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I'm Erik Stuart, a 30-something married guy living in San Mateo, CA. I'm in eBay's corporate strategy group, and I lead eBay's efforts to look at & develop relationships with internet startups. (Posts about Web 2.0, the internet, and anything else are my fault and don't reflect on my employer, except to the extent that they hired me and continue to keep me around.) I'll also blog about sports, games, musical theater, economics/physics/other science stuff, and whatever else strikes my fancy.

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May
24th
Mon
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Foul trouble and coach behavior/incentives

Basketball and economics: ah, a marriage made in heaven.  In grad school, I had the privilege of taking a class from the late Amos Tversky (who would presumably have been the co-winner, with Daniel Kahneman, of the 2002 Nobel Prize in economics, had he not died in 1996), one of whose famous studies demonstrated that there’s no evidence for “hot shooting” in basketball.  As statistical studies go, this one wasn’t a bad assignment: a large part of it involved tracking every single shot taken by the Philadelphia 76ers for an entire season.

Another article by an economist on basketball has apparently attracted a lot of attention.  By Jonathan Weinstein, it’s available here: http://theoryclass.wordpress.com/2010/04/27/foul-trouble/.  His basic idea is one that I’ve thought about previously: why do coaches remove players from a game when they’re in foul trouble?  If you leave him in, he might foul out and play fewer minutes overall; if you bench him, he will play fewer minutes.

(Jonathan’s post plus his follow-up appropriately note various caveats, including 1) maybe the player won’t have his “head on straight” after a foul call and 2) edge cases involving players one-foul-away-from-disqualification and saving him for “crunch time”, which may be a bit different from normal play with regard to length and nature of possessions, more foul shooting, and so on.  To his list, I’d add the idea that referees may be more or less likely to call another foul on the same player shortly thereafter, though it’s not clear in which direction this would fall.)

I’m highly sympathetic to Jonathan’s post, at least “in a vacuum”.  (My biggest practical concern with implementing his suggestion is actually referee behavior - it’s been documented that basketball officials (unfortunately) are significantly influenced by fans, “momentum”,  foul disparities, and other factors.  In particular, officials often seem to make calls to make a game closer than it “should” be.  If the referees show some inclination to keep a game tight for you, even if you have your subs in, then it does make some sense to hold your best players out until the final few minutes if they’re in foul trouble.)

However, Ken Pomeroy, whose basketball analysis and writings I admire very highly, doesn’t agree with Jonathan: http://kenpom.com/blog/index.php/weblog/all_points_are_not_created_equal/.  As someone who appears to be on the far end of the Ruthless Objectivity scale, his opinion isn’t to be discarded lightly.  That said, I think he’s wrong.

Ken correctly notes that the objective isn’t to maximize point differential - it’s to win the game - but, as someone whose analysis is based heavily on tempo-free statistics that, basically assess Stat X Per Possession - it’s surprising that he goes on to say “It’s difficult to defend that all points are worth the same”.  (Ken, your whole model is based on the premise that all points/stats (per possession) are worth the same!).

His illustrative comparison: a missed three-pointer early in the 1st half of the Duke-Butler national championship, if made, would have altered the win probability for Butler by a small amount.  The end-of-game missed three by Hayward, if made, would have changed the win probability from zero to 100%.  Ergo, the crunch-time three mattered a lot more than the early three.

Ken’s logical flaw: the three at the buzzer mattered hugely - but only because the team taking it was down by two. Had Butler been down by 4, or 10, or 20, or up by 1 or 20, it wouldn’t have mattered at all.  Furthermore, at the moment of the early three-point attempt, Butler’s being down by 2 was only one of many possible “futures”.  Had that first three gone in, the chance of a “future” in which Butler was ahead at the buzzer would have gone up a bit.  To connect this to the foul-trouble argument, it’s not a question of choosing between my star hitting a minor shot now or hitting a winning shot at the buzzer: it’s whether playing my star for a minute right now will increase the team’s chance of winning.

The key is that, if you play your star _now_, you get the benefit of his play, right now, with certainty.  If you bench your star, you lose that benefit.  In return, you get an increased chance that he’ll be able to play in the final minute - but a) he might have been able to play in that final minute anyway, if he doesn’t foul out, and b) there’s a significantly-less-than-100% chance that that last minute will matter.

I think it’s that last piece that Ken’s missing.  Yes, Hayward’s last three was a game-decider - but what were the odds that the game would end up in that situation (Butler down 1 or 2 with the last shot)?  Perhaps 5%?  That’s why, generally, points are points, whenever you get them.  Again, “crunch time” may play out a little differently - teams fouling to get the ball back, more possessions, teams ahead with the ball holding it and then rushing a shot at the end of the 35-second clock - so I can see an argument for benching a player who is one foul away from elimination until the last few minutes.  In general, though, I think coaches bench players in foul trouble way too much, and way too early.  (In fact, as a Stanford fan, I was pleased to see Coach Dawkins eschewing conventional wisdom often this season, continuing to play players with 2 fouls in the first half.  Of course, his lack of depth may have been a contributing factor, too…)

This raises Ken’s second flaw, which is that he has (IMO) too much faith in coaches’ understanding and motivations.  He says: “While I don’t doubt that some coaches at the college level have counter-productive biases in this area, I would be surprised if taken collectively, the 347 Division I coaches are significantly more conservative than is warranted.”

Thou art far more optimistic than I, Ken.  :)  Gregg Easterbrook’s Tuesday Morning Quarterback continuously makes the point that coaching behavior is 1) flawed and 2) absolutely not designed to win games - it’s designed to deflect criticism and second-guessing that, in the moment, is painful and unpleasant and, in the long run, shortens coaching careers.  (The canonical football example of win-percentage-deficient coaching behavior is punting on fourth-and-short.  Punt and lose, and the fans/media/front office blame the players.  Go for it and lose, and everyone blames the coach.  Of course, in the long run, wins tell the story - but in football, where seasons offer a small sample size of games, the extra job risk of defying conventional wisdom isn’t worth the small added win percentage of being more aggressive.)

I suspect basketball coaches have the same mentality.  Conventional wisdom says bench the player in foul trouble; if he abides thus, and the team loses, then (in the short run) it’s the player’s (or even the official’s) fault.  If the coach keeps the player in, he fouls out, and the team loses, then the coach was an idiot.  Let’s say this foul-trouble situation happens 15 times per year, and correct behavior (keeping players in) results in 8 expected-value wins, whereas benching players results in 7 expected-value wins.  I wouldn’t be at all surprised if the coach is more likely to lose his job in the former scenario compared to the latter, because of those six “idiotic losses” where the coach kept his stars on the floor.  (I say six losses, because the stars won’t foul out in all the games.)  Fans and media and athletic department types may be less likely to recall the other times when the star stayed in, helped maintained a lead, and fouled out with 3/5/7 minutes to go with their team up by 9 and the team won without too much problem.

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Which one of these things is not like the others?

"Major League Baseball is the only professional sports league with broad antitrust protection. The National Basketball Association, the National Hockey League, the NCAA, NASCAR, professional tennis and Major League Soccer supported the NFL in this case, hoping the high court would expand broad antitrust exemption to other sports."

(from http://sports.espn.go.com/nfl/news/story?id=5214509&campaign=rss&source=ESPNHeadlines)

At least the professional leagues have an honest reason for trying to gain antitrust protection: namely, to increase their own profits.  The NCAA, ostensibly, has no such motive, and, in its absence, strives instead to expand its own power and influence.  This is, IMO, a scarier inclination, as it 1) is less likely to serve an actual need and 2) clothes itself in the guise of service, rather than self-aggrandizement.

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Oct
26th
Mon
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Scientists (especially Ecologists) Behaving Badly…

At the end of college, I became a member of an organization called Sigma Xi, “The Scientific Research Society”.  Since that moment also pretty much marked the end of my career in (natural) science, my “membership” is perhaps a bit misleading.  Nevertheless, I get one very cool perk: 5 days a week, I receive an email digest of summaries of top science stories across a broad range of fields.  It’s a good way for a layman to keep up with major stuff in the world of science, and they’re interesting enough that I click through to 1-2 detailed articles (out of a total of 6-10 in the digest) each day.

This morning, the following headline topped one of the summaries: Does Economics Violate the Laws of Physics? A must-read article for me - since those were my grad and undergrad fields, respectively - and a nicely provocative title, too.

But wait: don’t click on the link.  If you already did, I apologize.  It was awful - perhaps the worst thing I’ve ever read in Scientific American.  (SciAm, I expect better - a lot better.)

The basic thesis: there’s a “small but growing group of academics”, which the article groups under the name “biophysical economics”, suggesting that the “neoclassical mantra of constant economic growth is ignoring the world’s diminishing supply of energy at humanity’s peril, failing to take account of the principle of net energy return on investment”.

Um… what?

Caveats out of the way first: I’m not an economist any longer - I’ve been in industry for about a decade; and in grad school, I was a microeconomist.  That said: I’ve never heard of a “neoclassical mantra of constant economic growth”.  The “world’s diminishing energy supply” needs some support.  And what’s this “principle of net energy return on investment”, and what does it have to do with economics?

In plain English, the idea seems to be that 1) prosperity (of an animal, human, society, etc.) depends on its ability to harvest energy; 2) traditional energy sources are requiring more energy to unlock; and 3) therefore, civilization is (imminently) doomed.

There’s some truth to statement 1, but it’s a limited, incomplete lens and, as a general economic statement, highly inadequate.  Harvesting energy is one component of a prosperous society - but ability to use that energy (and many other things) to create goods and services valued by people is the point of direct relevance.  So, for example, if we can figure out out to use less energy to create the same good or service - or use less energy to create something else that’s a viable substitute - our energy capacity becomes less constraining.

Statement 2 is empirical, and I won’t argue it, though it’s far from obvious that it’s an inevitable trend.

The conclusion is just crazy.  Two obvious alternatives that don’t require “the… world economy grinding to a halt… possibly within 10 years” include 1) developing alternative sources of energy and 2) continuing to tap existing sources at lower efficiency but larger scale - both things that, in fact, seem to be happening as we speak.

I’ll list several other amusing/absurd statements from the article:

  • "Last week, about 50 scholars in economics, ecology, engineering and other fields met at the State University of New York’s College of Environmental Science and Forestry…”.  Wait a minute - that doesn’t sound like a natural location for an economics conference!  In fact, the people quoted in the article are described as a “professor of systems ecology”, “a chemist”, and “chairman of Utah State University’s Department of Environment and Society”.  Note the absence of economists. The article does note that “many biophysical economic thinkers are trained in ecology and evolutionary biology… not all proponents of the new energy-centric academic study have been formally trained in economics”.  This is clear.
  • "Real economics is the study of how people transform nature to meet their needs" - a quote from one of the ecologists.  Again: … what?  Apparently things like markets and services aren’t part of real economics.  A later quote reads, "Why should economics be a social science, because it’s about stuff?"  No, economics is not just about "stuff".
  • "Neoclassical economics is inconsistent with the laws of thermodynamics."  Same ecologist.  Now I’m suspicious of his knowledge of thermodynamics, since he’s already demonstrated his ignorance of economics.
  • "Soddy (an early 20th-century chemist) also criticized traditional monetary policy theories for seemingly ignoring the fact that "real wealth" is derived from using energy to transform physical objects, and that these physical objects are inescapably subject to the laws of entropy".  Again, economics isn’t all about "stuff"/physical objects.  Transforming physical inputs into physical goods is one kind of activity that can create economic value.  Here’s what creates more economic value: selling that good to someone who places a value on that good higher than the cost it takes to produce it.  Second, even ignoring non-stuff-based economic value creation, the fact that a physical good deteriorates over time doesn’t necessarily have any impact on its value.  If I buy and read a book, the fact that the book will rot over the next several decades doesn’t decrease the value I received from it.  The food I eat is subject to a significant increase in entropy immediately - but that doesn’t decrease its value in the slightest; on the contrary, that’s part of its inherent value to me.
  • There’s a big chunk of the article devoted to peak oil, which seems to be a key piece of the nascent canon of biophysical economics.  I have separate opinions about peak oil (namely, that it’s either tautological or highly unlikely, depending on how you define it), but their central tenet is that the energy ROI of oil has decreased over time.  The quote: “If you go from using a 20-to-1 energy return fuel down to a 3-to-1 fuel, economic collapse is guaranteed.”  First, there’s no reason why monotonic decrease in energy return is inevitable.  Second, a 3-1 ratio - heck, even a 1.01-1 ratio! - would be absolutely fine as long as you can apply that ratio to a large enough energy source.  Say, for instance, that we can put giant solar cells into space that collect bajillions of petawatts of power - but they lose 99% of the energy they collect before they can transmit it back to Earth.  That would be… absolutely fine.
  • "No amount of technology can fix the problem".  Wow - that’s a big statement.  Couple it with this - "energy use is doubling every 37 years or so, while energy productivity takes about 56 years to double" - and it’s finally clear what this argument is: it’s modern-day Malthusianism, without Malthus’ excuse of living before the last two centuries of technological progress.

My conclusion: ecologists, stay out of economics - or at least don’t pretend to be an authority in the field by describing yourself as an economist, biophysical or otherwise - until you understand the subject a little (no, a lot) better.  Scientific American: don’t give crap like this credence.  (For a former economist, reading this was probably emotionally similar to what a biologist would feel if she read an article supporting creationism vs. evolution in SciAm.)  For everyone else: human ingenuity, and the economic incentives that promote it, have created innumerable miracles throughout history, and with increasing pace in recent centuries, decades, and years.  Be careful before selling it short.

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Aug
7th
Fri
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Happiness

My good friend Shri posted recently on the subject of success and happiness. I responded to her post by quibbling about her opening statement:

"What does every person on earth want? To be happy. But how people define happiness and therefore how they define success…"

I found it interesting that she assumes a connection between the two, and said that I think of the concepts as mainly orthogonal.  (Happiness is an emotion; success is an assessment.  Of course, succeeding at something might lead to happiness.  Happiness might be correlated to some kinds of success, too.  … but at a fundamental level, they’re very different things.)

Let me take her assumption as an axiom, though, and contrast it with an ongoing conversation I’ve been having lately with another close friend, who has been increasingly engaged in a sitting meditation practice in the last year and is developing a Buddhist outlook on happiness and living.

Shri’s statement seems to imply the following idea: much of happiness comes from various kinds of success, which we can vaguely define as achieving a goal or desired outcome.  I’d interpret her post as asking the question “what kinds of goals are effective in promoting happiness”?  In particular, are goals promoted by other people - or “society” - suspect?  Is adopting (what one perceives as) “society’s expectations for success” helpful or harmful to one’s happiness?

My friend’s mindset starts from a completely different point: that goals, or any notion of success, are inherently anti-happiness.  Human suffering, in this view, basically comes from mentally castigating ourselves for failing to meet an aspiration (where “aspiration” can range from “I want to achieve career success X” to “I want to be a nice person”).  Goals - or, perhaps, expectations of oneself - are mainly a setup for self-flagellation.  Even putting actual failure aside, anxiety over failure - or tension between desired outcome and the state of I’m-not-there-yet - is good fodder for tortuing oneself endlessly.

My perspective differs from both.  As before, happiness is an emotion.  There’s no inherent need to tie it to, or separate it from, success/goals/aspirations.  Lots of things can lead to happiness - e.g., certain sensory experiences, the right kind of intellectual stimulation, social interactions, or achievements.  For me, the key is simply figuring out what makes you happy, and steering your life toward those things.

That can be hard, of course.  Life presents tradeoffs, constraints, and risks, so it’s usually not just matter of driving straight toward your happiness target.  Even more, figuring out what really makes you happy requires being pretty good at introspection, and a lot of people are pretty bad at that.  It’s an ongoing process, of course; your sources of joy are a moving target, as you encounter new people, try new activities, experience new sensations, and, of course, as you change.  (A really interesting academic article I read a few weeks ago in an economics journal suggested that, on average, the relative values of “excitement” vs. “serenity” with regard to promoting happiness changes predictably and steadily as we age.)

So the simple answer is “steer toward what makes you happy”, which isn’t quite as tautological as it sounds.  The more complicated addition is “… and figure out how to take calculated ‘happiness risks’ (which every sports fan does), how to gauge short-term vs. long-term tradeoffs, and how to manage unhappiness when it’s not plausibly avoidable”.

This last point is pretty important.  There are many times when the cost of avoiding something unpleasant is worse than the thing itself (dealing with a stressful project at work may not be as bad as losing your job, for instance).  I think this is where the “don’t make yourself suffer” technique comes in particularly handy - namely, in enabling you to divert your thoughts away from the source of stress.

Where I’d end up, therefore, is something around taking Shri’s and my Buddhist friend’s perspectives and thinking of them as techniques, rather than foundations.  If you know something that makes you happy, steer toward it - that’s a goal, right?  (Depending on your tastes, it may be lots of tiny goals or a few big ones.)  Not torturing yourself and mentally managing more unpleasant situations?  That seems to be pretty close to what one learns to do in sitting meditation.

Shri’s probably thinking of something a little more tangible and a little less philosophical, so let me make this a bit more concrete about myself.  First, a story:

When I worked for my first “real company” (after grad school and consulting), HR asked me to fill out a “career goals” form after a few months.  I told the head of HR that my goal was to survive until the weekend, which didn’t go over well - apparently I was supposed to have the goal of being a CEO someday, or something.  The thing is, I didn’t really have career goals; I was trying to figure out what kind of work I liked, and what I didn’t like, and how to manage my stress.

I still don’t think of myself as having goals; I have “things that are, or would be, fun”.  I’d like to be a Stanford basketball season-ticket holder someday, but I don’t think of it as a goal; I think of it as “that would be really fun to have the tickets and the time to go to all the games”.  I really like playing chess and poker, and I expect that I’ll be enjoying playing them for a long, long time; it would be fun to get a master rating in chess, but it’s not a goal (though I’ll certainly celebrate it if it happens), and I’d love to play in the WSOP Main Event again, but there’s no timetable and no regret if it doesn’t happen.  Fortunately, a lack of things that I enjoy doing is not one of my problems.  :)

My career perspective is pretty much the same.  There are various professional activities I enjoy doing, and I’d like to keep doing them: I like meeting with startups & VCs; I like thinking about interesting strategic questions; I like learning about new products and technologies.  There are other things that I’d enjoy learning about, and doing, that aren’t part of my current role.  I don’t have a goal of achieving a certain job or a certain title, and I never have.  (That’s not to say I haven’t sought promotions - I have, but not out of a goal-oriented mindset; I’ve done so because I thought I deserved the promotion and its accoutrements.)

So, Shri, how do I define success?  I don’t.  What I do is try to live my life in accordance with what I believe and what I like, which includes a healthy mix of hangin’ with my wife and with my friends and family; watching and playing various sports; playing chess and poker and other games; doing puzzlehunts; reading interesting articles and books; travel; interesting work that includes the things I mentioned above; having interesting discussions with intelligent people; learning about certain favorite topics, including physics, psychology, economics, and Greek; musical theater; and surely other things that I’m forgetting at the moment.  (… and I try to avoid things that will annoy me, bore me, or make me stressed or upset.)  I suppose that success, for me, is living a good balance of all of these joys.

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Jul
29th
Wed
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Tech timeline for the London Olympics

Only diehard Olympics nuts who want to read coverage about coverage (metacoverage?) of a Games that’s three years away will be interested… but since I’ve made a habit of posting stuff like this, here’s a timeline/project plan on the subject.

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Jul
14th
Tue
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A few thoughts on economics and rationality

References in popular media to “irrationality” in human behavior seem to have increased in frequency in the last several years - a noticeable start to the rise coinciding with Kahneman’s Nobel Prize in 2002, and a flurry of squawking generated by the financial turmoil of the past several months.  There seems to be some general tacit implication that the traditional (economic) perspective of human behavior as rational is simply misguided, and that we need new mindsets for analyzing (and approaches for reacting to/managing/sterring) said behavior.

I get that Homo economicus isn’t totally real.  I took classes from Amos Tversky (Kahneman’s collaborator, who surely would have shared his Nobel had he still been alive), and their work is elegant and, more to the point, empirically validated to some degree.  There are certainly adjustments to be made to “standard” economic theories about how people deal with risk and uncertainty and time preferences and so on.

In general, though, I tend to think people are more rational than they’re usually given credit for.  Note, among other things, that the bar for “rationality” is actually pretty low: it doesn’t mean intelligent, or wise, or prescient.  In fact, the “axioms of rationality” are pretty darned innocuous.  (See end of post if you actually care what they are.)

One semi-celebrated piece of evidence I’ve heard in the last year or so for “irrationality” is the notion that people’s experience/sense of happiness/etc. of something varies depending on the price associated with that something.  For instance, when people pay more money for a bottle of wine, the wine tastes better.

Despite the fact that I’m not sure whether I’d call this irrational in the first place - after all, placebos are medically real; why not accept them economically? - I was pleased to see a study a few weeks ago suggesting that the effect was, perhaps, not terribly widespread.  (Part of the criticism of the original study on wine was that the effect was seen in a somewhat-contrived laboratory setting, in a context - wine-tasting - where people may be particularly psychologically primed to associate cost with better taste.)

The experiment was rather elegant: the economists observed diners in a restaurant who were choosing which entree to select from a prix-fixe menu.  The a la carte prices of the entree selections were varied - for instance, on one menu, the fish, the steak, and the chicken would all cost $20, whereas on another menu, the fish would cost $25 whereas the steak and the chicken would still cost $20.

The economists found that varying the a la carte prices created no significant difference in the diners’ choices: people didn’t choose the fish simply because it was more expensive, instead (presumably) choosing according to their own tastes.

People surely do things that are stupid, or unwise, or shortsighted.  People may be unable to figure out the exact implications of their actions in complex situations, or they may act in conditions of uncertainty.  … but I tend to believe that they rarely act in a way that is purely and bizarrely irrational.

(Axioms of rationality, stated verbally and somewhat imprecisely:

  1. Given two choices, either you prefer one, prefer the other, or are indifferent.
  2. Preferences are transitive.  If you prefer A to B and you prefer B to C, you prefer A to C.  (Some people don’t think this is innocuous - I think it’s completely so.)
  3. Your preference between A and B isn’t affected by the possibility that some random event might preempt both choices.
  4. Nothing is infinitely desirable or infinitely horrible.

Don’t come up with an argument based on variety or complementarity in cases 2 or 3 - that’s not what they’re talking about.  These are one-shot, static, non-synergistic choices.)

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Jul
8th
Wed
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Olympics coverage (offseason) news…

As a huge Olympics nut, media headlines/blog posts/etc. on the topic in non-Olympic years sometimes catch my eye - here a few recent ones:

More coverage: USOC and Comcast partner to launch the U.S. Olympic Network

The IOC’s inevitable response: USOC’s TV Network Quickly Stirs Dispute

A call for common sense from a few weeks ago: Reuters Tells Olympics: Reform Media Rules For The Twitter Age

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Jul
6th
Mon
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Back (!?)

Okay, it’s been a long time since my last post (though not as long as Marc Andreessen, who just posted yesterday after being silent since last August; and, yes, that may be the only time Marc and I are compared publicly).

I just returned from sabbatical (a marvelous benefit given by eBay after you’ve been with the company for 5 years), during which Melissa and I took a month-long trip to Iceland, London, Wales, Ireland, and Scotland.  In my experience, long vacations - at least two weeks - are pretty effective in helping reestablish “healthy life habits”.  We’re eating better, keeping better hours, and staying more relaxed than we were for the last year or so.

In keeping with those trends, I’ve decided to try posting again - but, because I intend to do it in a relaxed and non-compulsive way, I offer no promises as to frequency or regularity.  :)

I’ve compiled a few economics topics over the last few weeks that I’ll probably want to touch on briefly in the next few posts.  Stay tuned…

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Sep
21st
Sun
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After a bit of a hiatus…

It’s been a few weeks since I’ve posted - I think I wore myself out with my Olympic blogging.  (… or, more likely, my Olympic watching.)  Things have been busy in the 4 weeks since, too.  Hopefully, I’ll get back to posting every few days.

I never did get around to writing my “favorite Beijing moments” post, and it may not end up happening, but an article by Bill Simmons demanded referencing.  (Bill Simmons is perhaps my favorite sports columnist, though I haven’t followed him as closely in the last couple of years as I used to.)  He wrote about the gold-medal game in men’s basketball between the US and Spain, which I mentioned as a final-day highlight on a previous post - but it was such an amazing game that it deserves a month-later lookback.

Bill calls it “one of the 10 most dramatic games” of his lifetime.  I’ll go further and say that it merits consideration as the highest-quality basketball game of all time:

  • Which teams in history were better than this year’s US team?  Probably the 1992 Dream Team, perhaps the 1996 Dream Team , and maybe the 1960 Olympic team.  I’m sure some people might argue for one of the great Celtics or Lakers teams, but I won’t.
  • None of those teams ever played a close game.  Well, with one exception - the 1996 Dream Team, in its first exhibition warmup before the Atlanta games, was down 17 at the half before edging the “USA Select” college all-star team 96-90 (Mike Montgomery was the coach, and Brevin Knight played point guard for USA Select).
  • Thus, you’ve got one of the best 5 teams in history, playing in the gold-medal game, and an excellent Spain team gives them all they can handle.

From a purely aesthetic perspective, too, the game was a joy to watch.  As Bill points out, the 118-107 score came in 40 minutes - the equivalent of a 142-128 NBA-length game - and it wasn’t because the defense was terrible; it was because the pace was fast and the offenses were skilled.  Again, to quote Bill: 65% FG, 55% 3FG, and 85% FT in the first half (combining both teams).

Bill also accurately characterized the performance of Ricky Rubio - amazing not because he dominated the game, but because he stepped in for the injured starter and played well enough that you forgot that he was a high-schooler was playing against the best players in the world. His physical talent is incredible, but just as impressive was his mental approach: he wasn’t scared and he didn’t do anything silly to prove himself - he simply ran the offense, played decent defense and generally filled his position on the court with a high degree of competence.  In the previous Spain-US game, he was a little flashier but more out-of-control; in the gold-medal game, he played calmly within Spain’s system like a seasoned veteran.  Biggest stat: only 2 turnovers in almost 30 minutes.  Incredible.

Bill nails the officiating, too: “…three incompetent FIBA refs speaking different languages … providing an I-hope-this-doesn’t-turn-out-like-the-last-three-seconds-of-the-‘72-Olympic-gold-medal-game edge.”  The thing is, the referees in the gold medal game were better than those earlier in the tournament.  I suppose that I should appreciate the NBA refs in comparison.  (Pac-10 refs are still terrible, though.)

One quibble with Bill: he slams Coach K for “starting a washed-up Jason Kidd”.  Look, Kidd’s well past his prime as a basketball player, and he didn’t add a lot to the USA team on paper.  … but that’s clearly not why Kidd was there: Jason’s role on this team was to be a leader, as much off the court as on, more from an emotional and maturity perspective than from a basketball one.  Kidd may not have contributed a lot on offense or defense, but I think he was important part of helping the team keep its collective head on straight, and that more than justifies his place on the team and his role as a starter.  In fact, it’s a bit reminiscent of Mike Eruzione on the 1980 Olympic hockey team (minus the dramatic final goal against the Soviets, of course).

I’ll end with another quote from Bill: “We wanted a selfless team that cared. We wanted a team to come through when it mattered. We wanted one unforgettable game. We got all of it—well, those of us paying attention, anyway.”

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Aug
26th
Tue
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Olympics: sympathy

Since I’m an Olympics nut, I can’t just let them go when the Closing Ceremony ends - I need a few days afterward to ramp down.  So, I’ll be posting a few closing thoughts over the next few days - about the Games in general, favorite moments, NBC’s coverage, etc.

Today’s is the “downer” post.   Proverbially, defeat’s agony must accompany victory’s thrill, and every Games produces sadness.  Now, let’s be clear: I’m not talking about senseless tragedy, like the murder of Todd Bachman, or frightening accident, like the weightlifter who dislocated his elbow.  I’m talking about athletes who experience incredible disappointment - athletes like Mike Powell, who had, by any measure, an amazing career: three Olympics, two silver medals, a 34-meet win streak in 1993 and 1994, and, of course, the long jump world record, which he set in 1991 and still stands today.

Yet, he never won the Olympic long jump (even as the favorite in 1992), and, after failing to medal in 1996, he told an interviewer, “I trained my entire life for one thing, and I came up short”.

Dan Jansen was almost in this category - before winning his final Olympic race in Lillehammer, after 10 years of slips and near-misses.

So, my heartbreak list from Beijing 2008:

1. Tyson Gay.  Expected to compete for three gold medals and possibly a 100m world record when the Olympic Trials started in June, he didn’t make a single Olympic final.  When interviewed, he looked… lost in a fog, as if he just couldn’t understand what was happening to him.  He didn’t make excuses (though his injury from the Trials was clearly affecting him) and he tried to represent himself well, but it just didn’t happen for him - at all.  That’s disappointment of the highest magnitude.

2. Alicia Sacramone, the US gymnast who, after inopportune falls during the team competition, executed a pair of pretty good vaults during the event finals but came a close fourth to a Chinese gymnast when the judges failed to deduct for a crucial, clear mistake early in the vault (in addition to deducting for the fact that she landed on all fours).  Alicia, you deserved a bronze medal.

3.  Lolo Jones.  Like Tyson, she refused to make excuses and comported herself admirably, but she was crushed by her stumble on the second-to-last hurdle when she was clearly leading the 100m hurdles final.  Her disappointment is of a different flavor than Tyson’s - she came oh-so-close, whereas he plummeted far short of expectations - but surely similar in depth.

Honorable mention:

Christine Thorburn, US women’s cycling - 5th in the time trial, missing bronze by less than 3.5 seconds, after placing 4th in Athens.  (As mentioned before, she’s a doctor for my wife Melissa.)

The US women’s softball team, shockingly upset by Japan in the final game before softball takes at least a 8-year Olympic hiatus.

Lu Xiang, the defending gold medalist in the 110m hurdles.  Only honorable mention because my gut says that he had known for a while that he was too injured to compete, and only showed up at the starting line to honor his country, before scratching on the first false start.

The US men’s soccer team, 1-0 and leading the Netherlands 2-1 on their way to the medal round, before giving up a crazy equalizing goal with about 30 seconds left and eventually not making it out of pool play.

Aleixis Vastine, a French boxer who, in a close semifinal match, had 4 highly questionable points given to his opponent on warnings from the referee - the biggest screw-job in a boxing competition utterly rife with screw-jobs of the highest order.

Matt Emmons, a US shooter who for the second Olympics in a row was clearly leading with one shot left in the 50m rifle, 3 position event.  In 2004 he fired his last shot at the wrong target; in Beijing, his rifle accidentally went off as he was lowering it into position.  He’d be a lock for the top 3 if it weren’t for the fact that he did win a silver in Beijing and a gold in Athens in other events, and he met his wife (a Czech shooter, who won a gold and a silver in Beijing) in the Athens Olympics.

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