Tuesday, October 17, 2006

The Irony of George W. Bush

Back in July of this year, 2006, a lot of people made a fuss when a live microphone captured a private exchange between George W. Bush and Tony Blair. The fuss came about largely because the President, though already established as something of a pottymouth, added a new entry to the catalog of his documented obscenities. Here's the key line:

"The irony is, what they really need to do is to get Syria to get Hezbollah to stop doing this shit, and it's over."

As you may remember, the release of this audio prompted a range of commentaries. News outlets had to decide how their obscenity policies worked when the President dropped an s-bomb while talking politics. A number of commentators noted that Bush uttered the line with his mouth full, chomping through his words as though the chefs of the G8 summit had served him gristly cud. More serious commentary addressed the content of the remark, weighing the accuracy of Bush's characterization of the Syrian role in the conflict between Israel and Hizbullah. I propose that all of these angles missed the most important point to be made about Bush's comment:

George W. Bush does not understand the meaning of the word "irony."

Let's assume that Bush was correct that "what they [the U.N.?] really need to do is to get Syria to get Hezbollah to stop doing this shit, and it's over." There's nothing ironic about that sentiment. On the contrary, it displays Bush's characteristically blunt cause-and-effect logic of diplomacy; in this case, one body pushes another, which pushes a third, and the desired reaction comes about. No irony, right?

Now consider this statement, made a couple of weeks ago as part of Bush's pre-election offensive against Democrats:

"You do not create terrorism by fighting terrorism."

Of course not! That would be ironic! When you have no understanding of irony, the word or the concept, it makes no sense that fighting terrorism (badly) can create terrorism, that a show of strength can create weakness, that the rhetoric of certainty can mask anxiety, that the public faces of moral self-congratulation can be overwhelmed by corruption.

Bush and his party have thrived on convincing voters that the biggest hammer is the best tool for any nail on any wall. The upcoming elections may be a referendum on Bush, but they will also be a referendum on irony, as many politicians of both parties now run on positions that assume the ironic consequences of Bush's policies and look for ways to escape them.

It may be that the failure of Bush's policies, by creating such wrenching tragedies that voters can no longer ignore the ironies beneath the President's unflagging certitude, will teach a generation of young people the notoriously tricky concept of irony. If so, the students will understand by example what the teacher himself does not grasp. How ironic.

Saturday, October 07, 2006

How to get serious about steroids in sports

I have a proposal for dealing with steroids and other performance-enhancing drugs in sports.

I have the case of Major League Baseball in mind because of what I see as the scapegoating of Barry Bonds to cover up the more important underlying scandal that if Bonds did use steroids when it’s alleged he did, he did not break the rules as they stood at the time. Since a huge range of substances could qualify as "performance-enhancing drugs" in sports—can any among us explain why caffeine doesn't count?—the rule-makers must take responsibility for creating specific and effective deterrents.

I bring this up not to defend Bonds or to get into assigning blame for the outdated rules of a few years ago. Instead, I mean to illustrate the extent to which the lessons of the Bonds case do not seem to have sunk in. The rule-makers (in baseball’s case, the players’ union and the owners, perhaps in that order) still don't seem interested in writing the toughest possible rules.

Here's my proposal: define banned substances, test aggressively when reliable tests are available, and save samples in the care of a neutral, confidential agent. Then test retroactively as new procedures become available so that players can't get away with using HGH, for instance, by taking advantage of the fact that the tests haven't caught up to the drug. Then enact this rule: if reliable tests from two separate samples EVER show you were juicing, your very existence is stripped from the official records of baseball. No asterisks, no nothing. If we catch your HGH use in 2018, you never played.

Don't you think that would get in players' heads a little?

Sunday, April 30, 2006

Substantial Nits

I hereby define a Substantial Nit as a small matter of usage that has large consequences for a reader or listener's understanding of a significant point. In my judgment, most common nits, however worth picking they may be for other reasons, are not SNs. To qualify as an SN, a common mistake must routinely lead to significant misunderstandings; for example, I'm not interested in the stray case where the needless apostrophe in "The Simpson's" on the decorative boulder in front of my house might case a space shuttle to crash. By way of positive example, I begin the list with two charter members:

1. Percent vs. percentage points. For a recent example, I recently heard an NPR story that talked about an incidence of a disease rising by two percent. The story went on for a while, and I couldn't believe a two percent increase had created such a big story. At the end, the reporter finally mentioned the numbers--an increase of something like 4% to 6%, or two percentage points, but about fifty percent. No wonder it was a big deal! I find this to be a fairly common error that almost always makes a big difference in meaning.

2. Disinterested vs. uninterested. In a strict, old-fashioned sense, these are not synonyms. Uninterest is lack of interest in the sense of willingness to pay attention. If you stopped reading this entry before now, you were probably uninterested (as well as gravely misguided, of course). Disinterestedness means lack of personal or financial interest for the purposes of fair judging; Consumer Reports accepts no advertisements because it wants to make disinterested judgments. A lot of people now use "disinterested" to mean "uninterested" and "unbiased" to mean "disinterested." I think that doesn't work. For example, I generally think that buying new cars is a bad idea (in strictly financial terms), and I have good reasosn for thinking so. I'm biased against buying new cars, but my bias is disinterested because I derive no significant benefit from the sale of used cars. More importantly, it's important for politicians and journalistic analysts to cultivate disinterest, but it's fine for them to have well-founded biases that they can explain and defend. It's hard to encourage the disinterestedness that's essential to productive discourse if we lose the word for it.

3. "Proof." Contentions and fictions do not prove things. Brad DeLong makes this point today in his memorial post about J. K. Galbraith, zinging the New York Times obituary writers' use of "proofs" to describe the arguments of some of Galbraith's detractors: "Proofs? I know many people who find Becker's and Stigler's arguments powerful ones. I know nobody who would call them 'proofs.'" I come across similarly inexact usages of "proof" and its variants frequently, often in new college students' papers, which sometimes claim that a given text "proves" something about life. For example, Pride and Prejudice might "prove" that women in Jane Austen's time could find happines by defying social convention and holding out for true love in marriage. A novel can imagine something of that sort, and a novelist might be said to argue it, but a novel cannot prove a sociological or historical claim. To insist on more exact usage of the terms of proof is to encourage public discourse to distinguish among the kinds of proof that various situations allow or require.

4. "Beyond a shadow of a doubt" (in a legal context). This is related to and narrower than SN #3. Almost as often as not, I find, news coverage of court cases will slip at least once from the phrase "beyond a reasonable doubt" to "beyond a shadow of a doubt." Wouldn't it be lovely if reporters and analysts routinely used the correct phrase and helped their viewers or readers understand more precisely the legal standard of a "reasonable doubt" in a given case?

Tuesday, March 28, 2006

Cinderella story

Many recent news accounts have referred to the improbable presence of George Mason in the Final Four of the NCAA men's basketball tournament as a Cinderella story. In this recent story, Dan Wetzel extends the metaphor, asking readers to entertain the question, "Why not George Mason?"--that is, why couldn't GMU win two more games and become the tournament champions?

(A side note: Wetzel's piece is a beautiful example of "angle" journalism, as I call it. He seems to have nothing to say other than that George Mason has a chance, though a small one, of winning two more games. Does anyone think otherwise? Of course GMU could win two more! Of course the probability is small! All Wetzel does is call attention to his own expert angle on the issue by emphasizing an improbability. He says nothing that isn't plainly visible in the point spreads or betting odds on the upcoming games.)

But I digress. Wetzel closes his piece by extending the Cinderella metaphor: "Of course, in the original, Cinderella lived happily ever after."

Not necessarily.

(Another side note: one of the most useful and surprisingly accurate tidbits of textual analysis I've ever picked up was the notion that if you want to find a writer's most ideologically loaded and debatable point, look for whatever follows "of course" or "obviously" or "certainly." Unintentional ironies often lurk in those assumptions of consensus.)

There are three problems with this common usage of the Cinderella metaphor.

The first problem is the idea of an "original" Cinderella story. As a near-universal folk tale, Cinderella has no identifiable original version. But this is a nitpick; let's translate "original" to "standard" and use Charles Perrault's version, the basis of most English-language storybook Cinderellas.

The second is the underlying assumption that Cinderella is an underdog who achieves a social standing far beyond what she had reason to expect. Not so much: Cinderella is the daughter of a man with significant class standing--a "worthy man" who has the money and connections to get his stepdaughters to the prince's ball and have them dressed well for the occasion. Cinderella is a high-born woman with immense cultural capital, and her story is one of restoration and moderate rise in status. Arguably, from this perspective, George Mason would have the story least like Cinderella's among the four possible winners of this year's tournament because GMU is a true upstart. The other three teams all seek a restoration of former glories; UCLA's former dominance is too great to make it a true Cinderella, but the slipper fits Florida and LSU fairly well--both programs have made the Final Four, but not too recently, and neither has won a championship.

The third, and perhaps the most important, problem is the statement that "Cinderella lived happily ever after." Perrault's story says no such thing, and his ending is maintained in the modern translations I've seen. Cinderella does seem to be happy, but the narrator does not address her future. Moreover, the established marriages range from grotesquely dysfunctional (Cinderella's father and step-mother) to suggestively creepy (the prince's parents). The story seems to go out of its way to contradict the assumption that people of high station find lasting happiness automatically. Cinderella has her moment, but no more.

So let's enjoy the success of George Mason. GMU is this season's most remarkable underdog story. But even--or especially--if they win the championship, their story will not be Cinderella's.

A better March Madness pool

A friend, Doug Cutchins (co-author of this book), and I have created an auction-style pool for the NCAA men's basketball tournament. We enjoy the format and invite others to follow along. Update--from here to the end of the paragraph added. In keeping with the theme of this blog, I'll emphasize the underlying logic of the idea: most tournament pools simply reward correct picks. Some recognize the limitations of that model and reward upsets. Both of those approaches lead to insincere picks by rewarding contrarianism; if you want to win the pool, you can't simply make sensible choices and fill out your bracket. A market captures the advantages of rewarding upset picks while avoiding the incentive for insincerity. If everyone in the pool thinks St. Bonaventure will win the championship, they can all bid accordingly, according to their sense of the Bonnies' probability of winning in each round, and the market will determine how much the team's output is worth. Upset picks are rewarded automatically because underdogs command lower prices than favorites--and the underdog/favorite distinction is determined by participants rather than the selection committee.

As with all pools, it is not necessary to wager real money to enjoy the competition. Here's the way we announced the pool, slightly revised for this general context:

We like basketball, but we have tired of the standard pool format—its blunt all-or-nothing payouts, its overweighting of the final games, its inability to let participants express their degree of confidence in teams beyond simple brackets.

We think we have a better way. We propose an auction, to take place at 7:30 p.m. on March 14th (the Tuesday between the announcement of the brackets and the tourney) at a location yet to be determined. In the auction, taking eight participants by way of example, eight participants each buy “ownership” of eight tournament teams with a fictional budget of $25 each, so every basketball team is on one of our participants’ teams. (The winner of the play-in game would count as one team.) The teams are bought in a standard auction format, with rising bids in ten-cent increments, so players express their confidence in each team’s prospects with their bids. Then each player gets credit for each game his or her teams win. We believe that wins should increase in value in each round of the tournament, though not so much that they cheapen clever picks in the first two rounds. To that effect—after many drafts—we have come up with this payout scheme:

Each of 32 first-round winners earns 1.25% of the pot ($2.50 in an eight-person league)
Each of 16 second-round winners earns an additional 1.50% ($3.00)
Each of 8 third-round winners earns an additional 2.00% ($4.00)
Each of 4 fourth-round winners earns an additional 2.50% ($5.00)
Each of 2 fifth-round winners earns an additional 3.00% ($6.00)
The tournament champion earns an additional 4.00% ($8.00)

It’s up to each player to decide how much of his or her $25.00 to bid on each team. In an eight-person league, the tournament champion would earn its owner $28.50 (14.25% of the pot), in addition to any winnings generated by the player’s other seven teams.

We like this system because, unlike most common approaches, it allows players real flexibility in pursuing overall strategies, making trade-offs between, say, a #1 seed or two #3 seeds. It lets the little market of the auction determine the relative costs of teams instead of relying on the rankings of the committee. It lets participants enjoy a strong sense of identification with eight specific teams instead of the traditional 64 picks, most of which are widely shared with other players. It creates payouts that reflect players’ performance with some subtlety; prizes will spread out rather than simply going to the luckiest player or players. And best of all, it lets us enjoy a late-evening time of sports banter and good cheer to raise our spirits before the tourney tips off.

The details:

1. Each player has the right to spend $25 of fictional money in the auction. The player may spend less than 25 imaginary dollars in the auction, but the 25 real dollars will remain in the pot.

2. The auction will proceed in a steady rotation, with players putting teams up for bid in turn. The nomination constitutes an opening bid, as in “St. Bonaventure for two dollars!” All bids must meet two conditions: the player must have space on his or her eight-team roster for a team (players who have drafted eight teams will no longer nominate teams in the auction), and the player must reserve enough money to make a minimum bid of ten cents on each of eight teams. If St. Bonaventure is nominated first, for example, everyone would be able to bid up to $24.30, the amount necessary to buy St. Bonaventure and seven teams at the minimum price of ten cents. Also, skip bids are fine; if someone nominates St. Bonaventure for two dollars to start the auction and you want to bid $24.30 right away to ensure control of the Bonnies, you are welcome to do so.

3. As bidding slows down on each team, someone will count down the sale clearly, as in “St. Bonaventure to Erik for $8.60, going once . . . going twice . . . sold!” The count should give all bidders reasonable time to pipe up. Players may occasionally interrupt the countdown by asking for brief time-outs, but this privilege should not be abused, lest the abuser be subject to taunts, scorn, and mockery.

4. The statkeeper will send out an update with standings and commentary every round.