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.

Wednesday, January 08, 2014

Levels of Cheating

Part of why I think we struggle with issues like PEDs and the Hall of Fame is that we think of moral issues in a binary yes/no way.  Is the behavior in question "cheating."  If yes, then it's an offense that should deny someone of any awards, and if not, then it's no big deal.  Or that it is hypocritical to deny entrance to PED cheaters and not to other cheaters.

Regardless of the morality of the actual offense, leagues (and those invested in the league) have an interest in forming a strong social sanction against cheating, which would include denying the highest honor to those guilty (or strongly suspected) of cheating.

But not all cheating is created equal.  I'm going to present below a continuum of what I think we've considered different levels of cheating, and examples of each.  For this purpose, there are two types of rules:

  • Safety rules: Put in place for the safety of the players.
  • Competitive rule: A rule designed to set the parameters for the game or make it more entertaining; e.g. dribbling the ball in basketball, 

  1. Getting away with an (unplanned) infraction against a competitive rule that should have been called.
    1. Taking an extra step in basketball
    2. Holding in football.
    3. "Framing" a pitch on the corner to get it called a strike
  2. Exploiting a loophole in the rules that goes against the spirit of the game
    1. Stall tactics (four corners) in basketball before the shot clock
    2. Intentionally fouling on defense when up by three.
    3. Taking a knee at the goal line / letting the other team score
    4. Calling timeout while falling out of bounds
  3. Attempts to falsely get the other side called for an infraction
    1. Diving
  4. Building a game strategy based on non-enforcement or limited enforcement of a competitive rule
    1. Allen Iverson's cross-over/carry
    2. Pitchers scouting umpires and pitching to where they call strikes rather than the rule book strike zone.
    3. Running a "pick play" in football.
    4. Building a defensive strategy out of grabbing receivers, knowing the refs won't call illegal contact on every play.
  5. Deliberately and deceptively break a competitive rule with premeditation.
    1. Use illegal equipment
    2. Build your pitching strategy around doctoring the ball.
  6. Break a safety rule intentionally for purposes of intimidation
    1. Take "hard fouls" early in a basketball game
    2. Put bounties on players / target injuring body parts of players
  7. Build a team or individual strategy around breaking safety rules
    1. An football team on offense that trains its lineman to illegally cut block.
  8. Outright criminal activity (deliberately) impacting life outside of the game.
    1. Drugging an opposing player to keep him out of an upcoming game
    2. Kidnapping an opposing players' family so he will be distracted during the game.
Levels 1-4 enjoy almost universal acceptance.  In fact, a player who would refuse to engage in these acts would generally be considered a poor teammate, and would likely lose his job to one with the same abilities but fewer scruples.   Nobody would keep Micheal Jordan out of the Hall of Fame because he often got away with traveling or pushed off on the final game winning shot.  Some readers would probably challenge whether these (particularly #2) ought to rightfully be considered cheating.

Level 5 infractions would likely meet with some immediate disapproval, but ultimate forgiveness and fond memories of the transgressor's competitive drive and willingness to not get bossed around by the authorities.

Once we get to  Level 6, which is where we get to premeditated attempts to injure someone, we're getting more toward the Oakland Raiders type fringes, and then few would publicly defend actions in Level 7 and 8.

And even though this is already complex, there are subtleties that this doesn't capture.  Golf developed a strong culture of following the rules such that some believe players should disqualify for failing to cite themselves for infractions they were unaware of.  Many believed that Luis Suarez taking a deliberate handball to save the World Cup game was terrible sportsmanship.

The line between safety and competitive rules is not always exactly straight, either.  Sure the NFL would prefer its players be safe, all other things being equal.  But it also recognizes that a league where Peyton Manning plays all 16 games, breaks records, and his team makes the playoffs will draw more viewers than one where he only plays 8 games and the playoffs go on without him.  Or one where he plays football rather than a safer sport.

Still, I think this is a pretty good map of how I at least think about "cheating," and how I think the rest of us do. Next, I'll look at how PED fits into this hierarchy.

Saturday, January 04, 2014

Sport Allegiance Ranking

I grew up in South Jersey, went to college in St. Louis and lived in that area until last year, then moved out here to the Seattle area a year ago.  With those moves, my rooting interests have shifted some, but my excitement at the Eagles' current playoff run has led me to reflect a bit on why some rooting interests are stronger than others.

So below are the sports teams I consider myself to have a rooting interest in, in order of passion.

  1. Philadelphia Eagles (NFL) No other team causes me to yell at the TV like the Eagles, and that will probably always be the case.  A bit odd, since they were probably the last of the 4 major sports I picked up.  But I started to get football during the Buddy Ryan / Randall Cunningham era, which was entertaining if not terribly successful, then suffered through ups and downs over the next 25 years. The long-suffering sports fan is bit of an insufferable narrative, but I do think following the team through a variety of disappointments had bonded me to the team, even though I've never seen a game in person. Also, probably one of the 5 easiest teams to follow from out of town.
  2. Philadelphia Phillies (MLB) 1980 World Series Championship is my first sporting memory, and 2008 championship may be my happiest.  First game I ever went to, most memorable in-person game (Terry Mulholland's no-hitter), most memorable season (1993).
  3. St. Louis University (NCAA basketball) Only basketball team in town in the sport I have played the most and probably know best.  Enjoyed last year's A-10 title run.
  4. St. Louis Cardinals (MLB)  Difficult to spend much time in St. Louis without picking up.  Probably easier to get news on Cardinals here than it is to get Mariners news.
  5. Northwestern (NCAA football) Wife's alma mater
  6. Philadelphia Flyers (NHL) Several runs to the finals, no championships.  Harder to keep in touch with NHL teams.
  7. Seattle Sounders (MLS) Picked up when I moved out here, and fun to follow, though the Sounders do have some unlikable players.
  8. St. Louis Blues (NHL) Will follow them if they make a playoff run, hard to follow otherwise.
  9. Philadelphia 76ers (NBA) Probably the team I followed most closely growing up.  Really turned off by the current tanking.
  10. Seattle Seahawks (NFL) Fun to get on the bandwagon; few more enjoyable than Russell Wilson.  Defense good, but talks a bit more than I'd prefer.
  11. Villanova (NCAA basketball)
  12. Missouri (NCAA football)
  13. St. Louis Rams (NFL) 1999 Super Bowl Championship team was first championship team I actively followed and a lot of fun, but they've done a lot to drive away fans the past few years.  Trading them in for Seahawks was not a difficult choice
Honorable Mention (will watch and support if they reach playoffs): Seattle Mariners, Rutgers football, remaining big 5 basketball, Missouri basketball, Illinois football and basketball, Washington football and basketball, University of Seattle basketball.

Wednesday, January 01, 2014

The Impact of Fan Culture

One more tidbit from the Gladwell-Simmons exchange was this from Simmons about Kobe Bryant's contract:

Speaking of big contracts, when Kobe signed his two-year, $48.5 million extension, many media members (including me) made the overwhelmingly valid point that someone who had just spent the past two years repeatedly saying "I only care about getting a sixth ring" had inadvertently made it much, much, much, MUCH harder to win that sixth ring. (You know, because of the salary cap restrictions, and the inherent flaw in building 40 percent of your team payroll around an aging player coming off a devastating leg injury and playing in his 19th and 20th seasons.) Kobe lashed out at that mind-set by blaming the latest collective bargaining agreement for placing an unfair responsibility on elite players. Nowadays, any star who doesn't sacrifice his own cap figure for more help, like Tim Duncan did in San Antonio, seems selfish.

And as Kobe said, why should HE be the one sacrificing money? Why wouldn't his exceptionally wealthy owners do that? Even in Kobe's waning years, the Lakers still struck an incredible deal for him. Add up his promotional value and merchandising value, his star appeal for season-ticket sales and television ratings, and the reality that the Los Angeles market responds to stars only (and he's one of the biggest). Could you argue he's worth $60 million a year to the Lakers? You realize that the NBA's media-rights deals are about to go through the roof, right? It's a hugely successful league that hinges on the night-to-night appeal of, say, 18 to 20 stars from year to year. And yet the owners shrewdly created a salary structure in which someone like the Mariners' Robinson Cano can get more than twice as much in guaranteed money than NBA superstars.

It's a Jedi Mind Trick, Gladwell. How did they pull this off?

This is part of why I don't consider the ascendancy of stat-based analysis (in particular among fans) to be an unalloyed good.

The old debate was where Kobe Bryant ranked among the league players in how they played basketball. From shortly after the start of his career until this year, he has been one of the top 5 players in the NBA, and then the debate would move on to where he ranks historically.

But now we're so much smarter than that.  Now, when we rank players, salaries matter.   We don't consider the question from the perspective of a pick-up player who would want a teammate; we consider it as a GM building a team.

Now, Kobe Bryant doesn't look so good.  He's going to take up 40% of the Lakers' salary cap allowance! Plus he's getting older and more injury-prone!  He's a total liability!  How could he do this to the team?! Doesn't he care about winning championships?!

So, now we don't just knock Kobe down a few pegs as he ages; we actively criticize him for accepting money the Lakers are willing to pay him.

And who created these rules whereby the Lakers paying Kobe Bryant what he's worth to them cripples their ability to compete for a championship?  That's right, the owners!  In fact, they shut the sport down for several months to ensure this was the case!

Also interesting is that we criticize Kobe Bryant for having the gall to accept the money being offered him, but can't muster up anything for the several teams, notably my boyhood rooting interest Philadelphia 76ers, who are not even trying to win.  We're supposed to be smart enough to realize that losing this year positions them for higher draft picks and cap space in the future.  Trying to win now would only get them year after year of mediocrity.  Never mind that the product in the meantime stinks.  Also never mind that no actual champion was built by deliberately losing.

I think the owners light another victory cigar with a $100 bill every time a sportswriter cobbles together a column of "worst contracts" or "best bargains."

I suggest that instead of criticizing GMs for signing "dumb contracts" or players for accepting them, we should instead be criticizing owners for engineering, and forcing on the players, a system where generous contracts to players cripple their ability to compete.  Where it makes sense for teams to not even try to win for seasons at a time.   Where instead of trying to prove how much smarter we are than the GMs who operate under this system's arbitrary constraints, we instead challenge the system that values shrewd salary cap management over accumulating basketball talent.

Effectively, "smart" sports analysis helps maintain the current unjust system.  Do they mean to do this? Almost certainly not.  Most analysts side with the players in labor disputes and would advocate the election of Marvin Miller to the Hall of Fame.  Gratuitous potshots at Bud Selig are de riguer in sabremetric columns.

But it has helped create this culture -- that truly smart, sophisticated fans don't just consider how good a player is, but the impact his contract has on the team's ability to compete. I think the tide is beginning to turn in some places, particularly the NCAA, where sportswriters are less and less inclined to take the existing system as a given.

Here's hoping we can continue to progress to that point.  Because I'm not sure that where we are is that much better than where we were.

Stumbling blocks for me on the women in tech debate...

Note: Before pithily summarizing and dismissing, please not that the title of this is "stumbling blocks" not "A Comprehensive Airtight Case For Why Nothing Should Be Done."  I offer this as my reasons for being reluctant to get behind certain remedies, and provide opportunity correction for where I might be wrong, not to say there's not a problem, or that nothing should be done about it.

To state what I believe is the problem, women's entry into technical professions, in particular math and science, has lagged their entry into other professions.  Several explanations have been provided for this, the ones that will not get you fired are that these industries are overly hostile to women, and that not enough is being done to encourage young girls and women to develop an interest and enter these fields.  Therefore the solutions have been to pressure male tech workers to ensure that their culture is welcoming to women, and a variety of programs to ignite an interest in tech among girls and women.

I am not positive this is all for the best.

Other professions, notably medicine and law, have not experienced the same problems, despite also being rigorous disciplines requiring even more education.

So what explains the disparity?

My personal experience, and the stereotypes of the professions, leads me to doubt that it's because (male) engineers and scientists are in general bigger jerks and assholes than (male) doctors and lawyers.  I am sure there are individuals, and subcultures, that are huge jerks.  But my experience is that most techies are live-along get-along types who will welcome anyone to the team that can help them.  The large number of immigrants and foreign nationals in the tech community would seem to also indicate this.

I don't recall doctors and lawyers needing to be lectured about creating a more inclusive culture.  I don't recall agonizing over the gender ratios for participants and speakers at medical conferences, the number of women's restrooms, etc.  Maybe it's because I'm not part of those communities.

Now, as I mentioned before, there are subcultures of the technical world that are much further removed from mainstream culture than the medical and legal community is or was.   And, it probably matters to them that they are accepted by mainstream society than it does to already marginalized techies.  And, stereo-typically, techies would be less tuned in to subtle social cues than other professions, and thus may require a more explicit invitation to get with the times than other fields.

Which leads to my suspicion as to what may be at the heart of the problem -- that while technical careers can be as financially remunerative as other professions, they remain second class in social prestige.  Someone may put up with crap in order to become a doctor or a lawyer; they are less likely to in order to become an engineer.  The social rewards are not in sync with the market rewards.

And, venturing further into thin ice, I wonder if this effect may be stronger for women than for men, since, more so then men, women have an expectation that their career be fulfilling as well as financially rewarding. In spite of whatever changes have come, men are likely more pressured to settle into a solid career than women are, and thus may be more willing to earn a solid paycheck in a less rewarding field.

If that is the case, I wonder if conspicuous efforts to "encourage" women to enter technical fields may backfire.  Now, women who go into tech fields not only have a somewhat lower status than doctors and lawyers, but also an unshakable suspicion that they needed a boost to get in.  This has been a criticism of affirmative action programs, though I don't think it represents a compelling argument against affirmative action.  But what's different in this case is that the boost is targeted at a particular field.  Women have the option of pursuing fields where nobody will suspect they were given a boost, and that their position was fully earned.

This may also be a reason why these pressures are applied to engineers, and not to doctors or lawyers (or hedge fund traders, which have a similar disparity).  That engineers will actually entertain these suggestions, while I suspect doctors and lawyers would have laughed people out of the room who would suggest they change their culture to accommodate different populations.

Again, I am not saying that this represents a case that we should do nothing, or even that we shouldn't do the things that have been suggested.  But it may not be as simple as a lot of the conversation suggests, either.