Saturday, December 06, 2014

Stop trying to find the perfect case

The breakdown of the UVA fraternity gang rape story adds another aspect to my earlier point about flawed cases.

I'm not going to turn this into a discussion of ethics in rape journalism (though another post in the near future will discuss some aspects of journalism). For the purpose of this article, we'll stipulate that the truth is that the fraternity boys behaved more honorably than the article made out (with "better than gang rapists" being a ridiculously low bar to clear), and that perhaps "Jackie" behaved less honorably than the innocent victim of the article.

Obviously, lying is wrong, and reporters passing on lies without checking them out is wrong. What's interesting is why they felt the need to do so.

It seems likely the truth is bad enough. It's likely something bad happened to "Jackie" at the hands of some men at the University of Virginia. Maybe not as obviously criminal as a vicious gang rape, but something that it would be have been better to prevent from happening.

But we won't tolerate that.  Our victims must be purely innocent; our perpetrators must be purely evil. We want to believe that all our problems can be solved just by being a little meaner to bad people, and it's cost-free to everyone else.

Here's another less severe example of this playing out.  This exchange crossed my timeline multiple times:

A perfect storm!  Here we have a dude trying to "mansplain" to a woman what an article about attracting women to the tech workforce means.  Only to find out he was addressing the author of the actual article!  It probably never even occurred to him that the author of the article could be a woman! Hoisted on his own condescending misogynist petard!

Alas, the truth is a little more complicated:

A look through his timeline with anything approaching an open mind makes this explanation the most likely.

To be clear, I'm blaming Casey Johnston for misreading and providing a correction.  Seems like a 50/50 parse.  I'm more critical of the mob of commentators on Twitter who spent the day dancing on this "epic burn" that turned out to be undeserved.

Ironically, these critics were guilty of the very crime they were accusing Mr. Sancio of -- sending out a judgment without familiarizing themselves with the necessary context.

Add in that Mr. Sancio is not a native English speaker, and what was the celebration of an righteous burn of a misogynist know-it-all is something a bit darker.

Does this mean that there are no problems with how men treat women in professional technical settings? No, any more than the problems with the UVA gang rape story mean that there isn't a problem with campus rape and sexual assault.

But it might mean that the problem isn't as simple as clueless misogynist assholes running around. And the solution might be more complicated than punishing them.

This is reality. I don't think every member of the grand jury in the Michael Brown case or the Eric Garner case is a raving bigot who thinks that black lives don't matter. I'm not even sure the police officers who killed them are. But they were parts of a system that failed to deliver justice.

And that may be the scary part. Working on these systems so they can deliver something more just will be, in short, a real pain in the ass. It's not a matter of passing around videos of TV comedians completely nailing someone or something, or tweeting hashtags, or calling bigots out. It will take a lot of tedious, grinding work. It will likely make life more difficult for people who have done little or nothing wrong. It may give breaks to people who aren't entirely innocent and may not deserve it.

As a pro-lifer, these are lessons I've had to absorb. It sure would be convenient if every abortion were a frivolous and a matter of personal convenience from couples wanting to maintain a certain lifestyle. But we all know that's not the case. Many abortions come from truly desperate circumstances, and restricting abortion will impose very real costs on these people. Going around calling abortionists and those who procure their services names isn't going to accomplish much, since almost everyone will recognize it as not just unkind but untrue.  Instead, we need to acknowledge the pain, but make the case the ending the killing of the unborn is worth the price.

And the same applies to other causes. Because the current results are not acceptable.  We can't go on with more black men being killed by police officers. We can't have young women going to college and coming out scarred by bad sexual encounters.

And what we've been doing isn't working.

Monday, December 01, 2014


A representative from the company that makes Meagan's therapy vest came by the house tonight. One thing they did was press some buttons on the machine to see how many hours it had run since we started with it in 2008, bringing up the display above.  The number was 2199 hours. Roughly the amount of time someone would spend at a full-time job in a year.

This number represents an investment -- from Meagan, from Kristin, and from Katherine and me in Meagan's health.  For more than 2000 hours, Meagan has sat with a vest vibrating her lungs to shake her up.  Each session is about half an hour, so this means shes has done this about 4000 times.  While she is almost always very cooperative, this is almost always at the request or reminder from Kristin and myself. Almost all of these sesssions are accompanied by one to three nebulized medications.

In this time of Thanksgiving, we are thankful that this and other treatments have helped keep Meagan clear of more serious impacts of Cystic FIbrosis. And that, we are on the verge of treatments that will help Meagan and others be free from both these symptoms and these hours of treatments.

This Thursday, December 4, I will be doing my own treatment, taking part in the 26th annual Stair Climb for Cystic FIbrosis.  I will climb 56 floors, 1120 steps, about half the number of hours Meagan has logged on her vest machine.
I invite you to support me, by climbing with me, supporting me financially (perhaps $1/floor?), or your continued thoughts and prayers.

We wish you all a peaceful and joyful Christmas season.

John McGuinness

BTW: If you have questions about the recent announcement of the CFF's transaction on the royalties for Vertex medications, I tried to address those here:

Tuesday, November 25, 2014

The Virtue of an Imperfect Case

John McWhorter writes that because the Ferguson case is not a clear-cut case of police brutality, it is not the best case to highlight the problems of the relationships between law enforcement and minorities.

I disagree.

Not because I differ with Mr. McWhorter on the facts of the case, but because I think it is precisely this case's resistance to being cast as a simple case of an evil racist cop killing a perfectly innocent young black man that makes it a useful case to examine.

Unfortunately, it's not so simple. The problem isn't so much the actions of Darren Wilson during the stop (or the actions of Micheal Brown, but the confluence of factors that brought them together that day in emotional states such that this outcome was in play.

If it were a simple case of a rogue cop, the solution would be easy -- punish him, and try not to hire more cops like him.  If the criminal justice system failed to do so in the face of these facts, then that's a bigger, thought somewhat more manageable problem.

But that doesn't seem to be what's going on. It appears that Officer Wilson acted within the parameters of his job. And still, a man who didn't deserve to die was killed. That's a more difficult problem.

I wonder if some of the rage at the grand jury decision is that it denies us the simple scapegoat and the easy way out.  The statement is, "No, you're not going to get out of this just by punishing Darren Wilson. You're going to have to work on all the things that led these two people to where they were that afternoon."

I get the frustration that a young man can be killed with nobody held responsible. And expanding the zone of culpability can at times be a way to dodge personal responsibility and culpability.

Still, I think we need to absorb different lessons than, "Darren Wilson was a bad cop." And if it turns out he wasn't such a bad cop, I think that helps us ask the bigger questions.

Friday, November 21, 2014

FAQ Regarding The CFF's Recent Transaction

Judging by the comment thread here and other discussions I've seen online, there are some questions regarding the Cystic Fibrosis Foundation's recent announcement of selling its royalty rights to CF treatments developed by Vertex Pharmaceuticals for $3.3 billion.

Since I regularly (including now) ask other people to join me in supporting the CFF, I thought I would share how I see things. What follows is what my impressions are as a reasonably well-informed CF dad and CFF fundraiser.  While I'm doing my best to avoid any factual errors, I did not conduct any research for this other than reading the linked articles.  It may be necessary for me to revise this in light of some errors or omissions.

These answers are my own, and I do not speak for any of the pertinent organizations.

So, what's the deal?

Essentially, the Cystic Fibrosis Foundation provided Vertex with funds in exchange for royalty rights in any treatments that are developed with those funds.

In that time, Vertex has developed Kalydeco, which shows great promise in addressing a somewhat rare mutation of Cystic Fibrosis, and in combination with some other drugs, in treating the most common mutation of CF, which is what my daughter has.  This last treatment is working its way through FDA approval now.

CFF has elected to sell its claim on the royalties to Royalty Phamra for $3.3 billion.

Mutation?? Maybe you can give me a brief primer on Cystic Fibrosis.


Cystic Fibrosis is a genetic disease.  In order for a child to have CF, both her parents must be carriers of the gene mutation.   If that is the case, any child of that couple would have a 25% chance of having the disease, a 50% chance of being a symptom-free carrier, and a 25% chance of not even being a carrier.

Within CF, there are various mutations, with D508 being the most common.

This mutation effects the way that cells absorb and process salt (the initially most apparent symptom is skin that is salty to the taste, and CF has been diagnosed via testing the salt content of the patient's perspiration -- the "sweat test.").

This causes a number of symptoms, most notably trouble in digesting fats and a thick mucous in the lungs that can very easily attract infections.  CF patients often have trouble gaining weight, leaving them weak to fight the infections, which is why the disease has been so deadly.

Advances in treatments over the past half century have raised the median survival age of CF patients from elementary school to approaching middle age.  These treatments attack the symptoms (antibiotics and breathing treatments for respiratory problems, enzymes for digestive problems).

There is particular excitement about the treatments recently developed by Vertex because they attack the root of the problem at the cell level.

OK.  When I gave money to CFF, I thought I was donating to find a cure, not help the foundation play in the stock market with Big Pharma. What gives?

Some time ago, the CFF adopted a strategy of partnering with certain drug companies to develop CF treatments.   They deemed this necessary for a couple of reasons:
  • The development of these treatments is largely a hit-and-miss proposition.  Years and years of expensive research can come up with nothing. There is a tremendous potential downside in performing this type of research, and the downside is more likely that any upside.
  • The patient population of CF is limited. There are about 30,000 CF patients in the US, and they have may different types of mutations.  
Because of these factors, the CFF wanted to provide an incentive for drug companies to devote their resources to CF research, and this partnership is a way for them to do so.

Isn't CFF a non-profit? How can it be involved in these big-money financial transactions?

"Non-profit" is a tax designation meaning that the company re-invests all revenue back into its mission. It does not mean that it does not get involved in finances or even that it has an altruistic mission. When I started working at MasterCard in 2000, it was a non-profit. So is another one of my former employers, BJC Healthcare, the largest St. Louis-based employer.

So, there isn't any inconsistency with the CFF being involved in this type of transaction and its non-profit status.

More to the spirit of the question, I don't believe anyone at CFF will be buying a mansion or a boat as a result of this deal.  The funds will be re-invested in treatments to benefit CF patients and families. I and others will be watching to ensure this is the case.

Ok, but the treatments Vertex is developing cost upward of $300,000 a year. Shouldn't the CFF be using its influence to lower the price and ensure access rather then sharing in the profits from gouging needy CF patients?

The high price reflects some of the dynamics I mention above -- it is not for the manufacture of the actual pills but for the immense about of research that went into developing this treatment, as well as other research avenues that were not so fruitful. I'm not an expert in the economics of drug development, but it does not strike me as unfair that Vertex and other companies would receive some profit for their work in developing life-saving cures.  

I've been blessed and lucky enough in my life to be well compensated for work that is much less obviously beneficial. Part of this compensation has been access to health plans that have covered a very large portion of the costs of Meagan's treatments and medications. I hope that these upcoming treatments will not be an exception.

It is my understanding from the announcement that the CFF will be using some of these funds to ensure that CF families less fortunate than ours have access to a variety of CF treatments.

Does this mean we are at "Mission Accomplished?" Can we stop now?

If only.

Kalydeco by itself only treats a relatively rare form of CF. The new combination looks promising, but is far from a slam dunk. 

And this will still leave many other untreatedmutations, and this treatment will require a daily medication, with the aforementioned price tag.

CFF's goal is a one-time treatment that will address all the symptoms of CF. We are, unfortunately, still very far from that goal.

OK, if the CFF just brought in $3.3 billion, why should I donate to them instead of some other disease? Or my local food bank? Or my church? Or my favorite political cause? Or my neighbor who just lost his job? Or the needs of my family?

How we choose to spend the limited money we have available for charitable donations like this is an obviously very personal decision.

Particularly at this time of year, the number of worthy causes asking for our donations can be overwhelming. I know that I personally pass on more opportunities to donate than I accept.

My aim here is to lay out why I believe that there is still work and progress to be made in finding a cure for Cystic Fibrosis, and why I continue to trust the Cystic Fibrosis Foundation to do it.

If you have reached a different conclusion, or you feel called to direct your generosity in a different direction, I certainly understand that.

Regardless, I am thankful for the many ways people have supported Meagan and our family through CF, whether it be financial contributions to CFF, showing up at events, practical assistance and forbearance for our practical needs, or kind words and prayers for Meagan and all of us.

Thursday, November 06, 2014

It's Not Really About Ethics in Sports Journalism

Robert Lipsyte, ESPN's departing ombudsman takes some "parting shots" (to borrow a term from ESPN's venerable Sports Reporters about ESPN's place in sports journalism.

Lipsyte begins by discussing the coverage (or lack thereof) of the various controversies surrounding Jameis Winston and the Florida State program during College GameDay's recent visit there:

“GameDay” was recently in Tallahassee, Florida,, with the best college quarterback in the country, Florida State’s Jameis Winston, having been accused at various times of sexual assault, robbery, autograph peddling and inappropriate campus conduct. Fowler and Herbstreit smoothly affirmed our right to enjoy the show without the angst of moral judgment on college sports. 
Hey, it’s “GameDay.” Leave the heavy breathing to “Outside the Lines” (if you can find it). 
I suspect most viewers were fine with this.  This is a show whose signature feature is one of the panelists donning an oversize hat or mask for the team he predicts to win that day's game.  It's where Katy Perry says she wants a quarterback to call her.  Not many are tuning in for a grim report on the NCAA, player contact, and ethics,

Lipsyte then oddly pivots from there to a defense of ESPN's suspension of Bill Simmons for calling Roger Goodell a "liar" on his podcast.

To put my cards on the table:

  • I have been a fan of Simmons since his pre-ESPN days.  That doesn't mean I agree with everything he writes, or all of his digressions, but I admire how he has blazed his own path to his current place in the sports commentariat.
  • I found (and continue to find) his focus on the evils of Roger Goodell annoying.  I don't particularly care of the NFL commissioner is a liar, or when he ad the tape, and that in some ways he has become a scapegoat (which is not to say he's innocent, but we seem to think that trashing him is sufficient to demonstrate that one is confronting domestic violence). This doesn't mean I think he should have been suspended for it, just that I would have preferred he write and talk about something else.
  • In short, I think Simmons is probably right that Goodell is lying, but I don't really care.
The utterance occurred during the weekly "guess the lines" podcast with "Cousin" Sal Iacono.  Regular features of this podcast include:

  • Simmons and Sal each guess what the betting line is for each upcoming NFL game. And the one who wins the most weeks wins the year long contest for a consequence that has never been paid off.
  • Sal imitates Simmons in a voice mail where Simmons is typically gushing over whomever his current favorite NFL QB is.
  • They criticize the scheduling and announce paring assignments for the games in the voices of Mike Francesca and Chris (Mad Dog) Russo.
  • Simmons does an imitation of Andrew Luck describing the Colts' most recent performance.
  • Sal promoting that week's Jimmy Kimmel guests.
Expressing surprise that something stated here doesn't meet journalistic standards is in line with being shocked to find gambling is Cassablanca.  Yet Lipsyte seems surprised.

Simmons's second most frequent podcast guest is his college buddy John "Jack-O" O'Connell. Almost every one of their podcasts include baseless speculation about almost every prominent New York and Boston athlete (Simmons started as the "Boston Sports Guy;" Jack-O is a Yankees fan) being a PED user.*

Now, calling someone a liar is not very nice, but does not bring about any real-world consequences. Using PEDs is against the rules of all sports, and many athletes are on the outside of the Hall of Fame because of either confirmed PED use, rumors of PED use, or happening to have their career coincide with suspected widespread PED use.  This is serious stuff.

Yet, ESPN never intervened.  Only when Simmons made unsupported statements about the commissioner one of their business partners (and yes, dared ESPN management to discipline him for it) did they discover their journalistic principles.

This quote from Sandy Padwe that Lipsyte included is revealing in a way that Lipsyte probably did not intend:

“Journalism is important to ESPN when it needs it,” he said, “meaning when critics look at the whole product and wonder why it seems 99 percent of the daily report is devoted to noise and the current name of the moment. Then the network points to 'Outside the Lines' or some of the recent reporting on Roger Goodell. 

In this case, ESPN needed a pretext to keep one of its employees in line, and all of a sudden we're supposed to believe property that features Coors Light Cold Hard Facts (that are really opinions), "C'mon Man!", Frank Caliendo's impressions, Chris Berman's whole schtick, and the rest of Simmons's podcasts is some kind of Serious Journalistic Enterprise.

I don't think ESPN can have it both ways (as I suspect will soon become explicitly apparent).


What I think is really going on, and is also in part what the Goodell controversy is about, is whether we need the middlemen between talented people and their audience.

Lipsyte also wrote:

This is immediately tricky because Simmons sometimes acts like a journalist, or at least seems to want to be taken seriously. If he were starring on or his own version of Jon Stewart’s “Daily Show,” that split personality might work. But the site is owned by ESPN, and house rules always apply. If you call a subject a liar on ESPN, you better have definitive proof. 
The audience loves Simmons just the way he seems to be -- unfettered and willing to speak his version of truth to power. But Simmons is speaking from a somewhat protected place. It’s a little like being at home and shouting out the window. 
As a rising son in ESPN’s booming growth this past decade, Simmons was allowed to find the reach of his talents by testing the boundaries of his gilded cage.  
This elides the fact that Simmons built his audience and craft on his own (and likely could do so again).

Now, I think the ESPN-Simmons partnership has been and continues to be beneficial to Simmons. It's unlikely he would be producing documentaries, sitting in the studio for NBA broadcasts, promoting his favorite directors and writers, or (ahem) hosting podcasts without the support of the ESPN empire.

Likewise, it's obvious the NFL owners (of which Goodell is a figurehead and proxy) provides substantial infrastructure for the athletes to showcase their talents.  But how necessary are they, really?  And is it possible that in some cases (Donald Sterling being an obvious example) they do more harm than good?

Are we moving toward a world where talented people like Simmons and LeBron James can showcase their talents free from these "middle-aged racist white guys in suits?"

What I think we saw is ESPN's last grasp at saying, "No."  We;ll see if they're right.

Sunday, October 12, 2014

Natural rivalries

Around last week's Cowboys-Texans game, there was some talk that they (and other "natural rivals" in opposite conferences, should play more often than the every 4 years the NFL scheduling algorithm dictates.

Let's see how this might work.

The Rivalries


Some of the rivalries jump off the page as obvious:

  • Jets-Giants
  • Steelers-Eagles
  • Ravens-Redskins
  • Bucs-Dolphins
  • Chiefs-Rams
  • Raiders-49ers
  • Cowboys-Texans

Marriages of Convenience

There's some other parings that look workable, even if they don't scream "rivalry."
  • Jaguars-Falcons
  • Saints-Titans
  • Chargers-Cardinals
  • Seahawks-Broncos
  • Browns-Lions

The oddballs

This leaves the Panthers, Bears, Packers, and Vikings in the NFC, and the Patriots, Bills, Colts, and Bengals in the AFC.  

For these teams, I don't see any pairing or scheme that would be much better than alternatives.

The Schedule

This is where things get dicy.  

The current NFL schedule sets up great -- 2 games against the rest of the division, 1 game against one conference division, and one opposite conference division, and a game against the teams that finished in the same place in the other 2 in-conference divisions.

We could just add this game, but sometimes it appears that 16 games it too many.  Also, this would result in an odd number of games, meaning some teams would have more home games than away games (and vice versa).  There are ways to mitigate this -- have all the rivalry games hosted by the same conference each year so the disparity doesn't unfairly advantage one team in the playoff race, make the extra road game the first tiebreaker, etc.  Also, you could have some games at neutral sites -- Eagles-Steelers in Happy Valley, Chiefs/Rams in Colombia, and some of the games would effectively be neutral sites anyway.

Or we could taketh away.  The games against the same finishers in other divisions looks like the best target, but that is part of how the league ensures parity, and those are often marquee match-ups (it's why there has been an annual Peyton Manning vs. Patriots game). 

Speaking of parity, this presents another problem.  Since baseball put a similar scheme in place for interleague rivalries, the Cardinals have been up and the Royals (generally) have been down.  An annual home-and-home with the Royals has been a boon to them, especially with their rivals playing tougher competition.  A scheme where the 49ers have an annual game with the Raiders while the rest of their division faces tougher competition may not work in a league where every game counts as much as the NFL.


It might be fun to have annual Giants-Jets and Cowboys-Texans games, but it's probably nor worth it if it would also mean an annual Vikings-Bills game and messing up competitive balance.

Wednesday, October 08, 2014

Who cares what I think?

But what should that action look like? And how can it be effective?

On the one hand, I am a member of the "tech community," in so far that I am a professional software engineer at one of the leading technology companies. I own one of Sierra's books.  I have an active Twitter account and have participated in software forums.

On the other hand, I am not remotely part of the community that engaged in these acts of terrorism.  I did not see them when they happened, I am not familiar with the people involved.  I'm not a gamer, other than simple games on my smartphone and the same 8-bit Nintendo games I played as a kid on my daughters' Wii.  I did not even know what doxxing was until I read the article, and even now only know enough about it to know I don't want to know anymore.

When I encounter this type of unpleasantness (as I have seen on the edges of the "manosphere" I've been exposed to), I back away (perhaps I shouldn't???)

So, would any criticism I make be that of an insider engaging in some internal soul-searching, or one more outsider persecuting an oppressed minority?


My thoughts on this were crystallized in a Scott Alexander post that I thought did a great job of laying out how we've managed to create a culture where people spend almost all their energy talking about the evilness of the other and also claim the mantle of tolerance.

I found myself nodding along.  Yes!  This is a precise description of what's going on!

But then he closes with this:

This essay is bad and I should feel bad.
I should feel bad because I made exactly the mistake I am trying to warn everyone else about, and it wasn’t until I was almost done that I noticed..
And I wanted to shout, "No!  You're not engaging in tribalism!  You're offering a well thought-out necessary critique!"

But I wonder, is it possible to offer a criticism of your own group while maintaining solidarity with it?

Politically, I have almost nothing in common with Scott Alexander.  I am a pro-life traditionalist minded married same-sex-marriage-skeptic Catholic.  He is (I think) a polyamorist pro-choice atheist.

But did I only agree with him because we are, in some sense, part of the same tribe -- i.e. skeptics of culturally elite opinion?  Were his arguments compelling, or was it just a matter of, "Go team!" (or "Boo the other team!")

Of course you see this all the time,  Nobody says that the problem with groups they are a part of is that they contain too many people like themselves.   So much of what passes for political commentary is merely signaling what tribe the writer is in (or not in).  It's increasingly difficult to imagine someone previously disposed to disagree being convinced by most essays.

This is particularly true of the Catholic Church today, especially as the strength of its claim on its members loyalty weakens.  When Catholics offer critiques of the Church, what they are usually doing is critiquing other factions of the Church.

Which I think is why I find confessions of collective guilt so annoying.  It seems to me that the confessor is confessing on behalf of rival factions rather than himself.  There doesn't seem to be any response of repentance by the confessor himself to this conviction.


I think there is a notion in feminist circles that crimes like the terrorization of Kathy Sierra, rape, sexual assault, and domestic violence are simply masculine cultures taken one extra step.  That mainstream male culture tolerates this type of thing, and a promising way to reduce these crimes is for these cultures to stop providing a safe harbor for these type of activities.

This does not track with my experience.

I have never been a part of any community of men where anyone would feel comfortable sharing a story, or even joking about, laying a hand on his wife and children, or having a sexual encounter where consent was iffy, or committing adultery.  In fact, the cultures I've been a part of don't even tolerate mundane complaints about women's appearance, cooking, housework, etc.  Everyone "married way up," etc.

Reading Sierra's article, I wondered how or why anyone would want to do the things these people were doing to another human being.

And I think this may explain some of the defensiveness we sometimes have in the face of this.  Sure, I may not have perpetrated the harassment, but I'm part of the tech culture where this blooms.

And I have to say, I don't really think I am.  Posting something on a support forum for epileptics   designed to cause a seizure (or celebrating the same) isn't an extra half-turn on the screw of the tech culture I know; it's not even the same activity.

Entreating me to (further) sand down whatever edges remain in my personality in order to solve this is both unfair to me* and counterproductive.

As is teaching men like me "not to rape" and lecturing me about domestic violence.


So, the "good" news is that most of tech culture neither perpetrates nor tolerates this type of activity.

The bad news is that it's a big enough subculture to drive away Kathy Sierra and likely many others who held themselves back.  And the Internet is helping them find and feed each other.

So, what to do about it?  Well, I could "stand with" and "raise awareness:"

But this strikes me as little more than tribal signaling.  But maybe, if I don't know what to do, I can reach someone with better ideas.

As Ms. Sierra notes, these subcultures thrive on the notion that they are a persecuted minority that is speaking hard truths the rest of the world can't handle.  Wouldn't criticism from someone like me only further feed this?


We do have a serious problem.  Some bitter subgroups are effectively blocking access to the highest reaches of the tech world.  This is bad now, and I certainly have an interest in shutting them down before by daughters could experience anything like this.

But I don't know that the current solutions offer much hope of success.

But then, they're better than anything I've come up with.


* I am well aware that my feelings of being unfairly accused, as well as my Hamlet-like dithering about what to do, are several orders of magnitude less severe than the problems Kathy Sierra and other female writers are dealing with.  I am trying to sort out how I can be most effective in combating the latter.

Sunday, September 07, 2014

Levels of Protection

Note: Since this topic comes pretty close to my professional interest, I want to emphasize that these are my own thoughts on this issue, not a reflection of my employer's policies or attitudes.

There's been some discussion of the leaking of photos of celebrities that those celebrities would have rather not released.  The consensus seems to be that the main culprit is lax security policies by Apple and other "cloud" providers.  But I think there's another way of thinking about it.

99.9% of the photos stored in the cloud are worthless to everybody except the owner of those photos. Nobody outside of my family is itching to see my daughter's baby pictures.

As such, it does not require a high level of security, and I would be annoyed if I had to pay for it, either explicitly with money or by enduring some form of security theater every time I wanted to grab a picture from a past Great Strides Walk.  I'd also be annoyed if my pictures were lost, or if someone I didn't know got their hands on them, but my primary concerns are accessibility, ease of use, and price.   I suspect this is the case for the vast majority of customers, perhaps including celebrities.

It's similar to a coat check at a restaurant.  I want them to take care of my jacket and make sure nobody leaves with my jacket. But I also don't want to see an armed guard there, wouldn't be willing to pay a very high price for a more secure service, and I would be more annoyed than relieved if I had to go to great lengths to prove that my jacket was actually mine.

Enter the celebrity photos.

Now, all of a sudden, a service designed for accessibility, convenience and low cost is the guardian of something that others value very highly.  Now, the service is hosting something that the owner would very much like to keep from other people, and other people (unfortunately) are willing to make a concerted effort to get.

And the service providers don't know (or shouldn't know) that this has occurred.  To them, the celebrity photo is indistinguishable from the picture I took of my daughter's camp.

To use my analogy, it would be similar to putting $1000 of cash in the pocket of my jacket, giving it to the coat check.

Which is why I think this misses the point:

Sure, this will score some PC points about victim blaming, and of course the primary responsibility for these leaks lies with the people who hacked into the accounts.  And, the commentary I have seen doesn't say that the victims deserved to be hacked, but that some prudence could have prevented the situation.

But in general, photos are a completely different type of data than photos.  I have to share my credit card with an online retailer in order to do business with them, and them securely managing that data is an implicit (sometimes explicit) requirement of the contract.

It would be unwise for me to leave my wallet in a jacket I checked, because the service is not designed to secure things that are valuable.  If someone steals it, they are responsible, but anger at the coat check service would be misdirected.

Nothing about using a photo cloud service implies that I post very sensitive photos there.  And almost all users don't, and indeed couldn't if they wanted to.

Is it reasonable to expect these services to ratchet up their security to account for these cases?  Should the rest of us have to pay for it either with inconvenience or currency?

I don't think so, but perhaps there's a better way, and figuring things like this out is what they pay us to do.

Monday, September 01, 2014

My Challenge

I’ve been challenged for the ice bucket challenge.  In my judgement, at this point, the campaign has run its course, and for me to post a video would be mostly about drawing attention to myself versus those with ALS and other diseases.

There has been some debate about the effectiveness of this campaign.  What is undeniable is that it has drawn our attention to those impacted by this terrible disease, and raised much more money for research to find an end to it.  Anyone with a casual knowledge of my Facebook feed knows I am not above using events and physical acts to raise money for research to end diseases.  I salute those who have taken part, and think they should feel good about what they’ve done.

Nevertheless, it’s always a bit disappointing that many of us wait for campaigns like this, or for disasters to strike, or for a political or cultural spat, to give to those who are suffering.   My heart has been very heavy lately -- with some deaths in the family, with injustice and unrest in the city I called home for 15 years, with violence and warfare breaking out throughout the world. I think we are called to always keep those who are suffering in mind, and to do what we can to help them. I know that I often fall short of this goal, and suspect I am not alone.

So, in honor of this, I am making three small donations, which may not be large but I hope to repeat several times:

  • To the Cystic Fibrosis Foundation, in honor of my recently deceased Great Aunt Eileen Cooney
  • To the MS Society, in honor of the consistent and inspiring efforts of Rick Keating on behalf of his wife Michelle.
  • To the ALS Association (with a request that it be used for non-embryonic research) in honor of Carle Lacouture, father of my childhood friend Michael.

And my challenge, to myself and the rest of you, is to find a way in our daily routines to keep those who are suffering in our minds, and to use whatever influence we have to remind each other of those we may prefer to forget about, and to do what we can to help them.

Tuesday, July 29, 2014

Thanks For Supporting My Cycle For Life!

The Cycle For Life was a great day!
  • The ride raised more than $100,000 for Cystic Fibrosis Research.
  • I raised nearly $1,000
  • I got to ride with great team members, Tan and Hristo from Amazon.
  • Kristin and the girls worked an *awesome* rest stop for the 65 mile ride.

  • I was able to complete the 20 mile ride with no problems for either myself or the bike.  Maybe I should aim for 65 next year?
  • It was a gorgeous day and a fun party afterwards.

Thanks for being a part of it -- the support from so many people from all over the country and different parts of my life means a lot to us.  

I hope the day will come soon when we can say you helped us find a cure for Meagan and thousands of others.


John McGuinness

Monday, July 07, 2014

Help me keep the wheels in motion!


I know it just seems like yesterday I was writing you about the Great Strides walk (actually it was 2 months ago), but we’re now three weeks away from the Cystic Fibrosis Cycle For Life in Woodinville.   Such is living in a place where the weather is nice in July.

But in that time, we have exciting news.  Vertex Pharmaceuticals has announced positive results in combining medicines to treat Cystic Fibrosis at the cellular level for the most common mutation of CF, which is the one my daughter Meagan has (  This isn’t quite a cure, but can dramatically change the lives of CF patients, and may set the stage for future treatments.  As we celebrate our freedom, the day that Meagan and thousands of others will be live in greater freedom -- freedom from some of her treatment regimen, freedom from frequent hospitalizations and limitations, and some freedom from the fear of this terrible disease -- seems to be in sight.

For those of you in the Northwest, this is a 20 or 60 mile bike ride from Red Hook Brewery in Woodinville, followed by party with music, food and beer.   This year’s 20-mile ride is flatter than last year, which should make it easier for recreational cyclists like me. You can join my team here:  (

Whatever you can do, I appreciate the help you have provided in getting us this far,  and in joining us on to be a part of these next exciting steps.


John McGuinness

Saturday, May 24, 2014

The Good of the Team

Watching Bad Boys, the ESPN documentary on the late 1980's Pistons, what seemed to set this team apart was not so much their physical play, since as was noted other teams played physical as well, but the intense commitment to the culture of the team.

Even though the Pistons seemed to flout both the official rules of the league and general sportsmanship, they had a very strict internal code that they all honored.  Those that showed they could not commit at that level, such as Adrian Dantley, had to go.

And though he played up everybody else's sacrifices in the post-film interview, I don't know that anyone ever sacrificed more for a team than Isiah Thomas sacrificed for the Detroit Pistons.

Specifically, in two incidents, the Larry Bird controversy and walking off the court after the Bulls eliminated them, Isiah clearly chose loyalty to his teammates over his long-term personal legacy.

Looking back, it does seem absurd that Isiah was left off the Dream Team.  he was the leader of a team that was one year removed from consecutive championships.  Magic Johnson came out of retirement to be on the team.  Larry Bird was on the team in despite both his and his team's decline.  But not the best player on the team whose dynasty had just finished?

But I have to tell you, as a teenage basketball fan at the time, it didn't seem odd at all.  Maybe we were all just Michael Jordan fanboys.  But I don't recall any outrage.  That's how much his star had fallen.

This is something deeper than giving up individual statistics for team success, which is what Isiah lauded his teammates for.  This is going along with and defending guys like Bill Laimbeer and Dennis Rodman at their most obnoxious, because they were your teammates.

And whole it is obvious that this enabled to win more basketball games than they would have otherwise, including the two championships, and this is how we tell people we want them to commit to the teams and families they are on, like Michael Jordan's hyper-competitiveness, I'm not sure I would recommend it to others.

It seems as if this is the same dynamic that leads people to favor (or at least shut up about) policies of their political parties that they would never otherwise tolerate.   Or for members of various professions to defend actions of their professions that seem indefensible.

What if the Donald Sterling incident happened on a team with a culture like the Pistons'?

The obvious answer is that Donald Sterling would never inspire such loyalty.  Perhaps not Donald Sterling personally, but history is littered with people who have inspire people to commit or condone despicable acts.

It is wonderful to watch a team come and stick together like that, and it was inspiring to hear Isiah talk about it.

But I'm not sure I'd advise a young Isiah Thomas to follow the same path.

Sunday, May 04, 2014

Please join us in 2 weeks to take Great Strides for a cure for Cystic Fibrosis!

Meagan begins each of her days by coming downstairs, preparing her medicines, and beginning her morning treatment routine.  This includes an inhaler similar to what most asthma patient takes, nebulized Pulmozyne and saline, and sometimes a nebulized antibiotic.  She takes these while her vest shakes her for her mucus.  She will repeat this regimen in the evening, and also take several pills each time she eats, as well as special vitamins, probiotics, and medicine to prevent hearburn.

While it is a relief to us to see her gaining this independence of her CF treatment, it also means that we have come further with still not cure.  And it also means that the disease is having more of an impact on her life. A cough is Meagan's near constant companion these days, rathern than just an occasional bother.  She is gaining awareness of how this can hold her back.

Globally, the good news is mixed with bad as well.  We hear of other CF patients making great improvements with new treatments, and new things coming down the pipeline.  We also hear of the disease taking people far too young, and others enduring long hospital stays and setbacks.

As we walk in 2 weeks, you can help us change balance, and increase the flood of good news.  It is a fun, family-friendly walk through Seattle Center, the waterfront, and Belltown.

Please consider joining us or donating at

Sunday, April 27, 2014

Mercy's Moment

On the day of then canonization of St. John Paul, who instituted today as Divine Mercy Sunday, and the controversy over Pope Francis's reported phone calls allegedly giving a woman married to a divorced man permission to resume reception of the Eucharist.

First, I think it is important to remember that it is likely Holy Father likely spent more time in prayer and consideration of this situation than all the people commenting on it combined.

Second, I think there can be a gap between written policy and pastoral action.  If there is some good served by having her refrain from communion for several more years it escapes me, and I can imagine many benefits. I'm sure these disciplines are not consistently applied, and I'm OK with that.

Third, I understand it's not so simple when it is the Bishop of Rome delivering the dispensation, and why some are concerned.  Everything the Holy Father done is seen as a sign of hope for long awaited change by some and a sign that things are falling apart by others, with both sides fanned by a press sometimes eager for the Church to move in a particular direction, or have its voice (further) diminished, or just to see a good fight.

Last week, Joe Posnaski had an article about pine tar being found on Michael Pineda, that the obviousness of the pine tar made it impossible for the umpires to ignore.  I found myself nodding along -- how often we substitute foolish consistency for common sense?  The first comment is this anecdote:

Something else to consider is this. Ron Luciano said that when he would go to check Gaylord Perry, Perry would say, “Don’t look on my right shoulder.” And Luciano would let him off the hook. Why? Maybe he didn’t want the confrontation–but when you consider that league presidents and now the commissioner have, historically, been total wusses in the hip pocket of the owners (or they have been gone FAST), why should the umpire not expect to get crucified if he interferes with a player? When it’s obvious, yes, it’s unavoidable. When it’s not, well, not only might you not want to know, but how DO you know?
And we see the problem with "common sense" -- that it can often be a cover for cronyism and prejudice. Gaylord Perry, Hall of Famer, 300 game winner, Cy Young Award Winner, could do this. Could Pineda have gotten away with this?  Or Don Newcombe in his rookie year?  I'm doubtful.

Same thing goes for us.  We might hope to find a friendly cop if we get behind the wheel after a couple drinks, but would a poor, nonwhite person receive the same mercy?

And maybe that's what the Holy Father is trying to teach us.  That we can hold fast to our values and principles, but be merciful in applying those to others.  And that, this mercy needs to benefit the poor and disadvantaged, not those already enjoying other great privileges.

What Can Jeff Atwood Do...

Alternative title: John McG Mansplains that Sexual Harassment is What Makes Tech Awesome!

Kidding aside, as with my previous post on this topic, this is meant more to be an identification of stumbling blocks that I see than an airtight case that nothing should be done.  

Monday, April 07, 2014

Imagine the NCAA didn't exist...

There was no intercollegiate sports.  In general, football and basketball players went straight from college to the pros.

There were general complaints, both from coaches and from fans, that these athletes were not prepared to compete at this level, both in terms of personal maturity and skill level for the game.  To address this, the following system is devised:

  • The preferred path to professional sports would be to play in a competitive league at universities for 1-4 years.
  • During that time, the athletes will receive free tuition for as much coursework as they care to take as well as free room and board.
  • These athletes must maintain a certain grade point average and be making progress toward a degree.  They must be able to meet the admission standards of the university for non-athletes.
  • Revenue generated from these games will be used to fund sports that do not generate revenue, which, with some exceptions, means all men's and women's sports except football and men's basketball.  This will enable athletes in those sports to also receive scholarships, even though their sports would not generate sufficient revenue to cover them.
  • Build up a culture such that the best intercollegiate culture are held in as high if not higher regard as the best professional coaches.  Establish regional rivalries such that alums and locals want their teams to be successful.  Expose the best players so they arrive as professionals as established stars able to demand high contracts and endorsement deals.
Am I crazy to think we could do a lot worse than this?  Is this worse than, say, minor league baseball?  It obviously produces a more entertaining product.

Stripped of all the sanctimony about "student-athletes" and such, what we essentially have is athletes who are about to become millionaires being pushed into some years of service at a university, enabling them to fund other athletic programs and scholarships.

Now, even if you're OK with future star athletes being compelled into 1-4 years of indentured servitude, there are some obvious problems with my whitewashed version of events:

  • It is far from clear that most of the revenue from big-time college football and basketball goes to other athletic programs.
  • Most of the athletes in revenue sports will not go on to professional careers.  Only a few players on the rosters of the Kentucky and Connecticut teams that play for the national championship will go on to the NBA.    So, the model of seeing the time in college as a service requirement before a lucrative career falls flat.
  • Even so, it is possible some talented athlete who would have a professional career could suffer an injury at college that would severely damage his earning potential.
  • Many of the athletes in the revenue sports are black; many of the athletes of non-revenue sports and others who benefit from the revenue sports are white.  This has some obviously disturbing implications.
  • It is not clear that big universities, many of them already government funded, should be the beneficiaries of these athletes' apprenticeships.
It now seems apparent that big changes are afoot for the NCAA.  Which is good, because the current system has its obvious injustices. 

But it has its advantages as well.

Sunday, March 30, 2014

The Tanking Culture

Zach Lowe writes about the rule changes the NBA is considering to confront tanking.

And, yes it is a serious problem.

The NBA sells competition.  But, if say, 25% of the teams are not trying to win, that means that on any game has about a 50% chance of involving at least one team that is not terribly interested in winning the game.  This does not make for a very compelling product, as a look at the ABC Sunday schedule demonstrates( though, to be fair, the Lakers, Bulls and Knicks are less attractive teams for reasons that have little to do with tanking).

This is a bad deal for fans of the teams that are tanking, but also for fans of the teams that are trying.  A quarter of their season is basically glorified exhibition games.  Add in the random way tanking teams are dumping their available players, and the disease spreads everywhere.

So, I am glad the 76ers historic losing streak received national attention, and not being waved off as part of the grand plan.  The people architecting this (not the players, who aren't very good NBA players, but it's not their fault they've been thrown into water over their heads) should be ashamed of themselves and embarrassed.  If I were ESPN, I would run the name of the owners and general manager along with every 76er score and mention of the losing streak.

Professional sports are based on three basic assumptions:
  1. Executives are making a reasonable effort to put a team capable of winning the most games on the field/court/rink.
  2. Coaches coach , as Herm Edwards said, to "win the game" today.
  3. Players, on every given play, are doing their best to win the individual battles on that play.
Violations of these have been severely punished, particularly on the lowest levels.  It is why the Black Sox were banned from the game.  I've never been a big Pete Rose apologist, but something does seem deeply wrong that he is a pariah from the game for betting on his own team to win, while the 76ers management can blow an entire season with little consequence.

Now, there are some exceptions.  Baseball managers don't use their best pitcher in every game until he gets hurt; they plan their usage.  Players may not go all-out once the outcome of a game is no longer in reasonable doubt.  Teams may decide it is better to get a look at some younger players and get some experience rather than squeeze and extra couple of wins in a season.  Batters may sacrifice bunt to try to score 1 run rather than try for a hit.  

At a point past this, we get to the "aren't I clever!" non-competitive tactics, with the intentional walk serving as the barrier.  Here's where we have things like calling time-out while falling out of bounds, fouling when up by 3, taking an intentional safety, letting the other team score to keep time on the clock, taking a knee rather than scoring when ahead, resting players once a playoff position is known, etc.  I've written what I think about these things before.

What the 76ers are doing is an error on the Level 1 scale.  As Lowe mentions, there have been other teams that have done fishy things, but the scale is unprecedented.  David Silver covers it up by noting that there are no apparent Level 2 or 3 violations, which seems to be true, but that's irrelevant.  They are not being given the tools to be successful.

So, why is this happening now, when the rules haven't changed?

Well, the culture has changed.

It used to be, that a GM who ran his team into the ground like this would be the subject of derision and ridicule and be fearing for his job.  Not any more.  The ridicule is reserved for GMs like, say, Joe Dumars, who are inept in their attempts to win.  Fans of teams that aren't even trying to win are lectured to see the big picture.

What we are witnessing is a sports culture that has its roots in video games rather than the playgrounds.  Nobody would "tank" a pick-up game.  But you might blow a season in a "franchise" video game to land a star for next year.

The difference is, nobody expected anyone else to pay to watch the tanked video games, and no player's career is wasted playing in them.

Salute to John Calipari...

Before going any further, let me acknowledge:

  • The idea that the competitors in big-time college athletics (i.e. men's basketball and football) are student-athletes is a joke.  When there's a game on a Wednesday night in the middle of the school year between UCLA and Michigan St. in Madison Square Garden, to take an example I am making up but is based on reality, it's apparent that academics are not a particular concern.
  • One of the most annoying parts of the NCAA set-up is how it makes mega-size stars out of the coaches, who make millions while the players just get their "education".
  • Perhaps the most clearest manifestation of these problems is the men's basketball program at the University of Kentucky under John Calipari, where star players are recruited, typically play for just one year, then move on to the NBA.
Having said all that, it is difficult to deny that this process, however corrupt it may be, produces an extraordinarily entertaining product, and that John Calipari has mastered this peculiar game.

As anyone who has watched any kind of all-star game knows, people who were star players do not naturally play well together as a team.  Particularly stars who are angling for their position at the next level.

What Calipari does, is convince several of the best high school players in the country to come to Kentucky, then he gets them to play basketball in a way that they can compete at the highest level against teams that have been together for years.  And then he does it all over again the next year.

I agree this isn't what college basketball "should be," and it turns the idea of college athletics into a farce.  But I also have to acknowledge the great difficulty of what Calipari does year in and year out, and admire his skill in pulling it off.

There was a time not long a go when I couldn't stand Calipari and rooted against him at every opportunity. But I've softened.  It's not his fault the rules are what they are, and it's conceivable his program offers the best deal for these players. He doesn't pretend to be anything but what he is.  If I had a basketball star son, would I prefer he spend four years at Duke or Stanford than one year at Kentucky?  Absolutely.  But if he's determined to get to the NBA ASAP, Kentucky may be the best place to spend a year.

Friday, March 28, 2014

Teams that can never substantially change their uniforms

After witnessing the atrocity of UCLA's navy blue sleeved uniforms last night, I submit the following list of teams that can not substantially change their uniforms because they are iconic.

By "substantially," I mean go to a different color scheme, or remove what makes them distinctive.  You can have an odd third jersey, add some stripes, etc.  But come playoff time, you better be wearing your traditional colors.

College basketball

  • UCLA
  • North Carolina
  • Duke (their experiments with black and navy notwithstanding)
  • Indiana
  • Kentucky (done their share of screwing around, but basic royal blue / white scheme must be maintained).
  • Syracuse
  • Kansas (I'm considering their early departure as punishment for their messing around this year)
Also, Michigan should wear their maize uniforms for all tournament games.

College football

  • Notre Dame
  • USC
  • Michigan
  • Penn State
  • Alabama
  • Ohio St.
  • LSU
  • Texas
  • Oklahoma
  • Nebraska
  • Florida St.


  • Green Bay Packers
  • Chicago Bears
  • Pittsburgh Steelers
  • San Francisco 49ers
  • Dallas Cowboys
  • Oakland Raiders

Major League Baseball

  • New York Yankees
  • St. Louis Cardinals
  • Los Angeles Dodgers
  • San Francisco Giants


  • Boston Celtics
  • Los Angeles Lakers
  • Chicago Bulls
On a corallary note, once you win a championship in a uniform, you should not change it for at least 5 years (see: the 1999 St. Louis Rams).  The uniform you win your first championship in becomes your iconic uniform, unless it is a genuine atrocity like the 1998 Denver Broncos navy numbers.

Saturday, March 22, 2014

Rare self-bragging post

I was a major part of a team that took Honorable Mention in a 2-day "Hacakthon" at Amazon this week.  It required us to come up with an idea to improve customer service (which was from someone else on our team), and implement a working prototype of it (which I did a bulk of), and prepare a 3 minute presentation.  Ours was one of 33 ideas selected for the competition, and 25 presented, some from teams with as many as a dozen people.

It wowed the judges, which was a collection of senior Amazon execs and engineers.

It was good to be reminded that I can "hang" with these other very smart engineers and am capable of delivering something impressive, since the world can so often say the opposite.

Tuesday, March 04, 2014

Fast (from food) during Lent...

In discussions about how we Catholics should approach Lent, even since I was first aware of the concept, there have been searches for alternatives to a literal interpretation of the "fasting" part of "prayer, fasting, and alms giving."  e.g.  why not "fast" from the radio, or judgment, or television, or the Internet?  why not do something positive instead of fasting?

I'm not here to say that if you do pursue one of those alternatives, you're doing it "wrong," and certainly God accepts and makes use of whatever we have to offer, but here are some reasons to consider incorporating fasting from food as part of your observance.

Being Part of Something Larger Than Ourselves The decline of the Church's influence in the day-to-day lives of the faithful, particularly in matters of sexuality, has been well-documented.

Still, it's interesting to observe that about this time of year, restaurants advertise specials on fish, catering to their Catholic customers, even though the observance of Lenten abstinence is even less defensible on secular grounds than, say, the Church's teaching on contraception.  Churches are more crowded on Ash Wednesday (not a Holy Day of Obligation, and with the "uplifting" message that we are dust and to dust we shall return) than on Holy Days celebrating Mary and the saints.

Sure, maybe there's some novelty to eating something different (and I'll leave aside questions of whether eating out at a seafood restaurant or competing for the most elaborate parish fish fry is truly in the spirit of Lenten observance), but I think it speaks to something else -- we want to belong and be part of this universal Church that stretches around the world and throughout time.

By making fasting from food part of your Lenten observance, we join with the observance of Catholics throughout the world, and the saints who have come before us.  We are reminded that we are part of something larger than ourselves.

Solidarity with the Poor  What I typically eat on the days of "fasting" is still more than the majority of people in the world get to eat on a typical day.  By making do with less food, I am reminded, even if ever so weakly, of the suffering of hunger too many people live with every day.  And this can unlock my heart to the other two aspects of Lent -- prayer and alms giving to relieve them.

Solidarity with Christ's Experience Our Lenten observance echoes Jesus's time in the desert, when He went without food, and then was tempted immediately with food.

Obedience (or Discipleship)  Our Holy Mother Church asks us to fast during Lent, and this is one request most of us can honor without violating our personal integrity.  "Because I said so" isn't always a great reason, but humble obedience to legitimate authority is a muscle I think most of us could stand to develop a bit more.

Constant Reminder  Actual hunger is inescapable.  It is not something we can easily distract ourselves, or that passes, like the urge to engage in some activity.  With hunger as our companion, it is an ever-present reminder of our dependence on God and each other.

I understand the impulse to try to come up with our own novel ways to observe Lent, and this can yield some rich fruit.  But in our search for novelty, let's not forget the wisdom of the Church that has developed over the past 2,000 years.

Sunday, February 23, 2014

Who's monitoring the monitor?

(Uncle) Bob Martin posts about the need for a "foreman" on software teams who, among other things, is the keeper of commit rights for the team.

His first post on the matter was resisted by people who valued teams -- Martin responds that they are basing this on an unrealistic picture of a perfect team.

This may be so, but in my judgment, Martin is basing his view on a view of a perfect foreperson.

To illustrate this point, Martin passes on the fable of Ron and the perfect team.  Ron was a developer on a "perfect" team, then hit a rough patch in his personal life, slipped below standards, and since there was no foreman to keep him in line, was allowed to infect the software base.

As an alternative, Martin describes how this would work out on a team with an effective foreperson:

And, of course, Jessica finds Ron's first bad commit within hours. So she's on the phone to him, asking him why he committed code without tests, code that had not been refactored. Ron says he's a bit under the weather but that everything will be fine soon. He promises to fix the commit before the end of the day. 
Jessica accepts this, but starts to pay closer attention to Ron's commits. Ron, aware that Jessica is watching, tries his best; but can't muster the emotional energy to keep up appearances and keep the code clean. He never does fix that commit. He avoids pairing. He starts to miss deadlines. There's no place for him to hide.

The whole team can now see that something is very wrong with Ron. Jessica confronts Ron with the evidence. Bad commits. Missed deadlines. "What's going on, Ron?" 
The truth about Ron's wife comes out. The team rallies around Ron. Tasks are redistributed. Ron's load is lightened. The team survives.
Thank goodness Jessica was watching!

But is having a super foreperson like Jessica, who has the technical knowledge to monitor the commits, as well as the softer skills to "confront" Ron in an effective manner all that likely?

What if Jessica isn't completely benevolent?  What if she sees this as an opportunity to bury Ron and make him look bad in front of the team?  What if she uses her commit power arbitrarily, letting through things from her friends and not from others, holding back their projects?

Or what if Jessica simply doesn't have the skills to respond to this effectively?  What if her "confrontation" with Ron goes wrong?

Or what if it's Jessica who hits a bump in the road, where she just lets everything through, or becomes a bottleneck?

In short, I don't think the idea of having a single person with technical knowledge, interpersonal skill, ethical character, and steadiness to do the job Martin describes is that much more realistic than having a team of people so good they don't require such a foreperson.

All of us are subject to Original Sin, so to speak.  We need protection from the incompetence of team members, but also from tyranny of corrupt and incompetent leadership.  It seems to me that a bad foreperson could do a lot more damage a lot more quickly than a rogue team member, which is why we've erred on the side of putting more power in the team's hands and less in a single person.

I agree that teams need a regular safeguard to ensure that people are maintaining high quality.  I am skeptical that this should be a Single Person.

Saturday, February 15, 2014

More than just a Bad Contract

Jonah Keri came out with his annual "bad contract" column last week.

The top (or bottom) five:
  1. Alex Rodruguez
  2. Albert Pujols
  3. Ryan Howard
  4. Mark Teixera
  5. B.J. Upton
  6. Josh Hamilton
  7. John Danks
  8. Chad Billingsley
  9. Carl Crawford
  10. Brandon League
  11. Jonathon Broxton
  12. Ricky Romero
  13. Dan Uggla
  14. Prince Fielder
  15. Adrian Gonzalez
What common thread runs through most of these teams?
  1. They were, at a time between 2-10 years ago, among the best players in the league, though they may not be now.
  2. They are mostly under contract with high-revenue teams.
Is such analysis valuable? Sure.

But I dissent from the emerging notion that this is the "sophisticated" way to analyze these players (or, more specifically, a team's decision to acquire that player or to extend a contract).  

First, there are several things a team is doing in acquiring a proven star player, and only one of them is paying for a particular level of performance.

In most professions, people's compensation increases as they gain more experience.  In part, this is because we think they bring more accumulated knowledge that will help them do a better job.  This only applies partially in the case of sports because the gain in experience is usually accompanied by at least as large a decline in athleticism (though as I get older I do find I have less mental stamina than I did before, and family obligations preclude insane hours).

These teams are also in the business of selling tickets and merchandise.  And recognizable starts will attract this type of business (though not as much as winning).

The other thing you are buying is some protection from variance in performance.   An experienced professional has established that she can handle a workload, and is less likely to flake out than a new hire. The same is true for athletes -- there is less uncertainty with a player who has established a certain level of performance over several years than a prospect.  Yes, that production is likely to decline, but you know this is someone who can take the heat.  So teams are paying a premium for a certain floor on production.  They may be paying too high a premium, but that is a separate question.  It is certainly a defensible option for a team like, say, the Dodgers, to overpay for established stars so they have fewer questions.

But my distaste for this has been somewhat visceral, more than a simple disagreement about optimal management policy.  This started to come together in the discussion of Kobe Bryant's contract -- why should Kobe Bryant be punished for the Lakers' decision to hand him a large contract?

This crystallized for me reading Bill Simmons's column today introducing the documentary of Steve Nash's year with the Lakers.  Because if the "contracts matter" fan culture, instead of spending this season celebrating Nash's great career and accomplishments, Lakes fans imagine how they might be able to dump or mitigate his contract.

Of course, if I were an owner, I would love this development.  It's not cheap to decline to extend a generous contract to a veteran star; it's smart.  Build up assets through the draft.  Don't go for the "quick fix" free agents.  The best players are young ones under "club control."

And when a player performs at a proper level and gets out of indentured servitude club control, he better perform or else he'll become a "bad contract."  He may end up that way anyway.

Albert Pujols was the best hitter in baseball for ten years, and led his team to two World Series championships.
Ryan Howard led the league in home runs and RBI two straight years, won an MVP, and helped the Phillies win their first World Series in 28 years, and the city's only championship since 1983.
Steve Nash won consecutive MVPs, captained the best offense many of us have ever seen.
Kobe Bryant won 5 championships and set several scoring records.

They deserve better than to work the rest of their careers as "bad contracts."

As I said before, I'm quite confident Keri and others intend to tip public opinion against veteran stars toward the owners.  Keri writes of Howard:

The Society of Baseball Nerds has dragged poor Ryan Howard’s name through the muck too many times already, so I won’t belabor the point here, except to say he’s not the one who offered himself this contract, and he’s not the one who put the Phillies in the mess they’re in.

I wouldn't want my favorite team to hire a GM who didn't understand the impact big contracts have on a team's ability to win.  But I don't think it's the best, or most "sophisticated" way for fans to think about the game.  And we forget that salary caps and luxury taxes are things the owners put in place to keep themselves from paying players as much as they would earn in a truly open market.  Kobe Bryant and Steve Nash aren't preventing the Lakers from winning; the rules the owners locked out the players to put in place are.

Tuesday, January 28, 2014

Every Downton Abbey Episode Ever...

Downton Abbey has been moving quite swiftly from a kind of guilty soapy pleasure to a hatewatch.  This week's episode was especially uncreative, essentially a not-so Greatest Hits album of all the typical Downton Abbey points.  It approached self-parody in checking off:

  • Lord Grantham makes some grand gesture that makes him look good but may imperil the property.  He is bailed out by his daughters or their husbands/paramours.
  • Thomas and Cora's chamber maid conspire.
  • Mary is called upon by a suitor who certainly seems nice enough, but Mary's not so sure the timing's right.
  • Edith gets stringed along and taken advantage of.
  • One of the servants has ambitions beyond his current station, meeting with a mixture of disdain and encouragement from the other staff.
  • Daisy doesn't know how to respond to her feelings for one of the footmen.
  • Bates is certainly an upstanding decent man... unless he's really a raging murderer.
  • A new contraption is brought into the kitchen, and Mrs. Patmore doesn't like it one bit.
  • Tom is uncomfortable with his place.
  • Mrs. Hughes is trapped in a no-win moral situation.
  • Mosely catches a break, and blows it.
  • The Dowager Countess is reluctantly roped into one of Isobel's do-gooding schemes.
And, if it's an extra-special episode:

  • Someone dies horribly and unexpectedly.