Friday Potpourri

1. This morning, over coffee with my wife and daughter, we were discussing a recent project to refloor the kitchen at Diablo Valley School using one of those prefab wood-looking vinyl ‘flooring systems’ (gah!). The young dad who headed up the project is what we call ‘handy’, a term of art among people who are accomplished at working with their hands. The subject of layout so as to get a nice look across the two rooms involved came up, and I used the term ‘snap a line’.

Is the phrase ‘snap a line’ a shibboleth? Would it distinguish the ‘handy’ from the civilians?

I suppose that many people my age straddle two worlds. I grew up with people who said things like ‘snap a line’, ‘throw a tape on it’, ‘eyeball it’, among other colorful phrases, and said things like ’12 gauge galvanized’ as a complete description of an article. Men who could fix their own car or a brake press, and build a shed or a house if need be.

Then I went to school, and for the first time, was among the sons and daughters of lawyers, doctors and other professionals. One summer, a team of my fellow students got together to help build a hall for a church. I vividly remember talking to another guy about how amazed I was at people for whom a hammer or a hand saw were mysterious foreign objects, how they’d choke up on the hammer or bend the saw blade trying to get them to work, with little success. No sooner had I spoken than over wanders the son of a prominent doctor, who picks up a saw and starts in doing exactly the awkward unspeakable things with it to an innocent 2×4 that we’d been just discussing.

My reaction to the idea that my college student buddies’ dads and families were more enlightened or intelligent, somehow, than the working stiffs I grew up with is visceral. The guy who did the layout work at my dad’s sheet metal shop was as smart as most of the professors I’d had; the dude who ran the brake presses was a skilled and competent as any accountant. Sure, there was this tiny minority of academics and professionals who really were the cream of the crop, intellectually – but the run of the mill? Utter mediocrities.

Just like there are stupid welders and farmers, there are stupid doctors, lawyers and college professors. That layout guy grew up on a farm in the hills of Arkansas, joined the Navy, passed through California and decided he’d like to live there. His meticulous, orderly mind, with which he could have learned surgery or constitutional law, was instead applied to translating blue prints and specs into finished product, so that less skilled men could follow the steps and get good results. That brake press guy came from a family that immigrated to California from Mexico. His attention to detail and care and accuracy could easily have been translated to any number of professions. But, for him, doing brake press work was a satisfying and meaningful use of his talents. He could, if he wanted to, take a drive through downtown L.A. and point to the fascia on a number of buildings, and say: I did that.

These are the sort of people who, if you were looking at that floor at school, would know exactly what you meant if you said: throw a tape on that, then we can snap a line and eyeball it from there.

And it would come out beautiful.

2. I’ve pointed out previously the distinction between human endeavors where reality can be used to validate theories, and ones that are impervious to real-world outcomes. An engineer, an accountant, a physicist, even a mathematician – they can make ‘mistakes’, they can fail. The building falls down, the columns don’t foot, the tracks in the bubble chamber don’t map, and the theorem can be disproven. Other areas are immune to trial, but rely on, I don’t know, intellectual consonance – they feel right, I guess. It takes discipline to say, for example, ‘As far as we can tell, the Book of Genesis was first compiled and written down during the Babylonian Captivity, but of course records are sketchy back then, to say the least’ versus ‘the Book of Genesis was first compiled and written down during the Babylonian Captivity.’ The first is a reasonable guess, and the reasonable expectation is that we could look at the evidence and tentatively agree or disagree; the second is simply telling us what’s true – except, barring the invention of a Pastwatch or other time machine, we’ll never know.

History is full of weird, unlikely things that happen to be true. It’s just possible, for example, that Genesis was written down or orally established in its current form centuries before the first evidence for it that is known to us. And we’ll never know, and need to be humble before that fact.

And this is a relatively harmless example. Once you loose that humility before the unknowable, the hounds of Hell are unleashed. Once the unleashed get to be department chairs (and thus, gatekeepers) they can keep out those annoying people who disagree. That’s how we end up with Studies departments, in which it can be safely asserted are NO voices that challenge any of the wild leaps upon which the intellectual structures, such as they are, get built.

I keep thinking that handy guys would be less inclined to fall for this kind of stuff. Maybe.

3. A very cool thing is happening in sports: using advanced statistical analysis to determine the value of players, plays, and behaviors. It’s actually been going on for decades, first in baseball (which has lots of discrete events, such as pitches and at-bats, that are easier to observe and quantify) and now is hitting its stride in basketball (which has few discrete events – every shot or foul or turnover is part of a very fluid context of moving players doing different things). The interesting part: the stat geeks can come up with observations: teams that shoot a lot of 3-point shots do better, comparatively, than teams that don’t . The initial reaction of a coach or player is to say: yea, teams that shoot a lot of 3 point shots are the ones that tend to have the better 3-point shooters. Having better 3-point shooters makes your team better, QED.

Then, the stat heads come back: even for teams that shoot a lower than average made 3-point shot percentage, it’s better to shoot more 3s.

And here’s where the fun begins: the claim is that your team would be better off shooting more 3s even if your percentage made is worse than average. Why? Now we need to get some theories going, and then test them. The latest advance in professional basketball is a thing called SportsVu – a set of cameras that watch entire games and track the location of every player, their proximity to all other players, whether they have the ball or not, and a gillion other things. NOW we can see what happens when teams start chucking up 3s at a higher clip – and miss. We can test theories.

So, we have a situation where there are millions – billions, really – of dollars riding on the outcome of these analyses. Players will be cut or hired based on their ability to implement theory; coaches and GMs will be judged by how well their teams conform to theoretical optimums. One player on our local team, the Warriors, is Draymond Green, who was a second round pick a few years ago after a less than dazzling college career. His traditional professional stats – points, rebounds, assists – are very pedestrian. But – according to advanced analysis, he is a superstar. All sorts of good things happen when he plays, the most important of which is that team tends to win when he plays.

Green is up for a new contract the end of this year. As little as a year ago, he would be looking at getting at most $3-4 million a year (a middling NBA salary); based on his SportsVu and other fancy stats, he is now looking at getting $17 million a year or more – from some hard-headed business people who are convinced by the advanced statistics.

Funny ol’ world, isn’t it?

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Author: Joseph Moore

Enough with the smarty-pants Dante quote. Just some opinionated blogger dude.

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