Wednesday, November 28, 2007

Midweek Diversion

Just a little something to get you through the rest of the week. The essential reading I've stumbled across recently:

Unconventional Crude: Canada's synthetic-fuels boom
By Elizabeth Kolbert

This is a fascinating piece taken from the November 12th issue of the New Yorker. It chronicles the past, present, and future of the tar sands in northern Alberta. It will probably blow your mind to learn that they estimate there to be somewhere in the neighbourhood of 1.7 trillion barrels of synthetic crude mixed in to the 57,000 square miles of tar sands... staggering figures, all of them, and they certainly bode well for the future of the Canadian economy (Canada has become the America's #1 source of imported oil, supplying the U.S. with more crude than all of the nations of the Persian Gulf combined; apparently we're producing more than 1 million barrels a day, and that output will only grow over time).

What doesn't bode well for Canada, nor for the rest of the world for that matter, is the effect that this oil's extraction will have on the Canadian Boreal forest and its inhabitants in particular, and the state of the global climate as a whole.

In his novel Love, ect, Julian Barnes describes The Law of Unintended Effects as those things that we never consider but that happen nonetheless in the wake of our actions... This piece by Elizabeth Kolbert is pretty well a real-life case study, on the most macro of levels, on the law of unintended effects. Aside from the obvious consequences of annihilating the pristine northern landscape, what was most fascinating (read: terrifying) for me was the study which explains how much energy is involved in the production of tar-sands oil. As Kolbert explains: "In the case of tar-sands oil, total greenhouse-gas emissions per barrel - which is to say, the carbon dioxide produced in creating the oil and then burning it - are between fifteen and forty per cent higher than those from conventional oil." Essentially, for every three barrels of oil extracted from northern Alberta, one has, in effect, been consumed. Furthermore, it is estimated that by 2012, tar-sands operations will consume two billion cubic feet of natural gas per day; enough to heat all of the homes in Canada.

Remember that Al Gore movie with all of those catastrophic scenarios that were destined to come to pass if we didn't change our ways? Those climate models were based on the assumtion of our using conventional oil, not this high-energy-emissions-simply-from-the-oil's-production form of crude. So maybe we will be able to circumnavigate the financial implications of peak oil, but will it really matter if the greenhouse emissions increase ten-fold as a result? There won't even be an inhabitable planet on which to enjoy the benefits of this financial windfall.

Unintended effects, to be sure.

The Extortionist
By Ben McGrath

Also taken from the New Yorker (Oct. 29th), this is a somewhat disheartening look into the world of baseball super-agent Scott Boras. Needless to say, this guy is the antithesis of Jerry MaGuire. And it's almost sad in a way because this article was written before A-Rod defected from his camp, and reading it today, knowing that he's missing his biggest asset, it's almost like seing a bully outside of the schoolyard setting, sitting alone on his dysfunctional family's government housing unit's broken down front porch. I mean, you get the feeling that Scott Boras doesn't really have a lot of friends, and to see A-Rod turn his back on him like this... es tu, A-Rod? Nothing $15 million a year in comission won't cure, but still...

If nothing else, Scott Boras cares about his clients. And yeah, maybe he's bitter because he never made it as a ballplayer, and maybe he has almost single-handedly made it impossible for me to afford even a 10-game flex pack of Jays tickets for this upcoming season, but the guy has worked his ass off to get where he is... and I have respect for anyone who studies neuropharmacology while riding the busses in the minors, particularly if they're somewhat embarrassed by their appetite for higher learning and as a result feel the need to cover their text book with a copy of Swank Magazine.

At the very least, Scott Boras has made the game of baseball bigger. Maybe not better, but certainly bigger. Essential reading for anyone even remotely interested in the economics of sports.

The Kick Is Up and It's ... A Career Killer
By Michael Lewis

For my money, there is no better scribe waxing poetic on the topic of sports than Michael Lewis. Liar's Poker wasn't about sports, but it might as well have been (just read the opening chapter). Moneyball is probably the defining book on sabermetrics and the economics of baseball in the early part of the 21st century (which, for the record, I don't buy into - how else do you explain the dismal track record of G.M. and perpetual-excuse-maker J.P. Riccardi?).

But perhaps Lewis's best sports writing appears in his columns which periodically pop up in the New York Times Magazine. I remember my Unkle Mike once handed me a copy of this article entitled "Coach Fitz's Management Theory"... In fact, now that I think of it, that article is so good that it will be included below.

Lewis's latest effort is all about the life of an NFL kicker. It makes for fantastic reading, and is essentially an informed and intellectual take on Adam Sandler's "The Lonesome Kicker". Feel free to skip over the Scott Norwood references if the memory is too painful.

Coach Fitz's Management Theory
By Michael Lewis

I just went back and re-read this article, and my eyes are sweating. Probably the best account I've ever read about a coach having a positive impact on the lives of his players. The Bad-News-Bears-like anecdote about making the players slide headfirst onto the pavement after putting in a lackluster effort is not to be missed. If you're only going to read one piece from this group, I'd suggest this one.

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