Welcome to the bloggy home of Noah Brier. I'm the co-founder of Percolate and general internet tinkerer. This site is about media, culture, technology, and randomness. It's been around since 2004 (I'm pretty sure). Feel free to get in touch. Get in touch.

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Athletes: They’re Just Like Us

Source: Your Politics Are Indicative Of Which Sports You Like, Business Insider

On July 1, 2016 DeMar DeRozan signed a 5-year contract with the NBA’s Toronto Raptors for somewhere in the range of $145 million. Last week he was traded for Kawhi Leonard, the NBA’s best perimeter defender and one of the five best players in the league when he’s healthy (which he wasn’t all of last year).

DeRozan was pretty upset about it. He may or may not have been told he wouldn’t be traded and, either way, it seems clear he wanted to stay in Toronto. They drafted him when he was 20 years old and he had hopes of retiring with the team, ideally becoming the greatest Raptor in franchise history (a feat made easier by the fact that nearly every great Raptor has escaped Toronto at the first opportunity).

So far this is all just NBA news you either don’t care about or already know. So why write about it? Because I can’t deal with the “this guy shouldn’t complain, he is making almost $30 million a year” conversation. Of course there were variations, but the gist is that because you’re an athlete and you (deservedly) get paid lots of money you a) shouldn’t have, or b) shouldn’t voice, regular human feelings (this is, in case you haven’t noticed, a stance also shared by our president).

Since I read Alan Jacob’s book How to Think, I’ve had his answer to this question (or a version of it at least) rattling around in my head:

But that’s because Gladwell [in his Revisionist History podcast episode asking why Wilt Chamberlain didn’t shoot underhand free throws], like many of us, seems to have unwittingly internalized the idea that when professional athletes do the thing they’re paid to do, they’re not acting according to the workaday necessity (like the rest of us) but rather are expressing with grace and energy their inmost competitive instincts, and doing so in a way that gives them delight. We need to believe that because much of our delight in watching them derives from our belief in their delight. (In much the same way we enjoy watching the flight of birds, especially big birds of prey, associating such flying with freedom even though birds actually fly from necessity: they need to eat. And yet we have no interest in watching members of our own species drive to McDonald’s.)

That’s nearly perfectly expressed. We need to believe in their delight because of our delight and we can’t stand to think we care more about winning or losing than they do. Or, as my friend Jeff at DaBearsBlog put it, “fans think it should be honor to play pro sports because they all wish they could.” The thing here is it’s still just a job. If we zoom ourselves out for a minute and replace athlete with employee and professional sports league with desk job, we start to see things more clearly. If you hold a senior role at a company there are many in the organization who feel the same way about you as you feel about athletes: That you have it easy and if they could just be in your position everything would be right in the world. Of course you don’t and it wouldn’t.

What’s more, while some of us may have found a way to practice our passion at work (I feel pretty lucky in that regard much of the time), it’s only natural to have moments where we don’t feel like doing the things required of us or can’t find the excitement we know is there somewhere. It’s a normal part of doing the same thing everyday, which is what it means to be a professional at anything. (An interesting analog is the surprising number of startup founders I’ve met who are completely clinical about the industry in which they start their companies. They don’t need to care about the space as long as it offers the right market conditions.)

Getting back to the start, there are two main things people say about professional athletes that get under my skin: They’re rich so they should get over it and they should have known when they signed a contract. Let’s take these one at a time.

They’re rich so they should get over. While it’s true they make an unbelievable amount of money, that can create a whole new set of things to deal with that many of us can’t imagine. There’s lots of documentation that suggests after a certain point money stops making you happier. What’s more, they surely will eventually get over it, but sometimes that takes some time (try to remember back to how effective it was when someone told you “you’d get over it” after what felt like a momentous breakup). DeMarcus Cousins, a superstar NBA player who has earned around $80 million in his career but was forced to take a low-money short-term contract this season after getting hurt put this perfectly recently. When asked whether he was nervous through the free agency process, Cousins answered, “Have you ever been unemployed? Were you nervous then? Alright, that answers the question.”

They should have known when then they signed a contract. Here, again, it’s easy to turn back to all of our regular job experience. Most of us in America are at-will employees, meaning we can be fired at any time for essentially any reason. Despite the fact that we all sign an at-will employment agreement, people are frequently shocked when they’re fired, whether there is good reason or not. Do we wonder why they’re so surprised? Of course not. Sure DeRozan wasn’t fired, but he can still be surprised and sad and frustrated that it happened.

Last, but not least, there’s a much bigger story here about professional sports, money, power, and race. The NBA is a very progressive league, but even there you can’t get away from fan loyalty sitting with teams instead of players. And I’m not advocating it should, that’s the fun of watching sports: You live and die with your squad (there’s a famous Seinfeld joke about rooting for laundry). However, we can enjoy the game and our teams while not questioning the humanity of the athletes who make the whole thing possible. The NBA has made huge strides in becoming a player-centric league, but fan conversations are still lagging behind.

July 23, 2018 // This post is about: , , , , , , ,

Remainders: From Rubber Rooms to Reply All

Another week with lots more to read. On the book end of things I finished up Play Bigger, finally got around to reading Fun Home (yes, I’m counting graphic novels against my 30 book goal for 2018) and started my first Vonnegut with God Bless You, Mr. Rosewater (more on that in a bit). Didn’t write anything new this week myself, though I’ve got a few things in the hopper. As usual, if you like what you read here you can always subscribe. Okay, onto the links.

Favorite article of the week goes to Evan Osnos’s New Yorker piece on the Trump administration’s approach to “restructuring” the way the government works. Here’s a bit:

Last October, Tillerson’s office announced the launch of a “FOIA Surge,” a campaign to process a backlog of Freedom of Information Act requests, which would require three hundred and fifty State Department staffers. The work was rudimentary (“You could do it with smart interns,” one participant said), but the list of those assigned to it included prominent Ambassadors and specialized civil servants. They quickly discovered something in common: many had worked on issues of priority to the Obama Administration. Lawrence Bartlett had been one of the department’s top advocates for refugees. Ian Moss had worked to close the prison at Guantánamo Bay. (Bartlett and Moss declined to comment.) “It seemed designed to demoralize,” one participant said.
Sounds a lot like the New York City rubber rooms This American Life reported on a few years ago. If you like this, you should also give Evan Osnos’s amazing 2017 piece on North Korea a read.
I love just about everything that comes out of McSweeney’s and felt a little starstruck seeing someone I know with a piece there. Give Juno DeMelo’s “A New Mom’s Honest LinkedIn Profile” a read.
There’s been a lot of talk about female head coaches in the NBA thanks to the rise of Becky Hammon on the San Antonio Spurs coaching staff. Pau Gasol, a center on the Spurs, penned a very good piece countering the arguments he’s hearing about the possibility. It’s got a good anti “stick to sports” argument as well:

But I also think it goes to something deeper than that, when people will make this argument — in a way that really bothers me. It goes to this idea that … as we’re making all of these amazing strides in society, in terms of increasing our social awareness, and making efforts toward ideas like diversity and equality, and just sort of creating this more inclusive world … somehow sports should be an exception. It’s this idea, for some people, that sports should almost be this haven, where it’s O.K. to be closed-minded — like a bubble for all of our worst ignorance. And that as athletes, if we have any problems with the way things are, we should (as the saying goes) “stick to sports.”

Tim Harford is one of my favorite economics thinkers. Here he is with his five favorite economics books.

What does it take to shuffle a card deck effectively?

Here’s a list of “ologies” in case you need it.

I had never run into the voting/weighting machine analogy of markets from Benjamin Graham (who was Warren Buffet’s hero and mentor):

The father of value investing, Benjamin Graham, explained this concept by saying that in the short run, the market is like a voting machine–tallying up which firms are popular and unpopular. But in the long run, the market is like a weighing machine–assessing the substance of a company. The message is clear: What matters in the long run is a company’s actual underlying business performance and not the investing public’s fickle opinion about its prospects in the short run.

Some podcasts I listened to this week:

Speaking of Gopnik, she wrote an interesting critique of Steven Pinker’s new book:

The weakness of the book is that it doesn’t seriously consider the second part of the conversation—the human values that the young woman from the small town talks about. Our local, particular connections to just one specific family, community, place, or tradition can seem irrational. Why stay in one town instead of chasing better opportunities? Why feel compelled to sacrifice your own well-being to care for your profoundly disabled child or fragile, dying grandparent, when you would never do the same for a stranger? And yet, psychologically and philosophically, those attachments are as central to human life as the individualist, rationalist, universalist values of classic Enlightenment utilitarianism. If the case for reason, science, humanism, and progress is really going to be convincing—if it’s going to amount to more than preaching to the choir—it will have to speak to a wider spectrum of listeners, a more inclusive conception of flourishing, a broader palette of values.

And speaking of Julia Galef, I really liked this Tweet of hers:

At some point I’m going to write a rebuttal piece on why content isn’t a terrible term.

A few TIL’s:

Was reminded of this piece from Kevin Slavin on designing for complexity.

The growth of text messaging in chart form:

How did sports come to be so divisive? Hint: It has a lot to do with September 11th. “What was once ostensibly a unifying moment in the country has helped transform sports, with flags and flyovers, kneeling and protests — into the most divided public spectacle this side of Congress.”

As I mentioned, I’m reading God Bless You, Mr. Rosewater by Vonnegut from 1965. It feels like it’s all about this moment. I’ll try to put together a bigger post of quotes when I’m done, but here’s a little nugget to illustrate the connection:

And Samuel bought newspapers, and preachers, too. He gave them this simple lesson to teach, and they taught it well: Anybody who thought that the United States of America was supposed to be a Utopia was a piggy, lazy, God-damned fool. Samuel thundered that no American factory hand was worth more than eighty cents a day. And yet he could be thankful for the opportunity to pay a hundred thousand dollars or more for a painting by an Italian three centuries dead. And he capped this insult by giving paintings to museums for the spiritual elevation of the poor. The museums were closed on Sundays.

Some “Restaurant Recommendations from Your College Friend“.

What happened to medical spending in the US in 1980?

The 5S’s (not to be confused with the Happiest Baby on the Block approach), is a way to organize workspaces. They are:

  1. Seiri (Sort)
  2. Seiton (Straighten, Set)
  3. Seiso (Shine, Sweep)
  4. Seiketsu (Standardize)
  5. Shitsuke (Sustain)

It’s surprisingly cathartic to watch people organize a hospital supply room using the method.

The FT is no longer requiring it’s journalists to always write data as a plural. Hooray!

Blockchain skepticism FTW!

Song’s issue is that most enterprise-software companies offering blockchain solutions don’t benefit from decentralization. Blockchain technology is supposed to eliminate the need for a trusted third party to verify things like transactions and contracts. But most of the use cases available today still need some sort of third-party involvement, be it a bank, lawyer, or regulatory body.
That’s it for now. Thanks again for reading. Don’t forget to subscribe if you haven’t and please share this around if you’ve enjoyed. I’ll be back next week with more. Have a great weekend.

May 17, 2018 // This post is about: , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , ,

Trolley Dodgers

I have to admit I never thought much about why the Los Angeles (previously Brooklyn) Dodgers were called that. It’s just not high on my list of things to look into. However, in listening to the excellent Bowery Boys episode on Park Slope, they explained the origins of the name which were just too good not to share (the podcast is generally excellent — another recent favorite is on journalist Nellie Bly’s trip to a mental institution in 1887). The Dodgers, it turns out, were originally called the Trolley Dodgers. The name came from the danger Brooklynites faced in trying not to get themselves killed by the electric trolleys that crisscrossed the borough in the late-19th century.

The aptly named “Early Sports and Pop Culture History Blog” has a pretty extensive writeup of the name and the dangers that surrounded trolleys at the time. Maybe the best quote comes from The Evening World in 1893 who articulated the danger of the trolleys by excitedly reporting that no accidents had been reporting as of mid-day on the opening of a new trolley line in Brooklyn:

The trolley system was put in operation on one more of Brooklyn’s surface roads this morning. . . . This is the first introduction of the system on Fulton street, and the swiftly moving cars attracted a great deal of attention. Up to noon no accidents were reported. The system will be operated on several other roads within a few weeks.

Anyway, seems like a good fact to impress both sports fans and New York City history buffs.

January 5, 2016 // This post is about: , ,

The Economics of Basketball Fads

I’ve become somewhat obsessed with basketball over the last few years. I’m not entirely sure why, though it’s a combination of it being on at a convenient time (I’ve found Sundays harder to swallow over the last few years) and some really interesting work going on around new approaches and analytics (a few years ago the NBA installed a series of motion-tracking cameras in every stadium allowing for some really interesting analysis of how the game works).

Anyway, my basketball interest has crashed headfirst into my new parenthood, and thus being awake in the middle of the night fairly often. As much as I’d love to be reading serious stuff while I’m waiting for a baby to go to bed at 3am, I just can’t make it work, so I’ve been reading some basketball books. This week it’s The Jordan Rules, which covers the Chicago Bulls 1991 championship season (Jordan’s first). It’s a fun and easy read for the middle of the night. 

Anyway, when I read this passage I couldn’t help but fast-forward to today’s conversations around “small ball” (some teams, specifically the Golden State Warriors, are going out and playing without a traditional center and instead running with 5 guys who can dribble and shoot and space the floor). In the mid-1980s the trend was “Twin Towers” (playing with two centers): 

But Cartwright didn’t get much playing time in New York after returning from those foot injuries. Patrick Ewing had come along by then, and Brown tried a twin-towers approach with Cartwright and Ewing. That approach had come into vogue when Houston, with Akeem Olajuwon and Ralph Sampson, upset the Lakers in five games in the 1986 Western Conference finals; suddenly everyone wanted two centers. But Ewing didn’t care to play forward, and when Brown was replaced, Cartwright took a seat on the bench behind Ewing. He didn’t like it, but he started to get used to the idea. 

At the end of the day, part of what makes sports so interesting to me is that it’s a nearly perfect space for a bunch of economics theories. Advantages are won and lost quickly, new ideas spread through leagues nearly instantly at this point, and at the end of the day all the strategy in the world doesn’t replace talent.

January 2, 2016 // This post is about: , , , , , , ,

Basketball versus Business

And I’m back …

Thought this was a really interesting comment from ESPN’s Ryen Russillo during the Grantland Basketball Hour in December. He was talking about the moves by Sacramento Kings owner Vivek Ranadivé (also known for Gladwell’s writeup of his all press all the time approach to his daughter’s basketball team) and generally what it’s like for these guys who have made a lot of money in the business world coming into sports.

New owners can’t help themselves because you think about how successful these guys are at amassing their wealth. They go, “I’m the man, and now I’ll just buy a team, I’ll apply the same analytics, the same principles … I’ll just go win.” But the model in business allows many companies to be successful, the model in sports only allows one.

I never really thought about it like that, but it’s true. Although many think of business as being zero sum, it isn’t really, especially in the world of technology where people are bound to use multiple devices and applications (that’s not to say within a specific category it can’t be zero sum). Sports is different in that there is only one winner. Of course the counter-argument here is that something can’t really be zero sum when everyone gets rich, but it’s interesting to consider nonetheless.

January 6, 2015 // This post is about: , , ,

Responsive Systems

Really good New Yorker story from James Surowiecki on the “performance revolution” and how it’s gone from sports to the rest of the world. I particularly liked the way he connected sports to business:

A key part of the “performance revolution” in sports, then, is the story of how organizations, in a systematic way, set about making employees more effective and productive. This, as it happens, is something that other organizations started doing around the same time. Look at what happened in American manufacturing, a transformation that also has its origins in the nineteen-seventies. At the time, big American companies were in woeful shape. In the decades after the Second World War, they had faced almost no foreign competition, and typically had only a few domestic rivals. That made them enormously profitable but complacent about quality and productivity. The result was that, by the early nineteen-seventies, American productivity growth was stalling, while American products were often defect-ridden and unreliable. One study, in 1969, found that a third of the people who bought a new American car judged it to be in unsatisfactory condition when it was delivered.

Reminded me a bit of a great piece I read a few weeks ago on the “responsive enterprise” and how software changes this conversation around performance and improvement. A little snippet from that:

Software promotes agility by dramatically speeding up the feedback loop between output and input. In the past, companies could measure their performance every quarter, making it difficult to adjust quickly to changes in the environment. In contrast, Facebook ships new versions of its product multiple times a day, with enhancements and fixes determined by realtime feedback from actual use of the Web site. Companies such as Amazon and Booking.com continuously perform A/B testing or multi-armed bandit experiments on users to optimize purchase rates on their Web sites.

November 21, 2014 // This post is about: , , ,

Eye Test vs. Math Test

A few weeks ago my friend Nick sent me a link to this epic 12-part series on Dennis Rodman’s basketball prowess. While Rodman has been in the news for some interesting reasons lately, prior to that he was a basketball player unlike any we’ve ever seen and this series sets out to prove the point. I was especially part of part 2(a)(i) on “Player Valuation and Conventional Wisdom,” which has a nice explanation on the battle between the eye-test and math-test in sports:

Yet chances are he remains skeptical of the crazy-talk he hears from the so-called “statistical experts” — and there is truth to this skepticism: a typical “fan” model is extremely flexible, takes many more variables from much more diverse data into account, and ultimately employs a very powerful neural network to arrive at its conclusions.  Conversely, the “advanced” models are generally rigid, naïve, over-reaching, hubristic, prove much less than their creators believe, and claim even more.  Models are to academics like screenplays are to Hollywood waiters: everyone has one, everyone thinks theirs is the best, and most of them are garbage.  The broad reliability of “common sense” over time has earned it the benefit of the doubt, despite its high susceptibility to bias and its abundance of easily-provable errors.

January 9, 2014 // This post is about: , , , ,

Describing the Past & Present

I don’t know that I have a lot more to add than what Russell wrote here, but I like the way he described the challenge of describing something that is simultaneously happening the past and present (in this case, describing a soccer replay):

This is normally dismissed as typical footballer ignorance but it’s better understood when you think of a footballer standing infront of a monitor talking you through the goal they’ve just scored. They’re describing something in the past, which also seems to be happening now, which they’ve never seen before. The past and the present are all mushed up – it’s bound to create an odd tense.

It reminds me a bit of this post from a few years ago where I described the different levels of exposure/knowledge on the web.

August 3, 2013 // This post is about: , , ,

Diving Chess

This is just strange:

Diving Chess is a chess variant, which is played in a swimming pool. Instead of using chess clocks, each player must submerge themselves underwater during their turn, only to resurface when they are ready to make a move. Players must make a move within 5 seconds of resurfacing (they will receive a warning if not, and three warnings will result in a forfeit). Diving Chess was invented by American Chess Master Etan Ilfeld; the very first exhibition game took place between Ilfeld and former British Chess Champion William Hartston at the Thirdspace gym in Soho on August 2nd, 2011. Hartston won the match which lasted almost two hours such that each player was underwater for an entire hour.

Via Statistical Modeling, Causal Inference, and Social Science

December 26, 2012 // This post is about: , , ,

The Sports Disaster Plan

I’ve been reading Bill Simmons’ Book of Basketball and in one of the footnotes he mentioned that the NBA (and all the other sports leagues) has a contingency plan in the case of a team losing all its players to a horrific accident. I guess it’s not surprising, but it’s kind of crazy to read the rules from this 1992 New York Times article. Here’s how it would work in basketball:

The National Basketball Association has a contingency plan that goes into effect if five or more players on any team “die or are dismembered,” according to Rod Thorn, the league’s operations director. The league would permit only five players on every other club to be protected, insuring that a fairly good player — the sixth best — could be drafted by the club suffering the tragedy. Each of the contributing clubs could lose only one player.

December 17, 2012 // This post is about: , , , ,