Sunday, December 16, 2012

On Politicizing Tragedy

After the school shootings in Connecticut, there were some calls for gun control, followed by some accusations of politicizing the tragedy, with the response coming that politics is essentially how things get done, so what these naysayers are doing is essentially ensuring nothing ever gets done when there is energy to do so.  People responded to things like terrorist attacks politics; why not something as horrific as the killing of a score of children?

And I agree.  If someone genuinely believes that tighter gun control laws would prevent or mitigate events like this, and is willing to work diligently to pass them, then by all means go for it with my admiration.

But, risking some offense against charity, this is not how I would categorize much of the advocacy I've been seeing.

A lot of what I have been seeing is an effort to pin the tragedy on Those People who oppose gun control.  There's some mention that some gun control might stop this, followed by an immediate lamentation that such a thing would never happen here, because, you know, Those People would never let it.  The invocation of 9/11 gives the game away.  I suspect most of those making such an argument would not regard the period following 9/11 as the zenith of policy-making wisdom.  Why would we want to repeat the process that produced two wars, the modern TSA, color-coded terror warnings, torture, the Patriot Act, and probably a bunch of things I'm not thinking of?  This is less an argument for the wisdom of policies than a whine from a younger brother that his older brother got to overreact to a tragedy, so why can't he?

On the morning of the shootings, Conor Friedersdorf wrote what I think is a prescient post about how cultural traditionalist need to make persuasive arguments rather than simply expressing disgust.  If you really want to enact controls to stop attacks, it won't do to just talk about how awful the NRA is.  You're going to have to do the hard work of convincing people, and working some changes through the legislative process.  Those willing to do that have my admiration; those who stop at name-calling do not.


While common sense does suggest that reducing access to powerful weapons would at a minim um make such massacres more difficult, I do think we need to go deeper.

As a pro-life veteran, I have heard many times that simply banning something does not remove the desire for it.  That those wishing to end something must also work to address the root causes of the behavior, and work against those.

Our society is apparently producing people who think shooting up a kindergarten is a swell idea.

That reveals a fundamental sickness -- not just in the people who commit these crimes, but in our society.  That someone would entertain such a thought for half a second reveals a radical disconnection from children and what care goes into them.

Tighter gun control laws may limit the damage such people can do, and that is certainly a worthwhile goal.  But it addresses a symptom, not the disease.

Of course, the problem is that I don't know the best way to treat this disease.  I have some ideas, mostly grounded more in how we treat each other in daily life than federal policies, but I honestly don't know if that will work.

I wish I could say the problem is that Those People won't let us enact sensible gun control, but in my heart I know that's not the fundamental problem.

Taking my Talents To South Lake Union (Amazon in Seattle)

I have been offered and accepted a position to work for Amazon at their offices in  Seattle on their customer service applications.  I will be moving there in early January, with the rest of my family joining me at the end of the school year.

This is obviously a very big and important decision for us.  We have built a life here in St. Louis and been surrounded by wonderful people, and it is not easy to think about leaving it behind.

I came to St. Louis for the first time in 1993, almost twenty years ago.  In that time I have graduated college, gotten married, had two children, held six full time jobs, been a part of two different faith communities, helped people become Catholic, taught many children and adults about both the faith and software development, and learned from many along the way.  In leaving the St. Louis community, I am leaving behind a good part of who I have been.

But I think this is the best move for me to continue the growth that has happened here.  I will have an opportunity to work on a critical application for one of the companies that is shaping the present and future.   This will also put me close to the ocean, and close to some of my in-laws.  We will be surrounded by many of the sharpest professionals in my field.

Reflecting on my time in St. Louis, I am quite thankful for many people who have welcomed me and helped me and our family grow.  In particular:

  • The faith communities at the Catholic Student Center at Washington University, and Holy Spirit Parish
  • My co-workers at the jobs I have had over the years, in particular the people at MasterCard and BJC, with whom I shared five years each.
  • The school communities the girls have been a part of, especially their current school of Rose Acres.
As I plan my move to Seattle, I bring a bit of you with me.  I ask you to keep me and our family in your prayers (particularly this week as Meagan goes in to the hospital for an IV "tune up"), and you will be in mine.

Wednesday, November 21, 2012

Examination of Conscience on Todd Akin and Calumny

In recent discussions on Todd Akin's infamous response to the question of abortion in the case of rape, I stand accused of serial calumny against Rep. Akin, to the point where the host considered blocking me in order to protect me from further damaging my soul.  What follows is an unavoidably biased examination of my own conscience with regards to that charge.

Putting My Cards on the Table

On the immediate matter of abortion in the case of rape, I am in agreement that the right of the unborn to be killed should not be dependent on the circumstances of conception. I understand that carrying a child to term under these circumstances is a heroic act, and am troubled by the notion of the criminal law requiring such heroism even if the moral law does. So I am honestly torn about the most prudent way to proceed on securing the right to life for all of the unborn. I also agree that the amount of attention this question receives is disproportionate to the frequency with which it comes up in real life.

I did not support Rep. Akin's candidacy for the Senate. I voted for another candidate in the primary, and third party candidate in the general election. He has been my representative for the past ten years. I think I have voted for him in most or all of these elections, and I don't recall him being seriously challenged.

My recollections of his time in the House is that I was aware of his uncompromising positions on behalf of the unborn, but not much other leadership as that stands. (This does not mean that it didn't exist, but whatever there was did not make it to me, a rather well-informed constituent.)  The positions I remember him on was his opposition to TARP, on which I disagreed with him but it now appears he may be vindicated on, and his introduction of a bill to require recipients of government benefits (children included) to prove their legal immigration status, with which I vehemently disagreed, and continue to.  I am not aware of any positions he has or had that are a significant break from the conventional Republican positions.

This is better than being pro-choice, but I did not and do not see him as about to usher in a new pro-life era. I found his statements to be manifestations of the same flaws (a bit of cold-heartedness, general lack of savvy and awareness of things outside the conservative bubble).  I think that promoting someone like Rep. Akin as a leader would ultimately do more harm than good to the cause for the unborn.

The Discussions In Question

Probably the best thing to do is go to this post and follow the links.  An earlier discussion is here.

In general, the behavior that is highlighted as problematic is my contention that Akin's "legitimate rape" comment implied one of two things:
  1. Pregnancies from rape are impossible.
  2. Pregnancies from rape are too rare to be worth considering.

The Charge 

The host of theses discussions has said such statements are calumny because they do not reflect what Rep. Akin actually said, nor do they 100% deductively flow from the text of his statements, and fail to account for Rep. Akin's next statement, wherein he does address the question, nullifying the claim that he was saying he didn't address it.


By my reading of the definition of the Catholic Encyclopedia, two factors must be in place for the sin of calumny:

  1. The person must be uttering something he knows to be untrue; there is an attempt to deceive others about a matter of fact.
  2. The intent must be to injure another person's good name.

In my judgement, neither of these factors apply in this case.

The discussion surrounds comments that are a matter of public record, indeed among the few most publicized and discussed comments that have been made this year.  Some of the discussions included verbatim transcripts and / or embedded video of the comments in question. Even if I wanted to deceive others about the contents of Rep. Akin's answer, I could quickly be debunked by a variety of means.

As for my intent, it is more about Rep. Akin's fitness for leadership in general and a Senate seat in specific than his name as a person.  I have no reason to believe that Rep. Akin is anything other than a wonderful human being, good father, etc.  I have no reason to want others to think otherwise, either.

I also suspect most people's opinions of Rep. Akin are pretty fixed at this point, and are not going to change based on my commentary.  I'm not positive it is literally impossible to commit the sin of calumny against Rep. Akin by discussing these comments with relatively informed people, but I think it's pretty darn close.  

Now, I do believe that Rep. Akin's flaws that this statement highlighted make him a poor choice as a pro-life leader, and I would like others to share this judgement.  In my view, this is a discussion more about the parameters of what is prudent to expect from our leaders than it is about the person of Todd Akin.  I understand there is a temptation to slip into a more personal discussion, but I think I avoided that in my comments.

More directly, the disagreement is about what inferences we might from the comments rather than the comments themselves.  These are inferences that I sincerely hold, even if some may think they are incorrect.  In my opinion, this is what discussion at its best, both online and otherwise is all about -- we check our assumptions, remaining open to correction from others, and hopefully get closer to the truth.  This doesn't mean we always agree, but hopefully come to some clarity about the source of our disagreements.  If expressing what inferences we draw from statements is a mortal sin, then we need to shut down our blogs and comment sections.

Fine, you might say.  But the result wouldn't be that we would all have hour minds more closely aligned with the truth.  It's that we would continue to hold our inferences without checking them against those who draw different inferences.

So, I would argue with granting a little slack on some of the verbal sins when discussing widely circulated statements made by public figures.  This doesn't mean we have the right to make things up and trash their reputations, or to think of them as abstractions rather than actual human persons, but I don't think it's sinful to talk about it if we draw an inference from them that's not altogether flattering to the speaker.

The Verdict

In some of my comments, I failed to account for the second sentence of Rep. Akin's statement, in which he says the rapist should be punished rather than the child.  I would say this puts me perilously close to rash judgment, though even that is probably something less than an open an shut case, since what I imputed to Rep, Akin had more to do with his skill as a politician than his moral character.  Still, probably close enough that it's a valid subject at my next opportunity for confession.

On the other hand, I do find myself not guilty of calumny, in that I expressed things I believe to be true, did not intend to harm the reputation of Rep. Akin, and find it very unlikely that I did indeed harm his reputation.

Thursday, November 08, 2012

Math! Numbers! Signal! Noise!

There's been a fair amount of gloating about how Nate Silver's election models were vindicated by the actual results of the election.  Silver's defenders have claimed this is a victory for numbers, data, math, science, and rationality over intuition and sentimentality.

This plays nicely into the current preferred narratives regarding the parties.  The GOP is home to creationists and climate change deniers, so the Democrats see themselves as the defenders of science, and Republicans as the troglodytes favoring what they wish was true over what has been empirically demonstrated to be the case.  Republicans criticizing a complicated election model predicting an Obama victory aligns perfectly with this vision.

Of course, the parties don't play these roles in all cases.  For example, Republicans are more likely to push for evaluating schools and teachers based on test scores, whereas Democrats are inclined to be more skeptical.  This isn't (necessarily) because Democrats are opposed to numerical analysis, but because they believe that standardized tests do not capture the whole of the effectiveness of a school or teacher, and that student achievement is influenced by a number of factors, and it is unfair to base our evaluation of teachers and schools on something they may have little or no control over.

This echoes the more thoughtful criticisms of Nate Silver's models.  Yes, there were some suggesting that big rally crowds were a more important indicator than all the polling data. But others challenged whether the inputs were valid -- specifically, they challenged whether the polls that were the main input to the model were correctly accounting for party ID (Not having a particular dog in this fight, I didn't follow this debate terribly closely, and am not terribly inclined to relive it now, but my idea was that this was the main beef).  The critics turned out to be wrong about that.  But their error was not a refusal to accept data and numbers and empirical evidence, but a simple error of what inputs matter and a degree of wishful thinking.

As has been noted, Silver worked in baseball sabermetrics* before modelling elections.  That all baseball teams now incorporate statistical analysis into their decision making is cited as vindication for their methods.

And yes, it is true that the validity of statistical analysis is now widely accepted.  But that doesn't mean that there weren't some missteps along the way.  The Oakland Athletics were the first to move to this model, but weren't able to parlay that advantage into world championships.  A look at the most successful franchises over the past decade include some, notably the Boston Red Sox, who embraced these tactics, and others that didn't.

In any instance, in his 2000 Baseball Abstract, Bill James included a listing of the top 50 players at each position using his newly developed Win Shares system.  James started by explaining the system, which included a "subjective component," which allowed James to fudge the numbers a bit for players whose impact on the game may have escaped the statistics.  An obvious application of this was African American players who arrived in the majors after Jackie Robinson, and likely lost a good chunk of their careers to segregation.

James pointed out that this was not the truly subjective portion of the formula.  The truly subjective portion of it was James coming up with the formula for the not explicitly portions of the formula.  This necessarily included James' assumptions about what statistics mattered in evaluating a player's performance, which ones do not, and the relative weights of those that do.

I think this is an important lesson that I hope we don't forget in light of Silver's vindication.

Just because something is a numerical model doesn't mean it must be blindly accepted by all wishing to claim to be rational.  I could have constructed a model of the presidential election based entirely on the height of the candidates, or their weight, or the populations of their home states, or any other tangential data points (even the size of the crowds at rallies the week before the election) .  I could have done extensive analysis of how these numbers correlate to election results, and come out with a predictive numerical answer as a probability for each candidate's victory.

Or, for another example:

But even though this model is based on data and evidence, it would be close to worthless, and criticizing it would not be synonymous with rejecting rationality and science.  The current manner of giving teachers raised based on seniority and certifications is empirical in its own way, just that it's based on data that many believe has little to do with effective teaching.

In fact, may would claim that the opinion of an expert observer would likely be superior. My (non-empircal!) suspicion is that the continuum of accuracy alternates between different qualities of models, and opinions from people with different levels of expertise.  The best scout is better than the worst statistical model, and the best statistical model is better than the worst scout.

Nate Silver's success isn't based on his willingness to base his predictions on data and math; it is in selecting the data points that are relevant and rejecting those that are not, and weighting those data points appropriately (hence the title of his book being "The Signal and the Noise").

The model is based on numbers.  But which numbers matter is determined by a person, and can be subject to feedback and refinement. It is unlikely someone would get this exactly right the first time. It is both valid and proper to challenge the assumptions of certain models. In baseball, the test is the game. In this case, the test is the election. Silver passed; his critics failed.

If the lesson we draw from this is that we must trust all conclusions from models based on data, that's the wrong lesson. Rather, it we should credit Silver and others for basing his model on the right data.

* I have my own reservations about sabermetrics.  I don't have a problem with it informing team management decisions, but challenge that fan conversations, and even all-star elections and postseason awards must be statistically based.  Being a sports fan is supposed to be fun, not a grim business analysis.  If a guy wins the Triple Crown and leads his team to the World Series, give him the MVP, for crying out loud, even if RBI is a team-dependent statistic, and batting average is not a good proxy for offensive effectiveness.

Sunday, November 04, 2012

Omnibus Election Post...

Haven't been blogging much, but some of these thoughts are a little too big for Twitter, so I'll throw them here.

First, the spoilery details:

My Vote:  I will not be voting for either major candidate in either the presidential election or the Missouri Senate election.  You probably don't particularly care about anything else.

My Prediction:  Regardless of how effective a president he is/was/will be, Barack Obama, as the first African American president, will go down in history as a heroic figure. Conversely, those opposed to him will be remembered as villains.  I tend to believe that's why the Republican nomination field was so weak -- who wants to be remembered as Dixie Walker to Barack Obama's Jackie Robinson?

If Obama is not re-elected, if we fire our first African American president, then future generations are going to ask why.  And, I don't think Mitt Romney is or has provided a satisfactory answer.  So, I think Obama will will by a more comfortable margin than the polls or other metrics indicate.

More below the fold...

Saturday, June 09, 2012

LeBron, Wilt, Russell, and Santana's no-hitter.

On Thursday night, LeBron James had the most dominant basketball performance in a basketball game I have ever seen.  He scored 45 points and grabbed 15 rebounds, but that doesn't begin to capture the degree to which he imposed his will on the game.  In a game with future Hall of Famers Paul Pierce, Dwyane Wade, Kevin Garnett, Ray Allen, and emerging superstar Rajon Rondo, it was almost as if James was the only player on the floor, with the exception of a few flashes of brilliance from Rondo.  It appeared that he could do anything he wanted to on the court, and he actually did.

And he seemed to derive about the same amount of joy from doing that as I did in typing that last paragraph.  As Joe Posnanski put it:

When LeBron has played beautiful basketball, it always looked like so much fun. He has that gift of transmitting joy and happiness; nothing in the world looks more fun than playing basketball like LeBron at his best. Thursday, did not look fun. Maybe it was, maybe it wasn’t, but in the end that was entirely irrelevant. The Heat won big. The series is going back to Miami. LeBron had imposed his will. And fun had nothing to do with it.
Our best basketball player is dominant, but has no sens of joy or fun about it.

Because, you see, probably more so than any other athlete but not not completely unlike other athletes, James will be solely judged by how many championships he wins.  Yes, his performance in Game 6 was transcendent,  but all it did was get his team to Game 7.  Which he must also lead his team to win, and then conquer the Oklahoma City Thunder (and rival for best player Kevin Durant) to be successful.  If he doesn't do that, then his Game 6 performance means nothing, according to modern sports commentary.

This is a shame.

Yes, James brought a lot of this on himself, with his Decision to join Wade on the Heat and his "not one, not two..." proclamations afterwards.  But I think those were more a product of the current sports culture than James' personality.

And that culture is this notion that the only thing that matters in sports, for both teams and athletes, is championships.

It didn't used to be this way.  We used to celebrate athletes who entertained and put up great numbers and still didn't win championships.  Dan Marino.  The young John Elway. Dominque Wilkins. Charles Barkley. Ryne Sandberg.  That the college football season ended without a definitive national champion was a reason to debate the merits of the competing teams, not an injustice that the president needed to speak about.

The focus on championships sprung from a noble instinct -- probably best exemplified by the Bill Russell - Wilt Chamberlain debate.  Wilt Chamberlain was all about himself, and filled up a stat sheet like nobody else.  Russell dominated the defensive end, and led his team to championships.  Wilt did things like set out to lead the league in assists and never foul out of a game, to the detriment of his team's goals.  Russell only cared about winning.

So, as a culture, we rendered the historical verdict that Russell was a superior player to Wilt, and we want our young players to emulate Russell instead.  And we continue to celebrate "team first" players who win championships but might not fill up a stat sheet.  Derek Jeter.  Robert Horry. Derek Fisher. Scottie Pippen. Tim Duncan. Mark Messier.  For others, we construct narratives about players who started out being all about themselves, then learned to trust their teammates and play a more balanced game to help their teammates win.  This is the story of Michael Jordan, Kobe Bryant, John Elway, Steve Yzerman.  And we punish players who never seem to get it -- Vince Carter, Alex Ovechkin, and now LeBron, until he wins a championship.

I think this is the culture that brings us to a place where LeBron James can have the best game anyone can remember, and not celebrate it.  James shares Wilt's ability to dominate the game, but doesn't want to share Wilt's legacy as someone who couldn't translate that into championships.  Defenders of Wilt will say that Russell had a "better taste in teammates," which is a way of saying that the difference in championships is due to matters beyond Russell and Wilt's control.  But in 2010, James did have a chance to choose his teammates, and he chose another Hall of Famer and another All Star, likely in part to maximize his chances of winning a championship, knowing that's how he will ultimately be judged.

There are other manifestations of this "all about championship" culture that I don't think are good:

  • Playoff teams resting players in the final regular season games that "don't matter."
  • Teams tanking to position themselves to draft a great player.
  • Players exerting less effort in regular season games to save themselves for later games.
  • Sequences like the end of this year's Super Bowl -- where one team tries to let the other team score, and the other team tries not to, to manage the clock to try to win.
  • Other non-competitive gimmicky video game strategies like fouling when leading by three points, taking safeties, etc.
But there are signs of hope.  Last Friday night, Mets manager Terry Collins allowed Johann Santana to throw over 130 pitches to complete a no-hitter against the Cardinals, the first in the Mets 50+ year history.  In terms of positioning the Mets for a championship, this was probable not an optimal strategy.  Santana missed last season with arm trouble, and would be a necessary part of any pennant chase or playoff run the Mets make.  And while nobody seems to have figured out how to keep pitchers healthy, there's a general consensus that high pitch count games are considered harmful.

But it was still a great moment, as Mets fans celebrated this achievement, close to as much as they celebrated the team's two World Series Championships.  And, even as a Cardinals fan, I enjoyed watching it.

These random moments of brilliance are as much a reason why we enjoy sports as a long, disciplined march to a championship.  They can pop up in a Friday night baseball game in June, or Game 6 of the Eastern Conference Championships.

As sports fans, we should enjoy them, without immediately jumping to calculate how they translate into championships.  And the athletes should celebrate them, even if they're not all directly ordered toward winning a championship.  But if we adopt the attitude that the only thing that matters is championships, we will close ourselves off to moments like this.

I'm glad we got Santana's no-hitter.   And I wish both we as fans and LeBron James himself could enjoy and celebrate his masterful performance in Game 6.

Tuesday, June 05, 2012

Rules For Fans In Same Color Shirts

This year's NBA and NHL seems to be setting a high-water mark for teams pulling the "dress all our fans in the same color" gimmick, and I think it's time we established some rules.

  1. Keep in mind that the Celtics, Lakes, Bulls, Canadiens, Devils, Yankees, and most teams that have enjoyed post-season success have managed to do so without this.  It is a mark of a second tier franchise, that thinks it needs secondary things like this to generate excitement during the playoffs, when it should not be necessary.
  2. Encouraging fans to wear their own shirts of the provided color is preferable to putting the same shirt on the seats before the game.  The former is an impressive show of solidarity; the latter is kind of creepy.
  3. Similarly, having patterns of different colors in different sections was cool once, but now is essentially turning your fans into props, and is thus lame.
  4. You can do this gimmick if your team has a distinctive color, or your team is strongly identified with that color.  If you're one of half the NBA or NHL teams whose color is blue, no dice.
  5. Under no circumstances should you dress your fans in the color the opposing team is wearing.  I'm looking at you, Dallas Mavericks and Oklahoma City Thunder.
  6. Only one team can pull this off per color, and the following teams have dibs:
    • Red -- St. Louis Cardinals
    • Black -- Kings
    • Orange -- Flyers
    • Yellow -- Pacers

      White is an interesting case.  The Heat were the first NBA team to do the gimmick.  The Phoenix Coyotes took the tradition with them from Winnipeg.  And now Winnipeg has the Jets again.

      But NHL teams wear dark at home now, so an NHL team wearing white would be in violation of Rule #4, so the Heat get white.
These are the rules; teams breaking them are open to ridicule, and screwing up their team's karma.

Tuesday, May 29, 2012

Support Me As I Cycle For Life!

I'm asking you to support me as I Cycle For Life on 06/16/2012 to raise money for Cystic Fibrosis research by either joining me on the rid or donating.

Yes, we just finished the Great Strides Walk, but I wanted to also take part in this. Why?
For one, a big part of Meagan maintaining her health will be maintaining physical activity, and I want to be a good role model for her in that.

Two, this is a very exciting time for Cystic Fibrosis research, with promising medications in trials with promising results (

So, as I challenge myself physically to take part in this ride, I challenge you to join me or contribute to the Aptalis CF Cycle For Life® on 06/16/2012
Thank you,
John McGuinness
Be the first one! Click Here to donate.

The Human Cost of Victory..

On Twitter, St. Louis Post-Dispatch Cardinals beat writer Joe Strauss has aired suspicions that the Cardinals heavy use of Fernando Salas in their drive to the World Series (and to a lesser extent jerking Kyle McClellan from the starting rotation to the bullpen) has contributed to their problems this year.

I'll say what the Cardinals management can'ts ay:  If we assume this is true, it was worth it.

From the Cardinals perspective, only one out of the thirty teams each year wins the World Series, and a handful have a legitimate shot of doing so.  The Cardinals last year:

  • Overcame an 8 1/2 game deficit in the final month of the season to claim the NL's final playoff spot on the last day of the season by a single game.
  • Won the divisional series over the Phillies in 5 games (the maximum), with the fifth game being a 1-0 victory.
  • Won the LCS over the Brewers in a relatively comfortable six games.
  • Won the World Series over the Rangers in seven games, including an improbable come from behind win in 11 innings in Game 6.

Obviously, the Cardinals had little margin for error, or conserving their use of some players to ensure their future success.  It's possible that if Salas pitched even one fewer inning in 2011, there'd be one fewer banner hanging at Busch Stadium.

But so what?  I'm not one who believes that championships are everything.  What if the Cardinals ruined Salas's career?  Just for one measly championship?

Well, it seems that the pitcher who enjoys a long, injury-free career is a freak among freaks.  It seems that every pitcher, no matter how carefully he is used, or how strong he is, eventually succumbs to an arm injury.  Throwing a baseball with the speed and movement major league baseball pitchers do seems to be something most humans can only do so many times.  Most pitchers will ultimately break down, and nobody's figured out how to prevent it yet, or what to do to stop it.

Plus, this isn't Stephen Strasburg we're talking about.  Salas bounced between various roles in the Cardinals' bullpen last year, eventually landing in a middle relief /setup man role, and that's probably where his future lies.  Try to name five pitchers who have sustained success in that role over several years.  If pitchers are volatile and tend to break down, relief pitchers are even more volatile.   Teams spend millions to construct a bullpen, only to see them break down.  Others construct their bullpens from cast-offs and career minor leaguers, and see great success.  

So from the Cardinals perspective, it certainly seems worthwhile to risk the possible future career of a middle reliever to make a successful run at a World Championship.

But what about Salas's perspective?

Well, reading things like Bob Ojeda's reflections on his career, and reflecting on my own experience, my suspicion is he would say it's worth it as well.

There's only so many chances a player may have to win a World Championship. Would Salas be happier if the Cardinals finished a game or two out of the Wild Card last year, and he was enjoying similar individual success this year?  Maybe, but I suspect not.  

I think the same is true for all of us.  We will have a finite number of opportunities to be part of something truly extraordinary, and it will require some sacrifice for us.  We can pass, in order to preserve the opportunity to continue to produce mediocrity, or we can "go all in" and commit ourselves to making this extraordinary thing happen, and worry about tomorrow tomorrow.

The Cardinals and Fernando Salas chose to pursue a championship in 2011, even at a possible cost to his future production.  I think they made the right call, and it challenges me to do the same.

Why Stack Overflow Is Doomed

Stack Overflow / Stack Exchange has two goals, which can sometimes be in tension.

  1. Cultivate a pool community of contributors, and motivate them to produce high quality questions and answers.
  2. Be an authoritative source of questions and answers.
The problem is that sometimes the contributors recruited in Goal #1 want to post content that is not strictly a factual question or answer. Sometimes we want to do polls; sometimes we want to post jokes; sometimes we want to discuss questions that do not have a definitive answer.

The way SO/SE has elected to address this is through aggressive moderation, and when people complain, to lecture us about how this aggressive editing is what makes SO/SE great and prevents it from devolving as other sites have in the past, and that these other contributions are "making the internet worse."  (Joel gets extra points here by posting his lecture outside the SO / SE network, so as to model that this is the type of content that does not belong in SO / SE.

There are a couple problems with this.

First, people are attracted to SO / SE by the content that is there rather than the content that isn't.  Does it help that users don't have to wade through a bunch of garbage to get to the pearls of wisdom?  Sure.  Would it matter if there wasn't worthwhile content there in the first place? No.

Second, what SO / SE is saying to its "community" is that we don't want all of you.  We just want the part of you that attracts hits from Google and makes us look good.

This is fine in some contexts.  It may be reasonable for an employer to request that employees leave various aspects of their personalities at the door (though it may be advantageous not to).

But for a voluntary community?  One in which you are asking people to volunteer to provide content? (even unsolicited) Why would I want to contribute to a community that only accepts the marketable aspects of me?  Don't I already have a job?

The other response is that more whimsical discussions are welcome in "chat."  As the name suggests, this is essentially a ghetto for content SO / SE doesn't want to stand behind, but in recognition that some people need an outlet.  It has not taken off.

Essentially, what SO / SE is implementing is a social solution.  Delete / marginalize / stigmatize content that is undesirable.  This result is considerable collateral damage, as many contributors decide that if the community doesn't want their more whimsical content, it can do without their more technical content as well.

It seems to me that there's a technical solution out there that would allow contributors to post what they want, and the site to present a filtered picture to the outside world, without forcing contributors into a "chat"-type ghetto.

If a site figures out how to do this, and execute on the other points that make SO great, it can pass it.

Monday, May 21, 2012

St. Louis's Terrible Choices for the Rams

As far as the Rams requests for renovation of the Edward Jones Dome, it seems the St. Louis region faces these unappealing options:

  1. Spend money we don't have to help a billionaire construct a facility that will print money for himself for a team that has provided precious few positive memories over the past few years, and only plays 8 home games a year.
  2. Essentially declare that we are not a big-time city anymore.
I despise the idea of handing Stan Kroenke, a man who has spent most of his time owning the Rams acting like someone who's not that into us, a single dime to help him build a new stadium.  He's made quite a bit of money off of us.  If some other city want to empty its coffers to show him how much it wants the Rams, they can go right ahead.  As a reminder of how these ballpark deals typically work out for the cities, the Cardinals just announced plans for Ballpark Village, which was supposed to open with the stadium in 2006, though I was always skeptical.

If the Rams move, it's lights out for St. Louis as an NFL city. We'll forever be known as a two-time loser that couldn't keep a spot in the nation's most popular sports league.

This isn't just about football, either. When the city, St. Louis county and state cooperated to fund the original stadium deal, it was part of a wider project — the expansion of the downtown convention center to improve the slumping convention and trade-show business.
Saying no to Korenke would essentially be withdrawing our membership from the club of NFL cities.

So what? Well, name a prominent American city without and NFL city.  Ok, Los Angeles, the once and perhaps future home of the Rams.  And a city that has a few other things going for it, inluding 2 BCS college football programs.  Las Vegas.  Again, with a few other things going for it, and some other reasons for not having a team.  Then what? Portland? Salt Lake City? Columbus? Austin? San Antonio?  Does St. Louis really want to join this club, and drop a tier below cities like Kansas City, Indianapolis, and the Twin Cities?  Might we want to be a city that draws events like big bowl games, the Final Four, maybe even this new SEC-Big 12 bowl game?

Like it or not (and I'm firmly in the "not" camp), making an NFL owner happy is part of the price of being a top American city.  

But that doesn't necessarily mean it's a price St. Louis should be willing to pay.  Just that by not paying it, we'll be admitting that we've slipped to the second or third tier of American cities.  And that's a hard thing to admit.

Thursday, April 26, 2012

Hostage of a Broken Delivery System

I enjoy 30 Rock.  In fact, other than live sports, it is the only TV show that is "appointment viewing" for me.

Of course, by "appointment viewing" I don't mean that I clear my schedule at 7:30 pm every Thursday night in order to watch it.  I mean that I have my DVR programmed to record it every week.  Since this is a show for grown-ups, and my elementary school-age kids are typically up at this time, I don't watch it at then, but at another time when only grown-up eyes are open at our house.

And therein lies the problem.  Because I am watching the show on DVR, I can fast forward through the ads, and usually do.  Selling ads is how people make money from producing and watching the show, and my typical viewing habit severely limits their effectiveness.

Seeing that the show is a favorite of relatively affluent educated people like myself, this behavior likely fairly typical even among the show's dwindling viewer base.

Then, add in the economics of the affiliate-network relationship.  I'm not a particular expert on the particulars, but my understanding of the gist is that when an affiliate airs network programs, the network gets most of the ad revenue, but when the affiliate airs locally produced programming, they get all the ad revenue.  Hence the proliferation of local news shows around the clock that nobody asked for.

Given, that, which is a better use of KSDK's limited resource of prime time programming?

  1. Pick up the network's broadcast of 30 Rock, so that people like me can record it and then fast forward through the ads, and the network can get most of what little ad revenue there is.
  2. Run some locally produced fluff piece and collect the ad revenue for that, while also increasing the exposure of your local talent.  Run 30 Rock in the middle of the night later so that those who want to DVR it can do so.
It seems pretty clear the answer is #2, which is what KSDK chose last week.  The only downside is ticking off people like me (who, let's remember, are essentially freeloading, though I am also relatively savvy with social media and can use it to amplify my complaints), and probably damaging their relationship with NBC.

Which creates an inconvenience for me, since I have to reprogram my DVR to record it at the midnight time, and have to wait until then to watch, or I could find it online.  Yes, this seems like it could be the canonical example of a #FirstWorldProblem, but it would be better if it weren't the case.  I would be willing to pay a nominal amount of money (probably less than $5) to avoid this.  But I can't KSDK can only make one choice.  That's why they call it "broadcasting"

Still, there's is a sense where KSDK is kind of breaking its contract with me.  They are the exclusive providers of NBC network entertainment in the St. Louis area, and they are withholding a portion of that content (indeed the only part I am terribly interested in).  That's a bad outcome.

So, what other options do we have?  The show Arrested Development faced a similar problem years ago -- a small but affluent and committed viewer base, in an era where DVR's were not as ubiqutous as they are now.   Eventually the narrowness of its fan base became more important than its intensity, and the show was cancelled after 2 1/2 seasons.

But wait! Now there will be 10 more episodes of Arrested Development to be released direct to Netflix. Perhaps this is the way forward for shows with limited but intense appeal.  Having access to things like an extra season of Arrested Developement certainly makes the < $10 a month subscription to Netflix more enticing.

Monday, February 06, 2012

Clock Management

In the past two days, I have seen my least two favorite plays in all of sports.

  • Trailing by two points withe one minute left on the 6 yard line, the Giants handed the ball to Ahmad Bradshaw, who burst through the line of Patriots defenders who were letting him score, tried to stop at the one yard line, then fell into the end zone for the most anti-climatic last-minute Super Bowl winning touchdown we'll ever see.
  • Leading Oklahoma by three with five seconds left, Missouri fouled an Oklahoma player who was not in the act of shooting, so he would have two free throw attempts.  (He missed the first, then purposely missed the second, which set up an open 3 point attempt for Oklahoma that was missed.)

The intentional walk probably belongs in this category as well.  I have a little more tolerance for more established tactics like basketball teams fouling when they're behind and calling time out while falling out of bounds.

Why do I hate these?  Because they turn the games into a contest over who can think of and execute the anti-competitive play rather than which team is playing the sport better.

Yes, "clock management" is part of the game.  And the ways in which coaches screwed up various end of half situations are great for filling time on 24 hour sports radio stations.  But it has nothing to do with how the game was originally designed, or how we played the game as kids.

Or does it?  In the age of video games, probably more fans have experience managing a team in different late game situations than have ever gotten into a three-point stance or burst through a hole in the offensive line.  Which may partly explain the focus on these tactics.

But it's my belief that telling a running back not to score, and telling defensive players to let them score, takes them away from what got them into that position in the first place.  The Giants didn't get to the Super Bowl by not scoring touchdowns; they got there by scoring touchdowns.

Mike Greenberg loves these things.  You can count on him coming on the air of every morning talking about how some player should have taken a knee, run out of bounds, fumbled on purpose, ran through his own end zone, dropped an interception, or done something contrary to his competitive instincts.  And Golic is there to set him straight from the perspective of someone who's actually played the game.

Sure enough this morning, he was justifying Bradshaw falling down by saying that the Patriots wanted him to score, so by falling down, he was playing into their hands.  But you know what I'm saying to my defense if I'm Tom Coughlin?  I'm saying that the Patriots think they can out-clever us, but I believe in our football team.  I think we can beat them on the field, and they don't.  Now go out there and prove me right!

This is one thing I think soccer may have the right idea on -- the referee keeps the time on the field, and the players and coaches don't know exactly when time will end, so the end of games doesn't turn into a mutual effort to manipulate the clock to your advantage. 

In general I watch sports to see athletes competing at the highest level.  I don't watch hoping to see coaches out-clever each other, defensive players letting a team score, and offensive players falling down before they score a touchdown.  It may be fun to talk about, but it's not why I watch sports.  To paraphrase Bill James, "Quit screwing around and play football!"

For more of me on this topic, see here.

Friday, February 03, 2012

Diveristy Is Bigger Than Individuals

Supporters of the HHS decision not to broaden the religious exemption (or who think the objections to it are overwrought) for the directive to include coverage for contraception in employee health benefits point to the absurdity of an organization as large and diverse as the Catholic Church having a "conscience."  The proper unit for considering the right of conscience is the individual, and that, from this perspective, it is the Church that is imposing its morality on the conscience of its employees, the vast majority of whom do not share the Church's opposition to contraception, and that through the mandate, the administration is freeing them from this imposition.

They have a point, if one thinks that the most important things is to preserve the conscience rights of the individual.

But I'm not sure that's the crucial thing.

I'm reminded of an article several years ago from Emily Bazelon several years ago about doing a book swap instead of birthday presents for her childrens' birthdays that I commented on.  While I wasn't, and am not, a fan of this particular innovation, I saluted (and continue to salute) parents taking a stand against the rampant consumerism surrounding birthdays and other holidays.

Of course, this can be seen as the parents dictating to the children how their birthdays will be celebrated, and an individualist might claim that the child should make that determination for his own birthday, and the parents have no right to do so.

But notice where this thinking will lead us -- the individual child will tend to conform to the mainstream of society -- he wants a party with presents just like every other kid!  And this status quo of consumerism will remain unchallenged.  When we make the unit of conscience rights the individual rather than families or other organizations, what we are really doing is privileging the status quo, because an individual is less likely to effectively resist the mainstream than an organization.

History demonstrates that the US mainstream has been terribly wrong on many issues, and thus it's likely we're terribly wrong about something now.  Most will scoff that our embrace of contraception is one of those things, but I think there's a non-zero chance that it is.

But if it is, or if some other aspect of mainstream culture is a great mistake, we will need alternatives to show us a better way.  And leaving it to individuals isn't likely to get us there, because individuals are easier to sweep up in the mainstream than institutions like churches and families are.

I'm not sure "conscience" is the correct term to capture this -- perhaps institutional diversity or institutional pluralism?  But we need space for institutions to dissent from the mainstream of cultural practices.  The Administration's action closes this off, and that's a bad thing.

Wednesday, February 01, 2012

Scenes From The Culture War

I'll break from my blogging hiatus to comment on a few culture-war related news events.

First, the Susan G. Komen for the Cure announced it is ending its partnership with Planned Parenthood, launching a great deal of outrage.

A couple quick hits first:

  • Given how many people seem to celebrate Planned Parenthood, it is surprising that they would be so dependent on the government and groups like Komen for funding, to the point where one group ending a partnership threatens their ability to provide vital services for poor women, which they claim to be so much about.  One would think that an organization that has amassed such goodwill would be awash in donations.  Yet, it seems Planned Parenthood is always on the edge where if one state withdraws a bit of funding, they will have no choice but to let poor women die of cancer.

    Unless, of course, it's not really about providing vital services to the poor, but in getting as many people as possible to associate themselves with Planned Parenthood, all their services, and ultimately abortion.  I did Race for the Cure, which is good, and they donate to Planned Parenthood, so they must be OK, and Planned Parenthood performs abortions, so maybe abortions aren't so bad.....
  • If people really are only concerned about providing health services to poor women, it seems to me they should be furious at Planned Parenthood for continuing to perform abortions, and putting their ability to do so at the mercy of societal acceptance of something as contentious as abortion.  It would seem that providing cancer screenings, and defending one's funding from the pro-life movement are two separate activities, and organizations would be more effective at concentrating on one than in working on both.
  • For all the talk about how this decision seems sentences poor women to death from cancer, I was thinking I had missed the part of the announcement where Komen said they were going to burn the money they would have donated to charity.  As Rachel Larimore notes, it would have been better if Komen had also announced how they planned to replace the services that had been provided through its partnership with PP.  But I haven't seen anything suggesting that PP was uniquely positioned to provide these services, and that other organizations not entangled in the abortion debate aren't willing and able to step into the gap.  So count me unconvinced that this decision means that more poor women will see an early grave.
One more thing I wanted to address is the puzzlement some people seem to feel about pro-life people's opposition to Planned Parenthood.  I'm not talking about those who don't even try to understand, and just assign them the worst possible motives. (yes, it's surely "cowardice" to take on what Komen's taken on the last couple days). But people who seem to honestly struggle with why those who consider abortion to be the killing of innocent human life would have anything but warm feelings for the largest provider of abortions.

And insofar as access to contraception and other family-planning services reduces the demand for abortion, Planned Parenthood also prevents abortion. In my view, it is an important part of civil society. Even from a pro-life position, I would think it qualifies: being pro-life is a coherent moral position, and not one that necessarily implies a lack of concern for women's health. So I really don't understand why Planned Parenthood gets so much grief from the right. Or perhaps it's more accurate to say that I understand what the complaints are, but I'm not really convinced.

I think non pro-life people think that pro-life people regard abortion as something akin to unemployment or population.  Something that's bad, but probably a secondary symptom of other societal ills, and it would be better to address those than to attack this symptom directly.  A high level of unemployment is bad, but that doesn't mean it is morally to fire someone.  If a company fires 5 people but hires 10 others, that is on net a good thing.

Pro-life people (or at least people who are pro-life like I am) see abortion as something more akin to slavery, or Jim Crow segregation.  I'm not saying that's the most useful way to describe it  when making arguments to others who are unconvinced, but is how we feel about in our bones.  So supporting an the organization that is the leading provider of abortions, consistently lobbies against abortion restrictions, but engages in other activities that may on net reduce the number of abortions would be as absurd to a pro-lifer as an anti-segregationist supporting a business a whites-only business that patronized a black-owned suppliers.  Perhaps, on net, its actions were beneficial to blacks, but it was publicly and prominently on the wrong side on a fundamental issue of justice.

For more on why this pro-lifer does't instantly give three cheers to all organizations and programs claiming to reduce the number of abortions, see here.

Finally, it's interesting to compare the reaction to a private organization deciding not to partner with an organization that is the leading practitioner of something a significant minority of the population considers the killing of innocent children, to the reaction of the government ordering the Catholic Church to provide coverage for something it considers immoral.