The murmur of the snarkmatrix…

August § The Common Test / 2016-02-16 21:04:46
Robin § Unforgotten / 2016-01-08 21:19:16
MsFitNZ § Towards A Theory of Secondary Literacy / 2015-11-03 21:23:21
Jon Schultz § Bless the toolmakers / 2015-05-04 18:39:56
Jon Schultz § Bless the toolmakers / 2015-05-04 16:32:50
Matt § A leaky rocketship / 2014-11-05 01:49:12
Greg Linch § A leaky rocketship / 2014-11-04 18:05:52
Robin § A leaky rocketship / 2014-11-04 05:11:02
P. Renaud § A leaky rocketship / 2014-11-04 04:13:09
Jay H § Matching cuts / 2014-10-02 02:41:13

The invisible down

This Sports Illustrated article on NFL punters is well-worth reading. Two things that the article alludes to but doesn’t make a big deal about:

  • Punters, in addition to booting the ball away and trying to pin down the other team’s defense on fourth down, also often hold for the placekicker on extra points and field goals. Not only can a dropped or bad hold lose games (more high-pressure stakes for already high-pressure players) but an athletic punter gives you a lot more options for fake kicks. (Another reason why a lot of punters were high-school or college quarterbacks.)
  • For NFL players, punters have amazing longevity. I was amazed that Ray Guy, a legendary punter I remember watching in the mid-80s, when I first started watching football as a kid, is now 60 years old, and that Giants punter Jeff Feagles is still one of the best in the league at 43.

This last point, though, made me think about this point Malcolm Gladwell made in his exchange with Bill Simmons, about concussions, other head impacts, and the reduction in life expectancy for most other NFL players:

Early in the 20th century, there was a big movement to ban college football because of a rash of deaths on the field, and one of the innovations that saved the game was the legalization of the forward pass. What people realized was the more you open the game up, and make the principal point of physical contact the one-on-one tackle in the open field, the safer the game becomes. Keep in mind, the forward pass at the time was a radical step. Lots of diehard types stood up at the time to say that passing would ruin football. But it happened anyway. So there’s a precedent for dramatic reforms in football, even those that change the spirit of the game. I think football has to have that same kind of radical conversation again. What if we made all tackles eligible receivers? What if we allowed all offensive players to move prior to the snap? What if we banned punt and kickoff returns, where a disproportionate number of head impacts happen? [emphasis mine]

In SI, Feagles talks about how punting has changed over his career:

Just 10 years ago there were probably only a handful of returners who could take a punt and run it back; the athletes covering the kicks were much better than the returners. But the tide has turned. Nowadays the returners are much better than the guys covering. What does that do to the punter? It puts more pressure on him to directional kick and to keep the ball out of the returners’ hands.

So the “golden age of punting” coincides with the golden age of concussions; punters and returners have both gotten better, which puts more pressure on coverage guys on both sides of the ball; and those are the guys getting dinged, injuries that contribute to disproportionately shorter lives and careers for non-punters — for a part of the game that even fans and sportswriters don’t fully appreciate. (As the SI article explains, no pure punter has ever been voted into the Hall of Fame).

I hate to say it, but maybe that Canadian is right.



Here’s an idea Malcolm Gladwell throws out in a long back-and-forth with ESPN’s Bill Simmons that’s mostly about the NBA. Simmons argues that career longevity, European imports, and overachieving young players have helped make the current NBA particularly well-stocked not just with talent, but with well-used talent. Gladwell makes one of his trademark Gladwellian connections:

What we’re talking about is what are called capitalization rates, which refers to how efficiently any group makes use of its talent. So, for example, sub-Saharan Africa is radically undercapitalized when it comes to, say, physics: There are a large number of people who live there who have the ability to be physicists but never get the chance to develop that talent. Canada, by contrast, is highly capitalized when it comes to hockey players: If you can play hockey in Canada, trust me, we will find you. One of my favorite psychologists, James Flynn, has looked at capitalization rates in the U.S. for various occupations: For example, what percentage of American men who are intellectually capable of holding the top tier of managerial/professional jobs actually end up getting a job like that. The number is surprisingly low, like 60 percent or so. That suggests we have a lot of room for improvement.

What you’re saying with the NBA is that over the past decade, it has become more and more highly capitalized: There isn’t more talent than before, but there is — for a variety of reasons — a more efficient use of talent. But I suspect that in sports, as in the rest of society, there’s still an awful lot of room for improvement.

Noam Scheiber, writing in The New Republic this week, says basically the same thing (about management, not basketball):

A lot of people talk about reviving the domestic manufacturing sector, which has shed almost one-third of its manpower over the last eight years. But some of the people I spoke to asked a slightly different question: Even if you could reclaim a chunk of those blue-collar jobs, would you have the managers you need to supervise them?

It’s not obvious that you would. Since 1965, the percentage of graduates of highly-ranked business schools who go into consulting and financial services has doubled, from about one-third to about two-thirds. And while some of these consultants and financiers end up in the manufacturing sector, in some respects that’s the problem. Harvard business professor Rakesh Khurana, with whom I discussed these questions at length, observes that most of GM’s top executives in recent decades hailed from a finance rather than an operations background. (Outgoing GM CEO Fritz Henderson and his failed predecessor, Rick Wagoner, both worked their way up from the company’s vaunted Treasurer’s office.) But these executives were frequently numb to the sorts of innovations that enable high-quality production at low cost. As Khurana quips, “That’s how you end up with GM rather than Toyota.”

In effect, what we’ve been doing in American industry is overpaying flashy ball hogs who put up great statistics but don’t know how to build teams or win games. In a similar vein, Umair Haque says that the whole model of a “leader” needs to be rethought, and what we really need are builders:

Leadership was built for 20th century economics. It’s a myth that leadership is a set of timeless skills. Is it? Abraham Zaleznik famously defined leadership as “using power to influence the thoughts and actions of other people.” Influence is the key word. The textbook skills of the “leader” — persuasion, delegation, coalition — aren’t universally applicable. Rather, they fit a very specific context best: the giant, evil, industrial-era organization.

Leaders don’t lead. How did this particular skillset emerge? Influence counts because the vast, Kafkaesque bureaucracies that managed 20th century prosperity, created, in turn, the need for “leaders”: people who could navigate the endlessly twisting politics at the heart of such organizations, and so ensure their survival. But leaders don’t create great organizations — the organization creates the leader. 20th century economics created a canonical model of organization — and “leadership” was built to fit it.

Haque actually doesn’t do a great job at articulating what a “builder” does differently, other than throwing out a few examples. (Yes, Obama isn’t as accomplished a builder as Gandhi — but saying that Gandhi “built” nonviolent resistance only scratches the surface.)

But if you use Haque’s new-economy and Scheiber’s old-economy critiques of current practices, you get something very powerful. The pre-managerial, heroic-age-of-capitalism industrialists of the 19th and early 20th centuries didn’t always build things that were good, from our perspective — but coalsmoke aside, they BUILT things, creating real capital and value along the way. It’s this fifty-year-blip of late uncreative capitalism, milking old property for its dregs, reshuffling money to create something from nothing, that has culturally really screwed us up.


Catastrophic Thinking

I remember years ago, when I was dating a girl, getting into a conversation with her cantankerous grandfather about health care. He was a remarkable man – had been a principal in Detroit public high schools for years, and had seen a lot.

Anyways, to Mr Anderson, it was simple. All you had to do was take care of people when something really terrible happened to them. He would tell a story about watching someone fall down and crack his head open on the sidewalk. He and a few other strangers picked the man up and carried him to the hospital a block away. “Nobody asked or worried if he could pay,” he said. “They just saved his life and sent him home.”

That’s some people’s idea of health care — the nurses and doctors in the ER patching you up, so you don’t bleed to death in the street. This is usually because they’ve never gone for a prenatal visit or vaccinations, and they think routine screenings are a waste of time. They don’t ask their doctos about suspicious moles, or what they should be eating, or if they’ve started to have some trouble making it all the way to the bathroom.

This was me, too, not long ago. I once had to go to the emergency room for a terrible nosebleed that wouldn’t stop on its own. I later joked to friends, “I only go to see the doctor exactly when I’m bleeding from an important part of my body for more than a few hours.”

This kind of thinking comes particularly naturally to young men, where they’ve stupidly been told to hide their pain (emotion, too) and to valorize athletes and movie characters who play through pain. The only time you’re allowed to cry is when you’re watching the end of The Natural — not because the main character is slowly bleeding to death, but because he hit a home run anyways.

We’re dumbasses, really. But there are a lot of us.

Anyways, the resident young guy at the NYT op-ed page, Ross Douthat, floats an idea — universal catastrophic health care coverage — that could be kind of a good one, or a totally dumbass one, depending on how it breaks. I’m suspicious, however, that Douthat’s preferred implementation probably leans dumbass.

See, it’s all in the details. If “catastrophe” is defined as health care costs exceeding a defined percentage of one’s income in a calendar year, it plays one way. I’m actually kinda sympathetic to this, although I see problems.

If, however, it’s defined as coverage for really bad things that happen to you, as opposed to “routine” care, that’s actually really problematic. Because – and I think, as someone who’s recently had a catastrophic health care condition, I can say this – catastrophic care and routine care are completely interdependent.

Here’s how it works, in both directions.

Routine care prevents catastrophes from happening. Or, it catches them before they become hard and expensive to treat. I think this is relatively well-understood, so I’m not going to say as much about it.

Catastrophic care demands routine follow-ups. After you’re diagnosed with AIDS, or cancer, you need to meet with your doctor regularly and take steps to stave off infections. After you break your arm and leg, you need extensive physical therapy before you can work (or walk) again. After a C-section delivery, both mom and baby need regular check-ups. That’s most of what your health care is after something major — just people checking up on you, to make sure that whatever they did to put you back together again took, and that you’re not going to get swooped up by something else while you’re vulnerable.

That, and you take a lot of pills. Which usually counts as “routine care” even if your pills are keeping your skin from turning inside out.

I forgot to finish my almost-grandpa-in-law’s story. Later, he asked about the guy with the cracked skull that he’d brought to the hospital. About a week after he was released, he caught pneumonia and died. “After all that, he couldn’t take care of himself,” Mr Anderson sniffed, sad and disgusted, wise and blind, all the same time.

Now, go read Malcolm Gladwell’s “Million Dollar Murray,” and then tell me whether Douthat makes any sense, for anyone other than himself and guys like him.