Monday, October 29, 2012

The Redemption of Barry Zito

Perhaps one of the best stories to come out of the 2012 World Series is the redemption of Barry Zito. If you recall, in 2007 the San Francisco Giants signed Barry Zito to a 7 year contract for $126 million. It has been called by many one of the worst contracts in the history of American sports (see e.g., "15 Worst Contract in American Sports History") although as I pointed out in an earlier post ("Is Zito's Contract Really One of the Worst Ever?"), it wasn't even the worst contract of 2007.

Regardless, Zito has been the target of a lot of wrath from Giants fans over the past six years, and people with thinner skins would have thrown in the towel and quit (or at least asked for a trade). But he didn't, not even after he was left off the 2010 post season Giants roster. He continued to work hard, and this year he was rewarded for his perseverance. He won 15 games (and only lost 8) during the regular season, and while one would be hard pressed to argue that his contract has been a great deal for the Giants, after his clutch pitching performance NLCS against St. Louis when the Giants were down 3 games to 1 ("Barry Much In It: Giants Win Game 5"), and against the Tigers in the opening game of the World Series with Justin Verlander, perhaps the top pitcher in baseball, on the mound for the Tigers ("Panda Hits 3 HR"), I think many Giants fans are ready to forgive and forget. I know I am. I don't know if those two wins were worth $126 million, but they were awfully close.

Sunday, October 28, 2012

The Whole (Once Again) is Greater than the Sum of its Parts

A couple of years ago, I noted that the term "emergence" refers to the way complex systems and patterns can arise out of a series of relatively simple interactions ("The Whole is Greater Than the Sum of its Parts: Or, Why the Giants Finally Won the World Series"). There are two general forms of emergence: weak and strong. Weak emergence occurs when new formations arise that can be traced back to its constituent parts. Strong emergence refers to when new formations arise that can't be directly traced back to its parts but rather to how those parts interact; that is, they are seen as "irreducible" to their constituent parts. The whole, in other words, is greater than the sum of its parts. Take, for example, the interaction of hydrogen and oxygen:
Water cannot exist apart from the hydrogen and oxygen that compose it . . . However, in their combination, the hydrogen and oxygen give rise to a truly new thing that is quite unlike either H or O, whether taken alone or as a sum of the separate parts H and O. Water, for example, has the characteristic of wetness, while hydrogen and oxygen do not. Water, furthermore, has the capacity to extinguish fires, while H and O feed fires.Water is the emergent reality brought about by a particular combination of hydrogen and oxygen. Water is very real and unique in its existence. It is composed of definite substances. But it is irreducible to that of which it is composed. Literally and truly something new has come into existence that is more than the sum of its parts.
As I watched the SF Giants complete their sweep of the Detroit Tigers, I was reminded (once again) that what's true about the interaction of atoms can also be true for the interaction of human beings. It, too, can give rise to social formations that take on a life of their own, follow their own logic, and cannot be reduced to or explained simply by their constituent parts even though they remain dependent upon those parts. Like formations in the natural world (e.g., water), these social formations can be more than the sum of their parts and why what's on paper does not always capture what happens on the field. It may also explain why of 27 ESPN "experts," only 5 picked the Giants to win the series.

P.S. In 2011, only 4 of 26 experts picked the Cards to beat the Rangers, and in 2010, only 6 out of 28 picked the Giants to beat the Rangers. Makes you wonder what qualifies one as an expert.

Thursday, October 25, 2012

The Myth of the Rational Voter

In his recent book, The Myth of the Rational Voter, Bryan Caplan argues that voters repeatedly elect politicians who either share their biases or are else very good at pretending to. This is unfortunate because, according to Caplan, most people vote under the influence of number of false beliefs and so we end up with government that delivers lousy results. As he recently put it:
You know, if you’re a successful politician, you know you don’t succeed by figuring out what’s really going on in the world and trying to explain it to people. You need to find out what people want to hear and then tell it to them. That’s what you see in debates...  successful politicians instinctively are trying to read people, trying to read their faces,... and that’s how they win.
And Caplan has in mind all voters and all politicians, not just those on one side of the ideological divide or the other.

Caplan is featured in the latest Freakonomics podcast, "We the Sheeple," which notes that politicians tell voters exactly what they want to hear, even when it makes no sense — which is pretty much all the time. As always, you can listen to the podcast (or read the transcript) at the Freakonomics website (just click on the "We the Sheeple" link above) or you can download it from iTunes. A presentation by Caplan is also available for your viewing pleasure below (from YouTube):

Saturday, October 20, 2012

Does Quantum Physics Make it Easier to Believe in God?

Does quantum physics make it easier to believe in God? No. At least not directly because it doesn't provide an argument for the existence of God. However, it may do so indirectly because it offers an argument against materialist philosophy, which is currently the primary intellectual opponent of belief in God.

That, at least, is the opinion of quantum physicist Stephen Barr, who recently penned the article, "Does Quantum Physics Make it Easier to Believe in God?" for the Templeton Foundation's publication, Big Questions Online. According to Barr, materialism argues that all of reality is reducible to matter and its interactions and, thus, in no need of a God or some higher power. It is popular in some circles because many people think that it has scientific support, that physics has shown the material world to be a closed system of cause and effect, sealed off from the influence of any non-physical realities. Moreover, since
our minds and thoughts obviously do affect the physical world, it would follow that they are themselves merely physical phenomena. No room for a spiritual soul or free will: for materialists we are just “machines made of meat."
According to Barr, quantum physics "throws a monkey wrench" into this mechanical view of the physical world. As Barr notes, the Nobel Prize winning physicist Eugene Wigner once argued that materialism --- at least with regard to the human mind --- is not “logically consistent with present quantum mechanics."

This brief summary does not do justice to Barr's relatively brief article, so readers would do well to check it out ("Does Quantum Physics Make it Easier to Believe in God?"). Barr was also recently featured on Research on Religion ("Stephen Barr on Quantum Physics, Religion, & the God Particle"). Here is a summary of the interview (from the Research on Religion website):
Does quantum physics make it easier to believe in God? And what is the deal with that “God particle” that physicists just discovered? Did we really discover God and the origins of the universe? These questions, and many more, are answered by a real-honest-to-goodness physicist Dr. Stephen M. Barr (University of Delaware). Our discussion is both fun and informative as Prof. Barr explains, in terms a layman can undestand, what quantum physics is and how it relates to faith. While Prof. Barr argues that quantum mechanics does not make it necessarily easier to believe in God, it does make it harder to subscribe to a philosophy known as “materialism,” which often underpins a number of arguments for atheism. We also reflect on what it is like being a religious believer in the secular academic world.
You can listen to the interview with Barr at the Research on Religion website as well as download it into iTunes. 

Tuesday, October 16, 2012

Is it Better to Elect Islamists than Support Dictators?

I haven't recommended a lot of Intelligence Squared US debates recently, but here's a good one ("Better Elected Islamists than Dictators"). I was only familiar with Daniel Pipes prior to the debate, but all of the debaters are excellent (see their brief bios below).  The motion being debated is that it is better to elect Islamists rather than stick with dictators. Here is a description of the debate:
The popular uprisings of the Arab Spring have left a leadership void that Islamist parties have been quick to fill. A longtime supporter of former strongmen like Egypt’s Mubarak and Tunisia’s Ben Ali, the U.S. now faces the uncomfortable result of Arab democracy—the rise of Islamist parties that are less amenable to the West than their autocratic predecessors. Will the Islamists, who once embraced violence, slowly liberalize as they face the difficulties of state leadership? Or will it mean the growth of anti-Americanism and radicalization in the region?
Debating on behalf of the motion are Reuel Marc Gerecht and Brian Katulis. Arguing against it are Daniel Pipes and M. Zuhdi Jasser. Here are the biographies (from the Intelligence Squared US):
Reuel Marc Gerecht is a Senior Fellow at the Foundation for Defense of Democracies (FDD), a non-partisan institution focusing on national security and foreign policy. He was a former Middle East Specialist at the CIA's Directorate of Operations. His book The Wave: Man, God, and the Ballot Box in the Middle East, was published by the Hoover Institution in 2011. Gerecht was a former Director of the Project for the New American Century’s Middle East Initiative and a former Resident Fellow at the American Enterprise Institute
Brian Katulis is a Senior Fellow at American Progress, where his work focuses on U.S. national security policy in the Middle East and South Asia. Katulis has served as a consultant to numerous U.S. government agencies, private corporations, and nongovernmental organizations on projects in more than two dozen countries, including Iraq, Pakistan, Afghanistan, Yemen, Egypt, and Colombia. From 1995 to 1998, he lived and worked in the West Bank and Gaza Strip and Egypt for the National Democratic Institute for International Affairs. He is co-author of The Prosperity Agenda, a book on U.S. national security. Katulis speaks Arabic. 
Daniel Pipes is one of the world’s foremost analysts on the Middle East and Islam. Pipes is President of the Middle East Forum, a nonprofit organization he founded in 1994 whose slogan is “Promoting American Interests.” He was previously the Director of the Foreign Policy Research Institute (FPRI) and editor of its journal, Orbis. Pipes’ most recent book is Miniatures: Views of Islamic and Middle Eastern Politics (2003). Pipes served as an Adviser to Rudolph Giuliani’s 2008 presidential campaign. 
M. Zuhdi Jasser, M.D., is the Founder and President of the American Islamic Forum for Democracy (AIFD). A devout Muslim, Dr. Jasser founded AIFD in the wake of the 9/11 attacks on the United States as an effort to provide an American Muslim voice advocating for the preservation of the founding principles of the United States Constitution, liberty and freedom, through the separation of mosque and state. Dr. Jasser earned his medical degree on a U.S. Navy scholarship at the Medical College of Wisconsin in 1992. He served 11 years as a medical officer in the U. S. Navy.
As with all Intelligence Squared debates, those attending vote before and after the debate, and the winning team is decided by how many minds were changed and in what direction. Not only can you listen to or watch the debate at the Intelligence Squared website ("Better Elected Islamists than Dictators"), but you can access transcripts of the debate as well. The debate can also be downloaded from iTunes.

Monday, October 15, 2012

Trouble with the Curve

When I was in high school, there was a local kid who attracted the attention of professional and college scouts. I can't remember if he was drafted out of high school, but he was big college recruit and, in fact, ended up attending one of the top programs on the West Coast. Unfortunately for him, it turned out that he couldn't hit a (college) curve ball, and as such, his (college) career didn't live up to expectations.

The inability to hit a curveball, is the theme of the new Clint Eastwood movie, "Trouble With the Curve." It tells the story of an aging baseball scout played by Eastwood, who is is given one last assignment to prove he still has what it takes. His nemesis is a superior who is more enamored with computer-generated statistics rather than flesh and blood ballplayers. I don't want to give too much about the movie away, but "Trouble With the Curve" is the anti-Moneyball movie. I've written about Michael Lewis's book, Moneyball, before ("Moneyball and Conventional Wisdom"). It is the story of how Oakland A's general manager Billy Beane who, working with a limited budget, used computer statistics to identify players who don't have great arms, run like deers, or hit a lot of home runs, but are very good at either generating runs (i.e., position players) or keeping opposing players off base (i.e., pitchers).

In short, then, "Trouble With the Curve" is critical of those who rely solely on statistics to judge the worth of a ballplayer, and it appears to have Billy Beane as the unnamed target. However, I don't think Beane would disagree with the film's premise that it's important to see players in person. To be sure, Beane consults a wide variety of statistical measures when it comes to evaluating talent, but he also watches game films and, as far as I can tell, has his scouts watch ball players play.  However, Beane also believes that computers can help bring to light players who don't attract a lot of attention (because they aren't "flashy") but are effective at creating (or preventing) runs, which, in the end, is the name of the game. And, if anyone doubts the wisdom of Beane's approach, one only has to consider the year that the 2012 "no-name" A's just had ("I Couldn't Resist..."); it was nothing short of remarkable.

Sunday, October 7, 2012

It Ain't Over 'Til It's Over

I seldom watch the Texas Longhorns play football, but their game came on right after the Stanford-Arizona game, so I ended up watching part of their game against West Virginia. West Virginia jumped out to a 21-7 lead, but then Texas stormed back and tied the game at 21-21. As the game-tying touchdown was under review, Texas stadium disc jockey played the early 1990s dance hit "Jump Around," and most of the people in the stands, at least the Texas fans, started jumping around. So did the entire Texas Longhorn football team.

I make no claims at being a football strategist, but dancing around like you just won a game when it's only the middle of the second quarter strikes me as ill-advised. I can't imagine why you'd risk firing the other team up. I know if I had been West Virginia, I would've been a little put out if I'd had looked across the field and saw the my opponent dancing. And perhaps that helps explain (at least in part) why, in the end, West Virginia won the game.

Saturday, October 6, 2012

Autocorrect (Damn You!)

I recently learned of the "Damn You Autocorrect" web site, which captures some of the funniest instances of the auto correct function on iPhones and Android phones. Autocorrects primary purpose is as a spell checker that corrects common spelling or typing errors, which in theory saves time for the user. Unfortunately (or fortunately, depending on one's perspective), the autocorrect features on smart phones sometimes makes improper corrections, occasionally leading to some hilarious posts. This has given rise to websites, such as "Damn You Autocorrect," where people post and share humorous or embarrassing cases of improper autocorrections. Since these are often "inappropriate," I won't post any here (plus, they take up a lot of space). Instead, you can click here and check the site out for yourself.

Wednesday, October 3, 2012

I Couldn't Resist...

In 2012 the Los Angeles Angels total 2012 salary equaled $154,485,166, which works out to an average of $5,327,074 per player and a median of $3,150,000 ("2012 MLB Salaries by Team"). The A's total salary in 2012 equaled $55,372,500, which is an average of $1,845,750 per player and a median of $487,500. After the A's defeated Texas on the 1st of October and eliminated the Angels from the playoffs, I couldn't resist sending the Angels General Manager, Jerry Dipoto, a copy of Moneyball.