seekingferret: Photo of me with my 2012 Purim beard, with stripes shaven into it. (Default)
Sunday I saw Opera Philadelphia's staging of Jennifer Higdon's new opera "Cold Mountain". Which was generally fascinating. I've not read the book nor seen the film, but it's clear that at its core, "Cold Mountain" has an excellent story, grounded in myth as well as in historical reality and geography and human nature. In the first act, that was mostly what gripped me- the excellent character work, the skillful way Gene Scheer's adapted scenario moved from scene to scene. The music lagged behind a little bit- dull recitative with obvious instrumental underscoring, arias that suffered for being overly harmonically complex and underly melodious. The thing I said at intermission was that I was enjoying it, but wasn't clear what making this story into an opera gained.

The second act was where Higdon found her footing. (At a Q&A session afterward, Higdon noted that the first act was finished and workshopped and revised before the second act was finished, and [livejournal.com profile] nathanielperson speculated afterward that this may, in Higdon's first opera, explain why the second act was more polished. But the music, Post-Romantic (in the Q&A Higdon cited Britten as a principal influence; I would also mention Strauss and Bernstein as likely influences) but heavily flavored with a characteristic Appalachian bluegrass flavor, justified itself in the second act. Not just in the beauty of the melodies and their rightness for their place in the scenario, but for the way the music spoke to the place of music in the story. Rather than just use some of the many specific folk songs Charles Frazier apparently mentioned in the novel, Higdon composed her own symphonic bluegrass songs: warm, homey, but rhythmically and harmonically complex and subtle. These songs do double duty as songs and metasongs, serving their narrative function in the plot but also helping to tell us about the characters. These songs answer the question of why make Cold Mountain an opera: because in opera, because music is positioned alongside so many other artistic disciplines, they all become greater than themselves.

Among those other disciplines, the set design is worth calling out for separate attention. A work of contemporary art unto itself, the set was abstract, formed of massive beams arrayed at jarringly dissonant angles. From the cheap seats where we watched the opera, it resolved into a flat space that easily transformed into a flowing river, a snowy mountaintop, a sunny farmhouse, and all the other spaces the story required it to. But when we dropped down to the orchestra level after the show, we were impressed by the verticality of the set, how different layers created different senses of place, and how that all worked differently at different angles. It was a pretty remarkable set.

Afterward, we found a bar a few blocks away to watch the Super Bowl. [livejournal.com profile] nathanielperson called Cold Mountain the superior cultural experience, and was bored for good stretches of the game, but I enjoyed the game. Denver's defense is a thing of beauty. There are no gimmicks to it, none of the trickery and disguise of a Bill Belichick or Rex Ryan defense. Denver just beats you by not having any weaknesses. You can't exploit their pass rushers with runs because the interior linebackers are so good at run stopping. You can't exploit them with quick passes because their corners are so good at coverage. And you just plain can't stop their pass rushers from hitting the quarterback. Denver takes away your choices so all you can do is run the plays you are best at executing and hope that you're good enough.

I'm also intrigued by the paradox of Peyton Manning's 'legacy', the way that his mediocre performance in this Super Bowl solidified his reputation as a quality quarterback even in the postseason, merely because his team won in spite of him. The reason for this is pretty clear- his previous reputation as a postseason choke artist was undeserved and everyone knew it and we've all been grasping for an excuse to properly appreciate how great Peyton Manning was in his prime. The Colts were never quite good enough, especially defensively, to carry Manning all the way- I did some checking on the famed imbalance in the Brady-Manning head to head playoff games and found that 80% of the disparity, at least, can be explained by the fact that the Patriots had home field most of the time in these games. The Patriots were the better team; Brady was not necessarily the better clutch player.
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I've been reading Michael Lewis's Moneyball the past few days. As I've been a studious baseball stat nerd since I was eight years old, you might have thought I would have leapt on Moneyball from its publication, but the thing was, I never heard anyone say anything they got from Moneyball that I didn't already know, so it never seemed that important to read. I knew sabermetrics long before Michael Lewis or Billy Beane did. (I won a research award from SABR the year before Moneyball came out.) But I decided to read it now, for whatever reason.

The shocking thing I'm finding in reading Moneyball, though, is how bad it is, how incomplete it is, how wrong it is about how baseball statistics works.

Let us list its flaws

1)Skims over the math that matters, makes too much of the math that doesn't.

One of the early fundamental discoveries of sabermetrics is that baseball games can be modelled as a state machine with a usefully small number of states, since the only parameters these states need to have for the simplest model is number of outs and number of runners on base. This model can be used for a number of things, but perhaps the most basic and important is modelling the expected run value of each state and using it to calculate the relative value of various situations. It allows good, straightforward computational models to analyze all sorts of tactical situations. I learned about this state model when I was a teenager, shortly after I learned what a state machine was, in a brilliant Pete Palmer essay. Lewis spends about a paragraph mangling the explanation of this simple model, dashed off as an aside to half-assed explanations of other unrelated mathematical concepts. As he continues in his discussion, he makes myriad assertions about the relative value of tactics, most of which are derived from this state machine model or variants thereof, but he never mentions state machines again. Instead, he makes appeals to authority, i.e. "According to Billy Beane, stolen bases are only valuable if they're successful 70% of the time." This particular result was baby's first introduction to mathematical modelling, but Lewis has no apparent interest in where it comes from, once he gets it from the genius mouth of Billy Beane, who of course was not the one actually responsible for the result.

Perhaps more glaringly, Lewis explains that there was a debate between various sabermetricians about the weight various mathematical models suggested should be used to analyze the relative value of on-base average and slugging average. People like Palmer and Bill James thought OBP should be weighted 1.5 times SLG, 'stupid baseball insiders' thought they were approximately equally weighted, and Paul DePodesta and Billy Beane thought OBP should be weighted 3 times SLG. This is a pretty substantial disagreement that Lewis cites because according to him, DePodesta's model gave him a huge advantage in pursuing undervalued players... if DePodesta's model is right. Lewis, though, isn't interested in explaining the disagreement between Bill James and DePodesta, because to him, mathematically oriented people are wizards doing magic by plugging numbers into equations. So after reading the section, I honestly couldn't tell you whether DePodesta or James is right, because Lewis glosses over what actually matters about the math. There's this baffling bit where Lewis conflates denominators and coefficients. And if you ask me, a book about the practical use of advanced statistical tools in baseball ought to treat debates like this as questions to try to resolve, not as plot points.

2)Ignores the class and racial implications of Beane's drafting strategies.

Beane puts an emphasis on drafting college players not because college players have better overall outcomes, but because their outcomes are more predictable- they are older and thus more developed, there is more data available about them, the data about them is more reliable, the data about them is based on tougher competition. Needless to say, this has racial and class implications. College baseball players are more likely to be white and more likely to be economically better off than players who need to be drafted out of high school to take a paycheck as soon as they can. This is a pretty significant part of the story, it seems to me, but it's not something Lewis has any interest in talking about. Is Beane's approach likely to extend the forces pushing African-American players away from the game? I don't know, but I think it's important as well as interesting to ask.

Further, Lewis fetishizes the Ivy league pedigrees of Beane's assistant GM Paul DePodesta, a Harvard economics graduate, and Beane's baseball mentor Sandy Alderson, whose Dartmouth and Harvard degrees he mentions multiple times. When DePodesta hires another Harvard grad to work with him, Lewis chortles gleefully about how the Harvard Old Boys club has finally reached baseball. He also fetishizes the contributions of Wall Streeters who launch analytics companies using the same techniques they used to design complicated derivatives. These techniques purportedly bring 'intelligence' to a field Lewis repeatedly claims was being run by absolute morons, and that elitist tone is not something I'm exaggerating. Lewis, recall, is a Princeton man and a former Wall Streeter himself, and he clearly sees such people as superior.

3)NEVER MENTIONS STEROIDS AT ALL.

This is so absurd it defies belief. Billy Beane was a teammate of Jose Canseco and Mark McGwire when they were the 'roid-enhanced Bash Brothers in Oakland in the late '80s. So when he talks about the way that skinny draftees who hit well for average 'develop power' in the minor leagues, it's impossible to think that he's talking about a natural process whereby players 'fill out' as they reach their twenties, as Lewis suggests. Beane is suggesting that somehow, wink wink, when his players are in the minors they start taking steroids and gain power... But there are no steroids that can teach you how to hit a baseball for high average, how to have plate discipline to draw walks, how to play baseball smartly, so those are the things Beane believes in drafting for... steroids can handle the rest. There's a further oblique comment from Beane later on about how Barry Bonds has gone beyond where talent takes him that only makes sense if Beane knows that Bonds is juicing.

Somehow Moneyball is a book about trends in baseball at the height of the Steroid Era that never mentions steroids. Either Michael Lewis is a fool or a liar. As I progress through the book, I alternate between favoring either of these hypotheses.

4a)Valorizes Billy Beane's mathematical errors.

Beane and DePodesta's mathematical model suggests that some players who other teams will not want until the tenth or fifteenth round of the draft are actually as valuable as first round players. Any rational game theorist would say that this means that you should aim to draft them in the fifth round, or the ninth round if you think you can get away with it, because why waste a chance to get a good player who won't be there later taking a good player who will be there later? Beane drafts them in the first round and congratulates himself on how clever he was. When at best you can say he 'reached' for these prospects, and at worst you can say he signaled to the other teams that he was prioritizing different things than them in his scouting, too.

4b)Valorizes Billy Beane for cheating.

The alternative explanation for this is that Beane drafts these players in the first round because he has made rule-breaking handshake deals with these players to take tenth round money despite being drafted in the first round. Lewis defends this by suggesting 'everyone does this', but it's still cheating, and in an echo of my second point about the classism, the people who lose out because of this cheating are the people most vulnerable, the young draftees who lack sound financial advising and get manipulated by Billy Beane as a result. Lewis reports it as an unambiguous triumph for Beane, laughing along with the scouts at the way the draftees are being manipulated. Along with covering up the steroid use, this is pretty typical of how Lewis defends Beane's win-at-all-costs approach to the game.

5)Pretends Billy Beane was the only one doing this stuff.

At the same time that Oakland was using its 'moneyball' tactics to elevate it in spite of a small payroll, the Yankees were consistently beating the As, using a combination of 1)High payroll giving them the ability to sign and keep star players and 2)a style of play emphasizing home runs and walks and on-base percentage, the same style of play Beane emphasized. The Yankees may not have had a Harvard educated economist crunching the numbers (or they may have), but they clearly recognized the value of those baseball assets anyway. In the early 2000s, the Yankees were famous for, under managers Torre and then Girardi, being a patient, disciplined, skilled team that drew more pitches than any other team.

This is not surprising. Billy Beane may not have encountered Bill James until the mid 90s, but James had been gaining followers since the late '70s. It stands to reason that in that time period, some of his ideas would infiltrate baseball's smarter management people. Of course, if you have a mathematical advantage, you don't give it away... this is one of the key themes of the book, the ways Beane tries to disguise his tactics, yet somehow Lewis tries to sell the explanation that nobody in baseball but Beane was smart enough to use these tactics as more plausible than "Everyone else who's using these tactics isn't talking to reporters." Especially if, like the Yankees, they were able to combine sabermetric tactics with bigger budgets to amplify their advantage even over sabermetric teams like the As, it would not be in their interest to publicly talk about what they were doing.

It seems clear that the reason Beane is in fact talking about it is because he wants to raise a conversation about the effect the salary disparity is having on the game, that he's not interested in staying a clever underdog but wishes to be able to compete on salary with the Yankees. But Lewis doesn't do a great job of pointing this out when he trumpets Beane as a loner genius.

Maybe I'm a giant Yankee homer. Okay, no maybe about it. I'm a giant Yankee homer. But it's frustrating when we see teams with giant payrolls fail catastrophically all the time, while the Yankees have consistently built championship teams using their giant payrolls, by way of smart drafting, smart risk-taking, smart baseball tactics, and effective use of their economic advantages. The Cashman Yankees are at least as compelling a business story as the Beane As.

6)Acts like Beaneball is the only right way to run a team

From the 2002 draft that Lewis highlights, a couple As draftees became good MLB players, though none were ever superstars. Most didn't pan out. On the other hand, several of the high school pitchers shunned by the As, notably Zach Greinke, became superstars (while most didn't pan out). Going after high school players in the draft is a high risk/high reward strategy that Beane felt he couldn't afford since he was so dependent on young talent to staff his roster cheaply, but it's nonetheless a valid strategy because when it does pay off, it pays off handsomely. Lewis spends most of the book calling teams pursuing this strategy idiots who listen to their gut instead of the power of math, but several of the teams who pursued it did much better in the 2003 draft than the As did. Possibly in the long run, a strategy like Beane's is safer and more reliable as an engine for bringing in young talent, but when all it takes is one or two transcendent talents to change the fate of your team, it's sometimes worth risking the draft.

There are lots of ways to run a team intelligently. The mathematics of baseball are still not reliable enough to offer any kind of guarantee of success, and there are a number of different, defensible approaches that make reasonable sense. Lewis acts like only Beane in all of baseball had given any thought to draft strategy, since only Beane was using Beane's strategy. But there are lots of other viable strategies that intelligent people could use in the draft.

7)Takes a story about stats and tries to impose a human narrative on it.

Midway through the book, Lewis describes sitting in the A's video room with several front office people during a game. Lewis is watching the commercial TV broadcast of the game and periodically gasping or cheering. The front office people are watching a camera feed from center field that gives them the best view of the strike zone and carefully watching, never reacting emotionally. Lewis realizes, he says, that they are watching a different game than him. He is reacting to and creating narratives. They are slicing and dicing the game and analyzing its fine details.

And yet, for several chapters, Lewis reaches into the Halberstam bag of tricks to tell a digressive story about a couple of particular games and the emotional, sportswritery journeys that brought particular players to those games. Lewis is not as good as Halberstam, but he's not bad at this. But it's awfully wrongfooted. According to everything the theory he's espousing says, these games don't matter. These players don't particularly matter to the system: their weirdness, their narrative, their psychology, none of these explain why they're effective moneyball players. The only thing that matters is how often they create runs.

Lewis is fascinated by the process by which players who were not considered valuable by other teams become valuable to the As, because this process seems like a sort of redemption story to him. His repeated refrain as he talks about players with the As front office is "What's wrong with him?" He delights when he learns that players were considered too fat, or too weird, or too old, or too bad at fielding, and they are saved from the dustbin by Paul DePodesta's computer. He chortles snidely about Brewers draftee Prince Fielder that "He is too fat even for the A's." Lewis particularly enjoys that most of the weird players he writes about have not been directly told by the A's why they have been saved. It's a dramatic irony he enjoys over and over again: he has been let in on a secret about these players that even they do not know about themselves. He, therefore, is vicariously smarter than the players. [All is right in the world. Lewis is a Princeton man.]


So um... yeah, that was Michael Lewis's Moneyball. Let me be clear: It seems apparent from all the numbers that Beane is legitimately, consistently able to outperform his salary limitations, and that some of his analytic tools play a role in that. But Moneyball does not offer an effective or convincing explanation for why this is.
seekingferret: Photo of me with my 2012 Purim beard, with stripes shaven into it. (Default)
The Golden State Warriors won the NBA finals, to no one's huge surprise. Let's be honest- they were the best team in the league all year, not just MVP Steph Curry but the whole team moving together was a thing of beauty. Nobody can complain about them winning the championship, nobody can say it was unfair, nobody can say it was unreasonable.

And yet I found myself rooting for the hopelessly overmatched Cavaliers all series. Not because I tend to root for underdogs. I don't, not usually. I have no problem rooting for an overdog if I like them, and at this point in my life I make no apology for that. Thirty years a Yankee fan have made me honest about that, at least.

I suppose it's a fair cop to admit that some small part of my Cavs feelings can be traced to David Blatt and Dan Gilbert, two chutzpadic Jews trying their damnedest to take over Cleveland. But not as much as you'd think.

Mostly it's LeBron feelings. I am mistrustful of my LeBron feelings. I know that The Return was just as much a media game as The Decision, just as much about positioning of LeBron as a brand as anything else. I do not believe LeBron returned to Cleveland because he felt he owed his home state a championship, because he felt affection for Cleveland and wanted to give them basketball hope again. I don't believe that's not the reason why, either. I don't know LeBron's inner workings, by the nature of the beast I can't know his inner thoughts, but I am saying all this to try to say that I am not swayed toward LeBron by my hope for some kind of redemption.

Rather, what was almost unbearably seductive about LeBron in these finals was watching a man put that much of a burden on his shoulders and almost carry it. Watching him have to be the perfect version of himself for six games, because there was nobody else around to pick up even the tiniest bit of the slack. Basketball may be a team game, Golden State may be the unquestioned best team in the world right now, but LeBron and the Cavs was all about one man being more important than a team, and for some reason I was rooting for that to happen, for LeBron to reach an almost religious apotheosis.

I have never seen anyone play basketball as well as LeBron did in the past six games, not even Jordan at his peak. Though I was, you know, eight or nine years old when Jordan was at his peak, so it's hard for me to say that particularly authoritatively. And there is something incredibly beautiful about that, something that leaves me shivery with aesthetic pleasure. It was a privilege to watch, even in defeat.
seekingferret: Photo of me with my 2012 Purim beard, with stripes shaven into it. (Default)
Today I went to the home opener of NYC FC, the new New York City MLS team that is playing its games at Yankee Stadium. The weather was brutal, windy and cold, but I do not regret going. I've gone to several New York Red Bulls games over the years, both at Giants Stadium and at their new soccer-only stadium in Harrison, and I have never had as much fun at one of those games as I had today. It actually felt like the game was somehow momentous, like it represented a step forward in terms of New Yorkers actually caring about soccer. The crowd was 40,000+ strong and it was enthusiastic all game. I was probably standing half the game, joining in chants and cheers and yelling my head off.

NYC FC is headlined by David Villa, late of La Liga and the Spanish National Team. Dude is following in the footsteps of plenty of other slightly-past-their-prime Europeans coming over to the US for a paycheck, but he scored the first goal of the match, threatened a couple of other times, and provided everything the team could have asked for as far as star power. His good game was matched by some excellent goalkeeping with Josh Saunders, including a pretty miraculous out of position save/accidental scorpion kick.



seekingferret: Photo of me with my 2012 Purim beard, with stripes shaven into it. (Default)
I went to the Yankee game last night with some old college friends. The Stadium, on a almost out of contention September weeknight right after the Labor Day Weekend, was half empty, which was kind of novel.

I kept making jokes about it. 'Half of the stadium is excited right now' when a rally struck, or 'Half of the stadium really wants the game to be over' when the whole crowd got to its feet to cheer Mariano's last strike. But two slightly less frivolous observations:

1.Half-empty Yankee Stadiums are a lot easier to get out of after the game. This pleased me greatly.

2. Yankee Stadium is a great place to watch a game even when it's not a game that matters much, because the fans get it. I've been to probably a third of the major league parks, and there are parks where the fans know what they're doing and parks where they don't have a clue. In Camden Yards, which is a beautiful stadium with great amenities and great views, I watched in bemusement as a rally happened and people continued to sit in their beautiful seats and enjoy their beautiful views. In Toronto the fans get riled up, but only to the beck and call of the Jumbotron's commands. It doesn't take much to get Yankee fans to their feet, to get them riled up, to get them starting chants apart from the Jumbotron. Watching a Yankee team rally in Yankee Stadium is an electric sensation, even in a half-empty park.


Another thing I wanted to talk about, day before Rosh Hashanah, was how weirdly moving it is to gather by the hot dog stand at the seventh inning stretch, while everyone else in the Stadium is listening to Kate Smith sing "God Bless America" and then singing "Take Me Out to the Ballgame", to pray Ma'ariv, the Evening prayer service, with the other dozen religious Jews who happened to be at the game.

I've written many times here about how I love Judaism as a totalizing system, a prescription for daily life that extends far beyond the holidays everyone knows about. Entering into one of those holy days, it is important, I think, to recall that Rosh Hashanah is a focal point for a much broader tradition. Rosh Hashanah matters, but it matters because of its context within the rest of the year. It is a moment of re-commitment to that whole tradition.
seekingferret: Photo of me with my 2012 Purim beard, with stripes shaven into it. (Default)
Here, have some sports opinions:

-Clemens and Bonds belong in the Hall of Fame. Piazza does too. This steroids nonsense is bullshit obfuscation. Nobody who saw them play would deny they belong. While we're at it, Pete Rose belongs too. Nobody gives a shit if he bet on games.

-Oddly at peace with the Giants finishing with the same record as last year and not making the playoffs. Bill Simmons used to write about the 'grace period' fans should extend a team after they win a championship, and even though he forgot about the idea after his own Red Sox won a World Series and imploded, I've always bought in. I got a Super Bowl out of these guys, hell I got two in five years. I can't complain.

-Apparently hockey is back, and I don't care, but maybe Drew and I will go see a Devils game sometime.

-It's kind of nice to have a Knicks team that doesn't suck, but then, I said that last year and see what happened. Linsanity and then a playoff implosion. So... who the hell knows. I'm not the kind of guy who has any real feel for what'll happen come playoff time in basketball, especially not the way injuries can affect a team. C.F. Derrick Rose.
seekingferret: Josiah Bradley in Prison, Reading Fantastic Four (josiah2)
I did a bit of a kickstarter binge this summer, as basically every gamer I know seems to have, and premiums are starting to roll in.

I've seen a PDF rough draft of the first Appendix N adventure, which looks like a lot of fun, and also looks cheap and hasty. I don't think it's a company I'd buy from again, but I think the adventure looks well-suited to running on G+, so it's not a loss. And their mapmaker really is brilliant.

When I saw that the Stonehaven Miniatures Kickstarter had a Dwarven Bard mini, I had to buy in. Dwarven bards are the best. The minis came in this past week, and they look great. Unfortunately I don't actually know how to paint minis, so I guess I'm going to have to learn. I ordered a mini-painting starter kit from Amazon.

I've been getting regular updates from Dwimmermount, but... I have no interest in them. I'm waiting for the book. I don't ever plan to actually run Dwimmermount, but it seems clear that the book is going to be a fountain of great DMing ideas and advice. I'm looking forward to flipping through it and brainstorming. Dwimmermount, for the uninitiated, is a 1E-inspired Megadungeon designed by James Maliszewski. It is inspired by 1920s/30s pulp SF and fantasy, with the massive dungeon being among other things a potential jumping off point for portals to other worlds, as well as an ancient and fascinating and dynamic location in its own regard.

And the new Tabletop Forge beta is out, but I haven't had a chance to run anything with it. I guess the moral of this post is: Guys, I have a new low-level adventure and the D&D Next playtest rules have a new edition and I have a neat new toy to play with to run maps in Google Plus. Who wants to explore the Ruins of Ramat with me?



Unrelatedly, Nate Silver briefly turns his attention back to baseball, his original statistical home. http://fivethirtyeight.blogs.nytimes.com/2012/11/14/the-statistical-case-against-cabrera-for-m-v-p/

I think he is wrong to argue that these statistical indicators tell us that Trout was more valuable than Cabrera. I think the measures we have to evaluate defensive contributions to a team are improved immeasurably compared to even five years ago, and certainly let us make better comparisons between players than we used to be able to with simply fielding percentages, but there is still a lot of handwaviness in the analysis. I don't believe that simply because a Win Share analysis credits Trout with saving thirty runs, he actually saved thirty runs and that value can be naively added to Trout's offensive run creation.

I've been on-board the sabermetric revolution since the mid-90s, well ahead of Moneyball, but the best statistical analysts have always understood that statistics were an inadequate measure of value that needed to be supplemented with intuition and subjectivity. If a statistic tells us that ARod is a better defensive shortstop than Jeter, that means one of two things. Either ARod is a better shortstop than Jeter, or the statistic is wrong. Shortly after the Moneyball revolution, the Wall Street Journal began a regular sports statistics column written by Allen St. John, and every week I would read it and rage because St. John never took the time and thought to parse out which of the two choices were the right one.

Now I would never accuse Nate Silver of that particular mistake. Silver obviously knows to validate his statistics. I just think he's overestimating their fit. Defense is full of intangibles and unmeasurables, and the work-arounds that modern statisticians use to create usable defensive statistics are powerful, but not all-powerful, and they're still workarounds borne of our inability to directly measure precisely what Defense is.

The point is, statistics are good, but they're not yet perfect at measuring what makes a baseball player great, and they're limited by all the usual GIGO that haunts a mathematical model. If statistics give us a result that is counter to our intuition, sometimes we need to put a human check on them to make sure it's not the math that's at fault.




Also, unrelatedly, I got to the issue of Nick Fury and his Howling Commandos where we get a racist squad member. It is so unintentionally hilarious. And pretty awful, too. The racist squad member tries to ally himself with Reb and Fury against Izzy, Dino, and Gabe, except that Reb and Fury are all "What the fuck are you talking about? We don't take bigots in our squad," which is hilarious when your name is Reb and you're a walking talking Southern stereotype. And then at the end, the racist gets injured by not listening to Izzy the Jew, and Gabe donates blood because they match on blood type, and then the racist freaks out because he has negro blood in him now. Except then Nick Fury gives him a talking to and he gets kicked out the Howlers, but the very last panel suggests that he has learned his lesson and wants to apologize to Gabe and Izzy.

I think I need more Howler/Isaiah Bradley stories, is what I'm saying.
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I had an Anathem nightmare on Friday night. After reading the scene where they throw The Book at Erasmas, I dreamt that they had thrown The Book at me, and the book was Finnegans Wake. That was all kinds of terrifying. In general, 300 pages into Anathem, I'm completely enthralled. I love the world, I love the character building, I love the writing. But I think what's most surprised me is the way Stephenson consciously and elegantly shifts the story with each chapter. The Apert chapter has a very different feel and makes use of very different novelistic technique (collision of worlds tropes predominate) than the Anathem chapter (which is an academic mystery). It's something that feels somewhat Joycean, though in Joyce that always feels experimental, questing after something. In Anathem it feels fully realized as a praxic literary technique.


There was another thing I planned to post about, but cannot recall. Instead, I'll talk about sports for a while until I remember.

Yesterday, I watched the Spain-Italy game with lukewarm enthusiasm. I am neither a fan of the Spanish nor Italian side. I suppose mostly the underdog fan in me rooted for Italy, but not very passionately, and I admired the Spanish goal-scoring and passing. It was odd watching this Italy team- the last time they were serious competitors was '06, and that was an incredibly defense-oriented squad that could not have allowed four goals to Spain. I don't follow soccer closely enough to keep up with the way retirements and injuries change the identity of international teams. I told my brother the Italian strategy ought to have mimicked the '06 Cup strategy: Make it to the finals and get headbutted by Zidane.

Meanwhile, in baseball, I'm worrying about our rotation sans CC and Andy. Kuroda had a great start, but he's been inconsistent, and Hughes has defined inconsistent the past few years. Nova's been solid, but he's not yet quite an ace. And that's not enough. Hopefully we get CC back sooner than later, and hopefully he's not slowed by the injury after he returns. Otherwise, we're going to need to make some moves.



Not really coming back. Eh, maybe I'll remember the other thing I wanted to say later.
seekingferret: Photo of me with my 2012 Purim beard, with stripes shaven into it. (Default)
Last night the Knicks played a playoff game, the Rangers played a playoff game, the Yankees and Mets played... and the New York Red Bulls played the Houston Dynamo. Guess which game I went to? Hint: it was one of only two where the New York team won, and I don't go out to Queens on work nights anymore after the tornado fiasco of ought ten.

It's my first time in the new Red Bull Arena, which is now a couple years old. It's fairly nice. It's also strangely annoying to get to from where I live. Harrison's a big commuter stop on the PATH now, so the time people would drive to the game is also the time when hordes of commuters are leaving the parking lots. Apparently it's a mess, and the Red Bulls site encourages people to take mass transit to the game. But the timing of train schedules didn't work out nicely for me to park in New Brunswick, take the train to Newark, take the PATH to Harrison, and be there before the game starts. So I decided to park in Newark and take the PATH to Harrison, which was annoying. The parking in Newark part, I mean. The PATH was fine.

Kenny Cooper scored a nice goal 7 minutes into the game. The rest of the game was scoreless, and a little dull in places, but the Red Bulls' aggression picked up in the second half and there were a number of nice scoring chances. Ryan Meara is every bit the ridiculous fan favorite I would have expected, too, and he had a very solid game in goal. My only other complaint was that beer was kind of on the high side. I expect to pay 9 bucks for a drinkable beer at a Yankee game, but between it being New Jersey and it being a soccer game, I thought it'd maybe be a little less.

Meanwhile, the Knicks lost and the Rangers lost. The Knick game I was pretty reconciled to. It's been a strange season for the Knicks- I remember I posted on Christmas day about my surprise that I might actually be rooting for a decent Knicks team this year. Then there was a freefall, and then there was Linsanity, and then there was the aftermath of Linsanity, and D'Antoni's firing, and the rise of a quasi-defensively oriented Woodson team that was entirely oriented around 'Melo. This time has had a dozen different identities this year, and given the injuries and the crazy schedule, I have to say I'm not that disappointed with only taking one win from the Heat.

The Rangers, on the other hand... I'm really only a Rangers fan during the playoffs. I tend to keep enough of an eye on the team during the regular season that when playoffs roll around I know the names of the players so I don't sound like an idiot. But I like this Rangers team a lot, and I feel good about their chances against the Devils. But Game 7s are strange and wondrous things. Who knows what happens in this one?

And let's make this the quasi-weekly baseball post, too, by observing that if such things had existed, I would have bought Mariano injury swaps before the season. The kinetics of that high velocity pitching motion, over an 18 year career... something like this was going to happen.
seekingferret: Photo of me with my 2012 Purim beard, with stripes shaven into it. (Default)
Obligatory baseball post time that nobody reads time.

Yankees lost Michael Pineda for the season with a torn labrum or something like that. I think it's something in the shoulder. The economics of injuries and sports are really dissimilar to anything else. Where else do you commit millions of dollars to an employee who, if they get even a minor injury, could be unable to work for you for a year or more?

There are ways in which the free agent market resembles a junk bond market. You buy risky assets, betting on their growth potential. If you get caught in a bubble you end up overpaying for those assets. Even if you don't get caught in a bubble, you're still risking a lot of money on something that could end up losing your whole investment, but you try to mitigate that risk with insurance policies and with diversificat... err.. bench depth.

And this takes me to a fascinatingly ghoulish idea I have. Fans love having an investment in their teams. Teams loving mitigating the risk on an investment. In the subprime market risk was mitigated using an instrument called a credit default swap, an insurance policy against default that was then securitized and sold to investors...

Why couldn't teams buy injury swaps on their players? The fans would love it, getting a chance to profit from the fluctuating risk of an injury to Johan Santana. Make lemons out of lemonade. Yes, it's ghoulish, and utterly morally bankrupt, but other than that, what objections do you have?
seekingferret: Photo of me with my 2012 Purim beard, with stripes shaven into it. (Default)
At some point in the fourth quarter, Wes Welker dropped a routine pass and the announcer said "Welker makes that catch 100 out of 100 times." We scratched our head on that one for a while. Clearly the sample he used to make his estimate of p was systematically flawed.

In any case, 100 out of 100 times, the Giants have beaten the Patriots in the Super Bowl. And it was fucking awesome. But as the Welker drop indicates, breaks had to go our way. We played well, but not dominantly. We recovered two of our own fumbles and had a third nullified by an astonishing 12 men on the field penalty. Brady was not perfect. We slowed their running game down and forced their passing game to work hard, but didn't stop either. It was a good win against a tough opponent and I'll take it for what it was.

I stand out on a lonely island here, but I think Bradshaw scoring the touchdown there was not a blunder. I think it was absolutely the right call. I know you're giving Brady a full minute and a timeout to score a touchdown, but the point is, he has to score a touchdown. You have the points in your pocket, a fluky field goal won't win it, and all of the pressure is on them. If Bradshaw falls down on the 1 yard line, you have at least two more snaps where you could fumble it, blow the snap, miss the kick, anything... (New England takes the timeout, 2nd and goal, fall on the football, knock 40 seconds off, 3rd and goal, fall on the football, knock 10 seconds off, call timeout, fourth and goal, kick field goal, knock 5 seconds off... If nothing goes wrong, New England gets the ball with 5 or less seconds left and all they need to do is get into field goal range, which a lucky kick return might give them. Good odds for you and little that Brady can do. But that's at least two and probably three more snaps for things to go wrong. And if things can go wrong they will. See Billy Cundiff.) No, I think you take those six points, you take the four point lead, and you don't take the field goal for granted.

But that's neither here nor there. The important thing is, SUPER BOWL CHAMPIONS AGAIN!!!!!


Speaking on lonely islands, I'm working my way through LOST. I'm midway through Season 2 now, and mostly I'm enjoying it. I have little interest in the island's mysteries and mythology, though. I just think it's a great set of interesting characters played by thoughtful actors and backed by good, character-driven writing. Jin and Sun are awesome. Hurley is fantastic when they give him a moment. He plays well off Jack, off Charlie, off Rose, off Jin, off anybody. Boone and Locke was a fascinatingly prickly relationship and I'm even growing on Kate/Jack/Sawyer. Sayyid's tortured strength is wonderful. Michael and Walt. Ana-Lucia and Mr. Eko. ROSE AND BERNARD. Adorable Charlie and Claire. So many great, difficult friendships. It really is like Fringe at its finest, a complex SF serial that isn't about the ideas as much as it's about the people.
seekingferret: Photo of me with my 2012 Purim beard, with stripes shaven into it. (Default)
Um... Holy Fuck the Giants game!!!!!

I should probably say more than that, but really, that's all there is to say. I listened to the post-game show on WFAN and Roman Oben totally shut down a guy who called in to shout about it, begging for intelligent conversation, but really, that's all there is to say. Holy Fuck the Giants game! And really, what a great football weekend altogether.

I was down at Penn on Saturday night for Alai's movie night. We watched the De Niro film "Ronin", which is interesting but kind of slowly-paced in a way that at times made it feel padded. We watched "Danger 5", which is still the coolest thing ever. And we watched the DS9 episode "Our Man Bashir", which is never not hilarious. Being in Philly made it easy to drive down to Baltimore Sunday morning to watch the games at Steve's. He's a big Raven's fan; I'm a big Giants fan. It seemed like it'd be fun to root for both our teams to make the Super Bowl.

Unfortunately, the Ravens lost in brutal fashion, which knocked the wind out of Steve's sails for much of the Giants game, but both the Ravens-Pats and Giants-Niners games were amazing examples of why football is so compelling (as well as full of reminders of why football is so problematic.)

I kept thinking about the Giants-Packers game from the last time we went to the Super Bowl. It was me, Soctt, and Belle in a Cambridge bar, having ditched the Dr. Awkward Mystery Hunt for the game. And there was a puzzle in the Hunt called Giant Game, which as I recall was a Princess Bride puzzle, but after the game we called HQ and said "We know the answer to Giant Game. It's Super Bowl." And we spelled it out, S-U-P-E-R etc.. and I was dizzy with glee and I didn't even know that the best was yet to come. Hopefully the big game will bring more of the same this year. Pats be going down!
seekingferret: Photo of me with my 2012 Purim beard, with stripes shaven into it. (Default)
So for Yuletide this year I got the story I've been requesting for three years now. It is approximately as awesome as I'd hoped.

Soldiers and Goat Girls, Marriage of Figaro, Rosina/Susanna/Cherubino, post-canon, hijinks ensue.

Rosina is still outsmarting her husband, Susanna is still helping her, Cherubino is still kind of redeemably obnoxious and Figaro has no clue what's going on as usual, but he puts on a good front anyway, as usual. It is awesome. All of my favorite characters put through their paces again and proven just as capable as ever.

My point is, HIJINKS ENSUE.


Anyway, Christmas Eve was spent at a Jewish jazz concert at 6th Street Shul. John Zorn, Frank London, and Greg Wall playing "Walking in a Winter Wonderland." Rashanim with Greg Wall and Frank London playing Reb Shlomo Carlebach/Fela Kuti crossover fusion. The Klezmer-inspired big band Ain Sof Arkestra. Whatever the fuck Cyro Baptista's Banquet of the Spirits is- all I know is there was an oud and it was mesmerizing.

It was a pretty great night.

Today I have no plans. Thus far, that has meant reading through the Yuletide archives, eating pretzels, drinking good beer, and watching the Knicks. Oh yes, and to top off the day the Knicks are back. And not terrible, for the first time in my adult life.
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Go Mavs! Take that to South Beach, LeBron!!!!

I'm sorry. I want to talk more intelligently about the series.


First, let's stop comparing Dirk to Larry Bird. And let's stop with the blather about how he's such a good shooter because he practices so much. Nobody ever praises Kobe for taking so many jump shots in practice, and there's no question in my mind that Kobe works as hard or harder than Dirk. For that matter, remember that summer when LeBron suddenly learned how to shoot three-pointers? Do you think he did that without a hell of a lot of shooting repetition?

No, what makes Dirk special isn't that he practices shooting a lot. It's that he's driven and gifted with incredible basketball instincts- instincts that again put him in the same category as Kobe. He knows what his best move is in any situation, he's a lethal shot from almost anywhere on the court, and he's big and athletic and knows what to do with that. He's not the dribbler Kobe is, and Kobe's a better defensive player, and hell, I'm not arguing that Dirk is better than Kobe, but the comparisons to Kobe make a lot more sense than the comparisons to Bird.

All this talk about experience against youth is similar bullshit. What makes these Mavs transcendent, so able to outperform their athletic ability, isn't their experience, it's their intelligence. In Kidd, Marion, and Dirk the Mavs have three of the highest basketball IQs in the league. They have three players that, if you asked me to project which All-Stars would make the best coaches, I would put near the top of my list (along with Nash, again Kobe, Tim Duncan, Brandon Roy, Paul Pierce...) In Marion you have a player whose game consists almost entirely of exceeding his athletic gifts through intelligence. He can't shoot well enough to be a wing forward and isn't tall enough to be a power forward, yet he's figured out how to score from the wings and figured out how to play the offensive glass by mastering positioning, footwork, and out-thinking your opponent. In Kidd you have a player who's too slow to be the player he once was, who can't shoot all that well, can't defend well, can't get dribble penetration. He's still a star because he passes better than anyone ever and has such court vision and intelligence that he can make up for being 38. And in Dirk you have a guy who really does seem to understand where all the defenders are at all times, so he can exploit the merest mistake with a careful pass or a clever drive. He's too slow to be as good at penetration as he is. It's all intelligence, not experience.

So yeah, that was a team it was fun to root for, as an athlete who has always valued intelligence as the key to outperforming faster, stronger, taller players. Go Mavs!
seekingferret: Photo of me with my 2012 Purim beard, with stripes shaven into it. (Default)
Is it fucked up that I'm rooting against the Heat because of the taking my talents to South Beach fiasco and not because of decades of hating the Heat that hark back to Zo Mourning and Timmy Hardaway and their clashes with my Knicks?

Is it fucked up that I'm rooting for Dallas because I'm fascinated by the mysterious European unknowability of Dirk's game? Is it fucked up that I feel occasional tinges of remorse for rooting for a German player that hark back to my feelings about the Holocaust? Is it fucked up that part of me wants J-Kidd to fail because he couldn't deliver a championship to New Jersey?



Probably the answer to some of those questions is yes, but the point is, tonight's game was UNBELIEVABLE.


Go Mavs!
seekingferret: Photo of me with my 2012 Purim beard, with stripes shaven into it. (Default)
http://nba.fanhouse.com/2010/07/15/with-the-heat-its-not-about-a-salary/

Bethlehem Shoals, the best basketball writer I've ever read, on the LeBron story. As usual, he frames it in a way that would have otherwise eluded me, but makes a tremendous amount of sense.

Not perfect sense. Shoals is too hip, too ironic, for that. LeBron and Wade are among the most notably apolitical of major NBA stars, with LeBron famously being called out several years ago for not taking a stand against China's trade relations with the Sudan, during the Beijing Olympics. This is a background Shoals is aware of, but chooses to ignore because he assumes his readers are familiar with it, too. Given what we know of the players involved, the idea that this was purely an economic power play is nonsensical. Obviously the friendships involved are part of the story. Obviously the lure of South Beach was party of the story. And I don't completely disagree with those who suspect that Bosh and Wade are bigger winners than LeBron in some senses.

Still, the reactions from many of the people involved tell us that even if it wasn't fully intended, that was the effect it had. The Mini-Max deals LeBron engineered several years ago were the most impressive thing we've seen from him politically: a daring, colossal risk whose payout is measured far more in power and influence than in money. LeBron makes max money no matter what, unless he suffers a career ending injury. But transforming this summer into the Summer of LeBron was a spectacular move. And dragging his buddies along, making Bosh and Wade and Amare and Joe Johnson part of the party... that was a statement move. That was about saying "You need us more than we need you." And of course, it was pulled off the year before the NBA labor contract needs to be renegotiated. Power politics, seriously.
seekingferret: Photo of me with my 2012 Purim beard, with stripes shaven into it. (Default)
COME TO NEW YORK, LEBRON!!!!!
seekingferret: Photo of me with my 2012 Purim beard, with stripes shaven into it. (Default)
I just deleted a post about Infinite Jest because I decided I need to read further before I can tackle the question of who is the Hamlet figure in the novel. So instead, let's talk basketball, because I've been thinking about the Spurs and it seems an interesting strategic corner they've pushed themselves into.

Tim Duncan's 35 and on bad knees. Tony Parker's only 27, to my surprise, but he's clearly not as quick as he used to be. Manu Ginobili's 32 and a walking injury. The Spurs are OLD. And they've been successful for a long time now.

In the NBA, you need to have stars. And to get stars, you need cap space, high draft picks, and luck. Because the Spurs are old, built on three stars who need big salaries, and have been successful for a long time, they haven't had cap space or high draft picks in a while.

Let's go over the Spurs last few first round draft picks

2009: No first round draft picks- Dejuan Blair's bad knees taken in the second round, though.
2008: George Hill taken at 26. He's a nice role player, but he's not going to carry you.
2007: Tiago Splitter taken at 28. He's been stuck in Spain since then.
2006: No first round draft picks.
2005: Ian Mahinmi taken at 28. At worst, he's at bust. At best, he's 6-11 and has 5 fouls to give.
2004: Beno Udrih at 28, which appears to be the Spurs' number. He's again, a nice roleplayer, though he's not with the team anymore.

So... that's what's been happening. They've been a victim of their own success, unable to find a replacement for TD in the draft because they've been too good. But that's okay for now, while they continue to make a playoff run every year. But my thoughts turn to two years down the road, when TD busts up for good and they no longer have a fundamentally perfect offensive and defensive center to build around. My question is, can a strategy be devised that can assure a seamless transition to whatever the team's new look is, or will there inevitably be a return to the basement, the way the David Robinson Spurs returned to the basement for a season in order to draw the TD lottery pick?

So one possibility lies in the Tiago Splitter pick. Perhaps the Spurs think that he'll be able to join the team in 2011 and just instantly slot into the Tim Duncan role, maybe with a one year Twin Towers deal the way we had with Robinson/Duncan. I'm skeptical, but Popovich has earned a certain amount of respect, hasn't he? Maybe he's right. But the economics of the situation don't add up for me. What's Splitter's incentive to take a pay cut to come to America? And what's the Spurs' incentive to buy out his expensive European contract for a player who might turn out to be the next Marc Gasol?

Another possibility is you dump TD and Ginobili and sign... I don't know... Amare? Someone like that in the free agent free-for-all that is the 2010 LeBron Sweepstakes. Maybe even Dirk? But the 2010 Free Agent season is going to be hellishly crazy and nobody has the slightest clue who's really going to be available. So this would have to be considered the crazy gamble approach.

Or you could try some sort of esoteric trade where you dump TD for a lottery pick and maybe a young player you like. But you'd have to be stupid like the New York Knicks to make a trade like that. Ugh. Why am I even talking?

But basically, my read is that the Spurs have been so good for so long that they've backed themselves into a corner. Their stars are going to fade away and they're going to have to put in a couple years in the basement before they make their way back. Anybody want to tell me what I'm missing, because Pop is smarter than me and he has to have made these calculations.

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