Archive for July, 2003

Great To Be Home Again

Sunday, July 27th, 2003

One of the joys and pleasures of foreign travel is experiencing different ways of living and sharing different viewpoints. Such exchanges can grant greater perspective on typically American ways of doing things; what things can be improved upon and what things we should be grateful for. By and large, especially when visiting Europe, it is amazing to see how broadly and remarkably similar Western cultures are. The range of cultural differences between the US and among the countries of Europe is certainly smaller than it was a century ago. How different can places be when globalization permits us to watch the same movies, buy the same cars, and even eat at the same restaurant chains. However, it is still not clear whether the ability to buy beer at a McDonald’s in Europe compensates for the fact that in Europe McDonald’s charges for each individual package of ketchup.

Some of this homogenization is resented. France, ever desperate and fearful of its loss of cultural distinctiveness, recently decided that the term “e-mail” cannot be used in official French documents. The official term is “courrier electronique,” literally “electronic mail” or “courriel” for short. But we live in a democratic age. What is right is not is determined by linguistic heritage or consistency but by popular usage. The use of “courriel” will likely only remain a monument, as if another is needed, to French snobbishness.

Despite the fact that people will determine their own practices and ideas, popular perception can be driven by media coverage and this coverage seems to differ between the US and Europe more than cuisine. It is, therefore, particularly disheartening, after a week in France, to see the persistent and almost maliciously negative coverage of the United States in the foreign press. In fairness, my French is not good enough to listen to French coverage with an ear attuned to subtleties, so my perceptions apply only to watching CNN (directed from their British offices) and the BBC.

Of course, all news is slanted by decisions on what to cover. The pursuit of those stories that editors and producers consider important can definitely affect the overall perspective the public receives. Within this context, CNN-Europe and the BCC do a credible job covering the straight news at the top of the hour. They report the latest news from Iraq and other news centers, the current levels of the stock market indices, and the worldwide weather.

However, during the intervening times, the news hosts discuss the news with guests and it is here than biases become even more apparent. Last week, the major news surrounded the killing of Saddam Hussein’s cruel and brutal sons Uday and Qusay, after a shoot out with American troops. On the first day of coverage, even before the details of the shoot out became clear, there was rather idle speculation about why the sons were not captured rather than killed. All this speculation came before it was known whether such a capture was even possible. It only came out later, that at least one of the sons probably committed suicide. Of course, if a delay in the siege of the building holding Uday and Ousay allowed the sons to escape, that too would have been viewed as an American failure.

The day after Uday and Qusay died, BBC rattled on about Iraqi incredulity about the deaths and how the US would have to provide proof that the sons were dead. As some have suggested, Iraqis were in the same positions as the Munchkins in the movie the Wizard of Oz, incredulous as to whether the their tormentor, was “morally, ethically … spiritually, physically … positively, absolutely … undeniably and reliably dead!” The BBC assured us that photographs confirming the death of the sons were necessary to assuage the Iraqi fear of retribution from the former regime.

The next day, CNN and BBC waited breathlessly for the release of photographs of Uday and Ousay and broadcast them as soon as they possibly could. Although the photographs were not particularly appealing, they were not in my judgment, as gruesome as CNN and BBC warned us. However, not twenty-four hours later CNN and the BCC were prattling on about how the US was violating its own rules in releasing the photographs. If there was something unethical or inhuman about showing those photographs, surely CNN and the BBC were complicit since they showed little reticence is displaying and regularly re-displaying those images.

Liberia was also an issue during the past week. CNN and the BBC relentlessly warned of the chaos and the need for US military intervention. One can be sure that following any such intervention CNN and BBC will be at the forefront showing problems with such an intervention without ever returning to the original context that they helped provide.

Finally, the BBC interviewed Senator Bob Graham from Florida, the Co-Chair of the Joint Inquiry on the 9/11 Terrorist Attacks who made some very critical remarks about the Bush Administration. While Graham is certainly a reasonable person with important contributions to make on issues of security, not bothering to mention that Graham was also running for the Democratic presidential nomination withheld from the viewers important if not crucial context for weighing Graham’s remarks.

In short, foreign news coverage made the US’s PBS look like Pat Robertson’s CBN. The only unifying theme of the foreign coverage was whatever the US government (and in particular the Bush Administration) did was wrong; even if the news coverage previously encouraged it. It was nice to return back to the US and watch Fox News coverage. I can now even appreciate CNN-US and MSNBC coverage. There is nothing like a trip to a foreign country to make one grateful for what one has at home.

Free Speech at Cal Poly

Sunday, July 13th, 2003

It doesn’t happen very much any more, but stories used to surface about some isolated school or school district, usually in the South, conducting formal collective prayers. Usually, some small town, where everyone attends a few local churches, doesn’t see the harm in a modest measure of collective religious instruction and ceremony, even in a public school context. Inevitably, a newcomer moves in and complains. If a school does not adjust its policies, the courts instruct the offending school to cease conducting prayers. While it is not possible to peer with a high degree of certainty into people’s hearts, it is usually the case that these small town schools did not deliberately set out to offend anyone. It is just by living in a religiously uniform environment they had not developed the habits of recognizing that others might believe differently.

By contrast, the last place one would expect to see intolerance and the inability to recognize the peaceful existence of alternative ideas ought to be a modern university. A college or university ought to be an intellectual free-fire zone. While all ideas may not be universally accepted and certainly do not all have the same merit, they all have the right to be expressed and examined in the crucible of thoughtful debate. Furthermore, one would expect that the administration of any university would be particularly careful to insure that the ethos of open inquiry is maintained, free of intimidation. Lately it appears that at some universities an environment of intimidation prevails for ideas that are not in current favor. One such place is California Polytechnic State University.

According to the Foundation for Individual Rights in Education (FIRE), on November 12, 2002, Steve Hinkle, a member of the Cal Poly College Republicans (CPCP) was going around campus posting fliers inviting students and faculty to a speech by the author of It’s OK to Leave the Plantation, by Mason Weaver. Mr. Weaver is a black man whose thesis is that the reliance of black Americans on government programs creates a dependency broadly analogous to slavery. Mr. Weaver’s speech was an officially sponsored campus activity.

Apparently, Hinkle committed the unforgivable sin of attempting to post a flier on a public bulletin board in an open student lounge in the Cal Poly Multicultural Center. Other students objected to the posting finding the flier (the flier listed the name of the speaker, the title of his book and the time and location of the speech) offensive. Intimidated, Hinkle left without posting the flier. This did not stop students from calling the campus police about “a suspicious white male passing out literature of an offensive racial nature.” The police arrived, but by that time Hinkle had left.

Now it is clear that Cal Poly could not sanction Hinkle for posting a flier, first it was perfectly appropriate and second he was prevented from posting it. Instead, the university out of fear of offending students at the Multicultural Center charged Hinkle with disrupting a college activity. The campus police did not report a disruption and there was not any official activity going on in the open student lounge. After the fact, students at the Multicultural Center said Hinkle was disrupting student Bible study. Everyone admits that Hinkle did not approach any students, but that students approached Hinkle. Further there was no sign indicating that a meeting was being conducted in the lounge. To all outward appearances, there were just some students in the lounge eating pizza.

Rather than sanctioning students for preventing someone from engaging in protected speech, the Cal Poly Administration held a hearing on whether to punish Hinkle. Though Hinkle had a faculty advisor, he was specifically forbidden from being represented by a private attorney at the hearing. At the hearing, Cornel Morton, vice president of student affairs said to Mr. Hinkle, “You are a white member of CPCR. To students of color, this may be a collision of experience. The chemistry has racial implications, and you are na├»ve not to acknowledge those.” In other words, there are certain places on campus where conservative whites should know better than to visit.

Imagine the opposite, though analogous situation. Imagine if a black student sought to post a flier for a campus-sponsored speech and if some white students had intimidated him into not posting the flier and called the campus police about a “suspicious black male.” Imagine further a college administrator who would condescendingly lecture the black student that he should know better than to post such a flier in an area frequented by white students. Everyone would be rightly indignant and my guess is that Mr. Morton would have led the charge to protect the rights of a student to post a flier on a public bulletin board.

Nonetheless, Hinkle has been found guilty of disrupting a student meeting and instructed to write an apology letter or face the possibility of expulsion. Hinkle has refused and no additional punishment has been meted out. The case has received national attention and the university is obviously not comfortable defending its actions. It is quietly hoping the issue will fade away. If not for the embarrassment of the public exposure of its attempt to permit and implicitly condone the intimidation of students, Hinkle would likely have received additional punishment. It is clear that the students at the Cal Poly Multicultural Center have won. It will take a very courageous student to again attempt to post a flier at the Multicultural Center for a conservative speaker.

In many ways, some colleges have become the most intolerant places to be. One would hate to live in a world ruled with the same arbitrary iron fists that some modern college campuses are governed. Unlike small town elementary schools, universities can not claim lack of sophistication as an excuse.

Moneyball

Sunday, July 6th, 2003

According to classical economic theory, mature markets at equilibrium should reach a point of optimum efficiency. After a sufficient time, Adam Smith’s invisible hand ought to have slapped the inefficiencies out of any market. Surely, we could be so bold as to presume to apply such reasoning to professional baseball. Baseball is nothing, if not competitive; each side continually seeking out even the most meager of advantages. Do we have little more to learn about the stratagems of baseball? Do the myriad of conventional baseball statistics adequately and accurately quantify the contributions of players?

People have clutched on to various approaches to the game, but since the 1970’s Kansas native Bill James has made it a point to apply statistical analysis to assess the effectiveness of common baseball strategies. One of Bill James’s first heresies was the discovery that attempting base stealing rarely contributed to run scoring unless it was successful more than 70% of the time. Bill James is the founder of sabermetrics, “the search for objective knowledge about baseball.” (The term derives from an abbreviation for the name of the group that followed in James’s footsteps, the Society for American Baseball Research.)

James and others who have adopted his philosophy of critically applying statistics to baseball have developed radically different measures of player performance. For example, players have traditionally been evaluated on the basis of batting average, the number of hits divided by the number of at bats. Batting average is the dominant hitting statistic published in daily papers. Runs are the currency of baseball and sabermetricians have found other parameters that are far more correlated to a player’s contribution to runs scored. Getting on base, on base percentage, even by drawing a boring walk, is critically important. Indeed, the sum of on-base-percentage and slugging average (OPS)1 is far more highly correlated to the runs a team scores than is batting average. Hence, in seeking to evaluate baseball talent, in choosing young players to draft and nurture and others to trade for, OPS and other more exotic statistical measures like “runs created,” represent better criteria than simple batting average.

However, baseball ownership and management are conservative by temperament and generally grossly uneducated in statistics. James’s observations and the work of other sabermetricians were generally viewed as the oddball conclusions of baseball player wannabees, four-eyed, shallow-chested nerds who baseball players used to pick on in grade school. Sabermetricians might conjure up a clever insight now and then, but they really could not contribute to baseball strategy in any meaningful way. However, money has a way of shaking things up and big money shakes thinks up vigorously.

The growing ubiquity of computational capability has made the application of statistics to baseball easier. However, if the importance of statistical ways of looking at baseball players had been universally accepted, computing power would have been found. The real jolt into baseball has been a consequence of the high cost of baseball talent. In 1967, the average salary of a baseball player was $19,000 per year. It grew to $144,000 by 1980, $598,000 by 1990, and $1,900,000 by 2000. Even adjusted for inflation, this represents tremendous growth. Moreover, there is a 6-to-1 ratio in the payrolls of the wealthiest and poorest team. These facts place a high premium on judging and assessing baseball talent.

Thus begins the story of Billy Beane as told by Michael Lewis in his book Moneyball: The Art of Winning in an Unfair Game. As a young man, Billy Beane was a baseball scout’s dream. He had a decent batting average, but more importantly he was big, strong, well built, and fast. He looked like a scout’s image of a baseball player.

The New York Mets persuaded him, against his better judgment, to forgo a baseball scholarship to Stanford and join the Mets organization. Beane’s playing career fizzled primarily because he was too aggressive a batter, but he learned a few important lessons. One, baseball scouts were typically old baseball players who assessed talent as much on appearance as on numerical performance. They seem to all have the dream of discovering and molding the next great baseball talent. Two, Beane began to appreciate that really good hitters seemed to have an innate patience that allowed them to draw a lot of walks and only swing a pitches they can handle. Beane also observed that it is virtually impossible to teach patience, at least by the time players reach professional baseball. Three, it is not until players have played a number of years of college baseball that the sample size of plate appearances or innings pitched is sufficiently large that players could be reliably evaluated. Beane would rarely seek a player like himself right out of high school, even he looks like a baseball player.

After a mediocre career as a player, Beane moved to the front office of the Oakland A’s eventually rising to general manager. Beane was constrained by an ownership unwilling carry a large payroll and he made a virtue of this necessity. Embracing many of the insights of sabermetricians and hiring statistically competent Ivy League graduates to develop better statistical methods of player evaluation, Bean was able to acquire players who by conventional analysis and by perhaps by appearance were undervalued.

Beane uses batting statistics to estimate likely run production and derive dollar costs per run scored. It is then possible to numerically assess whether the acquisition of a particular player will reduce or increase the team’s net cost per run scored. Like an astute investor, Billy Beane exploits the inefficiencies created by traditional baseball measures to find players whose performance would likely exceed market expectations. When a player’s performance becomes apparent after playing with the A’s, his salary demands would grow larger than the A’s could afford and Beane would trade him off for undervalued players from other teams. After the middle of the season, some high payroll teams with slim playoff hopes would be looking to shed some salary, and Oakland could pick up bargain players.

It is estimated that the difference in talent between teams amounts to about a run a game. Luck adds perhaps four runs a game. The impact of the difference in talent between the teams is overwhelmed by luck in any particular game. However, over a 162 game season luck tends to average out and talent generally shines through. Once the playoffs begin, luck tends to dominate again. There are too few games, too small a sample size, for the best team to be assured victory in any particular series.

In 2002, Oakland posted the same 103 wins as the New York Yankees, a team boasting the largest payroll in baseball. There also were teams such as the New York Mets and the Baltimore Orioles carrying large payrolls that could not manage to win half of their games. In the American League West, there was an exactly inverse correlation of player payroll and performance with the parsimonious Oakland A’s leading the division and the high-spending Texas Rangers struggling with less than a 45% winning percentage.

Despite the conspicuous low-budget success of Oakland, other baseball teams have been slow to adopt Beane’s approach. Baseball Commissioner Bud Selig has tried to equalize the resources available to teams to prevent high-spending teams from perpetual dominance. The Oakland A’s are thus an embarrassment. Of course, as sabermetrics becomes more widely adopted, the differential in payroll will become more important. However, for now most of the baseball intelligentsia continue to regard Oakland as a fluke. Such intransigent owners and managers will be left behind as a more critical analysis of baseball takes hold. Beane remains elated at the remaining stubbornness, confident it will insure the continued availability of undervalued players.

1. On base percentage is the number of times a player safely makes it to base divided by the number of plate appearances. Slugging percentage is the number of total bases divided by the number of at bats. The term “percentage” is used when “fraction” is more accurate.