Lust for Life

I don’t know very much about the Troy Davis case. Even given that I’m someone with a tentacle in almost every corner of the internet, it somehow passed me by; these things happen. I have read a number of things both from official news sources and from people whose judgment I trust which allege that the convictions against Davis were based on the flimsiest of evidences, now discredited; I see no reason not to believe these allegations, given my general skepticism towards pretty much any criminal allegations made by agents of the state. The standard is supposed to be “beyond a reasonable doubt,” and from what I can tell that standard wasn’t met. Of course, on the morning of this writing, it doesn’t matter anymore for Davis, who was executed in Georgia last night. But maybe it might matter to others in the future.

There are two tragedies when a death penalty is enacted, and the most obvious and direct one is the possibility (or, indeed, sometimes certainty) that an innocent individual has been irrevocably deleted from society. I take it for granted that executing an innocent person is never acceptable, and have no interest in deploying arguments designed to convince anyone of this. Anything else turns the concept of justice into an absurdity. But the second tragedy of the death penalty, which operates even when it’s exercised on the obviously guilty, is the tragedy of what we become as a society when we condone (or worse, demand) the imposition of the ultimate sanction by the state.

There is a good dialogue on the death penalty between Justin Smith and Gerald Dworkin here. One of the notable features of this dialogue is the distinction between Dworkin’s relatively abstract philosophizing and Smith’s repeated appeals to the idea that the death penalty is incompatible with our stated societal goal of not being cruel. I’m not knocking Dworkin here, but I think it should be obvious where my sympathies lie. We have a certain notion of ourselves as a society capable of mercy, and not only that, but incapable of (or at least strongly averse to) cruelty (this tendency is so strong that even in circumstances where the treatment is obviously cruel, c.f. waterboarding, Bradley Manning’s confinement conditions, etc., the overwhelming initial reaction by defenders of that treatment is not to accept the cruelty as necessary but to deny that it’s cruel at all). And I side with Smith when he says that we can’t reasonably sustain those notions when we allow ourselves to employ the mechanism of the state to take the life of another human being, guilty or not.

Because in the end, I believe that a necessary condition of being a moral society is that we be a society that rejects cruelty and bloodlust, even for the worst among us. And when we allow ourselves to be ruled by that bloodlust, we take one step down the road that leads to a descent into barbarism.


Fuck your numbers, hippie

tThere’s a stupid and disturbing trope that arises again and again in much American commentary, whether dedicated to sport, art, or politics. That trope is contrarianism; in one variety, it takes the form of locating a generally derided specimen from one of the above categories and making the case that said specimen is actually great. Or if not great, at least not irredeemably awful. You can see this trope at work amongst people who try to defend Michael Bay or insist that Michelle Bachmann is a credible presidential candidate. The converse form of contrarianism is to locate a concept of some merit or utility and try to argue that it sucks donkey balls. In general, this is actually generally more defensible; people love a lot of stupid shit and once in a while it’s great to have someone come along and remind people that the shit is stupid. But when you make a charge of this nature, you have to be prepared to back it up. Preferably with facts.

Few places is the contrarian impulse of the second kind more prevalent than in writing about sports and its relation to statistics. If there’s one thing that sportswriters hate, it’s numbers; yes, John Hollinger is tolerated at ESPN (although if I were looking for statistical wizards to trumpet Hollinger would hardly be my example) but for the most part sportswriters treat numbers like they are invading aliens from an alternate universe, when they dare acknowledge their existence at all. In baseball, it’s pretty hard to escape the importance of advanced statistics, what with Moneyball and what have you, although old and stupid writers don’t give a shit about that. In basketball, advanced metrics are relatively less well established, basketball being a more dynamic game with more possibilities and ways to assess a player’s value. And that of course gives idiots an opening because when someone tries to figure out how good a player is using statistical methods, you can just throw a tantrum about INTANGIBLES and perhaps dribble applesauce down the front of your shirt.

This is all expected from old and stupid people; it’s a lot less expected from someone my age, someone who has a scientific background, someone who was a Rhodes Scholar. Enter into this “debate” (I put that in quotes because there is no debate here, just as there’s no debate about the validity of evolution; there are people who are right and people who don’t understand how evidence works) a dude by the name of Jonah Lehrer.

You may remember Lehrer from such fiascos as this article in which he bemoans how hard it is to prove things in science and how can we really know anything is true, really? (note: I am aware that Lehrer has posted a followup to the article attempting to explain what he was going for, but it’s not much better than the original). Of course upon reading this a whole bunch of professional scientists jumped all over him, explaining that his understanding of science (or at least his rendering of that understanding for popular consumption) was hopelessly flawed and sounded a lot like freshman philosophy “What is truth anyway, man?”-type discussions.

Ok, whatever, Lehrer doesn’t get science. But he also doesn’t get numbers. Or basketball.

A few days ago, this article by Lehrer appeared on Bill Simmons’ new venture, Grantland. I like Grantland; a lot of good stuff has appeared there in the scant few weeks of its existence, some of which was even written by Simmons himself. I don’t know how Lehrer got on there; presumably his celebrity as a “science writer” catapulted him to such heady heights, although what his qualifications are for opining on basketball or math is unclear (presumably a Rhodes Scholar would know at least some basic math, you know, division, addition, basic stats, that kind of shit). The basic premise of Lehrer’s piece is: aren’t numbers terrible and haven’t they ruined sports? Naturally Lehrer answers these questions in the affirmative (spoiler: the correct answers are “No.” and “No.”) and he gets where he’s going by way of some of the most convoluted, ignorant, and just plain incorrect reasoning that I have ever had the displeasure to see in writing outside of conservative blogs.

Lehrer starts his discussion with an analogy to buying a car and pointing out that some variables you would think are important when purchasing a car (horsepower, fuel consumption) are less important to owner satisfaction than various amenities (reliability, comfortable seats). Right off the bat this should raise some red flags. For one, while sports teams certainly value fan satisfaction, that satisfaction is primarily correlated to an objectively measureable metric of performance; namely, winning. Fans are satisfied when their team wins and not when it loses, and that’s quite a bit different than being satisfied with a car. Secondarily, it is truly bizarre to try and make the case against advanced metrics, which seek to find ways beyond the obvious box score numbers to measure player performance, by drawing on the example of obvious metrics providing less satisfaction than less obvious ones. If Lehrer wanted to make the argument for advanced metrics, it would have made sense to start with this analogy; as it stands, his example is simply incoherent. (It’s worth noting here that Lehrer uses the term “sabermetrics” to encompass all advanced metrics, which is wrong).

What follows is garden-variety idiocy which could have been lifted straight from the nursing home about how, sure, numbers might help here and there but THEY HAVE RUINED THE GAME AND WON’T SOMEONE THINK OF THE INTANGIBLES. I mean, Lehrer literally trots out the “what about things that can’t be quantified” argument, which is so stupid that it doesn’t really deserve a response. As arguments go, it’s on par with the guy on the bus trying to talk to you about UFOs in Roswell or ranting about how science can’t prove he loves his wife; there are only two valid responses, backing away slowly or ridicule (and you can tell which route I’m taking here). And what about having playoff experience you guys?!

But sabermetrics comes with an important drawback. Because it translates sports into a list of statistics, the tool can also lead coaches and executives to neglect those variables that can’t be quantified. They become so obsessed with the power of base runs that they undervalue the importance of not being an asshole, or having playoff experience, or listening to the coach. Such variables are the sporting equivalent of a nice dashboard. They can’t be quantified, but they still count.

Yeah, there it is, right on schedule. Wait, Jonah Lehrer, are you sure you’re not missing some key sports cliches?

But that’s not what happens. Instead, coaches and fans use the numbers as an excuse to ignore everything else, which is why our obsession with sabermetrics can lead to such shortsighted personnel decisions. After all, there is no way to quantify the fierce attitude of a team that feels slighted, or the way even the best players can be undone by the burden of expectations, or how Kendrick Perkins meant more to the Celtics than his rebounding stats might suggest.

Ok, there we go.

It’s rather beside the point that the “excessive” focus on numbers is something that Lehrer simply made up for the purpose of setting fire to some straw statisticians (Deadspin has a more eloquent summary). It’s not even the greatest offense Lehrer commits in his article, since this is just garden-variety invention and mendacity, hardly rising to the level of egregiousness. No, Lehrer greatest mistake is to draw “evidence” for his moderately idiotic position by making a really idiotic argument, one that happens to be very much in my wheelhouse to refute.

This is the moral of the Dallas Mavericks.

Let me tell you something. I have watched somewhere in the vicinity of 50-60% of Mavs games this year during the regular season. Other than a few post-season games I missed due to travel, I have watched every game of their postseason run. I have also watched the majority of the games in the other series starting with the second round. So I’ve probably watched more NBA ball in the last three months than Lehrer has ever seen, and I’m absolutely sure I’ve watched more Mavericks games in that time than he has. All that is to say, I have some basis for talking when I talk about the Dallas Mavericks, a team I’ve been a fan of for years and that I follow pretty closely. And let me tell you, using the Mavs as an example of a team that won despite the numbers is so unbelievably wrong that it’s like trotting out the fossil record to prove that evolution is a hoax. Thanks for doing my work for me, chump!

The fact is that the Mavericks are one of the most notorious teams in the NBA (other than perhaps the Rockets) for their reliance on advanced metrics. The Mavericks are coached by Rick Carlisle, hired very much for his willingness to rely on statistics and for his remarkable track record of fielding the statistically best five players available in any situation. The Dallas coaches’ bench is home to Roland Beech, only the guy who started Mark Cuban chaired the motherfucking Sloan Conference on Sports Analytics, for fuck’s sake! This is the team that, more than any other team, is defined by their scrupulous adherence to the optimal lineup and performance!

And to compound the stupidity, Lehrer cites none other than… J.J. Barea? Apparently, Barea got the start because Carlisle “saw something” in him that couldn’t be captured by stats; just loved his grit and hustle, you know? It can’t possibly be because Barea destroyed Mike Bibby in the matchup battle; or because he was able to get his shot against two seven-footers who were unable to keep up with his speed; or because he could run a devastating pick-and-roll with Tyson Chandler, using Nowitzki as a decoy. None of those things (all quantifiable via matchup analysis and points-per-play and so on) could possibly have made Carlisle change his lineup! It must have been Barea’s monster intangibles and hella hustle!

These are not grand mysteries of the cosmos; the facts in the above paragraph are known to any basketball-competent observer of the finals (so, you know, not Jonah Lehrer) and certainly to me, as someone who has watched Barea all season. To make everything even worse (you didn’t think it was possible, but you were wrong), Lehrer actually undermines his own earlier car analogy by pointing to Barea’s shooting stats to claim that his introduction was not statistically motivated since he didn’t perform particularly well in the playoffs as opposed to the regular season. But if your claim is that the most obvious statistics (horsepower, mileage; shooting percentage, PPG) don’t tell the whole tale, but supplemental statistics do, you can’t then go and say that it wasn’t statistics but intangibles that made the Barea substitution logical, because you’re explicitly ignoring those same supplemental statistics you said were needed for a complete view earlier.

The patronizing anecdote from Philip Roth at the end is only the final dingleberry on the shit sandwich that is Lehrer’s article. All I have to say to people who think like that is: go fuck yourselves. I will enjoy my sports however I want, you sanctimonious assholes; in fact, I will enjoy them even more if I can make ignorant fools like you madder about my enjoyment.

Lehrer’s phobia of numbers is all too sadly representative not only of conversations that we have about sports but conversations that we have in general. It’s not that things that are unquantifiable (which exist) are not worthy of consideration; it’s rather that instead of figuring out which statistics are useful in which contexts and what they tell us, we have these worthless screeds against those horrible nerds who are taking all the fun out of life or something like that. Instead of trying to understand the usefulness of the data we have available to us, we cut ourselves off from that avenue of knowledge by inventing things that are ex hypothesi unquantifiable and then claiming that numbers are worthless because they can’t quantify those things (even when it turns out that numbers can quantify them). And worst of all, ostensibly intelligent people who should know better take these contrarian positions without bothering to collect even the most rudimentary evidence for their arguments. Lehrer’s entire article is almost as wrong as one could possibly be when discussing basketball, and yet he’s given national exposure with minimal fact-checking to air his stupidity. Turn him into a right-winger and you’ve got pretty much everyone at Fox news. The rot goes deep, and Lehrer is only its most superficial manifestation.

Civility: a mug’s game

If you haven’t acquainted yourself with the Synthese brouhaha, you can do so here. There’s a lot of material flying around, including open letters from the special issue editors, various unsatisfactory replies from the actual Synthese editors, and an elaborate “Who? Me?” act from Francis Beckwith. The details are sufficiently covered at Evolving Thoughts and Leiter Reports, so I’m not going to bother to repeat them here. What I’m interested in is the rhetorical maneuvers underlying this so-called scandal. Keep in mind that the whole thing got off the ground with a prefatory note by the Synthese editors saying that they thought the essays in the special issue, particularly that of Barbara Forrest, were… how to put it… less than generous to the ID position? Perhaps even… uncivil?!

Naturally this represents and undermining of the very purpose of the special issue. I haven’t actually read the original papers by Forrest and others, but what I would argue is that even if the editors’ preface was entirely accurate and the essays were in fact “uncivil,” (having read other things by Forrest, I know that she pull no punches against bad philosophy; I assume that this was in fact the point of contention), well, they should have been. Because ID proponents and creationists do not deserve civility. They are liars and frauds who graft disparate pieces of math, physics, and philosophy (all misapplied, natch) in the service of a religious agenda. The ID crowd wants to have it both ways, claiming to be a scienfitic undertaking while blatantly identifying with Christian theology. The entire structure of ID advocacy is a ploy to put a “scientific” face on religious promotion; and of course, ID advocates acting “outside” of their official ID affiliations have absolutely no problem calling atheists and secular humanists immoral or worse. But dare to breathe an unkind word in their direction, and the double standard kicks in. How dare you accuse them of the things they openly advocate! How dare you suggest their so-called science is a fraud and a sham! Why, that kind of evidence-based judgment is terribly uncivil, dontcha know!

These are not people who deserve the benefit of the doubt. They are, at the very best, cranks; at the very worst, they are active participants in the subversion of secular ideals to religious orthodoxy. They cannot be allowed to stand unchallenged, and they must be called out at every possible opportunity. And most importantly, their false civility cannot be allowed to silence debate. The tactic of accusing your opponents of being uncivil has a long history of being used to marginalize voices in sensitive debates and it cannot be allowed to advance any farther, especially not in cases of scientific questions.

You know what’s uncivil? It’s when you demand all the emails from a professor’s university account because you don’t like his evisceration of your historical ignorance. It’s when you tell your followers to go protest outside of a kid’s house because his family was a poster case for what happens when you lose your health insurance. It’s when you launch frivolous lawsuits against actual scientists who show demonstrate that your “alternative medicines” are full of shit. It’s when you aim your gun at the only doctor in the entire state who can provide late-term abortions and pull the trigger. That’s uncivil. Being called out for your shitty reasoning and repeatedly exposed as the lying religionist you are? That’s reality, motherfuckers.

Where is the madness that you promised me?

I am mad at the Miami Heat.

I should be clearer about that. There is the standard sports-fan mad, where Team X upends your favored Team Y. That is the likely outcome of the Celtics-Heat series, which is very likely to come to an end tonight, with Miami leading 3-1 and playing game 5 on their home court. These things happen and they are not what I’m writing about.

What steams me is the manner in which this Heat team has progressed through the post-season. This Heat team was supposed to be a revolution. It paired two and a half superstars with supposedly competent if not spectacular role players. It was supposed to be Wade throwing 15 alley-oops to LeBron every game while Bosh is drilling long 2-pointers. I was promised stellar fast breaks and unbelievable dunks and my eyes literally turning into stars and a motherfucking unicorn.

Shockingly, almost none of that has materialized. Sure, there were some blowout wins against decent opposition during the regular season, but pasting the Kings is pretty much what you expect out of any decent playoff team. This team was supposed to be an unstoppable juggernaut and the impression I came away with after watching game 4 of its series against the Celtics is that of two prize fighters beating each other with foam sticks. Someone is going to wear down eventually and lose (and in this case that ended up being the Celtics, a result which seems largely based on the fact that they’re just older and more tired). The game itself was nigh-unwatchable with horrible offense on both ends. Sure, credit the defense for making that happen, but how is it possible for a Miami team loaded with this much talent to not even attempt to run plays? Every second-half possession for Miami was basically dependent on either low-percentage shots going in or one of LeBron or Wade driving to the basket and getting fouled.

People slagged Mike Brown a lot during his Cleveland tenure for failing to run a real offense, but is this Miami team doing anything better? The only difference to me is that there’s just more talent on the floor, so more of those bad shots and desperate drives end up succeeding. I don’t know if Spoelstra is even coaching this team or if he just throws them out there and lets them do whatever they want, but whatever the cause, the results are frustrating and downright dull. I could live with a transcendent Heat destroying everyone on their way to a title, but watching them grind out aesthetically unbearable, sloppy wins is the very antithesis of the fireworks I was promised.

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?