetic component. Studies clearly show that homosexuality runs in families, with an increased rate among siblings and the maternal uncles of gay men, according to a 2011 review.

The largest theoretical problem with a gay gene being the cause of homosexuality is that gays reproduce less often than straights. Therefore, if it were a gene or a sequence of genes which caused homosexuality, it should be quite rare and disappearing over time. That does not appear to be the case. However, a recent Italian study suggests that females related to gay males tend to reproduce much more than other females.

A study published online just last week by Italian researchers Andrea Camperio Ciani and Elena Pellizzari found that the maternal aunts and grandmothers of gay men have more children than those of straight men. A few years ago, Ciani used genetic modeling to explain the 2004 finding that sisters and maternal aunts of homosexual men have more children than the females in the maternal line of straight men. According to that model, at least one unknown gene on the X chromosome predisposes female carriers to higher fertility and male carriers to homosexuality. "The genes evolved for the fecundity benefit in females, at the reproductive cost of an increase in homosexuality in males," Ciani explains.

Tuesday, January 22, 2013

Sacramento-area home values to rise nearly 12% this year, Zillow predicts

Most recessions, including the Great Recession of 2008-09, are primarily the result of excess inventory. Once too much product builds up and overwhelms demand, production comes to a halt. Workers are laid off. Demand drops further. Prices start to fall. And you are in a vicious cycle of recession.

Most recessions conclude when the excess inventory in an economy has been absorbed. At that point, supply and demand are more-less in line. But employment will not pick up in earnest until supply is over-absorbed, meaning there is more demand for product than supply. When that happens, prices will start to rise, new producers will enter a market, new employees will be hired, unemployment will fall, demand will grow and the growth phase of an economy will take off.

Since residential housing is such a large part of the American economy, and since, during the Great Bubble of 2002-07, so much more housing was built (due to speculation and terribly loose credit) than needed, excess real estate inventory was at the heart of the Great Recession. The downturn was so severe and has been so hard to emerge from because that sector is so central to our national economy.

A story today in the Sacramento Bee suggests that our region will now begin a growth phase, as home prices are on the rise. Higher prices will spur development and that will cause unemployment to fall.

Sacramento-area home values will rise by nearly 12 percent this year, after a similar increase in 2012, online real estate tracker Zillow predicted today. The forecasted rate of increase, driven by short supply and buyer demand, far outstrips Zillow's predicted national price hike of 3.3 percent over the next year.

The group which deserves credit for absorbing all the excess inventory which had built up in the Sacramento region are cash buyers. These investors sensed at some point the market for houses had bottomed out. They then began buying them up. And as prices increase in the following years, those cash investors will reap the rewards of the risks they took.
The Sacramento region's predicted gains in 2013 mirror those of nearly 12 percent in 2012, when investors snapped up foreclosures and first-time buyers and move-up buyers competed to take advantage of rock-bottom prices and historically low interest rates of about 3.5 percent for 30-year mortgages.

The second half of the story is that after years of adding foreclosed properties to the housing stock, fewer homeowners are going bust.

Meanwhile, foreclosures continued falling. Bank-owned houses made up 17 percent of all home sales in December 2012 in the Sacramento region, compared with about 19 percent in December 2011. Nationally, foreclosure resales made up 12.4 percent of all sales, Zillow said.


Monday, January 21, 2013

The evil which lurks in the hearts of radical Islamists

It's nearly impossible for me to understand the evil which lurks in the hearts of radical Islamists, which in the past week led them to murder dozens of innocents at a gas plant in Algeria.

They are not unique in world history, of course. There have always been bands of evil men willing to rape, pillage and murder in the name of a sick cause.

In the last 100 years, from the rise of Bolshevism in Russia and other Marxist totalitarians around the world, we saw evil at work, stealing innate human liberty from all who lived and continue to live under their thumbs. And, of course, from the early 1930s to VE-Day in 1945, the world witnessed the greatest evil of them all, the Nazis, who were unembarrassed in displaying their savagery.

Perhaps what sets aside the evils of the Islamists is that a billion others, the supposedly peaceful Muslims, seem unwilling to stand up to them, unwilling to beat them into submission. The ideas and attitudes, if not the violence, of the radical Muslims is clearly popular throughout the Muslim world. They win elections in Palestine, Egypt and elsewhere.

When they despicably harm innocents, as long as the innocents are not other Muslims, their acts are not harshly criticized by the masses. When they slit the throats of Jewish babies, they are celebrated around the Muslim world. When they terrorize Egyptian Copts, their fellow Muslims in Egypt are completely silent and cast blame on the victims.

Although it is an unpopular, undemocratic government in Algeria, I give it great credit for fighting back against the Islamists who murdered so many at the gas plant in the desert. At least Prime Minister Abdelmalek Sellal is not a coward like most of his fellow Muslims are in the face of evil.

"I cannot find words to adequately describe my feelings over this heinous and cowardly act," Prime Minister Abdelmalek Sellal said. At least 37 hostages from eight countries were killed during a four-day siege at an the complex. Five foreign workers remain unaccounted for, Sellal said, saying they may have been killed, escaped or held in captivity by terrorists who got away. He said 29 terrorists were killed during assaults by Algerian military forces to end the standoff and "a few" may have escaped. Sellal said the terrorists came from Egypt, Canada, Mali, Niger, Mauritania and Tunisia, and that three were captured. Algerian special forces stormed the plant on Saturday to end the siege, moving in to thwart what government officials said was a plot by the Islamist terrorists to blow up the complex and kill all their hostages with mines sown throughout the site. On Sunday, Algerian bomb squads sent in to blow up or defuse the explosives found 25 bodies, said a security official, who spoke on condition of anonymity because of the sensitivity of the situation.

Sunday, January 20, 2013

Who said failing students are not clever?

The Business Insider posted some humorous "wrong" answers that students gave to teachers on recent exams.

British author Richard Benson and his publisher, Chronicle Books, asked teachers to share their favorite (real) answers kids have given on tests.

Here a few I liked:


Saturday, January 19, 2013

Why are states not required to submit the names of all people who need antipsychotic medication to the NICS?

A story today by John Bentley, Paul Bogosian and Phil Hirschkorn on the CBS News website outlines some of the faults in the National Instant Criminal Background Check System, known as NICS, when it comes to reporting the names of mentally ill people. The story does not get into the fact that 40 percent of all gun sales are private transactions, and none of those require any background check at all.

Since 1998, when the FBI launched the National Instant Criminal Background Check System, known as NICS, the database has grown to include the names of more than 8.3 million people prohibited from purchasing guns. The database includes illegal immigrants, felons, fugitives, spouse abusers, drug addicts, and the mentally ill. Under federal law, anyone who has been committed to a mental institution or deemed mentally unstable by a judge is prohibited for life from purchasing a gun.

The focus of the CBS story is Pennsylvania, which until it elected a new AG, refused to hand over the names of its residents who have been deemed a danger due to mental illness.

For the past 15 years, Pennsylvania did collect the names of its seriously mentally ill residents, but until this month, it never sent that information to NICS. Through 2011, Pennsylvania was the most populous of 23 states that had submitted fewer than 100 disqualifying mental health records to NICS, and it was among the 17 states to submit fewer than 10 such records, according to the report, "Fatal Gaps," by Mayors Against Illegal Guns. (MAIG).

It makes no sense to me that states should be given an option to participate. They should be required to submit these names and more. Lawmakers in noncompliant states seem to think they have to wait for a tragedy before acting.

When MAIG updated its data this month, it found that two states previously inactive, Delaware and Idaho, had begun submitting mental health records. By submitting 18,699 records last year, MAIG reported, Delaware has become the second most compliant state on a per capita basis behind Virginia, which sprang into action only after the 2007 Virginia Tech University massacre.

Virginia waited and waited and only acted after 32 innocent students were murdered. The authorities in Virginia knew that Mr. Cho was very ill and potentially dangerous.

In December 2005, just 16 months before his killing spree at Virginia Tech, gunman Seung-Hui Cho underwent a psychiatric evaluation. A judge deemed Cho a danger to himself and ordered him to get treatment, which never did. Virginia had not sent Cho's name to NICS, so when he went to purchase a Glock 9mm and a Walther P22, both semi-automatic pistols, he twice passed a background check. On April 16, 2007, Cho shot 49 people - killing 32 and wounding 17 -- before shooting himself.

Pennsylvania needed a new, better Attorney General to act.

In the past two weeks, CBS News has learned, the Pennsylvania State Police sent 642,000 names collected between 1998 and 2012 of residents once diagnosed with mental illness or committed to a mental hospital to NICS. In correspondence reviewed by CBS News, Pennsylvania State Police informed the FBI last December 19, just five days after the mass shooting in Newtown, Connecticut, that it would begin transmitting mental health records.

At least the NRA's bought and paid for senators are not fighting for the rights of the insane to own automatic weapons.

This week, U.S. Senator Tom Coburn of Oklahoma said President Obama is "right to take steps to strengthen mental health databases and reporting to the NICS system, so we can ensure that guns do not end up in the hands of criminals or those who are a threat to themselves or others." The pro-gun rights National Rifle Association told CBS News that it was deeply involved in the development of NICS and has strongly supported state implementing legislation.

The greater obstacle seems to be the ACLU and its affiliated lefties, who seem to think that mentally disturbed people with guns are not dangerous.

To date, neither the Massachusetts State Mental Health Department nor private hospitals in the state have been willing to share names of the mentally ill. "This is a place where public safety trumps any possible privacy right," state senator David Linsky said. "If you don't want to have somebody to get access to the fact that you were committed to a mental hospital, then don't buy a gun, don't apply for a gun license."

What I cannot understand is how incredibly lax the federal standard for mental illness is.

"We all have different definitions of mental illness. We all have different definitions of in-patient treatment or institutionalization, and we need to get those all on the same track," Pennsylvania's new attorney general, Kathleen Kane said.

No one who is being treated for schizophrenia should have a gun or ammo. No one who is being prescribed antipsychotic medications should be allowed to purchase a gun and/or ammo. And certainly everyone who has been hospitalized for a serious mental illness should be prohibited from buying a gun and/or ammo.

Federal law should require all psychologists and psychiatrists who are treating people with psychoses to report their patients' names to a county public health official. Every county should then report those names to their states and then to the federal government.

As a check on possible abuse, any time a person's name is put on the NICS list, the person should be informed, and he should have the right to appeal his listing to a judge.

The other obvious needed change in federal law is to require all private gun sales (including those at gun shows) to have an NICS background check before any sale is made. And in a case where someone sells his gun without getting a background check done first, or loses his gun and fails to report the loss to the police, the seller or loser should be held liable for any damage done with his gun, including prison time if someone is shot.

None of these improvements would have stopped the schizophrenic Adam Lanza, because the arsenal he used to murder all those first graders in Newtown, Conn. were bought and owned by his mother, who was the first of his victims. To prevent that from happening--or at least to make it less likely--I would make it illegal to do what she did, which was to allow her mentally ill son from firing her guns at a shooting range or anywhere else. I would further like a law which required those with firearms in their homes, where a mentally ill person also lives, to keep their guns and ammo locked up and beyond the reach of the mental patient at all times.

Thursday, January 17, 2013

Ronaiah Tuiasosopo: The wizard behind the curtain in the Manti Te'o hoax?

Did this man 'catfish' his friend, Manti Te'o?

I remain unsure what the full truth is in the Manti Te'o hoax. However, there is evidence which suggests Te'o was lying to people about the fictional Lennay Kekua. He may have been fooled into believing she existed. But he certainly knew he never had met her. That did not stop him from telling others he spent time with her. Consider this quote from his dad, who I assume was not in on the hoax in any way:

"They started out as just friends," Te'o's father, Brian, told the Tribune in October 2012. "Every once in a while, she would travel to Hawaii, and that happened to be the time Manti was home, so he would meet with her there."

Again, assuming Brian Te'o had no idea that Ms. Kekua was a fiction, doesn't that statement make it sound like his son had told him he was meeting with her in Hawaii? The South Bend Tribune later reported that when Kekua was released from the hospital following "a car accident," Manti's father, Brian, congratulates her "via telephone."

Whoever was behind this hoax seems to have decided to fool Te'o's father, as well. Some actress (I guess a female friend of the hoaxer) must have spoken with him, pretending to be Lennay. If Te'o was purely a victim, this same actress must have spoken with Te'o on the phone, as well.

Deadspin implies that the Te'o family and Notre Dame exploited this "tragic death" to publicize Manti in an effort to win Heisman votes:

It was around this time that Te'o's Heisman campaign began in earnest, aided in part by the South Bend Tribune. ... And it was around this time that Manti and his father began filling in details about the linebacker's relationship with Lennay. Brian Te'o told multiple reporters that the family had never met Kekua; the Te'os were supposed to spend time with her when they visited South Bend, Ind., for Notre Dame's Senior Day on Nov. 17.

The various pictures of "Lennay Kekua" are of a real person. Deadspin calls her Reba (but the TV show, "Inside Edition," says her true name is Diane O'Meara):

(Reba) was initially confused, then horrified to find that she had become the face of a dead woman. "That picture," she told us over the phone, "is a picture of me from my Facebook account."

Manti had said his "relationship" with "Lennay Kekua" began after they met in person at Stanford in 2009. But Deadspin's investigation of Te'o's Twitter account suggests Manti was lying, that this began in 2011:

The real beginning of their relationship apparently occurred on Twitter, as an encounter between @MTeo_5 and @lovalovaloveYOU, on Oct. 10, 2011. "... nice to meet u too ma'am."

The photographs of "Reba" led Deadspin to a close friend of Manti Te'o, Ronaiah Tuiasosopo, who is related to the famous football-playing Tuiasosopos, including the former 49er, Manu (his uncle), and the former Raider, Marques (his cousin).
All of those photographs—with one important exception—came from the private Facebook and Instagram accounts of Reba ... One picture in particular brought Reba to a start. It had been used briefly as @LoveMSMK's Twitter avatar and later in the background of the page (we've blurred out the face, at Reba's request):

It was this particular picture which made the connection to Ronaiah Tuiasosopo, who, it turns out, is a friend of Manti Te'o and was a high school classmate of Diane O'Meara ("Reba"), who says she had never met Te'o.

That photo hadn't appeared on the internet—at least, not to Reba's knowledge. She had taken it in December 2012 and sent it directly to an old high school acquaintance. The two hadn't talked since graduation, but the classmate, whom Reba remembered fondly, contacted her on Facebook with a somewhat convoluted request.

Ronaiah Tuiasosopo apparently tricked his old classmate into helping him out. Ronaiah told Ms. O'Meara:

His cousin had been in a serious car accident, and (the cousin) had seen her photos before and thought she was pretty. Would she be so kind as to take a picture of herself holding up a sign reading "MSMK," to put in a slideshow to support the cousin's recovery? (He didn't explain what MSMK meant, and Reba still doesn't know.) Baffled but trusting, Reba made the sign and sent along the photo.

Ronaiah Tuiasosopo's life story is told by Deadspin.

... Reba told us everything she knew about the classmate, a star high school quarterback turned religious musician named Ronaiah Tuiasosopo. ... now 22, (he) had once been something of a football prospect himself. In 2005, the Los Angeles Daily News wrote that the young Tuiasosopo, then the sophomore starting quarterback for Antelope Valley High School in Lancaster, Calif., "looked like a star" in practice, despite some in-game growing pains. His coach said he was a "great kid" who did a fine job leading the older seniors. He was an honorable mention for the all-league team.

Unfortunately for Tuiasosopo, football did not work out too well for him. But it did lead him to Diane O'Meara.

He transferred out of town, to Franklin High in Stockton, where he spent his junior year living with an aunt and handing the ball off. His team featured two 1,000-yard rushers, and he completed only five passes all season. He transferred again: His senior year, he turned up at Paraclete High in Lancaster. Titus, his father, had become an assistant coach there. That's where he encountered Reba. His team lost in the semifinals. A season recap article suggested that he might sign with Hawaii, but that evidently went nowhere.

Ronaiah then joined his dad in the family business:
Once high school ended, in 2008, Tuiasosopo threw himself into his father's church. Titus is the pastor at the Oasis Christian Church of the Antelope Valley, and Ronaiah leads the church's band. He also has his own little YouTube music career. He sings secular songs, with a cousin (Conan Amituanai, a former Arizona lineman whom the Vikings once signed), and religious songs, both solo and as part of an ensemble.

One of Tuiasosopo's songs was promoted, albeit unsuccessfully, by Te'o.

"Ignite," the lead single on the group's ReverbNation page, is a likable enough song. It borrows its chorus from Katy Perry's catchy "Firework." But the song only has 10 Facebook likes, a fairly low figure that seems especially low once one considers who plugged Tuiasosopo's single on Twitter in December 2011: Manti Te'o.

That Te'o and Tuiasosopo know each other is clear from various Tweets. How or when they met is not so clear. Here is what Deadspin reports that a Facebook friend of Titus Tuiasosopo said about the relationship between Ronaiah and Manti.

"Manti and Ronaiah are family," she said, "or at least family friends." She told us that the Tuiasosopos had been on-field guests (of Te'o or someone else, she didn't know) for the Nov. 24 Notre Dame-USC game in Los Angeles. USC was unable to confirm this, but a tweet from Tuiasosopo's since-deleted account suggests he and Te'o did see each other on that West Coast trip. "Great night with my bro @MTeo_5! #Heisman #574L," Ronaiah tweeted on Nov. 23, the night before the game.

One of the stranger parts of the fake story of Lennay Kekua is that she supposedly was dying of leukemia for a long time, and in the middle of her treatments, she gets in a serious car accident. Very likely by no coincidence, the car accident story was borrowed from the real life of Ronaiah Tuiasosopo.

Tuiasosopo had been in a car accident a month before Lennay's supposed accident. Was this Lennay Kekua?

This and his ruse to get a new photo of Diane O'Meara suggest that Ronaiah was the hoaxer (though it remains unclear if and when Manti knew that). To find out, Deadspin asked people who know Ronaiah.

We spoke with friends and relatives of Ronaiah Tuiasosopo who asserted that Ronaiah was the man behind Lennay. He created Lennay in 2008, one source said, and Te'o wasn't the first person to have an online "relationship" with her.

If that is correct, that Ronaiah Tuiasosopo was the hoaxer and he had fooled others with the Lennay character, then it at least says that Te'o was a victim, not a perpetrator, at least much of the time he "knew" her. It also lends credence to the idea that Te'o is an idiot, if he could not figure out something was fishy about Lennay.

One mark—who had been "introduced" to Lennay by Tuiasosopo—lasted about a month before family members grew suspicious that Lennay could never be found on the telephone, and that wherever one expected Lennay to be, Ronaiah was there instead. Two sources discounted Ronaiah's stunt as a prank that only metastasized because of Te'o's rise to national celebrity this past season.

Deadspin says the hoax fell apart after a new character, U'ilani, a sister of Lennay, was created on November 4, 2012. Te'o sent Tweets to U'ilani, and someone (apparently aware that Lennay was fake) "alleged that U'ilani was a fraud, that the same person behind Lennay was operating the U'ilani account, and that the images of "U'ilani" were really of a woman named Donna Tei."

Ms. Tei, it turns out, is another family member of Tuiasosopo, related to a cousin of his on his mother's side who also played in the NFL, Fred Matua. Mr. Matua died quite young.

Tei's Twitter account is @FreDonna51zhun; Fred Matua wore No. 51, and Tei's profile is full of pictures of herself with the late football star (and cousin of Tuiasosopo's). We showed U'ilani's Twitter avatar to one of Tei's friends, and he confirmed it was her.

Deadspin believes there is some evidence that Te'o is not innocent in this hoax.

A friend of Ronaiah Tuiasosopo told us he was "80 percent sure" that Manti Te'o was "in on it," and that the two perpetrated Lennay Kekua's death with publicity in mind. According to the friend, there were numerous photos of Ronaiah Tuiasosopo and Te'o together on Tuiasosopo's now-deleted Instagram account. The sheer quantity of falsehoods about Manti's relationship with Lennay makes that friend, and another relative of Ronaiah's, believe Te'o had to know the truth. Mostly, though, the friend simply couldn't believe that Te'o would be stupid enough—or Ronaiah Tuiasosopo clever enough—to sustain the relationship for nearly a year.

What really awaits is for Ronaiah Tuiasosopo to talk. I don't expect Te'o to come clean any time soon.

An alternative theory on Manti Te'o: he's gay?

Listening this morning to the Gary Radnich Show on KNBR, one of his sidekicks, Kate Scott, who is a lesbian, suggested a theory on the Manti Te'o hoax that had never occurred to me: that Mr. Te'o could be gay, and that he invented the Lennay Kekua "girlfriend," where he had this female lover who lived far away and who he never visited, because he did not want anyone to think he was a homosexual, but he had no interest in dating real women.

Ms. Scott, who was a competitive athlete at Cal-Berkeley, said that when she was in college, she made up a boyfriend, because she was not yet ready to admit to her friends and family that she was gay. In reality, Kate said, she actually was dating a girl. But she never let any of her friends or family see this girl. Instead, she told them the person she was seeing was a male, and no one had any reason to doubt her. However, Ms. Scott said, after about six months of living that lie, it became too difficult to contain. Lies built upon lies and she decided she had to "come out" to her family.

I have no idea if any of that is what happened to Mr. Te'o. However, it sounds plausible on its face. And, in fact, if the Lennay Kekua story was a hoax of Te'o's invention, I would guess that, if he is gay and he does say that he invented her for the purposes of hiding his homosexuality from those around him, that explanation would probably be much less damaging to him than it turning out that he had concocted this story to gain sympathy and publicity in an effort at self-promotion and attention-seeking.

I think most people, gay or not, can understand a cover-story of the kind that Kate Scott used. In his case, it simply grew out of control and he did not know how to stop it. But if the truth is that he was simply a narcissist who was chasing attention and public sympathy, that is clearly pathological behavior and suggests a very deep character flaw.

Conceding there is some chance the Kate Scott-theory is correct, I would still put it at more than 50 percent likelihood that he was the victim of a hoax, because he is incredibly dumb, and that he lied (in order to embellish the story) by saying that he had met Lennay Kekua in person. But I am certainly not 100 percent sure that Te'o did not invent the hoax.

UPDATE: Apparently Kate Scott is not the only person who has suggested Te'o might be gay. Here is a link.

Wednesday, January 16, 2013

Manti Te'o: Stupid victim of a hoax? Or deranged perpetrator of a hoax?

Following the publication of a story on, the national media is taking a serious look at the character and intellect of Manti Te'o, the Notre Dame linebacker who, before he played poorly in the national championship game against Alabama, was thought to be a top 5-caliber pick in this year's NFL draft.

Here is what the Chicago Tribune story on the hoax involving Mr. Te'o says:

Manti Te'o's ascendancy to national star and Heisman Trophy candidate was jet-propelled by the personal backdrop of a girlfriend tragically lost to leukemia in September. Except that girlfriend never existed. And so the former Notre Dame linebacker and Heisman runner-up has plunged into a morass of controversy and confusion, with a Deadspin story reporting that the woman known as Lennay Kekua was a hoax -- and Notre Dame confirming that later Thursday in an official statement. "On Dec. 26, Notre Dame coaches were informed by Manti Te’o and his parents that Manti had been the victim of what appears to be a hoax in which someone using the fictitious name Lennay Kekua apparently ingratiated herself with Manti and then conspired with others to lead him to believe she had tragically died of leukemia," the school's statement read. "The University immediately initiated an investigation to assist Manti and his family in discovering the motive for and nature of this hoax. While the proper authorities will continue to investigate this troubling matter, this appears to be, at a minimum, a sad and very cruel deception to entertain its perpetrators."

Te'o issued a statement later, claiming he was duped:

This is incredibly embarrassing to talk about, but over an extended period of time, I developed an emotional relationship with a woman I met online. We maintained what I thought to be an authentic relationship by communicating frequently online and on the phone, and I grew to care deeply about her. To realize that I was the victim of what was apparently someone's sick joke and constant lies was, and is, painful and humiliating. ... In retrospect, I obviously should have been much more cautious. If anything good comes of this, I hope it is that others will be far more guarded when they engage with people online than I was.

The problem with Te'o's explanation is that his earlier statements about this supposedly dead girlfriend made it sound as if they met in person at Stanford University, where she had allegedly been a student and he was playing in a football game.

This republication of a South Bend Tribune story comes from a Mormon newspaper (Te'o is a Mormon) in Utah, the Deseret News. It sounds to me like Te'o told the reporter, Eric Hansen, how and when he met his "girlfriend":

It never felt like a chance meeting, although it probably appeared that way from the outside looking in. Their stares got pleasantly tangled, then Manti Te’o extended his hand to the stranger with a warm smile and soulful eyes. They could have just as easily brushed past each other and into separate sunsets. Te’o had plenty to preoccupy himself that November weekend in Palo Alto, Calif., back in 2009.

Here is my guess as to what likely happened: Te'o is stupid. He was the victim of a hoax. Some group of people, probably students at Stanford University, saw him as this extremely dumb Notre Dame kid (Stanford and Notre Dame play each other every year) and decided to trick him into believing that this "girlfriend" was real. The Stanford kids perhaps thought they could help Stanford's football team by messing around with the emotions of a rival team's star player.

But after a while, once Te'o was emotionally invested in this fake relationship, he then started telling small lies about the girlfriend to his friends and family and eventually to the reporter from the South Bend Tribune, Eric Hansen. He told everyone he had a girlfriend, and he really thought this online persona was his girlfriend from afar. But it made a better, and more convincing story if he actually had met her. So he just made up that little part. The rest, as far as he knew, was true.

If my take on the story is correct, I don't think the lie Te'o told, about meeting this fake person, is good evidence that he has some horrible character flaw or that he is a psychopathic liar. I can understand someone embellishing a story and then getting caught up in that story and feeling like the best thing to do is to keep it up, instead of admitting that aspect was untrue.

Yet, what this story says to me is that Te'o is dumb. Rocks for brains dumb. Anyone of average intelligence surely would have figured out after not too long--especially because she would never meet him in person--that this girl was phony. But he never caught on. He was not smart enough to catch on.

What I seriously doubt is that his low-level of general intelligence matters one whit on the football field. He might not have enough talent to go in the top of the next draft. But he has plenty enough football intelligence and football skills to play in the NFL. Just don't ask Mr. Te'o to do your advanced calculus homework for you.

Tuesday, January 15, 2013

What is causing so many raccoons to develop brain cancer?

A raccoon's brain with a cancerous tumor.

The San Francisco Chronicle today has a story which solves one mystery about raccoons but leaves open another. The first is why some raccoons were displaying baffling, un-raccoon-like behavior.
"A lot of the calls were, 'There's a raccoon sitting on my porch and he hasn't moved all day, and I open the door and he doesn't move,' and that's not normal," said (Melanie) Piazza, the director of animal care at WildCare, a wildlife refuge in San Rafael and one of several Bay Area care centers baffled in recent years by a rise in strange raccoon behavior. The centers would occasionally collect raccoons like this and try to rehabilitate them, but their condition would only worsen and the animals would eventually die. Their symptoms were unlike those of any disease the center's staff had seen before.

No one knew why the raccoons were behaving this why or why they were dying. UC Davis scientists were called in to investigate.

The mystery affliction stumped wildlife refuge centers, which are on the front lines of dealing with wild animals in the Bay Area. But after veterinary scientists at UC Davis spent two years collecting raccoons from Sonoma, Marin and Contra Costa county wildlife centers, they found an answer: Each of the diseased raccoons had a brain tumor as well as a previously unknown virus.

It is still unknown if the virus is causing the cancer, but that seems highly likely.
They also all tested positive for a specific virus in the polyoma family, called RacPyV, or raccoon polyomavirus. Other polyomaviruses affect humans and other mammals, and one particular virus is known to cause a rare kind of skin cancer in humans. That connection between the virus family and cancer tipped researchers off to testing the raccoon brains for RacPyV, said Patty Pesavento, an associate professor of veterinary pathology at UC Davis who worked on the project. ... Pesavento's next question is: Does this virus cause the tumors?

The mystery remaining is whether environmental toxins are contributing to raccoons acquiring this polyomavirus.

... Pesavento and Piazza hope also to answer eventually the bigger question: Is there an environmental cause to the disease outbreak? "Raccoons are a good sentinel species to what's going on in our back yard," Piazza said. "If they're getting cancers and living in our water sources and trash and back yards, then it's something to pay attention to."

What is your favorite word?

The Davis Enterprise's man-on-the-street question this week was, "What is your favorite word?" Although I think it's a good question, the answers published were rather uninspired.

‘Bungalow,’ because it’s fun to say. ...  ‘Dunno,’ because I say that a lot. ... ‘Hello.’ When you meet somebody, you don’t want to say the other words. ... I heard my friend say ‘aardvark’ today. I’m not quite sure what it is. I think it’s an animal. ... “Paradise.” ... “I like ‘ey-ther’ instead of ‘ee-ther.’ It just really stands out to me.”

I am not sure I have a favorite word. I love a lot of words, but none rises to the level of favorite. One I especially appreciate comes from Yiddish: naches (pronounced with a throat-clearing kh sound in the middle, NOCK-kuss).

Naches is the pride a parent feels for his child. That's an important component of Jewish culture. Jewish parents tend to be very devoted to their children, doting and supportive. They feel naches, for accomplishments large and small. A Yiddishe mama will hold her head up high in pride when her smart son brings home an A on his report card; and she will feel naches if her lazy daughter makes her bed.

"Harold, you should have been there!" Trudy exclaimed to her husband. "Ira had a bowel movement this morning, and he wiped himself. No help from me!"

"Such naches for that?" Harold asked.

Monday, January 14, 2013

Why I was so wrong about the 49ers

In my last blog post, I predicted that the Green Bay Packers would beat the San Francisco 49ers 35-17. As things played out, I was very, very wrong:

With a strong arm that allowed him to pick the Packers apart from the pocket and speedy legs that helped him break free for big gains, Colin Kaepernick did a little bit of everything in a record-setting, sensational playoff debut - and Aaron Rodgers just couldn't keep up.
Kaepernick passed for 263 yards and ran the San Francisco 49ers right back to the NFC championship game with a 45-31 win over Green Bay in an NFC divisional game Saturday night. Kaepernick rushed for a quarterback playoff record 181 yards and two touchdowns and threw two scoring passes to Michael Crabtree.

The four reasons I thought Green Bay would win were 1) Justin Smith, 2) Aaron Rodgers, 3) Frank Gore and 4) Offensive coaching. All four reasons were essentially wrong.

Justin Smith, who was playing with a partially torn ligament in his triceps, was more than adequate. I had expected him to be ineffective and, as a result, the 49ers defense would not be able to stop the Packers. Green Bay did score 31 points, only 4 less than I had predicted, but that was not because San Francisco's defense was hampered by a poor showing from Justin Smith. Also, it should be noted that 7 of the 31 points Green Bay tallied were scored by their defense, following an interception return for a touchdown.

Aaron Rodgers was not bad in this game. He threw for 257 yards, 2 touchdowns and 1 interception. His passer rating (91.5) was slightly better than Colin Kaepernick's. But Rodgers was far short of brilliant. I expected him to torch the 49ers for 4 or 5 touchdowns, not 2. I expected he would pass for more than 400 yards, and he did not come close to 300.

On the other side of the quarterback equation, I did not expect Kaepernick to be as good as he was. Although his passer rating (91.2) was similar to Rodgers's, Kaepernick was the far better quarterback in the game. He had a much better QBR (94.7 vs. 68.6), which suggests that when it counted, you could count on Kaepernick more than you could Rodgers. Additionally, Colin ran for a record 181 yards. Combined with his 263 yards passing, he accounted for 444 yards of total offense. That was Kaepernick's best game as a pro.

My prediction that Frank Gore would have trouble was also wrong. Gore had his best game since Kaepernick replaced Alex Smith. He ran for 119 yards on 23 carries. Although Gore's game seems to have been hurt by the changed offensive scheme with a spread-option quarterback, it helped the 49ers' running back that he was facing a team which has trouble defending the run. The 49ers ran for an impressive 186 yards against Green Bay in week 1 when Alex Smith was at QB. They increased that to an amazing 323 yards in the playoff game, the difference largely due to Kaepernick.

When it comes to offensive coaching--my argument was that the 49ers coordinator, Greg Roman, is not very creative--the proof that I was wrong is in the numbers: San Francisco had 579 yards; Green Bay 352 yards. On Saturday night it felt like Coach Roman opened up the playbook in a way he had not done for the last two seasons. It worked.

Friday, January 11, 2013

Why the 49ers will lose to the Packers in tomorrow's playoff game

For the first time in the Colin Kaepernick era, the San Francisco 49ers enter the NFC playoffs. They face the Green Bay Packers on Saturday at 5 pm at Candlestick Park. Unfortunately, for four reasons, Kaepernick will not be able to do what his predecessor, Alex Smith, did last year in leading the 49ers to the NFC championship game.

Reason 1: Justin Smith. While the 49ers behemoth defensive end will play in the game, his first since tearing a ligament in his triceps against the New England Patriots on December 16, it is unlikely Smith will be be effective. He simply has not had much time to heal. The 49ers need Smith to take up two or more blockers, in order to allow their linebackers space to make tackles and to allow their other defensive end, Aldon Smith, room to rush the passer. Since Justin Smith was hurt, the 49er defense has been ineffective. Aldon Smith, who was leading the NFL in sacks, has not once tackled a quarterback behind the line of scrimmage.

Before Smith tore his triceps, San Francisco gave up an average of 12.2 points per game over 13.5 games. In the half game that Justin Smith played against the Patriots, the 49ers allowed New England only 3 points. Then Smith got hurt, and the 49ers defense has been miserable.

They allowed the Patriots 31 points in the half Smith was out. A week later, against Seattle, with Smith sidelined, they gave up 42 points. They finished their season with a win over Arizona, allowing only 13 points to the lowly Cardinals. However, that same Arizona team scored just 3 points against San Francisco when Smith played. Without a healthy Smith, they have allowed their opponents to score 34.4 points per game. That is 22.2 more points per game than they gave up with Justin Smith playing at full capacity.

Reason 2: Aaron Rodgers. In the NFL, the quarterback is not just an important position, it is by a long way the most important position. Teams which win regularly have the best quarterbacks. Teams with bad quarterbacks cannot win. Unfortunately for San Francisco, Aaron Rodgers is the best quarterback in football. He has an excellent group of receivers to help him. He will easily be the best player on the field for either team, tomorrow.

Reason 3: Frank Gore. Since the 49ers changed quarterbacks and started running a sprint option suited to the needs of Colin Kaepernick, their running backs have all suffered. Frank Gore was having a great season when Alex Smith was at the helm. The Kaepernick system has hurt Gore's production by roughly 30 percent.

In the 49ers first 8 games this season, Gore rushed 119 times for 656 yards, an average of 5.5 yards per carry. In week 9, Alex Smith was concussed and Kaepernick ever since has been the starting quarterback. Over the last 7 games, Gore has rushed 118 times for 461 yards, an average of 3.9 yards per carry. Due to the sprint option system, the 49ers can no longer count on Frank Gore chewing up so many yards. It is much harder for San Francisco, now, to control the clock and keep long drives going.

Reason 4: Offensive coaching. Put simply, Green Bay has a great offensive game plan. San Francisco's offense is vanilla. The 49ers never fool anyone. They don't even try to. Mostly they just try to avoid turnovers. They are terribly risk-averse. And since they switched quarterbacks and their kicker has gone cold, their offense has bogged down in the red zone and they have had a lot of trouble scoring once they get inside their opponent's 20 yard line. I don't blame Gore or Kaepernick for this ineptitude. The fault lies with their inept offensive coordinator, Greg Roman, and their head coach, Jim Harbaugh. If history is any guide, the Packers' head coach, Mike McCarthy, who once was the 49ers offensive coordinator, will devise a much better game plan, tomorrow.

Final score prediction: Green Bay 35 - San Francisco 17.

Thursday, January 10, 2013

Baseball Hall of Fame elects no players for first time since 1996

Before steroids came along and made baseball's Hall of Fame voting even messier, the selection process was always too subjective and most voters were badly informed as to what criteria should be used to measure a player's on-field performance over the course of a career. Based on what writers have said about how they determine their votes, it's clear most have a poor understanding of baseball metrics and some seem to be influenced by their personal relationships with the players.

Using sabermetrics, such as Wins Above Replacement (WAR), it's not hard to decide who had a Hall of Fame caliber career and who did not. There still is some room for subjectivity--just where you draw the line. More than 100 WAR is HOF--less than 100 is not? Or more than 60 WAR is in, under is out?

Wherever the bar is set, using WAR is a good way to remove most of the subjectivity. It allows a voter to honestly compare the players on his ballot with everyone who has played the game and everyone already inducted into the Hall of Fame.

Yesterday, with one of the richest ballots in the history of the baseball Hall of Fame, a ballot which included the greatest hitter since Babe Ruth and the greatest pitcher since Walter Johnson, no players were voted in. Not one. Of the 100 greatest players of all time, 8 were on this ballot. All 8 were turned away.

For the first time since 1996, the baseball writers elected no one to the Hall. Among those rejected were Sammy Sosa, the slugger who sits eighth on the all-time home run list and who joined Clemens and Bonds on the ballot for the first time. Mark McGwire, who sits 10th on the all-time home run list, failed again, receiving his lowest percentage in seven years of eligibility.

The common theme in this year's rejections is that writers either know the player used steroids (such as Mark McGwire and Barry Bonds) or writers believe they did. It does not seem to matter to the anti-steroid Puritans that the pitchers Bonds hit home runs off of were juiced; or that the batters Roger Clemens struck out were also taking steroids.

The steroids subjectivity is even worse than the personality subjectivity. Mike Piazza, the greatest hitting catcher in the history of baseball is out, because many believe he won his power with the aid of steroids, regardless of the fact that there is no proof of that. Cal Ripken, who was voted in a few years back and who played about half of his career at a high level in what most people think was the steroid era--frankly, no one knows how long ago the steroid era began; in the NFL, steroid use was reportedly widespread in the 1970s--gets a complete steroid pass because no one has accused Ripken of juicing. But no one really knows.

Another aspect of the performance enhancing drugs question is just what counts as a PED and whether all PEDs deserve equal reprobation. Many hold up Willie Mays as the greatest player of all time in baseball. But Mays played in an era when almost all players used illegal amphetamines to improve their performance. According to multiple accounts, including his own statements, Mays regularly took "red juice" or "greenies." Baseball never tested for these drugs and only recently banned their use. But they were illegal at the time Mays and Mickey Mantle and greats of that era were using those PEDs. Yet you never hear today's anti-steroid Puritans calling for Mays or Mantle to be removed from Cooperstown.

While I am in favor of testing for steroids and other illicit drugs, in order to allow players to compete at the highest level without harming their long-term health, I am not a Puritan. I don't believe it is at all fair to go back and punish Barry Bonds or Mike Piazza because they played in an era in which steroids were not tested for and almost everyone in the game was using them or some other PED. If a player is caught using a banned substance, he should be punished. But whatever a player accomplishes on the field of play should count.

Hopefully, before too long, the best players on yesterday's Hall of Fame ballot will be inducted. We don't need a witch-hunt. We need the best players in the Hall.

Here is a list of the 100 greatest players in the history of baseball in order by WAR. Those 8 who were on the ballot but not selected yesterday are in bold type. Another 15 greats who are not yet eligible but will soon crowd an overly crowded ballot are in green:

Monday, January 7, 2013

Is the price of gold about to take a dive?

In my childhood in the 1970s, the price of gold rose along with inflation. Investors wary of the falling value of the U.S. dollar were buying gold as a hedge, it was said.

In 1970, gold sold for $38.90 for one ounce. By 1974, the spot price had risen to $183.77. After a few down years from 1975-77, gold climbed up to $208.10 in 1978. A year later, the price more than doubled to $459 an ounce. It peaked in 1980 at $594.90.

With inflation whipped in the 1980s, gold took a fall. In 1990, an ounce cost $386.20, 64.9 percent as much as a decade earlier. In 2000, gold was down to $272.65. It had lost 54.17% of its value of 20 years earlier.

Since 2000, we have had very little inflation.

So if the price of gold is a function of inflation, where buyers turn to it as a hedge, there would have been no reason to think that from 2000-12 the price of gold would have skyrocketed to unprecedented levels, given what we know about consumer prices over the last dozen years.

Yet gold has taken off. Its price per ounce increased by a whopping 610.3 percent from 2000-12. Here are the closing prices since 2000:

  • 2001 $276.50
  • 2002 $342.75
  • 2003 $417.25
  • 2004 $435.60
  • 2005 $513.00
  • 2006 $635.70
  • 2007 $836.50
  • 2008 $869.75
  • 2009 $1,087.50
  • 2010 $1,420.25
  • 2011 $1,531.00
  • 2012 $1,664.00

 To my eye, that looks like a classic bubble. There is no relation whatsoever to the rate of inflation. It seems like there is a serious risk now in holding gold, and that it is possible that in 2013 or shortly thereafter the price of gold could drop by 60 or 70 even 80 percent.

It's also possible there is a rational explanation for its current price. For example, gold may have gone up over six times in value in the last dozen years because the total money supply, a large share of which is held by foreign central banks, has gone up that much.

That, however, was not the case when gold prices were falling for 20 years. This chart shows a negative relationship between gold prices and money supply from 1980 to 2000:

Since 2000, our total money supply has increased rapidly--it's up 250 percent. But gold, as noted above, is up 610 percent over the same period. So if gold is not in some kind of a bubble, now, I don't know what the explanation is for its current price levels.

Writing for, Michael Gayed says today that gold prices may be ripe for a fall.

While stocks ended 2012 and started the new year off with a bang, gold has been notably absent from investor euphoria as of late, as risk-taking favors equities over metals in the near-term.  There is no doubt that gold has been a phenomenal performer over the last decade, but it might be time to entertain the idea that the environment might get more challenging for gold as a leader relative to stocks.

Mr. Gayed writes that the supply of corporate equities is falling, as companies use cheap debt to buy back their own stocks, and that means that stocks look more attractive than gold, where the supply of the precious metal is steady.
As interest rates have plummeted, corporate debt has become incredibly cheap to issue. If you're the head of a company, you have an embedded incentive to issue cheap debt and buy back company shares, shrinking the supply of shares outstanding to push up your stock price under dwindling investor demand and helping to prop up your earnings per share.
One of the reasons many invest in gold is because supply is set and can not be expanded. Against the backdrop of stock supply, which is shrinking, however, that particular reason for holding gold becomes an even stronger reason to own equities as a result of the share-buyback trend. Because investments must compete for dollars, this could explain why money has preferred stocks to gold under risk-on/reflationary periods.

The problem with Mr. Gayed's theory is that the supply of stocks was not rising rapidly from 2000-12. Yet it was during that period which gold went up 610 percent. Also, while I don't have a chart to prove it, I suspect there is no long-term historical relationship between periods when corporations were buying back their own equities and gold prices falling.

If I had to place a bet on gold, I would bet that over the next five years it is going to decline by at least half its present price, unless there is a serious global crisis in between. It seems to me that gold was driven up by irrational exuberance, probably triggered by the terrorist attacks early in the 21st Century, and sooner or later investors will realize that holding gold is a bad asset.

Saturday, January 5, 2013

America's Real Criminal Element: Lead

A new piece in Mother Jones magazine by Kevin Drum persuasively argues that the most significant factor in the rise in violent crime rates from the early 1960s to about 1990 was the introduction of lead in gasoline a generation earlier; and the ubiquitous fall in violent crime after 1990 is largely the result of taking lead additives out of gas in the 1970s.

The hero of his story is a researcher named Rick Nevin:

IN 1994, RICK NEVIN WAS A CONSULTANT working for the US Department of Housing and Urban Development on the costs and benefits of removing lead paint from old houses. This has been a topic of intense study because of the growing body of research linking lead exposure in small children with a whole raft of complications later in life, including lower IQ, hyperactivity, behavioral problems, and learning disabilities.
But as Nevin was working on that assignment, his client suggested they might be missing something. A recent study had suggested a link between childhood lead exposure and juvenile delinquency later on. Maybe reducing lead exposure had an effect on violent crime too?

Paint, however, was not the major source of human-induced lead. It was gasoline.

The biggest source of lead in the postwar era, it turns out, wasn't paint. It was leaded gasoline. And if you chart the rise and fall of atmospheric lead caused by the rise and fall of leaded gasoline consumption, you get a pretty simple upside-down U: Lead emissions from tailpipes rose steadily from the early '40s through the early '70s, nearly quadrupling over that period. Then, as unleaded gasoline began to replace leaded gasoline, emissions plummeted.

Intriguingly, violent crime rates followed the same upside-down U pattern. The only thing different was the time period: Crime rates rose dramatically in the '60s through the '80s, and then began dropping steadily starting in the early '90s. The two curves looked eerily identical, but were offset by about 20 years.

Nevin found that 90 percent of the variation in violent crime is explained by lead emissions from motor vehicles:

So Nevin dove in further, digging up detailed data on lead emissions and crime rates to see if the similarity of the curves was as good as it seemed. It turned out to be even better: In a 2000 paper (PDF) he concluded that if you add a lag time of 23 years, lead emissions from automobiles explain 90 percent of the variation in violent crime in America. Toddlers who ingested high levels of lead in the '40s and '50s really were more likely to become violent criminals in the '60s, '70s, and '80s.

And with that we have our molecule: tetraethyl lead, the gasoline additive invented by General Motors in the 1920s to prevent knocking and pinging in high-performance engines. As auto sales boomed after World War II, and drivers in powerful new cars increasingly asked service station attendants to "fill 'er up with ethyl," they were unwittingly creating a crime wave two decades later.

If lead exposure were as important a factor to explain the variation in violent crime rates as Nevin believed, the changes he found in the United States would have to be found in other countries, as well. They were:

Meanwhile, Nevin had kept busy as well, and in 2007 he published a new paper looking at crime trends around the world (PDF). This way, he could make sure the close match he'd found between the lead curve and the crime curve wasn't just a coincidence. Sure, maybe the real culprit in the United States was something else happening at the exact same time, but what are the odds of that same something happening at several different times in several different countries?
Nevin collected lead data and crime data for Australia and found a close match. Ditto for Canada. And Great Britain and Finland and France and Italy and New Zealand and West Germany. Every time, the two curves fit each other astonishingly well. When I spoke to Nevin about this, I asked him if he had ever found a country that didn't fit the theory. "No," he replied. "Not one."

A study not discussed in Mr. Drum's article--perhaps it does not exist--is whether, if you compare a control group of violent criminals with a similar group of people (same age, gender, region, etc.), you would find that the violent criminals have substantially more bodily evidence of lead exposure. My bet is you would find just that.

TO CLARIFY ... Mr. Nevin's contention is not that lead exposure is the only cause or even the most important cause of violent crime. It's that widespread lead exposure is the most important cause of the rise in violent crime over the period violent crime rose from a base level to its peak rates; and that the great reduction of lead exposure beginning in the mid-1970s is the most important cause of the decline in violent crime rates from 1990 to the present.

That suggests we will hit a new base level, if we have not hit that already, and thus, unless something else changes, violent crime rates will stop falling. Also, if Nevin's lead theory is right, there is no reason to think we will again see violence rates like those seen in the 1970s and '80s.

Friday, January 4, 2013

Japan’s Citizen Kane: A media mogul whose extraordinary life still shapes his country, for good and ill

In its year-end double issue, The Economist has an interesting short biography of Matsutaro Shoriki, the long-time owner of Yomiuri Shimbun, Japan's most popular newspaper, and the founder of a media empire, which includes Japan's largest private TV network. Mr. Shoriki also was a founder of Japan's leading conservative political party, the LDP, and the founder of its best professional baseball franchise, the Yomiuri Giants.

Here is an excerpt regarding the time Shoriki brought Babe Ruth to Japan:

The melding of commercial pragmatism with ideological dogma shaped much of Shoriki’s career. But another factor also defined the second half of his life: his relationship with America.
Baseball was its first manifestation. Shoriki was no baseball fan, but he knew he could use the sport to sell newspapers. The trouble was that Japan had no professional baseball teams. So, on the advice of a rival newspaper proprietor, he set out to bring Babe Ruth, the legendary Yankees slugger, to Tokyo. At first, Ruth was too busy: he did not join the all-star team that came out to Japan to play for capacity crowds in 1931. But in 1934, past his prime and noticeably overweight, he finally arrived.

It was a tense time, both within Japan and in its diplomacy. Soldiers burning with fascist zeal were assassinating government moderates in a bid to rekindle the traditional “spirit” of Nippon. The visit was controversial, coming just as Japan appeared to be turning its back on the outside world. But Shoriki’s intuition worked: ordinary Japanese went mad for Ruth and his team. Tens of thousands packed the streets of Ginza to see them parade in open-top cars. People thronged the Meiji stadium to watch them play, most barely minding (though Shoriki did) that the home sides usually lost.
Ordinary Japanese went mad for Ruth and his team. Tens of thousands packed the streets of Ginza to see them parade in open-top cars. People thronged the Meiji stadium to watch them play, most barely minding (though Shoriki did) that the home sides usually lost.
Not everyone was so thrilled: a madcap group called the “War God Society” protested at the Americans’ “defilement” of grounds sacred to the Meiji emperor. Not long afterwards Shoriki was stabbed in the neck with a Japanese sword by an ex-policeman who professed to hate his pro-Americanism. He lost a litre of blood and nearly died. Undeterred, Shoriki founded the Yomiuri Giants baseball team, which has dominated the sport in Japan ever since.

Mr. Shoriki's life after World War 2 could have gone far worse. He was imprisoned for 21 months as a war criminal. He might have served much longer. If so, he would have lacked the opportunity to take advantage of Japan's rapid growth in the 1950s and '60s and all the benefits brought by technological change. But he convinced American authorities that the crimes he was guilty of were of an “ideological and political nature” by left-wingers and they set him free.