Fantasy’s End

There’s one good thing so far about the upcoming NFL season — we’re not being constantly bombarded by those annoying commercials for DraftKings and FanDuel, those fantasy sports sites that presented themselves as the roads to big money.

draftkings-valuation-plummetingLast year, you just couldn’t avoid those stupid commercials, where scruffy looking guys got big checks and talked about how they got huge paydays after investing only a few bucks.  For a time, the two principal fantasy sports sites spent more on advertising during sporting events than the beer companies — which is the highest possible standard you can reach when you are talking about advertising designed to reach the American male. We saw those DraftKings and FanDuel commercials in our nightmares.

Now, though, you don’t see or hear much about FanDuel and DraftKings.  ESPN’s Outside the Lines has a good article about why that is so.  It’s long, but it tells an fascinating story about how the sites came to be, their rapid rise to prominence and their aggressive marketing, their competition with each other, their legal troubles — and mostly how they came to be a way for professional players to sweep up the investments of small-time recreational players you were lured by the “get-rich-quick” commercials.  The casual players who thought they knew baseball or the NFL from their everyday status as fans would get creamed by the sophisticated players who had spreadsheets and algorithms and spent all day working the sites.

Ultimately, those annoying, ever-present ads attracted the attention of people like New York’s Attorney General, who started to look into DraftKings and FanDuel and consider whether they violated New York’s laws against gambling.  Ultimately, the NY AG sent letters to the sites telling them to stop accepting bets from New Yorkers.  Other state AGs began investigating, too, and people filed civil lawsuits.  DraftKings and FanDuel worked to get states like New York to regulate the industry and permit it to function, so they could start accepting money from New Yorkers again.  Now the two companies are talking merger and trying to figure out ways to make the games safer for casual players and avoid predatory play by the pros.

It will be interesting to see whether FanDuel and DraftKings make it.  Me, I’m just glad that I’m not seeing the commercials any more.

The Fed On Facebook

Recently the Board of Governors of the Federal Reserve System — let’s call them the Fed — decided it would be a good idea to have a Facebook page.  You know . . . Facebook, that aging social media site where people post selfies and pictures of babies and weddings and political memes that don’t change anyone’s mind.  Yes, that Facebook.

So why did the Fed decide it needed a Facebook page?  It’s not entirely clear.  After all, the Fed has functioned for decades without having much of a public face.  It’s the grey, boring group behind currency and interest rate decisions, all of which are made by unelected people who are completely unknown to 99.99% of us.  So why Facebook?  Who knows?  Maybe the Fed, like other aging Facebookers, just wanted to get a little attention.

fed20reactions203You can see the Fed’s Facebook page here.  It’s a pretty hilarious page, actually, because the Fed decided to allow people to comment, and every post by the Fed features venomous comments from people who think the Fed has ruined American money, manipulated our currency, and should be audited to determine its fundamental solvency.  The Fed isn’t responding to the comments, so a bland post about one of the Fed’s “key functions” provokes an avalanche of over-the-top haymakers from the Fed haters.  It’s probably the most tonally disproportionate Facebook page in history, and even the American Banker, which is normally pretty sympathetic to the Fed, has declared the Fed’s Facebook page a full-fledged disaster.

It’s hard to imagine that a federal entity would think it’s wise to have a Facebook page, and it make you wonder how much it costs the Fed (that is, we taxpayers) to pay the schlub who writes the puff pieces that then get ripped to shreds by internet trolls who are happy to have a new target for their venom.  I can’t believe anybody at the Fed, or any other federal agency, honestly believes that people are going to learn about the agency and what they do by going to Facebook, as opposed to the agency’s own website or, God forbid, an actual book.  How many people go to Facebook expecting to get the unvarnished truth?   Does anyone?

Maybe there’s a positive in this catastrophic combination of faceless but powerful government entity and social media:  maybe the Fed will decide not to proceed with its impending dips into Tumblr, Ello, Hyper, Shots, and Bebo.

Ramen Trade

Anybody who’s ever seen a prison movie knows that cigarettes are the currency of choice for inmates, with coffin nails being furtively traded for information, goods, or special treatment.  Earlier this week the Guardian carried an article suggesting that coffin nails have been replaced — in some prisons, at least — by ramen noodles.

ramenAccording to a study by a doctoral candidate, the popularity of those square packets of ramen noodles that are ready to be tossed into boiling water with salty “flavor” packets is due to a combination of factors.  First, the quality of prison food apparently has declined significantly, because prison populations have increased and spending on prisons and supplies like food hasn’t kept pace.  Second, many of the inmates exercise constantly, and those ramen meals are high in calories and give them an energy boost.  One inmate actually wrote a book about the ramen culture in prison and provided some favorite inmate ramen “recipes” — like the truly disgusting sounding “Ramen Tamale,” made from Doritos, canned pork and beans, and ramen.  (I can only imagine the sodium content of that combination.)

Ramen noodles have been known to start fights in prisons, and allegedly inmates have been killed over their failure to repay ramen “debts.”  The Guardian reports that ramen noodles also helped resolved a race riot between African-American and Hispanic inmates in one prison who reached a peace accord and marked the resolution with a ramen feast.

As any college student knows, ramen is one of the cheapest foods you can buy.  It’s weird, and sad, to think that ramen packets that can be purchased at any grocery store for pennies have become the currency of choice for inmates, and that human beings are fighting and dying over a hardened brick of noodles that provides a single serving of soup.  The “ramen trade” should cause state governments to take a hard look at the quality, and amount, of food available in our prisons.

Ugly Americans

ryan-lochte1

I haven’t watched much of the Olympics, because I think it’s gotten over the top and I can’t believe that a poor country like Brazil is spending its hard earned money building stadia and athletes villages rather than trying to do something for its desperately impoverished people.  I did, however, hear about the purported robbery of Ryan Lochte and other U.S. swimmers.  It was an odd story that didn’t really make a lot of sense, but it fit with the narrative of Brazil being a dangerous place.

Now the Lochte story seems to be falling apart and exposed as a complete fabrication.  Brazilian authorities — who have reviewed video footage — say what actually happened wasn’t a robbery at all.  Instead, they say that the incident was a dispute between the Americans, who were returning early in the morning after being out partying, and employees at a Shell gas station about damage done to a restroom.  Authorities have now prevented some of the swimmers from leaving the country until they can get to the bottom of things.

The Brazilians are angry because they feel like the honor of their country has been besmirched.  I don’t blame them for that reaction.  Americans acting like jerks, and then failing to own up to their misconduct and instead trying to blame everyone else, is a classic example of ugly Americanism.  I don’t understand why Brazil — or for that matter, anyone — would want to host an Olympics, but the Brazilians obviously are proud of their host country status, and probably disappointed whenever there is some less than glowing publicity about their country and the games.  To have a fake story about a robbery get worldwide press attention must be intolerable.

Unfortunately, we’re long past the point where social mores would force a wrongdoer to do the decent, honorable thing, and apologize.  Already there are people who are excusing the Americans or downplaying what they did.  I wish people wouldn’t do that.  We’d all be better served if people started ‘fessing up, rather than shirking responsibility.  I hope that Lochte and his fellow parties do the right thing, admit to the truth, and say they’re sorry.  That would go a long way toward helping the citizens of the U.S. of A. avoid that “ugly American” label.

Meanwhile, Back In The Real World

This week Aetna announced that it would be withdrawing from many of the states in which it offers health care plans on the Affordable Care Act exchanges.  Aetna participated in exchanges in 15 states, and it will be withdrawing from 11 of those 15.

mw-de672_aet_20_20150202162433_zhIt’s more bad news for “Obamacare,” which has seen other major insurers back away from offering plans, too.  Aetna says its decision is prompted by substantial losses it is experiencing on the exchanges, all of which arises from the fact that the pools of covered individuals has turned out to be sicker than was originally forecast — and therefore more likely to need expensive care.  If fewer insurers offer plans on the exchanges, there obviously will be less competition, and less choice.  As Aetna’s decision reflects, however, the effect will vary on a state by state basis.

In the meantime, premiums on the exchange plans are going up — and the “individual mandate” penalty for not having health insurance is ratcheting up, too.  In 2017, the average penalty will be $979 per household.  The question is whether the threat of having to pay a $1000 penalty will drive more people to enroll, and whether those currently uninsured people who do enroll will be healthier and therefore help to hold down the costs of the plans for the insurers who offer them, so more even insurers don’t exit the plans.  Ever since the Affordable Care Act was passed, the question has been whether the exchanges can avoid the “death spiral” in which enrollment shrinks, leaving only sick people in the plans, causing ever-greater losses and ever-increasing premiums that simply can’t be sustained.

The Affordable Care Act is unquestionably the signature domestic policy achievement of the Obama Administration.  It’s also another huge government program seeking to force behavioral changes that is anathema to both fiscal conservatives and social libertarians.  In any rational world, a presidential election would be a forum for discussing whether, and if so how well, “Obamacare” has worked — and what alternatives would be.

Of course, we don’t have such discussions about actual policy issues or the real-world performance of important initiatives like the Affordable Care Act in this election.  No, we’re too busy talking about Donald Trump’s latest idiotic foot-in-mouth-episode, or Hillary Clinton’s health issues, or other extraneous topics.  This is the most content-free presidential election in my memory.

We need to remember that the real world is still out there.

John McLaughlin, RIP

John McLaughlin died today.  The long-time host of The McLaughlin Group, he was 89.

I haven’t watched The McLaughlin Group for years, and wasn’t even aware it was still on the air.  However, there was a time, long ago, when The McLaughlin Group was a staple of the Webner household viewing schedule.

220px-mclaughlin_johnIt was the early ’80s, when we lived in Washington, D.C., and everyone we knew ate, slept, and breathed politics.  In those days Reagan was the President and Tip O’Neill was the Speaker of the House, and there was lots to talk about in the political world.  People would actually talk about politics at the workplace, and you needed to watch shows like The McLaughlin Group and Agronsky & Company if you wanted to keep up and make sure you were aware of the latest spin coming from the Ds or the Rs.  We would come home from work on Friday night, catch the shows, and then go on with our weekend.

The McLaughlin Group was different from the other political shows because it was, well, a lot louder than traditional shows like Meet the Press, and it actually tried to be entertaining.  McLaughlin’s trademark catchphrases — like intoning “WRONG!” if a fellow panel member offered an opinion that he disagreed with — seemed fresh and funny and edgy at the time.  But the show often devolved into people arguing with each other, and when Kish and I moved back to Columbus we just stopped watching it.  Here in the heartland, all the insider chit-chat from the likes of Fred Barnes and Pat Buchanan and Eleanor Clift just seemed a lot less important.

Little did we know that The McLaughlin Group would be a kind of precursor of the ultimate direction of TV news and public affairs shows.  They moved from the boring, sober discussions of the ’60s and ’70s to the more fast-moving, glitzy, and much louder broadcasts of the modern era.  The McLaughlin Group was one of the transitional programs that paved the way for the modern approach — an approach that I think is appalling and bears as much resemblance to true journalism as the “weird trick” health advice you get on the internet bears to legitimate medicine.

I wonder if McLaughlin ever regretted his role in that change.

The Weirdness Out By Neptune

371eface00000578-3734507-image-a-2_1470933625908Astronomers have discovered something . . . unusual out by Neptune, the massive planet on the far fringes of the solar system.  As one scientist put it, with the discovery “the outer solar system just got a lot weirder.”

They’ve found an object out there that behaves unlike anything else.  Where Earth, Mars, and the other planets in our solar system travel on a flat plane in relation to the Sun, this object, and the cluster of other objects around it, doesn’t.  The Trans-Neptunian Object, nicknamed “Niku” after the Chinese word for rebellious, orbits in a plane that is tilted 110 degrees in relation to the plane of the planets.  Even more weirdly, it orbits the sun in the opposite direction of almost everything else in the solar system.  The TNO is tiny — about 124 miles in diameter — and is 160,000 time fainter than Neptune.

So what is the TNO, exactly, and why is it behaving so weirdly?  Scientists think it must have been knocked off course, either by the gravitational effects of some unknown, massive object, but they’ve found no evidence of that so far.  And, of course, there will be people who wonder whether the TNO isn’t following the rules of the rest of the solar system because it actually isn’t part of the solar system at all — it’s some huge ship, or beacon, or some other indicator of extraterrestrial intelligence.

I’ve often wondered what would have happened if America hadn’t put the brakes on its space program after the Apollo flights ended, and had spent the last 45 years perfecting interplanetary travel, building bases, and taking humanity out into the rest of the solar system.  In that alternative world, we might have been in a position to send a ship out to check out Niku, and see just how rebellious — or unusual — it really is.