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Sunday, June 18, 2017

The Warriors Might Have Won the Championship Without Kevin Durant

The dominant narrative is that the Golden State Warriors wouldn't have won this year's NBA Championship if they hadn't signed Kevin Durant last July. That's entirely possible, but it ignores the fact that last year, when they "blew" a 3-1 lead over the Cleveland Cavaliers, in the final two games of last year's finals, the Warriors played with an injured Steph Curry and without their starting center, Andrew Bogut, whom many consider to be one of the best, if the not the best, defensive center in the NBA. As I've noted previously, winning championships not only takes a lot of talent, but it also usually requires a little bit of luck ("What Makes a Winning Combination? Talent, Luck, and (Sometimes) Chemistry"). Last year the Warriors didn't have it. This year (and in 2015) they did.

But that still doesn't mean that they couldn't have won it all this year without Kevin Durant. As a recent FiveThirtyEight article noted ("The Warriors Didn’t Need Kevin Durant To Be This Good"), what Durant means for the Warriors is that rather than having a very good shot at winning the title every year, now the Warriors have an excellent shot. Injuries and other forms of bad luck will stay play a role, but Durant's presence on the team helps minimize the ill effects of such bad luck:
While adding Durant has been a success, it didn’t end up breaking basketball any more than the Warriors had broken it already.

Counting the regular season and playoffs, the Warriors won 84 percent of their games this year — up from 83 percent last year and 81 percent the year before. Teams have only won 80+ percent of their combined season games 11 times in the 70-year history of the NBA.1 The Warriors have now done it three years in a row.

But the Warriors’ mission isn’t just to win titles, it’s to guarantee them. And Durant is both icing and insurance policy — a guarantee that the Warriors will always have an MVP-caliber, one-man offense available. Though he makes them a little bit better in his own right, his main value comes from making what happened to them in the 2016 playoffs less likely.
So, haters can complain about the Warriors signing Durant in the off season, but there's still a good chance that the Dubs would've paraded around Lake Merritt this past week anyway.

Wednesday, June 14, 2017

It's Really Not OK to Kill People

This morning, James Hodgkinson, 66, of Belleville, Illinois, opened fire on Republican Representatives and staffers, who were practicing for the upcoming baseball game between Democrats and Republicans. According to his brother, he was unhappy with the recent election and had recently traveled to DC to protest policies proposed by President Trump and the Republican-controlled Congress.

I get why people get frustrated. When laws and regulations are passed that one opposes, its easy to feel powerless, to get angry, because it seems like there's nothing one can do, especially when the next election is almost two years away. But violence is not the answer. Not only is it morally wrong (we used to call it a sin, but that's intellectually unfashionable these days), it solves nothing, and in fact only hands the opposition a moral victory. So, it's time for folks to dial things back. It's okay to be angry, but take it out by sending emails to newspaper editors, calling your local and state representatives, marching "vigorously" against policies that you oppose, or on the elliptical cross-trainer at your gym. But, it's really not okay to kill (or try to kill) people. Really.

Saturday, June 10, 2017

NBA MVP: Who'd You Rather Have on Your Team?

Recently, a news reporter asked a Montana Republican who he trusted more: Donald Trump or James Comey. "About the same," the guy answered. Then the reporter asked a follow-up question, "Who would you buy a used car from?" After an uncomfortable chuckle, the man replied, "James Comey." To get to the truth of a matter, sometimes you have to ask the right question.

This exchange comes to mind when I think about the debate over who should be the NBA's MVP. The finalists are James Hardin, Russell Westbrook, and Kawai Leonard. My guess is that it'll come down to either Hardin and Westbrook. However, I think people are asking the wrong question. Instead of asking, "Who's the NBA's MVP?", they should be asking, "Who would you want on your team?" And seriously, would anyone pick Hardin or Westbrook over Lebron James, Kevin Durant, Steph Curry, or Kyrie Irving (or Kawai Leonard for that matter)? I don't think so. If there's anything these playoffs have made clear is that James, Durant, Curry, and Irving operate at a completely different level than do others in the league. Especially when it counts.

Sunday, June 4, 2017

Why Do Terrorists Attack Just Before Elections?

I'm sure I'm not the only one who's noticed that it seems that some terror attacks are timed just before an election. It happened a few weeks ago in France, and it happened just yesterday in the UK, less than a week before June 8th's Parliamentary election. In the current climate many, if not most, observers believe that such attacks help more conservative political parties because they're typically seen as being more supportive of "robust" security measures ("The London Terror Attacks May Mean More Votes for Theresa May's Conservative Party").

However, if they are right, then that raises a interesting question: Why do terrorists carry out such attacks if they help political parties that are more likely to oppose them coercive? It isn't because they don't know what they're doing. As I've pointed out previously, terrorists are not stupid and, in fact, are often quite well educated ("Terrorists Aren't Stupid (Nor Are They Ignorant)"). Thus, it's likely that they carry them out because they believe it's to their benefit to do so.

But what benefit might they derive from such attacks? I'd argue that it triggers political reactions that leaves the impression that those of us living in the West do not like Muslims, that we are hostile to the Islamic way of life. For instance, ISIS has reportedly referred to President Trump's proposed travel ban as the "blessed ban," not because it helps the world's Muslims, but because it helps to reinforce the belief that Muslims are not welcome in the West.

What can we do? Well, we need to work hard to counteract such an impression, whether we do so through ecumenical events at our own faith communities or by paying friendly visits to local Islamic mosques. I confess, however, our task is quite difficult when so many of our politicians seem more interested in inciting animosity toward Muslims than they are in welcoming them as full and faithful members of the democratic West.

Tuesday, May 30, 2017

What Was Hunter Strickland Thinking?

With two outs in the top of the 8th inning of yesterday's game between the Washington Nationals and the San Francisco Giants, Giants reliever Hunter Strickland threw a 98mph fastball at the Nationals' Bryce Harper, hitting him in the hip, apparently in retaliation for Harper's behavior after hitting two home runs of Strickland in the 2014 playoffs. (To be fair, Strickland denies throwing at Harper, but most observers find this hard to believe.) Harper then charged the mound, the two exchanged punches (I think Strickland landed a better right), and both benches emptied. Evidently, this is the first time Strickland has faced Harper since then, so he decided to take advantage of the situation. Who knows? He may not get to face Harper for another 2 1/2 years!

But, what was Strickland thinking? The Giants were losing 2-0 at the time, very much in the game against a team with a sketchy bullpen. It's not as if the Giants are tearing up the league at the moment (at least not in a good way), and they need every win they can get. And true to form, the runner who took Harper's place (he was ejected) eventually scored. The last thing the Giants need right now is to intentionally give other teams opportunities to score. It's telling, I believe, that when Harper charged the mound and both benches emptied, Giants catcher Buster Posey remained out of the fray, possibly a subtle message from the Giants' best player, that Strickland's actions were ill-advised and inappropriate.

Sunday, May 14, 2017

Was Hillary's Campaign Really Doomed?

A recently released book, Shattered: Inside Hillary Clinton's Doomed Campaign, purports to explain "why" Hillary Clinton lost the election for president to Donald Trump. As the subtitle suggests, the campaign was doomed from the start. However, even the book's authors (Amie Parnes and Jonathan Allen) were surprised that Hillary lost, which should give readers of the book pause. In fact, as the physicist and sociologist Duncan Watts reminds us in his book, Everything is Obvious (Once You Know the Answer), it's very easy to "predict" the future, once you know what it is.

As I noted in a previous post (For Those Condemned to Study the Past - Whenever Possible, Count!), this is known as hindsight bias, a term coined (I believe) by the social psychologist, Amos Tversk, which (according to Tvesky) is "the tendency [for historians] to take whatever facts they had observed (neglecting the many facts that they did not or could not observe) and make them fit neatly into a confident-sounding story:”
All too often, we find ourselves unable to predict what will happen; yet after the fact we explain what did happen with a great deal of confidence. This “ability” to explain that which we cannot predict, even in the absence of any additional information, represents an important, though subtle flaw in our reasoning. It leads us to believe that there is a less uncertain world than there actually is, and that we are less bright than we actually might be. For if we can explain tomorrow what we cannot predict today, without any added information except the knowledge of the actual outcome, then this outcome must have been determined in advance and we should have been able to predict it. The fact that we couldn’t is taken as an indication of our limited intelligence rather than of the uncertainty that is in the world. All too often, we feel like kicking ourselves for failing to foresee that which later appears inevitable. For all we know, the handwriting might have been on the wall all along. The question is: was the ink invisible?
So, yes, I'm sure that the Clinton campaign made mistakes, but on the other side of the election, I'm willing to bet that they weren't all that obvious, even for Amie Parnes and Jonathan Allen.

Saturday, May 6, 2017

Why Your Local Public High School Is Probably Better Than You Think (a repost of sorts)

Status reproduction is a process highlighted by the French sociologist, Pierre Bourdieu; it refers to how the status of a person, group, institution, etc. is reproduced by virtue of its status. Consider, for example, college football programs. The best high school players generally want to play for the top programs, which makes it easier for those programs to recruit and attract more of the best players, which in turn helps them remain top programs. This can be true even if they don't have great coaching. Because of the level of talent they attract, they often win in spite of the coaching on the field.

A similar process occurs in many industries. Take the venture capital (VC) industry, for instance. Most entrepreneurs hope to receive funding from top VC firms, not just because these VC firms are seen as being more "wise," but also because their ties with the top attorneys, accountants, and investment bankers raise the probability the entrepreneurial companies will succeed. What this means for VC firms is that the top (i.e., the high status) VC firms often have their "pick" of the entrepreneurial companies to fund, while lower status VC firms do not. Moreover, top VC firms will typically be able to command better terms with their investments, such as getting a larger stake in the start-up's equity. To illustrate, imagine two VC firms, X and Y, with X being a high status firm and Y being a low status one; if both invest $1 million dollars in entrepreneurial company Z, all else being equal, X will get a greater share of the company Z's equity than will Y. Then, if company Z goes public, X will reap higher profits than will X.

What does this have to do with high schools? Status reproduction among them as well. Imagine, for example, two schools: A & B. Available teachers have been randomly assigned to both so that the teaching quality at both schools will be the same. The schools differ, however, in that most of the best students attend A and most of the worst students attend B. It doesn't take a genius to see that school A will score better on various standardized tests, enjoy a higher graduating rate, send more students to college. But it won't do so because of the teaching but because it attracted more of the best students.

Now, consider a slightly different scenario with the same two schools, except this time their average performance on standardized tests is a combination of innate student ability and teaching quality. On their own (i.e., without teaching) students can score between 0 and 50 (out of 100), but with teaching they can raise their scores by 0 to 50 points. So, for instance, a student with the highest innate ability (50) who receives the best possible teaching (50) will score 100 out of 100, and a student with no innate ability who receives the worst possible teaching will score of 0. Now, imagine that the average student ability at school A is 45, while the average student ability at school B is 30. This means that in order for B to score as high (or higher) than A, the quality of teaching at B has to 15 points better than A. Now, imagine a scenario where school B has the best teachers in the state and add 50 points to their students' scores, which raises school B's average standardized score to 80, while A has good but not great teachers who add 40 points to their students' scores, which raises school B's average standardized score to 85.

To be sure, these two examples are stylized, but they illustrate how school performance is not necessarily an indicator of teacher quality. To be sure, at one time school A may have had some of the best teachers in the district, and that's why it initially attracted better students, but that doesn't mean that it still has the best teachers. Unfortunately, a lot of parents interpret scores and graduation rates in just that way, and consequently (if they possess the requisite resources) they send their kids to schools they think are better but actually might not be. Currently in Silicon Valley, the divide between school A and school B type schools tends to lie between private and public schools, and among public schools, the divide is typically between those in wealthier neighborhoods and poorer neighborhoods.

Divides such as these are almost certainly overstated. My own daughter (Tara) attends a public school (Del Mar) that some folks still see as having a bad reputation. However almost all of her teachers have been excellent, and she has been accepted into the top two public universities in the U.S. (UC Berkeley and UCLA), two of the top regional universities on the West Coast (Chapman and Cal Poly San Louis Obispo), along with UC Santa Barbara, University of Washington, and Sonoma State. In other words, if parents paid less attention to test scores and more to teacher quality, they might realize that their local public high school is probably better than they think it is. Acting on such a realization could save them a lot of money. It would also help boost public schools at a time when they're under attack.