Category Archives: Sports & Games

The Olympics Is Everything That Makes Us Bad

Michael PhelpsAfter the Olympics were over, some commentator came on the television screen and did this big feel-good speech about what the world had just watched was a super-duper example of humanity at its best. This was all the best athletes of the world coming together to compete. It showed people trying to do their best and all getting along. Oh joy!

I watched almost none of the Olympics largely because I already knew what this guy would go on to say was the absolute opposite of reality. The Olympics demonstrate the worst of what we are and what make us, as a species incredibly dangerous.

This is not going to be an exhaustive discussion of the problems with the Olympics. For that, you would need a book. But really, this isn’t complicated: the Olympics are a nationalistic display featuring competitions meant to show which country is “best.” You would think that after the 1936 Nazi Olympic Games, people would have given up on the idea that the whole spectacle was above politics or a representation of what is best in humanity. But they don’t. The Olympics start with each country marching into the stadium wearing their colors and waving their flags. Could there be anything more nationalistic?

Sure, they aren’t carrying guns and shooting each other. But that’s just because the Olympics are like Christmas dinner: everyone is on their best behavior. The opening ceremonies are a perfect display of what leads to war.

There Is No Real Individualism in the Olympics

And they show that the games have nothing to do with the individuals. If you know the name of an Olympic athlete, it is almost certain that the athlete is from your country. And all through the event, we are kept abreast of the “medal totals.” How many gold, silver, and bronze medals were won by each country. Sure, we got a running total of Michael Phelps’ metals in 2008, but I assure you, Russian television wasn’t doing the same thing.

But yes, a big deal will be made of individuals who win a lot of metals. Yes, if you are an American, you know who Michael Phelps is. But have you ever heard of Larisa Latynina? Most likely if you lived in the Soviet Union or come from the Ukraine, you know who she is. She’s the woman with the most Olympic medals, in a sport I consider much harder: gymnastics. Swimming is probably the easiest sport to dominate in metals because it’s there is so much of the same thing. You have 100 m freestyle, the 200 m freestyle, the 400 m freestyle. And that’s to say nothing of the corresponding relay races.

No one will ever win metals in both the 100 m dash and the marathon. They are completely different. They even require completely different body types to excel at. And why are there so many dull-as-dishwater swimming events? Because the US has a huge amount of power on the Olympic committee and the US dominates in swimming.

What’s more, the differences between the athletes are generally pathetically small. In 2008, Phelps won the 100 m butterfly by 0.01 seconds. A change in lane position could have given Phelps the silver metal in the 100 m butterfly. And in 2016, he lost by a quarter of a second and shared silver with two other men. Personally, I don’t see how people can get excited by a sport where they can’t even tell who won.

I’m not saying any of this to put down Phelps. He’s an amazing athlete — just like all the other Olympic athletes and hundreds of thousands of others who never make it to the Olympics. But my point is that we make a big deal of him because he’s our boy. In as much as there is individualism in the Olympics, it is all done in the name of nationalism. People who get excited by Michael Phelps are no different than the idiot frat boys who were chanting “We’re Number One!” after we killed Osama bin Laden.

Competing Against Others Is Bad

One of the worst characteristics of humans is their desire to “beat” others. I’ve never had that compunction, yet in my way, I’m very competitive. But I compete with myself. I love learning new things — mastering them. But being better at something than someone else just isn’t interesting to me. Yet a lot of people live for it. And it turns out these people are overwhelmingly conservative politically.[1] And it is no surprise why. Beating the next best person by a hundredth of a second in the 100 m butterfly is really no different than wanting your country to have the most powerful military and wanting to be able to tell all the other countries how they should live.

When I played chess, I was always amazed at how much winning mattered to other people. It was a game. I really didn’t care. All I cared about was improving. As as a result, although I lost a lot of games, I improved most of the people I played against didn’t. I watched as players went from a point where I could never beat them to a point where I so dominated them that they weren’t worth playing. And they never got it because winning was all that mattered to them.

Life Is About Self Improvement

Winning is a game for kids. Adults should work on improving as a person. If you try to improve yourself, you are lucky because it will make you happy (well, happier). If everyone were like that, we would have a better world than the one we have now where everyone is encouraged to be “the best.” As it is, outside of measured sports (eg, running and jumping) there really is no “best.” After you get past a certain level on the violin, it is a matter of taste. And in that case, it’s a very small number of people who can tell the difference between an excellent college violinist and Itzhak Perlman.[2]

If people aren’t primarily involved in improving themselves (in all ways, including humility — something I need to work on more), you are simply left with nothing important. There is nothing that matters as much as the things you choose to spend your time on. Winning a gold metal really is pointless; but if you love swimming, getting to that level of ability is.

Above All, the Olympics Doesn’t Matter to the World

The Olympics are an opportunity for countries to show off. This is why they fight on the Olympic committee as to just which sports will be included. This makes the games all the more nationalistic. But if people like them, fine. But never mistake the Olympics for a gauge of which country is best. The best countries are the ones that see their people taken care off. It’s fine if people are great athletes. But they aren’t what makes us great. The Olympics aren’t important and are probably bad for us.

Afterword: Alfie Kohn on Education and Competition

This is a great lecture by Alfie Kohn. (By the way, what he does at the beginning — having people break up into small groups to solve a problem is how I taught physics. Imagine if your math teachers had done that with your classes.) He talks about how turning any activity into a competition makes the individual results worse. He’s talking primarily about education, but it fits so well with what I talked about in this article that I had to share. It’s possible that the best runners would be faster if they only ever ran alone for the purpose of their own improvement.

He also talks about a way of changing musical chairs so it isn’t competitive and ends up being much more fun for all involved.

People who have read me for a long time know that I greatly admire Kohn. And if you extrapolate his work to economics, you also see that capitalism really is a failure and how we can move on to something better.


[1] Phelps has never made a political statement so far as I know. I suspect he is kind of liberalish but mostly non-political. The reason I think he tilts a bit left is because he admits that he got lucky and it isn’t all his personal will and hard work that made him so successful. (Although really, I’d love to sit down and talk to him about the fact that there are way too many swimming events in the Olympics.)

[2] I might pick the college student anyway. I’ve always found Itzhak Perlman too flashy. I wish he would stick more closely to the music as written. But then, I’m the guy who doesn’t really like Romantic Period music. And I’m not questioning that Perlman is an annoyingly great player. I would still jump at the opportunity to hear him live.

Ice Dancing and Trying to Stay Awake

Ice DancingSo I was cooking dinner and forced to watch ski jumping, which I at least consider a sport. And then came on the ice dancing. And I’ll admit, I had been drinking. But I don’t think anyone should criticize me for metaphorically vomiting. It wasn’t on the screen. I admire what they were doing. But was it sport? No, not at all. It was beautiful in the way that a clarinet concerto is beautiful; but it was not sport.

These are amazing performers! But they were not athletes. To my mind, they were so much more. But atheletes? No! Atheletes are something different, and far less edifying. I want to talk to them. I want to know how they take just an activity and turn it into art. I want to know how they push away all the pretense and show us art.

Most of all, I want to know how they move so fluidly.

From Skill to Art

I want to know how they transform what is nothing more than skill into art. Because that is what they do. On the biggest of stages, they transform what is nothing more than technical moves and turn them into art.

How can it be?! They take what the proles think of as nothing but technique and create art.

Maybe they don’t even know. Maybe art is just craft turned into art without them even realizing it. How triumphant for the artists?! How wholly disreputable for the viewers who can see nothing but technique — those who miss the art.

Transcendiing Art

They are so focused on technique that they don’t even think of art. And so they think of what they need. They need only technique. It’s the one thing that the Olympics require. And this is why the Olympics is not worth watching.

Random Ramblings On Sports Fandom

SportsIt’s that magical time of year when Minnesota’s city park employees turn tennis courts and baseball diamonds into hockey rinks.

How do they perform this amazing transubstantiation? (H/T: Catholicism!) Well, there are several complicated steps. I shall endeavor to describe them as best I can.

  1. Remove tennis net or baseball bases. Put in storage.
  2. Get fire hose. Attach to fire hydrant.
  3. Spray court or field with water.
  4. Wait a day.
  5. Repeat steps 3 and 4 as necessary.
  6. Get hockey goals out of storage. Place in park. Number of goals depends on size of park; however, number must be divisible by 2.
  7. Empty park trash cans weekly.

How to Make Friends Through Sports

I am from Oregon, originally. So I grew up playing baseball, basketball, and football. Hockey? Not so much.

When I was about to move here, I stopped at Powell’s Books, a wonderful store in Portland. I found a book titled “50 Ways To Make Friends In Your New City” (or something like that).

I am terrible at making friends (largely because I don’t trust humans, which is a prejudice, but not an unjustified one). So I picked up and read the book. In Powell’s, it’s completely acceptable to grab a book, sit at the cafe, have coffee, and read the whole book. Pay for your coffee. And put the book back where you found it. These are the rules.

The book had lots of advice I couldn’t use. “Join a local church.” That’s a fine notion for some, not really my speed. “Change your political views.” For example, if you’re moving to Houston, become a Republican; if you’re moving to Seattle, become a Democrat. Well, I’d rather join a church than switch my party loyalty. My cultural background is quite mixed: Québécois, Irish, English Catholic, and some Native American. All have different traditions. One thing they have in common: they don’t switch political sides. That’s a no-go.

But this was a piece of advice I liked, “Root for the home team.” Yes! I can do that! And I did.

Minnesota Sports Are Cool

I had many fun evenings cheering along with Minnesota sports fans, in stadiums and bars. The Twins were quite good for a long while, and rekindled my childhood love of baseball. The Timberwolves are never good, but it’s kind of a shared misery thing.

Even the Vikings were fun. At least they were until I heard one too many fans complaining about “Culpepper & Moss”: a quarterback and wide receiver “team.” Daunte Culpepper, the quarterback, had a crazy strong arm. Randy Moss, the receiver, had the eyes of a wary small mammal. They’d glower out from under his facemask. He had a bizarrely balletic mid-air grace.

Culpepper-to-Moss

Imagine a clever chipmunk watching two dogs snarl at each other over some piece of meat. As they pace around and bristle their fur, our chipmunk friend dashes in, grabs half the meat, and disappears up into its tree before the dogs know what hit ’em. The dogs, furious, bark like mad. Tough luck, guys! Dogs can’t climb trees!

This was Culpepper-to-Moss. It was, as one writer put it, the pro football equivalent of every kid’s favorite football play drawn up with sticks in dirt, “You go long, and I’ll hit you.” The skinny kid runs as fast as he can. The quarterback throws a bomb. The skinny kid jumps in the air, and, even if about to get tackled by three guys around him, he corrals the ball with one hand and cradles it to his body.

This happened almost every Vikings game! And it was fantastic! But Vikings fans started complaining about “Culpepper & Moss.” I didn’t get why, at first. Then I did: they were both black. Football fans are pretty damn racist. So I stopped watching football.

(The Vikings also gave me one of my favorite sports memories. Another receiver, Cris Carter, had a contact lens pop out. As Carter was one of the football’s most respected players, referees paused the game. For two full minutes, giant behemoths from both teams were crawling around, looking in the turf for a contact lens. This was a wonderful thing to watch.)

But Not Hockey

I’ve enjoyed the Minnesota Wild, too. Or enjoyed other people enjoying them. Because, honestly, I don’t “get” hockey.

Not that I don’t appreciate the sport! It’s full of skill, drama, tension. Players do amazing things while skating at high speeds — even while skating backwards!

(My favorite hockey players are the goalies. People are hurtling a harmful projectile at you. Your job is to go “No! I can’t be hurt! Stop, projectile, stop!” For similar reasons, my favorite baseball players are catchers.)

However, I don’t “get” hockey: for the same reason anyone “gets” anything, whether it be a religion or cuisine or whatever. I didn’t grow up playing hockey! If you fire-hose-spray a city park in Oregon, you have a muddy park. In Minnesota, in winter, you have a hockey rink. So everyone plays hockey. That’s one subject in the fine Pixar film, Inside Out, directed by Minnesotan Pete Docter.

I don’t ice skate, and never will. I’m not training for any hobby which includes, as a practice requirement, “falling down repeatedly.” Fallen on ice lately? It’s very hard. It kills people! No ice skating for me. So I’ll never “get” hockey. (Or sadly, curling, which is much more up my alley, but still requires ice skating.)

Other Ways To Enjoy Sports

I used to work helping take care of disabled adults, and there was one guy I’d bring to Twins games. The guy didn’t talk and didn’t sign ASL. It was virtually impossible to communicate with him. He’d allow you to help him with some things, resist other attempts to help, that’s pretty much all the feedback you’d get.

He’d agree to let you load his wheelchair in the van for a Twins game. I don’t know why. With people who don’t talk or sign, I’d still talked to them. My reasoning was that it doesn’t take any effort to do so, and I have no clue what they’re picking up on the other end. It may be pure syllabic gibberish. They might understand every word. Or something in between. If they want me to stop talking, they can push me away.

So we’d go to Twins games, and who knows if this guy actually liked baseball. But there was one thing he clearly liked. (Keep in mind, this guy had a grumpy expression 99% of the time.)

If the Twins scored — and the crowd went wild — this guy would crane his neck around, look at all the cheering people, and start laughing. Belly laughing. He didn’t make laugh sounds, because he didn’t make sounds, but his chest would heave and his mouth would smile and tears pour from the corners of his eyes.

I suspect, though I do not know, that he found sports fans hilariously ridiculous. As, indeed, we are.

Nothing At The End

Now’s when I’m supposed to wrap this all up and make it come together, right? Nope. That’s for real writers. I’m posting on a blog!

There’s a local minor-league baseball team, the St Paul Saints. Yes, uninspired name, but they have a long history of inspired promotional gimmicks. At one, Mascot Night, there was a mascot from a pre-employment screening clinic. The mascot was a pee cup. Cup-shaped, yellow on the lower half. This was one of the most brilliant things I’ve ever seen.

Some years, the Saints do Atheists Night. It has various skits in-between innings. One had two random fans racing around the foul territory, with obstacles to overcome. As they raced, the PA announcer described what symbolic meaning each obstacle represented. Such as, for a mudslide, “it’s the primordial ooze!”

When one was first to the finish line, our PA announcer said, “The winner gets…” and froze. For 15 seconds. Then intoned, “What?! Did you think there was a reward at the end? It’s an atheist race! There’s nothing at the end!”

Nothing at the end here either, I’m afraid. Enjoy sports if that brings you closer to others. Remember, they are a bit silly. (But most hobbies are. Nothing wrong with that!)

Skate in the park if you live in a frozen place — if your home is warmer, enjoy it being not so damned cold. And have the merriest New Year you can.

Solving Sudoku Puzzles the Easy Way

Sudoku MeaningI think of myself as someone who likes Sudoku puzzles. But that’s not really true. I never sit at home solving these puzzles. Instead, I do them when I am somewhere else where I don’t have the ability to concentrate on anything. I can solve a Sudoku puzzle 5 seconds at a time. Compare that with reading a newspaper, which I can’t do at that level of interruption. I probably shouldn’t say it, but if I’m doing Sudoku around you, it doesn’t speak well of my keenness to be around at that moment. And this may explain why I don’t do really hard puzzles.

Most Sudoku puzzles can be done purely deductively. That is to say that simply by looking at the numbers, you can directly deduce what some empty boxes must be. When I first started solving these puzzles, I found that there were harder puzzles where only a couple of empty cells could be filled in. Eventually, people learn that they can solve these puzzles by going one or two steps deep: since these cells can’t contain the number 5, that means these other cells must contain the number 5, and that means some other cell must be the number 3 — or whatever. That might sound complex, but it’s really very easy.

Difficult Sudoku Puzzles

Where things get difficult is where you really have no choice but to guess. Once you guess, you move forward deductively until you uncover an inconsistency or you finish the puzzle. Of course, most of the time, it is worse than that. After making a guess and trying one path, you may be forced to make a guess on that path — and maybe one after that. This is a complete pain. But there is an obvious way to use this method. Start doing the puzzle with a pen and then switch to a pencil for your first guess.

Now if you are lucky and your guess is wrong, you can then erase everything and fill in the non-guess with pen. Then you can continue on from there. But what about if you run into double or triple guesses? Colored pencils? They don’t erase well. And I don’t keep any around anyway. I only use pens. But I came upon a simple computer solution the other day, that works really well.

An Easy Solution

I was reading, Sudoku Meaning on Labor Day 2016. For that article, I used an unsolved Sudoku puzzle for the image. It occurred to me that I really should have solved it (it’s a very easy one). So I brought the image into Paint.NET. I added a layer and entered the solution in red. A thought occurred to me: if I needed to do any guessing, I could just create another image layer and change the ink color (though it is not strictly necessary).

Of course, I will never do this. I don’t have a computer in front of me when I am playing Sudoku. But if I ever decide to tackle the “Beware! Very Challenging” puzzles in Will Shortz’s The Little Black Book of Sudoku, that may be the way to go. And yes: of course the book was a Christmas gift. I would never buy such a book for myself.

Afterword

Note: I’m sure there are programs written just to help people solve Sudoku puzzles. Of course, I could just write a program that simply solved Sudoku puzzles. It’s a question of how much help you want to get.

Who Killed the USFL? Donald Trump

United States Football League - USFL

When I recently read David Cay Johnston’s excellent new book, The Making of Donald Trump, I learned about his involvement in the United States Football League or, as it is normally referred to, the USFL. I did know that Trump had something to do with the league, but not much else. I did not know that he was likely the single biggest reason for the failure of the league.

According to Johnston, the USFL was formed largely to appeal to the vanity of rich men. It was a way for rich men who weren’t rich enough to buy into the NFL to have their own professional football teams. But that doesn’t mean that the project itself wasn’t financially viable. The USFL was set up to play in the spring. It didn’t directly compete with the NFL. So for people who just couldn’t get enough football, it was there. Also, ticket prices were cheaper, so that was good. Games averaged about 25,000 people in attendance in the first year. That’s shockingly good.

What’s more, the league was formed at roughly the same time as ESPN. So they were able to get television contracts worth millions. There seems to me no doubt that had the USFL taken things slowly as it was originally conceived, it would either now be huge or have merged with the NFL. Instead, the league existed for only three seasons.

This is shocking given that the first season had been so good and the future looked so bright at that point. There was just one problem: Donald Trump bought one of the teams, the New Jersey Generals, after the first season. It’s amazing to me that so many people think Trump is good at business. As most people around here know: I don’t think that much of supposed business acumen in general. I think there really are only two things: competent management (which can easily be learned) and dumb luck. Trump has none of former.

Trump started his ownership as you might imagine. He immediately crushed the salary cap. He wasn’t the first to cross it but he really accelerated it, making what should have been a conservative business (at that point anyway) into a high risk gambit. At first, this helped attendance. And certainly having Trump around didn’t hurt the profile of the USFL. But by the third season, some teams were losing money.

This provided a great opportunity for Trump. You see, he wasn’t interested in the USFL. He later claimed that it would always have been “small potatoes.” He appears to have only been interested in using it to get into the NFL. So he convinced a number of team owners to sue the NFL. They claimed that the USFL wanted to play in the fall and that they couldn’t because the NFL had them frozen out because it had a lock on all the television contracts.

So they were making an antitrust case against the NFL. And they won! The jury claimed that the NFL did indeed have a monopoly. And they awarded the USFL $1 in damages. That’s not a typo. Apparently, the jury wasn’t too happy about the case. And when the USFL appealed the award, the Second Circuit Court of Appeals upheld it and indicated that it knew the case was just a cheap attempt to use the courts to get into the NFL without having to earn it.

Note: such an antitrust case might have worked after 10 or 15 years when the USFL was bringing in 60,000 in attendance. But this was a case where the league had just started. As it was, attendance went up in the second season, but it was back down to where it started in the third season. So there is the answer to question in the headline: Donald Trump killed the USFL.

Afterword

The following ESPN documentary from 2009 is about this whole thing. It is called, Small Potatoes: Who Killed the USFL? I recommend watching it. I’m not interested in football, but I found the film fascinating.

Stunning Petulance from Minneapolis Police Officers

Lynx forward Maya Moore - Minneapolis PoliceOn Monday night, four off-duty Minneapolis Police Department (MPD) officers were moonlighting as security personnel for the Lynx WNBA game at Target Center.

The officers wore their Minneapolis Police Department uniforms while working the security job (as permitted by the department).

And in an act of stunning petulance, all four walked off the security job because Lynx players wore t-shirts like the one Lynx forward Maya Moore is wearing in the photo on the left.

On the back of these shirts are the names of Philando Castile, killed by police in Minnesota last week, and Alton Sterling, killed by police in Louisiana. And beneath the names is a Dallas Police department emblem — remembering the five officers killed by a sniper in Texas.

Not Just Shirts

The MPD officers were reportedly also offended by a pre-game news conference Lynx players held. It included seemingly universal comments such as Rebekkah Brunson saying the shirts were meant to “honor and mourn the loss of precious American citizens and to plead change for all of us.” And Maya Moore saying, “We are highlighting a longtime problem of racial profiling.”

The Minneapolis police officers should not have been surprised. Last Saturday, the Lynx wore the exact same shirts and made similar statements before a game against the Dallas Wings. Several of the Wings teammates expressed gratitude for the show of support. In that instance, Moore declared, “If we take this time to see that this is a human issue and speak out together, we can greatly decrease fear and create change… Tonight we will be wearing shirts to honor and mourn the losses of precious American citizens and to plead for change in all of us.”

The Police Union Joins In

“We don’t support law enforcement murdering civilians and we don’t support civilians murdering law enforcement.” —Lynx player Simeone Augustus

Commenting on the officers who walked out, MPD union head Lt Bob Kroll said, “I commend them for it” and “if [the players] are going to keep their stance, all officers may refuse to work there.” Then, in an act even more petulant than the walk-off, Kroll said, “They only have four officers working the event because the Lynx have such a pathetic draw.”

The Lynx have won three of the last five WNBA championships, and average about 8,000 fans per game. That’s roughly half the size of a typical NBA crowd, and far larger than a rock concert at nearby venue First Avenue. (A rather well-known rock club, where Prince filmed scenes for Purple Rain.)

Minneapolis Police Have a History

You may recall the story from 2014, when Minneapolis Police Department union members duped a local TV station into claiming Minneapolis Mayor Betsy Hodges was flashing a “gang symbol.” The slander was almost certainly a response to Hodges’s attempts at reforming the department.

A Longtime Problem

And such attempts are nothing new. During most of the 1980s, Anthony Bouza was head of the MPD and deeply unpopular with the force because of his reform measures. Later, Bouza described those reforms in Police Unbound: Corruption, Abuse, and Heroism By The Boys In Blue. Bouza wrote that “temptations to abuse are everywhere, and practically irresistible.” He found some officers so dirty and so unfireable, he would pay them to sit at an empty desk rather than poison new recruits with their attitudes. Bouza said officers refer to such attitudes as thinking of themselves as “meat eaters”: tough guys; ones who don’t ever back down from a confrontation.

MPD: To Protect and Serve… Themselves

Most hated of Bouza’s reforms was a reduction in two-person shifts. Officers claimed this reduction would make them unsafe, and pointed to an inevitable officer death as proof. (Police work is dangerous, although not so dangerous as fishing, farming, logging, driving, and many other occupations.) The real cause for officers’ hatred of this policy was the very reason Bouza initiated it. A two-officer crew has virtually unlimited power. In rare cases where an officer’s actions are investigated by prosecutors, witness statements from another officer will always be given more weight than testimony from suspects or bystanders.

Bouza took on the MPD job after previous experience as police commander in The Bronx. But that didn’t seem to matter to the “meat eaters” at the MPD.

Shame on the Minneapolis Police

In any case, shame on the petulant MPD officers who walked off their jobs in a huff because of the principled statements made by Minnesota Lynx athletes. But don’t expect the MPD to make desperately needed changes anytime soon.

Anniversary Post: Jeopardy!

[And here I was going to write about Jeopardy! and it turns out I did last year. So I’m just going to run it today because I’m literally falling asleep at my keyboard. I keep waiting for life to get easier, but that doesn’t seem to be happening. Although getting rid of my publisher’s constant insults is a big step in the right direction. -FM]

Jeopardy!The game show Jeopardy! is 52 years old today. But it hasn’t been on all that time. It started on NBC and ran from 1964 through 1979, with a two year absence from 1976 through 1978. During that period, it was hosted by Art Fleming. Then, after four years off the air, it was brought back in syndication with the new host Alex Trebek. It was created by Merv Griffin, who created pretty much every “normal” game show you can think of. (All right, that’s a vast exaggeration.)

When I was a kid, I loved game shows. But I hated Jeopardy! There are good reasons for that. Now I kind of like it because I’m good at it. But it is just a quiz show. Providing the questions for the answers is very slightly clever. But it is designed this way simply to hide the fact that it is a boring quiz show. Eight year old Frank was no fool.

I’ve written three articles about the show. The first was simply, Jeopardy! In it, I explained why I would never try out for the show. Short answer: the up side is not compensation enough for the potential that I would humiliate myself. The second article was, “Power Players” on Jeopardy! Out of Touch. I was shocked that media figures were so ignorant and I commented on how the questions were easier for these elites than they are for normal contestants. And the last one was my finally getting around to answering a question that has been on my mind for years, Maximum Possible Win on Jeopardy! How much money could you walk away with on a single episode if you got every question right and maximized the “daily doubles”? $566,400. But the most anyone has ever won on a single episode is only $77,000. Only ten people have ever made more than $50,000.

Happy birthday Jeopardy!

Richard Petty’s Papa and the First Daytona 500

Lee Petty - Richard Petty's PapaOn this day in 1959, Richard Petty’s papa, Lee, won the first ever Daytona 500. Now most of you know that I’m not that interested cars, and that definitely includes auto racing. My father was a stock car racer when he was young. And I don’t much care for the danger, although certainly today it is far more safe.

Almost three years ago, I went to a NASCAR race, and wrote, NASCAR Culture and Sport. It did give me a better appreciation of the sport and for the people who like it. But it’s still not my thing. But I was struck by the fact that Lee Petty won the first first Daytona 500.

But isn’t it interesting that the first Daytona 500 was won by the father of the future stock car racing legend Richard Petty? That got me thinking about the idea of meritocracy — an idea that becomes more repugnant to me with each passing day. Let’s face it: Richard Petty didn’t go on to become one of the greatest stock car racers of all time because he got the right genes from his papa.

And we aren’t talking about money here either. I don’t even want to get into that, even though there is doubtless some of that as well. The truth is being in that environment, growing up and just being Lee Petty’s son, was the most important element in Richard Petty’s 200 Sprint Cup Series wins. Otherwise, he would have been just some hot rod driving teen who worked his whole life in a North Carolina manufacturing plant.

Richard Petty Got a Lot From Papa

We have got to get past this idea that the world is divided into the worthy and the unworthy. Our society needs to reward people only to the extent that people need to get along. In the race car driving sweepstakes, Richard Petty hit the jackpot. In the sexist pig category, he did really well too — and I’m not even talking about the recent Danica Patrick dustup. He’s also a racist I’m sure. But people don’t get judged in their totality. Instead, society decides that it is going to judge a couple of things above all else.

Well, Lee Petty and the environment he raised his sons in gifted Richard race car driving skills just as surely as bigotry. We can either accept both of those facts or we can deny them. But we can’t say he’s super keen because of his racing skills and isn’t it a shame that he grew up in a bigoted time and place.

Why So Many Conservative Game Show Hosts?

Alex Trebek - Conservative Game Show HostsI was talking to Will the other day, and he mentioned that Jeopardy! host Alex Trebek was a conservative. I didn’t know that, but it didn’t surprise me. I’ve noticed a few things about him. One is that he seems to have no sense of the humiliation that players feel when they aren’t doing well. He clearly and (as the supposed neutral host) unfairly shows an eagerness to see the current champion win. And most of all, his sexism shines through. That’s particularly telling, because you would think that for the good of the show, more female winners would be good.

But I’ve noticed in the past that there really are a lot of conservative game show hosts, in as much as we can tell. The most obvious example is Pat Sajak, who is a far right climate change denier. I’ve often wondered why this is, so I went looking and came upon a reprint of an article written by Rebecca Dana back in 2010, Why Game-Show Hosts Vote Republican. It unfortunately doesn’t provide a lot of answers as to why there are so many conservative game show hosts. It’s probably because it is an obscure issue and there aren’t a bunch of experts on game shows, much less the political leanings of their hosts.

But she does discuss the matter with game show expert, Olaf Hoerschelmann. He provided two quotes that are worth thinking about:

  1. “To have the right sensibility to be a game-show host, you do have to have a belief in rugged individualism — either you make it or you’re not worth it.”
  2. “Generally the ideology of acquiring money and achieving fortune through luck goes along pretty well with a certain basic capitalist attitude.”

I think there is a lot to the first quote. In a world where nothing is clear — where it is all shades of grey — it probably is very attractive to conservatives to have something like a game where there is a clear winner. I, of course, hate this kind of thing. Even at my most fanatical as a chess player, it was never about winning — it was about the process, the creativity, and personal betterment. But for most chess players, winning is all that matters, which is why I didn’t really continue on in the game after I had reached a level where I thought I really understood it.

Hoerschelmann’s second quote is much more interesting. That’s the thing about most game shows: the prizes are not at all fairly distributed. If the top player on Jeopardy! ends with $15,000 and the next player ends with $14,999, that second player goes home with the standard second place prize: $2,000. Now, you could say that the winner is playing by the rules and would have bet more if the spoils were more evenly shared. Exactly! And if that were the case, Jeopardy! would be a more interesting game. Instead, “Final Jeopardy” is as likely as not to be non-competitive and boring. We might ask why the game is set up that way. And maybe it is as simple as the fact that it was created by Merv Griffin — another conservative.

My Ideas on Conservative Game Show Hosts

But I have another idea why there tend to be a lot of conservative game show hosts. It isn’t a job that takes much talent. That means, it is more likely to go to someone who is good at working the system — schmoozing with the executives. I have been watching Chuck Woolery since I was ten years old — over 40 years! And I see absolutely nothing that distinguishes him from just about every other game show host.

We can also just deconstruct it. Game show hosts are generally male and rich. Both of those select for conservatism. That doesn’t apply to actors, because that’s an actual creative activity that draws in liberal minded people. But men who are paid a lot of money to do things that aren’t hard: nine out of ten times, that man is going to be a conservative. And that means a lot of conservative game show hosts.

How Betting Lines Work — Super Bowl Example

Betting LinesIf you are like me, you are not watching the Super Bowl. If you are like me, you are only vaguely aware of it. I had to be reminded yesterday at 4:00 that it was even happening. And it was only today that I learned that it is taking place here in the Bay Area. It’s not that I don’t follow the news. But when talk turns to sports — most especially football — I just tune out. But I thought it might be interesting to talk a bit about how betting lines work.

This all started because I was talking to Will and he told me that 70% of the action was supposedly on the Panthers. I already knew that the line was Panthers -6. That’s a points line and it means that if you bet on the Panthers, they need to win by more than 6 points. That also means that if you bet on the Broncos, you get 6 extra points. So if they lose by only 5 points, you would win your bet. But when Will told me about all the action on the Panthers, I asked what the line was originally. He told me: Panthers -6. That didn’t make any sense.

When betting lines first come out, they are based upon the work of sports nerds: analysts who crunch numbers to determine how the teams will perform against each other. It will probably not surprise you, given my colorful life, that I used to be one of those guys. (I didn’t do it for sports books, of course; I wrote commercial software that did these kinds of calculations for sports bettors.) So that’s fine. But betting lines don’t stay where they start. They move based upon how the betting is going.

The thing that non-betting people don’t understand (and I assume that describes most Frankly Curious readers) is that the sports books are not at all interested in who wins. When you bet, there is a vigorish or “vig.” That means you bet a dollar, but if you win, you are paid something less, like 90¢. That would be a 10% vig. That’s all the books care about. So they want to have as much money bet on one team as is bet on the other. That’s what the betting lines are all about. Then the books pay the winners with the losers’ money, and keep the vig. It’s a simple and beautiful system.

Why Betting Lines Move

The initial lines that the sports nerds come up with are not always right. But even if they are, it isn’t a question of how the teams stack up; it is a question of how the bettors think they stack up. So if there is too much money bet on one team, the sports book will move the line in the opposite direction. This is why I asked Will what the starting line was. If 70% of the action was on the Panthers, then the line should have gone up — to Panthers -6.5 or higher still — whatever it took to equalize the amounts bet.

Given that the betting lines didn’t move except maybe at some small books, I have to assume that the 70% number has to do with the number of bets. The books don’t care about that. They aren’t going to change the betting lines over that. What must be happening is that the little bettors are going strong for the Panthers and that the bigger bettors are going for the Broncos. (This doesn’t mean they think the Broncos will win, of course; just that they won’t lose by more than 6.) But if I were a betting man (And I’m not!) I would go with the Broncos, just because I have more confidence in people who are putting big money on the game.

Of course, I don’t know that this is what’s going on. Maybe the big money is on the Panthers, it is just that there is a lot of medium money on Broncos. As I understand it, there are a lot of middle class white folk who don’t like that uppity colored quarterback. And with that, I have gotten as close to the Super Bowl as I care to get.

Update (7 February 2016 3:36 pm)

I just got email from Will that the line actually did start at Panthers -3. So there has been excessive money bet on the Panthers to move the line to -6. I’m not going to change any of the above, because it is all still valid for discussion’s sake. The fact that the line did move, however, greatly complicates how the books have to manage their bets. This is why they hire really smart people, hoping to get it right to start.

Update (7 February 2016 3:43 pm)

That makes my “middle class white racist” theory invalid.

Who Is Bob Douglas and Why Is He in the Basketball Hall of Fame?

Bob DouglasOn this day in 1972, Bob Douglas became the first African American inducted into the Basketball Hall of Fame. Not Bill Russell?! Who the hell is Bob Douglas anyway?

The Basketball Hall of Fame opened in 1959. But despite the fact that it took them 13 years to induct an African American into it, basketball’s history has not been nearly as racist as baseball. In the early days of basketball, it was highly segregated — but only because the society itself was. There were, for example, white players on the Harlem Globetrotters. What’s more, black teams played white teams.

Bob Douglas was one of the pioneers of barnstorming basketball. He founded and coached the New York Renaissance — generally known as the Rens. Apparently, in the 1920s and early 1930s, the biggest basketball attractions in the nation were the games between the Rens and the Original Celtics (which has nothing to do with the Boston Celtics, but was a very white team). They won the World Professional Basketball Tournament in 1939. And in 1948, they came in second, losing to the Minneapolis Lakers who were led by the legendary George Mikan. (Note: the Minneapolis Lakers are today’s Los Angeles Lakers — they moved in 1960.)

The Rens disbanded in 1949. By that point, the NBA was on the rise. The only team to survive from that period were the Harlem Globetrotters. Although it’s interesting to note that what the Globetrotters are today is more like what basketball used to be. It’s the NBA that has changed the game.

Bob Douglas played a part in getting the first African American player, Nat “Sweetwater” Clifton, signed to the newly established NBA. That’s incredibly important, of course — as is Douglas’ status as the “Father of Black Professional Basketball.” But what I find so fascinating about people like Bob Douglas is that they have idiosyncratic ideas and they just go with them. The fact that Douglas was hugely successful at his doesn’t matter to me as much as his commitment.

Bob Douglas died in 1979 at the age of 96.

How to Play Chess or at Least Understand It

ChessWhen I was in grammar and secondary school, I found myself playing a lot of games of chess. I never won a single game. I had no idea what I was doing.

When it comes to chess, there are two kinds of people. First, there are people who know how to play. Second, there are people who know the moves. Explaining the moves is what passes for teaching the game. But this is not teaching. Imagine a similar approach to teaching tennis: one person serves, the two players hit the ball back and forth, the first one to hit the ball outside the lines loses; have fun!

I’ll admit: I’m a slow learner. But that’s really the critical element that distinguished the good grammar school players from the bad: a basic understanding of what the game was about. Someone who figured it out for themselves was necessarily a far better player, even if they weren’t a very good player in an absolute sense. And even they would be greatly helped by better chess instruction because it would result in them having better opponents.

When I was in graduate school, I decided to learn how to play chess. But I didn’t turn to any how-to books. I had seen them in the past and they made no sense to me whatsoever. Instead, I picked up a book of games by some chess grandmaster I had never heard of. And I studied those games. In particular, I went move by move and tried to figure out why the chess masters did not make the cunning moves that I had in mind.

If you’ve ever looked at these books, you will notice that there is very little annotation. What annotation there is is for moves that really good players would have questions about. The moves that I thought were correct were never what was played. And the annotations made no sense to me because they discussed issues that were far beyond me.

If you are playing chess hoping that your opponent will make a mistake, you are playing wrong. Chess, when properly played, is a game where you win or lose by inches.

But very slowly I was able to figure out why my moves sucked and why the masters moved the way that they did. And one day — quite suddenly — I understood chess as a game. That didn’t mean that I knew how to play. I still hadn’t started playing. But I got it. I could, for the first time, enjoy the game as a game. (For the record, I believe most people who watch professional sports understand those games at about the same level that I understood chess before my epiphany.)

Once I started playing the kind of people who had destroyed me when I was young, I saw the problem. They understood things like double attacks and traps. And at that point, the game was kind of funny. I would sit across from someone and they would set up a trap for me. And I could see it in their eyes: they were thinking, “Oh please! Oh please!” The truth was, they didn’t really understand the game much better than I had. If you are playing chess hoping that your opponent will make a mistake, you are playing wrong. Chess, when properly played, is a game where you win or lose by inches.

To give you an example, I happened to go to graduate school with a postdoc who was a really good chess player — a near master lever player, despite his drinking, womanizing, and research. He taught me much during the course of destroying me in game after game. But he told me a story about playing against Joshua Waitzkin (The kid in Searching for Bobby Fischer) at some point in a simultaneous exhibition. And my friend had found himself in the highly unusual position of having the advantage after about 20 moves. But my friend lost. And afterward, the kid (probably about 19 then) sat there with him and went over the whole game and each point where my friend made slightly less than the optimal move. That is the nature of chess.

But I still find it annoying that no one ever thought to teach me the game of chess. I was often forced to play in school. But it was a drag. It was like being forced to go to a museum where nothing was explained and no context was given. Chess can be an incredibly creative game. Of course, I never could have been much of a chess player. I’m just not that competitive. But being able to appreciate the game has been edifying, which is all I want from anything that I do.

Afterword

Some might think of Waitzkin going over the game after my friend lost to be something of a jerk move. That was not how my friend presented the story. The kid was at once showing appreciation for a player good enough to give him a bit of trouble and also providing him with a little chess lesson.