Saturday, September 30, 2006

To all my friends (including neurotic Poilishers, ostentatious Hungarians, kalter Litvaks, constipated Yekkes, hot-headed Moroccans, ignorant Syrians, penny-pinching Persians, provincial Israelis and prost Amerikaners),

May this be a year in which we see only the good in each other.

And remember: If you don't eat right before you begin fasting, you're liable to have a very paradoxical year.

Gmar chatima tova.

Monday, September 18, 2006

These religious-secular pow-wows that go down from time to time in Israel come in a variety of flavors, some more tolerable than others.

The best kinds are the ones with a particular objective: some concrete agreement needs to be hammered out on some well-defined topic. Obviously, even in such contexts there are blowhards and ideologues who make asses of themselves, but generally people are reasonable and – as in a business negotiation – if there’s a deal to be had, you get there eventually.

Less productive than those are the let’s-get-to-know-each-other parties that cropped up after the Rabin assassination. The few of these I’ve been to have basically been opportunities for anti-religious people to vent. You people are uneducated, you people don’t serve in the army, you people teach your kids to hate us, yada yada yada. Oh, that’s not you people? Well, next time we’ll bring some authentic dosim.

But by far the most horrendous such gatherings are the ones organized by do-gooder pseudo-multi-cultural types. This was brought to mind by a meeting being organized by the Israel Democracy Institute, a wildly over-funded organization dedicated to building a broad consensus around a self-serving elitist agenda. That’s quite a trick if you can pull it off and they’re pretty good at it. The purpose of this particular meeting is to find RZ “leaders” who will “encourage discourse” that will heal “the rift” in Israeli society. For those who missed the subtext, the word manhigut (=leadership) is shorthand for “people who can be bought with a bit of kavod”, the word shesa (=rift) is short-hand for “the shvartzes are escaping the plantation” and the word siach (=discourse) is shorthand for “let’s screw around with their heads until they’re convinced that our agenda is good for them”.

I hope I haven’t offended any black people by using that Yiddish epithet. But just to make it up to you, I’m going to let you in on a secret. I hear that the Daughters of the American Revolution are looking for some black leaders with whom to hold a discourse on the racial rift that’s been getting worse and worse ever since Jim Crow ended.

Tuesday, September 12, 2006

9/11 means many things to many people. Each is true in its way.

But what I know in my bones is that when the history books are written, 9/11 will be remembered as only one thing.

A prelude.

והוא רחום יכפר עון ולא ישחית והרבה להשיב אפו ולא יעיר כל חמתו

Sunday, September 10, 2006

I'm sick of politics too, so let's talk baseball. Two items on the agenda, a very good book and a very good team.

Let's start with the book. Baseball Between the Numbers is an anthology of 27 articles by the guys at Baseball Prospectus. It's in the Bill James tradition of statistical analysis and, although it lacks James's idiosyncratic writing style, it's without doubt the best book of this genre ever written. Nevertheless, it's not without flaws, as I'll point out below.

The common theme is the attempt to capture baseball performance in a single statistic such as VORP or EqA. Ultimately, these attempts are unsatisfying for a number of reasons.

1. While it is apparent that the core of these numbers is some normalized linear sum of elementary stats, the formulas are not actually given anywhere in the book, not even in the notes or the glossary.

2. Presumably, one advantage of these numbers over something simple like OPS (OBP+SLA) is that they take into account all manner of marginalia like baserunning and defense. But as it happens, the most interesting results in the book are negative results. Baserunning doesn't matter hardly at all, there's no such thing as a clutch hitter, batting order is irrelevant, catchers' ability to "handle" pitchers is a myth, most of the stuff mangers call "strategy" (intentional walks, sacrifice bunts, saving the "closer" for the nith inning) doesn't help and often hurts. Given that, why not just stick with OPS? (As I read this over, it's beginning to sink in that the best stuff in this book is all stuff that Thorn and Palmer did decades ago. Still, these guys have so much more data to work with that it was worth discovering all these insights again.)

3. The authors uniformly inflate the importance of normalizing their stats. In other words, after they get their initial formula (i.e., OPS jazzed up by tons of insignificant crap), they make a big fuss of doing some linear mapping so that the average player (or the "replacement-level" player, i.e., the dime-a-dozen throwaway guys) maps to zero. Why they think this is a crucial point eludes me.

4. Although the point is made here and there, the book does not sufficiently emphasize that the only perishable commodity on offense is outs. You get 27 of them in a game. At bats you can get more of, so the right denominator for offensive statistics is outs not at bats (or plate appearances). Thus, as I've argued before, OPS/(1-OBP) is the right simple stat for measuring offensive performance. Indeed, if you look at team stats, no other stat correlates better with runs scored by a team.

5. There is still no good stat for capturing fielding performance. The authors try to rig some stuff up that looks at how many balls in play a fielder reaches and then tries to account for effects of pitcher, stadium and so forth. It's a start. One implication of the numbers they come up with is that the difference between a good fielder and an average one is way less significant than the difference between a good hitter and an average one. If you consider that the difference between a good hitter and an average one is one hit every four games or so, you might question that conclusion.

Read the book. If you're into baseball stats, you won't regret it.

And now, I owe Omar Minaya an apology. Time and again, I've questioned his judgement and every time he turned out to be right. Jae Seo's second half in 2005 was indeed a fluke and getting Duaner Sanchez for him was brilliant. Kris Benson will never amount to much and getting John Maine alone for him would have been worth it, let alone getting nut job Jorge Julio, whom Minaya then turned into Orlando Hernandez. Picking up Chavez and Valentin for nothing also turned out to be brilliant. (The jury is still out on Cameron for Nady for Perez and Hernandez.) Most importantly, he didn't panic at the deadline and trade serious prospects for some guy who'll be a free agent at the end of the year. Now if he can trade Victor Zambrano for Scott Kazmir, I'll really be impressed.

Just so I don't get too gushy, I should point out that when the Mets were out of starters, they should have given Aaron Heilman a shot at starting rather than bringing in Jose Lima.

Hey, don't blame me. You said enough with the politics.

Tuesday, September 05, 2006

The political right is jumping on several bandwagons lately and is doing itself and the country a disservice.

1. Demonstrations demanding government action on behalf of the hostages -- may they return home speedily and in good health -- only encourage the government to act hysterically on their behalf. Bad idea.

2. Dredging up dirt on Olmert will only render him a hostage of the legal establishment. Been there, done that, haven't been happy with the results. This approach is only worthwhile if you've got something so egregious that you are certain to bring him down quickly. (Note, though, that when the legal eagles at the Justice Ministry need to work quickly, they can. They needed Haim Ramon out of the way quickly to ensure that Beinish would be named President of the Supreme Court and -- poof -- as fast as you can say Yaakov Ne'eman, he's gone.)

3. A state commission of inquiry is a bad idea for several reasons. First, it cedes power from elected officials (corrupt and incompetent they may be) to the usual dubious powerbrokers who get carte blanche to try anyone whose face they don't like without anything resembling due process. I don't like it when supreme court justices run the country from the bench and I like it no more when they do it in the name of some commission. Second, I want to see the voters throw these bums out of office and a state commission actually delays the process of bringing down the government. ("Let's wait and see what the commission decides...") Third, the fundamental problems that led to the need for the war and the failures in executing it are conceptual and no commission will go there. A commission's most likely result will be to discourage future governments from fighting necessary wars.

What we should be doing is persuading the defectors in Kadimah that they have a more promising political future with the Likud than with soon-to-be-defunct Kadimah. Once some big shots defect back to Likud (defecting is the one thing they're good at, after all), the whole house of cards will come tumbling down. (Needless to say, we also need to do everything possible to make sure Likud and Yisrael Beiteinu don't bail this government out.)

And you have my solemn word that if any Kadimah people come up for re-election within the Likud, they'll be out on their behinds.

The parsha of ben sorer umoreh, which we just read, is quite bizarre however you slice it. It is no wonder that chazal essentially darshen it out of existence, including among other hopeless requirements that the parents suffer no physical disabilities and (according to Rabbi Yehudah) even have identical voices. A careful reading of the pesukim and the gemara in the eighth perek of Sanhedrin suggests that this parsha is not, as is commonly thought, about the young delinquent at all. It’s about the parents.

The parents are the actors in the story. They drag their son off to the beit din and announce that they’ve given up on him and are handing him over to the court to deal with him. The beit din’s response is a rebuke to the parents. The court tells the parents, “Don’t count on us to raise your kid for you. If you’ve given up on him, we’ll just have to kill him.” It’s a rhetorical flourish and the gemara makes sure that it isn’t taken literally. In fact, some of the requirements listed in the gemara add to the message. We say to these parents, “So you’ve given up on your kid, have you? Let’s see how perfect you two are before we lay this mess on him. And did you as parents speak with a single voice?”

I confess the classical commentators don’t go this route and it does suffer from a certain American, liberal, namby-pambiness. But even if you won’t buy it as peshat, shaarei ha-drush lo nin'alu.