Assorted links

by on March 30, 2013 at 1:21 pm in Uncategorized | Permalink

1. On nitrogen fertilizer.

2. Roberta Smith against the pre-Raphaelites.

3. John Lanchester on Game of Thrones (sorry people, I still don’t seem to care).

4. Why are strikeout rates trending upwards?

5. Is cheese the most stolen food item?

jeff March 30, 2013 at 1:25 pm

Tyler, can we expect a link to the Economist piece on the potential lowering of climate sensitivity estimates? I want to read the comments!

Rahul March 30, 2013 at 2:04 pm

#5. Is cheese the most stolen food item?

On a $-per-volume basis cheese must be fairly high up among non-brand food items.

mw March 30, 2013 at 2:42 pm

1. A very Tyler-esque piece where you just berate the solutions proposed by the organic-crowd (as they partly deserve) while spending, what, 2 sentences? acknowledging the merit of their criticisms of industrial fertilizers (or pesticides for that matter) or proposing better solutions to those very real problems. And of course, also Tyler-esque, providing the required offhanded 1-sentence acknowledgment of the negative role meat-eating plays, as though it were an “aside” rather than a *central* problem.

Michael April 1, 2013 at 12:54 am

I don’t think you read the article. It shows two very real solutions:

1. Use human “bio solids” to close the loop, or

2. Simply use “artificial” Nitrogen, because the “problems” are massively overstated.

The key graph though, which needs to be shouted from the rooftops, is this:

This shift in rationales underscores a key feature of the organic movement. Namely, organic does not establish its objectives (say, environmental sustainability and human health) and commit to supporting the agricultural practices which best achieve those goals, updating its methods as science comes to better understand how these goals might be achieved. Instead, it starts from the axiom that natural is best and adapts to new scientific evidence not by rethinking that heuristic but by updating the measure of its success.

The organic movement is fundamentally anti-science, and full of terrible reasoning and shallow understanding of biology and ecology.

Andrew' April 1, 2013 at 6:02 am

Actually, it seems quite out of character to me. Not having actually spoken to any organic farmers, I’d like to know, but I see it as more of a research program. I don’t think that many of them would be for going cold turkey on industrial methods right now. Just as no reasonable person would propose that now is the time to go cold turkey on to solar panels.

Owen March 30, 2013 at 3:26 pm

1. Strikeout rates are rising in part because sabermetrics has lessened the stigma behind them. Going 1 for 4 with a double, two strikeouts, a flyout, plus a walk, gets you a .250 batting average and the scorn of many a traditional pundit, who calls you a hack-happy slugger and says you should focus on your bat control. The Fangraphs reader and newly-converted-to-sabermetrics GM, by contrast, see a 400 OBP and 500 slugging, both highly respectable. If you have a good eye and learn to take pitches out of the strike zone, while being aggressive on the good pitches, you’ll increase your walk rates and slugging, but Ks will rise too.
2. Hitters at every level are more disciplined and better trained than ever. This weeds out the junkball pitchers, who don’t miss a lot of bats but generate weak contact. What’s left are hard-throwing strikeout pitchers.
3. Defense-independent pitching theory (DIPS), which is about 10 years old, says roughly that pitchers have much less control over the batted balls that they allow than has previously been thought. That is, both good and bad pitchers will average about a .300 average on balls put in play (at least over their career), and the primary driver of performance is their walk and strikeout rates. This hasn’t been officially acknowledged by the baseball hierarchy, but the relative success of strikeout pitchers has led to the tacit acceptance of this point: more K-oriented pitchers are drafted higher, advanced more quickly, etc. Stephen Strasburg is the poster child for this movement. Everyone obviously accepts that he’s good, but sabermetricians saw his raw K power a long way off, and there were some who declared that he was already the league’s best pitcher when he first walked on the mound. His (relative) struggles in his first season thus didn’t alarm them: the Ks were there and the rest would come.

I just read the article and its points about bullpen specialists are also valid. I would add: the playoff failure of the Minnesota Twins is the most dramatic representation of the need for strikeout pitchers. The Twins won their division several time in the past decade by feasting on weak Central Division teams, then lost (usually to the Yankees) in the divisional series, where their strategy of having pitchers who could hit bats failed against very deep lineups of patient hitters. Having strikeout pitchers is an absolute requirement for any championship-caliber team.

Foobarista March 30, 2013 at 4:06 pm

One other comment: strikeouts are rising because “moneyball” strategy encourages walks and taking pitchers to deep counts. If a lot of at-bats go seven or eight pitches, you’re going to get a lot of K’s – and a lot more churn on the hill, which is generally a good thing for the offense as most teams still don’t have great middle relief.

If you chase the starter before the fifth inning because you made him average 20+ pitches each inning, you’ve done your job as an offense, even if you didn’t score a lot of runs while doing it.

Mark Thorson March 30, 2013 at 3:38 pm

I’ve been thinking that a useful invention would be a solar collector that creates nitrate fertilizer. There is an easy way to do this: charge up a capacitor, dump it into a step-up transformer, discharge the spark from the transformer to react atmospheric oxygen and nitrogen over water, use the weak nitric acid formed to water plants. I expect much more efficient methods could be engineered. The advantage of having a small-scale solar-powered nitrate-fixing machine is that you don’t have to haul any fertilizer anywhere. You make the fertilizer at the point of use. Even if the efficiency of the nitrogen-fixation step is low, you make up for it by eliminating transportation cost and environmental impact. This would be a technology well-suited to subsistence farmers in rural areas.

dearieme March 30, 2013 at 3:50 pm

I proposed something like that in a Chemistry examination in 1963. My Chemistry teacher told me “That’s not the answer they were looking for”.

Rahul March 31, 2013 at 12:30 am

A huge number of schemes look great till you run the detailed calculations. Try estimating what size setup you’d need to provide nitrates enough for a small farm.

prior_approval March 31, 2013 at 4:26 am

Operating more or less year round, it should be noted.

Michael April 1, 2013 at 1:00 am

The problem isn’t that we don’t have an efficient way of producing Nitrogen, we are very good at that. The problem is that we got a bunch of uninformed Neo-luddites running around opposing cheap Nitrogen for purely ideological reasons.

Andrew' April 1, 2013 at 6:07 am

How so? So, are you basically saying that peak fossil fuel is false? Does it not trouble you that 1/3 to 1/2 the population exists because of a nearly century old technology that has not improved and relies upon fossil fuel? That doesn’t mean that we need to hasten the day, but I’ve never actually heard anyone suggest we should. The organic people, whether they know it or not, are doing research into maximizing other parts of the equation.

Michael April 1, 2013 at 10:18 am

We are a long, long way from peak fossil fuel, and no, I don’t concern myself with it one bit.

The problem isn’t with future energy reserves, it is with fervent quasi-religious Organic proponents trying to push us onto their ill-defined ideology for a vast array of constantly shifting reasons. See the nut graph from the article that I quoted above. The understanding of ecology and biology that you get from even the best Organic advocates is shockingly superficial.

I like your comment above, though, about Organic being a great “research program”, you are spot on there. The problem is that every organic farmer (I’ve only met a couple) and organic consumer or advocate (I know a couple chefs who push the organic and local ideology), react with shock and anger when I’ve used that characterization, myself.

Algae bloom issues have been markedly reduced by insoluble, time-release Nitrogen fertilizers, runoff issues controlled by no-till farming, and pesticide/herbicide use reduced by GM, etc. The most efficient answers to many of the problems claimed by Organic advocates are available via conventional ag, and that doesn’t count the other examples cited in the article. Meanwhile, the claimed benefits of Organic are rife with bad science.

Organic is mostly an answer in search of a question. An interesting research project, yes, but that is not how it is viewed in the eyes of its supporters.

David March 30, 2013 at 3:58 pm

The idea that fantasy / SF books seem to only have crossover appeal as a series seems to be a fixed cost argument. Buying into some scenario has high up-front costs, but once you buy in you can enjoy thousands of pages based on the initial premises… But most people are only willing to buy into a certain number of ‘fantastic’ scenarios, so it is costly to buy into those premises or to even learn what they are (wait, the dragon has a human mother, what?).

Millian March 31, 2013 at 11:54 am

If it were “fixed costs”, then everyone would enjoy reading a small amount of fantasy. But it seems that some people don’t read fantasy at all, and a smaller number of people enjoy it immensely. Consider if I were an English-speaker, and I give you the prior that I have read Lord of the Rings; does this increase or decrease the probability that I have read “Game of Thrones”? I think it increases the probability, but the fixed-cost argument would say it’s less likely.

joshua March 30, 2013 at 5:12 pm

4. The Times seems to assume that all strike increases are based on an increase in swinging strikes, without mentioning looking strikes at all (unless I missed something). That may be true, and they present arguments for it, but surely it would be trivial to look at the data and confirm that swinging strikes are up and looking strikes are not. If otherwise, perhaps the strike zone is enlarging or something. Perhaps not, but it would be trivial to rule that out and I don’t see evidence that they even considered the distinction.

Roy March 30, 2013 at 6:41 pm

2. I don’t like the Pre Raphaelites very much, and I have since childhood disliked Ruskin, who is weirdly not mentioned at all, but that was both a terrible review and really bad potted art history. Aside for its loathing of the subject matter, it lumps the whole 19th century into one simultaneous ahistoric moment and garbles what historical understanding it has so much as to suggest it just came from misreading the exhibition title cards. On the plus side, Ms. Smith has however proved her mid 20th century art critic bonafides with this one. Extra point for the Thomas Kinkade reference.

Sigivald April 1, 2013 at 6:34 pm

I agree that the review was horrible.

But I come at it from the other side – I prefer the pre-Raphaelite aesthetic to the things she praises*.

Aesthetic? Like that can matter in an art review? Oh, wait…

(* Neither Manet nor Cezanne are bad, by any means. But there’s a reason I have prints of Rosetti, Leighton, and Waterhouse, and not prints of Manet.)

Ashok Rao March 31, 2013 at 6:33 am

I would consider myself part of the relatively large group of people who wouldn’t ever walk towards a “SciFi/Fantasy” section of a Barnes and Noble but have still thoroughly read and enjoyed Lord of the Rings (independent of the film).

It seems pretty wrong to group LotR with other science fiction books (it also doesn’t fit Lanchester’s exception of teen fantasy like Harry Potter or whatever).

To be fair, I think it’s because Lord of the Rings has a reputation of being epic and literary in a way other SciFi literature doesn’t. Until recently (when I read Cory Doctorow), I probably had an unfair stereotype of such literature that I never felt for Tolkein – he always loomed as a literary landmark.

Ricardo April 1, 2013 at 6:37 am

It is amusing to read Modern Library’s two lists of the 100 best novels of the 20th century, one made up of selections by literary elites and another from a popular opinion poll. On the popular opinion poll, LotR is #4 right behind L. Ron Hubbard and Ayn Rand. In the elite list, it isn’t even in the top 100 [the top 4 novels are from Joyce, Fitzgerald and Nabokov].

bkaplovitz March 31, 2013 at 1:04 pm

From The March 25, 2013 Issue of New York Magazine:

The Glass Arm

Inside the art and science (but mostly still art) of keeping pitchers from getting hurt.

By Will Leitch

http://nymag.com/news/sports/pitchers-2013-3/

Michael March 31, 2013 at 6:25 pm

#4: There’s an old saying in baseball, “You can’t walk your way off the island.” If you’re playing for a team in the Dominican Republic, the scouts are going to remember the towering home run. And if you hit it, they may not even remember that your other 3 AB’s were all strikeouts. If you get two groundouts and two walks, the box score will have you down as 0-2, and there will be little to stick out in a scout’s memory even though that’s actually a great on-base-percentage. Hits get noticed, and in a world where players are increasingly coming from around the globe, it’s probably harder than ever to get noticed.

Then again, the recent strikeout leaders haven’t been from “the islands” and people care more about OBP than at any time in baseball’s history. I guess that doesn’t really jive, but Hispanic players, in general, still have the reputation for being free swingers and junk-ball hitters.

I’d wager there’s just as much coming from the pitching side as there is from the hitting side. There’s more bullpen specialists, like the so-called LOOGY (or Lefty One-Out GuY). Pitchers and catchers probably watch more film of each hitter than ever before. They have a good sense of where the hitter has trouble laying off a pitch or where there’s a hole in his swing.
.

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