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Tuesday, June 24, 2008

Distilled as Much as Possible

Starting Premise:
There is no God. There is no higher purpose to life. We live and die in an endless stream of evolving, interconnected organisms. We eat and will some day be eaten. There is no goal or destination. If you don't buy this premise, and have a higher purpose in life, you probably can't help me here.

There is no good reason to choose to continue living in this random, purposeless universe unless you are either able to enjoy life, or you have reasonable cause to think you will enjoy life again in the future. If you are bedbound due to a car accident, your life may be miserable, but you have a good chance to recover and enjoy life again. If you have advanced Alzheimers-related dementia, you are unlikely to enjoy life ever again.

What is the best way to maximize your enjoyment of life? Hedonism beckons, but we must also use our wisdom to make sure we don't overindulge. Enjoying everything to the maximum extent can cause hurtful consequences. For example, eating twenty cupcakes for breakfast is pleasurable, but being obese can deprive someone of the enjoyment of walking in the mountains.

And... how do we weigh our own level of happiness/satisfaction against that of others? Some methods of achieving maximum enjoyment in life may be hurtful to others. We obviously have responsibility there, as life would be far less simple if we didn't have a supportive society around us. Where would we get the breakfast cupcakes if we didn't have a complex set of social norms encouraging us to cooperate.

What is your path?


Monday, June 16, 2008

All This Talk About Hattiesburg

Made me think of this... the greatest episode of the greatest television show ever. At the 3:55 mark... Hattiesburg makes an appearance and the world changed forever.

And the second greatest episode (thanks to Busta Rhymes):


Games Part Three: MoneyBall

Michael Lewis's book Moneyball has been called scintillating, controversial and "the most important sports book ever written." In fact, it's garnered so much hype over the last few years that, when given a free copy of it, I was actually willing to read it cover to cover... Illiterate though I am.

The book profiles the front office of the Oakland Athletics baseball team... the first team to openly start using modern statistical analysis and probe the question of which baseball skills most directly lead to scoring runs and winning ballgames. Lewis focuses on Billy Beane, the general manager of the team. Beane assembled a team of data crunching Harvard nerds to inform his decisions. He took decision-making responsibilities away from the manager and called most of the shots from upstairs. These pioneers threw out the old cliches and conventional wisdom. Batting average and stolen bases? Worthless... maybe even worse than worthless since those statistics tend to fool old-school talent evaluators... which leads to bad trades and bad contracts. To oversimplify: The new gospel was on-base percentage (which adds all your walks to your batting average - a much more valuable statistic.) And surprisingly, players with unspectacular batting averages often were among the league leaders in on-base percentage. There was a whole crop of underappreciated stars out there... or at least Billy Beane saw them as stars.

Secondly, they looked at how the market compensated athletes for these skills. Players adept at hitting homeruns and stealing bases were commanding disproportionate amounts of money on the free agent market. They went looking for cheap talent, because they didn't have the bucks to compete with the New York Yankees. They signed guys like Scott Hatteberg because he never swung at bad pitches and walked a lot. Wearing down the opposing pitcher (and getting a free base on balls) wasn't an expensive skill in baseball. The A's could afford to sign guys like that... so they did. And they won... a lot.

Michael Lewis spent a lot of time with the A's organization, and learned what General Manager Billy Beane and his assistants Paul DePodesta and J.P. Riccardi were up to. (DePodesta later got a shot to GM for the Dodgers and Riccardi wound up running the Toronto Blue Jays.) And Lewis does not hide his admiration for their zealous adherence to unorthodoxy.

Baseball executives have famously bragged about "not having read the book." Former Mariner's GM Pat Gillick decried it as "in poor taste". Joe Morgan, former all-star second baseman and current broadcaster repeatedly misstated that Billy Beane had written the book, and that he must be one arrogant bastard. Everyone of them felt slighted... since the book implied that the reason Beane was so successful is that everyone else in the old boys network of baseball management was incompetent at best and willfully ignorant at worst. After all, for the A's to beat the odds, they had to be screwing somebody.

However, Lewis's worship breaks down for me when I look at the bigger picture of the importance of games in my life. He sees himself documenting the triumph of reason over stupidity... as if baseball were a reenactment of the Scopes Monkey Trial. Science and reason are unassailable heroes. Lewis salivates at the prospect of Harvard grads with laptops and databases figuring out a smarter way to run a ballclub. He chortles at clubs who were repeatedly fleeced by Billy Beane's famous trades. He points out the genius of Beane's strategy at every point. But it's more like corporate ethics masquerading as science. To be ruthlessly efficient and to exploit market inefficiencies is a pathway to winning ballgames. It's the same path that Wallmart founders used to build an economic juggernaut. There is a science to it, but it isn't a paragon of "the scientific approach." And it may have unforeseen consequences.

The broader impact is that it rips away the facade of baseball. The game of baseball... a child's game played by adults and paid for by fans that want entertainment... isn't supposed to be all about maximizing your market leverage. It's about hometown heroes. It's about clutch performances. It's about which player you want to be when you grow up.

The problem is that no one ever wanted to be Scott Hatteberg.

And I dug up some actual data to make this case:

In the seven seasons from 2000-2006, the A's had a monster run... They sustained a near .600 winning percentage despite their woeful payroll. They made the playoffs five of those seven seasons. During that time span the league-average yearly attendance was around 2.3 million fans. Oakland averaged a meager 2.1 over that time frame. Their season total attendance eclipsed league average exactly once... in 2003, the year after they had won 103 games. In 2006, a year when they won 93 games and the division title, they actually drew less than 2 million fans... one of the worst showings in the league. Despite their amazing success in the win column, fans really didn't care. They didn't show up because watching guys take walks and go from base to base rather than risk an exciting stolen base attempt is boring. As much as I have tried to like this team (I always root for underdogs) I was never able to latch on to any of their players either.

Compare this to 1988-92, when Tony LaRussa's club made it to the post-season four out of five years. Jose Canseco and Mark McGwire powered a high-octane offense. Rickey Henderson stole every base in sight. These were a rip-snorting, steroids-injecting bunch of bashers. The average attendance per year for that half-decade was significantly above league-average (about 2.6 million fans per season compared to a league-average of 2.2 million.) People just 12 years earlier had shown up in droves for this same team.

Billy Beane decided somewhere along the line that winning ballgames was the most important goal... Win and everybody's happy. The Mariner's front office conversely seems to have decided that making money is the bottom line, so they worry more about drawing 3+ million fans every year than they do about winning. They put more thought into their funny advertising campaign each year than they do the annual draft.

Personally, I find that the real bottom line... the line that everyone keeps smudging... is entertainment. Professional baseball shouldn't exist. It's ridiculous that we pay grown men tens of millions of dollars a year to play a kid's game. It's ridiculous that I follow it as closely as I do. The only reason I pay any attention to this game is for its entertainment value.

Beane and company are changing the way the game is played behind the scenes (constantly evaluating the market to see what skills are undervalued.) They're also changing the way the game is played on the field (fewer stolen base attempts, more emphasis on taking pitches.) These changes have resulted in more wins. More wins means that other teams are adapting to this approach. Already on-base percentage has become overvalued and the A's have had to start searching for other interesting stats. It's an ever evolving process of trying to outshark the next guy.

The problem is that walks are a loophole. They are a penalty invented by the framers of the game. They aren't what baseball is supposed to be about. The core of the game, which is what made the game popular in the first place, is a pitcher trying to throw the ball past a guy doing his best to knock the stuffing out of it. Walks are boring. They slow down an already glacial game even more. And yet, Beane's success is changing the landscape of baseball so that more and more players are trained to look for walks. This is, as reflected in the attendance data cited above, BAD FOR BASEBALL... because baseball is still about entertainment and walks can never replace the core dynamic of the game.

Hopefully this has just been a market-correction blip, rather than a permanent change. Otherwise baseball is in trouble. Someone upset the applecart and now Bud Selig and the rest of the game's leadership is going to be hardpressed to fix it. Michael Lewis sees this as something to celebrate... a new kind of enlightenment. I don't think I can agree.

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Friday, June 13, 2008

YouTube Rescues Lazy Blogger

If this doesn't bring tears to your eyes, you are a monster. Really... you're a despicable human being.


Monday, June 02, 2008

Games Part Two

Beyond the world of sports, children's games also help us develop the necessary life skills for future success. Playing Jacks helps children develop manual dexterity and counting skills. Hopscotch is both good exercise and a simple lesson in spacial relations. Playing with blocks prepares us for the complex world of civil engineering. And did you ever consider that your Hot Wheels collection might be the perfect learning tool to be a municipal traffic planner? And how about cards... what boy didn't learn that "bigger is better" in a friendly game of War; and what girl didn't play that helpful cautionary tale, Old Maid?

But my favorite were the boardgames. Milton Bradley was more than just a household name for me... he was my life coach. Without all the endless boring hours of Hasbro's Monopoly, I would be hard pressed to handle a career as a high-stakes real estate developer, wouldn't I? And how about the game Sorry... Ever wonder why so many people are adept at being insincerely apologetic when they've just screwed you over? Next time, just ask them what their favorite Parker Brothers game was! And perhaps the most useful was John Spinello's creation, Operation... teaching kids (since 1965!) how to avoid lethal electrocution when you just have to stick a fork in your toaster to fish out a broken piece of Pop Tart.


The Importance of Games Part One

Late at the bar, after a bruising night of basketball, the question arises: "Who's the greatest athlete of all time?" The answers fly... Jim Thorpe, Jim Brown, Bo Jackson, Barry Sanders (my pick), Michael Jordan, Muhammad Ali, Jesse Owens, Pele, Gretsky... the argument goes on. No one mentions Sergei Bubka (who was absolutely dominating in his field) because pole vaulting is too much of a specialized skill. No one says Kasparov because concentration and competitiveness are not enough to make someone a world-class "athlete". Someone says Tiger Woods and I groan loudly. I counter with Lance Armstrong and the rest of the table groans.

I ponder the etymology of the question. What are we really asking here? Why do we put so much stock into someone's ability to excel at sports? What are we actually measuring when we ask who is the "best"? Wilt Chamberlain scored 100 points in a game, but Bill Russell won eleven championships. Which feat is more impressive?

And one level deeper: why do we play these games? What purpose do they serve? Why do we admire these athletes to the point of paying them tens of millions of dollars per year? All I can come up with is that games (and specifically sports) are so important to us because they play two indispensable roles in society: we use them as indoctrination for our youth, and we use them in our adulthood as a way to sublimate our human blood lust into socially acceptable outlets.

The second path (sublimation) is most prevalent among middle-aged men who follow sports religiously. We have fantasy teams, watch ESPN highlights nightly and attend several games a year in person. We are looking for gladiators here. We follow athletes that act as our avatar on the battlefield. We honor athletic endeavors that are thinly veiled approximations of warfare. Football is perhaps the most warlike... with its sideline generals, teams comprised of field leaders, grunts and "skill guys" who use speed and deception to outflank the front lines and wreck havoc in enemy territory. Many sports like basketball, soccer and hockey follow a similar "penetrate the defense and attack the goal" model. Boxing, wrestling and martial arts are a stripped down version of the man-to-man "erete in combat" that the Greeks used to wax on about. The qualities we measure in our sports heroes are guile, speed, strength, endurance, coordination, mental discipline, and leadership... exactly what the US Army is looking for in their special units recruits.

As for the other path... the training (conditioning?) of our nation's youth... I reflect on my own childhood and see these same qualities being glorified as far back as 3rd grade. That was the year that I finally caught five balls during our morning "Flies Up" game... when one boy would huck a football as far and high as he could and all the other kids would crowd beneath, shoving and kicking and biting, and attempt to catch the ball. Whoever was tough, fast or lucky enough to catch five had the privilege of being the next to throw it. When I finally got my chance, the crowd gathered at a medium distance (unsure of what to expect of me.) I wound up and threw it ten yards beyond the furthest kid back, drawing a few oohs and ahhs from the crowd. The next day, during the longer lunchtime recess when we all played football, I was invited to play quarterback for the first time. This was an extreme honor, and something that young boys took very seriously. And even though I could throw the ball a long way, I didn't have the leadership and play-calling chops to survive long at the position before being ousted. Still, one week of getting to play QB was the highlight of the year for this 8 year old.

I don't know why it mattered so much... or what flaw in my character allowed me to accept being demoted without a fight. Perhaps I am missing the gene that allows Hillary to keep slugging even with her chances fading and the pressure to quit mounting. Maybe this is the Rocky Balboa gene? But I kept playing football, and developed a kind of respect for the early manifestations of athleticism we prepubescent boys displayed. I respected Jason Lindblad's speed, Eugene Madayag's size and power, and Mike Forbes' trickery in baiting opposing quarterbacks into throwing him the ball even though he was on the opposing team. And it even started making sense to me when some games would deteriorate into fist fights (this started happening in the fourth grade.) I wasn't involved in any of these fights... but it is curious that it didn't even seem "wrong" to me. After all, I was a very pacifistic child... I didn't even kill ants or torture grasshoppers the way other boys did. Along side the rest of my elementary schoolmates, I was being trained to respect athletic success beyond academic or artistic excellence... and way beyond simple traits like honesty, humility, common sense or decency.

As I endured high school, it was sickeningly apparent that popularity was entirely controlled by the jocks... those who had demonstrated and cultivated athletic aptitudes since the third grade. Luckily, as a nerd, it was easy to opt out. Popularity really didn't matter to us. We accepted that sports, dances, student government and pep-rallies weren't made for us... And they accepted that biology, foreign languages, mathematics, physics, history, acting, painting, and literature weren't made for them. It amazes me to this day how much importance my school (and our society) placed on these athletes... It's almost as difficult as understanding why I continue to play so many of these sports, and why it feels so good (as a 34 year old social worker fergawdsake) to have hit a game-tying home run in the final inning of my softball game last night.