A meditation upon buses

This morning, I decided instead of walking or driving to take the bus to work. It should surprise no one that this was a major mistake on my part, but it did give me time to do some thinking.

Consider: I left my house at a quarter past 9, and arrived at just about 10:15 in my office. That means that door-to-door my trip, which is about 1 mile and change in distance, took just under an hour. When I arrived at the bus stop 3 minutes after leaving my house, there were already 4 or 5 people there, which meant that I hadn’t just missed the bus. We waited for about 20 minutes before a fully loaded 61C passed us by without stopping, and I was treated to the wholly depressing sight of an elderly woman futilely banging on the bus doors as the bus driver basically ignored her (although it’s not clear what he could have done, since people were packed into the bus literally up to the very door itself). Then another 20 minute or so wait until a 61D picked us up and took about 10 minutes to get to the stop where I exited, and from which it’s about a 5-ish minute walk to the office.

This is clearly completely fucking stupid. I realize not many people know Pittsburgh’s layout, but the 61C and 61D traverse the Murray-Forbes corridor, which is a major artery that not only links residential areas to the two major universities (Pitt and CMU) but also takes people all the way into downtown. It makes zero sense to run buses through this corridor in such a way that people have to wait 40 minutes just to get on. What makes it worse is the total lack of coordination between the buses; last night, trying to travel essentially the reverse of this route, I was passed by 3 fully loaded buses before I managed to catch one, with buses showing up within minutes of each other followed by long stretches (usually a good 20 minutes) without any bus at all.

When I compare this with the time it would have taken me to drive to work (5 minutes to clear my car of snow, less than 5 minutes for the drive proper, 10 minutes walk from parking to office) it makes no sense for me not to drive. I don’t want to drive, and I don’t mind paying a 10-minute premium in time for not driving, but I don’t want to pay a 40-minute premium. That’s just absurd. Hell, I could walk that distance in less time than it took me to catch the bus today, although walking in the snow sucks.

But this isn’t really about me so much as it is about that grandma who was banging on the bus doors. Me, I’ve got options. For me this was an annoying inconvenience, but one that I can get around if I so choose. After all, I’ve got a car, and I’m also young and healthy so I can just hoof it if I want to. Grandma can’t, and shouldn’t have to. And when public officials undermine the transit system, those are the people that are going to get hurt the most: the people who can’t afford to drive or for whatever reason can’t walk.

I see this as a pernicious consequence of public transit being viewed by many Americans as something that exists “for other people.” Poor people ride buses; real Americans drive. And this leads to the creation of a public transit system that’s stupid and inefficient, and then that stupidity and inefficiency is used as an excuse to destroy the same system (which is still better than no system at all). Instead of having an efficient system that everyone can use in lieu of driving, we have a crappy system that no one really wants to use and which isn’t competitive with driving when viewed from the standpoint of time-efficiency.

To thine own self…

I think my favorite part of this Scalia quotation:

If the cruel and unusual punishments clause simply means that today’s society should not do anything that it considers cruel and unusual, it means nothing except, “To thine own self be true.”

is his clear lack of understanding of the ironic context in which that phrase is uttered.

And what’s so bad about being true to yourself anyway?

How not to talk about LeBron James

Ok, let’s start with something light. As some of you may or may not know, there’s this guy, his name is LeBron James, and he’s pretty ok at this whole basket-ball game. Cool. You might also know that James used to play for a certain Midwestern team but then decided after becoming a free agent to take his talents to Miami. That’s ok too.

What’s not ok, in fact what’s really stupid, is the conversation surrounding James. I don’t mean the whole “OMG HOW COULD YOU LEAVE US” bit that Cleveland was doing, which is the equivalent of a guy who lives in his parents’ basement and schedules his showers to coincide with the full moon wondering why his girlfriend left him. I also don’t mean the part of the James conversation that goes “OMG HOW TACKY” because, shit, you media people have been all but fellating him for 7 years and you wonder why he thinks he’s god allmighty? No, what I’m referring to is the pernicious strain of commentary that alleges that LeBron James will never be “great,” and specifically that he will never be as good as Michael Jordan.

Now it goes without saying that most sports commentators are idiots. We’re talking here about people whose job it is to take what Alvy Singer’s second wife referred to as “a bunch of pituitary cases trying to stuff a ball through a hoop,” and finding something to say about it other than “that one guy is really great at stuffing a ball through a hoop.” It turns out that watching this hoop-stuffing is a lot of fun for many people, and if you’re smart like Bethlehem Shoals or a small number of other worthwhile writers, you’ll find something interesting to say about the game that goes beyond the stupid and formulaic (apologies for the redundancy). Maybe you might write about what basketball tells us about the state of economic or race relations in the country, or about how the game has evolved over the decades, or about some interesting statistical metric (FORESHADOWING) that tells you something you didn’t know before.

But chances are, if you’re a sportswriter, you’re an idiot who has trouble dressing themselves. So of course you’re never going to write anything interesting because that would require you to have interesting and novel thoughts; much easier to simply pick up a common thread (“LEBRON WILL NEVER BE JORDAN”), add your own contribution (“I AGREE”), and laugh all the way to the bank while people who actually know what they’re talking about weep into their gin. It’s not only an easy thing to do, but it’s also an easy way to score points off cheap moralism. Of course you can never go back and implicate yourself and your ilk in promoting James to the skies, but you sure can turn around and scoff and pass cheap, stupid judgments that make you feel good about yourself.

This all would just be par for the course except for one problem: LeBron James is really great. It doesn’t matter how you feel about him personally; the guy is an absolute monster on the court, excelling in almost every statistical category for his position. He scores, he assists, he rebounds. He’s nearly unstoppable in the open court, an insane combination of speed, power, and accuracy. He is clearly the best player in the NBA today, and the LeBron-Kobe comparisons are simply laughable: Kobe wasn’t even the best player of the decade in his prime, and he’s in no way better now than James, who just has more of everything. Given these unarguable points, Jordan, as the universally acknowledged best player of all time, remains the only real point of comparison for James.

But that comparison cannot be made by talking heads on TV divorced from the facts. There is one thing, and one thing only, that will determine James’ status in the basketball hierarchy, and that is his performance on the court. And that performance can be measured, across many dimensions. It’s measured by some obvious metrics like points scored, field goal percentage, rebounds, and assists, and some non-obvious ones like PER and win shares. How do we know that Jordan was great? We know this because he leads the NBA in all time win shares per 48 games with an astounding 0.28 in that category (incidentally, Jordan led both the 80s and 90s in that stat; it also happens to be what James is averaging for the 2010-2011 season in the same category). We know this because he’s third on the all-time scoring list, and could have easily been first if he hadn’t missed two seasons. We don’t, incidentally, know this because Jordan has 6 titles (a statistic which means nothing for assessing individual greatness). But what we do know, and the reason why we’re justified in putting Jordan on top of the pyramid, is that he really was a great performer as quantified by just about any objective measure of basketball excellence.

For the same reasons, we can be nearly sure that barring catastrophic injury, James will finish his career (which I suspect has a good decade left in it) as one of the best players of all time. Simply projecting his career arc forward and integrating with respect to time allows us to confidently conclude this. And again, we know that this is so (or, for future events, have good reason to believe it) because we possess multiple statistical tools indicating this. We don’t need “intangibles” or “hunger” or “will to win” or any of this other bullshit that gets talked about year after year by the sports media, which reflexively in the absence of any semblance of original content will reach for tried and tired cliches. All we need to know is: what is James doing on the court? And we have the information that allows us to evaluate his performance and that’s all that matters. He could never win a championship in his life and conceivably end up being a better player than Jordan if he plays better as measured by the relevant indicators.

Of course, being better than Jordan would be incredible because Jordan is every bit the statistical monster that James is and then some. But so what? If we’re being honest assessors of basketball excellence, then we should admit that there is a possible (indeed, even plausible) combination of statistical indicators that would amount to a player who is better than Jordan. Maybe James will be that player and maybe he won’t, but the final judgment can’t be rendered without the relevant information. To simply declare Jordan the best by fiat and then assert that James can never measure up is not only to belittle James’ skills, but Jordan’s too. It is the recourse of the lazy and the stupid, not of anyone who is interested in evaluating the game with open eyes.

Edit: The main thesis here, just to avoid confusion, is that statistical methodology trumps “gut feeling,” when it comes to evaluating players. If at the end of the day you like Jordan better than James because of certain aesthetic preferences, that’s fine; what matters is that any initial degeneracy is broken by reference to some objective factors rather than “I like player x/I don’t like player y.”

Once more unto the breach, dear friends

I can’t stop thinking.

I don’t remember a time when I didn’t feel that way. When I was young, I would eat breakfast while reading the backs of cereal boxes; not because the backs of cereal boxes were particularly edifying but because I was obsessed with words. I didn’t have a consciousness of this at the age of ten, of course. All I knew was that I liked reading the words on the back of the boxes. Later, for reasons now lost to the dusts of history, my parents took out a Time subscription and my limitless desire for words found a new object. And ever since a very young age, I’ve never been at ease when I’m not consuming or producing words in some way.

I’ve been consuming words for a long time now. That process has pushed so much information into my head that, mentally, I swim in it. One cannot, after all, get away from oneself; I find myself walking through airports and unbidden a thought comes into my head and then I have to process it in some way, torture it into a semblance of coherency. I don’t know how to turn that off and I certainly wouldn’t want to. But despite it I feel an inadequacy in my approach to the situation; it’s too undisciplined, too unbalanced. There aren’t enough pressures on me to put my disparate ideas into a structure that makes sense, and the nature of my work is such that, with the exception of those ideas that pertain to that work, I won’t find that kind of pressure there. Perhaps I’m insufficiently motivated to apply that pressure to myself. That certainly has been the case in the past: I’m irresponsible and undisciplined at the best of times.

Every year, we go through a farce we call New Year’s resolutions, which at this point are a comical performance we put on for our friends and families, while winking. I’m trying to do that dance this year, with a measure of sincerity. Arbitrary phases in the solar cycle may not mean anything, but we like to think they represent an opportunity to change something. This text is one step towards the things I would like to change. My goal isn’t as specific as losing a certain number of pounds or accomplishing a certain set of tasks, but rather to work on self-discipline, manifesting it in both physical and intellectual aspects. The end goal, I suppose, is to be swimming through that river of thought in the directions I want to go, rather than being carried along like a piece of driftwood. We’ll see how much I manage to get done in the course of the year, but now, refreshed by a nice little vacation, is as good a time to start as any.

Happy New Year, people.