Wednesday, October 29, 2008

Foul Ball!

If Connie Mack never heard of it, I don't want to hear about it.

Lee Huang pointed me to an op-ed in the New York Times coauthored by unlikely colleagues Billy Beane, Newt Gingrich, and John Kerry. They advocate the creation of a federal institute for "evidence-based" medicine, as opposed to what they call the "experience-based" approach that most of our care is based on now. Basically, that means introducing a lot of hard statistical analysis into practice.

That may well be a fantastic idea,* but I reject the analogy with which they drive their argument: sabermetrics.**

As their story goes, sabermetrics is transforming baseball, propelling to success teams like the Oakland A's of earlier this decade and the Tampa Bay Rays of today. Furthermore, dinosaurs clinging to the old ways, like the Yankees, Mets, and Red Sox, are sitting at home.

I dispute every step of this narrative. Yes, the A's had a good run from 2000 to 2003, but they never even made it to the World Series. And where are they today? They've finished ten games under .500 the past two seasons.

And the Rays? It's true they're in the World Series with baseball's second lowest payroll. But they haven't done so predominantly by getting hidden gems for a steal off of the trade market. Rather, finishing in last place every year continually presented them with favorable positions in the draft. This standing definitely required deft choices in said drafts, which many other teams failed to do, but they certainly had a leg up by being awful year after year.

In short, if the A's' success earlier in the decade and the Rays' success this year is evidence in favor of sabermetrics, why aren't these teams' failures since and before evidence against it?

Now, how about the "dinosaurs" (my word, not theirs). The article implies that the Yankees, Red Sox, Mets, et. al have gotten where they are by following the "old ways." Quite the opposite. My understanding is that the strategy of building a team out of the most expensive free agents year after year is a relatively new one, pioneered by the Yankees in the 90's.

Again, it's true the hazards of such a strategy have been made manifest, in no team more clearly than the Mets. The result is a team full of players past their prime who all want to be stars - in short, a whole equal to less than the sum of its parts. But these hazards are by no means the result of following tradition and intuition.

If you want to look at a truly traditional approach to baseball, look no farther than Charlie Manuel and Pat Gillick, the Phillies' manager and general manager, respectfully. They have 135 years between them. Charlie's following of his gut frustrated Philly fans for years until they realized our team was winning. And Gillick has done the same miracle work here as he did in the early 90's with the (cursed) Toronto Blue Jays and later on with the Seattle Mariners.

And we're about to win the World Series.

So, I cry foul on Beane, Gingrich, and Kerry. They spun a story about baseball to make an analogy with healthcare seem pleasing, when in fact it is a false one. Not surprising, coming from politicians, but not true.

Now, the fact that the analogy is a false one may be irrelevant. But to the extent that it rings true, I would be very cautious about undervaluing a doctor's intuition.

*It probably says something about me that I was far more incensed about the baseball aspect of this article than the healthcare aspect. Sorry, Health and Societies friends.
**Sabermetrics refers to the statistical approach taken by the Oakland A's (under Beane) late in the 90's. They evaluate players using a lot of new-fangled statistics in addition to traditional indicators like batting average, ERA, and intuition.
*** Though unrelated to baseball, I find hard to swallow their statement that the United States has worse health quality than most industrialized nations. There's no question we need to do a lot better, but my (flawed) understanding is that if you're insured here (a big if, I know), you're a whole lot better off than in most other places.

Saturday, October 25, 2008

Two Wrongs May Not Make a Right, But Three Rights Make a Left!

Just going to get some wiper blades.
Map and directions courtesy Google Maps.

Distance as the crow flies: 1.1 miles
Distance if New Jersey employed normal left turns: 1.6 miles
Actual road distance: 3.0 miles

I still don't understand. It's not like they don't have room for a left turning lane. They just choose to have a grass median instead.

Oh, Jersey.

Wednesday, October 8, 2008

Charles Darrow Lied

My school sent me today to a seminar on classroom management in Atlantic City, New Jersey. The seminar was interesting and useful, but the most lasting impression was made upon me by
a lunchtime stroll down the boardwalk.

Atlantic City, if you didn't know, is the inspiration for the game Monopoly, hence my taking a walk on the boardwalk and passing things like St. James's Place. The atmosphere of the city exudes that same kind of promise - fortune and thus happiness are only a few rolls of the dice away.

The boardwalk promises its own romance. Start with a clear autumn day on the warm side of brisk. Add the splendor of the Atlantic Ocean and the associated salty air. Provide a walkway from which to take it all in, add in quaint shops selling inexpensive and nostalgic American food, and you've got a recipe for sepia-toned enjoyment.

The lords over this enterprise are the casinos, who with straight, even grinning faces ignore the obvious fact that the system is rigged against you. No one seems to notice.

I found a few other things on my stroll. New Jersey, unlike Nevada, stops short of legalizing prostitution in addition to gambling. So instead of being solicited by women in front of brothels, I was solicited by women in front of massage parlors. It seems to be human nature to buy all varieties of sensual pleasure where one sort is already available.

Fortune tellers abound as well, offering such ridiculous methods as phrenology. One modestly proclaimed, "Specializing in solving all problems. Health, financial, and love."

Mixed in without explanation is the New Jersey Korean War memorial. The only people I saw there were Korean. It was cool.

Benches on the boardwalk have not one but two arm rails between the outer two, creating three distinct seats, and eliminating any possibility of being used as a bed. The memory of one homeless man sitting on one makes me think of what happens in Monopoly when you land on that last hotel property whose rent you can't afford.

On my way back I attempted to enjoy some of the aforementioned nostalgic American food, two hot dogs and some french fries, out on the boardwalk. I was foiled by belligerent seagulls, clustering and squawking more and more around me. I got up right as one lunged at my fries. Later another one smacked me in the head with its wing. I couldn't help but think of how birds in Scripture represent the powers of Satan, as when Abram drove them away in Genesis 15:11.

One contrast surpassed all of these in the disgust it brought me. At the start and at the end of my walk I passed a beggar woman. She stood and sang, completely tone deaf, beating for percussion on a plastic bucket that looked like a sand castle toy. Most street performers are musically gifted, and her complete lack of talent heightened the sense of desperation she conveyed.

A few feet up from her, another beggar danced, without coordination, displaying some physical deformity. It is hard to know whether to call her a girl or a woman, because in body she was dressed and styled like an eight-year-old, and in face she looked over forty.

The backdrop against which these beggars stood, and the filler for all of these scenes, was the casino crowd. It was easier for me to understand the presence of residents and workers, who for whatever brokenness at least seem to belong there. But, in the midst of that whole scene, the scores of white senior citizens chasing Borgata and lewd comedians like Robin Williams raised the largest sense of outrage and futility that I felt.

The way I felt about all of this didn't really hit me until about an hour ago, several hours and a nap after returning. In a different situation I might shout and cry. Instead I raise this small outcry against Trump's stronghold on the beach.

The New Testament asserts that all of creation was made by and for Jesus Christ, and that one day he will return to assert his ownership of every square inch. While I feel powerless against that monstrous boardwalk, I long for the day when he will put an end to all of its lies and all of its pain.

Thursday, October 2, 2008