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An Ode to Ichiro

[ 8 ] September 1, 2010 |

OK, it’s not an ode  in a technical sense, but ode is a word I’ve often thought of when considering Frank Deford.

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Do We Need Glenn Beck To Help Us Understand Political Self-Dealing?

[ 8 ] September 1, 2010 |

If I understand Matt’s defense of Reihan Salam’s “Glenn Beck is the new Malcolm X” piece correctly, he seems to be arguing that we should ignore the offensively silly framing device and instead focus on the highly banal points about America’s changing demographics.    Fair enough, I guess, but I still don’t see what’s new about demagogues appealing to reactionary white people or how this specifically illuminates Beck.   In particular, the opposition of older people to the new health care bill says very little about changing demographics or Beck, but is just straightforward “I’ve got mine *^$# you” politics that is as old as the hills and would exist even if the country’s other racial and cultural demographics weren’t changing.   If conservative older Americans were in favor of abandoning their own taxpayer-funded healthcare I might buy “nostalgia politics” as the primary motivating force, but of course they don’t.   The tendency to act in one’s political self-interest is universal, not particular, and affluent old white people being conservative isn’t exactly a new phenomenon crying out for explanations.

Deep Thought

[ 2 ] September 1, 2010 |

Nothing enriches the modern computing experience liking having control of your browser seized for several minutes because a company whose software you rarely if ever use wants you to install an update of trivial importance.   PointCast may be dead, but its spirit lives on!

The Guilt-By-The-Most-Tenuous-Association Gambit

[ 30 ] September 1, 2010 |

In comments, embarking on the futile quest to develop an ex post facto rationale for outrage over the Burlington Coat Factory community center that sounds non-discriminatory, the Sanity Inspector argues:

If it helps, think of this analogy: In order to build bridges with Vietnam, signaling a new era of friendship and bridge-building with them, let’s put up a statue of General Westmoreland next to their war memorial in Hanoi.

It does, if not in the way that Mr. Inspector intends.   I assume most of you who are seeing this for the first time can sport the glaring fallacy here. General Westmoreland was actually personally responsible in some respect for the death of many Vietnemese citizens. Feisal Abdul Rauf had absolutely nothing to do with the 9/11 terrorist attacks. So the analogy is transparently specious, and this goes for all of the variants, up to and including Newt Gingrich’s “Nazi sign next to the Holcaust museum” crap.

Given that they’re based on guilt-by-association, in other words, these analogies merely reaffirm that opposition to Park51 is driven pretty much exclusively by religious discrimination and bigotry. As I’ve said before, I’ll take such arguments seriously as soon as the people making them start arguing that no Christian churches be permitted within some arbitrary radius of any medical facility, lest women be reminded of Scott Roeder’s religiously motivated terrorism.

Now Get Those Damned Vets Off My Lawn

[ 8 ] August 31, 2010 |

Shorter Alan Simpson:  “I can’t believe these veterans.   First, they risk their lives, often to fight idiotic wars cooked up by reactionary policymakers such as myself (you know, people who actually deserve taxpayer-funded health care and cushy pensions), then they expect us to pay them health benefits.   I wish these damned freeloaders would stop sucking my tits.”

This is why I “support” majoritarian rule.

[ 33 ] August 31, 2010 |

As a means of registering my discontent with conservative claims that the fact that 70 percent of Americans abhor the idea of the “Ground Zero Mosque” means it should be abandoned, I hereby present other things that 70 percent of “certain” Americans once hated.  For example, consider the responses to this question from a Gallup Poll reported in the Los Angeles Times on 14 July 1963.*

I snipped the June numbers because at that point only 62 percent of respondents had decided that the Civil Rights Movement was moving “Too fast.”  I also have other, less inflammatory, examples.  To wit:


That would be from the Los Angeles Times four days earlier.**  I did say I was only referencing “certain” Americans, however, and because I’m an honest chap, I’ll tell you that Gallup calls them “Southern Whites.”  You heard that correctly: the same conservatives who illegitimately claim the moral high ground Martin Luther King, Jr. struggled to capture have the same high regard for Muslims as Southern segregationists once did for blacks.  To put it finely:

Those who oppose the building of Park51 are justifying their opposition on the fact that the same percentage of Americans are currently as bigoted as Southern whites demonstrated themselves to be when asked how they would “feel about a law which would give all persons—Negro as well as white—the right to be served in public places such as hotels, restaurants, theaters and similar establishments.”  All of which is only to say that insisting that this “is” should be enshrined in history as an “ought” makes a person as big of a bastard as a Southern white who couldn’t brook the thought of sharing his or her establishments with an African-American.

It’s a rebellious stance to be sure, but in the end they’ll be standing in a field screaming “Wolverines!” while the world passes them by.

*Gallup, George. “Views Revised on Rights Push.” Los Angeles Times (14 June 1963): M2.

**Gallup, George. “Slim Majority Backs Accommodations Bill.” Los Angeles Times (10 July 1963): C18.

How Managers Matter, Part 1

[ 18 ] August 31, 2010 |

I’ve been meaning to contest David’s contention that sabermetrics proves that managers don’t matter. I don’t actually think that sabermetrics has proven this, and I also don’t think it’s plausible. As it happens, I’ve just started to read Chris Jaffe’s Evaluating Baseball Managers, which (to the extent that what I’ve read so far is representative) is the most interesting work of sabermetrics I’ve seen in many years. I’ll leave my discussion of the book primarily to a more appropriate weekend slot, but since it’s come up recently I’d thought I’d make a couple initial points.

First of all, I just don’t think that a careful look at how teams develop and perform can be squared with the conclusion that managers don’t really have any impact. To take on obvious example, if you look at Earl Weaver’s teams, you’ll see some clear characteristics: a usually four-man rotation that is unusually effective, healthy, and that absorbs a huge number of innings; extensive use of of the bench, with attempts to skim cream by using matchups; 3)limited use of one-run strategies; and 4)related to the first two, using some one-way defensive players like Belanger, Blair and Dempsey without costing the team ability to score enough runs to win. You’re telling me that if someone like Don Zimmer or John McNamara — a completely conventional manager who doesn’t use the bench and has no particular ability to get good performance out of pitchers — was managing the Orioles in those years, they would have had the same success? Is Earl Weaver in the Hall of Fame just because he managed for a long time “without blowing his brains out?” I think that’s ridiculous. Or to borrow one of Bill James’ favorite example, there’s no way that a good manager — one that wouldn’t have overworked his top two starters, knew that Adock was a vastly better player than Frank Torre, etc. — wouldn’t have won the pennant with the ’59 Braves. It’s just one variable, and obviously no manager can win without talent and a mediocre manager can win in the right circumstances — but it matters.

So I don’t buy the idea that Lou Piniella is just an innocent bystander in 1998, or that management played no role in the fact that the Mariners finished more than 10 games behind a team without an obvious talent edge going into the season. One of the biggest differences between the teams is that Oates got a lot of decent-to-excellent performances out of relievers who (Wetteland aside) had very modest credentials, while the Mariners’ bullpen was a complete catastrophe.  As I said, this isn’t the only or even the most important factor; the inability of the Mariners’ ownership and management to sign Johnson to a new contract and some bad trades were more important factors.   But there was no reason that team should have finished more than 10 games out; the Rangers weren’t exactly solid top-to-bottom either.   I hadn’t read his profile before using the example, but Jaffe shows that in Oates’ case, this was no fluke — in both Baltimore and Texas Oates consistently had overachieving bullpens. Piniella, on the other hand, just as one would expect consistently overachieved on offense but had an erratic (and, on balance, negative) effect on his pitching staffs. There are managers who have the ability to repeatedly construct a functional bullpen out of modest materials (Bobby Cox, Gene Mauch and — more about him later — Cito Gaston would be other good examples); Piniella just isn’t one of them. And in some contexts that can make a big difference. This doesn’t mean that Piniella wasn’t a good manager, but it is one reason that his overall performance isn’t Cooperstown worthy.

Arguments From Centuries-Old Authority

[ 12 ] August 31, 2010 |

Most of the reading I’ve done about the period suggests that claims about the framers hating paper money are accurate. To expand on Matt’s point a bit, the real lesson here is that this kind of “originalist” argument is just stupid. Obviously, we’ve learned a great deal since 1787, and moreover American political economy is so radically different there’s no reason to privilege what the framers believed about the relative merits of paper and metal money at all. Unless the framers specifically and unambiguously prohibited something in the Constitution — which is not the case here, unless you think the money supply is wholly unrelated to interstate and international commerce — there’s no reason to put any more weight on the framers’ opinions about paper money than we put on their opinions about slavery and white supremacy. That is, their arguments are worth considering only to the extent that the arguments remain relevant and persuasive, which in this case they definitely aren’t.

The Tao of Boot Camp

[ 26 ] August 31, 2010 |

The Times led today with an expose of the US Army’s rehabilitated physical training system:

That familiar standby, the situp, is gone, or almost gone. Exercises that look like pilates or yoga routines are in. And the traditional bane of the new private, the long run, has been downgraded.

This is the Army’s new physical-training program, which has been rolled out this year at its five basic training posts that handle 145,000 recruits a year. Nearly a decade in the making, its official goal is to reduce injuries and better prepare soldiers for the rigors of combat in rough terrain like Afghanistan.

The rationale for the changes are the general levels of ill-fitness the Army sees in large percentages of new recruits. Youth raised on sugary sodas and saturated fat lack the bone density and endurance to safely train the old way. As I discussed last November when the DOD released its report “Too Fat to Fight,” this public health problem is also a national security problem and I concur with our generals that it ought to be solved by stronger federal intervention into – and funding for – healthy food in public schools.

What’s missed in the Times story, though, is the potential mental health benefits of physical training that includes yoga. Studies have shown that yoga reduces propensity for depression in general and specifically in the context of high-stress occupations. Given the increasing understanding of the emotional and behavioral health impacts of military service, incorporating a mindfulness-based exercise culture into boot camp may not only prevent muscle strain and bone injuries while in training, but also contribute to more balanced, well-disciplined, resilient recruits.

It’s not a pancea, since there are many factors that account for PTSD and the climbing rate of military suicides. But the benefits of yoga are already understood by those retroactively treating PTSD in veterans. In some cases, the military is going even farther.

There may also be broader effects within the military in socializing recruits to take seriously the mindfulness training that has until now been associated with women and hippies. Previously service-personnel who incorporated yoga training into their daily routine dealt with a trade-off between the positive health benefits and the stigma they experienced because of the view of yoga is “not masculine.” This has been changing modestly in recent years. Mainstreaming of yoga (or even yoga-like exercises) by the military as an institution will go even farther change that perception – and perhaps change military culture as well.

It would be interesting to see some studies exploring these potential effects as the military rolls out these changes.

“So Long, Operation Iraqi Freedom.”

[ 4 ] August 31, 2010 |

Tonight Obama will explain to the country what exactly it means that Operation Iraqi Freedom is “over.” War correspondent Richard Engel tried to do the same thing on the Colbert Report last week.

Via Tom Ricks, Col. Andrew Berdy explains why this is bunk.

Does anyone not think that the likelihood of continued combat operations is a reality? When casualties are taken by these “non-combat forces” will those casualties be characterized as “non-combat” as well? Does the public not understand that the secondary mission of our remaining forces is to be prepared to conduct combat operations either to defend themselves or to support Iraqi forces if requested? And when these train and assist “non-combat” units have to engage in, dare I say, combat operations, what will the Administration say then?

Ricks followed this up last week with a useful roundup re. what is going on in Iraq as the US “draws down.”

Here’s one answer. Ms. Liz Sly (great six-letter byline) of the Los Angeles Times reported that neighboring countries were sliding in to fill the vacuum being created by the partial U.S. withdrawal. “It is very dangerous,” Iraqi Foreign Minister Hoshyar Zebari told her. “It’s a zero-sum game for these countries. Everyone wants to knock down the other one’s policy.”

Iraqi-Americans are concerned. Also, let’s not forget what happens next for our veterans.

You’ll learn nothing at all from thems et al.

[ 52 ] August 30, 2010 |

Do you know what happens when you allow “scholars” like Jonah Goldberg to invent historical movements and monsters?  You end up with uncited statements of obvious provenance that mask sheer lunacy behind the rhetorical scrim of conventional wisdom:

[T]he principles that inspired the American founding were always viewed as universal principles, which applied to all of mankind. Curiously, it wasn’t until the introduction of Historicist and Darwinian philosophy (which gave birth to Progressivism) that some Americans began to argue otherwise.

I wrote a dissertation about popular adaptations of evolutionary theory during the Progressive Era and have long styled myself an historicist* and I have absolutely no idea what that second sentence could possibly mean.

Does its author, Joseph Philips, mean to argue that Darwinism—which was neither the only nor even the dominant evolutionary paradigm of the Progressive Era—gave birth to “Progressivism”?

Does he mean to argue that the New History movement—inaugurated in 1912 by James Harvey Robinson’s The New History and abetted by works like Charles Beards’ An Economic Interpretation of the Constitution of the United States (1913)—gave birth to “Progressivism” fifteen years after it’d been born?

Or does he mean nothing at all—but learned from the likes of Goldberg et al.—that the best way to prevent people from criticizing the seriousness of an assertion is to pretend its “knowledge” so common as to be above reproach?

Care to place bets as to where I fall on this one?  I didn’t think so.

*Before someone objects: writing “an historicist” is too correct.

Sterling and Draper

[ 1 ] August 30, 2010 |

Just ahead of their time?