Archive for the 'Sports' Category

Hockey’s back!

Those of you who don’t like hockey might just want to skip this one…

Comcast is offering a free preview of their Center Ice package this week, so I’m watching Avs vs. Oilers tonight, which is great. Aside from the fact that Forsberg’s gone, I’m excited for the new hockey season, even though the Avalanche are more or less playing like crap tonight (miraculously, they’re only down 3-2 as I write this).

Overall, I’m a fan of the new rules changes, though the change that immediately jumps out isn’t a rules change, just an “emphasis”; namely, the renewed emphasis on actually calling obstruction penalties. It’s obviously going to take a while before the players get used to it, as there have been at least four penalties in this game (EDIT: more like eight) which not only wouldn’t have been penalties in previous years, but would have been solid defensive plays. Once the players make the adjustment, it seems clear that the obstruction emphasis, along with the elimination of the red line and the re-implementation of the tag-up offsides rule will result in more speed and flow.

Of course, this is exactly what the NHL was trying to do in implementing these rules (which is actually kind of disturbing…the NHL getting something right?) and everybody’s been talking about/predicting exactly this. However, it remains to be seen whether these same obstruction calls will be made in the playoffs, which is really the most important time, anyway.

The most surprisingly effective rule, at least to me, is the lengthening of the offensive zone. The extra two feet on both ends seems to have made it much harder for teams to cover their defensive zone. The biggest winners would appear to be dynamic offensive defensemen; forwards just don’t seem to be able to get up to the blue line fast enough to bother them when the puck is being cycled around the zone (which should be great news for Avalanche fans, given Blake’s shot and Lille’s skills). So far tonight, though, the Oilers are taking the most advantage: they’ve been just living in Colorado’s zone (although Colorado’s getting some better possession here in the third period).

The one rule change I’m not a fan of is the new shootout-decides-a-tie rule. For one thing, though they make for great Sportscenter highlights, shootouts aren’t a very good measure of hockey merit; they’re a pretty arbitrary way to decide a hockey game (or a soccer game, for that matter), especially since hockey is such a team game and shootouts are devided exclusively by individual skill.

Dammit! Just missed a goal by Brisebois because I’d flipped to the baseball game during commercial and forgot to flip back. And now that the game’s tied with only 5 minutes left, we may see a shootout before this game’s over (and now I just missed the Angels scoring two to take the lead…needless to say, trying to track two different games in different sports while writing at the same time doesn’t work very well).

Anyway, my problem with the shootout isn’t so much that it’s a relatively arbitrary way to decide a game, because it would be silly to have the marathon overtimes that the playoffs are famous for during the regular season and any alternative solution will be pretty arbitrary. Personally, I’d prefer to have the NHL take a more NFL-like approach to overtime: make the overtime period long enough that there’s a good chance (Damn! Oilers goal) of a goal being scored (say 10 or 15 minutes) and leave a tie at the end as a tie. Of course, there’s still the problem that teams have a much bigger incentive in the NHL than in the NFL to play for the tie (since there are so many more games), so that might not work, either.

Tangents aside, the biggest problem with the new “no ties” policy is that teams still get a point for losing the shootout…which means that, in the waning minutes of regulation of a tie game, teams have an incentive to play for overtime to pick up that guaranteed point (though anecdotal evidence bears against this theory tonight). If you’re going to have shootouts to prevent games ending in ties (and, moreover, market this as aggressively as the NHL is doing), then it’s rather silly to still give teams points in the standings for ties. If you’re going to dance with the devil, you might as well go all out and make a shootout loss just as bad as any other loss, which would have the salutary effect of making that five minute overtime much more important. Aggressive metaphors aside, one way to capture some of this effect while still rewarding teams a little bit for going to overtime might be to take the soccer approach to standings and award three points for a win instead of two. Then, instead of being half a win, a tie is two-thirds of a loss, so there’s greater incentive to go all-out in overtime to avoid the arbitrary outcome of a shootout.

Game over…4-3 Edmonton.

Aside from that down note, I’m looking forward to the hockey season and what looks like a more exciting style of play (though we’ll see how quickly teams adjust defensively). In fact, the only real down note is that games are going to be more difficult to find on TV; though I’m pleased to see OLN is planning to televise 2 or 3 games a week, that won’t match the coverage ESPN had been able to spread over their two networks the last few years. For 129 buck, the Center Ice package is looking pretty enticing, though from an actually getting work done perspective I’m pretty sure it would be a bad idea.

Black guys have names like Carl, white guys have names like Lenny…

First Felipe Alou decides to take on the role of spokesman for “Caribbean people,” now Scoop Jackson decides to explain the psychology of black people to Jeff Kent. As if any group could be reduced to a few stereotypes, racist or not. As if we were all the same. As if, as if, as if. Now I admit, I often make generalizations about cultural practices, especially since I have started to travel internationally quite a bit. But I always try to distinguish between a custom or social practice, which is an inherently general widespread thing, and “the way (French/Russian/British/Chinese/American etc.) people are,” which is never simply a factor of generalizable cultural factors. But these people that try to speak for the whole of “aggrieved” groups tend to promote the idea that the members of the group for which they speak have no individual identity, are just homogenous tabula rasas upon which are imprinted the identity of the group. This is probably a harsh exaggeration, but only because most people have enough sense to resist the ultimate logic of the generalizations.

p.s. There’s another almost equally baffling article on a somewhat related topic in about the firing of the U. Cincinnati basketball coach, Bob Huggins, where the author, Jason Whitlock, implies that the university administration is basically racist and is getting rid of Huggins because it thinks that all the underclass black players that he recruits tarnish its image. Which is probably true in a way, but there are probably also legitimate non-racist reasons why some of those players would tarnish the image of the school and not be desirable as students. But somehow the bit of the letter that mentions that “in a 16-year span, 21 of Huggins’ players had run afoul of the law in a signficant way, including three players/recruits who were scheduled to play at UC this season” doesn’t even register with him. Then again, from Whitlock’s perspective it seems to be the university’s fault if delinquent semi-illiterate players show up on campus and don’t become model citizens by the time they leave. He seems to view education as an essentially passive process where the student receives rather than (l)earns. Or like a commercial transaction where the barter is athletic skill and socialization and intellect are received in return, none being assumed in the player beforehand. Needless to say, doesn’t establish a very high standard on their side, and the level of success generally seems to correspond. Once again we must acknowledge the wisdom of Dalrymple, who concludes that the single greatest factor in the continued failure of the underclass is the propensity to put one’s own life and actions in a passive framework, and refuse to take any responsibility for them.


I have to admit, I’m a bit confused about the uproar about San Francisco Giants radio host Larry Krueger’s comments last week. For those that don’t watch ESPN every single day, here’s what he said:

I just cannot watch this brand of baseball any longer. A truly awful, pathetic, old team that only promises to be worse two years from now. It’s just awful. It really is bad to watch. Brain-dead Caribbean hitters hacking at slop nightly.

He went on to compare Giants’ manager Felipe Alou’s brain to a bowl of cream of wheat. Alou is understandably upset, though not so much at the Cream of Wheat thing as the “brain-dead Caribbean hitters” crack. Alou refuses to accept Krueger’s apology on the grounds that “hundreds of millions of people” were offended and that he doesn’t speak for all of them.

Now, first off, it seems to me that ol’ Felipe is speaking for “hundreds of millions of people” when he categorically claims that they’re offended. Second, there aren’t anywhere close to 100 million people living in the Caribbean. Most importantly, though, I just can’t see what is so terrible about what Krueger said.

Now, let me back up a bit and say that, from all that I’ve read, Krueger is probably an asshole, so I don’t want to defend the guy as a person. And calling people “brain-dead” isn’t a very nice thing to do, nor is comparing the brain of a man generally regarded as one of the best managers in baseball to a bowl of Cream of Wheat.

However, these things are not what have Felipe Alou steamed; he’s mad about the word “Caribbean” in the above statement. Alou apparently took this to be Krueger saying that all ballplayers of Caribbean descent (including both Felipe and his son Moises, who plays on the Giants) are “brain-dead”. Which may be what Krueger thinks, but what Krueger actually said seems to be more indicative that he’s sick and tired of seeing Deivi Cruz swinging at pitches over his head night after night. Of course, if Krueger was talking about Deivi Cruz or Alex Sanchez (both born in the Caribbean and both with a tendency to swing at anything thrown in their general direction), he should have called them out specifically, rather than making a more general statement. I’m ever a proponent of not generalizing about groups of people and, on those grounds, I agree with the condemnation of what Krueger said; I just don’t understand the level of vehemence being voiced by Alou and various talking heads on TV.

Now, Alou and everybody else knows that Krueger is participating in the stereotype that Caribbean (and, for that matter, Latino players generally) are a free-swinging lot (epitomized by the phrase “you don’t walk off the island,” which has been apocryphally ascribed to various players born in the Dominican Republic). As with all stereotypes, this one fails in many particular examples, but, as with many stereotypes, it’s also largely true. If you look at JC’s data, Hispanic players in 2004 had a batting average of .275 and an on-base percentage of .334, whereas non-Hispanic players had a BA of .272 and an OBP of .345. The difference between BA and OBP is almost entirely accounted for by walks, so the differential indicates pretty clearly that Hispanic players walk less (and, therefore, presumably swing more freely) than their non-Hispanic counterparts.1

Furthermore, the Giants themselves certainly aren’t very selective at the plate. According to statistics, they’re currently 4th in the National League in batting average while sitting 12th in OBP. They’re 15th (out of 16) in walks (though this may in part be due to the fact that Giants hitters have played the fewest games and had the fewest plate appearances of any team in the league), last in pitches per plate appearance and 15th in walks per plate appearance. All of that pretty conclusively proves that the Giants are indeed swinging at a lot of “slop”.

So, although Krueger’s comments were unnecessarily broad, he’s not entirely wrong, either. Latin players generally are more free-swinging than other players and the Giants in particular are a very free-swinging team. On the other hand, the statistics I cited above don’t distinguish between Hispanic and non-Hispanic players on the Giants. Although I’m much too lazy to break down the data on each individual player, I’ve seen arguments that, aside from Cruz and Sanchez (who are mostly bench players, anyway), most of the Hispanic players on the Giants (Alou, Alfonzo, Vizquel) are actually playing pretty well this year; in fact, the bigger problem seems to be Americans Grissom, Ellison and Snow, and even the non-Hispanic players who are playing well (Matheny, Niekro) apparently don’t walk very much (of course, the Giants’ biggest problem is that they’ve cheapskated on pretty much their entire lineup aside from Barry Bonds for years, which doesn’t work so well when Bonds hasn’t played in a single game all year).

Anyway, I’ve now utterly forgotten my point (if I ever had one to begin with), but I think it was something along the lines of the following: what Krueger said was pretty stupid and “insensitive” (whatever that term even means in this day and age of universal victimhood); on the other hand, the outrage expressed by Alou in particular and the commentariat in general seems (to me) somewhat overblown and, to be honest, a bit manufactured.

  1. The careful reader has, presumably, already noticed that I’ve shifted my emphasis from Caribbean players to Latin or Hispanic players. This is primarily because the data I’ve been able to find is only distinguished between Hispanic and non-Hispanic players. Moreover, most Hispanic players in major league baseball are from the Caribbean and, of those that aren’t, the majority are from countries that border the Caribbean (primarily Mexico and Venezuela) and so arguably fall under the “Caribbean ballplayers” rubric, anyway.

Running with the…motorcycles?

Looks like someone confused the Pla d’Adet with another town in (the vicinity of) the Pyrenees.


And then, on sixth down, the Eagles gained 4 yards

“It has nothing to do with football,” [Mildred] Bazemore said. “It has to do with the mathematical concepts that you’re studying.”


That’s approximately how I reacted to the above quote, taken from a news report about a particularly boneheaded standardized test question devised by the geniuses at the North Carolina Department of Public Instruction (hat tip: FO). The question asks students to determine a football team’s average gain on the first six plays of some hypothetical football game. Unfortunately, this hypothetical game doesn’t abide by the most basic of football’s rules:

The team opened with a 6-yard loss, a 3-yard gain and a 2-yard loss, which would have made it fourth down with 15 yards to go for a first down. The team’s fourth play was just a 7-yard gain, yet it maintained possession for a 12-yard gain and a 4-yard gain on two additional plays.

Now, it doesn’t particularly bother me that the test question is badly written (and pretty much guaranteed to confuse anybody with an ounce of football awareness); these things, though unfortunate, do happen, no matter how much editorial oversight there is,1 as anybody with an ounce of teaching experience will tell you.

No, what gets my blood boiling is the nonchalant response on the part of Ms. Bazemore, the chief of the DPI‘s test development section. This notion that such a subjunctive test question “makes sense mathematically” and “has nothing to do with football” is, I submit, symptomatic of the educational institution’s generalized and deplorable mistreatment of mathematics at both the primary and secondary levels.

Okay, admittedly, I’m being a bit hyperbolic here, but the basic point is this: Bazemore’s comments suggest that she believes that there is a disjunction between “mathematics” and “the real world” (here embodied by football), that the platonic ideal of (-6+3–2+7+12+4)/6 = 2.67 is only sullied by the interference of words and ambiguous readings. In other words, she seems to think that mathematics is (or, at least, should be) purely abstract, purely computational and, as a result, utterly boring to anybody that isn’t autistic.

Again, interpolating all of this from some throwaway comment to some undoubtedly bored reporter is a bit extreme, except for the fact that virtually every public school teacher and administrator I’ve had the extremely mitigated pleasure to interact with holds this exact view (I went to public school K-12, so I couldn’t tell you about private school teachers or administrators). This is especially true of elementary school teachers, who either secretly hate math or are exactly the sort of detail-oriented obsessive-compulsives who loved memorizing their multiplication tables as a kid but hated word problems and philosophy classes, but it also tends to hold among middle- and high-school math teachers (somewhat more surprising, since these people teach math exclusively, in contrast to their primary-school counterparts).

This all derives, I think, from a poor understanding of what mathematics really is, which is certainly understandable, but the end result is that the misunderstanding is propagated to the next generation for pretty much the same reason it got propagated to the last generation: teachers make math classes miserable, so students not unreasonably conclude that math is miserable.

So what’s the misunderstanding? Basically, the notion that math is conceptually equivalent to memorizing formulas and plugging numbers into them. Certainly, this is the bulk of the content of your average math class in both primary and secondary schools and even in most college math classes below about the 300 level (which range, needless to say, encompasses the totality of the majority of the population’s experience with formal mathematics education). Rare indeed is the math teacher who seems to understand and, more importantly, can communicate that mathematics is fundamentally not about plugging numbers into formulas but rather about coming up with those formulas in the first place. No matter which branch of mathematics we look at, from the purely theoretical to the applied, the mathematicians or scientists working in that branch are, fundamentally, taking what they know and trying to synthesize it in some original and creative way to produce some new theorem or formula that better describes the situation. The data that goes into this synthesis may range from the completely abstract to the completely concrete, but the basic process is pretty much the same and totally at odds with the plug-and-chug process, which produces nothing conceptually original.

And yes, I know the traditional objection of the public schools: “That all sounds great in theory, but you can’t even get to that point without memorizing your multiplication tables or simple integrals.” Which is all true, in a sense, but also completely false. It’s probably true that you won’t ever prove the Riemann Hypothesis if you don’t know that 8×9=72 or that ∫cos x dx = sin x + C (though there’s no theoretical impediment), but such a perspective ignores the fact that, at some point in the course of human history, such “elementary” questions were just as mysterious, even to the intelligentsia, as the Riemann Hypothesis currently is and their solutions were just as exciting as a proof of the Riemann Hypothesis would be today.2 Whether the actual history of such problems is formally introduced into the course of instruction or not (and, despite generally being in favor of such an approach, I do have mixed feelings about it), there’s certainly no reason not at least to try to impart the same sense of mystery and discovery into the proceedings that the original discoverers/inventors of the material experienced. In other words, rather than taking the attitude that “I have a bunch of facts which I will try to cram into your head,” one would like to see more math teachers take the attitude that “I am going to try to give you the support and the tools you need to discover a bunch of interesting and useful facts for yourself” (with the additional side benefit that the students may discover more of those facts than appear on the curriculum). Admittedly, this is supposedly what “New Math” was (partially) about, but the methodology there was (or at least became) entirely wrong; a student’s feelings about math are pedagogically null to his fellow students.

The first step in this path, needless to say, is to try to view “word problems” less as particularly inefficiently coded messages (wherein we encode the “real problem,” which is something like (-6+3–2+7+12+4)/6=2.67, into this ambiguous cipher we call the English language) to be decrypted by the student and more as examples of actual, conceivable problems that might arise in the student’s experience and which can be attacked using various mathematical tools and tricks which he has (or, at least, should have) at his disposal.3

1. Though Colby Cosh makes an interesting point in the context of journalism that too much editorial oversight may actually be a bad thing. His entire perspective is extremely interesting, especially since he is both a professional journalist and an experienced and widely-read blogger.
2. Although there’s some question as to whether anybody would actually recognize a proof of the Riemann Hypothesis even if it slapped him in the face, an issue addressed, more or less, in the provocatively-titled “Definitional Drift: Math Goes Postmodern.”
3. And yes, I know I’ve addressed this issue several times before (see “From politics to mathematics and back,” “A beginner’s guide to producing new results in mathematics,” “…you just get used to them” and, tangentially, “Mathematics and sex” for four of the more recent examples), but, as something of a math teacher myself, this is an issue that I think a lot about and, more importantly, I think I’m getting closer and closer to actually expressing myself clearly on the subject.

Jason Giambi and Bill Clinton, separated at Perth?

“If only these folks in Congress showed as much passion about campaign finance reform, seeing how soft money is politics’ equivalent of steroids.” –Dan Shanoff,

I agree. Both are phony moral issues in which people who otherwise claim to believe in free competition try to force other people that are more apt than they from increasing their competiteveness, despite the fact that this preparation violates no one else’s rights. I note that no amount of political funding or advertising can force anyone to vote a certain way, and that steroids are (or should be) equally available to anyone. But I’m sure that both politicians and athletes will save themselves from sinking to hypocrisy and lying by either defending their undoubted right to indulge in both or honestly forswearing the practice, instead of paying lip service to a questionable value and going about secretly violating it just as before.