Monday, August 28, 2006

Piracy in Peru

The BBC has an interesting article about piracy (of the intellectual-property type) in Peru, where “the legal music market has collapsed, unable to compete with 98% of all music being sold on the black market.”

A few more excerpts:

More than half of Peru’s economy is made up of unregulated businesses that do not pay tax. More than half the 28 million population lives below the poverty line and simply cannot afford the genuine goods....

150 police officers armed with tear gas and riot control equipment who raided one well-known pirate market in Lima were simply fought off by the well-organised black marketeers.

And finally:

There is a story circulating in Peru, which could well be true, that another Peruvian writer, the popular Jaime Bayly, was waiting at traffic lights when black marketeers offered him a pirate copy of one of his own books.

Recognising the author from the photo on the back cover, the vendor, without even pausing to blush, offered him a discount.

Read the full article here.

Sunday, August 20, 2006

David Foster Wallace Serves It Up

This morning’s New York Times had a welcome surprise with David Foster Wallace’s “Federer as Religious Experience.” Wallace is one of the most innovative writers around, and if you like his style, this piece won’t disappoint.

About Wallace’s style—well, let’s take an extended example:

Tennis is often called a “game of inches,” but the cliché is mostly referring to where a shot lands. In terms of a player’s hitting an incoming ball, tennis is actually more a game of micrometers: vanishingly tiny changes around the moment of impact will have large effects on how and where the ball travels. The same principle explains why even the smallest imprecision in aiming a rifle will still cause a miss if the target’s far enough away.

By way of illustration, let’s slow things way down. Imagine that you, a tennis player, are standing just behind your deuce corner’s baseline. A ball is served to your forehand — you pivot (or rotate) so that your side is to the ball’s incoming path and start to take your racket back for the forehand return. Keep visualizing up to where you’re about halfway into the stroke’s forward motion; the incoming ball is now just off your front hip, maybe six inches from point of impact. Consider some of the variables involved here. On the vertical plane, angling your racket face just a couple degrees forward or back will create topspin or slice, respectively; keeping it perpendicular will produce a flat, spinless drive. Horizontally, adjusting the racket face ever so slightly to the left or right, and hitting the ball maybe a millisecond early or late, will result in a cross-court versus down-the-line return. Further slight changes in the curves of your groundstroke’s motion and follow-through will help determine how high your return passes over the net, which, together with the speed at which you’re swinging (along with certain characteristics of the spin you impart), will affect how deep or shallow in the opponent’s court your return lands, how high it bounces, etc. These are just the broadest distinctions, of course — like, there’s heavy topspin vs. light topspin, or sharply cross-court vs. only slightly cross-court, etc. There are also the issues of how close you’re allowing the ball to get to your body, what grip you’re using, the extent to which your knees are bent and/or weight’s moving forward, and whether you’re able simultaneously to watch the ball and to see what your opponent’s doing after he serves. These all matter, too. Plus there’s the fact that you’re not putting a static object into motion here but rather reversing the flight and (to a varying extent) spin of a projectile coming toward you — coming, in the case of pro tennis, at speeds that make conscious thought impossible. Mario Ancic’s first serve, for instance, often comes in around 130 m.p.h. Since it’s 78 feet from Ancic’s baseline to yours, that means it takes 0.41 seconds for his serve to reach you.9 This is less than the time it takes to blink quickly, twice.

(If that last paragraph’s density attracted you, look for the 258-word sentence in the piece’s second paragraph.)

In our excerpt above, we have several interesting features:

  1. The first paragraph is a nice conceptual turn. Wallace renders quaint the “game of inches” cliché by explaining the micrometric stakes of each racket impact. Wallace then consolidates the concept with the rifle analogy, which makes it all seem obvious.
  2. “Imagine that you, a tennis player, are standing just behind your deuce corner’s baseline.” You probably don’t know what your “deuce corner’s baseline” is, but the meaning doesn’t matter. Unlike the usual use of jargon, which is like a locked door to outsiders, Wallace’s use of jargon here is more like wallpaper. It contributes to the atmospherics of a room you’re already in.
  3. He is addressing you directly—yeah, “you.” It juxtaposes well with the paragraph’s technicalishness. (No, that’s not an official word, but somehow it’s right for this occasion.)
  4. As for the long middle of our excerpt’s second paragraph, it’s a big set-up. He enumerates the myriad factors that go into returning a pro serve only to deliver the punchline that you’ve only got 0.41 seconds to do the right thing—“the time it takes to blink quickly, twice.”
  5. Finally, at the end of the excerpt’s second-to-last sentence, is a marker for footnote 9. That footnote is a preemptive strike against those who might question whether Wallace’s calculation of 0.41 seconds suffers from omitting the additional distance the ball travels from the bounce. This footnote has its own footnote. Such footsie with footnotes is a Wallace trademark. If only one could trademark a trademark.

On a larger level, Wallace makes some structural gambits. For example, a child that contracted cancer at age two appears first as a bit of innocuous reportage, then later as a jarring counterpart that interrupts the story, and finally in the last paragraph, not of the main piece but of the footnotes, as an explicit connection to the main theme.

A breezy read this piece is not, yet Wallace’s technical skill brings a conversational tone to the most entertainingly arcane points. Call it obsessive-casual.

So set aside 10 minutes and read the piece. Even if you can’t get into Wallace’s style, you’ll find enough little gems along the way to make it worthwhile—for example, the description of Wimbledon line judges “in their new Ralph Lauren uniforms that look so much like children’s navalwear.”

Check it out: Federer as Religious Experience

Sunday, August 13, 2006

Wine Ratings: Drunk on Numbers?

In “Wine Ratings Might Not Pass the Sobriety Test,” Gary Rivlin of The New York Times examines the 100-point rating systems that have become pervasive in the wine business. Some highlights:

A rating system that draws a distinction between a cabernet scoring 90 and one receiving an 89 implies a precision of the senses that even many wine critics agree that human beings do not possess. Ratings are quick judgments that a single individual renders early in the life of a bottle of wine that, once expressed numerically, magically transform the nebulous and subjective into the authoritative and objective.

When pressed, critics allow that numerical ratings mean little if they are unaccompanied by corresponding tasting notes (“hints of blackberry,” “a good nose”). Yet in the hands of the marketers who have transformed wine into a multibillion-dollar industry, The Number is often all that counts. It is one of the wheels that keep the glamorous, lucrative machinery of the wine business turning, but it has become so overused and ubiquitous that it may well be meaningless — other than as an index of how a once mystical, high-end product for the elite has become embroidered with the same marketing high jinks as other products peddled to the masses.

Although four- or five-star rating systems for wine existed before, Robert Parker originated the modern 100-point system in 1978. Since then, it has inspired many imitators, to the point where a single wine may be rated by a dozen different 100-point systems.

Cork dorks say that even today, the only scores that count are those of the first two publications to embrace the 100-point score: Mr. Parker’s Wine Advocate and Mr. Shanken’s Wine Spectator. That has not stopped retailers from cherry-picking high scores no matter who comes up with them. uses no less than seven sources when fishing for members of the 90+ club, including The Wine News, the Connoisseurs Guide and the International Wine Cellar. And in a pinch, is not above turning to an eighth source.

When promoting Capcanes 2001 Costers del Gravet, a Spanish wine, for instance, quoted a well-regarded publication, International Wine Cellar, written by Stephen Tanzer, in its review. But the source of the 91 that earned the 2001 Costers a place on its 90+ list was itself. (The company did not return a call seeking comment.)

Not only are these systems open to overt manipulation, but even the most respected and systemic raters communicate their biases, if inadvertently:

Mr. Parker and the critics from Wine Spectator tend to save their highest ratings for robust-tasting, more intense wines....“That’s another way numbers are misguiding people,” said Mr. Tisherman, the former Wine Enthusiast editor who now calls himself a “recovering critic” and helps clients sponsor wine-tasting parties. “A 96 is better than an 86, but not if you want a light-bodied wine, and Americans tend to prefer light-bodied wines. Yet those are also the wines least likely to get a good score.”

Although I’ve provided several tastings from the article, I’d recommend you quaff the whole thing. It has precision, balance, concentration, power and finesse, with plush layers of currant, mocha, berry, mineral and spice—oh wait, that last part is not about the article; it’s from the description of Wine Spectator’s 2005 wine of the year, Joseph Phelps Insignia Napa Valley 2002.

Did I mention it scored a 96?

[Update, 11/17/2009: The Wall Street Journal covers the results of controlled experiments to determine the (in)consistency of wine judging. One analysis of the same wines’ results across multiple wine competitions showed near-random outcomes.]

Monday, August 7, 2006

Vanity Sizing

As part of my day job, I receive various news about the retailing industry—from which, I bring you the following abuse of numbers, apparently particular to women’s clothing.

ABC News’ Good Morning America recently reported about “vanity sizes” in women’s clothing:

[C]onsidering pop culture’s obsession with thinness, for many women no size is too small.

“I had, one time, a client who said, ‘I get into a 10 now,’ ” said Bridgette Raes, a fashion consultant. “She was originally a size 14. When she could get into a 10, and then into an 8, she was like, ‘I know that it was a lie, I know that this really isn’t a 10, but I love the fact that the label says 10.’”

That may be the thinking behind vanity sizing — which means clothes are cut bigger, but sized smaller.

“Manufacturers and brands are trying to really make women feel good about buying their brand,” said Marshall Cohen, a retail industry analyst. “If you were worried about being a size 14 or 16, I can make you feel great by a size 10 or 12.”

One size 0 could have a waistline of 28 inches, which is, according to American Society of Textile and Material, a size 10.

It’s not a new topic. This article, from The Arizona Republic in 2004, indicates that vanity sizing has been around a long time, and when efforts periodically emerged to (re)standardize women’s sizing, the apparel manufacturers ignored them. By contrast, men’s clothing sizes have largely stayed the same over time.

I suspect most women understand vanity sizing, and per the article, many appreciate it. So among the sins of misusing numbers, stretching the standard-sizing truth is like a white lie that everyone’s in on. After all, if the scale doesn’t lie, clothes can at least fib.