Friday, December 29, 2017

The Greenies Defense....

I'm in a bit of a nasty mood with a laptop in front of me, so I'm going to channel it into something (relatively) harmless, the argument about whether known or strongly suspected PED users should be admitted to the Hall of Fame. Even if I will be largely repeating myself.

One of the most popular arguments for inclusion is something like this, posted shortly after Joe Morgan sent his letter opposing the induction of PED users:
Olney is referring to the widespread stories of players in the 1960s taking "greenies," or amphetamines to improve their performance.

This fails for a number of reasons.

  1. The use of greenies was much cloudier than the use of PEDs in the 1990s was. It is so even today. There was not a Congressional investigation. Nobody thinks that they fundamentally altered the game or how it was played. Nobody is seriously asserting that any players' achievements were greatly inflated by the use of greenies. This is a distinction adults should be able to make. This is an actual case of "false equivalence."  
  2. But, ok, let's accept the equivalence. Maybe the election of greenies users was a mistake, somewhere between innocent ignorance of what these players did, or willful avoidance of the truth. Does that mean we must repeat that mistake? If I get pulled over for speeding, and there's an unsolved crime, can I get out of the ticket on that basis?  We've elected slaveholders president; does that mean it can't be disqualifying now?
    This seems to be arguing that we can't possibly learn and be better than we were in the past. No, thanks. I certainly hope that our election of Donald Trump means that we can never again hold presidential candidates to high moral standards.

The only you get there is by (deliberately) misstating the position of the exclusionists --that they want a "pure" Hall of Fame, free from anyone who ever did anything wrong, and since it already includes various varieties of scoundrels, this is an absurd argument on its face.

But that is not the argument. Whom an institution chooses to honor is a serious decision about what that organization values. Things that might disqualify from one organization might not be disqualifying for others.

Joe Morgan has advanced the argument that for the Hall of Fame, using PEDs should be disqualifying.  He thinks the Hall exists for those who have worked hard to achieve a set of accomplishments, not those who took shortcuts. He may be wrong about that, and I myself probably have a softer stance.

But given what he has invested in both baseball and the Hall of Fame, he deserves a better answer than "but players in the 1960s used greenies!"

Saturday, September 23, 2017

My Hierarchy Of Anger

I am angry.

I am angry that we have a president who might be bungling us into war, isn't leading us as various parts of our country are devastated by hurricanes, and stokes resentment trying to get private companies to fire people for political activism.*

There is no shortage of targets for my anger. Here's the rough descending order of how worthy I think they are.

  1. Trump himself.
    Yes, his behavior in office has been pretty much the same as his behavior before he took office, which didn't stop him from getting elected. Nevertheless, it would be nice if he retained enough respect for the office he holds and the people he leads to use it for better purposes than picking fights with those who slight him. That he hasn't is a profound failure of character. An unsurprising failure, but a failure nonetheless.
  2. Trump's Supporters
    And here, I don't mean people who were economically devastated and who supported Trump in a misguided way.

    I'm talking about people who should have known better who wrote articles like this arguing that we had to support Trump if we wanted conservative principles to survive.

    Trump will poison any cause he is remotely associated with. He will make it impossible to advocate for them for a generation to anyone who remembers him. Nobody can ever take someone who would support such a figure seriously, in particular on matters of integrity.

    To pick one example, some supported Trump because he would confront the "PC culture." And I agree this is a problem in some quarters. But when your remedy is to support someone who as president, pressured for specific people to be fired by private companies for political activism,  you have lost all credibility on this issue.
  3. Democrats
    They could have beat him. They could have positioned themselves to make themselves acceptable to those who couldn't stand Trump. They chose not to do so.

    I didn't blame them at the time, since I figured they would win anyway.

    But they should have known better than me, both about what a disaster Trump would be, and the possibility of him winning.

    But they stuck to the script. The nominated a a candidate many of us couldn't stand and who considered herself entitled to the presidency, dismissed all concerns about her as sexism, and continued to stake out extreme cultural positions, and calling anyone who disagreed bigots. They were content to trade articles about how much smarter they were than others instead of actually helping people.

    And then, they couldn't beat this doofus. And they're continuing to whine about press coverage, James Comey, Russian interference, and sexism to avoid taking a hard look at themselves in the mirror and figuring out how to win.
  4. Republicans
    For generations, they've benefited from a core base of racism that they took votes from rather than confront. And then they accepted the support for an outside chance of winning the White House. And now they are using what power they have to try to take away people's health care.

    Our current choice of parties: the party that nominated Trump and the party that couldn't beat him.
  5. The Culture
    It is true that Trump has ratcheted up the coarseness of our culture several notches.

    It's also true that this didn't come from nowhere. That he is the endpoint of a cultural degradation that has been going on for some time. Look at the titles of TV shows. Look at who we celebrate and pay attention to. Look at what we share and read.

    Yes, criticize Trump for is crassness and vulgarity. But also ask yourself what contributions you have made to get us to where this is a possibility.
I'm sure there's some I've missed.

Of course, getting angry is the easy part. Channeling that anger into productive action is more difficult. 

Sunday, July 23, 2017

2017 Kyrie Irving vs. 1982 Magic Johnson

A lot of the commentary about Kyrie Irving's trade request centers on the assumption that two alphas can't co-exist on the same team for long. Shaq and Kobe are the canonical example.

On the other hand, almost every legendary player had a top-level sidekick. Jordan had Pippen. Bird had McHale. And, in what I think may be the most interesting parallel, Kareem Abdul Jabbar had Kyrie Irving.

We remember the 1980s Showtime Lakers as a pinnacle of teamwork and harmony, but as the 30 for 30 documentary reminded us, it wasn't always this way. In the 1982 season, Magic complained that he wasn't having any fun, may have gotten his coach fired, and was resented by his teammates.

As we all know now, Magic was able to put this behind him, and lead the Lakers to four more championships, with the baton of leadership slowly passing from Kareem to Magic as the decade progressed.

And now, Magic Johnson is remembered as fondly as any player in NBA history. His reputation is exceeded only by that of Michael Jordan, and he ended up eclipsing even Kareem, whose accomplishments are unparalleled.

Some similarities between Kyrie's situation and Magic's situation in 1982:

  • Both are playing in the shadow of one of the best players in history who appeared to be nearing the end of his prime, but seems to keep going indefinitely.
  • Both had played key roles in the decisive game of their championship -- Magic's 42 points with Kareem injured in Game 6 of the 1980 Finals, Irving's game winner with a minute left in Game 7 of the 2016 Finals.
  • In both cases, this was followed by a disappointing playoff performance.
  • Both are blocked from their natural roles.
And some differences:
  • Kareem was the incumbent star of the Lakers, and Magic was drafted in. In Cleveland, Irving was in place before James made his return.
  • Kareem was never the marketable star that LeBron is. Ironically, Kareem's sullenness may have allowed this to work, since it left space for Magic to be a star even while being on the same team is Kareem.
  • On the Lakers, it was Magic who was rumored to have the ear of management and unduly influencing team decisions, while in Cleveland, it is LeBron.
  • Players have much more power now than they did before. Trade requests tend to be honored rather than brushed off.
  • The Magic-Kareem situation was managed by Pat Riley, one of the best coaches in the history of the NBA, I'm not sure Tyronn Lue is in that class, or if any modern coach could be.
  • Magic and Kareem's skills and positions were much more complementary than rivalrous.
Irving may be looking at the league, watching fans explode over the individual accomplishments of Ruseell Westbrook and James Harden, and be thinking to himself, "I could do that."

But it might be wise for him to also look at history. If Magic had been able to force himself to be traded from the Lakers, would we look at him the same way? Or would he be in the class of players like George Gervin, Alex English, Dominique Wilkins, and others who put up gaudy stats on mediocre-to-good teams? Which path will lead to a better ultimate legacy? Yes, it currently looks like LeBron will play forever, but is it possible that there could be a passing of the baton?

I'm not sure it can work. I'm beginning to think that Magic's personality and disposition is unique enough that it can't be replicated.  But if I were in the Cavs and trying to sell Kyrie on staying, I'd be pointing to 1982 Magic as a path forward.

Sunday, July 16, 2017

Unconventional Wisdom -- School Shopping Lists

First of what may become a series in which I confront from standard opinions that pop up in social media that I disagree with but am not inclined to confront there.

We're getting closer to school beginning, meaning that parents are starting to get shopping lists from schools, and parents are grumbling, and in response we're seeing links to articles like this popping up in social media.

The conventional wisdom seems to be that for families with means, it is not unreasonable for them to do what they can to assist underpaid, overworked teachers in the education of their own children. Parents who grumble about shopping lists are exhibiting an alarming lack of prioritization for education, and if they do this grumbling within their kids' earshot, passing on this poor attitude to their children, which is likely to manifest itself in them not taking their education seriously, making life even more difficult for these underpaid, overworked teachers. The right thing to do is to dutifully complete these shopping lists without complaint, thankful for the opportunity to contribute to our children's education, and maybe throw in something extra, too.

Allow me to object.

First, to establish my credentials, I have done some side job teaching for most of my professional career -- in religious education as well as teaching courses at a for profit college. While I admit that this does not mean I know all the challenges full time teachers face, I don't think I am writing from a place of complete ignorance of them, either.

In the case of public schools, the basic contract we have is that the residents of the area will pay taxes into the system, and the district will provide an education for our children. I understand that many factors interfere with this model, but this is the basic contract. School shopping lists represent passing a portion of this burden on to parents. In my judgement, support should flow from school districts to parents, not the other way around -- parents are taking on the burden of raising the next generation; the rest of us should be helping them.

Now, perhaps there are some gaps that emerge that cannot be addressed through the a lengthy funding system, and I and I believe most parents are happy to pitch in. Or if there are supplies, like hand sanitizer or facial tissues, that may not be explicitly ordered toward education but make the school more comfortable for all involved, especially if one's child is likely to be a heavy consumer of those.

But sending home the same list of supplies every year for parents that includes items necessary for classroom education to buy seems less like covering an emerging gap than an institutionalized passing of the buck. And this I resent. If something is truly necessary to educate our children, then the school district should be supplying it. And if not, then parents shouldn't be emotionally blackmailed into supplying it.

But school districts are already strapped? Are they more strapped than the typical family budget? I understand that making the case for some of these expenses can be difficult; I don't think that justifies emotionally manipulating the families you're supposed to be serving to cover it instead.


I've always suspected there is a bit of a power play going on here. I recall one "back to school night" watching all my daughter's classmates in their families putting the tightly specified supplies (specific brand names, pencils sharpened) in front of their new teachers as if it was some kind of tribute. This person is going to have significant control over our child's happiness for the next nine months; we want to make sure we impress!

And this is before we get to families for whom these lists represent a significant financial hardship. Yes, I know that almost all schools allow for students to avoid / opt out in such cases, but do we really want to put families in a position where they must begin the school year by disclosing their financial difficulties?


So, to summarize, school supply lists:

  • Pass the burden of education from all of us onto parent of school age children.
  • Emotionally blackmail parents into compliance.
  • Establish what I consider to be an unhealthy power dynamic between teachers and families.
  • Exacerbate the suffering of families that are struggling financially.
Again, I do not object, and parents ought to respond, to unexpected needs that emerge in educating our children. And I do not object to helping to furnish the schools with non-education related supplies that make everyone more comfortable.

I do object to institutionalized annual lists of education-related supplies that ought to be supplied by the district, and the emotional blackmail that goes with it.

Friday, July 14, 2017

Easing The Burden

Meagan, Katherine, and I worked at the Vacation Bible School last week. The girls were both “crew leaders” of groups of about a half dozen elementary school children, and it was fun to see them having a good time and growing into leaders.

My job was to help put the snacks together, but due to some illnesses on the second day, I was asked to work at the Bible Discovery station.  The lesson ended by asking the campers what they have had to struggle with. One little girl raiser her hand and said that her struggle is that she has had Cystic Fibrosis, and has had to take enzymes before meals her whole life.

“Oh, no!” I thought. Because of the risk of infection, CF patients are not supposed to have any contact with each other. I quickly scanned through the week to think about how much contact this girl and Meagan would have had so far and would have the rest of the week. I informed the leaders of the camp that Meagan and this girl had to be kept as far away as possible, and shuffled their seating so they would be on opposite sides of the room during group activities. I talked to Meagan about who she was and how she had to stay apart from her. At the end of the camp day, I waited for her parents to come by so I could tell them Meagan was a CF patient, so they could decide for themselves whether this was an acceptable risk.

And still I wondered if this was enough. Should I have immediately pulled Meagan out of the camp? Should I have ensured beforehand that there were no other CF patients before we committed to volunteering? Should I make Meagan wear a mask? How do we balance between letting giving Meagan opportunities to do things she enjoys and not exposing her (and others) to unnecessary risk?

These are the questions families of children with diseases like Cystic Fibrosis deal with every day.  It is part of our lives. Even something as simple as volunteering at Vacation Bible Camp is complicated.

I mention this for two particular reasons.

One is that we are considering changes to health care policy that will make life more difficult for families dealing with major diseases. Our particular family would likely be insulated from most of the changes (since I am privileged that my particular skills happen to be well-valued in the marketplace, not any great responsibility on our part), but many other families would not, and would see their already heavy burdens worsened.

I understand that people have different opinions on what the federal government should do, and I tend to resist linking those to morality. Still, I would like to live in a country where we do what we can to ease the burdens of those whose are carrying an extra load, and for these families, having secure access to health care, and not having to worry that it will be capped, or will be unavailable with a change of jobs, or will be inaccessible due to pre-existing condition clauses. So, I ask you to use what influence you have to ensure that is who we are.

Second, I am once again doing the Cycle For Life in Woodinville, to help raise money for a cure for Cystic Fibrosis, which we are coming closer to, so that Meagan, the little girl in VBC (and her little sister, as I came to find out), and thousands of others and their families can live lives free of these burdens, doubts and questions. I invite you to join me or support me financially.

If your don’t feel you are positioned or called to do either of the above, I hope you will consider  what you can do to support the families in your lives who are dealing with diseases and illnesses.


John McGuinness

Sunday, June 18, 2017

Winning Time = Joyful Time?

First, it was a wonderful piece of work, one that I will likely be sucked into whenever it comes on, which, to my family's dismay, will likely be often. Any talk of the demise of ESPN will have to reckon with the fact that it continues to produce work like this, and others can't really match it, no matter how much talent is let go.

A couple notes:

  • They should make documentaries about everything Bill Walton was remotely involved in, so they can include his talking head interviews (and if there's a way to include Kevin McHale impersonating him, even better). Do another documentary on the Wooden UCLA teams, the 1977 Blazers, NBA and NCAA teams Walton covered as a color announcer, teams Luke Walton was involved in, etc. Have some of these already been done to death? Sure. Will we have to endure things like the anecdote of Wooden teaching the UCLA players how to put on their socks that we've heard a million times before? Sure. I don't care. I want more Bill Walton in my life.
  • Having said that, the coverage Walton relative to some other figures was probably disproportionate to their impact on the rivalry. I don't think Mychal Thompson's name was even mentioned, though he provided to front line bulk to deal with the Celtics' front line. Michael Cooper, who was on all the Lakers teams in the 1980s, got some talking head interviews, but was never discussed as a player. Robert Parish was discussed a bit when he was acquired, but then forgotten.
    Again, it's hard to blame to producers for leaning too heavily into a figure as compelling as Walton, but considering that Walton was only active for one Celtics-Lakers series, and was injured during it, it was probably a bit off.
  • Was Cedric Maxwell's agent involved in the production? Yes, he was the MVP of the 1981 Series, and led the team in scoring in Game 7 of the 1984 series, but he was not regarded as the fourth member of the Big Three. 
  • This may be coming from a place of privilege and having lived through it, but I thought the racial angle was laid on a little thick. I didn't need to revisit the Isiah Thomas controversy. And even that coverage failed to note, say the Red Sox troubled history with race. I was a white Sixers fan, and hated both teams, with an extra edge to hating the Celtics. Maybe elsewhere, people took sides based on race to a greater degree. But as the Celtics started kicking the Sixers ass every year, I don't recall a sentiment of, "at least we're getting beat by the White team." But maybe it was different elsewhere. Were white New Yorkers cheering for the Celtics? I kind of suspect not. (Plus racist Celtics fans would have to account for the fact that they were coached by a black man).
The thing that stuck out to me the most was the joy with which Magic Johnson played the game, and with which he continues to talk about it now.

It's a joy I haven't seen in any professional player in any sport, save for perhaps Brett Favre. The Warirors' game in general, and Steph Curry in particular, are almost joy personified. They are a joy to watch.

But, in general, the players seem to carry themselves with a more business-like manner than the joy that personified Magic. I've written before how LeBron James almost always seems to be carrying some unbearable burden. I think the Warriors are having fun, but I'm not as sure as I am with Magic.

Why is this? Magic was certainly under pressure. He was the #1 draft pick. He signed a big contract and forced his first coach out. He had the Lakers' legacy on his shoulders, as well as, the documentary would have you believe, an entire race.

Some mitigating factors:
  • He had Kareem, who would not take on the media burden, but was the best player to begin with.
  • He had Bird and the Celtics. There is not much shame in losing to a team like that.
But I think the biggest factor is that the template for modern superstars is not Magic but Michael Jordan. His competitiveness bordered on the pathological. He berated his teammates, and even had to step away from the game for a time. To this day, he remains bitter at those who slighted him. That's whose legacy LeBron is chasing, not Magic's.

Jordan eclipsed Magic in terms of NBA accomplishments. But if I had a son with elite NBA talent, I'd want him to emulate Magic's attitude rather than Jordan's.

It may seem that I am placing an additional burden on James -- not only do I expect you to win championships, but I expect you to look happy doing it. But I want LeBron to enjoy what he accomplishes, and if that means, he accomplishes slightly less, that's fine with me.

Tuesday, June 13, 2017

That Championship Feeling

(Memory of below may be a bit hazy as the events happened when I was a child, but looking them up would ruin them).

As the Philadelphia 76ers entered the 1982 offseason, they had had the following results in their past 3 seasons:

  • 1980: Lost in Finals on rookie Magic Johnson's 42 point game substituting for the injured Kareem Abdul-Jabbar at center
  • 1981: Lost in Eastern Conference Finals to the Celtics, blowing a 3-1 series lead.
  • 1982: Lost in Finals to Lakers
They were reaching the end of Julius Erving's prime, but otherwise had a young core of guards Maurice Cheeks and Andrew Toney, and big man Darryl Dawkins.

So, that season, they signed reigning MVP Moses Malone to an offer sheet, leading to a trade in which they acquired Malone for Caldwell Jones. They let Dawkins go, and went on to a dominant regular season, 12-1 record in the playoffs (coming just short of Malone's prediction of "Fo Fo Fo"), beating the injury-depleted Lakers in the Finals.

History has not been kind to this team, despite its dominance, and that it was the last professional championship until the Phillies won the World series 25 years later. Erving continued to age, Toney's feet gave out,  and there were some horrendous trades that the acquisition of Charles Barkley could not overcome. Boston solidified their team with Dennis Johnson, and the story of the 1980s NBA was the Lakers-Celtics rivalry, with 76ers as an afterthought, despite making three of the first four Finals, and winning one in the most dominant fashion.


In the past several years, I've become a sap for championship celebrations. I tear up watching athletes I hardly know achieve the pinnacle of success. Perhaps it's because our regular lives offer few of these moments of undiluted success. There's always the next task, something that could be improved or could have been done better. But if you win a championship, that's as good as it gets.

But I had little interest or emotion seeing the Warriors cap off their championship last night. When you win 73 games in one year, and then you add an one of the best 5 players in the league, aren't you supposed to win the championship? I'm guessing this is now non-Sixers fans regarded the 1983 76ers, except that the non-Durant Warriors had already won a championship two years earlier.

Look, Kevin Durant seems to be a great guy, and he has the right to guide his career toward whatever he wants (just as I can with mine). I just don't find it as compelling as, say, the late 1980's Pistons overcoming the Celtics, and then the Lakers to win a championship, or the 1990s Bulls overcoming those same Pistons, and maintaining their excellence for six championships.

Does this mean that the Warriors are destined to the same fate as the 1983 Sixers? I don't know, but I think it's more likely than them dominating the league indefinitely and joining the ranks of best teams ever.

Sunday, June 11, 2017

Responding to Defeat

In the last week, I came across, two articles about how teams responded to mistakes that led to defeat in the championship round:

It certainly seems that the Warriors have done a better job of responding to this mistake than the Seahawks have. The Warriors are on the verge of winning the championship, and the Seahawks have been on a slow decline since. But why? Some possible reasons:

  • Team Culture Because Steve Kerr espouses political opinions that are popular among sports commentators and supports his players in doing the same, (and also because his team is so successful), he is currently the darling of that community. The thrust of Lowe's article is that because the Warriors have a team culture based on compassion and letting its players be individuals, they were resilient to this type of setback. Ok, but...

    If there's a Steve Kerr of the NFL, it's Pete Carroll. Nobody gives his players a longer leash, and in fact Kerr sought out Caroll as a mentor. So I'm not sure it's all about letting the players be themselves.

    Also, the most successful organization in the NFL is led by Trump buddies Robert Kraft and Bill Belichik.
  • The offseason As Lowe notes, in the offseason following Green's error, the Warriors added Kevin Durant, one of the five best players in the league. After their defeat, the Seahawks got a year older. They did add Jimmy Graham, but he has often been injured, and came at the cost of key offensive linemen. It's a lot easier to forget about the past when the future looks awesome.
  • Branding While Green's error was egregious, it was in line with his character as a player and what he brought to the team. His job was to bring in energy, emotional intensity, and stand up for his teammates. In this instance, he took it a step too far.

    The Seahawks' mistake, on the other hand, was out of line with their brand as a football team built on defense and a bruising running attack. They were going away from what the other players saw as making them great. The opportunity to win on their strengths was taken away from them.
  • Finality The consequence of Green's mistake was that he was suspended for Game 5. The Warriors could have still won Game 5 without him, or Games 6 or 7 with him. There was a chance to overcome this mistake; they didn't do it.

    For the Seahawks, the interception gave the Patriots the ball with less than a minute to go in the game, essentially ending the game. There was no overcoming it.
  • Intention In this piece, I've been referring to "Green's" mistake as well as the "Seahawks." That's because the Seahawks error was mainly the choice of play calls which many in the organization had a hand in, as well as the interception itself, whereas for the Warriors, it was a sudden impulse from one player. That's probably easier to bounce back from.
  • The Story The Warriors lost to the Cavaliers, who were led by other-worldly performances by LeBron James and Kyrie Irving, bringing the city of Cleveland its first championship in memory. The Seahawks lost to the Patriots, who are organizationally savvy and led by the brilliant Tom Brady, but are also kind of a default champion. This was the year of Deflategate, and I don't think anyone would pick that year's team as the best of the Brady-Belichik era.

    The story was that Cavaliers won their championship, and that the Seahawks lost theirs.
  • Popularity and Resentment Draymond Green is probably the most popular guy on the Warriors. He does the dirty work that enable the other Warriors to do what makes them great. And as noted above, his punch was taking what his teammates appreciate about him so much. Also, Harrison Barnes and Andrew Bogut, who were unable to contribute much in the series, were let go to make room for Durant, so there were scapegoats available.

    I'm not sure the same is true of Russell Wilson. Yes, he's a winner, and his teammates certainly appreciate how he helps them succeed. But I kind of suspect his goody-two-shoes no-time-to-sleep act can grate a bit. If the Seahawks were the Mecury 7 astronauts, Wilson would definitely be John Glenn.

    Bigger than that, over the past several years, the team has gradually come to be defined more by Russell Wilson, and less by the defense and running game, and this game was probably the center of gravity.  The Seahawks were in the Super Bowl because Wilson had led an unlikely comeback in the NFC championship game against the Packers. They were in this situation because the defense had allowed the Patriots to score two fourth quarter touchdowns. Had the pass found its target, it would have been Wilson's victory, and I'm not sure the team was excited about that.
  • Football vs. Basketball While it's true that succeeding in basketball required players to sacrifice for the good of the team (hence Bill Simmons writing an 800 page book based on that theme), the sacrifices for football players on a successful team are more immediate, visceral and profound. It's probably not an exaggeration to measure it in years of life lost.

    In particular for the Seahawks, Richard Sherman will likely never be regarded the same way as shut down corners like Darrell Revis and Champ Bailey. He is part of a successful system in the Seahawks secondary, and it's not clear whether he, Earl Thomas, or Kam Chancellor is the most crucial part of it.

    To make those type of sacrifices, and then be deprived of victory by a mistake, must be an embittering experience.
So, what does this mean? A number of these factors are outside of a team's control, especially after the fact. So I'm not sure there's many lessons here for other teams looking to bounce back from key mistakes, like the Atlanta Falcons as Lombardi suggests.

So what's the prognosis? Well, the Falcons have some of these factors going for them, and others against them. They didn't sign the NFL equivalent of Kevin Durant, but their key mistake (keep throwing with a big lead in the 4th quarter) was consistent with their identity as a team.

I think the larger lesson is that I'm not sure it's possible to create a team culture to inoculate yourself from the effects of a bad mistake. If I could summarize what the Seahawks problem was, it is that they were unclear about their identity. The defensive players believed they were a team based on defense on ball control; their decision to throw from the 1 yard line revealed that the coaches believed differently.

So, my lesson on recovering from a mistake, or more precisely on how to avoid mistakes that haunt you is:
  • Be clear about your identity and core principles as a team.
  • Act consistent with those principles.
A mistake that is consistent with your shared identity can be forgiven and recovered from; one that goes against your identity, or reveals a dissonance, will be more difficult.

Sunday, May 21, 2017

The truth is a cross -- Why the anti-anti-Trump temptation must be resisted.

When pushback first started against the "anti-anti-Trump" position, I was not on board. Wasn't Trump himself a response to the failures of the media and the establishments of both parties? Should we ignore those problems? Don't we need to provide a credible alternative to Trump, and isn't taking on some the excesses (and there are and have been real excesses) of the anti-Trump movement a part of doing that?

I was particularly unpersuaded by this Damon Linker piece, perhaps because he began with an unfortunate parallel to anti-communism. I had thought the historical consensus was that the zeal of anti-communism ranked below things like slavery, segregation, and the treatment of native Americans in ranking of American sins, but somewhere in the neighborhood of things like the internment of Japanese Americans. "McCarthyism" is not a compliment. Blacklisted movie industry workers are our American version of martyrs. The Vietnam War cost many lives for little apparent effect. Ronald Reagan didn't defeat communism; it was never a threat, and self-destructed. This was the cultural consensus until the day before yesterday. There are still some artifacts from this time in history.

But now we're supposed to believe this was wrong? That communism really was a threat, that the anti-Communists weren't opportunistically taking advantage of people's fear for their own ends but taking a necessary stand, and that those opposed to them were the real cowards?

Anyway, this was my general attitude until the last couple weeks.

It is apparent that Donald Trump is not a good president.

It is also apparent that there are a number of people who are committed to the idea that, whatever Trump's faults may be, they pale in significance to the faults of the media and elites, and that the best way to confront those is to allow Trump's presidency to run its course. Any criticism of President Trump is not a response to Trump's actual behavior, but a desperate attempt by the elites to regain their stranglehold on all the institutions of power over the expressed desires of the voting public.

The more people become committed to this idea, the harder it will be for them to confront the reality, and, human nature being what it is, they will grasp at any reason not to.

Enter the respectable anti-anti-Trump commentator, with their well-worn criticisms of the media and establishment figures. Which probably have truth behind them. But it feeds these supporters' sense that Trump is being persecuted for standing up to power rather than facing legitimate criticism for poor behavior. And that is bad.


I may have some problems with the healthcare industry, or how the case for vaccinations has been made.

But if I have a friend who refuses to vaccinate her children, and whose child is suffering from a disease that could be addressed by vaccinations, it is not a loving thing for me to do to commiserate with her about the arrogance of the medical community, or to forward her articles and comments on this theme.

Does this mean that the medical industry is perfect and above criticism? No. But there is an acute problem that needs to be addressed, and focusing on this chronic issue prevents us from doing that.


There are many problems we had in our society before Trump entered politics, some of which contributed to Trump's election. We do need to address them.

But the biggest problem we have right now is a childish president who doesn't seem to understand the responsibilities that come with his office. Getting through this will require us to be vigilant, and not wave off crticisms. Commentary like this, which pre-empts all criticism as so much turf-defending, is profoundly unhelpful:

Was Trump's speech any good?  This tweet doesn't give me any basis to determine that. But I do know that any Trump supporters now have support for the notion that any criticism of it is motivated by protecting turf instead of its actual content.

A Dramatic Loss

I'm sure the sabermetric community would kill me for this, but it seems like last week;s thrashing of the Rockets at home in an elimination game by a Spurs team missing its MVP candidate best player and point guard was more than just a single game. It seemed like a rejection of the Rockets' system by the basketball gods (and incidentally, a rejection of tanking and other similar systems).

First, for the Rockets Moreyball system. In its purest form, it is that the only good shots are dunks/layups and 3 pointers. The theory is that this is a higher percentage strategy, but the three pointers introduce a higher degree of variance.

This should give them a puncher's chance in against a superior team like the Warriors because, if the shots are falling, then they count for 3 points instead of 2, and they can have a better result than they merit.

But it also means that the possibility of being run off the court at home by a team with inferior talent is also in play. They have a higher ceiling, but a lower floor.

Now, I don't care for the Rockets system, so perhaps I'm jumping the gun a bit. But I don't think the Rockets system can win a championship. Sometimes you need to grind out a win when the shots aren't falling, and the Rockets do not seem capable of that.

Perhaps there's some incremental tweaks. But a 39 point loss at home at an elimination game to a team missing its best player (and that doesn't appear to belong on the same floor as the Warriors) suggests something more fundamental.

Thursday, May 18, 2017

A Criminal DefenseA Criminal Defense by William L. Myers Jr.

I enjoyed this book up until the ending.

It was a tight, legal thriller and mystery. Having grown up in South Jersey, I enjoyed the mentions of Philadelphia landmarks (though I'm pretty sure nobody keeps track of time on the City Hall clock).

Then, we get to the "twist" ending, which I will discuss my problems with in the spoilers.

Friday, May 12, 2017

Digital Citizenship

In his farewell column at This Week, Michael Brendan Daugherty apologizes for writing for the internet, and notes the negative consequences of our life online.

I am more optimistic about the future of this than MBD is (as I am about a lot of things), but I too have noted the bad effects. Indeed I think a big reason for the election of Trump is that we haven't yet adjusted to the new streams of information that are coming our way.

As a technology worker for the entirety of the internet era, I should be ahead of the curve on these things, but even I admit letting it things bother me more than I should. We have build a machine that is excellent at presenting us information to get us angry.

What I think we have is a national mood, and thus an electorate, that is being formed by unbalanced pieces of information. We seek out and find information that reinforces our point of view, and the only thing we see about those we disagree with is framed to make them look ridiculous.

This is not sustainable.

But I think we'll figure it out.

To speed that along, here's some guidelines I've adopted.

  • "Hypocrisy," or supporting a principle when it helps your party, and not when it supports the other party, especially from a partisan figure or organization, is unremarkable, and detecting it is not a laudable feat.
  • If someone says or does something stupid, that is mostly about them, rather than about every cause or movement they can semi-plausibly be linked to.
  • Think through what you intent to accomplish and what you are likely to accomplish before passing some piece of information on.
  • Do not share anything simply based on a headline without actually reading the article, remembering that headlines and tweets are often crafted by someone other than the author of a article to maximize clicks and views.

Thursday, May 04, 2017

Being Right Isn't Enough

For some time, I've resisted the tendency to give great credit to politicians and pundits who were "right" in opposing the Iraq war. Yes, obviously, this is better than being wrong, and many prominent people were very wrong about it, with disastrous consequences. But those who were opposed were ineffective in doing so. The war went on. Their being against it did nothing to prevent it.

This came back to mind reading Isaac Chotiner's response to Jimmy Kimmel's talk about his son's scary first few days, and his call for coverage of pre-existing conditions.

First, I want to applaud Kimmel for considering what his experience might have been like for someone is a less privileged position than himself, and using his forum to try to improve that. As a father of a child with a chronic disease (ahem), I'm thankful for his witness.

So what problem would Democrats have with it? Well, Kimmel didn't quite say that removing this limitation was all Republicans' fault, and that Democrats were all tirelessly working to ensure no parent would ever have to face the choice he describes:

We need to make sure the people who represent us, the people who are meeting about this right now in Washington, understand that very clearly. Let’s stop with the nonsense. This isn’t football. There are no teams. We are the team. It is the United States. Don’t let their partisan squabbles divide us on something every decent person wants.
As the Bret Stephens controversy has demonstrated, many people on the left simply cannot abide the notion that they are anything less than perfect, or that Republicans are anything more than miserable reprobates. The important thing isn't that we work together to ensure children with such conditions have medical coverage, it's that some might have come away from Kimmel's talk not knowing that this is all Republicans' fault:

But the problem in Washington is not partisanship per se. It’s an ideologically deranged party and its know-nothing leader in the White House. The fact that approximately half the voters in this country support that party is a much less comforting thought than the one about America coming together to care for kids like Billy. Until we face up to that pre-existing reality, we don’t have any chance of ensuring that we live in a society that truly cares for its most vulnerable citizens.
Kimmel wants kids to get covered; I get the sense that Chotiner would be just as happy if they weren't covered, and it was Republicans' fault.


Yes, Chotiner is right that this coverage is in place because of ACA, which was advanced by the Obama Administration and opposed by Republicans, who are currently trying to dismantle it.

Bravo. That and $5 will get you a coffee at a hospital cafeteria.

What Chotiner refuses to grapple with is why ACA is vulnerable. Yes, the Republican Party has a number of people with a disordered commitment to small government, and probably a few mean-spirited people who don't want to give coverage to those who don't "deserve" it. I don't think those numbers add up to one sufficient to provide the majorities the GOP currently has attained.

What makes up for it is what's included in the package. How they were willing to risk it to keep abortion coverage. How it was used as a weapon against organizations like the Little Sisters of the Poor to coerce them into violating their conscience. Things like this whittled away at the ACA's popularity to make it vulnerable.

Then the Democrats nominated a candidate loathed by much of the electorate with a questionable ethical track record who lost to the worst major party presidential candidate in living memory.

If Chotiner and others really want to make sure kids are covered, they'll stop trying to cover their own asses, and roll up their sleeves and try to win elections. That might mean dealing with people he doesn't like. That might mean compromising on some social issues. That might mean not chasing people out of the coalition for favoring legal protections for the unborn. That  might mean taking people's concerns seriously rather than just calling them names.

Yes, it is unfair that those who are right on an issue bear a moral burden that those who are wrong don't share. As a pro-lifer, I need to present the case for the unborn in a way that people will respond to. If I am aware of the horror of abortion, but I advocate for the unborn in an ineffective or counterproductive way, then I have failed in a way that someone who doesn't recognize it has not. My being "right" on the issue does nothing for the unborn.

So, yes, Chotiner is correct that the Democrats are on the right side of this issue, and Republicans are on the wrong side. But that is entirely besides the point. Those who value medical coverage can be angry at Republicans for taking it away, but also at Democrats for putting it in a package that people are repeatedly rejecting.

Sunday, March 12, 2017

The Colbert Temptation...

While I'm ruining comedy by over-analyzing it, I'll turn to Stephen Colbert.

Now, I haven't caught much of his show since he's taken over the 11:30 CBS spot. I watched and enjoyed his Comedy Central show when I lived in the Central Time Zone, though I did have my issues with it.  But I have followed the news and ratings, and Colbert's apparent decision to make his show more overtly political in response to Trump.

I think this is a terrible idea.

To see why, let's look at Colbert's segment at halftime of today's Big 10 Championship Game on the occasion of Colbert's Northwestern Wildcats imminent first ever selection to the NCAA tournament.
Bear in mind that Colbert was addressing a different audience from his usual fans, and had an opportunity to win them over:

The Trump/political bits are easily the least funny parts of it. Those who enjoyed them aren't laughing at good jokes, but rejoicing in seeing their own views mirrored by a fancy celebrity. "It's the year of the underdog ... including reality TV show hosts!" Really? March Madness won't be covered by health insurance next year?  Is there even a joke there? Or are we just supposed to howl in recognition that health care will obviously be worse next year once the Republicans are done with it.

He's better than this.

But the problem is that Colbert (and his staff) receive tremendous amounts of positive feedback for this kind of thing, likely from people they like and respect. The temptation to just keep pounding out the anti-Trump stuff must be enormous.

But it's a temptation I think he and his cohorts would do well to resist. It doesn't make for particularly good comedy, and I don't think it's particularly good commentary either. If the Republicans really are ruining health care for millions of people, we shouldn't be chuckling about it not covering "March Madness;" we should be doing everything we can to prevent it.

I think Jimmy Kimmel is on the right track with Trump-free Tuesday -- if only force his writers to push themselves past the easy high of an anti-Trump hit.

Comedians like Colbert will have an important role to play in how we respond to Trump. They need to do so with care in order to be effective.

Thursday, March 09, 2017

Thinking Too Hard About the Big Bang Theory

The Big Bang Theory has been on for 10 years now, and has spent the last 5 being the #1 rated scripted show on network television, which doesn't mean what it used to mean, but is still something.

Despite (or, as this discussion may demonstrate, because of) being a bit nerdy like the main characters, I've never been much of a fan. I won't leave the room if it's on, but I wouldn't go out of my way to watch it.

But why? It's a show about people somewhat similar to me (though I would much sooner spend a weekend on a retreat or watching basketball than at Comic-con) with attractive wives and girlfriends, successful careers, and quality friendships, which has top-level resources devoted to it (this isn't a "Christian" movie). What's not to like?

Then, I saw this video:

Now, I've written before about how, for a piece of entertainment like The Big Bang Theory, what is being sold isn't so much the show as an artifact of artistic achievement, but the experience of watching the show. So, the fact that there's not really a well-crafted "joke" here to go with the laugh track does not, in itself, convict the show.

But it does raise the question of what is being sold here.

And the conclusion I come to, is that the experience is of laughing at these characters, not with them, and by extension, me and other "nerdy" people.


Let's stipulate that the Big Bang Theory does not represent some crowning pinnacle of comedic or dramatic achievement, but just something that people enjoy the company of for a half hour a week.

Now, for a show to work this way does not require the characters to be people one would either admire or choose to hang out with in real life. The four Seinfeld characters were, of course famous for their antisocial behavior. All six Friends had traits that would be grating from a real-life friend. The Crane brothers would be insufferable for longer than a half hour. And so on...

And I think the pattern holds true for The Big Bang Theory. The characters aren't presented as malevolent, but they are not presented as particularly likable, either. We root for them, but I don't think we are supposed to want to hang out with them.

Penny is our audience-surrogate. She started the series as their neighbor, and now is married to Leonard, the least nerdy of the bunch. She rolls her eyes with us as the guys nerd out. She is also unrealistically attractive for someone who would spend any time with this group.

A typical episode's "A" plot these days will involve Leonard committing some obvious relationship blunder that gets Penny angry at him (say, not calling when he was going to be late or changing plans without consulting her first). At first Leonard will be indignant at how this innocuous action (or inaction) could possibly provoke this type of response, but by the final act, he has recognized his error, made some grand gesture to atone, and pledges not to repeat the error.

So, the non-nerdy fans get to feel superior to the nerds, who might be book-smart but are oblivious as far as relationships go, plus we're way hotter than they are. And the nerds are pacified because Leonard gets to keep his hot wife/girlfriend, even if it comes at the cost of his personality being gradually ground down.

A similar thing happens with the sequence above. Non-nerds (and milder nerds like me) laugh that the nerds care about all this stuff. Nerds are (supposed to be) thrilled to see someone who shares their interests represented in a sympathetic manner on a highly rated network television show.


The made me recall the Twitter fight between Scott Alexander and Freddie (which I can't find right now), which started with Freddie asserting that the commercial success of Star Wars proves that nerds aren't oppressed. Alexander responded that the prominence of blacks in entertainment didn't prove that blacks weren't oppressed, which Freddie uncharacteristically took as a cue to mock the idea that anyone would compare the experience of nerds to the experience of blacks, ending any productive conversation.

The point wasn't that the experience of nerds is in any way analogous to that of blacks, but simply that this was a bad way to demonstrate it. (And I probably wouldn't choose the word "oppressed" to describe the experience of nerds).

The fact that Hollywood is willing to portray things we like and take our money doesn't mean they respect us, any more than copying our homework in high school was a demonstration of social esteem.  Yes, Hollywood devotes a lot of resources to comic book and Sci-Fi movies, but as the Oscars demonstrated, this isn't really what they respect. They'll happily cash the checks and use them to make dramas celebrating themselves.

With The Big Bang Theory, I feel like I'm being made fun of, and also expected to be thankful for the privilege.


Of course, this made me wonder how other groups feel. Shows like Will & Grace and Modern Family are often praised for their positive portrayal of gay characters, to the point where some credited these shows with changing their position on same sex marriage.

But are/were they really so great? Weren't the portrayals a bit stereotypical? And weren't we invited to laugh at their fussiness?

Maybe some gay people did think so, but were afraid to make much noise about it since it was so much better than what came before, and were thankful for the progress.

And maybe that would be a good attitude for me to cultivate as well.

So I'll muster one cheer for The Big Bang Theory.