Tuesday, April 28, 2009

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Wednesday, April 22, 2009

Hunting for Craic

For another look at the underbelly of the Celtic Tiger, you could do worse then pick up a copy of Bill Barich's new book, "A Pint of Plain."

Barich, who is an accomplished travel writer and a well-read lover of literature, moves to Dublin and proceeds to circle the country over the space of about a year, searching for the perfect, authentic Irish public house (or pub.) Long enamored of the 'traditional' Irish of memory, Barich quickly discovers that much -- of not all -- of what we Americans consider to be 'Irish' is really "fairytale Ireland."

The John Ford/John Wayne film, "The Quiet Man" animates Barich's search, and perhaps most disappointingly when he travels to Cong, County Galway, and discovers that the 'real' QM pub is actually "a whitewashed, thatched replica of Sean Thornton's White O'Mornin'", where he is treated -- for five quid -- to views of "authentic reproductions" of the costumes from the movie, and other props. All in all, a rather inauthentic experience.

But Barich also discovers that the "authentic" Irish pub experience is itself become commoditized, thanks to Guinness (now a Diageo brand) and the Irish Pub Company, which itself has built over 400 "authentic" pubs world-wide, including conversions from other types of bars to an Irish pub (Interesting fact: "if a British pub switches to an Irish theme, say, and refits its interior with tin signs, etched Jameson mirrors, and so on, its profits frequently triple."(p.48)

Thus the book is really a study of modernization and globalization upon a traditional culture that is perhaps the world's most romanticized. In the end, there are only a handful of 'true' Irish pubs that survive to the present day, and most of those are run by senior publicans who seem unlikely to pass the bar to a child; notwithstanding the inevitable ("& Sons") in the name of a IPC-designed pub.

The end of the Irish pub is the end of a way of life. The farmers and related trades that supported the pub are going away, outnumbered by the information workers of the Celtic Tiger that Barich saw throughout the Isle. Even as the country reels from the Great Unwind, those traditional jobs will not likely return.

But one can still yearn for a pint -- and a bit of craic -- after a long day on the links in a pub such as Tubridy's.

Which of course, in a global economy, has its own website.

Which is, one supposes, Barich's point.

"You Can Hear the Angels Sing"

Heard again recently on the streets of Boston: an Irish brogue.

And why is that 'news'?

For much of the past 150 years, America was the 'Great Escape' for those in Ireland. They came to escape oppressive laws(*), primogeniture, and a marginal agricultural economy. They came in large numbers in the 1840s (during the Great (Potato) Famine, when almost a quarter of the Irish population departed), and again at the end of the 19th century. And with almost one-in-ten Americans claiming ancestry, Irish-ness has gone from political pariah to political punchline. (Even the current President of the United States spells his last name "O'Bama" on March 17th.)

In more recent years, many young Irish would come over for a few years in their early 20s (usually on temporary visas), make some money, and return home to raise their family.

But in recent years, the pace of this latter emigration, temporary as it was, had slowed. The growth of the "Celtic Tiger" began in the 1990s, suffered a brief set back around the turn of the century, and then took off with a vengeance in the new millennium. And the rise of the Celtic Tiger meant that 'good jobs at good wages' for young Irish could be found in Dublin and Galway, and not just Boston and New York.

But while the growth may have been initiated thanks to low tax rates and an educated workforce attracting global businesses, it also deregulated banking and financial services. The growth also quickly spread to real estate and housing development. (An interesting parallel can be drawn to another country that de-regulated quickly: Iceland. Michael Lewis' take on the 'kreppa' is here; Ian Parker's (New Yorker) is here.)

And the overheated Celtic economy boiled over. As Paul Krugman described earlier this week, Ireland faces a technical depression: a contraction of the real economy of more than 10% this year. And as the Irish banks crumbled, the government stepped in -- think: Celtic TARP. But the world markets are not as forgiving to little Ireland as they have been to the U.S. (so far.) According to Krugman, unless the government gets its deficit under control by slashing spending and/or raising taxes, lenders won't buy Irish bonds. And thus, the crisis (at least on the Emerald Isle) will get much worse before it gets better.

Which brings us back to the happenstance of hearing the brogue on the streets of Boston. With the Irish economy heading downhill, young Irish again will be likely showing up here in Boston, in New York, and Chicago, looking for work and a better chance.

It's Back to the Future. Celtic Style.

(*) - For example, in the eighteenth century, thanks to British-based laws: "A Catholic couldn't sit in the Parliament, or be a solicitor, a gamekeeper, or a constable. They weren't allowed to attend university, either in Ireland or abroad, nor could they keep a school. Instead they relied on "hedge schools," where itinerant teachers lectured students in the open air. Priests said Mass in secret, too, at rocks and sites known only to the faithful. A Catholic orphan had to be raised as a Protestant, while no Catholic could own property or receive it as a gift." Barich, A Pint of Plain, p. 153-54 (2009).

End of an Era - A.P. Edition

Allerton's Point sends a shout-out to long-time NBA vet Dikembe Mutombo, whose career apparently came to an end last night following a knee injury.

His finger-wagging after a block shot remains a cultural milestone for those 'of a certain age.'

Monday, April 13, 2009

The Original Bird

He flamed across the American League for the briefest of moments: 19-9, 2.34 ERA in 1976. Consensus Rookie-of-the-year, 2nd place (to Jim Palmer) in Cy Young voting. The future was bright.

But he would win just 10 more games (against 10 losses) in the next four years, and by 1981, at age 27, he was out of baseball. Arm trouble, and perhaps a bit too quirky for MLB.

RIP, Mark Fidrych.

Wednesday, April 8, 2009

Changing the Landscape for FDA Approvals

New column (co-written with Terry Klein of HPLLP and Decisionism) on the Mass High Tech page today. Text below:

The U.S. Supreme Court revisited the balance between federal and state authority over drug regulation last month. The result may have long-lasting impacts for drug researchers and manufacturers. By affirming a multi-million dollar verdict in a product liability case -- rejecting a drug maker’s argument that a federally approved label bars state law claims -- the court effectively required drug manufacturers to closely monitor side effects even after U.S. Food and Drug Administration approval. This decision deviates a bit from recent case law and deserves an explanation. There may also be implications for device manufacturers.

The case of Wyeth v. Levine involved administering Wyeth’s anti-nausea drug Phenergan by the “IV-push” method. Susan Levine, a professional musician, suffered from migraines and received a needle-with-plunger injection of Demerol (for the headache) and Phenergan (for nausea). Because the latter drug accidentally entered one of Levine’s arteries – rather than a vein, as advised by the label – gangrene set in that resulted in the loss of Levine’s arm, and her livelihood.

Levine sued on state law grounds, and a jury found that because the risk of gangrene and amputation could be almost always avoided by the “IV-drip” (a drip bag using saline solution) rather than the “IV-push” method (as was used). Wyeth was negligent and that IV-push-administered Phenergan was a defective product. Wyeth had been aware of the gangrene risk since at least 1967.

Wyeth’s defense relied on FDA approval, and therefore federal “preemption” of state law. The FDA approved Phenergan in the 1950s, subject to labeling that included a general gangrene warning. But over the years, even as Wyeth became aware that the IV-drip method all-but-eliminated the catastrophic risks, the company did not sufficiently update its label. After all, it argued, the label described the risk, and the FDA had approved the language.

The Supreme Court held that Wyeth had a duty to update its labeling to reflect the knowledge that it acquired over the years. (Interestingly, Congress authorized the FDA only in 2007 to compel label revisions in the face of new [adverse] information.) FDA requirements, according to the court, are a “floor” and not a “ceiling” for state regulation.

The Wyeth result –- allowing a tort case to proceed even though there was FDA approval –- initially appears to contradict the Court’s decision a year ago in Riegel vs. Medtronic. There, the Court reviewed a different statutory section, which empowered the FDA to review medical devices prior to introduction and explicitly pre-empted state regulation. As a result, the court in the 2008 Medtronic case barred state tort claims arising from damage caused by FDA-approved medical devices. (Further complicating matters, in a 1996 device case involving Medtronic and a still different section of the statute, the court found that state tort claims were not preempted.)

Because the applicable federal pre-emption provision for drugs is narrower, the Wyeth decision came out the opposite way (i.e., against the manufacturer). This means that even after FDA approval, drug makers have a duty to monitor their products and update their labels.

Finally, there is an unanswered question for device manufacturers: Having obtained FDA approval, what obligations do they have when a defect comes to light after approval? Justice Ginsburg, the sole dissenter in the 2008 Medtronic case, raised that question in her first footnote in that case. The question for the future is whether the court will find the statutory device preemption language (whether-or-not subject to a product recall) or a pattern of post-FDA-approval harm to be more compelling. And for observers who assumed that there is a reliable pro-business majority on the Roberts court, the Wyeth decision suggests a less certain result than the industry might prefer.

Ripped From the Headlines?

It's become a classic TV crime drama teaser: "The new CSI(*): Ripped from the Headlines"

But with today's news that the "Electricity Grid in U.S. Penetrated By Spies" in the WSJ, it's now the headlines that appear to be 'ripped' from drama.

The drama in question is a (sort of) new book, called "Daemon" by Daniel Suarez. It's self-billed as a techo-thriller, and it lives up to the hype.

The book is clearly from the Clancy- / Grisham-type genre, so anything beyond a high-level description will be giving away too much of the plot. However, the main idea of the book: a distributed 'daemon' (or a computer program -- or series of programs -- that run in the 'background' where they are oblivious to the user) that has malicious intent. And because this daemon was programmed by a genius computer-game developer, the Artificial Intelligence (AI) component makes it particularly dangerous.

The author comes from an IT background, and it shows with the technological accuracy of the book. The thin lines and close connection between hackers, game-players, and IT security personnel all play a role; the result is a world of 'reality' that exists -- but is oblivious to those over the age of 40 whose memories of computer games were formed by "Pong" and "Space Invaders." (It is informative that computer games now out-earn Hollywood, although like Hollywood, games are driven by blockbusters that support the equivalent of "straight to video" bombs.)

One of Suarez' themes is the degree to which law enforcement -- from local police to the FBI to even the NSA -- is outmanned, outwitted, and outgunned by rampant distribution of technology. It does take much imagination to think of the possible ramifications for national security, and economic security.

There are some problems with the book: the body count is exceedingly high, and Mr. Suarez' descriptions of bloody endings reads (at times) like the script for "Friday the 13th Part XIX." But the stuff he knows -- the IT and its vulnerabilities -- are far more chilling than the worst sort of horror movie.

The reliance on technology in the modern world -- the vulnerabilities of that reliance to attack -- makes this a must-read for anyone interested in the future of technology. Security is only as strong as its weakest link, and as the WSJ story today shows, malicious agents are always searching for vulnerabilities.

Finally, the book itself has an interesting back story. Suarez had to essentially self-publish it in 2006 under an alias ("Leinad Zeraus"!) It apparently kicked around Silicon Valley and caught the eye of a number of high-profile individuals, including Rick Klau of Feedburner, which was shortly thereafter acquired by Google. As a result, as highlighted by a Wired Magazine article last year, the print-on-demand manuscript became an underground success.

And Penguin/Dutton eventually caught on. The book was re-released this January.

(*) - or "Cold Case" or "Law & Order" or "CSI: Miami" or...

NCAA Final

Following up on the last post, the final score in the NCAA championship game was of course, UNC 89 Michigan State 72 in a game that was not even as close as the score indicated.

Obviously a sample size of one is meaningless, although the Pomeroy ratings did not distinguish themselves with the 14-game sample discussed here either.

Monday, April 6, 2009

Another Test for Pomeroy

KenPom predicts a win by UNC tonight, 80-77, with a 63% likelihood.

The line, in contrast, is UNC (-7.5), and the money line is UNC (-370), or that you must wager 370 to win 100 with UNC.(*)

In short, KenPom sees the game as closer than the general public; it also interesting that KenPom has the game played on a "Neutral" court, when most observers give the Ford Field crowd as a home game for MSU.

* - Sportsbook.com, strictly for entertainment purposes.


Ken Pomeroy has done a terrific job documenting and analyzing data relating to college basketball, much like Bill James for baseball a generation ago. His blog (and writing at Basketball Prospectus) has introduced new stats such as "Effective Height" and "Defensive Fingerprint." Stats such as these have given observers a set of tools to use to evaluate College Basketball teams.

That being said, the core stat -- the Pomeroy Rating -- has been less than stellar during this NCAA tournament. Although there were few major upsets in the first two rounds of the tournament (meaning that the "power conference" teams mainly survived to the Sweet Sixteen Round), Pomeroy's ratings have had middling results.

With that in mind, let's take a tour back through each of the four regions, comparing Pomeroy's ratings against other ranking systems: the NCAA Men's Committee itself (NCAA), the final AP poll (AP), and RPI (Ratings Percentage Index, as calculated here. (RPI))

Only Sweet Sixteen and later games are used, to try and emphasize the differences between the systems. (After all, every system will get the 1-16 and 2-15 games correctly; by the time you reach the round of 16, the choices are hard, as anyone who's ever done a bracket will tell you.) Note that while KenPom systems remains 'dynamic', adding information from each successive game and updating results, the NCAA, AP, and RPI ratings used here were 'fixed' at the end of the regular season.


Sweet Sixteen actual teams: Pitt vs. Xavier; Villanova vs. Duke

Predicted results:

NCAA: (1) Pitt over (4) Xav (correct); (2) Duke over (3) Nova (incorrect). (1-1)

AP: (4) Pitt over (20) Xav (correct); (6) Duke over (14) Nova (incorrect) (1-1)

RPI: (2) Pitt over (17) Xav (correct); (1) Duke over (13) Nova (incorrect) (1-1)

KenPom: (5) Pitt over (20) Xav (correct); (11) Duke over (14) Nova (incorrect) (1-1)

Finals: Pitt vs. Villanova

NCAA: (1) Pitt over (3) Nova (incorrect). (1-2, cumulative)

AP: (4) Pitt over (14) Nova (incorrect) (1-2)

RPI: (2) Pitt over (13) Nova (incorrect) (1-2)

KenPom: (5) Pitt over (14) Nova (incorrect) (1-2)


Sweet Sixteen actual teams: UNC vs. Gonzaga; Syracuse vs. Oklahoma

NCAA: (1) UNC over (4) Gonzaga (correct); (2) OU over (3) Cuse (correct) (3-2, cumulative)

AP: (2) UNC over (10) Gonzaga (corret); (7) OU over (13) Cuse (correct) (3-2)

RPI: (3) UNC over (26) Zaga (correct); (5) OU over (12) Cuse (correct); (3-2)

KenPom: (3) UNC over (8) Zaga (correct); (13) OU over (15) Cuse (correct); (3-2)

Finals: UNC vs. OU

NCAA: (1) UNC over (2) OU over (4-2, cumulative)

AP: (2) UNC over (7) OU (correct) (4-2)

RPI: (3) UNC over (5) OU over (correct); (4-2)

KenPom: (3) UNC over (13) (correct); (4-2)


Sweet Sixteen actual teams: Louisville vs. Arizona; Kansas vs, Michigan State.

NCAA: (1) Lou over (12) Ariz (correct); (2) MSU over (3) KU (correct) (6-2, cumulative)

AP: (1) Lou over (NR) Ariz (correct); (8) MSU over (14) KU (correct) (6-2)

RPI: (4) Lou over (62) Ariz (correct); (6) MSU over (11) KU (correct) (6-2)

KenPom: (4) Lou over (40) Ariz (correct); (7) MSU over (10) KU (correct) (6-2)

Finals: Lou vs. MSU

NCAA: (1) Lou over (2) MSU (incorrect) (6-3, cumulative)

AP: (1) Lou over (8) MSU (incorrect) (6-3)

RPI: (4) Lou over (6) MSU (incorrect)(6-3)

KenPom: (4) Lou over (7) MSU (incorrect) (6-3)


Sweet Sixteen Actual teams: UConn vs. Purdue; Missouri vs. Memphis

NCAA: (1) UConn over (5) Purdue (correct); (2) Mem over (3) Mizzou (incorrect) (7-4)

AP: (5) UConn over (17) Purdue (correct); (3) Mem over (9) Mizzou (incorrect) (7-4)

RPI: (8) UConn over (20) Purdue (correct); (7) Mem over (10) Mizzou (incorrect) (7-4)

KenPom: (2) Uconn over (17) Purdue (correct); (1) Mem over (6) Mizzou (incorrect) (7-4)

Finals: UConn vs. Mizzou

NCAA: (1) UConn over (3) Mizzou (correct) (8-4, cumulative)

AP: (5) UConn over (9) Mizzou (correct) (8-4)

RPI: (8) UConn over (10) Mizzou (correct) (8-4)

KenPom: (2) Uconn over (6) Mizzou (correct) (8-4)


UNC vs. Villanova; MSU vs. UConn.

NCAA: (1) UConn over (2) MSU (incorrect); (1) UNC over (3) Nova (correct) (9-5, cumulative)

AP: (5) UConn vs. (8) MSU (incorrect); (2) UNC over (11) Nova (correct); (9-5)

RPI: (6) MSU over (8) UConn (correct); (3) UNC over (13) Nova (correct) (10-4)

KenPom: (2) UConn over (7) MSU (incorrect); (3) UNC over (14) Nova (correct)(9-5)



NCAA: (1) UNC over (2) MSU

AP: (2) UNC over (8) MSU

RPI: (3) UNC over (6) MSU

KenPom: (3) UNC over (7) MSU

As all four systems have the same prediction for tonight's game, there can be no change in the final standings, which leaves the much maligned RPI as the 'most accurate', at least for this year.

RPI: 11-4 or 10-5

NCAA: 10-5 or 9-6

AP: 10-5 or 9-6

KenPom: 10-5 or 9-6

How To Prevent It From Happening Again...

Eight fresh ideas from a Wall Street veteran, Al Wojnilower, published last month in a CSFI (London-based Centre for the Study of Financial Innovation) book entitled, "Grumpy Old Bankers: Wisdom from Crises Past."

1. Limit rewards for short-term gains;

2. Financial firms should be partnerships (the same prescription, by the way, as Michael Lewis);

3. FDIC-insured banks should be public utilities;

4. Prohibit short-selling; and

5. Restrict Freddie Mac/Fannie Mae to traditional activities.
If such advice is taken, the result may be as follows:

6. US will be the global leader in confidence-boosting regulations, and not participate in a race-to-the-bottom;

7. Make it more difficult to game commodities markets;

8. Real estate bubbles less likely to occur.
(Wojnilower refused to 'bullet-point' his brief article, saying "No point in summarizing the main points; read it all. It is well worth the effort.)

The last point is true, but the summary is here anyways.

More Update (Cowbells?)

John Rich's "Shuttin' Down Detroit" crept up from #13 to #12 on the Country Billboard charts. (In other country news, Carrie Underwood won "Performer of the Year" at the Academy of Country Music awards last night.)

Congrats to Coach Craig Robinson -- Oregon State knocked off UTEP in El Paso in the third and decided game of the CBI Finals. OSU finished the year with a 18-18 record.

Friday, April 3, 2009

CBI Update

Oregon State and UTEP square off tonight in the third and deciding game of the final of the CBI Tournament. (The two teams split the first two games, each winning at home.)

OSU (17-18) is the third-most-improved college basketball team this year, having won just six games a year ago. The Beavers trail Mizzou (+15) and LSU (+14).

Aptly Named

The London-based Financial Times reports that a self-directed robot (called Adam) at Aberystwyth University (located in Wales) working with scientists from Cambridge University developed and conducted an experiment without human intervention.

Although the experiments were relatively simple -- involving baker's yeast -- the results, and the means of obtaining, were published in the journal Science.

The scientific team is already working a more "elegant" successor to the robot, to be named Eve.