In Which I Accuse Rick Reilly of Pedophilia

A version of this post originally ran on The Bottom of the Barrel. Thanks to Ben for publicizing it.

I know the dynamic of denouncing those who denounce power hitters as PED users with no evidence is getting a little played out in the blogosphere, but it’s a battle worth fighting. (Not like, world hunger or anything, but still.)

Rick Reilly, frequently (rightfully) lambasted on Bottom of the Barrel as the colossal asshat that he is, recently wrote a column about Chris Davis. Reilly, on the basis of things done by other people when Chris Davis was a child, outright accuses Davis of cheating and using PEDs, and concedes that no evidence will ever convince him otherwise. There’s no need for me to dissect this column in detail – Mike Bates at SBNation does an excellent job, including the question why none of these writers showed their moral indignation while the steroid era was in progress – but I do want to take this opportunity to call attention to Reilly’s attitude. It’s an attitude he shares with many sportswriters who, unfortunately, have a built-in audience of millions and propagate this crap whenever they can, making the lives of informed sports fans just a little worse than they need to be. (Basically, Reilly feels good about himself when he writes this crap. He shouldn’t.)

Reilly’s column was prompted by the following Twitter exchange between Davis and a young fan:

Reilly, to whom it never occurred to ask this question himself, follows up with Davis:

RR: You said you weren’t on steroids, but have you ever done any performance-enhancing drug, period?

CD: I have not ever taken any PEDs. I’m not sure fans realize, we have the strictest drug testing in all of sports, even more than the Olympics. If anybody was going to try to cheat in our game, they couldn’t. It’s impossible to try to beat the system. Anyway, I’ve never taken PEDs, no. I wouldn’t. Half the stuff on the list I can’t even pronounce.

RR: Which is a great answer. And carries less power with me than a mosquito’s burp. … That’s not fair to Chris Davis — who can prove a negative? — but it’s what baseball deserves.

That’s the maddening attitude sportswriters like Reilly bring to the table: “I was an idiot for two decades and now I feel stupid for not noticing steroids, so I’m going to take it out on defenseless innocents who do the same things that those who fooled me did.” I wonder if Reilly would mind if the tables were turned…

If you recall, Philadelphia sportswriter Bill Conlin, also by all accounts a colossal asshat, was accused of child molestation and resigned in disgrace. This prompted me to ask Rick Reilly:

Unlike Davis, Reilly hasn’t even bothered to reply. By his own logic, this means that Reilly is more likely to be a pedophile than Davis is to be a PED user – he can’t even be bothered to deny the accusation! Of course, even if he denies it, it means nothing. We won’t be convinced otherwise unless he can prove he’s not a pedophile. That’s not fair to Rick Reilly – who can prove a negative? – but it’s what bad sportswriting deserves.

Hey, Kim Kardashian, is that really your baby?

Hey, Rick Reilly, is it true that you killed Trayvon Martin?

Zimmerman Prediction

I haven’t followed the George Zimmerman case particularly closely, though I’m aware of the general facts at issue. I caught a few minutes of opening statements, though, and so far I’m not impressed with either set of attorneys. Everyone is focusing on Zimmerman’s lawyer’s weird joke, but the prosecutors made a much bigger blunder that, so far, has gone largely undiscussed in the media. I’m referring to the following:

“We are confident that at the end of this trial you will know in your head, in your heart, in your stomach that George Zimmerman did not shoot Trayvon Martin because he had to,” Guy said. “He shot him for the worst of all reasons, because he wanted to.”

This is going to backfire for the prosecution, and badly. In fact, just based on that snippet, I’d feel confident predicting acquittal for Zimmerman barring unexpected surprises. Why? Because that last statement by the prosecution does two important things. First, it raises the bar for the prosecution – in addition to “beyond a reasonable doubt,” the jury will be expecting proof of Zimmerman’s intent, which is going to be hard to demonstrate with the known facts.

Second, and perhaps more importantly, the statement puts the prosecution in conflict with the one piece of evidence that everyone knows about, namely Zimmerman’s 911 call. The prosecution, having just claimed that Zimmerman wanted to murder Martin, has to explain why a man with intent to kill first called the police. It’s a jarring contrast: the murderer calling the police to announce his deed before it’s happened. You can make these pieces fit, but it’s difficult to create a coherent narrative out of them, and juries look for a narrative. It’ll be much easier now for the defense to poke holes in the prosecution’s story and undermine their theory of the case. Given that the defense’s job is mostly to raise enough doubt about the prosecution’s case, their assignment just became a lot easier.

Bad Arguments: UpWorthy Not Worthy

I’m not a fan of UpWorthy and its omnipresence on Facebook. As far as I can tell, it’s a nice way for young liberal folks to feel good about themselves without thinking too much. I’d like to think they’re harmless enough, but I don’t think that’s true: they have a tendency to inculcate their viewers in superficial “thinking” as opposed to critical judgment. Most people already can’t tell a bad argument when they see it. It’s positively damaging when they feel good while they’re doing so. The particular example I have in mind is a video that keeps popping up on my FB feed, which, spoiler alert, features a documentarian asking straight people who think homosexuality might be a choice when they chose to be straight. The people on the street then have to concede the point that gay people probably don’t choose their sexuality the same way that straight people don’t. (Surprisingly, only two of the interviewees straight-up say gays make a choice.)

I assume this is supposed to refute the particular religious strain of thought that says that gays choose their sexual orientation in opposition to morality, and thus they can be disapproved/blamed/punished for being gay. (A choice implies moral agency, which implies accountability.)

The video, of course, does not come close to refuting the religious claim, or undermining its logic. The religious position (as I simplify it here) is entirely internally consistent: all people are born straight as god wants, but some choose to act gay in opposition to what is moral; since our laws should align with morality, it is permissible/desirable for our laws to discriminate against gays. Nowhere in this proposition is it required that ALL people choose their sexual orientation; in fact, the moral argument gets stronger if everyone’s “inherently” straight. That makes the defection even more of a conscious choice against morality. Conceding that straight people don’t choose their sexuality does NOTHING to refute the claim that gay people do.

I’m not saying the religious argument is correct, mind you: I actually believe that sexual orientation is largely innate (that is, genetic/developmental) and not a choice, and I’m generally for expansion of rights (though I despise the often-accompanying expansion of the state apparatus). But I also hate bad logic, especially in policy argument, and this one in particular deserved being called out.

Book Review: A Hologram for the King

A Hologram for the King is well-written but ultimately shallow and disappointing critic-bait. My first Dave Eggers book, so I’m not comparing it to his prior titles, which, based on other reviews I’ve read, may color your perception of this one.

Plot: Simple enough: a middle-aged American man named Alan, formerly of bicycle manufacturing, is struggling to get by financially but gets a lifeline: based on a vague connection to the Saudi royal family, he is offered a huge commission if he and his team can sell hologram technology to the Saudi King for use in his new city/vanity project. While waiting for the King to appear, whenever that may be, Alan explores Saudi Arabia and encounters ex-pats and natives of varying intrigue.

Review: The book is 300 pages but feels like half that, with quick-moving prose and nary a wasted word. The main character (Alan) is fleshed out well enough, and the setting is also brought to life in exquisite but efficient language. (Eggers is an effective writer, which makes his failings below that much more jarring.) The book is also very insightful about the problems faced by some American workers in the face of global competition, which is a story worth telling.

Unfortunately, both Alan and Eggers appear completely tone-deaf, pitying the upper-middle class American professional who is surrounded by, among others, Filipino migrant workers and Arabian villagers with far worse lives than his. Eggers lets his protagonist’s self-pity go unchallenged for the most part.

More egregiously, he lets his character’s bad economics go unchallenged – an unforgivable error in a novel purporting to be a topical story of globalization. Neither Eggers nor Alan, pitying Alan’s fate, seem to realize some basic facts or have any business sense. For example, characters repeat, unchallenged, that “the US doesn’t make anything anymore,” at a time when American manufacturing is declining in employment but setting records in output – someone in this book should know the distinction. On the business side, there’s a story of a firm that licenses its patent to a Chinese competitor and eventually loses a contract because they’re underbid by said competitor – something everyone in the book found shocking and unexpected, when any capable businessman should know the risks of licensing a patent. (No one also mentions that people get paid when they license a patent to another firm.)

The Chinese are the whipping boys of the story, blamed for the decline of America and the death of quality workmanship. Not one person in the book seem to care about the well-being of Chinese people who are lifted out of poverty by participating in the global economy. (Both Alan and Eggers don’t even seem to care about the Filipino migrants they show us, let alone the imaginary red menace.)

Ultimately, the bad economics, bad business, and China-bashing mirror all the prejudices and misunderstandings of the global economy that is omnipresent among the American coastal elites – basically, the sort of people who will give this book glowing review for sharing their ignorance.

Verdict: There are probably better depictions of modern-day American struggles. I don’t know what they are, though.

Book Review: The Poisonwood Bible


Barbara Kingsolver tackles the end of European colonization in The Poisonwood Bible, an intriguing and satisfying read that, unfortunately, undermines itself in the end.

The story, nominally, features a Georgia preacher, his wife, and their four daughters, sent by their church to a village in the Belgian Congo. The father is a stern and unyielding figure, committed to the truth of the Bible and unfailing in his beliefs that faith, his faith, is the solution to everything. The reader is never asked to think about him as more than that. His wife, Orleanna, is a dutiful wife and mother, and her frustrations with her husband are given to us in small asides. The main characters are the four daughters, and the story is told from their point of view in alternating chapters. Young Ruth May, the twins Leah and Adah, and vain Rachel tell us, at an accelerating pace, about life in a Congolese village in the months prior to the Congo’s independence, the ensuing violence, and the long term aftermath. The girls have distinct voices, and Kingsolver is good at leveraging their various viewpoints to tell us a complete story. The language is elegant and subtle, and it’ll make you wish Kingsolver had followed every loose thread to the end. The quick-shifting points of view in the narrative are balanced to provide perspective but never confusion. (This is basically how Pat Conroy would write if Pat Conroy were a better writer.)

However, as the book accelerates in pace, it falls apart in quality, and it has the unfortunate side effect of causing the reader to question the parts that preceded it. The last 15% of the book or so devolve into a simplistic, revisionist history of colonial and post-colonial times and a preachy tone. The answers are all very simple, very neat, and very wrong. (One colossal blunder with regard to birth rates stands out, but I won’t spoil anything here.) This politicizing takes its toll on the characters – multi-layered and complex throughout, they nearly fade into one-dimensionality toward the end.

This book inspired me to read up on the Congo (coming soon: a review of King Leopold’s Ghost), and I have to admit I enjoyed the experience until near the end. Recommended, if you don’t let the end spoil it for you.


Clutchiness, In Theory

Yesterday, i wrote about how clutch players and non-clutch players differ in practice: to simplify, non-clutch players get nervous and perform worse than usual, while clutch players don’t get as nervous and perform at or near their usual level. I also hinted that, while I didn’t believe in clutch performers in practice, there was more to it. And there is: I do believe that there could be clutch performers in theory, but that they’re either very rare or non-existent. Here’s how it would work:

As I said yesterday, Malcolm Gladwell’s Blink tells us that athletes perform best with a heart rate of 115-145 beats per minute. I’ll emphasize again that it’s not important to focus on this one measure or the range. The range could be incorrect, or the heart rate could be only one important driver of ability, in addition to others (blood pressure, adrenaline levels, etc). The combination of factors that gives optimum performance could also be different for different sports, and probably differs at least a little between individual players. The key idea is that SOME physical condition of the body is more conducive to peak performance than others. Let’s call that being “in the zone,” borrowing from Gladwell and almost every athlete ever.

I hypothesized that non-clutch players jump out of the zone because they’re nervous. Using Gladwel’s metric in an example, a non-clutch batter’s heart rate, normally at 130, rises to 170 in the bottom of the ninth, and he chokes, basically. This means it’s also possible that a player who normally plays “out of the zone” can become nervous and get up “in the zone,” thus actually becoming a better player in clutch situations! Using the metric again, a batter who is usually at around 100 bpm gets nervous and goes to 140 and is actually able to perform better. This player would, over time, be a better player in clutch situation than in others – he would truly be a clutch player.

However, while I believe the above is possible in theory (and there are good reasons why it might not be – perhaps the physical effects of nervousness make you worse on net no matter what), I don’t think it matters much in practice. A player at the major league level would have to be supremely talented to stay at that level when his body is performing suboptimally most of the time. It’s statistically unlikely that many players can stay in the majors for any extended period essentially playing at much less than 100% of their physical talent, and we would need such an extended period to get a big enough sample showing that a player truly performs better in the clutch.

I’d be curious to see more research into what drives un-clutchiness, in a physical sense. I think the data collection of biometrics will only improve in the future, and we might get some better answers to these questions.

Clutchiness, In Practice

With baseball starting the talk of “clutch” players returns, as it does every year, so I thought I’d take the time to finally write down my thoughts on clutchiness. The more traditional fan and sports writer tends to assign a key hit to the batter’s intestinal fortitude (“he’s clutch”), and a receiver’s dropped pass to a mental defect (“he choked”). The data-driven community, of which I consider myself a part, disagrees. So do I, though I do believe that there could be a clutch hitter (more on that later). To sum up the position, applicable to most sports, Baseball prospectus argues the following, quoted at length:

Clutch performances exist, to be sure; you can’t watch a day of baseball without seeing a well-timed hit, a big defensive play or a key strikeout that pushes a team towards victory. …

In trying to get across the notion that no players possess a special ability to perform in particular situations, the usual line we use is that clutch performances exist, not clutch players. That’s wrong. The correct idea is that clutch performances exist, and clutch players exist: every last one of them.

All major-league players have a demonstrated ability to perform under pressure. They’ve proven that by rising to the top of an enormous pyramid of players, tens of thousands of them, all trying to be one of the top 0.1% that gets to call themselves “major leaguers.” Within this group of elite, who have proven themselves to be the best in the world at their jobs, there is no discernible change in their abilities when runners are on base, or when the game is tied in extra innings, or when candy and costumes and pumpkins decorate the local GigaMart. The guys who are good enough to be in the majors are all capable of succeeding and failing in these situations, and they’re as likely to do one or the other in the clutch as they are at any other time. Over the course of a game, a month, a season or a career, there is virtually no evidence that any player or group of players possesses an ability to outperform his established level of ability in clutch situations, however defined.

The statistical studies of clutch have supported this point. David Grabiner did the seminal work more than a decade ago, defining clutch as performance in the late innings of close games. From the article:

The correlation between past and current clutch performance is .01, with a standard deviation of .07. In other words, there isn’t a significant ability in clutch hitting; if there were, the same players would be good clutch hitters every year.

This is consistent with what I believe, but it’s missing an explanatory mechanism. (I’m not saying the folks at BP haven’t thought about, just that I haven’t seen it.) Why are certain players capable of maintaining their performance in clutch situations, while others aren’t? Why are some players not clutch, and have thus been weeded out before the major leagues?

A simple answer comes from biology. Remember the last time you were so nervous it affected you, perhaps before a job interview or a public speech. The heart races, the palms sweat. These things would certainly affect your athletic performance, too. The overrated Malcolm Gladwell, in his book Blink, discusses athletic performance and pinpoints 115-145 beats per minute as the heart rate at which athletes tend to perform optimally.* It’s plausible that those failing to be clutch simply get to excited in key situations, jump out of the optimal zone, and perform poorly. The clutch hitters – that is, those able to perform near their usual levels in these situations – just don’t get that nervous and remain in the zone.

*Don’t get too hung up on the heart rate here. There are clearly physical conditions under which a body performs better than others. Even if Gladwell got the measure or the range wrong, it’s plausible that some combination of physical indicators is “in the zone” and other such combinations are not. These combinations could be different for different sports, too.





FCC Chairman: We Won’t Be Dicks about Ortiz F-Bomb

In the first public statements issued in response to the airing of Boston Red Sox designated hitter David Ortiz’s passionate speech containing a profanity, the Federal Communications Commission (“FCC”) stated that agency officials were “not going to be dicks about it.”

Ortiz, the most recognizable face of the Boston Red Sox and one of the most popular players in New England history, spoke to a sellout crowd at the team’s first home game following the Boston marathon bombings and ensuing weeklong manhunt for the perpetrators, and, in a speech aired live by several major broadcast and cable networks, ignited the crowd by saying “this is our fucking city!” Though such profanity can draw heavy fines from the FCC, Chairman Julius Genachowski, speaking to the press, voiced his support for Ortiz, saying that Ortiz “spoke from the heart,” and that “no good comes from being an asshole about it now.”

Elaborating, Genachowski added, “The people of Boston have gone through a traumatic series of events, and one of their heroes brought them together while using some colorful language. You’d have to be a real dipshit to think about rules and regulations at a time like this.”

Asked whether the agency had received complaints about the incident, he replied, “We received a handful of letters and emails, and our officials have reviewed them in accordance with the Administrative Procedures Act and the agency’s internal policies. But someone will always bitch about the tiniest fucking thing. The FCC isn’t going to be moved to action by some hypersensitive cunt.”

At press time, the FCC was still investigating who had said aloud the words “perfect game” shortly before Yu Darvish gave up the first base-runner of the game with two outs in the ninth against the Astros.

Cross-posted on Tumblr.

Book Review: Mergers & Acquisitions

Published in 2007 at the height of the housing bubble, Dana Vachon’s Mergers & Acquisition may have had the worst or best timing. The promised “inside” view of Wall Street and the men and women who inhabit it, combined with a heaping of disdain for such people, probably appealed to a lot of people in the wake of the financial crisis. Unfortunately, Vachon’s portrayal is so lazy and shallow, I can’t imagine it satisfied anyone but the most hardcore members of the occupy movement.

The plot, to the extent that it matters, circles around Tommy Quinn, a college grad who, despite his best efforts, ends up as an investment banker at J.S. Spenser. Quinn tells us all about this new world, stopping just short of spitting on everyone he describes. This includes not just the spoiled trust fund babies or the pointlessly evil executives, but also people who simply work hard at something that Vachon/Quinn find unimportant. The character admits repeatedly to not understanding how investment banking works, only to look down on the people who do the job. (I don’t want to get into a discussion of the importance of proper allocation of capital. So I won’t.) The story goes on to give us access, biased as it is, into exclusive country clubs, boardrooms, and billionaire yachts, loosely hung on a romance that never captures our attention.

The prose of M&A is quick and fun, and it’s probably the best aspect of the book. The pacing is solid, though it’s not helped along by the disjointed plot.

Not really recommended, though it won’t tie you up for long.

Thoughts on law, economics, sports, food, and pop culture. Not necessarily in that order.