Sunday, August 3, 2014

Open and Shut

The other day, I was listening to sports radio, which I used to do quite a bit.  It's been a while now, though.  This time, they were chatting about how the Los Angeles Dodgers and Anaheim Angels*, the local baseball teams, did very little at the trade deadline.  (One of the trade deadlines, rather.  There are a few of them, apparently.)

One of the speakers thought the Dodgers should have done something at least.  He based his assertion on the notion that there is such a thing as a championship window, and that many teams, including the Dodgers, don't pay enough attention to that, but instead meander from season to season, doing their best to maintain the best team they can within the strictures of their finances.  He felt that the Dodgers should instead opportunistically go "all in" for a season or two, to maximize their chances of winning a title within that window, and pay the cost of mediocrity (or worse) down the road, rather than maintain respectability on a continual basis at the cost of never winning a title.

Actually, I rather think he overplayed the extent to which teams are unaware of their championship windows, the way that he was describing them.  I tend to believe the Dodgers are perfectly aware that there is a finite window for them, since that is true for everyone.  (Even the Yankees.)  Nonetheless, let's take a look at the championship window, and maybe there's something interesting to be divined from it.

Normally, when people think of a championship window, they tend to think of it as having a certain length—of time, that is, usually measured in years.  The Miami Heat have had a window of about five years, during which they went to the NBA Finals four times and won two championships.  It appears to be closing, given the departure of LeBron James, but it hasn't shut entirely, I think most people would say.

The fact that people do think of a championship window as having gradations of openness suggests that there's a second dimension to the championship window: its height, which we might conceive of as representing a team's probability of winning a championship during any given year.  For instance, if the Dodgers have, let's say, a 15 percent chance of winning the World Series any time in the next three years, we might say that the window is three years long—or wide, perhaps it's better to say—and 15 percent tall.

The sports talk host's opinion might then be construed as being that the Dodgers should have made some kind of deal that might shorten the window to two years, but increase its height to 22 percent, or 25 percent.  Would that be worth it?  Well, let's think about that a bit.  If you start off with a 15 percent chance of winning a title in each of three consecutive years, that means that at the end of the window, you'll have won 0.45 titles on average.

If, instead, you have a two-year, 25-percent window, you'll win an average of 0.50 titles.  On that basis, we might consider that kind of deal to be worth making (if you can make it).  On the other hand, if you have a two-year, 22-percent window, you'll win an average of 0.44 titles, which would seem to make that deal just barely not worth making.

The average title count isn't all that matters, however.  Extra importance is attached to the first title; there's a much bigger jump perceived from zero titles to one title than there is from one title to two titles (or, conceivably, to any larger number of titles).  We might evaluate championship windows based on the probability of winning at least one title during that window.

A three-year, 15-percent window wins at least one title about 38.6 percent of the time, a two-year, 25-percent window wins one about 44.8 percent of the time, and a two-year, 22-percent window wins one about 39.2 percent of the time, which would (according to this standard) make that deal just barely worth making.

Of course, a window need not be uniformly high.  Maybe the Dodgers could make a deal that would put their title probability up to 30 percent in 2014, but have it drop to 10 percent in 2015, and just 5 percent in 2016.  That would yield an average title count of 0.45—same as the initial situation—but now the probability of winning at least one title would be 40.2 percent.

At this point, it occurred to me that there's one aspect of championship windows that people don't talk about a lot, and when they do, it's not really couched in terms of the window.  The fact is that multiple teams can have championship windows at the same time, and when they do, they tend to squeeze against each other.  Imagine a top-heavy league in which two teams each have a three-year, 40-percent window, and the remaining 20 percent of a title is parceled out to all the rest of the teams.  Those two teams would each win, on average, 1.20 titles in the next three years, and each would have a whopping 78.4 percent chance of winning at least one title during that time.

Now, suppose that one of those two teams can make a deal that, in isolation, would front-load their window, raising it to 65 percent this year, but dropping it to 40 percent the following year, and only 15 percent the year after that.  The average title count would remain at 1.20, but the probability of winning at least one title goes to 82.2 percent.  Seems like a marginally better deal, right?

But what if the other team could make the same deal?  Worse yet, what if the other team could make the same caliber of deal, but an entirely different one, so that both deals could be made at the same time?  They can't both win a title this year with a probability of 65 percent; the best they can do is win one with 50 percent.  And in fact, it would very likely be less than that—let's say, 45 percent.  Perhaps, as a result of both front-runners making that deal, they would win the following year at 40 percent each, and the year after that at 20 percent each.

That yields an average title count of "only" 1.05, and a probability of winning at least one title of "just" 73.6 percent.  In other words, both teams are still good, but somehow worse off now than if neither of them had made a deal.  On the other hand, it's also the case that either team would be better off making the deal, whether or not the other team made their deal, which makes this situation a little Prisoner's Dilemma-ish.  (This reminds me that I've never written a post on the Prisoner's Dilemma, and I really should get to that at some point.)  It intrigues me that two of the also-ran teams could screw the front-runners up by conspiring to offer them both "good" deals.

In practice, of course, you probably couldn't force the two front-runners to pull the trigger on the deals at the same time.  One deal would almost certainly make the news before the other.  At that point, it's not clear what the other team would do.  The rational thing to do might be to search for some other deal that has the same general impact, but perhaps back-loading it so that the championship windows dovetail with each other, rather than squeezing each other out.  My intuition, though, suggests that the other team would probably try to engage in the arms race, so perhaps my Prisoner's Dilemma-ish scenario would still play out.

*Yes, I realize that they are technically the Los Angeles Angels of Anaheim.  You'll pardon me if I refuse to employ that ungainly circumlocution.

(Also, this post would probably benefit from some figures.  I'll try to add them at some point.)

Monday, June 2, 2014

Fine, I'll Take It

So, this happened.  And I have to wonder—are we supposed to be impressed by this fine?  Because I'm pretty sure Phil Jackson isn't.

I don't know if Phil was aware that this was a violation of league rules.  I kind of suspect that he was; it doesn't strike me as the sort of thing he'd do without even considering whether it broke the rules.  I don't say that just because I'm somehow impressed with his knowledge of league restrictions.  I say it because this tampering makes sense strategically.

Listen: The Clippers are going to be sold for somewhere in the neighborhood of $2 billion.  If you didn't hear that correctly, do not pass GO, just return to the beginning of this paragraph.  Two billion dollars.  The Clippers.  I really admire (I won't go so far as to say "love" or even "like") the current incarnation of this team.  They hustle, they want to win, and for once, they have the talent to do it.  They remind me of the Lakers in the late 1990s.  But even the Lakers of the 1990s had some history.  What do the Clippers have?

And yet a Microsoft CEO, whose previous claim to Internet fame was a clip in which he repeated the word "developers" approximately a zillion times, but who otherwise doesn't actually seem insane, felt the Clippers were worth $2 billion.  (Sorry if this grosses you out.)

Against that backdrop, consider what Phil Jackson has to gain by mentioning Derek Fisher's name in advance of the Thunder's ouster from the Western Conference Finals: Fisher now knows that he's wanted, on the short list for the Knicks job.  Is Fisher the best man for the job?  I don't know.  He has a reputation for clutch (built in part upon this shot), he's earned respect from much of the league outside of Salt Lake City fans, and he's done it with seemingly very little in the way of natural physical gifts.  He's not a preternatural baller the way his longtime backcourt mate Kobe Bryant is.  It's quite conceivable that he could turn out to be a successful NBA coach.  Given the Knicks' recent history, that bar is not set excessively high.  Jackson's words have made it a bit more likely that Fisher will lean toward New York than he would have otherwise.

So let's suppose that the Knicks are currently worth as much as the Clippers are, that their current state of basketball inferiority is compensated for by the fact that they are New Friggin' York.  The team finished with 37 wins this past season, a .451 clip.  How much do you think they'd be worth if they finished at .500 (41 wins)?  How much if they finished at .600 (49 wins)?  I think conservatively, the team would increase their net value by at least $10 million per additional win to start with, and each successive win would only increase that margin.  And Jackson's supposed to be worried about $25,000?

Admittedly, Jackson doesn't get all of that increase in value.  That's James Dolan's.  Still, Dolan has to pay Jackson, and he'd be a lot happier about paying Jackson if his team were suddenly worth $100 million more.  The more candidates Jackson has to choose from, the more likely it is that the team will make that leap.  That's the real value of the so-called tampering with Derek Fisher: It makes it more likely that Jackson will have him to choose from.  Nothing in his words binds him to choose Fisher at all.  There's very little downside, compared to that negligible $25,000 fine.

So what's it worth, exactly?  I'll take a look at that in a future post, but for now, I'm confident Phil Jackson knows what he's doing.

Friday, May 30, 2014

Stages of Prejudice

I don't want to become a downer, I really don't, but when the urge to write hits, I write, and here I am again with another post on prejudice.

I will admit that the immediate trigger for this post is the Elliot Rodger case, but although that's obviously at the forefront of our minds right now, let's not kid ourselves into thinking that a year-and-a-half from now, anyone not directly connected with the case will still be thinking hard about it.  There will always be new tragedies—that's part of being human—and focusing too closely on one of them leads to the fallacy that one makes progress in apprehending a forest by understanding each tree individually.

Still, let's start with that case.  It seems evident that there were some serious problems with Elliot Rodger, to say the least.  It also seems evident to me, however, that those problems mostly just exaggerated attitudes that are already floating around in society all the time: that for men, women are prizes to win, plot devices to negotiate; that because some men are awful, a man deserves a woman's love merely for not being awful; etc.

Now, it may seem ridiculous to say that people think this all the time.  I'm quite certain that if I were to ask a hundred people if they thought like that, and if all hundred were to answer the question sincerely (a big if, I concede), very few—maybe none—would admit to thinking like that.  Because when you put it that baldly, very few people—though not none—do think like that.

But those attitudes are there, all the same.  I don't think there is anyone, myself included certainly, who is completely free of these attitudes.  Such a person would probably have had to grow up completely isolated from everyone else.  Do you think there are numbers of such people around?  I don't.

Listen: Arthur Schopenhauer, whom I've quoted before, once said, famously,

"All truth passes through three stages. First, it is ridiculed. Second, it is violently opposed. Third, it is accepted as being self-evident."

That's probably painting with an overly broad brush, but there's a kernel of truth in it.  (I guess I don't know if it passed through three stages.)  At the risk of oversimplification, a similar process happens to prejudices on their way out, but in the reverse order.  First, it is accepted as being self-evident.  When racism was at its post–Civil War peak in the United States, in the late nineteenth and early twentieth century, it was received wisdom that African Americans were simply inferior to European Americans, and could appropriately be treated as such by the latter.  (Other groups were subjected to racism, too, but none so violently as African Americans.)  To be sure, the African Americans didn't tend to feel that way, but their opinion was roundly ignored, coming as it did from inferior African Americans.

Eventually, there was violent opposition to this attitude, coming to a boil in the middle part of the twentieth century.  There was always some violent opposition, even before the twentieth century, but it never managed to change societal attitudes.  We can speak all we like of peaceful opposition, but I'm not sure we get what advances were made in the 1950s and 1960s, and later, without violent opposition of some sort.  (I know that's not necessarily the kind of violence that Schopenhauer was talking about, but I find the parallel poetic, OK?)

Finally, it is ridiculed.  And I do think we have, to a certain extent, reached a point where racism, open racism, is ridiculed.  Even an assay at a kind of academically-treated racism (in The Bell Curve) was ridiculed, albeit in a meticulous, academic sort of way.

(Incidentally, you would think that we're fighting thousands of years of racism, but racism in the way that we think of it today—based principally on skin color—is a comparatively new phenomenon.  Several hundred years ago, Europeans considered Africans unusual-looking, but not inherently inferior.  It was only when they found they could manipulate them with marginally more advanced technology that they then had to justify the manipulation.  We don't even know for sure whether the Egyptians of the dynastic era were "Nubians."  As I understand it, we think they were, but we don't know, because people of the time didn't think it noteworthy enough to comment on consistently.  That's not to say that they weren't prejudiced, but their prejudices apparently had more to do with place of origin than with skin color.)

And do we have it there, are we done with it?  Have we put racism to bed?  Not by a long shot, for after all, it is still around to be ridiculed.  We do not have to go back into the history books, to find decades-old instances of racism to poke fun at.  There's more than enough to go around now.

Part of the problem, of course, is that racism, like most prejudices worthy of the name, is subconscious, automatic.  It's difficult to reason away, even if you realize it would be better to do so.  We are not so different from little children who, when scolded for drinking directly from the milk jug, don't actually stop drinking directly from the milk jug.  They just figure out how to do it without getting caught.

So we've learned, as a group, how to be prejudiced without getting caught.  We learn that if we denounce racism openly, we're less likely to get caught for being racist covertly.  We learn that if we apologize for our prior racism, we're less likely to get caught for our present racism.  We learn that if we have a non-racist cover story for a racist act, we're less likely to get caught.  We even learn—in one of the few examples of the random person on the street "getting" statistics—that if our racist decisions are parsimoniously made, we're less likely to get caught, because the sample size is too small.

There's nothing special about racism, in this regard (and this regard alone).  The kind of sexist prejudice that reigned in the Elliot Rodger case is at about the same stage.  Open sexism is (mostly) ridiculed, so it's been sublimated, suppressed in favor of covert sexism.  You know, the kind where we root for the loyal nerd friend crushing on a girl over the glib jock, because he's, well, loyal, and all guys know how irresistible it is when an otherwise plain girl is always there for us.  Well, don't we?

In some sense, there's been progress made, because it's now clear that We Won't Stand For That Anymore (In Public).  On the other hand, it might be a lot harder to stamp out the covert sexism, the hidden racism, especially if it's the 90 percent of the iceberg hanging out under water.  It might be insuperably difficult to root out every last bit of it.

In fact (and I recognize that this is a controversial question to even ask), is there much point in trying to root out every last bit?  Before you excoriate me, let me draw an analogy with science.  Science is a social endeavor in which the community at large attempts to address questions about nature in an objective manner.  It does this, not by attempting to eliminate bias in scientists (for it's recognized that this is plainly too hard), but by having procedures in place for recognizing biases and even potential biases, and compensating appropriately for them.  These procedures, when properly applied, are so successful that it is difficult for scientists to influence their results materially without getting caught—so difficult, in truth, that it must be done intentionally and consciously, if it be done at all.  It cannot be just the result of subconscious bias.

The measures that we take in society at large to deal with biases are not at that relatively advanced stage yet.  These so-called "social programs" are bluntly applied, and although they can and do help, that bluntness also tends to make them easy targets for their detractors.  To be fair, the biases they deal with are probably more intractable.  Science has the luxury of dealing with one almost infinitesimally small question at a time.  Society is, at least with our present understanding, much more tangled.  But the present practice of avoiding getting caught won't work in the long run, and I have a sneaking suspicion that when prejudices are finally dealt with successfully, if they ever are, it will be by having such measures in place that are considered culturally de rigeur, and not by eliminating them entirely.

Tuesday, February 4, 2014

One Language, Under Force

I watched the Super Bowl.  Well, "watched" might be putting it a bit strongly.  I watched the first part, a very short part, in which the Broncos seemed as though they might have had a decent chance to win.  After that, I watched mostly to see what other parts could fall off the Denver bandwagon.  Congratulations to Seattle; they thoroughly outclassed their opponents.

That left the halftime show and the commercials.  I have to say that I didn't even watch those very assiduously, though I find the idea that they aren't as good as they used to be to be about a step or two shy of yelling at the neighborhood kids to get off the lawn.  It's Cranky Old Geezer time!

But even through my haze of disappointment in the football game, I did manage to get a look at the Coca-Cola "America the Beautiful" commercial.

The one-minute spot consists of a sequence of short video vignettes of the broad span of Americana, against which is sung "America the Beautiful."  There's nothing at all contentious about that, as far as it goes, of course.  What seems to have gotten lots of people in a lather is the fact that, except for the first and last phrase, the song is sung in several different languages.  No doubt Coca-Cola wanted to evoke the idea that part of what makes America beautiful is the wide variety of people that make it up, and that's what the commercial does.  In fact, Coca-Cola went so far as to follow the commercial up with a tweet, just in case someone missed the point:

Apparently, that's not the message that many people got.  I imagine the reaction of Coca-Cola to the some of the retweets ranged from bemused concern to horrified astonishment.  (Or maybe they're more cynical than that; it's quite plausible.)  I don't have the patience to drag them all out, obviously, so I'll just link to a collection of some of them here.

As might be expected, there's also been a backlash against those reactions, lambasting them as racist or ignorant or condescending, or who knows what.  I won't attempt to characterize them one way or the other; as I like to say, people feel what they feel, and it's pointless to tell them they're "wrong" to feel that way.  But I think it is interesting to try to suss out just why they feel that way.  What is it about diversity, in what seems like such a harmless context, that spooks some people?  Is our sense of national pride so fragile that it relies upon the exclusive use of a language that was brought forth onto this continent for the first time not half a millennium ago?  I have no idea whether one of the languages used in the commercial was an Amerind tongue (maybe someone can tell me), but I wonder what the reaction to that would be.

The melting-pot metaphor used to be a point of pride for us; it's a central point of one of those Schoolhouse Rock shorts, for those of you who remember those.  I don't remember anyone lashing back at those a few decades ago.  Shall we say to those who object to singing "America the Beautiful" in anything other than English that they are simply being too sensitive?

In connection with that possibility, let me introduce another commercial, which aired last year (and was brought back to mind by a friend of mine):

Notice anything out of the ordinary?  I have to admit that the first time I watched this, I didn't.  Then, my friend pointed out, "Look at who's in the box."  My reaction to this was, "Oh, PoCs in a box," since the forward-thinking hotel guest (who incidentally spouts some meaningless marketing mumbo-jumbo, but that's neither here nor there) is a white male, and all the persons of color, along with a white male or two (for variety I suppose), are in the box.  Even the guy who thinks to venture out before scurrying back to the safety of the box is a white male.  (I must say that the look of relief on the woman next to him is hilarious.  She should get a Cleo for that.)

A "natural" reaction by some people, in response to such a comment, might well be "Oh, you're being too sensitive.  They had to put someone outside the box; it just so happens it was a white guy."  In isolation, that point might be arguable.  However, it happens too frequently for it to be just random chance.  The vast majority of business travellers I work with are white males, and it's not surprising that they (the primary target of the commercial, after all) would prefer to see someone like themselves as the hero of the story.

I see too frequently, however, the objection that people of color have an inferiority complex, that they play the race card too readily, that they are too comfortable in the victim role.  Does it really make sense that a group of people who are actually empowered would feel that way, that instead of doing what they're capable of, they would rather lie down and cry foul?  I'm not sure that there's been a significant group of people like that in the history of ever.  Regardless of whether that group is a victim of discrimination as they claim, or for some constitutional reason is less capable, or both, it's utterly implausible to me that they would rather blame someone else than have more power.  Blame may be a salve for what ails them, but equal power is the cure.  A small number of them might miss that, but not the whole group.

Could something similar be at work with the reaction to the Coca-Cola commercial?  Is it that people feel upset about the commercial because it represents a situation they have little or no immediate control over?  Undoubtedly that's part of it.  After all, the tweets are rife with threats to boycott Coke, but these threats would have essentially no impact on Coke's bottom line even were they credible.  As it is, I suspect the vast majority of those would-be boycotters will be back to drinking Coke before the month is out.  Inexpensive habits can be terribly hard to break.  And at any rate, Coca-Cola is here serving only as a proxy for what some evidently see as a distressing trend toward inclusiveness.

Isn't it provocative, though, that each side sees a given cultural portrayal as betraying an awful truth, and often speaks out vigorously against it—something that the other side views as oversensitive and tiresome?  And this may be the crux of the matter: that there is a kind of massive joint cognitive dissonance between the way that the various groups perceive the current cultural situation, and the way that the various groups think the situation should be.  This dissonance is made all the more contentious by the striking symmetry between the views.

There is one thing, however, that distinguishes the two cases, as exemplified by these commercials, and that is the distinction between equality and uniformity, something that has stuck with me ever since it was first explained to me in stark simplicity in Madeleine L'Engle's A Wrinkle in Time. is at the root of the desire for uniformity (for I see no other way to describe, as succinctly, the demand that people sing this song in English) that the Coca-Cola tweets share?  It seems to me that it aims for a feeling of security, that if we only trust those people who cleave to the majority culture, then all will be well in this world gone mad.  But if that's so, is it necessary to demand uniformity?  Can't we feel secure without insisting on the elimination of the traces of other cultures?  Why not cut the middle man of uniformity out of the picture entirely?

I fear, though, that this is not likely until people see that this kind of uniformity not only isn't the end goal, but is actually counter-productive as far as any real kind of security is concerned.  I like to say that religion is a laser of the people, by which I mean that it moves people to behave and operate in unison, almost as though they constituted a single being, which can do certain things that the individuals couldn't do, separately.  But that same uniformity has a cost, because if all the individuals uniformly have a weakness, that weakness is passed onto the group as a whole, and is not amortized, so to speak.  I'm reminded of the old Aesop's fable in which an old man, near the end of his life, demonstrates to his sons the value of unity by tying together a bundle of sticks.  That bundle, of course, could not be broken by vigorous effort, even as the individual sticks were easily snapped.  It's ironic to think, though, that one could quickly slice through the bundle if one were to cut lengthwise.

The amortization of weaknesses is what makes diverse groups so robust.  It's why a farm made up of a single strain of high-yield crops is not a good long-term strategy.  It's why a diversified investment portfolio is safer than one that relies on a single kind of asset.  And why shouldn't the same kind of reasoning apply just as well to people as to crops or funds?  Yes, uniformity is good in moderate doses, for it enables feats that could not be achieved otherwise, but in doses large enough to dominate an entire country, it's dangerous.  It's dangerous not only because it makes the country more vulnerable, but also because it is such an appealing dogma.

Who knows if there will come a time when ads like Coca-Cola's will not produce such a strong negative reaction.  But if it does, it will be because people understand, viscerally, the value of diversity, and do not see it for the demise of national security.