Polarity

I just finished watching a Nova episode on PBS about how the earth’s magnetic field can reverse direction. Compasses that pointed north before suddenly point south, instead. These flips begin when pockets of reverse polarity appear in the opposite hemisphere, and weaken the magnetic field until it flips upside down. These flips usually happen every 250,000 years, but we haven’t had one in over 700,000 years. We’re quite overdue for a reversal, and there is mounting scientific evidence that such a flip may have begun.

And to add to that evidence, today there’s this: Indians 22, Yankees 0.

The momentum between the opposite poles of the Red Sox and Yankees looks like it’s reversing. The Yankees, who were cruising for most of the season, look terribly vulnerable now, while Boston looks like a steamroller. Just 3 1/2 games separates the two. Is a flip imminent?

Magnetic North has ruled the compass for an exceptionally long time. Unless you believe in some kind of supernatural intervention, some kind of blessing or curse, Magnetic South must eventually have its day. The flip will come. But whether it comes this year, or next, or another 700,000 years from now, only time will tell.

Amassing Hackers

Yesterday, I was holding my daughter’s hand as we crossed a street. A car, presumably turning left, stopped to let us cross. After we reached the sidewalk, the car did a u-turn. Instead of a 90-degree left turn, it ended up making a 270-degree right turn.

This puzzled me. Why not just turn right to begin with? Perhaps his steering wheel was faulty, and it could only make left turns?

I thought of this as I read Charles Miller’s review of Paul Graham’s essay on great hackers. Miller hilariously sums up Graham’s argument about brilliant programmers like this:

1. Hire great hackers.
2.

Confessions of an Amateur of Swing

Here is a translation into baseball, of a French essay, via Two Blowhards.

What I particularly appreciate in the batting act of the swing is this impression: to gradually become the instructor of the body of the pitcher.
At the beginning, it feels a little flat, difficult. It is not obvious how to activate “the right spot” on the first blow of the ball. I feel awkward, as if I did not have anything to grasp there. And then quickly, the small encouragements of my opponent (his choked sighs, his hands run through his hair) comfort me. I feel self-assured, willing to take walks.
I take my time, I vary the pleasures: my swing travels like adventures through the strike zone, from top to bottom, inside and out, pulling to left, fisting to right, small blows of the ball in each neighborhood, the bat kissing the ball, all that in the area of the strike zone, of course. One should not harm the intimacy of the young pitcher, settling immediately inside his strike zone. Extending would be impolite and that could be interpreted as disrespect. The charm would be broken.
I also like to vary my approach, without losing sight of the goal: the long swings and slow contacts, smooth and generous, suddenly replaced by feverish rotations, several loose tremors, then return to the lazy strokes. After some time (generally, up to 10 minutes of this small play), my opponent starts to lose the control of his body. Initially, light tremors begin on the level of the thighs, like small revolts. Often, it is at this time that it approaches one of its fingers, then reaching the wrists, then settles on the elbow. If this does not happen to him, I take the hand of authority to him (but carefully) by directing the ball where needed to create the desired effect. This gesture makes him understand that he can be cherished if he wishes it, that there is nothing to be afraid of from now on. When we find the release point, the fusion between us takes place.
At certain times, I escape, I escape from reality from the act. I find myself elsewhere, thinking of something else. Or rather, I do not think of myself any more as a private individual. The ball works like a small adventurous animal while my spirit is spread out and is spread in the blue light of a kind of batting nirvana over which a most serene calm reigns. But the least shiver, the least small cry, the least herky-jerking of my opponent awakens me suddenly. I find my spirits, I rediscover this pitcher’s body which is offered to me.

Thus the at-bat can last a long moment. I think well of having extended the at-bat for nearly one hour, without leaving the batter’s box, fouling off pitches like a discrete rain beating in rhythm on the panes of a window. Generally, one conceives the swing as preliminary. It is perhaps for that reason that I prefer to continue it until the end, by argumentativeness. Until the end, i.e. until my opponent cannot retain any more and finally yields the home run, although he did not expect it yet. This is what I wanted to say by presenting the image of the instructor. Little by little, the music even becomes more present, pressing. It invades all space, reality and imaginary, until it is not possible any more to be concealed with its power.
During all this time, I take guard not to neglect the other parts of his body. I cherish his overall size, his belly, the way his hands settle near his hips, how he lets them slip along the thighs. My eyes continue on, down the legs to the feet. Then I seize in my mind his rotator cuff with a delicate firmness, I fantasize of passing his labrum between my fingers, and I feel it begin to yield almost instantaneously. All these physical contacts allow me to return to the task, concretely, that it is a pitcher who is there in front of me, with the heat and the silk of his skin. A pitcher!
After a more or less long time, when the storm is ready to burst (not before), I start to focus in his strike zone. Previously, it has sometimes happened to me that I’ve swung surreptitiously before the pitch, to intimately match his hip rotation with my hip rotation, but without ever going further. And then I slip the bat onto the ball, easily now, since all the batting from this point is inflated with desire. Short swings, timid, preparatory entries. At this stage, my forearms are taken with a regular tremor, my fingers are activated without more any reserve on my bat. I know whereof I gained. Soon, I will enjoy.
What excites me more, it is when the at-bat cannot retained any more, when I place my hand on my bat, that my body by itself dares to exert a significant pressure in order to make sure that I will keep going. Its size twists, its chest is drawn up, its eyelids drop with a marvellous grace. And then it comes, I can feel it, I even taste it, I accompany the pitcher’s release point as if I were a guide, an instructor in the cockpit of a plane. Lastly, after contact, my body rests, and I feel his whole body softening like butter between my hands, all of which comes on suddenly, as a great smile settles with the hollow of my face. It is like a relief.

I left it all to trust and am very happy. It may seem silly, but I have the impression of being a winner. I succeeded in becoming a master over the mysterious throwing machinery. I bored the intentions of my opponent, his delivery becoming entirely my own, until this small piece of me which is the ball seemed to become directed by my will. We have created–we have made–love.

Translating Eephus

Mark Liberman at Language Log has an interesting take on the story about the Pirahã, who can’t count above three.

Suppose that there’s an isolated group — call them the Nerdahã — who just aren’t interested in throwing things…There’s no religious or moral prohibition against throwing, they just think it’s boring and a bit stupid, when they bother to think about it at all, which is rarely.

Because of their complete lack of interest in throwing, the Nerdahã language is completely lacking in throwing vocabulary. They have no words for pitch, fling, chuck, toss, sidearm, slider, curveball, bouncepass, and so on.

Liberman needn’t have invented a fictional group. He could have simply called them “Swedes”.

Which begs the question: how in the heck would you translate “Saving the Pitcher” into a non-throwing language like Nerdahã or Swedish?

I Hate Sweden, Too

But not for the same reason as God, apparently.

Why would anyone say God hates Sweden? It’s because those who would like to send homosexuals to jail feel threatened by Sweden having recently sentenced a preacher, who wants to send homosexuals to jail, to jail. Stefan Geens has a pretty good take on the controversy.

It’s a perfect example of my love-hate relationship with Sweden. (And with God for that matter.) I love the fact that Sweden will protect homosexual rights. I hate the fact that they’re quite willing to sacrifice free speech to do so. It’s such a typical Swedish thing to do, both for good and for bad. They were neutral in two World Wars; they’re adept at covering all their bases and pleasing everyone: they’re democratic, yet also socialist; they protect human rights, and yet they sometimes behave with an elitist, almost totalitarian, disregard for the individual and the general public.

It often takes a foreigner to point out the bad side of Sweden. Swedes won’t do it themselves. Geens, a Belgian blogger living in Stockholm, has been working on his own list of things he dislikes about Stockholm. The irrational discalceation doesn’t bother me, but the rest are spot on.

My family is Swedish, but I choose not to be. That’s because I have my own Top 10 list of things I hate about Sweden:

  1. Winter.
    It’s long. It’s cold. But worst of all, it’s dark, for months on end.
  2. No baseball.
    Well, there’s some, but not much.
  3. Agreeing to agree.
    Swedes feel uncomfortable with disagreements. They won’t argue; they quickly find something everyone can agree on instead, and focus on that. This consensus-seeking culture got drilled into my head at an early age, and I hate it. When I argue now, I’m not only up against my opponent, I’m up against my own upbringing.
  4. Slaves to fashion.
    A society that hates to disagree ends up with a lot of sheep. Swedes will follow any trend. Clogs are in! Everyone wears clogs. Clogs are out! Nobody wears clogs anymore.
  5. Reasonableness.
    Swedes are so goddamned reasonable all the time. There’s always some logical explanation for X, based on some reasonable-sounding BS written by some government committee filled with otherwise unemployable Ph.Ds. Nobody will ever stand up and say, “X is a dumbass idea. I hate it.” And so you end up with things like:
  6. High-rise apartments.
    Sweden suffered a plague of high-rise apartment construction in the overexuberance of the 1960s socialism. Good Lord, those things are ugly.
  7. Waiting Lists.
    Want an apartment? Get on a waiting list. Need surgery? Get on a waiting list. It might take a year or two, but heck, at least the system sucks equally for everybody.
  8. Refusal to face facts.
    My brother says that there are only two kinds of people on earth who think they live in paradise: North Koreans and Swedes. Sweden is flawed, like any country, but you wouldn’t know it by Swedes. Things are fine, because:
  9. They trust their government.
    Of course, the government will study every issue and make the best choice. Really, they will.
  10. Doritolessness.
    But you can buy tortillas now, thanks to the EU, so there’s hope.

But Sweden has its good side, too. Here are my top 10 likes:

  1. Royalty.
    Somehow, the Swedish Committees for Logical Forms Of Government haven’t been able to figure out how to ruin this bit of human fun called Royal Gossip. As Will demonstrated, you can always find an excuse to show off the princesses.
  2. Fresh Swedish potatoes.
    No, I’m not talking about Princess Madeleine. I mean potatoes. Americans want white potatoes, for some reason, which zaps their taste. Swedish potatoes are yellowish, and have much more flavor.
  3. The Olympics
    They aren’t edited on TV. Competition is competition and highlights are highlights and never the twain shall meet.
  4. Twains, er, I mean trains.
    Trains, trolleys, and subways go everywhere, often, and on time.
  5. Midnight sun.
    The summer days are long, you need less sleep, and you get more done in a day.
  6. Allemansrätten.
    This is a uniquely Swedish constitutional human right. It’s essentially the right of free access to nature. There is no such thing as trespassing on undeveloped land, even if someone owns it. If you want to go camping in the woods, you can, as long as you stay 100 meters away from any houses. If you want to swim in a lake, ice skate on a frozen stream, or ski across a meadow, go ahead.

    What I admire, though, goes beyond just having this right. It’s the whole Swedish attitude towards nature. It’s not just some phony left-wing ideal, like so many other elements of Swedish culture. The Swedish love of nature is genuine; it’s truly in their souls.

  7. Island hopping.
    The coastlines have thousands of small islands. Get a small boat, and sail from island to island during the long summer days.
  8. Red houses.
    The traditional Swedish house is painted a dark red with white trim. The look never grows old.
  9. Geneology.
    The Swedish church has kept detailed records of every birth, death, and marriage for centuries. I love the fact that I can trace my lineage back to Håkan Niklasson, who was a rector at the Frändefors Parish until he died in 1565.
  10. IKEA and Volvos.
    It’s not so much that I like their products. It’s that I admire the subversive idea that someday, all across the world, all cars will be as safe as Volvos, and all homes will be furnished cheaply and stylishly like IKEA, and the very places and spaces where people spend all their days and nights will be infused not with the hated American values of globalization, but with pure and utter Swedishness. All without firing a shot. The Brain would be envious. It’s so evil, it’s good.

OK, enough talk about the Swedish invasion. You’re not supposed to notice it. Please return to your regularly scheduled programming.

Sports Neuromarketing

Will complained the other day that sabermetrics hasn’t made many big leaps lately. As in any system that evolves, great advances become less and less likely over time; changes become smaller, iterative and incremental, unless some disruptive event comes along to change everything.

Sabermetrics asks questions about why teams win. Like Will, I’m interested in those big advances, but following the incremental improvements doesn’t compel me much. These days, the interesting question to me isn’t why teams win. That’s so 2002! I want to know why people watch. What is it about baseball that compels so many people to invest so much time in this game?

There’s a fascinating new article in Newsweek about behavioral economics. Some of the findings are particularly applicable to sports. For example, there may be a neuroscientific explanation for the appeal of superstars:

Male monkeys have a distinct dominance hierarchy, and Platt has found they will give up a considerable quantity of fruit juice for the chance just to look at a picture of a higher-ranking individual. This is consistent with field observations, Platt says, which have found that social primates spend a lot of time just keeping track of the highest-ranking troop member. It isn’t known exactly why monkeys do this, but the finding might help explain the behavior of human beings who pay $1,000 just to sit in a hotel ballroom with the president.

Or why people will spend $100 for an autograph of a famous player.

Doesn’t it seem strange that people become so loyal to their favorite teams? Why isn’t everyone a Yankees fan, since they’re always so good, or a Marlins fan, since they’re the champs? Don’t they have the best products? There may be a scientific explanation for that, too:

Emory University psychologist Clint Kilts scanned subjects as they looked at a variety of products, from cars to soft drinks, and found that this sense of brand identification elicited a strong response in the medial prefrontal cortex. This is the brain area associated with what psychologists call the “sense of self,” one’s self-constructed identity.

Our loyalty comes not from liking a particular team for any particular logical reason. It comes from having the team embedded into the structure of the brain where our self-image resides. Our own identities become intertwined with the team in our brains.

It’s the difference between saying “I like the A’s”, and saying “I am an A’s fan.” The casual fan likes. The hard-core fan identifies, in the medial prefrontal cortex.

Often, you begin to root for your local team, because you identify yourself as a resident of that region. The A’s represent the East Bay, and I am an East Bay resident. I am a winner, and the A’s are winners, and I am he as you are he as you are me and we are all together.

Interrupting that self-identity is usually interpreted as betrayal. Clearly, the strike of 1994 was interpreted as betrayal by many, and ticket sales suffered for many years afterwards. As the Newsweek article points out, our brains are especially attuned to detect acts of betrayal, but scientists don’t quite understand how it works yet.

Why did Dodger fans feel betrayed by the trade of Paul LoDuca? Why did A’s fans feel so betrayed by Jason Giambi leaving for the Yankees, but not by Miguel Tejada leaving for the Orioles? The answers lie somewhere in our brains.

The Moneyball philosophy works on the assumption that winning is the only thing that matters with ticket sales. But like the “rational market” theory, it’s probably a useful rule of thumb, but it’s not entirely accurate.

As the science of neuromarketing progresses, we can have a better understanding of not only what wins games, but what sells tickets, and what keeps people watching. The game will be better for it.

Encounter

One of the 20th centuries’ greatest poets, Czeslaw Milosz, has died.

One of my regrets in life is that I didn’t move heaven and earth to take a class from Milosz when I was a student at UC Berkeley. But perhaps, at that age, I was not yet ready to face great men; I could only watch from the side.

I’d see Milosz around campus from time to time; those bushy eyebrows were a quite distinguishing feature. Sometimes, I’d be with a fellow English major, and one of us would say quietly, “Look, there goes Czeslaw Milosz”, and we’d stare in awe, as if we were baseball fans and Ted Williams had just walked by.

Reflecting on those fleeting moments, I feel rather like this Milosz poem:

We were riding through frozen fields in a wagon at dawn.
A red wing rose in the darkness.

And suddenly a hare ran across the road.
One of us pointed to it with his hand.

That was long ago. Today neither of them is alive.
Not the hare, nor the man who made the gesture.

O my love, where are they, where are they going
The flash of a hand, streak of movement, rustle of pebbles.
I ask not out of sorrow, but in wonder.

Intimacy

I’ve been doing some computer consulting work recently. Yesterday, I called a major computer company to track down some software my client had ordered, but which hadn’t arrived.

I hadn’t had much contact with this computer company in a couple of years. I was surprised how shoddy their customer service had become. This company, which I won’t name but it rhymes with the last syllable of “Phone Tree Hell”, used to have good customer service.

Their automated systems were no help for my problem; I needed to talk to a human being. But I couldn’t find the right one. They transferred me three times (once to some off-shore customer-support know-nothing script-reader), put me on hold about a dozen times, once so long I hung up and called up and started over again, after which they ended up accidentally (I presume) hanging up on me twice, all without answering my simple question. It took another 45 minutes on the phone this morning to arrange to get the missing software shipped.

Now I should be angry about this, but this seems all-too-common; often, the larger a company gets, the worse its customer service becomes. I wondered why. Maybe, at some point in the success cycle, good customer service becomes too expensive, and you’re better off letting the exceptions drown.

Then I thought about blogs. The more popular a blog gets, the less likely it is to accept comments. Comments are like customer service, in a way. At a certain traffic level, too many spammers, trolls and name-callers make the costs start to outweigh the benefits.

People complain today that baseball players aren’t as accessible as they used to be. It’s the same problem.

I used to be disgusted, but now I try to be amused. There’s a natural ecosystem at work here. As organizations grow, the limits of human nature, such as the “Rule of 150“, dictate that these organizations must become more mechanistic and impersonal. That creates opportunites in the ecosystem for smaller organizations to fill in, to provide the kind of personal touch the larger organizations cannot.

I’ve been to hundreds of major league games, and I’ve never had a conversation with a player during a game. But I went to one minor league game, sat in the first row by a bullpen, and Jamey Wright was kind enough to spend some time chatting with my kids.

There was less than a dozen people sitting near that bullpen. If there had been more than 150, Wright would likely have ignored us. We would have been just one of many indistinguishable voices chirping in a large, crowded phone tree.

Long Live the King

I don’t care for boxing much, but there’s one aspect that I like: if you beat the world champion, then you’re the world champion!

I wondered, what would happened if we had that rule in baseball? You’d have several new champions every week.

So I followed the schedule so far this year, beginning with Florida’s first game. I am proud to announce that the current MLB champs are the Milwaukee Brewers. Long live the King!

Tonight, the Atlanta Braves will try to retake the throne Milwaukee took from them last night.
UPDATE: Braves win! They’re the champs again.

Here are the teams that have been champions so far this year, and the number of days they’ve spent as champs:

Florida – 25
Atlanta – 21
Cincinnati – 17
Pittsburgh – 17
Montreal – 14
Houston – 10
Oakland – 8
St. Louis – 7
Milwaukee – 4
NY Mets – 3
Philadelphia – 2
Arizona – 1

The A’s held on to the championship for a week, sweeping Cincinnati and Pittsburgh, but then got swept in St. Louis. The champs never played another AL team. With interleague play now over, the title will remain in the NL for the rest of the regular season.

Pittsburgh went on a nine-game winning streak when they became champions on June 26. The Expos held the title at the All-Star break.

Read on for the day-by-day champions list…

Continue reading

Passing the Torch

Today, as the Olympic torch approaches Athens for Friday’s Opening Ceremonies, baseball had its own kind of torch pass. Edgar Martinez announced his retirement, and Jairo Garcia made his major-league debut.

Martinez was on the other end back in September of 1987, debuting while Phil Niekro and Reggie Jackson took their final bows.

Here’s hoping that those first two names join those second two names in the Hall of Fame.

Edgar probably won’t make it; his career got started too late. But he struck HOF-quality fear in the fans of his opposing teams, that’s for sure. My emotional side says he’s a Hall-of-Famer, but my logical side says he’s not.

Dammit, Jim, I’m a human, not a Vulcan! Edgar gets my vote.

Garcia probably won’t make it, either. But holy smokes, 92 strikeouts in 55 IP this year? I can dream, can’t I?

On Mark Kotsay

More baseball talk: there’s a nice interview with John Gizzi over on Athletics Nation, where they discuss, among other things, Mark Kotsay.

I have been envying the A’s AL West rivals in recent years, watching Mike Cameron and Darin Erstad turn so many A’s doubles into outs. It’s great to see Kotsay do similar work out there for my team. Not since the last time Dwayne Murphy’s hat fell off have the A’s had center field patrolled so well.

Kotsay got on my good side right away, as I was in Phoenix for his first spring training at-bat. Kotsay drew a leadoff 13-pitch walk off Bartolo Colon, and the A’s went on to win 26-3. Colon reached his pitch limit before the first inning was over.

Mark Kotsay’s approach at the plate is easy to explain; it makes him an ideal batter to show little leaguers how to approach an at-bat. If it’s in the strike zone, he nearly always swings. He’s not waiting for the perfect pitch early in the count, like a lot of batters do. But if the ball is out of the strike zone, he nearly always takes. Swing at strikes, don’t swing at balls. Sounds simple, but I’ve never seen anyone who approaches that ideal so often.

It’s fun style to watch. And the results have been pretty good, too.

sloppy joes

OK, there have been complaints about too few baseball posts lately. I don’t have much to say right now, so here’s a random diamond note poem, whose generator, I have upon good authority, has been updated with the latest roster changes.

 

those around
the Indians expect them to make serious runs at
       Jose Guillen

as well as
       Chipper Jones

but
if they can get
       Jake Westbrook

Cliff Bartosh

(whose velocity is still down around
71

but hopes his lucky
granola bar
can turn his fortunes around)

and Bob Howry

back on track

Eric Wedge’s biggest problem will be what to do with
       Alex Escobar

who is upset about the rumors

and has lately been
seen staying up late at night

sitting in the doorways of
phone booths

eating
sloppy joes until someone shows up

and tells him to go home

 

Sniff. It’s such a sad story…

Playing Strat-O-Matic With Death

I was watching ESPN on Friday night, trying to absorb all the trades that were filtering through. A commercial came on, and I started channel surfing. I came across a PBS station that was showing Ingmar Bergman’s The Seventh Seal. It was the scene where Max Von Sydow challenges Death, who had been following Von Sydow around, to a game of chess.

They speak an old, formal style of Swedish in Bergman’s films. It has a somewhat Shakespearean sound to me, but it feels out of place. It throws me; I don’t expect modern people to use old language. Imagine asking Rickey Henderson why he doesn’t retire, and having him reply like this:

        Let me be your servant:
Though I look old, yet I am strong and lusty;
For in my youth I never did apply
Hot and rebellious liquors in my blood,
Nor did not with unbashful forehead woo
The means of weakness and debility;
Therefore my age is as a lusty winter,
Frosty, but kindly: let me go with you;
I’ll do the service of a younger man
In all your business and necessities.

You’d think, yeah, right. Get real, Rickey.

Symbolism and formal language, which permeate The Seventh Seal, are out of style these days. It occurred to me that perhaps this is why some people really hate Field of Dreams. They see the blatant metaphors, and hear James Earl Jones give his flowery “But baseball has marked the time” speech, and cringe: “Yeah, right. Get real, James.”

I don’t mind symbolism, personally. I thought about the Dodgers-Marlins trade and tried to relate it to the chess scene. The players are just pawns. Their skills erode, and eventually Old Age comes to take them. The smart GMs are constantly trying to beat Old Age. A smart move, like DePodesta’s trade on Friday, which makes you better and younger at the same time, helps you cheat Old Age.

Saturday, I attended my 20-year high school reunion. We had it on a yacht, and we cruised around San Francisco Bay. At one point, we went into McCovey Cove during the Giants-Cardinals game, which was cool. I couldn’t see any of the game, but I could see the pitch count scoreboard. Kirk Rueter had thrown 70 pitches.

The Pitch Count is following Kirk Rueter. The Declining K/9 Rate is following Kirk Rueter. Old Age is following Kirk Rueter.

Old Age is following me and my classmates, too. We’re all starting to turn gray now, get wrinkles, have health problems. In fact, four of my 250 high-school classmates have already passed away. At our next reunion, a few more of us will probably be gone, at the 40-year reunion even more. We’re all just tokens in some crazy statistical contest, players in a mad game of Strat-O-Matic with Death. We keep playing, but eventually, we all roll that unlucky combination of the dice, and the final out is recorded.

Then we shake hands, walk off into that magic cornfield, and laugh.

Hacking Mass

My Hacking Mass team is currently in 14th place out of 1,312, but that’s about as high as I’m going to go, I’m afraid. The Pirates traded for two third basemen, and released Chris Stynes. Drat.

Well, at least the Giants didn’t find a replacement for Neifi Perez.