Wednesday, September 30, 2009

A Thousand Talents

One of my courses this quarter is called Web-Based Technologies in Education, but I'm quickly discovering it has nothing to do with its title. The Professor, Paul Kim, is something of an entrepreneur, with a non-traditional bent to his "teaching" style. Over the time he has taught the course - which, from what I have gleaned, is around 6 years or so - he has made it increasingly free-form. Originally there was a strict syllabus, with assigned readings and four distinct mini-projects. Now, however, the readings - and the expensive reader that went with them - are gone, as are two of the projects. The syllabus is all but out-the-window, and the discussions are essentially unstructured and undirected attempts to talk, broadly, about issues in education technology.

Thanks to Professor Kim's wide experience and connections, this is far from useless, and while our conversations can be a bit unfocused, it is clear that opportunity abounds. While every class, on some level, is what you make of it, that is especially true here. Our program director tells us that many an LDT student has planted the seeds for their final project in the soil Professor Kim provides.

I mention all of this as background for a story about today's class, a story which will end in a question. Towards the end of the day, we were told that, in this class, we will divide ourselves into committees in charge of putting on an expo for our final projects, catering for projects and for the class, communications, and, finally, finances. The finances committee is to distribute, in essence, $1,000 to the other committees at their (our) discretion. After joining the finance committee - primarily because it involved the lowest need for transportation of the four committees - I was informed, along with my 3 companions, that we were getting the $1,000 now. Professor Kim pulled out an envelope with ten $100 bills in it, and proceeded to ask, "Who's taking it?" One of the other committee people immediately volunteered: "Paul!" She said.

Handing me the envelope, the Professor explained to the class that, while we have $1,000 to allocate however we want, whatever we don't spend is going to go towards one of his current projects, which supplies valuable education technology (and motivation) for children in Africa. "Do we have to have snacks?" some of the students asked. Professor Kim made it clear that our $1,000 is just a drop in the bucket compared to the funding he's going to be providing that project already, so we shouldn't feel pressure, but the challenge was clear.

Of course, we Finance Committee people are clever, and we know enough about Stanford to suspect that there's more at play here. I'm reminded of the Parable of Talents from the Gospel of Matthew. For those unfamiliar, the story goes basically like this:

A wealthy trader is planning on a long journey. Before he leaves, he goes to his three servants and speaks to them. "I am leaving on the morrow, I will give each of you a few of my talents (a form of currency) before I leave, so you may protect them." To his finest servant he gives five talents, to his next best he gives two, and to his youngest and least-capable servant he gives only one.

When the trader returns from afar, he reconvenes his servants. "Where is my money?" he asks. The first servant responds, "Master, I have taken your talents to market, and I have managed to turn five into ten!" The trader smiles, acknowledging the excellent work he expected of his finest servant. The second servant speaks as well, "Master, I too have doubled your wealth. While I only had two talents to work with, I have turned them to four!" The trader smiles again, as the final servant squirms uneasily. "And what of you," the trader asks, "What have you done with your talent?" The servant is uncomfortable, "I, um, buried it in the ground so no one would take it. Here it is, it's not too dirty." Needless to say, the trader is displeased, and choses to end the day with a smaller staff, but with considerably more capital.

So that is our situation. We have $1,000 and about 9 weeks. We are bound to spend some of it on providing for the material needs of the class, but we are also in a position to contribute to a good cause. Our best option is not to choose one over the other, but to do both, so we're going to figure out how we can emulate the finer of the trader's servants. One of the keys to brainstorming is finding good ideas, no matter where they come from. Do you have any?

Tuesday, September 29, 2009

Framing the Discussion: A Look at Health Care

I can't find or remember the exact quotation, but in A People's History of the United States Howard Zinn quotes Noam Chomsky, reminding us that the best way to squash dissent is not, in fact, to try to limit freedoms. Rather, the best way to ensure that the policy you as a government, a corporate entity, or a political party want is to allow an impassioned and heated discussion within a very narrow field of opinion. As the U.S. Senate voted down a public option today, I cannot help but weigh in from this perspective: the difference between the bill with the public option and without may seem momentus, but it is not. Indeed, the debate about health care in America has been framed brilliantly, so that the range of opinions currently in circulation in the media and in the congress is so outrageously narrow that the almost constant incendiary articles and opinions and debates about the subject seem absurd.

I would characterize the extreme ends of the current debate thus: on the one hand - the generally Republican side (but more on parties is sure to come) - we have a position that says we should mandate insurance coverage for every American, including assessing fines to those who fail to purchase insurance when they can afford it (according to who, we might ask), granting stipends to those who can't. On the other hand, we have a position that says we should mandate insurance coverage for every American, and we should provide public insurance option for anyone who wants to opt-in, but in a way that does not undercut the competitiveness of existing insurance companies. I recognize that the situation is more complex than this, but I think it's a fair description of what we might call the "extremes" in this debate.

What these two plans have in common is this: they are different from what we are doing now primarily because they both require every American to have health insurance. They differ from each other in that, in one, Americans are asked to purchase insurance from private companies, whereas in the other, they are given the option of purchasing insurance from the government. Without getting into the politics of those options, it seems to me that this is a fairly insignificant difference. Sure, the public option may be cheaper than health insurance company rates, and may have fewer absurd situations where coverage is denied for no reason, but it is impossible that the proposition would pass if it posed a serious threat to insurance company profits. No, there is almost no difference between what the Democrats and the Republicans are offering in this debate, because there is no discussion of the two broader extremes of radical reform, both of which, I'll argue in a second, make more sense than the Democratic and Republican options. This should come as no surprise, however, since both sides of the debate are being funded, essentially, by the same interests, and it pays to remember: the health insurance companies have already won.

I want to engage in a little thought experiment, but first I need to introduce what I'll call the "Libertarian" option and the "Progressive" option. Both these perspectives fall well outside the current debate, but they represent what all the crazy "fringe" leftists and rightists actually want. The Libertarian option I would say is this: entirely deregulate the health care industry. Eliminate all protections, barriers to entrance, and moral requirements (what few there are) the government has imposed. While this may sound callous to most of us - to me, for example, the argument is actually not absurd. The idea is, if it were easier to form an insurance company, or a hospital, or a broader health care corporation, then there would be more competition and less collusion than there is now, leading to a higher quality of service.

On the other hand, there is the Universal Health Care argument. This is the tried and true method that almost every other country in the world currently uses: health care is run entirely by the government, and coverage is guarenteed for every citizen. The argument here is that health care is a human right and a moral imperative, and we simply cannot leave it to the vagaries of profit-motive and personal ambition. Making health an economic decision, the argument goes, is wrong. The quality of service, here, may not be as high for the wealthiest citizens as it is under other models, but the overall quality is much higher (by analogy, Honda may not make the finest automobiles in the world, but it's better to have a bunch of Civics running around than a few Aston Martins and a bunch of horse-drawn carts).

So let's run the thought experiment. I'm going to do a lot of approximation here, but my point should be clear by the end. Let's say it costs 100 economic units to provide health care for every American. In our current system, 20% of people aren't covered, so we're only paying 80 of those units (though that is driven higher by people delaying coverage due to cost concerns). On the other hand, health insurance companies charge a lot for overhead, and make tremendous profits, so let's say we're actually paying something more like 130 units (50 units for profits and administration). That's as things stand.

Under the Republican model, we'd have this: 100 units base cost, and all 100 units being paid, plus additional cost for expanded overhead and comprable profits. So our total cost is now 160 units.

Under the Democratic model, we're in a similar boat: 100 units base bost, all 100 being paid. Profits probably decrease a bit, but government beauracracy increases overhead significantly, so we're probably somewhere around 170 units.

As you can see - if you buy my premises - there's not a significant difference here. The Republicans may decry the cost of Obama-care, but the alternative is just as expensive.

How about the "Libertarian" plan? We're probably going to spend something like 90 units - I think fewer people would choose to forgo insurance if there was more competition in the insurance industry. Lower prices result in smaller profits, too, and overhead decreases with the formation of smaller, sleeker companies. So let's say the overall cost is 120 units (20 for overall profit, 10 for overhead).

Universal Health Care? Now we're covering all 100 units, but there's no profit, and while there is overhead and beauracracy, it's not as complicated because there's only one supplier. Let's guestimate 15 units for administration. So we're at 115 units and everyone is covered.

I'm sure there are studies that actually do this math, and I'd be shocked if the results don't match mine. Universal, single-payer health care covers everyone for less money than any other plan. Why isn't it on the table? Because health insurance companies go caput, and the fact that they are fighting to survive means they're willing to spend endless resources to maintain their position. Where they've been most effective, however, is not in shaping policy (if it were up to them, we'd have a hybrid of all of the most profitable practices possible), but in framing the debate. Which side are you on, Democrat or Republican?

Monday, September 28, 2009

Value, Wins, and the 2009 Rockies Position Players

I'm going to jump about 10 years from the end of my first post on Sabermetrics to one of the most modern statistics available. There have been a number of efforts to quantify the value of an individual player to his team, but none is more ambitious - and, frankly, successful - than the Value figure that unveiled last December. It's still not a perfect number, but it tells you, with a fair amount of accuracy, how much money a player's on-the-field contribution is worth to his team. In a time where we decry the exorbitant salaries of baseball players, it's easy to forget that they are generally generating more money for their owners than they are making themselves, and most are still "underpaid" relative to their level of production. For example, when Alex Rodriguez made $25 million in 2007, he was actually worth almost $40 million to the Yankees (read, $15 million in profit, and that's not even counting the money they make of off A-Rod jerseys, or marketing; that's just the value of his production). Overpaid he may be, relative to his contribution to society, but actually underpaid, relative to how much value he's bringing to his employer. As long as fans are willing to shell out the kinds of money they spend on tickets (and as long as advertisers are willing to buy spots during broadcasts), player salaries will continue to rise until team profit margins aren't so large.

Much as I'd love to talk about how much money the Yankees - or almost every other team, really - rake in, and how valuable their players are, I want to take a step back from quantified value and talk about the various contributions of players on the Rockies this year. As you probably are aware, the Rockies are a week away from likely making their third playoff apperance in their history (assuming they can hold off the charging Braves). As I've watched recent games, however, it seems there are some misconceptions as to which Rockies players are good, and which are not. The offense, as a whole, is horribly overrated because of Coors Field, but that is not a new phenomenon. Conversely, the pitching staff is underrated, as usual, for the same reason (I bet you didn't know that the 2001 Rockies, for example, were 3rd in the NL in road ERA, while finishing 15th in Overall ERA; Coors is like that). More interesting, however, is the way we tend to overvalue players that we like, and players that have been around for a while, and players with "intangibles." The Rockies this year are a study in the pitfalls of trying to evaluate the home team, thanks to all those biases familiarity breeds.

Not that our eyes deceive us in all things. Troy Tulowitzki has been without question the best position player on the Rockies this season, worth 4.8 wins (which is the difference between 81-81, and 86-76; or, 2 games up on the Braves, and 3 games behind the Braves). You may be surprised to note, however, that Tulo's contribution has been almost exclusively offensive. The unreal season he had with the glove in 2007 he has not matched, and in fact has not been particularly better on defense than most other shortstops around the league. That he is a shortstop alone makes him valuable - there are fewer power hitting shortstops than first basemen - but he has not been the wizard with the glove this year he has been in the past.

No matter, because he's hitting very well. In fact, only one player on the team is hitting better: Todd Helton. Sure, Helton doesn't have the power that Tulo does, but Helton's OBP is .413, meaning he only makes an out 59% of the time he comes up. Tulo's .370 OBP is good, but not that good. Of course, Helton is not as valuable as Tulo mainly because he plays first. With no Helton, the Rockies could slide Brad Hawpe back to his natural position, or call up Josh Koshansky from AAA, and suffer a serious, but not devastating, drop off. With no Tulo, we'd probably see Omar Quintanilla every day, which, frankly, would be ugly. Nevertheless, Todd has been worth 3.2 wins this year, which is not bad at all.

Now we get to the real point of the post, though. Who do you think is third on the Rockies in value? Brad Hawpe? Carlos Gonzalez? Maybe Yorvit Torrealba? What about Ian Stewart, or Dexter Fowler? None of those players, it turns out, is even close to the actual third-best player on the Rockies: Seth Smith.

You read that right. This season, Seth Smith has been worth 2.7 wins, and that's without playing every day. Smith has been the fourth best offensive player on the team (behind Hawpe, Tulo, and Helton), and has actually been the second best defensive player, behind only Clint Barmes. Yet, for some reason, Smith is left on the bench about once every three days. Why? He is left handed, like most of the team, and often he sits against left handed pitchers, but I think there are other reasons.

The Rockies see Brad Hawpe as an All-Star, and offensively, he is one. But what the Rockies don't fully appreciate is that Hawpe is - and this is not an exaggeration - one of the worst fielders in the entirety of Major League Baseball. This season, he is third-to-last in defensive value; he has actually cost the Rockies more games with his glove than he has won them with his bat. Because of his arm, most Rockies fans tend to think of Hawpe as a good fielder, but he is anything but. In an unforgiving ballpark - Coors is notoriously hard to play the outfield in, after all - Hawpe is overmatched. And this shouldn't be a surprise, because Hawper is not a right fielder, he's a first baseman (or was coming up) who got moved because of Helton's stranglehold on the position (much like Atkins, who is/was a terrible third baseman). So Smith - who's actually a natural outfielder - doesn't start over Hawpe because it's easier for us to see an All-Star with a strong arm than it is for us to see what he really is: an overrated right fielder who should be a DH in the American League.

Carlos Gonzalez and Dexter Fowler are the next two culprits in Seth Smith playing time heist. Cargo has actually been quite good - at 2.1 wins, he's next in line after Smith - and should certainly play every day in center with Smith in left. Fowler, on the other hand, has been worth only 0.8 wins, despite more playing time than Smith at a tougher position. Fowler, it turns out, has been marginal at offense and terrible on defense, almost as bad as Hawpe. The Rockies may like their outfield, but let me reassure you that the success of contact pitchers like Marquis and Cook has a lot more to do with the infield than it does the outfield. Fowler can't really be blamed, of course, since he's a rookie in one of the most difficult center fields in all of baseball. Of course, from the Rockies perspective, Fowler is good at defense simply because he is fast. That may have been true of Willy Taveras, but he knew how to use his speed way better than Fowler apparently does. Fowler does have a promising future, especially if he can start to hit with more power and adjust to the cavernous outfield at Coors, but he's no Seth Smith.

Finally, Ryan Spilborghs. I know what you're thinking (if you're a Rockies fan, anyway, and if you're not you probably stopped reading a while ago), "he's not going after Spilborghs?" I am. He may be fun and quirky, and he may have hit an incredible walk-off Grand Slam against the Giants last month, but Spilborghs has been the worst player on the Rockies not named Garrett Atkins this season. That he ever starts in place of Seth Smith is laughable, because Spilly has been worth exactly 0.1 wins this year. That means you could call up just about any team and take their best outfielder from AAA, and he'd give you as good or better production than Spilborghs has given the Rockies. Spilborghs has personality and experience, however, and that still counts for something in the modern baseball culture.

Early in the season fangraphs ran an article entitled "Free Seth Smith." They should run the same article again. The Rockies may make the playoffs, but they'll be lucky to continue their success in the postseason - and in seasons to come - if they don't play their third best player every day.

Sunday, September 27, 2009

Scientism and Humanity

I am the son of a scientist and a mathematician (well, businessman, but trained in math), and in my brief non-academic life I found myself in a program teaching Marine Biology. Now, at Stanford, I am taking courses in education, yes, but also Computer Sciences. One of these courses is the highly scientific Computational Tour of the Human Genome, though some education Professors are more scientific in their approach than the genetics Professors. It may come as a surprise, then, when I say that there is something very unsettling to me about science and the roll it plays in modern society.

Recently I read an article by Mark Slouka in Harper's Magazine while waiting in the Estes Park library. The article was called “Dehumanized: When Math and Science Rule the School." The crux of the article was the slow death of the humanities in education, in the face of increasing “scientism,” a term Slouka uses to remind us of the difference between science, as a way of trying to understand the world, and science, as a dogma. That scientism is rampant is clear from the preponderance of the cliché, “studies show,” as if the studies themselves were more important than how or why they were undertaken, and who is interpreting the results.

I do not intend to summarize the article, because it does an excellent job without my interference. Instead, I want to try to reflect on the seeming opposition of science and humanities, because I don't believe – and neither does Slouka, I imagine – that there is actually a difference. The question, really, is what words, what language, can really capture the actual opposition that exists? Is it scientism against humanity? Is it dogma against critical thinking? Is it money against happiness? Is it good against evil? I doubt any of those captures the problem that Slouka exposes; I know none of them is totally satisfying to me. But hopefully we can at least explore the issue without too much linguistic bewitchment.

Something from my first paragraph is surprising to me, as I look back over it. How is it possible that geneticists – and I don't mean Professors of genetics, the men teaching this class are also at the forefront of their field – are less “scientific” to my untrained eye than my Professor of Language, Identity, and Classroom Learning? It makes no sense that, when studying something as transparently linguistic as “identity,” you'd have a highly refined and quantitative attempt to understand how people characterize themselves. There has been an explosion of possible identities – according to my Professor – as time has gone on. More and more words are being used to describe who we are, and each study of identity needs to be more complicated than the last.

Well, yeah! A little Kant is all you need to remind yourself that, really, we're not dealing with objective realities here, and subjective realities are as numerous as there are people on the earth. There may be some overlap in what we mean when we say “I am an American,” or “I am a surfer,” or “I am well-educated,” but there's a lot that does not overlap as well. Even simple geographic identities are rife with connotation and symbolism, such that “Americans” are sometimes called “true Americans” or “red-blooded Americans,” because they embody some mystical and poetic meaning of the word that transcends being a mere citizen. How much more complicated does identity get when we characterize pathologies or neuroses, when we try to understand cultures and sub-cultures, or when we try to explain the various ways students learn?

The value of typing people into various identities is unquestionable, because it allows marketers to target certain groups, it allows educators to tailor lessons, and it allows social networks to grow. The broader the definition, in some sense, the more accurate it is, but the less precise. Like with the motions of electrons, the more we hone in on particular individuals, the more illusive identity becomes. And yet the very effort of scientifically classifying identities is just that: an attempt to hone in on individuals, to type more effectively and more precisely, to determine exactly who someone is according to some objective and external criteria.

Contrast that to the geneticists. “This is the dogma, and like most dogmas, it is wrong,” was the prelude to our review of how genes are translated and transcribed. Those very things you may have learned in high school – though, lets be honest, who remembers mRNA and protein synthesis? – and which you can find in educational youtube videos don't quite happen that way. That's just a simplification. Indeed, my main takeaway so far in A Computational Tour of the Human Genome is that, frankly, biology is complicated, and most of the mainstream understanding of the field is deeply flawed.

That's not to say that the geneticists are not trying to probe deeper, or to reach more concrete and precise conclusions about the nature of “junk DNA” (DNA that, as far as we know, serves no purpose) or mobile, self-replicating strands that jump around through your chromosomes. It just means that geneticists recognize and are comfortable with the conditional nature of their work in a way that, it seems to me, the identity “scientists” are not. I say this from the perspective of process, mainly. Genetics is a science, and the scientists and their experiments are following a process that is, after all, the work of over a thousand years of philosophy. The modern study of identity – which might seem a philosophical, or literary, or musical question – is none of these; instead it is the work of scientism, the belief that the scientific process requires laboratories and computer programs and clearly defined variables in order to be useful. In summary, the geneticists are willing to admit confusion, difficulty, and the possibility that they are wrong, where the study of identity is not.

While I'm more interested in the process of understanding identity compared to the process used in genetics. There is, however, something of a confluence in the subject matter that identity and genetics study, and, ironically, I would argue that genetics has a more nuanced understanding of identity than literature about identity does. That's not to say that there is any agreement as to which gene codes for which trait at this point in the development of genetics, because that is certainly not true. There are numerous obstacles between now and a true, practical sequencing of the human genome. What we do know, however, is that no two people – even twins – have exactly the same genetic structure, or even the same amount of DNA (that is, the same number of base pairs). What we do know, however, is that different populations and ethnic cultures have tendencies for widely different genetic structures – let alone particular genes.

In other words, genetics can create of kind of broad classification of genetic identity – though, of course, few geneticists would argue that your whole identity comes from your genes. This kind of grouping is perhaps less philosophically instructive than we would hope, but it does give us a framework around which we can, ultimately, delve into those philosophical questions. What does it mean to be European, or African, or Polynesian? In what way has culture influenced genetics, or vice-versa? What are the essential genetic traits that characterize a tendency for artistic thinking, or mathematical thinking, or athletic skill? The kind of conditional understanding present in the study of genetics demonstrates a humility in the face of these questions; it does not assume that answers will be easily forthcoming, or that we can truly understand what is in the soul of a human being through experimentation alone.

There's more to be said about genetics and identity, I'm sure, but that's not really what I'm after. Instead, I want to better understand why it is that we put in opposition scientific thinking and philosophical or literary thinking, and what it is about the way we have come to understand science that makes that opposition seem so natural.

Historically, science was once “natural philosophy,” and rose out of the efforts of philosophers to understand the natural world. It was also, largely, the product of a newfound focus on the process of understanding instead of on ideas. Whereas the ancients – Plato, Aristotle, and the like – were concerned with eternal “forms,” Descartes and the moderns that followed (how's that for reducing the history of science to a sentence?) were focused on how that knowledge related to the material world, and how it came about. Discourse on Method is a telling title for a work that, really, is the origin of modern thinking.

That's not where science and philosophy separate, however. That happened sometime more recently, and Husserl's Crisis of the European Sciences – for all of its nonsensical jargon – was a response to an alarming transformation in the way that philosophy, and the humanities more generally – were interacting with science. Unfortunately, Husserl uses terms like “problem-hozion” and “meaning-fundament,” which confused me quite a bit when I was reading him as a Senior at St. John's, so I'm not really equipped to talk about Husserl. Nevertheless, the essential message is well-taken: somewhere, somehow, science and the humanities became opposed fields, and, worse, science became “practical” while the humanities became “a waste of time.”

That's not totally fair, since plenty of people who went to liberal arts colleges get jobs, and even art and music majors manage to make a living in most cases, but I bring up the discrepancy in the way we talk about the humanities and the sciences for good reason. The connotations surrounding the humanities are generally unflattering. Consider the following: fuzzy, pie-in-the-sky, metaphysical, vague, impractical, touchy-feely, intangible. These are the kinds of words that get attached to the humanities. The sciences, on the other hands, get the following: hard facts, practicality, logical, tangible, reasonable.

Part of my point, here, is that the associations we tend to make are flawed. It's the scientists who are generally more conscious of the vague, impractical, and intangible in their work, and often the humanities – especially subject to the desire to turn themselves into science – make a claim on hard facts and logic. Of course, even non-scientism humanities are anything but touchy-feely. They may be confusing, and they may require a less structured thought-process in order to comprehend (or to not comprehend, which is sometimes the point), but they are far from useless when confronting issues like, say, trying to understand one's hopes and aspirations, or solving the philosophical and moral problems we confront every day when we drive, or cook, or write emails.

No one ever wrote a symphony about emails, for reasons other than mere anachronism, and most musicians and philosophers are concerned with “deeper” issues that, ultimately, our society might call impractical for good reason. But what's the value of practicality anyway? That's probably the bigger question. Why do we, as a species, as a society, or as individuals, choose to pursue the kind of ends we have become accustomed to calling appropriate? Is profit the best organizing principle for a society? For a lifestyle? What about survival? Or art? Is scientific knowledge more valuable than an opera? Is it better to answer questions, or to ask them?

I don't know how to address those questions, nor do I know if I should, and we're veering dangerously close to an overly-abstracted and philosophical discussion at this point, so let me re-frame the issue one last time. Science is a study of the natural world, while scientism is an attempt to apply the scientific process in a deliberate and quantitative way to abstract concepts. What happens to humanities in this system, and what should happen?

Well, for one thing, we see that students who play an instrument score higher on standardized tests. So we encourage engaging with the humanities because it makes our population smarter. We'll ignore, for the moment, that wealthier students score higher on standardized tests, and that welathier students are also way more likely to play an instrument. Assuming that playing music – or drawing, or reading literature – does increase a student's ability to solve qualitative and quantitative problems, why aren't the humanities taken seriously? Is it because the humanities are only valuable, under that construction, as a means to a particular end, rather than as an end in themselves?

Modern humanities often consist in classes like “History of Rock and Roll” or “Introduction to Sit-Com Writing.” Fun as those classes may be, it's no wonder they're not taken seriously. I dare you to laugh at a class about Plato's Repulbic, or Dante's Divine Comedy. But this self-marginalization is a symptom of a belief that science, not philosophy or literature or music, is what really matters. Except it's not the scientists who think that, it's the rest of us. Scientism is dangerous for this reason, more than any; the very experts – the priests and cardinals at the top of the hierarchy – don't actually follow the religion. There is a way of thinking where the sum of human knowledge and experience and debate is important, and no particular area has precedence, because we need citizens – who can consider moral questions – as much as we need employees – who can fill in spreadsheets. What happens when we lose the citizens? And have we lost them already? And why?

Husserl's crisis, it seems to me, is a subtle one, and the movement away from liberal arts and humanities has made schools like St. John's College “obsolete,” or at least terribly impractical. Except liberal arts are not obsolete or impractical, and the real crisis we're dealing with is not a scientific one. It's a crisis of identity, not for individual people, but for a whole way of thinking. The humanities are too broad for a particular identity, of course, but it's not their crisis I'm worried about. Scientism – the recourse of a society that defines itself on a certainty built upon mere words and concepts no two philosophers would define the same way – gives us a false sense of cultural, global identity. Man is the creature that knows, we might say. But Man is also the creature that deceives himself, and he would be a lot better off if he was willing to say “I don't know” more often.

The Origin of Sabermetrics

This is an interesting time to be a baseball fan, and I don't mean because it's September, and the playoffs are about to start. In the last ten or so years baseball has quietly undergone a revolution, the true depth of which is only now becoming apparent in mainstream coverage of the game. Most broadcasts have started to carry On-Base Percentage (OBP) alongside the old mainstays of Batting Average (Avg), Home Runs (HR), and Runs Batted In (RBI). This is a subtle addition, but it belies a fundamental change to baseball culture. The younger generation of baseball fans – and, more importantly – baseball executives and scouts and even some players – are understanding statistics differently. Most teams have come to realize that RBI are not, really, indicative of who's a good player, and that even widely accepted statistics like Earned Run Average (ERA) are limited when evaluating pitchers.

You may have heard the term “Sabermetrics.” This is where it comes from. Back in the 70s, a man named Bill James wrote an annual series of books called The Bill James Baseball Abstract. Self-published, and with almost no initial readership, James's ideas caught on, and he became something of a cult figure among baseball fans who were dissatisfied with traditional ways of thinking about the game. Perhaps the most fundamental argument in the Abstracts was that OBP was more important than, not only Batting Average, but everything else. Fans – and players – who had grown up without ever hearing their favorite announcer utter the words “on base percentage” found it hard to believe that this statistic could really matter that much, but to some people it made sense.

The argument, for the uninitiated, goes something like this. What is the object of the game of baseball? Of course, to score more runs than your opponent. Since we're concerned with offense for the moment, lets think about how runs are scored. In order to win a game, you must score at least one run, which means at least one hitter must reach base, and then travel around the diamond before three outs are recorded. So what's the key part of that run-scoring process? Traditional thinking would have said that traveling around the diamond is the key. “We want fast players, and players who can get to second, or third, or even home, without anyone else coming up. We also want players who are good at driving runners in.”

That's not an unreasonable position, but James had a more nuanced take: “before three outs are recorded” is way more important than moving around the diamond. The best thing a hitter can do may be hitting a home run, but really, as long as a batter doesn't make an out, he's done his job. In baseball, a team only has 27 outs, divided into nine innings, to score as many runs as it can. Each and every out is precious, because once they are used up, no runners can advance anymore, and no hitters can hit home runs. The end of an inning is a step closer to the end of the world.

So what statistic measures a hitter's ability to not get out? If a player doesn't make an out, he must reach base, whether by a hit, a walk, an error, or getting hit by a pitch. Regardless, a player who does one of those things has done his job. It turns out that On Base Percentage measures exactly this. A player with an OBP of .400 gets on base 40% of the time, and makes an out 60% of the time. OBP is the inverse of “Out Percentage,” which James suggested was the most important statistic in all of baseball.

Over time, James's further attempts to better quantify baseball led to the creation of the "Society for American Baseball Reasearch," or SABR. The study of baseball statistics became, then, Sabermetrics (the extra "e" added for quite reasonable linguistic reasons). This group of statisticians and thinkers was, unfortunately, composed almost entirely of fans. Hence, for a long time, they were kept out of the culture of the game, and the few baseball writers or scouts that joined up remained an oddity. It's not that teams were leary of this attempt to better quantify the game, it's that they didn't even notice. The primacy of Batting Average and RBI were so ingrained that anything else was an absurdity.

The origin of Batting Average is worth a quick look, at this point, because it demonstrates the power of habit. When baseball first started being played, attempts were made to quantify who was good and who was not. The reason for doing this, like in any sport where statistics are kept, was to help determine, basically, which players contributed more to their teams' ability to win games. Early scorekeepers agreed that walks - the main difference between Batting Average and OBP - didn't really help a team win, because they were kind of a neutral outcome. The pitcher didn't get the hitter out, but he also didn't really give up anything. Walks were also much rarer - as were strikeouts - because the modern conventions of four balls to a walk and three strikes to an out had not been established. While the numbers varied over the evolution of the game, it took as many as nine balls to walk a hitter.

So when the first statistics were being crafted, walks simply didn't count. You got a hit, or you didn't. Anything else (sacrifices, walks, hit by pitches) was not an "at bat." The idea was, at the time, that the purpose of the game was to put the ball in play, and that it reflected poorly on the hitter if he struck out or if he walked, because he didn't do his job.

If the purpose of statistics is to figure out who's a better player, however, OBP does a better job. Besides the conceptual arguments James offered, he also did some research. Not surprisingly, he found that the statistics that best corrolate to wins and losses over the course of a season were runs scored and runs given up (namely the difference between the two). Which statistic corrolated best to runs? I offer some data:

1976 MLB Team Leaders in Runs:

  1. Cincinnati - 857
  2. Philadelphia - 770
  3. Minnesota - 743
  4. New York - 730
  5. Boston - 715
  6. Kansas City - 713
1976 MLB Team Leaders in Batting Average:
  1. Cincinnati - .280
  2. Minnesota - .274
  3. Philadelphia - .272
  4. Kansas City - .269
  5. New York - .269
  6. Pittsburgh - .267
So where's Boston? Here's the 1976 MLB Team Leaders in OBP:
  1. Cincinnati - .357
  2. Minnesota - .341
  3. Philadelphia - .338
  4. New York - .328
  5. Kansas City - .327
  6. Boston - .324
This small example hardly proves the corrolation, especially because OBP corrolates to Batting Average (since most of OBP is Batting Average). But even here you can see that the OBP list has a lot more in common with the runs list than the Batting Average list does. Taken over every team in the league, over years and years of data, James found that the corrolation was about as close as you can get. It turns out that getting hits doesn't win games. Not making outs wins games.

As I said in the opening, the last ten years has seen this kind of thinking gain wider acceptance, largely because of the success of one team around the turn of the millenium: the Oakland Athletics. There's a whole book about that called Moneyball, by Michael Lewis, and it's a good read even if you're not a baseball fan. In short, the A's began to use sabermetric principles - combined with some good old-fashioned economics (find what is most undervalued, and buy it, whilst selling what is most overvalued). They won, as a result, lots and lots of games, and other teams started emulating them. Including, notably, the Boston Red Sox.

The most telling moment in this revolution in baseball culture was when the Red Sox hired none other than Bill James as an analyst and consultant for the team. A few years later they won their first world series in almost a century, and then won another in 2007 (at the expense of my Rockies, sadly). They're heading for the playoffs again this year, because they - unlike the A's - have the deadly combination of almost unlimited money and people who know how to spend it.

Most teams, however, now employ statisticians, and many even pay attention to what their statisticians say. Over time I'll inevitably talk about some of the modern statistics, how they work (or don't) and why they work (or don't). But I'm at the fringe of all of this, with only enough knowledge to appreciate the changes going on inside of the press boxes and clubhouses and, above all, general managers' brains. In the 1970's and 80's it would have been safe to say that baseball fans knew more about what really counts in the game than managers, players, or scouts. These days, that's not true, even though fans know more than they did in the 70's and 80's. The level of sophistication in analysis of the modern game would have been unimaginable just two decades ago. Some people argue that ruins the game. I would say it makes it richer. But that's a discussion for another time.

Saturday, September 26, 2009

About the Blog

Update - November 30, 2011

It has come to my attention, via site statistics, that a lot of people find and read this post.  I'm here from the future to warn you that it's not entirely accurate.  For one, I have more than 3 readers (though perhaps not much more).  Secondly, while my initial imagined audience was, perhaps, friends and family, I've come to write for a broader spectrum of readers.  Or sometimes for none at all.  Finally, I want to agree with the sentiment that the blog still has no unifying principle beyond "not these tones," but that certain topics are much more common than others.  Music, baseball, learning and education issues, politics, and astrology all make fairly frequent appearances.

With that in mind, welcome.  I've done a lot of writing over the last couple of years, as the archive will show you.  Most of it probably isn't that good, but some of it, if I may say so, is.  I hope you find something of interest.


Hello everyone (all, what, 3 people who might read this?),

Back as an undergraduate, I wrote emails to my friends and family as I studied at St. John's. It turned out that most of those emails tended towards the philosophical or literary, rather than the personal, and eventually I decided to stop sending them, both because they took too much time, and because I didn't think I was really writing for the right audience. With that in mind, I'm finally taking the jump into blog-space to write those very same kinds of thoughts.

I have no illusions about who this blog is for. I've been writing essays and journals for myself for a long time, and this is basically the same thing, only on the internet. Why on the internet? Because it's easier for Jericha, or James, or Joe to get to that way. It's also easier for them to ignore; while an email demands a response, a blog just kind of sits there. In general, I'm happy to have feedback - about ideas, about writing, about anything - but I'm not really expecting it. We're all busy in this crazy world, and I see no reason to add to anyone's work-load but my own.

That said, I want to clarify what the title of the blog means. "Nicht diese tone" are the first words of Beethoven's Ninth, and they basically mean, "Not these tones." It follows with, basically, "Let us sing yet more joyfully." I can't promise that I'm going to write exclusively joyful reflections here, but I can promise that I'm going to try - as I always do - to think about things differently. Nicht Diese Tone means, then, not in the way you're used to seeing (or hearing) things.

There is no unifying principle behind this blog. I may be studying Education Technology at Stanford, but I am just as likely to write about music, or literature, or politics (sorry), or marine biology, or surfing, or well, whatever. To me all of those things are, ultimately, related. Maybe not in terms of content, but in terms of process. But maybe more on that later. For now, welcome, friends and family, and I hope this serves as a way for us to keep in touch better than we have.