Wednesday, November 29, 2006
Tuesday, November 28, 2006
It was a close final tally:
- Justin Morneau: 320 points (including 15 first place votes)
- Derek Jeter: 306 points (including 12 first place votes)
- David Ortiz: 193 points (no first place votes; one second place vote)
- Frank Thomas: 174 points (no first place votes; three second place votes)
- Jermaine Dye: 156 points (no first place votes; one second place vote)
Another bias is against pitchers. There are plenty of good hitters in the league, but notoriously few ace pitchers. Measured against the average-quality pitcher who would likely replace him, a great pitcher like the Twins' Johan Santana is worth a good 15 or so wins, which is more than you can say for most hitters with 30 or 40 home runs. When the award began, pitchers were often chosen; the (then Philadelphia) As pitcher Lefty Grove was picked in the award's first year, and in 1968, ironically considering this year's World Series matchup and the poor showing by Tigers pitchers, starting pitchers for the St. Louis Cardinals and the Detroit Tigers won in both the National and American Leagues (they were Bob Gibson and Denny McLain, respectively).
Since the following year's awards, there have been 77 MVPs of the National and American Leagues named (there was a tie in 1979), including Joe Torre in 1971, when he hit .363 for the Cardinals, and Barry Bonds seven times, in 1990, 1992-93, and 2001-04, a testament to either herculean discipline or drugs or both. Only five of these 77 have been pitchers: the As' Vida Blue, the Brewers' Rollie Fingers, the Tigers' Willie Hernandez, Roger Clemens in his Red Sox years (many say he deserved the title last year), and Dennis Eckersley of the As.
It's hard to compare the value of starting pitchers to that of offensive players, who play five times as often and play all game, and whose defensive value is much harder to quantify. But the controversy over Morneau's MVP win this year comes because he is so easy to compare to Derek Jeter, another hitter and infield defender. Jeter's defense as a top shortstop was certainly more valuable than Morneau's as first baseman, and Jeter's batting average was higher, but Morneau led American League fielders in RBIs, behind Ortiz, who was (usually) kept at DH. And RBIs, which are thought to reflect a player's ability to focus his ability at clutch times when it is most needed, rule the roost of clucking sportswriters, eclipsing batting average and home runs as a determining factor in choosing the MVP.
RBIs are certainly important, and any Boston fan will agree that Ortiz seems more reliable with every man on base when he comes to bat. But according to Michael Lewis's Moneyball, statistical analysis shows that the most accurate of the common measures of a player's offensive value is OPS--on base percentage plus slugging percentage. Even better is on base percentage plus twice slugging, which I'll call OP2S.
Average OBPs are something like .300, which means the player gets on base, through a hit or a walk, 30% of the time. Average SLGs are maybe .350, and are calculated like batting average but with multiple-base hits counting double, triple, or quadruple, depending on how many bases the hit earns; a .350 SLG means the player earns on average 35% of one base per plate appearance, which might mean a single 35% of the time, of a home run 9% of the time. The average OP2S turns out to be something like 1.000, while the maximum possible OP2S is 9.000--a batter who hits a home run every time. Since the median batting average is around .225 or .250, I suggest recentering the OP2S s by dividing by 4.5; this produces numbers in the familiar range of batting averages, where .275 is decent, .300 is very good, .325 is great, .350 is incredible and anything higher is phenomenal.
Here are some of the top AL hitters, with their 2006 OP2S scores (including postseason), recentered:
- Travis "Pronk" Hafner (DH, Indians) - .390
- David Ortiz (DH, Red Sox) - .374
- Jermaine Dye (Right field, White Sox) - .362
- Jim Thome (DH, White Sox) - .358
- Manny Ramirez (Left field, Red Sox) - .358
- Jason Giambi (DH, Yankees) - .340
- Justin Morneau (First base, Twins) - .332
- Vlad Guerrero (Right field, Angels) - .330
- Paul Konerko (First base, White Sox) - .330
- Frank Thomas (DH, Blue Jays) - .327
- Joe Mauer (Catcher, Twins) - .321
- Carlos Guillen (Shortstop, Tigers) - .320
- Alex Rodriguez (Third base, Yankees) - .320
- Mark Teixeira (First Base, Rangers) - .311
- Raul Ibanez (Left field, Mariners) - .308
- Derek Jeter (Shortstop, Yankees) - .307
- Miguel Tejada (Shortstop, Orioles) - .306
- Michael Young (Shortstop, Rangers) - .283
- Ichiro Suzuki (Right field, Mariners) - .267
Also notice that Pronk Hafner was number one with a bullet in OP2S, pacing Ortiz, before he injured his hand in September. He still managed to have an incredible six grand slams, as well as 117 rbis, almost as many as Morneau though he did it with 150 fewer at bats.
Finally, note that Frank Thomas has no place being nominated, least of all being placed second in three ballots. There are four DHs in the league who teams would take over Thomas in a heartbeat; well, three and Jason Giambi, who had a great season but still makes the entire city of New York hold its breath for eigth months of the year.
So who should have been MVP? Here are, as I see it, the top ten offensive players who should have been considered for the MVP, in reverse order. Actually eleven, since I cheated and manufactured a tie. Note that I excluded pitchers entirely.
10. Miguel Tejada (.306 OP2S)
Not much to say; he's a great shortstop, and the rare longball hitter who doesn't strikeout too much. He played every single game of the season. But he doesn't have Jeter's fire--the fire that makes Jeter steal bases and make insane defensive plays.
9. Travis Hafner (.390 OP2S)
Manny Ramirez and Pronk played only 130 and 129 games, respectively, but though injuries kept them from having full seasons, they still posted outstanding numbers. Hafner's 117 RBIs is comparable to Morneau and Dye's, though he had 150 fewer at-bats than Morneau. While I understand that a major injury reduces a player's value, you can't deny that his hitting was at the living legend level of Albert Pujols (whose OP2S was .394), and he was incredibly valuable to a team that would have been in the pits without him.
8 (tie). Paul Konerko & Vlad Guerrero (both .330 OP2S)
Like Jeter, Vlad makes hits (both had 200+) and gets on base; and like Jeter, once there he steals more. You never see him strike out, he had 116 RBIs this season, and he's a great outfielder.
Konerko is solid and dependable, and buried Jeter in home runs and RBIs, with similar numbers in other categories. But niether Konerko nor Guerrero brings the defensive importance of Jeter.
7. Derek Jeter (.307 OP2S)
What can you say about Jeter? He's been excellent for his whole career, and steals bases like he's still 25. He's not top tier with home runs or RBIs, and he strikes out more than he walks, but he makes pitchers work and he hits sweet, reliable short balls, especially doubles. If it's possible to make a defensive play, Jeter will make it. Even without the notoriously subjective "intangibles" like Jeter's supposed leadership, he's incredibly valuable.
6. Carlos Guillen (.320 OP2S)
Guillen lags behind Jeter in several ways. Guillen can't really steal bases, though he tries, and he's not the wunderkind playmaker on defense. But he is even smarter than Jeter when at bat. He runs up pitch counts and walks a lot. He's great at smallball, mediumball, and longball; this year he had 174 hits, 41 doubles, 5 triples, and 19 home runs, surely approaching some kind of record for balance. He's slightly worse on the field than Jeter, but he's more than slightly better as a batter.
5. Jim Thome (.358 OP2S)
His fellow teammate Jermaine Dye, when endorsing Morneau and Jeter both for MVP at the end of the season, announced that he recognized that "to the winner go the spoils". But can't we fight the bias within us? With the departure of Frank Thomas, Thome became the resident big slugger on the team. And though he was outhit by Dye, didn't play defense, and missed 19 games, he still hit 42 homers and brought 109 guys home. If the other guys on his team had gotten on base more often, he or Dye could have had the RBI crown.
Manny Ramirez, also of .358 OP2S, would be in this spot, but injuries and immaturity kept him down to 130 appearances. Still, note that Manny had more RBIs than Jeter, despite his 174 fewer at-bats.
4. Justin Morneau (.332 OP2S)
His second half of the season was incredible. His talent is undeniable, and he's clearly someone who rises to the challenge of tense situations. But RBIs are a fickle measure. Last year he had 79; you have to go back four years to find a year that Ortiz had that few (his last season on the Twins, ironically). Maybe he's on an upward trajectory. But I'll take anyone's even money bet that next year Morneau has fewer RBIs than he had this year, not because he'll be worse, but because the stars won't align for him to hit the RBI jackpot.
This raises a question of sports philosophy: when we decide on an MVP, what are we saying? That this player turned out to have been the most valuable? Then there is a strong case for Morneau--he was, at least, in the right places at the right times. Are we saying that, with reflection, that this player is the one we would pick first for a new team? Then Morneau isn't it. Neither is he the player that we would pick first for a new team if we had a crystal ball back in winter 2005.
3. Jermaine Dye (.362 OP2S)
Dye hits the long ball and gets runners in. Morneau had 10 more RBIs, but differences like that are small in a measure as much about luck as clutch value. Dye's slugging percentage is .069 greater than Morneau's, meaning that Dye hit for about 7% more bases than Morneau per plate appearance. No sane GM would give that up just to cross their fingers and hope that Morneau's entire career before last June, and not his three subsequent months, were the fluke.
Losing Dye would have been worse for the White Sox than losing Morneau would have been for the Twins.
2. Joe Mauer (.321 OP2S)
Mauer's OP2S isn't the highest in the league, but when you consider that he's an exceptionally talented catcher, it's clear that he was wrongly ignored in the balotting this year. He played 140 games, fewer than most MVP candidates but a lot for a catcher. He had only 54 strikeouts, more hits than Ortiz or Dye (including four triples), and a respectable 84 RBIs and 13 home runs.
You have to go down to the middling Jorge Posada or the hobbled Jason Varitek to find another catcher in the AL with anywhere near the hitting ability of this guy. As a catcher, he's widely acclaimed, and far more valuable defensively than all but the shortstops on this list; as a hitter, he rounds out the top ten. If Ortiz wasn't so unmistakably explosive, he'd be the most valuable player.
1. David Ortiz (.374 OP2S)
He's a designated hitter. He does not often contribute on defense. But when he plays first base, he's fine. Would the Twins trade Morneau for him if Ortiz had to play first, and the pay was the same? You bet they would. That goes for just about any player in the American League. If Joe Torre became GM of the Red Sox, knowing that the Sox need a shortstop and have depth at first base and DH, would he trade Ortiz for Derek Jeter? I don't think he would. Only Johan Santana and one or two other pitchers can compare with what Ortiz gives his team.
As for the MVP voters, if they are making RBIs king they should note that Ortiz had seven more of them than Morneau, despite appearing at the plate 38 fewer times.
And as for Santana, which player would a team rather have? I leave that to wiser baseball philosophers. For now, I'll just say that we'll always love you, Big Papi, and that you are, at a minimum, the AL's most valuable batter. Hands down.
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Monday, November 27, 2006
I don’t know how much Howard Dean has to do with the impending House victory (and the possible, although unlikely, Senate one), but his 50-state strategy obviously had a point. The Democrats are going to win largely because they attacked apparently secure Republican positions not only in the Northeast, but even in places likeFrom a fundraising perspective, Dean was a disaster--the Democratic National Committee had only 60% of the money the RNC raised. It also might have been wise to spend a little more in the states where we won Senate seats by less than one percent. But maybe he does deserve credit for the breadth of the victory in the House.
, Colorado , Indiana , and Arizona . Kentucky
I can imagine that Christopher Hitchens, who has called Dean a "raving lunatic" and a "pathalogical liar", might disagree. His application for American citizenship was scheduled to clear before the election; I wonder whom he voted for, and if, as a Washington DC resident, he resented not being able to elect a voting congressman or senator.
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Sunday, November 26, 2006
Alice has hinted that my snarkiness about New Yorker writers (Denby, Sasha Frere-Jones, Malcolm Gladwell) does not make for great reading. Or perhaps I've projected that opinion, inferring volumes from a raised eyebrow; the cause was a twitch, but I am reminded of the message of High Fidelity--whose main character my sisters swear "is Ben"--that it is easy to be a critic, and hard to be a creator. (Though I'm not sure how that applies to criticizing critics).
As someone who has been arguing for genetic reductionism recently, I should mention that my snarkiness may be inherited. My grandfather took great pleasure, as a liberal in Texas, in cancelling newspaper subscriptions in outrage. I understand that sometimes this happened several times a month, and I'm sorry he didn't live long enough for me to witness his famous tirades, though I understand that as he aged they were motivated increasingly by alcohol and less by his opposition to segregation, sexism and general parochial thoughtlessness.
Denby's own parochial thoughtlessness is really his business. I don't have to read him, and he doesn't have to please me. My desire to slander him is part jealousy, part dismay that a greater critic cannot use the forum, and part frustration that people as different from me as Denby control the center, both of political opinion and of Hollywood taste.
Denby describes Little Children director Todd Field as working "with such fluid grace and perception that the movie goes right to the top of the suburban-anguish genre." When I read this, I feel something is being stolen from me. Perhaps it's The Ice Storm or Who's Afraid of Virginia Woolf?, superior films about the types of anomie that Little Children attempts to portray.
To give some perspective, here are some events from Little Children:
- Will Lyman, narrator of PBS's NOVA, provides persistent voiceover ala clinical science documentary narration
- Man smashes room full of clocks
- Grown man rocks back and forth, crying, "Mommy's dead, mommy's dead!"
- Skateboarder tells a main character, who is searching for direction, "It's not about that... it's about... the skateboarding!" and later tells him that his risk-taking was "Gnarly!".
- Things that make you "feel alive", according to Kate Winslet in separate scenes, include "trying new things" and "football".
- Kate Winslet's marriage is in trouble. We know this because she walks into her husband's study, where he is masturbating to the website of "Slutty Kay" with a pair of panties stretched over his face.
- Jennifer Connelly, when refusing to have sex with her henpecked husband, calls her young son "perfect" over and over.
- When a pedophile with a prior conviction for indecent exposure shows up in the local swimming pool, parents freak out in mass terror, screaming desperately for their kids to get out of the pool. Then everyone at the pool--over a hundred people--stand in a perfect rectangle at the pool's edge and watch the pedophile swim in silent unison.
- Pedophile's mom is obsessed with him and strokes his face in inappropriate way
- The adults' night-football team has a coach who is wheelchair-bound, calls players "faggot" and accidentally runs his wheelchair into walls.
- The stifled wife characters have a book group which reads Madame Bovary, and Kate Winslet--who is having an affair--argues for Emma Bovary's rebellion against a woman who repeatedly dismisses Emma as a "slut".
Out of context it's hard to make much of this list, but aren't most of these either obvious, or overdone, or trite? The filmmakers throw in the kitchen sink and even include an American Beauty-esque shot of a girl staring at an unlikely suburban thing of beauty, in this case a streetlight in a cloud of buzzing bugs.
Only David Denby, among all the world's bad film critics, could miss the film's many pat caricatures and write that there is a single, "only element of caricature in the movie". (He's not describing any of the things I listed). The cherry on the icing on the cake: regarding the swimming pool scene, Denby writes that Field "neatly pulls off a big set piece that another director might have ruined with overemphasis." Perhaps one day Denby will reveal, in the tradition of the Alan Sokal-Social Text affair, that his career has been an experiment to see if arts editors will publish anything.
What to do with this frustration? Alice tells me that Dave Eggers & co.'s magazine The Believer is guided by a no-snarkiness ethos. Perhaps swear off snarky reviews and stop poking the bruise by reading writers who drive me crazy? But then, Alice, what would we do when Chris Hitchens comes to town?
I can try positivity. Here's a list of 200+ movies I recommend. Go see Volver, which was a wonderful, shorter-focus version of Almodovar. Rent Dear Frankie (which Malcolm Gladwell praises, and gives away the ending of, in the same New Yorker issue). Rent Half Nelson (co-written by my classmate Anna Boden and with art by my classmate Tze Chun), when it comes out on DVD in a month or two.
Maybe the sign of a fundamentally negative person is that he will go on and on about what he dislikes, but has few words for what he likes. All I can say is that I wish that instead of seeing Running with Scissors, Little Children and The Departed, I'd instead seen Half Nelson three times.
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Friday, November 24, 2006
Halberstam does not succeed in explaining Belichick's strategies except in pat analogies. Still, it's wonderful to relive the amazing Tom Brady story, and to hear about the success of Belichick's innovations, especially considering how heartbraking the Patriots' losses to the Colts and Jets have been this season. And it's inspiring to hear how long and hard Belichick struggled to succeed as a head coach.
When Halberstam is short on details, his covering can be silly. Describing Belichick and former Cowboys coach Jimmy Johnson:
The two men were friends in the delicate sense of friendship that football coaches are allowed--in the we-may-be-on-opposite-sides-of-the-field-but-we-have-similar-What's your source on that again? If it's actually something Belichick or Johnson said, I wish you'd let me know!
for-me-or-me-coaching-for-you kind of friendship.
P.S. It seems on Oct 30 the cast of Ugly Betty gave Belichick a makeover (in absentia) during the pre-game show before the Patriots beat the Vikings; sadly, I can't find an image of the result.
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Thursday, November 23, 2006
"What if, on a crowded street, you look up and see something appear that should not, given what we know, be there. You either shake your head and dismiss it, or you accept that there is much more to the world than we think. Perhaps it really is a doorway to another place. If you choose to go inside you may find many unexpected things."
--Shigeru Miyamoto, General Manager of Nintendo and creator of the Wii controller, Super Mario Brothers, The Legend of Zelda, and many others
Nintendo's new video game system, the Wii, appeared in stores Sunday. Fanboys like me are thrilled, but everyone who cares about the quality of mainstream entertainment should pay attention to the Wii's reception.
Why does the Wii matter? Because Nintendo is doing the best thing a huge entertainment corporation can do: promote true creativity and experimentation. Instead of just releasing a higher-tech version of the same old game system, Nintendo has been taking risks and pulling them off. In 2005 they released the two-screen, touch-screen Nintendo DS--the latest version of the Gameboy--which lets players create and interact by, for example, sketching enemy monsters and sending them wirelessly to attack other players.
Now the Wii is scrapping the trend towards bigger-faster-louder in video games. The top-selling Xbox 360 and Playstation 3 games are high-resolution shoot-'em-ups that require rote learning of complex controller configurations and hours of obsessive playing before they are fun; the Wii comes bundled with a sports game where the players look like Fischer-Price Little People. Its graphics and processing speed are far inferior to those of its more expensive rivals. The Wii's only hope of competing lies in the experimental new way that Nintendo has developed for players to control games.
Instead of holding the controller in both hands and pressing buttons, Wii players hold the controller in one hand like a remote control and use gestures to control in-game characters. The controllers (up to four can be used at once) are wireless, and information about their position, rotation, acceleration, and distance from the screen is transmitted via infrared to a thin, foot-long sensor that sits on top of your television.
This means no sitting inertly and staring at the screen; players must stand and move their bodies. This means that games can't expect hours of obsessive focus; games must be quick to play and naturally social, drawing in players by requiring varying sets of controlling motions.
Or at least that's the hope. Now the system is here, and must live up to its promise. Its success or failure will affect the way corporations view creative risk throughout the entertainment industry.
I had the chance to play the Wii for a few hours the other day. Here are my reactions.
I began with Wii Sports, which comes with the system. The games are very easy to get into. Nintendo is famous for its games' intuitive play control and for what is known in the software industry as "balancing"--creating subtle variations in difficulty so that players of different skill levels can all enjoy playing. This expertise is in spades with Wii Sports, particularly the Tennis, Golf, and Bowling games.
Nintendo's guiding philosophy has been to get gamers into gameplay quickly and smoothly. Playing a game on an Xbox or PlayStation meant sitting through tedious loading screens (as much as 7 minutes, as shown by a hilarious YouTube video). But Nintendo chose for GameCube, their last system before the new Wii, to use smaller discs and thus to force developers to trim extraneous code and compress graphics.
Nintendo has clearly succeeded here: the time from turning on the Wii to getting the hang of a Wii Sports game and having fun is about 60 seconds.
...well, almost instant
To my surprise, though the games themselves load quickly, the Wii system interface gets in the way. You are frequently prompted to press two buttons simultaneously in order to continue, and in Wii Sports, you must clear four or five screens of options every time you want to play any game.
Worse, Nintendo commits the gravest sin in multi-player games: giving power to set the game up and get the game started only to the first player. It's maddening to stare, powerless, at screens that demand that the other player press a button. I haven't said "Hey, I think you gotta press 'A' again" so much since the time when Fred Savage ran away from home to take his brother to a Nintendo tournament.
Does it work?
The Wii would be a company-sinking wash for Nintendo if the controller didn't work. Does it? Yes. Mostly.
Information about the controller's motion is interpreted from its raw data, provided by its infrared signal strength and position and by an accelerometer chip inside the controller, which sits on tiny springs and knows its acceleration the same way you know yours when you lean forward in a suddenly stopping car.
The infrared communication has the same problem as all remote controls--it needs a decent line of sight between transmitter and receiver. The Wii compensates for this with multiple simultaneous signals sent at different angles, so that when the controller is pointing even vaguely toward the screen, even behind small obstacles, it works like a charm; you can wave it around, even twist it and move it forward and backward, and the cursor on the screen moves as if it's an extension of your arm. The technology is amazing, and I'm sure there's tons of complex code underneath that recenters the controller, magnifies some gestures and muffles others so that the interface seems right for everybody even though they may be in different places in the room.
But several of the Wii Sports games, and lots of forthcoming Wii games, involve movingthe controller so that it's not always pointing at the screen. Playing the Golf game, for example, involves swinging the controller like a golf club. How does the Wii console know where the controller is pointing when its infrared transmitters don't have a clear line of sight to the screen? Well, it sort of doesn't, and this can be a problem.
Wii Sports: Golf
In Golf, the Wii compensates for this by guaging the speed of your swing when you hit the ball by the speed of your follow-through, which works well enough for big swings. But putting, which involves smaller motions, doesn't work. As you swing for a short putt, the on-screen character lurches and jerks as the system tries to guess what you're doing with the controller.
[Addendum of Nov. 26th: you can see this problem in action in a precious Google video of a little girl playing Wii golf; on the last putt, you see her swing, and then swing again; only on the second swing does the system register the motion.]
Still, the game works remarkably well. Golf games traditionally require you to time a series of button presses in order to make an accurate shot; Wii Golf replaces this with the task of swinging the controller with just the right amount of force. Too little, and your shot falls short; too much, and it becomes wild, slicing unpredictably.
Wii Sports: Bowling
The controller problem is skirted elegantly by bowling, where you are required to start with the controller pointing up, swing it down and back (where the system can no longer read it), and then bring it back forward to release--just like a real bowling motion. The absence of information coming from the controller at the middle of this motion is no problem, since information comes before and after it. Still, the system chokes on the data sometimes at the boundary where the controller is pointed perpendicular to the screen, and inexplicable input errors--the game generously awards mulligans for these--are common.
The controls are a perfect example of Nintendo ingenuity: simple enough for a child to play, but deep enough to reward extended exploration. Release the ball with spin, and it spins convincingly, allowing you to hit tricky splits. Release it fast, and it will have enough power for a strike. Where bowling games in the past were essentially digital--you specifically choose to bowl a hook, or not to bowl a hook--this game is essentially analog, allowing combinations of motions to add unexpected qualities to the ball's momentum and spin.
No game like this has existed until now: the physics of the real world are mapped into a constrained virtual physics, and thanks to Nintendo's elegant balancing of the control and difficulty--I'm a much better bowler here than in real life--it works brilliantly.
Wii Sports: Baseball
Baseball, unfortunately, remains essentially analog. It's a game of timing: just swing hard at the pitch at the right time, and you've got a hit or a home run. There is no swinging high or swinging low, and no real need to watch for bad pitches, for none seem to be unhittable. When pitching, you can choose the type of pitch and vaguely choose where to put it, but the pitch itself is a meaningless flick of the wrist--nothing about your motion seems to affect the pitch. Fielding and baserunning are automatic.
It's too bad Nintendo didn't put the attention into Baseball that they put into Bowling, in terms of deep control and interpretation of motion.
Wii Sports: Tennis
Tennis was my favorite game, and the first game I'm describing that several players can truly play at once (rather than just taking turns). It has complex control like Bowling, allowing you to make hits quick and low or high and slow, or to put spin on the ball. But the details of your hit can be hard to control, and sometimes--as in serving--the details of your gesture are ignored. The problem of the controller pointing away from the screen occurs here too, causing the characters at times to trip up, swing improperly or miss balls.
The game moves your character automatically and does a large amount of interpretation to decide where to place your hit. In this way, it has much in common with the original Tennis game on the Nintendo Entertainment System, a shining example of Nintendo game-control and difficulty-balancing brilliance which hid a powerful system of shot interpretation behind the simple NES two-button controller.
Wii Sports: Boxing
This is the only Wii Sports game played with the Wii's "nunchuck" controller attachment, which gives each player one controller in each hand to punch with. It's a wonderful setup for a game: you and a friend can fight, throwing real punches high and low, throwing hooks, and throwing uppercuts. The gameplay, however, is horrible. Many punches simply do not register onscreen, and many of the biggest ones that do are interpretation errors--punches that were never actually thrown. It's a confusing experience, where winner and loser wind up equally frustrated.
The Legend of Zelda: The Twilight Princess
I know this game was developed simultaneously for the GameCube, but its Wii version is supposed to feature more detailed graphics. If this is what mainstream Wii games will look like, then graphics on the Wii are worse than I expected. Honestly, the game's graphics look closer to Nintendo 64's Ocarina of Time than to the Xbox 360's current hit Gears of War.
This game is getting rave reviews, but my half-hour with it only made me think that the Wii controller will prove to be an obstacle to playing mainstream games. I'm sure that swordfighting with the controller will be a fun part of the game, but the bulk of a Zelda game consists of running back and forth fetching things, using various items in your inventory, talking to people, and climbing ladders--all things where the Wii controller serves no purpose.
These are the first generation of Wii games--not even, because neither is a pure commercial Wii release. The potential of the system will become clearer over the next few seasons of games, which will probe the limits of the hardware. As it stands, however, the system is definitely flawed.
But it is also wonderful, fun on a level I rarely feel with video games. I'm glad Nintendo took a chance on such a peculiar and wonderful idea.
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Thursday, November 16, 2006
The result? The subjects gave $1000 less aid when the victims were black than when they were white. Worse, though Democrats chose to grant thousands of dollars per victim more than Republicans, Democrats had a wider gap between the aid sizes for white victims and black victims. (To see if you too have an easier time thinking of white people in positive terms than black people, try Harvard's Implicit Association Test.)
During the Gingrich/Clinton welfare reform debate, there was attention in the liberal press to the gap between the welfare queen stereotype and the reality that most welfare recipients are white. It seemed that racist assumptions were so pervasive that white poor people were condemned to suffer the effects alongside black poor people.
The Stanford study is further evidence of this type of racism, one that punishes blacks so much it spills over to poor whites. Thanks in part to a neglect honed by racism, whites also also lose the right to vote for life in most states after going to jail for felonies, are also left to languish in overcrowded schools, and are also being ignored (still) in New Orleans by the federal government.
Monday, November 13, 2006
Van Gundy still has that beleaguered look about him. But time has mellowed him slightly, and perhaps the softer environment has helped. He summed up the New York experience by quoting three other authorities: the former N.B.A. coach Paul Silas, Yankees Manager Joe Torre and Anna Quindlen, a former New York Times columnist.
“Anna Quindlen had this line in one of the papers I was reading, right before the season one year. It said, ‘True success is waking up every day realizing what a great life you have.’ And sometimes I’ve allowed self-pity over losing to impact how I see the entire day, week, month, year. And I really have tried down here a little bit better to realize I’ve had a great, fortunate life."
During the time it took to read that clunky nut graf, the stuff from Paul Silas and Joe Torre, and the letdown of the Anna Quindlen paragraph, I had relatively inflated expectations for some Quindlenwisdom that wasn't a homily. I expected too much.
(I do like Anna Quindlen when she's being tough-minded, but I'm not surprised that this is what gets distilled from her work. Also, did Jeff Van Gundy have a three-example interview set up in his mind before the reporter spoke to him, or did the reporter just manage to cram the interview into a predictable format that would make any quote seem really boring? Or, is it the most likely answer, that Van Gundy is a good basketball coach but maybe not much of story-teller?)
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Friday, November 10, 2006
My friends celebrated Rocktober last month-- an e-mail exchange about a different band every day of the month--and there was an odd day about the Indigo Girls. Now, one of the biggest disagreements Ben and I have ever had was about the Indigo Girls: he likes them, and I don't. I did see them at Lilith Fair when I was in high school and they're good performers, just not my kind of thing. It's not antipathy, I'd say, but apathy. And sometimes mere statement of apathy turns into antipathy in an argument. When I'm feeling more on the side of antipathy, I always cite Ellen Willis's essay about the problem of feminist music, "Beginning to See the Light" (from the essay collection of the same name):
"...why did I like so little of the women's-culture music I had heard? The feminist music scene had two main tendencies. One was a women's version of political folk music, which replicated all the virtues (simplicity, intimacy, community) and all the faults (sentimentality, insularity, heavy rhetoric) of the genre. Some of it was fun to listen to, but the idiom was too well worn to promise anything exciting or original. The other tendency actively turned me off: it was a slick, technically accomplished, rock-influenced but basically conventional pop. I believed that this music could be a commercial success; supposedly the product of a dissident culture, it struck me as altogether compatible with the MOR blandness of most white pop music.
What disturbed me most about both brands of women's-culture music was that so much of it was so conventionally feminine. Years ago Ella Hirst had told me that she thought most female performers did not have a direct line to their emotions, the way men did--they were too busy trying to please. It seemed to me that too many of the women's-cutlure people had merely switched from trying to please men to trying to please other women.
A couple of years ago I had gone to see the feminist folk-rock group, the Deadly Nightshade, at a lesbian bar in Boston. They sang "Honky Tonk Woman" with rewritten, nonsexist lyrics. Someone in the audience sent them an outraged note, attacking them for singing an antiwoman song. The lead singer read the note aloud and nervously and defensively complained that the writer hadn't been listening. The incident had helped me understand why I wasn't enthusiastic about the group. They did not have the confidence, or the arrogance, to say or feel "If you don't like it, tough shit." It was not that I thought performers should be indifferent to the response of their audience. I just thought the question they ought to ask was not "How can I make them like me?" but "How can I make them hear me?"
...[M]usic that boldly and aggressively laid out what the singer wanted, loved, hated--as good rock-and-roll did--challenged me to do the same, and so, even when the content was antiwoman, antisexual, in a sense antihuman, the form encouraged my struggle for liberation. Similarly, timid music made me feel timid, whatever its ostensible politics."
This is my favorite of her essays from that book, many of which are very much documents of the 1970s and '80s (the essay about the Velvet Underground is also good). That's not necessarily a bad thing, but, for example, I'm unsurprised that the idealism of the genre-mixing and transgression she discusses in an essay about Tom Wolfe and Ken Kesey didn't end up being as influential as it seemed it would be. Liza Featherstone's piece about Willis on the Nation's blog notes Willis's interest in sexual liberation and transgression in the 1960s and '70s, when she formed the radical Redstockings group in New York:
Writing during this period, she created an alter ego for herself -- and anyone else trying to live a passionate life in hostile times -- an alienated character called Ruby Tuesday, periodically adrift from a cohesive community or social movement, asserting deviant desires in a culture that pretends we all want the same things.
But despite Willis's sense of isolation and libertarian commitment to the individual -- both of which pervade her writing in every era -- she never lost sight of the importance of social movements: "The struggle for freedom, pleasure, transcendence is not just an individual matter. The social system that...as far as possible channels our desires, is antagonistic to that struggle; to change this requires collective effort."
Like her character Ruby Tuesday, who ends up seducing reporters who come to interview her, Willis was boldly optimistic about the transformative powers of desire, and the threateningly political implications of happiness. "The power of the ecstatic moment," she writes, "This is what freedom is like, this is what love could be, this is what happens when the boundaries are gone -- is precisely the power to reimagine the world, to reclaim a human identity that's neither victim nor oppressor."
Some of those ideas seem more vague than interesting, but I guess I'm applauding the attempt to challenge the idea of what liberation and freedom can/could/will/would look like.
It will not look like "Honky Tonk Woman" with non-sexist lyrics.
This summer, Willis wrote a piece about the Village Voice and the feminist movement:
Many years after leaving the Voice, I still think of the Karen Finley story as summing up what I most appreciated in the paper's relationship to feminism while I was there: It captured the rawness of our urge to transcend limits. It's a different publication now, in a profoundly different time—-an era in which feminism has been assimilated as common sense even as its more dangerous impulses are forgotten or stylized to death. How fortunate to have that outrageous cover, those incendiary words, to remind us that the unsocialized woman existed, and will rise again.
In an odd way, she reminds me of Laura Kipnis in her unwillingness to give definitive answers to the questions she poses about feminist liberation, as they're both allergic to prescriptiveness and easy comparative language. This is a good interview with Kipnis from Bookslut about her new book, The Female Thing, which I read and thought was pretty good. The writing isn't exactly my thing--the one-liners are distracting sometimes and the digressions aren't always rewarding--but I like that she tries to ask different questions than the usual ones about feminism. Here's an excerpt from a Minnesota Review interview about her previous book, Against Love (which isn't a pro-adultery polemic, by the way--it's a lot like her other books in its sometimes contrarian way of reframing arguments about love and marriage, an argument that is sometimes rewarding and sometimes interrupted by digression):
Kipnis: I'm squinting at the "for liberation" because I worry about falling into those simplistic binaries, transgression and liberation versus repression. I'd like it to be more complicated than that. I don't think it is simply a pro-transgression argument. My work has never really been that invested in some simple notion of sexual liberation. Even the pornography book wasn't simply pro-pornography, or not in the sense that pornography is the path to some kind of sexual liberation. I've never been a sexual liberationist, even though I guess I've written a lot about sex.
Willis's 1992 essay collection, No More Nice Girls, is a great collection to read with Kipnis's books.
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Wednesday, November 08, 2006
Last night I turned day-trader (night-trader?) and shuffled shares around as conflicting reports came in on the unpredictable Senate races in Virginia and Missouri (Montana looked a lot closer last night than it does today). I pulled a Pete Rose and bet against the Democrats' taking the Senate, calling it a hedge against disappointment. But it felt great to watch my money disappear as the Dems' chances went from distant hope to confident victory in the space of just an hour or two.
Below is a chart that gives a sense of what a roller-coaster ride the Dems' Senate outlook has been in the last 24 hours.
The turnaround began when exit poll leaks and pessimistic reports from inside the Jim Talent campaign suggested that though McCaskill was down in the ongoing vote count, several heavily pro-Democrat districts including much of St. Louis had yet to report; meanwhile, it became clear that the Virginia race was headed for a recount. When both Jim Webb and Claire McCaskill's counts put them in the lead, the stock shot up.
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I know people are all into the house and very exciting senate race, but more referendums were on the ballot yesterday than ever (205 propositions in 37 states). Here's what caught my attention:She adds that Michigan voters rejected the use of affirmative action in public universities; hopefully this will not mean the complete elimination of affirmative action, but rather evolution into something that casts a wider net, and recognizes the changing nature of race and class in America.
The people of South Dakota didn't pass the ban on all abortions except those that save the life of the mom! Go people! Show the leadership they got to not run away with their own crazy conservative agenda. Tell 'em if you get raped you shouldn't have to have your rapist's baby. I am very very happy about that. And a shout out to the people of Rhode Island for voting to let people on parole and probation vote. Re-enfranchisement is good. Let's fold people back into society. People who vote are less likely to commit more crimes and more likely feel optimistic about their legit future. (Compare RI to, say, Georgia, Kentucky and Virginia, where, if you've ever committed a felony, you can never ever vote again as long as you live.)
In less good news, Idaho, South Carolina, Tennessee and Virginia joined Wisconsin in approving a Constitutional ban on same sex marriage (though at this point I think those results are still projected). Not surprising since 20 states have already approved the ban, but gay rights activists seemed to think they had a shot at countering the pattern in Wisconsin. This is not my favorite state at the moment. Wisc also voted to lift the statewide ban on the death penalty, which has been in place since 1850. So it seems this state was more progressive in 1851 than it was yesterday. Great.
Seriously I hate this gay marriage thing. Such a cheap trick to get votes...
Prop 87 failed in Cali (45-55). This would have put new 4 billion dollar tax on oil drillers in California and put the money towards consumer rebates on buying hybrid cars and other alternative fuel appliances, upping solar and wind power use and helpful stuff like that. Too bad. This referendum was famous for being a very expensive campaign. Both sides together spent 150 million trying to sway voters. Oh, and in Cali, voters struck down the measure saying you have to tell your parents you're getting an abortion if you're under 18. So your secret is safe with the state, which I personally approve of.
Nine states passed eminent domain measures which mean that the government can't seize your private property and sell it to other private companies. So that's good. And six states raised the minimum wage.
In Arizona, if you're an illegal immigrant and you commit a felony, now you don't get to post bail and you also can't get awarded money in a civil lawsuit, even if someone, say, comes up to you and beats you and kills your children with a club. You can't sue and win. On the other hand, it's still neck-to-neck if the state will ban same-sex marriages. Wait and see. My guess is if you're gay and illegal, get the fuck out of Arizona.
The great people Arkansas decided to allow charities to run bingo games and raffles--cute! But the state will not borrow $250 million for education. Boo. Arkansas kids will grow up to be some dumb bingo-playing fools.
The voters of Massachusetts voted to not let food stores sell wine. They made a statewide declaration against convenience.
One model is Jeb Bush's Florida school model (the greatest idea a Bush ever had), in which there are no racial quotas, but the top 10% (or similar number) of students from every public school in the state are guaranteed a spot in the state university system.
With some tweaking--like scholarships for all 10% and even distribution to the different state colleges--this can be just as helpful to minorities as affirmative action as we know it, and can have the added benefit of helping poor whites and Asians too. (It doesn't address gender disparity, but that seems no longer to be a problem in college admissions.)
An important benefit of a change like this is that social programs that all Americans pay for and receive--such as social security, police and fire departments, and the personal tax exemption--tend to be considered differently than programs that only some Americans receive, such as FDIC/Welfare, public school, and affirmative action.
Not only are the universal programs generally more popular, and run with better policy decisions, but they are seen as basic elements of American life without a trace of stigma. This helps them survive the vagarities of politics, keeps them from being gutted by Republicans, and demonstrates to voters that social-democratic policies can work.
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Monday, November 06, 2006
But in October, Sidney Blumenthal claimed that Colin Powell's old chief of staff thinks the number is more like 35,000.
Election day comes quickly after halloween... happy election eve.
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Sunday, November 05, 2006
Chair of "Hopefund", a new PAC not onstensibly promoting Barack Obama's candidacy for president: Barack Obama
Number of photographs in the Hopefund pamphlet I recently received in the mail: 8
Number of these that depict Barack Obama: 8
Number of these that also depict Michelle Obama, wife of Barack: 2
Number of quotes in pamphlet set off from main text: 4
Number of these in which Barack Obama is the speaker: 4
Number of times the word "Obama" appears in the pamphlet: 16
Average number of times per 8x3.5" page that Barack Obama is referenced in pamphlet, in name or image: 4
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Saturday, November 04, 2006
CareZone was set up in early 2004 by the Who Cares? Trust, a charity. It was an online forum where, until July, young people in care could seek support and advice--from teachers, agony aunts and friends...Sounds like a much-needed site that is missed.
In its short history, the service--called CZ World by the young people who used it--was acknowledged by ministers, local government and Futurebuilders [a government-backed finance scheme that offers loans to charities] as trailblazing, ahead of its time, and popular.
The trigger for the demise... was that the number of local authority subscribers--essential if the loan to Futurebuilders was to be repaid on time--fell short.
Hopefully it will be revived one day, perhaps as a site open to all young people, though there is some evidence that this sort of site needs to be focused on a specific geographic area. CareZone's was focused locally, rather than intended for the internet at large, and this might be one reason it succeeded. Researchers at NYU's ITP have found that locally-focused sites are able to attract a core of users more quickly, perhaps because the local focus makes it easier for users to imagine the site is home to a community.
That is certainly what my friend Ashran and I found when we revived Culpa, the student-run professor-review site at Columbia. Course review sites existed already at that point, but they did not attract contributors as quickly as our Columbia-themed one. I like to think this was because of our attention to Columbia-specific knowledge and a memorable editorial tone, but it might have just been because using a site focused on one's own school encourages the sense of being part of a group of like people, a Benedict Anderson-style imagined community.
My girlfriend Kate and I have an idea for a website for teenagers. (Feel free to steal it, I'd love to see someone do something like this, and besides, ideas for websites have no real value). The site would report on current events in a way understandable to people with poor reading ability and little background knowledge of political and world affairs--e.g., the students we have taught in New York City. It would digest news stories into short, animated paragraphs with simple wording and short sentences, and ask readers often to take stands on controversial questions. I guess that would make it occupy a place on the scale of news sophistication on the other side of Newsweek, Time and USAToday from the NYTimes.
Do people know of anything that occupies this space now, and is good?
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Thursday, November 02, 2006
I decided to take Agent White's "Meet Anton Chekov" pitch one step further, and stage a reading by Chekov, pretending to be a part of the Barnes and Noble "Meet the Writers" series. After staking out several downtown Barnes and Noble locations, I chose Union Square as our target. The "Meet the Writers" area on the fourth floor was the perfect setting. It features a large stage with podium in front of a seating area with around 150 seats. Customers tend to sit in the area and read quietly when there is no presentation happening; we would have a captive audience.
After I finished my first short story, the crowed applauded. I then told the following anecdote:
Under Communists in Russia I could not talk to my friends like I am talking to you, my friends. KGB was everywhere. If you went to restaurant to eat and talk the waiter was probably KGB. If you went to library to talk, then librarian went, “Shhhhh…” [holding two fingers in front of my lips]. And, if librarian did not say to shush, she [I cupped my hand around my ear as if to hear a whisper] was listening because she was KGB. The only safe place to walk and talk was the one place nobody was listening or watching… the graveyard.
I then began to read “In the Graveyard”.
...a handful of folks ... noticed the first sentence on the back cover of the play which read, "The Cherry Orchard was first produced on Chekov's last birthday in January 29, 1904. This meant exactly 100 years and one month had passed since his "last birthday". I informed anyone who brought up this point that it was in fact a "very embarassing typo" made by Dover Publications.
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Wednesday, November 01, 2006
One particular hypothetical scenario... involves a runaway trolley, five helpless people on the track, and a large-framed man looking on from a footbridge.
You know that if you push the large man off the bridge onto the tracks, his body will stop the trolley before it kills the five people on the tracks. Of course, he will die in the process. So the question is: Is it morally permissible to kill the man in order to save five others?
In surveys, most people (around 85 percent) say they would not push the man to his death.
[Princeton psychology post-doc Joshua D.] Greene and his colleagues described the finding as a partial victory for David Hume, the British philosopher who wrote that reason was a "slave to the emotions." But more precisely, they described moral decision-making as a process in which reason and emotion duke it out within the mind.
I am a David Hume fan, but I don't think Hume applies in this case. Would I kill a man in order to save five others? Yes. But would I push a man towards the path of an oncoming train in the distant hope that his body would slow the train enough that it would stop before hitting five people further down the track (but close enough for us to look on)? Are you kidding? With time to reflect, I might guage the odds of that gambit working at something in the ballpark of one in five, and probably less. The probable death count is at least as high if I push as if I don't. All things vaguely equal, it's perfectly reasonable to choose to not actively kill someone.
And that is exactly what happens:
Often, this scenario is paired with a similar one: Again, there are five helpless people on the track. But this time, you can pull a switch that will send the runaway trolley onto a side track, where only one person is standing. So again, you can reduce the number of deaths from five to one-but in this case most people say, yes, they would go ahead and pull the lever. Why do we react so differently to the two scenarios?The authors chalk the difference up to emotional contact--it is one thing to flip a switch, another to kill a man by pushing his body with yours. I disagree: I think you can't ignore the difference in the clarity of the choice.
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