May 16, 2008

Food for Thought: Supreme Court justices and Mid-East entanglements aside, the mid-term election of 2010 is arguably more important than the Obama-McCain race this year. Those elections will determine who gets to draw the lines in most states for the next reapportionment, something which would give the Democratic Party long-term hegemony in Congress.

This could be further underlined if the party does well in the congressional elections this year, as seems likely even if McCain should win.* Since the party out of the White House tends to gain seats in mid-term elections, the Democratic Party would not only add to what is becoming a sizable majority in the House, but could even further marginalize the GOP in the Senate, where they would have to defend 19 of the 33 seats.

On the other hand, an Obama victory in November would put the Republicans in a more advantageous situation in 2010. It is not difficult to imagine that the new President's honeymoon would not be much longer than Clinton's was in 1993. A repeat of the 1994 debacle for the party would enable the Republicans to regain control of the state capitals, and with it the power to gerrymander the Democrats out of power in the House.

*Having an unsuccessful candidate at the top of the ticket is not always a death knell for the party. Presidential coattails were nearly non-existent in 1984, 1988, 1992 and 1996. In 2000, the Democratic Party actually gained four seats in the Senate while Bush was "winning" his first term. Going back even further, the Party picked up a pair of Senate seats in 1972, including knocking off four Republican incumbents, with George McGovern as the nominee; the ability of the man at the top to bring in new voters, then and now, seems to trump all other considerations.

May 15, 2008

A rhetorical gambit almost as profoundly futile as Godwin's Law is the Law of Appeasement: anytime someone feels the need to compare one's opponent to Neville Chamberlain, and/or to analogize the art of diplomacy with "appeasement," there really isn't much left to discuss. As it turns out, most people who appeal to the Law of Appeasement have no idea what "appeasement" is, why (or even, if) it led to World War II, or how, as a policy, it differs from, say, the US policy towards China since 1972, or the Soviet Union from 1941 to 1989, or even the British policy towards the United States between 1815 and 1917. They just know that hashing out differences with an enemy leads inexorably to the Final Solution and 9/11.

The "lessons of Iraq" will surely become the counterpoint to "Munich" in future debates on foreign policy....

May 13, 2008

Drum and Yglesias try to make sense out of why the home field (or, in this case, court) edge is much greater in basketball than it is in other sports. Unlike football, where the reigning Super Bowl champion had a .500 home record last season, the likely NBA winner will likely have a much better record at home than on the road.

The usual explanations get trotted out (the benefits of a friendly crowd, intimidated refs), but those seem to be common to all spectator sports. Ice hockey, for example, is played in similar arenas (often the same arenas), but the home ice advantage is slight, and hockey refs play a much more important role in determining the outcome of the game than their hoops counterparts.

And as far as accruing the benefits of the home crowd are concerned, then why don't college teams maintain the same edge when they play at a local, but not home, arena, as often happens during post-season play. Indiana U. has a much greater home court advantage when they play in Bloomington than when the play a few miles away at the Hoosierdome, even though the RCA is a much larger venue, and can thus hold more of their fans. And of course, other sports have loud, boisterous crowds, too.

My hypothesis is that depth perception is paramount in a game like basketball. The more you have a read on where the basket really is vis a vis the stands, the better chance you have of making shots. Since basketball is a sport of 12-2 runs, the more opportunities you have to make such runs, the higher likelihood your team has to win.

May 12, 2008

Hollywood's O.B.P.: I don't quite understand why no one in Hollywood has been smart enough to incorporate the principles of MoneyBall into film and TV production. Well, I take that back. Having read several weeks of Allison Hope Weiner's dispatches on the Pellicano Trial, I can see why the "star" mentality has, in spite of all the evidence that it does nothing to improve a film's bottom line, managed to take on nearly sacrosanct status in the "industry": the people who get hired to run studios don't exactly come from the top of the class from the Ivy League. A-students don't greenlight Speed Racer or Jumper, or spend years in court trying to put Napster out of business.

But you would figure at least one studio exec would figure out there are very, very few performers who can actually make a difference at the box office, and there are very, very many people with a SAG card out there who can do as good a job at a tenth of the cost. How many more bombs will George Clooney or Tom Cruise or Uma Thurmon detonate before someone realizes that the conglomerate's shareholders would get more value from Jon Hamm, to pick just one example? And it isn't simply the flops that produce the biggest wastes of money; does anyone believe that Gwyneth Paltrow, in her riveting portrayal of the "blonde sidekick" to the real star of the film, drew a single person to the multiplex to see Iron Man, or at least one more than would have gone if her role had been inhabited by Rebecca Romijn or Amber Valletta?

I suspect Hollywood is at the same stage that baseball was in back in the 1980's, when people like Bill James and Pete Palmer were just starting to attract a readership around the startling idea that the men who ran ballclubs didn't know what they were doing. On the diamond, it was the belief that batting average was the most important indicator of talent; in Hollywood, it's the equally stupid dogma that how famous a star is the determiner of how profitable a TV series or movie will be.

The suits who run TV networks already seem to have caught on to that. There are a great deal more networks than there are studios to divide the money, thanks to cable, and the willingness of the people who have run HBO and FX, to name two examples, to take risks on shows which initially feature no-name talents has produced extraordinary results. But film has been much slower to grasp the new reality. The next person to run Paramount or Sony who figures out that the type of movies that make a ton of money aren't star vehicles anyways, and that the cost of doing business will go way, way down once it is understood that screenacting talent is not a rare or limited resource, will revolutionize the business more than Louis Mayer.