Sunday, August 31, 2008

This is not about politics. But, just as a dateline, I'll note that if Tzippi Livni looked like Sarah Palin, she'd still suck all the charisma and intelligence clear out of any room she'd walk into.

Now to what's really eating me at the moment. Not once but twice, the Mets lost games over the last few days after intentionally walking two consecutive batters. This is painfully stupid. Let me explain why.

In each case, the winning run was on third base with no outs. Let's first assume that the odds of each of the subsequent hitters getting an out, a walk, a single, a double and so forth are league average and independent of each other. Then, with a runner on third and no outs, the odds of the hitting team eventually scoring the winning run in this inning are 85.9%. After loading the bases, the odds go UP to 87.5%. (The calculations can all be found in The Book.) So, walking the bases loaded is not wise in any case. What makes it dumber, however, is that in fact the odds of a hitter doing something useful with the bases loaded are greater than the odds of that same hitter doing that same thing with only a runner on third (or even with runners on first and third). That's because wuth the bases loaded, a hitter has the advantage of knowing that the pitcher has nowhere to put him, and so has the luxury of waiting for a good pitch to hit.

These two games brought back memories of this game. Ouch.

Thursday, August 21, 2008

If you look like Arlo Guthrie with peyos, you were probably at the Acharit Hayamim concert-shebang in Bat Ayin last week. I've been going to that event since before it got its name, when only a few dozen people came to the middle of nowhere to hear, among some more polished stuff, an odd assortment of cave-dwelling acid-heads jamming and trying out new stuff (occasionally involving rooster imitations -- don't ask). They've gone a bit mainstream since then (i.e., they charge money), but I still enjoy the chevre.

It used to be that, if you were talking to someone who gets it, you could describe any Jewish crowd with a couple of words. Chaim Berlin -- Brooklyn College night gang, YU Gushies, NCSY BTs from Lake Wobegon, Lakewood shidduch-shoppers. But a typical gang at this event might consist of a guy in beard, peyos and turbin (suggesting a sort-of Ben Ish Chai effect), a guy in tee-shirt and jeans, short hair and no headgear, a guy looking like Scottie just beamed him down from Woodstock, and of course Arlo Guthrie with peyos. (I'll skip the female profiles; suffice it to say that the analogues were all present and accounted for.) I suppose one day we'll just refer to them as, you know, the Acharit Hayamim people.

Of course, they're engaged in deliberate stereotype-busting. Stereotypes are based on the observation that habits of manner and behavior tend to correlate. If you wear a certain kind of head covering, you probably wear a certain kind of clothes, daven in a certain kind of shul, hold certain views and have friends who are just like you in all those respects. The mixing-and-matching in Bat Ayin reflects a conscious attempt to make stereotypes like that seem ridiculous.

The dynamics of the process remind me of a web search algorithm called scatter-gather. It works in two stages. First an initial collection of documents is clustered automatically into sub-collections each of which is somehow coherent and labeled by its unifying theme (e.g., topic). The searcher chooses a few topics from among these that reflect the area of interest. The documents in the chosen topics are then thrown back together and re-clustered. Lather, rinse, repeat.

Now start with a bunch of Jews. They naturally cluster according to the characteristics that are relevant in a given time and place. (For example, after massive dislocations, ethnic divisions reflecting country of origin might be most prominent; under other circumstances, levels or styles of religiosity might be more decisive.) Then some of the clusters drop out of the game and the remaining ones are re-clustered, possibly along completely different dimensions. When this happens, the old stereotypes become merely vestigial; they no longer have any real descriptive force. So, if you're still awake after that little riff, I admire the Acharit Hayamim gang for being harbingers of the death of the old stereotypes. (And, yeah, it's because some clusters are dropping out of the game.)

And, before you get on my case, I'm aware that more than a few of this chevre tend to think in a rather loose associative manner and some cognitive discipline might serve some of them well. Amusing case in point at Acharit Hayamim: a certain rav from Tekoa was doing shtick between Ehud Banai songs. He was wearing a bekeshe and shtreimel (even though it was an ordinary Tuesday night) and he did a performance (no other word for it) of kiddush levana (most of the rest of us had already done that on Tisha B'Av). He insisted that everybody actually lunge for the moon when he said keshem she-eini yachol lingoa bach, declaring that one day such lunging will indeed succeed. Why this should be so was unclear. Maybe he noticed that the pasuk's conclusion that kach lo yuchlu oivai lingo bi has never worked out, and decided that the premise must be equally unreliable. More likely, he was flattering his audience by letting them know that nothing you say actually has to make any sense, as long as it sounds vaguely Utopian.

Monday, August 04, 2008

A few belated comments on Olmert's non-resignation speech.

First, why was this speech necessary at this time? The deadline for declaring candidacy in the upcoming Kadima primary was fast approaching and, in any event, Olmert had to announce that he did not intend to run. That explains the timing. What he achieved is this: Olmert knows that an indictment is inevitable. He also knows that AG Mazuz is justifiably not eager to serve an indictment while Olmert is a sitting Prime Minister. Thus, Mazuz is likely to delay an indictment so long as he can believe that Olmert is going to resign soon anyway.

But, if no indictment is served, Olmert isn't going anywhere very soon. Let me explain why.

There are three possibilities for what happens after Kadima primaries.

One is that the winner -- Livni (according to the polls) or Mofaz (according to the insiders) -- is able to hold the coalition together or to quickly form an alternative coalition. This appears unlikely, since when Shas smells an election they swing rightward in order to be in position to do what they do best: steal votes from the right and give them to the left.

The second possibility is that, as Haim Ramon has already suggested, Olmert hangs on as PM in order to give the new Kadima head a "chance to form a stable coalition". This could take an awfully long time.

The third possibility is that Olmert actually does resign but no alternative candidate can form a coalition. The president can give a candidate up to 42 days to form a coalition and, if that fails, can give another candidate another 42 days. Lather, rinse, repeat until doomsday. All the while, Olmert is caretaker PM. And even when there are no more candidates or the Knesset votes to disperse itself, Olmert still has 90 more days in which to create a legacy of some sort, God help us. (Who can blame him? Without drastic action, he is doomed to be a latter-day Jimmy "what were we smoking when we elected that guy?" Carter.)

Finally, one comment on Olmert's speech. The great tragedy of the speech is that Olmert's whine about being driven out of office by the justice system without benefit of due process is actually true. Many months ago (pre-Talansky) a former Justice Minister told me that the justice system will not allow Olmert another term. Period. He said this with neither rancor nor approval, just as a fact of Israeli life: if the justice system doesn't like someone, they get rid of them. And the justice system didn't like Olmert because his Justice Minister, Daniel Friedmann, had the temerity to speak Truth to Power (pardon the bombast, but I'm making a point here about where the truth is and where the power is).

But, how seriously are you going to take a guy who, one paragraph earlier, can declare without blushing that "Israel's deterrent capability has improved beyond recognition"?

It's a cliche that "the fact that you're paranoid doesn't mean they're not out to get you". But with regard to Olmert, we can safely say that "the fact that they're out to get you doesn't mean you're not a crook".