Tuesday, June 30, 2015

I, Journalist (aka iJournalist)

Back in the 80s, but really starting much earlier, there was real fear that robots and computers were taking over the world. They could work 24 hours a day, never asked for raises, never went on strike, rarely got injured (though they might be more expensive to diagnose and treat) and wouldn’t wile the day away surfing the web. Fears emerged that we were moving toward a period of high unemployment and high profits, creating a permanent underclass and small, unaccountable elite. One could argue we’ve ended up there without the help of the robots, who are taking a lot longer to become productive than originally envisioned. Yet it is clear that “automated” machines have taken many jobs over the years, with bank tellers being among the most obvious, and that many more will do so in the future. It is wonderful for business, but less obviously beneficial for workers, customers or, arguably, the social order in general.

The latest attempt to automate a job that few thought would ever fall outside the purview of humanity is journalism. It might sound like pure science fiction, but companies like Narrative Science are already perfecting technology that will allow computers to create content, already utilized in sports and business journalism. The computer-generated journalism is not bad, able to point out the highlights of an event and create pithy, to-the-point sentences. It reduces the need for editing, obviously, and makes the pathway to distribution that much faster. Co-founder Kris Hammond argues that “Look … we are humanising [sic] the machine and giving it the ability not only to look at data but, based on general ideas of what is important and a close understanding of who the audience is, we are giving it the tools to know how to tell us stories.”

Hammond envisions a future where more and more content is handled by his computer programs (he believes 90 percent of journalism will be computer-generated by 2030) and where, someday, a computer will win a Pulitzer Prize. But his vision goes well beyond increase efficiency and cost saving (and a jobless economy, one should add) to a future where stories can be tailored to the specific interests of audiences. Quill has already taken steps in this direction, as it quickly learned to frame stories to suit its audience. If the readers were the supporters of a particular baseball team, it gave the match report from that team’s vantage. Likewise, if it is creating two company reports based on the same data, the machine can produce a positive emphasis for clients and a must-try-harder tone for employees. It has learned the art of spin.

Hammond believes that this would be a dramatic improvement on the journalism of today, largely driven by data and personal/business interests. Yet what is lost in this process, beyond millions of jobs? Well, the news is not simply an objective compilation of what’s happening on a given day, it is also a very human and subjective rendering of what is important on a given day. Reporters go out and talk to people, humanize stories, dig below the surface and find the heart of the narrative. Sure a computer can do with this with some effectiveness, but is this really the world we want to live in? Do we really want to destroy the world of journalism completely? And two other essential questions emerge as well.

The first is what this means for the idea of media as the fourth estate of government? Media is supposed to hold the powerful accountable for their actions and to keep the population at large educated and informed on the key issues of our age. We already see the abrogation of this responsibility in the age of corporate media but could it get even worse if computer programmers are setting the parameters of what we read each day – what counts as news and maybe more importantly, what doesn’t count. He said, she said reporting could become even more of a norm than it presently is and even if fact checking was programmed in, the sources of that fact checking would play a big role in the ultimate conclusions. What would even happen to human interest stories, which tend to provide a framework from moving a story from a distraction to something people actually care about, can empathize with or decide to fight against? In the broader sense, the idea seems to fit with the broader debates about data journalism. I’m not against it as an element of journalism, providing a more quantitative approach to news analysis at the macro level, but I personally don’t want to live in a world where that is all there is. Reading fivethirtyeight.com is sometimes interesting, but if that was the totality of my sports reading, I would probably stop altogether. Data pretends to be neutral, but analyzing it always moves us from objectivity to a more subjective rendering of reality, though it is cloaked by the lie that statistics never lie.

The second concern relates to trends that are already well underway – the tailored news filtering systems that currently exist. Facebook is getting in the news business and there are already hosts of other sites that promise to only give you the news that you want. On the surface this seems wonderful, a way to swim through the infinite seas of irrelevance to find the information that is most important to you. But is something lost if we get to decide exactly what we hear, read and see and from which perspective that information is delivered? Anyone not a fan fully understands the critique of Fox News, but more and more of us across the political spectrum arguably live in a world that is increasingly politically insular. We only hear the opinions of those who agree with us, only filter the news through sources with particular entrenched interests and can ignore anything that doesn’t meet our ideological or taste predilections. That might work in Utopia, but in a democracy, we need spaces for debate, we need to hear opinions that differ with our own and need a common set of information to make informed decisions. Just looking at the partisanship that dominates Washington DC today, we can see the results of increased insularity. Imagine if it was taken to the next level? Imagine if corporate interests were at the fulcrum of the programs’ algorithms? Imagine if an entire country could be slowly hypnotized into a waking sleep that ensured that the interests of the few dominated the interests of the many. I wonder if you already can?

Friday, June 26, 2015

Marriage Equality Codified by SCOTUS; Cons Apoplectic

In the culmination of decades of struggle, activism and courtroom battles, the right for same-sex couples to marry is finally the law of the land. The decision was met by cheers and tears from its many advocates and fire and brimstone condemnation from its detractors, including the four conservative justices that lost this battle. Justice Kennedy fittingly delivered the decision as one of the staunchest legal defenders of gay rights, including authorship of all three of the Supreme Court’s previous gay rights landmarks including United States v. Windsor, which struck down a federal law denying benefits to married same-sex couples, and Lawrence v. Texas, which struck down laws making gay sex a crime.

Among the SCOTUS dissenters, with each filing their own brief, Chief Justice Roberts claimed the decision was not supported by a constitution that had “nothing to do with it” and Scalia, in more bellicose language, claimed, “The opinion is couched in a style that is as pretentious as its content is egotistic. Of course the opinion’s showy profundities are often profoundly incoherent.” The latter is rather ironic in that Scalia famously sided with those throwing their own federalist ideologies in the garbage pail to hand the presidency to George Bush and the former given that Roberts has given unprecedented powers to corporations, which aren’t mentioned anywhere in the constitution either.

The level of vitriol was, of course, raised several notches when we move to the candidates for the Republican presidential nomination or among conservative pundits. Among the lowlights let’s start with the most obvious and egregious of exhibits, Donald Trump, who tweeted “"Once again the Bush appointed Supreme Court Justice John Roberts has let us down. Jeb pushed him hard! Remember!” obviously failing to read the news that Roberts actually did dissent the decision. Right wing loon and Louisiana Gov. Bobby Jindal said the decision, “will pave the way for an all out assault against the religious freedom rights of Christians who disagree with this decision. This ruling must not be used as pretext by Washington to erode our right to religious liberty.” As with many other conservatives, the skewed idea of freedom here is that people should have the freedom to take freedom away from others based on their religious beliefs and to discriminate without regard for the law or the fact that the other person is a human being.

Mike Huckabee decided to go a step further, calling for insurrection with this stirring message of hate: “The Supreme Court has spoken with a very divided voice on something only the Supreme Being can do—redefine marriage. I will not acquiesce to an imperial court any more than our Founders acquiesced to an imperial British monarch. We must resist and reject judicial tyranny, not retreat.” In a substantially more measured response that still implied some of the ideas of Huckabee and Jindal, Jeb Bush said, "Guided by my faith, I believe in traditional marriage,” then added, “lov[ing] our neighbor and respect[ing] others. It is now crucial that as a country we protect religious freedom and the right of conscience and also not discriminate."
Some more pragmatic responses looked at the decision as an opportunity to move on to other, more pressing, concerns. Commentator Noah Rothman tweeted, “In coming weeks, don’t mistake bluster for policy or irredentism for a platform. The SSM wedge is off the table, and the GOP better off for it.” And the Washington Post’s Jennifer Rubin concurred, claiming, “Socons can attend to shabby state of heters marriage, to poverty and to other matters of both relig and soc concern.” Andrew Sullivan and The New Republic congratulated themselves on their long support for marriage equality. And many others essentially voiced varying degrees of the same sentiment.

At the extreme end of responses, WorldNetDaily founder and editor Joseph Farah issued an emergency plea to governors today asking them to consider seceding from the union if the Supreme Court strikes down state bans on same-sex marriage: “We need a Promised Land. We need an Exodus strategy,” Farah wrote. “Are there any governors or legislatures out there among the 50 states willing to secede to offer a refuge for the God-fearing?” If not, Farah says that foreign nations that prohibit same-sex marriage should prepare for “a pilgrimage by millions of Americans” fleeing marriage equality (Right Wing Watch). This sort of rhetoric, once largely reserved for those fighting injustice and inequality, has become the norm for the right-wing of the conservative movement in this country, further solidifying the political insularity and insane gay and racial panic that keeps them relevant in a contemporary world trying to move on from their atavistic worldview.

I’ve always thought this was one of the more absurd debates in the country, given that the 14th Amendment to the constitution (the equal protection clause) appears to be clear in banning discrimination of any kind based on a person’s race, class or sexual preference. It does indicate the continuing importance of religion in our lives both inside and outside the political sphere, but the decision also comports with a profound change of opinion in the country over the past decade or so, moving from a population where in 2004 every state that had a gay marriage ban proposition passed it, along with voting for Bush’s “reelection,” to a majority of the country supporting marriage equality today. The right will scream their indignation in the streets and gain a few votes along the way, but might find themselves losing more and more ground in not only the demographic shift of the country but its cultural wars as well. I’ll conclude with the stirring conclusion of Kennedy’s decision …

Thursday, June 25, 2015

Whole Foods Price Gouging

Several years ago, I found myself living alone for the first time in over a decade and suddenly in charge of acquiring the items I would need to eat, I started shopping at the closest supermarket, which happened to be Whole Foods. My long distance girlfriend at the time soon told me that the chain was a rip-off and that I was wasting money every week. I laughed off her concern for a couple of months and then decided to test it rather unscientifically one week. I went to a competing store and bought the same items I generally do. When the last item was run through the scanner, I realized she had been right all along, to the tune of about $30 per $100 bill. My trips to Whole Foods became much less frequent after that, even as I still liked the store more than any other I’ve visited.

Now I occasionally make the foray there for specialty items or when a friend is in town. They do have a better selection of quality goods, a more extensive wine section, the best pre-prepared food of any supermarket and a better milieu in general. That is until today, when I read a rather troubling article about price gouging by the popular upscale market (WP). Apparently, they are being investigated by the NYC Department of Consumer Affairs for “systematic overcharging for pre-packaged foods.” This includes testing 80 different kinds of prepackaged products at the nine New York Whole Foods outlets and finding ALL had mislabeled weights. The U.S. Department of Commerce says a package can deviate from its stated weight by only so much, according to DCA, and 89 percent of the packages DCA tested did not meet this standard.

DCA Commissioner Julie Menin claimed, “Our inspectors tell me this is the worst case of mislabeling they have seen in their careers, which DCA and New Yorkers will not tolerate.” Corporate malfeasance has become so normal we rarely give it the careful critical analysis it deserves. In this case, a popular upscale store is not only ripping off willing customers to keep out the riffraff, but illegally by providing less than the promised amount (by overstating what is included). It’s not surprising, but it is yet another example of a company putting profits above the interests of the customers it purports to serve. Maybe it is time to do something about the culture of greed currently plaguing us before we all end up on the bread lines again, hoping a corporate sponsor isn’t skimming the cake.

Thursday, June 18, 2015

Police Violence in America

The Guardian has a fascinating piece today on the reality that none of the 50 states currently meet the global use of force standard for police. It is a troubling finding, particularly given the high profile shooting of so many unarmed black men and the continued prevalence of mass shootings, as with the one by a young white man in a Charleston, South Carolina church yesterday (CNN). That shooter killed 9 black congregants, walking into the church and screaming that he was there "to shoot black people." The data on gun deaths in America is well documented (see here for a nice roundup) but the general celebration of violence and the jingoistic, bellicose and racist discourse of the right are too often left unmentioned when yet another tragedy is added to the growing list.

The Guardian article included a graphic with each of the 519 people killed by police in 2015 alone, available here, which I suggest looking at if you are a strong advocate for the absurd "war on police" Fox is currently shilling to the public. When we combine that racist discourse with the NRA's relentless pursuit of an increasingly risible "freedom" and Hollywood's love affair with violence, a troubling question begins to emerge: are we a country on the brink of chaos and anarchy, where leaving your house might be more dangerous than going to an Israeli nightclub in the late 90s? I think to avoid that fate it is time for a serious conversation on the blood lust of both popular culture and our law enforcement agencies and personnel. Freedom is a tenuous promise that can fall away in the face of intolerance and hatred as quickly as it arose. 

Intolerance for Intolerance or Thought Police Taking over the University?

Higher education is supposed to be a space for free and independent thought, where your arguments are held up to the scrutiny of reason, logic and evidence, rather than the whims of public opinion. Tenure is supposed to protect professors from being punished or fired for their opinions alone. Classrooms are set up to be spaces for open discussion and debate. College newspapers and student groups have relatively free reign and controversial thinkers are often given the space to speak their minds. Yet serious attacks have occurred in recent years trying to undermine the most radical space for democratic deliberation left today.

In just the past week, a Nobel Laureate was forced to resign from his job at University College for a rather tepid sexist joke (WP), the University of Illinois was censured for firing a professor who criticized Israel in a tweet last summer (WP), tenure is in serious jeopardy in Wisconsin (WUWM) and the University of California at SF is eliminating all sugary drinks from campus (Inside Higher Ed). This comes as battles continue about whether warning labels should be included in syllabi for any material that could be considered a trigger to prior trauma for students (Guardian), whether campuses “liberal” bias is manipulating students (Inside Higher Ed) and whether “affirmative consent” should be the national standard (WP) in addressing the plague of sexual assault on college campuses. On top of this, we have students and professors pushing their campuses to disinvite any speakers whose views they find offensive.

The question that must be asked is whether this is a positive trend seeking to address the excesses of the university and intolerance among those protected by the university structure or overreach by thought police that are trying to colonize post-secondary education with the same absurd call for “objectivity” that has defiled the mainstream media. While few would question the idea behind “affirmative consent” or criticizing a professor for sexist comments in a public venue, should we really accept the policing of opinion that has become so pervasive today? In a world where political insularity is more ubiquitous than ever before, should heterodoxy really be held under such tight scrutiny, ensuring that no one is ever offended by what someone else said? Should we allow the thought police to stamp out all opinion not comporting with the university’s political leanings? And what would that mean for future generations, never taught to critically engage with ideas or have their own ideas and beliefs challenged?

What did Tim Hunt, the aforementioned Nobel Laureate, actually say that led to his forced resignation? “Three things happen when they are in the lab. … You fall in love with them, they fall in love with you and when you criticize them, they cry.” Tasteless? Sure. Not terribly funny? Okay. But worthy of immediate dismissal without even a hearing? Couldn’t he just make a public apology and take the heat? And what of the elimination of tenure, a popular conservative idea that far too many moderate liberals have rallied behind, under the faulty assumption that teachers, and now professors, have too much power? What of students and faculty forcing universities to eschew controversial thinkers that disagree with their well cultivated and rarely challenged ideas? What of conservative students who, I now think rightfully, charge that they have no freedom to voice their opinions? Gilles Deleuze once argued that all learning begins with provocation. It is a lesson that we should heed, as provocation itself comes under almost constant attack!

Friday, June 12, 2015

To Those Who Claim We Live in a Post-Racial Society ...

Simple question, would we expect a teacher like this to treat black students the same as whites? Would we expect her to teach her students to be sensitive to racial difference? While probably not a bad person, this is the sort of "not so soft" bigotry that unfortunately is rampant in schools today, though rarely expressed in public. 

Thursday, June 11, 2015

Greatest Upset in NBA Final History Brewing?

Cleveland stand two games away from the crowning achievement of LeBron’s career and an end to the city’s 51-year title drought. And they can take inspiration from the fact that the winner of Game 3 in an NBA Finals series tied at 1-1 has gone on to win that series 84% of the time (according to Elias Sports Bureau). They might also consider some of the heartbreak the city has felt over the past half century, including the move (to Baltimore), the fumble (by Byner), the catch (by Mays), the drive (by Denver), the decision (by Lebron), the shot (by Jordan in 89 and 93), the blown save (by Jose Mesa in the 9th inning of Game 7 of the 1997 WS up 2-1) and a whole cavalcade of others. Looking specifically at LeBron, he couldn’t even win a game the first time he took Cleveland to the Finals way back in 2007 and only went two for four in Finals with the Miami Heat “tepid” dynasty. This year, with three Cavs starters done for the year, playing a team that had the best offense AND best defense most of the season along with the league MVP (and arguably one of the best shooters in NBA history, if he keeps this pace up), are somehow 2-1 up, and a floating jumper away from a chance at the sweep. If Cleveland are able to win two of the final four games of this series, which is a big if, is it the greatest upset in the history of the sport?

This is, of course, a purely subjective debate. We can look at statistics, which tend to show underdogs rarely winning in the NBA Finals (see an interesting analysis here by Nate Silver: http://fivethirtyeight.com/features/lebrons-greatest-challenge-the-nba-finals-arent-kind-to-underdogs/). In fact, while even the favorite skewed NFL can look at things like the Giants beating the undefeated Patriots, the Namath-led Jets beating the Colts or Denver beating Green Bay as 11-point underdogs (among a host of others), it is not that easy to think of many startling upsets in the entire history of the NBA.

Among the greatest upsets we need only look to five years ago when the Dallas Mavericks somehow beat the stacked Miami Heat, even after falling behind 2-1. That victory was ironically redemptive to many who turned against LeBron after he decided to announce his dreaded departure from Cleveland on live television; to join a dynasty-in-the-making. But there are others to consider. The Detroit team that took out the Lakers in 2004, The St. Louis Hawks being the only team to beat Russell’s Celtic in the Finals (out of 12 trips in total). The Heat returning the favor in advance against the multitalented Mavericks in 2006. A few others include an aging Houston team sweeping the Orlando Magic in 1995, an upstart Portland beating the venerated Sixers (with Dr. J.) in 1977 and an aging Celtics beating the Lakers 4-3 in 1969, among some smaller ones back in the early history of the sport.

So assuming that fourth quarter explosion from the Warriors on Tuesday night is not to become the “new normal” of this season, restoring order and leading them to victory, where would this win rank among the all-time upsets in the league? I think it might deserve to be Number 1!

Wednesday, June 10, 2015

The Surveillance State Meets the Police

"Lynching Obama" Tweet Justification

Fundamentalism is one of the greatest threats to democracy, undermining one of the most important aspects of popular sovereignty – the ability to dialogue and debate the key issues of our time. Today we find far too many on the right and, to a lesser extent, left who have completely insolated themselves from anyone and everyone who disagrees with them. There have always been ideologues tone deaf to any idea that challenges their central tenets but it appears the proportion of the populace currently suffering from this ailment has dramatically increased in recent years.
One recent example exemplifies the problem quite well. A man posted a photoshopped image of President Obama with a noose around his neck, his eyes shut and his neck apparently broken. This elicited a visit from the Secret Service, him being fired from his job and a huge negative backlash from the twittersphere. His reaction? He told MPR News, in a recent email response, “My only regret is being called racist when my opinion of the president has more to do with [Obama] being a communist as opposed to being black.” (NPR) Few want to be labeled racist these days, even when they clearly are, but he indirectly seems to be arguing that it is okay to lynch Communists. And what, exactly, about Obama can even be labeled Communist?

Plato wrote of the Big Lie, as a way to control the unruly masses (in their interest, it should be noted), and many on the Left referenced Leo Strauss as an advocate of the strategy when the Bush administration was in power. It was most obviously used by the Nazis in their rise to power, but has been employed by governments throughout history. Yet the new “Big Lies” are coming from right wing blogs and Fox News and far too many uncritically accept these claims and then boil into a frenzy to destroy these perceived demons of the left. Similar trends exist on the left, though in a more muted form and without the racist undertones. In either cases, the new political insularity is a threat as great as the rampant cynicism of the young and one that we must struggle to eradicate if we are to save ourselves from becoming a true Plutocracy in the near future. We don’t need to lynch the metaphoric lynchers as much as remove the noose from a public sphere that stirs up such absurdly retrograde ideas.

Monday, June 08, 2015

Sports as Narrative: The NeverEnding Story

The crack of a bat smacking at a hanging curve, the swoosh of a three dropping out of the air like a diving pelican, the thump of a passing shot nipping the outside of the line, the wonder of a running backs cutting back against the grain, the aerial wonderment of an acrobatic backflip – these are but a few of the sublime moment sports so often offer us. The trials and tribulations, the vanquisher and vanquished, the struggle again the heartless passing of time, mind crushing the limitations of the body, the underdog overcoming the long odds, the favorite crushing the hope of the upstart – all of these define the spiritual journey of the sportsman and woman. For every elated fan there is another jumping up and down in fury at a missed call, a missed shot or a punch that failed to land its target. For every winner there is, of course, a loser. For every deep smile a deeper frown, tears of joy washed aside by tears of sorrow only to prepare for the next chance at glory or vexation. And within it all lies the true glory of sport, the ability to elevate the mundane to the triumphant, to win and lose alongside strangers we call our own and to become so immersed in the narrative we forget our own troubles, if only for an hour or three.

Sports at its heart is really a story without end that passes from one chapter to the next without clear lines of demarcation or plot structure. Just looking at the past weekend, we see so many narratives merge into one of the best sports weekends in history. Juve drew even with the clearly superior Barcelona in the second half of the Champions League final against the run of play, only to lose 3-1 and give one of the all time greats, Xavi, a rare treble to complete his illustrious career. Serena Williams is cruising to her 20th grand slam title in Paris, only four behind the all-time leader Margaret Court, when Lucie Safarova (who?) goes on a run and builds a two-nil lead in the third set. But Williams won’t be denied and wins her 20th final in 24 attempts. A little later on Saturday the long wait for a Triple Crown winner that stretched back to 1978 finally comes to an end in anti-climactic fashion as American Pharoah (sic) wins the Belmont Stakes by five and a half lengths. Tampa Bay faced a 2-0 deficit in the NHL Finals, blowing leads of 2-1 and 3-2, but score on a third period power play and hold on to win with a substitute goalkeeping rookie, leveling the Stanley Cup Finals at one apiece. On Sunday morning, Djokovic goes into the French Open final as a huge favorite to become only the eighth man ever to win the “career slam,” having already beaten the red clay master Nadal and Big Four compatriot Andy Murray in the last two rounds. He wins the first set and the coronation is set, except Stan Wawrinka, that other guy from Switzerland who has won only one Slam (and only as the result of an injury to Nadal in the final) and who has lost 17 of his previous 20 to Djokovic, forgot to read the script and suddenly starts hitting winner after winner on the road to upsetting the world’s #1 in four sets. After the match, the Paris crowd gives the loser, now 0 for 11 in his quest to win a French Open, an seemingly endless standing ovation that leaves him in tears. And then Cleveland, minus two of their three stars, tries to hold off a Golden State team that led the league in both offense and defense throughout the season, three days after LeBron almost single-handedly beat them but for a missed last second shot and a poor Cavs OT. They hold MVP Steph Curry to 3 for 10 and 10 points with less than six to play and build an 11-point lead, see that lead cut to five in about 30 seconds, then miss a last second shot from the best player in the league for a second time in two games (this time missing a contested layup). They are ahead in OT, fall behind and watch the MVP throw up an air ball for a chance at the lead before LeBron misses a free throw and then win 95-93 anyway. Only two days in 365, with three grand slams, three majors in golf, the World Series, the rest of the NBA Finals, the NFL regular season, the College Football regular season, the women’s World Cup, the Tour de France and a host of other events to come.

Statistics have become one of the biggest narrative tools leading the world of sports today, with advanced metrics defining players in ways the average fan struggles to even understand and statistical geniuses like Nate Silver using their abilities to quantify the world of sports and entertainment the way great writers of the past from Nabokov, Wallace, Irving and Delillo to Mailer and Plimpton qualified it. But as Cleveland and Wawrinka demonstrated Sunday, all the statistics in the world cannot decide a game or match before it is played. Sometimes the greats flounder, sometimes a player or team rises above expectations, sometimes a ball curls around the cylinder before falling woefully out and sometimes the MVP throws up an air ball like a kid on the back lot dreaming of that chance. Statistics have long been at the epicenter of baseball, a sport so obsessed with numbers that hours can be cast away debating their significance in a bar with the same furor of a politician pounding against the tides of change. Yet statistics can only tell us about the past; they do not perfectly predict or define the future. They allow us to compare players and teams from one era to the next and to predict the likely winner of a match or series or at bat. What they can’t do is take into account the will to win and the ways sports so often test not only the limits of our bodies but the composition of our souls.

At the deeper level, the narratives revolve around the indomitable human spirit, rising above the quotidian world and finding a sublime moment in the surrounding sea of mediocrity. The inchoate star looking for their breakthrough, the perennial choker finally overcoming their demons, the aging star looking to rediscover past glory. So many stories build around a narrative from Phil Mickelson surprising the world with a breathtaking final round to win the British Open less than a year after yet another U.S. Open heartbreak, Andre Agassi going from an enfant terrible to a beloved veteran, the Patriots needing a last second interception to finally give Tom Brady his fourth NFL ring, Jack Nicklaus giving us an unforgettable final Masters in 1986 while Tiger Woods struggles through an 85 on the shrinking road to the goal that seemed firmly in his grasp a few short years ago. There are those rare moments of perfection as with Arsenal in 2003-04, the Dolphins in 1976, Nadia Comaneci at the 1972 Olympics or Torvill and Dean in 1984. There are the dynasties of an era like the Yankees, Celtics or Lakers, teams that go from title winners to playoff bystanders like the LA Kings, players recovering from cancer to again reach the acme of their sports (in some cases to become disgraced years later like Lance Armstrong), legacies at stake (ala LeBron) and the stories so compelling an entire country, or even globe, follows along with bated breath. America love the Cinderella story, Brazil and Spain playing with style, Italians winning at any cost, the English mettle and physicality, Russia and Germany the precision of near perfection. The quintessential American moment was the upset of the greatest hockey team in history at the 1980 Olympics, for Brazil, Italy, Spain and Germany arguably their World Cup victories, for England the 66 win may be their greatest moment but Bradley Wiggins finally winning a Tour de France stands close alongside their impressive Summer Olympics of 2012 and Russia that same hockey team going on to again dominate world hockey for eight years, or so many other moments of Olympic glory against their Cold War rivals. Within a single playoffs, a single series, a single game or even a single pitch, so much can be written in, so many subplots coalescing into a story that can be told with infinite variation.

Stories have always defined civilization, providing an account of what a culture sees as right and wrong, beautiful and ugly, just and unjust, true and false, sublime and sacrosanct. It gives us an indicator of our value, beliefs and deeply held shibboleths and a vision of the past that can guide us toward a better future. With sports the stakes might be lower, but they feel just as powerful to not only the players on the field but those of us cheering on from the stands, the pub or our living rooms. Let the next story begin …

Saturday, June 06, 2015

Cleveland’s DOA Title Bid: LeBron Comes Up a Shot Short but What of His Legacy?

The pressure is off LeBron James. He will not win the NBA Finals now that Kyrie Irving pulled up limp with a cracked knee cap and is out for the remaining games of this Final. Add this comes on top of the loss of Kevin Love, on what I believe was rightfully called a bush league play by Celtic Kelly Olynyk in Game 4 of a sweap, and you have a team missing two of its three stars. The supporting cast just isn’t up to beating by far the best team in the league all year. But a lot of “what ifs” will be left on the table when the obituary is written on this Cleveland season:

What if Kevin Love was still available …
What if J.R. Smith made a few more shots in Game 1 (he went 3-13) …
What if LeBron made his jumper at the buzzer (or the shot before) …
What if Irving then avoided the OT injury (because there wouldn’t have been an OT) …
What if a faithful Cleveland denizen kidnapped Steph Curry before the game (or Klay Thompson for that matter)?

Barring a miracle that would catapult James to the pantheon of greatest individual performances in NBA Finals history, LeBron will soon be 2 and 4 in NBA Finals and, while two of those will comprise the bruised Cavs of this year and the undermanned 2007 team, it is hard to ignore those four losses. Jordan went 6 for 6, Magic 5 for 9, Kobe 5 for 7, Duncan 5 for 6, Shaq 4 for 6, the often underrated Kareem 6 for 10 and Russell an incredible 11 for 12 (in a different era with less teams and less talent overall). LeBron will soon be tied with Wilt at 2 for 6 in the Finals and plenty of the 32 players who have competed in 6 or more Finals have better records. Poor Jerry West comes out worse, of course, with only one title in nine attempts (he once won a Finals MVP in a losing effort), but serious questions should be asked of LeBron and any attempt to label him the greatest ever. He will still have a few more chances over the coming years, but it seems – at least on paper – that Jordan might now be out of reach to all but the most diehard of fans. It’s too bad, really, as it was a great all-around performance. But at the key moment, he failed.

On the other hand, it is worth noting that LeBron is the most clutch playoff player of his era, and one of the best in history. He has three game-winning shots at the buzzer in the postseason, which ties Jordan for his entire career (and four go-ahead shots in the final seconds of a playoff game; more than any player over the past 15 years). After missing the shot last night, he is now 6 of 11 on possible go-ahead shots in the last five seconds of the fourth quarter (Jordan was 5-11). Going back out to the final 24 seconds: LeBron is now 8-20 on potential game-tying or game winning shots in the last 24 seconds of the fourth quarter or OT in the playoffs. I don’t have the stats for Jordan, but Kobe was 7-28 under the same circumstances. If we expand out to the final minute of the 4Q/OT, LeBron is 13 of 28 vs. Kobe’s 10 of 37. Though I couldn’t find data since 2012, he was also the most “clutch” shooter overall in the NBA, tied with Duncan shooting .460 in those situations across the regular and post season since entering the league. Comparing overall playoff stats, we find the following comparison between LeBron, Jordan and Kobe:

Games Played: Jordan 179; LeBron 173; Kobe 220
PPG: J – 33.4, L – 28.0, K – 25.6
RPG: J – 6.4, L – 8.6, K - 4.1
APG: J – 4.7, L – 6.6, K – 4.7
Shooting Pct: J – 49%, L – 48%, K - 45%
Postseason Efficiency Rating: J – 28.6, L – 27.5, K – 22.4

So the question that might still be worth asking is whether LeBron has had the supporting cast to do better than he has done so far. I believe a healthy team with Irving and Love could have given the Warriors a real fight, particularly given the fact they really should have won Game 1 without Love. The 2007 team was LeBron and a bunch of other guys few have heard from before or since. The loss in the Finals to Dallas was a fluke that seemed to pivot around losing concentration in Game 2 (they blew a 15-point lead and Wade missed a potential game-winning three at the buzzer where he appeared to be more interested in drawing a foul than in making the shot), blowing a close Game 4 (Wade missed 1 of 2 free throws with a chance to tie it at 82 with 20 seconds left), blowing a four-point lead with 5 minutes left in Game 5 and then losing an early lead in Game 6 (when Dallas switched to zone defense and went on a 21-4 run). Last year, James and the Heat seemed in good shape until the Spurs played some of the best basketball I have ever seen and crushed an aging Heat team that had no answers. This is not to excuse LeBron of his presumed fourth finals loss, but to acknowledge that both Cavs teams wouldn’t even have been there but for James and the same might be said of last season and the Heat. Jordan had Scottie Pippin, one of the greatest defenders and rebounders in NBA history and a cast of great outside shooters over his six finals and Kobe was always surrounded by an incredible array of winners and playoff masters (Horry and Derek Fisher come immediately to mind, along with that fella Shaq now making a jackass of himself on TNT for the first few).

LeBron will have to win a couple more titles to get back into the “greatest ever” conversation, given the weight winning titles has in that assessment here in the U.S., but on numbers alone (including “clutch” performances) he is already arguably at the top of the list.

Barcelona vs. Juve: The UCL Final By the Numbers

Barcelona, as heavy favorites, face the “Old Lady” Juventus tomorrow night in the Champions League final. One of the two teams will complete the rare “triple” with the triumph, which includes their domestic league, the major league cup and the European Cup (now called the Champions League). Only seven teams have achieved this rarity previously: Celtic (1967), Ajax (1972), PSV (1988), Manchester United (1999), Barcelona (2009), Inter Milan (2010) and Bayern Munich (2013). Even what many consider the greatest club team in the history of the sport, the Barcelona team led by Pep Guardiola, were only able to accomplish it once. Two Dutch teams are on the list and obviously, it has suddenly become more common with four of the last UCL Champions completing the task. An eighth team will gain the honor Saturday night and Barcelona could become the first team to accomplish the feat twice.

Some other figures to consider …

Total Goals by Messi, Neymar & Suarez this Season: 120
     Lionel Messi: 56 Games, 58 Goals, 27 Assists
     Luis Suarez: 42 Games, 24 Goals, 21 Assists
     Neymar: 50 Games, 38 Goals, 7 Assists
TEAMS that have Scored More across Europe’s Top 5 Leagues: 3
     Real Madrid (162), Bayern Munich (123), PSG (122)
Total Goals Scored by Juve this Season: 106
Number of Games Where None of the Three Scored: 6
     Celta Vigo (2x), Valencia, Real Sociedad, Malaga, Man City

Percent of UCL Goals Scored by Barcelona Front 3: 89.2%
Percent of League Goals Scored by Barcelona Front 3: 90%
Percent of Total Goals Scored by Barcelona Forwards in 2008-09: 71%
Percent in 2009-10: 72%
Percent in 2010-11: 67%
Percent in 2011-12: 69%
Percent in 2012-13: 70%
Percent last Season: 75%

Number of League Assists by Iniesta in La Liga this Season: 1
Number of UCL Assists by Iniesta this Season: 4
Number of Goals Conceded by Juve This Season in Series A: 24 in 38 games
Number of Seasons Juve Has Won Series A in a Row: 4
Total Number of Series A Titles: 31
Number of European Cup Wins: 2 (1985, 1996)
Number of times they were Runner-up: 5 (73, 83, 97, 98, 03)

Number of Goals Conceded by Barca this Season in La Liga: 21 in 38 games
Number of Seasons Barca Has Won La Liga in a Row: 1
Total Number of La Liga Titles: 23
Number of European Cup Wins: 4 (1992, 2006, 2009, 2011)
Number of times they were Runner-up: 3 (61, 86, 94)

Number of Years Since Juve Was Last in Final: 12
Number of Games Since Juve Lost in UCL: 9
Number of Wins in a Final in a Row for Barcelona: 3
Number of Players Left From 2011 Barca Win: 8

Juve Record in this Year’s UCL: 7-3-2 (6 Clean Sheets)
Barca Record in this Year’s UCL: 10-0-2 (6 Clean Sheets)
Possession per Game in this Year’s UCL: J – 55%, B – 59%
Shots per Game in this Year’s UCL: J – 11.3, B – 9.6
Goals Scored per Game in this Year’s UCL: J – 1.33, B – 2.33
Goals Conceded per Game in this Year’s UCL: J – 0.58, B – 0.83
Number of Players Who Have Scored in Three European Cup Finals: 0
Number who can accomplish this tomorrow: 1 (Messi)

Number of People Worldwide Expected to Watch Game: ~380 Million

The numbers seem to largely predict what most people believe will happen – a win for Barcelona. However, if the score remains tied at nil-nil into the second half, the chances of Juve stealing the game 1-0 increase dramatically. And the injury to Chiellini could be a blessing in disguise, as Andrea Barzagli is arguably a better reader of the game at this point and has slightly more pace than the aging Italian international star. My prediction: 2-1 Barcelona.

Monday, June 01, 2015

Hollywood's China Censors

Interesting short piece on the ways Hollywood is altering their blockbuster films to ensure they can get past the Chinese censors, as they continue to infiltrate the mainstream China market: NPR. It was bad enough when the CIA was redacting Zero Dark Thirty, but this is taking things to a whole new level. After years of portraying our political enemies in a negative light, it appears globalization has turned Hollywood from its traditional Americanized ideological commitments to commerce full stop.