Monthly Archives: December 2008

Embracing Subjectivity

So it’s basketball season, and one of my favorite haunts is David Berri’s Wages of Wins Journal. For those of you unfamiliar with his website, Berri’s calling card is a statistics-intensive approach to sports analysis. Because this stuff is so esoteric, the Wages of Wins crew frequently arrives at pretty counter-intuitive conclusions. For example, Berri has famously argued that Tracy McGrady is a more productive player than Kobe Bryant.

Although a lot of this statistical analysis goes right over my head, I enjoy a clever, counter-intuitive take as much as the next blogger, so I drop by the site every few weeks. And if I ever manage an NBA franchise, I’d probably hire a guy like Berri to crunch numbers for my team (incidentally, the Celtics have already beaten me to the punch).

But I’m not sure that Berri’s stuff is as enjoyable as the intuitive, old-fashioned approach of less numerate sports pundits. I mean, I’m not a proposition gambler. I don’t own an NBA franchise. I don’t even care that much about accurate predictions. I watch and read about sports because I appreciate the beauty of skilled physical activity and because arguing over complicated, inconsequential stuff is a lot of fun (witness my affection for amateur political punditry). In other words, I enjoy the essential subjectivity of fandom. Sports commentary, for all its manifest flaws, is a lot of fun precisely because basketball, football and soccer have yet to be distilled down to an exact science. And although this is probably responsible for a lot of dumb sports-related verbiage – “intangibles” and “intensity” have quickly become two of my least favorite words of all time – a well-crafted argument that doesn’t depend on a mound of statistical evidence is always more entertaining than summarizing a bunch of box scores. I’d also note that reading the chicken entrails can occasionally yield some truly sublime sports predictions (this column immediately comes to mind).

So enjoy breaking down Ron Artest’s statistical contributions to the Houston Rockets. I’ll content myself with wildly inaccurate predictions about his next on-court explosion.

On a related note, Michael Brendan Dougherty’s new sports blog looks pretty cool, though I’m baffled by his reverence for Bill Simmons.


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Southern Comfort

If you’re looking for some interesting (and occasionally infuriating) liberal commentary on the South’s political and cultural influence, I recommend this diary from OpenLeft, this article from Salon, and this entry from the Democratic Strategist.

Here’s a provocative excerpt from the Salon article:

Today the division is no longer between slave and free states, or agrarian and industrial states, but between two models of industrial society — the Northern model, based on adequate public service funding and taxation and unionization, and the Southern model, based on low-tax, low-service government and low-wage, non-unionized, easily exploited labor. If the industrial North and the industrial South compete for global capital investment, then the industrial South is likely to prevail, because Northern advantages in the form of a skilled workforce and superior public services are unlikely to overcome the South’s advantages of low wages and low taxes and state and local tax subsidies. The result, sooner or later, will be the Southernization of the North and Midwest, as states in the historic middle-class core of the U.S. are forced by economic pressure to emulate the arrangements of Alabama and Mississippi and Texas.

The alternative to the Southernization of the U.S. is the Americanization of the South — a process that was not completed by Reconstruction and the New Deal and the Civil Rights era, which can be thought of as the Second Reconstruction. The non-Southern states, through their representatives in Congress and the executive branch, and with the help of enlightened Southerners, need to use the power of the federal government to put a stop to the Southern conservative race-to-the-bottom strategy once and for all.


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Filed under Culture, Liberalism (Left), The South


Because my knowledge of the Palestinian conflict is pretty shallow, I’ll refrain from commenting on the effectiveness of Israel’s recent military action. However, I think a renewed outbreak of violence raises broader questions about proportionality and the legitimacy of military retaliation that deserve to be addressed.

At Conventional Folly, I went a few rounds with Sonny Bunch over whether policymakers should consider “proportionality” when formulating a military response to terrorist attacks. You could read Bunch’s comments, but Ramesh Ponnuru has the Cliffs Notes version in the Washington Post:

Critics of Israeli military action say that it is “excessive” or “disproportionate” to Hamas’s provocation. But that’s the wrong way to think about proportionality in war. The traditional just-war standard is that military action should be “proportionate” in that it causes fewer harms than it seeks to prevent. That’s a sane and sound moral standard. It does not mean that military means must inflict only as much pain as the enemy has inflicted.

The newfangled proportionality standard has several perverse implications, not the least of which being that military victories would almost always be considered morally illegitimate.

In this context, enemy combatants – whether they’re members of an opposing military or an irregular guerrilla force – are fair game because they’re willing participants in armed conflict. Ideally, we’d like to minimize military deaths on both sides, but voluntarily signing up for armed service is entirely different from getting caught in the crossfire.

So if the Israeli military suddenly assassinated every single Hamas operative, I doubt anyone would call their response “disproportionate.” But of course that’s not what happened, so we’re left weighing the collateral damage incurred by Israeli strikes against the prospect of continued rocket attacks. So far, the death toll in Gaza appears to be winning.

Some commentators seem to think that Israel is morally obligated to retaliate whenever its citizens’ lives are threatened. I understand the political logic of this approach – would any politician have the guts to stand up and tell his constituents to “sit back and take it?” – but I don’t understand why retribution should outweigh the prospect of Palestinian civilian casualties. Unless we’ve decided that the safety of Israeli citizens should always take precedence over the condition of their Palestinian counterparts,  I think the moral imperative to spare as much innocent life as possible should be the determining factor when considering retaliatory military action. If an Israeli military response leads to more civilian casualties than the alternatives, I don’t think such action can be considered morally appropriate.

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Filed under Foreign Affairs, Terrorism

My first inclination

. . . is to let the man practice dentistry in peace. The bloody instruments do give one pause, however.

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Filed under Uncategorized, Worthy Links

Out of Bounds

This is very cool.

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Filed under Sports


Alan Jacobs:

People who value acts like the reading of novels worry whether other forms of reading — especially quicker ones, like the quarterback scanning the defense, or a video-game player scanning the dangers confronting his or her character — are displacing the kinds of reading that require longer, slower kinds of attention. And this is a legitimate worry. But I wonder whether the physiological commonalities I have pointed to could, if we are thoughtful and imaginative, provide a way to get people who are already skilled at fast-twitch reading to develop their skills at slow-twitch reading. It might be that these activities are not as alien to each other, as opposed to each other, as we commonly think. That’s something I’m trying to work out in my own mind, anyway.

I sure hope he’s right, because the Internet has really degraded my ability to read patiently. As I write this, I’m skimming through about thirty other tabs. I don’t want to believe that Google (or WordPress) is making me stupid, but my attention span (and attention to detail) is now irrevocably keyed to a fast-paced diet of blogs, g-chat messages, and Facebook status updates. Over Christmas break, I had to consciously force myself to ignore the Internet. Any reading that involves delayed gratification – a longish article, a how-to manual, even a favorite book – has become exponentially more difficult.

There are undeniable benefits to quickly absorbing and processing information and commentary. I’ve learned more on a wider variety of subjects while blogging (and interacting with other bloggers) than at any time since college. But I miss effortlessly immersing myself in a good book (or even a guilty pleasure). And if I was forced to choose between “fast-twitch” and “slow-twitch” reading, I think I’d fall squarely within the traditionalists’ camp.

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Murdering the Classics

This is JL Wall’s wheelhouse, but these papers from a Western Heritage course at SUNY Oswego are too funny not to link to. Here’s my favorite:

On Homer’s Odyssey, more or less: “Most of Athens took place in the Labronze age after time emerged again, giving rise to Plato. But first Homer had to write down his Odissy in the alphabet, which The Golden Ass would also use in telling the story of Lucious.” [In this essay, the term “the Labronze age” occurs a half-dozen times. Editor’s Note: Perhaps the young scholar has confused 4th-century Athens with the “LeBron Age” (circa A.D. 2003-), named in honor of the Cleveland Cavaliers’ all-star forward]

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Filed under Education, Humor