Incentives in Sports

I just read an interesting piece using game theory models to argue that NBA coaches are pulling their stars too early because of foul trouble, and not shooting enough three-pointers at the end of close games. It reminds me of all the stats showing that NFL coaches punt or kick too often on fourth downs. But what do studies like this really show?

The standard interpretation is a kind of Freakonomics/Moneyball storyline: the coaches are being irrational because of loss aversion or superstition or what have you. Or they’re responding to owners, press and fans who will judge them irrationally, e.g. by criticizing them more for a turnover on downs than they would praise them for converting.

In what sense are all these behaviors and preferences “irrational”? In that they don’t maximize wins, of course. But the goal of maximizing wins is itself just another preference, not some Platonic ideal. Given these preferences that come into conflict — one for maximizing wins, one for playing it safe — why do we tend to privilege the first and assume that the second is somehow wrong?

Michael Lewis, following this pattern, considers various incentives-driven explanations for the fourth down phenomenon, and decides that coaches just don’t want to stand out — even if they go for a risky first down and it pays off, they may feel like they’re showing up their more conservative fellow coaches, and that bond among the coaching fraternity is greater than their bond with their teams — maybe somewhat the way that aristocratic military officers in Europe once felt more kinship with the officer class in other countries than with their own enlisted men.

It’s an interesting theory and he’s definitely thought about it more than the average sports pundit, but I prefer the simplest explanation: that maximizing victories or championships is not the sole preference of fans. We all pay lip service to those goals, but in the end we’d rather minimize the pain of defeats, even if it means more of them. You might think this preference would weaken as the season progresses and the “cost” of defeats rises, but the pain of a tough defeat is probably rising even faster. Would you rather be the coach who let your star foul out in the third quarter in December, or in a playoff series?

The three-pointer argument stood out to me in particular. Specifically, he’s talking about a situation where the team in possession is down by two with time for one more play:

Simply put, it is likely in the best interests of the losing team to shoot the three almost all the time. As long as the defending (winning) team guards the three pointer less than about 80% of the time, the losing team should seek to end the game in regulation every time. Similarly, the team that is ahead should fear the three pointer much more than overtime. As long as the team that is losing shoots the three at least a third of the time, the defending team should always defend the three.

Unfortunately, often finding the best three point shot involves working the ball around and having someone other than the team’s superstar take the shot. In today’s NBA Culture, Hero Ball — star players dominating offensive possessions — has often taken the place of team basketball in crunch time. The problem with this is that isolation plays are good for only 0.78 points per possession (ppp), as opposed to off-the-ball cuts (1.18 ppp) or transition plays (1.12 ppp). When star players do not take the last shot, or when role players miss wide open opportunities, the star is blamed for not taking the shot. However, this analysis shows that the three pointer, especially if the team is able to get off an open look, dramatically improves the team’s chances of winning the game.

It’s hard for me, or any other New York sports fan, to read this without thinking of Game 6 of the 1994 NBA Finals, in which the Knicks found themselves down by two to the Houston Rockets with five seconds remaining. John Starks took the three-point shot, a shot that would have won the title, and was blocked. Houston won Game 7 and the championship.

Now, maybe this wasn’t quite the scenario he’s talking about in that post. But it’s interesting to me that as a twelve-year-old fan, that was such a traumatic moment that even now, years after I stopped following basketball, I can’t write about it without wincing a little. The Rangers won the Stanley Cup at almost the same time, and I’m sure I watched that series too, but I’ll be damned if I can remember any of it. And if the Knicks had gone for two, tied the game, and lost in overtime, I’m sure I wouldn’t remember that either. Victory and defeat are fleeting, but those moments of real heartbreak stick with you.

When economists talk about loss aversion as an irrational human tendency, that’s part of a framework in which “rational” actors maximize their economic outcomes. Money is the external yardstick. But for sports fans, there is no absolute metric to measure the outcome of a game or even a season; there’s just the pain of loss and the pleasure of victory, and there’s no question that aggressive coaching decisions in a close game will increase both. If the pain of a dramatic loss is worse than the pleasure of a dramatic victory, maybe that’s all there is to say about it. Calling it right or wrong, rational or irrational, isn’t as meaningful without an objective framework for what those terms mean.

Again, I’m not saying we don’t want our team to maximize victories — just that it’s not the only thing we want. And if we think it is, well, it wouldn’t surprise a psychologist that we don’t have perfect access to our own revealed preferences. People lie to themselves about all kinds of things. But sports fandom in particular is based on constant suspension of disbelief. If any of us spent much time thinking about the mercenary attitude of the players, the greed of the owners, or the breathtaking commercialism of the whole pro sports machine …we’d find it pretty hard to go on caring about who wins. So we assuage our guilt with an occasional 5,000 word think piece and then go back to arguing over stats, trades and strategy. Compared to the self-deception necessary to be a modern sports fan in the first place, fooling ourselves about exactly how much we want our team to win is nothing.

Does it seem like I’m just arguing semantics? I think it’s something more, and it has implications beyond sports. The spread of quantitative social science into pop culture is leading us to experience all kinds of things in a more “meta” and emotionally detached way. For example, when you read about a movie’s box office results and demographic targeting — and it’s getting hard to avoid it — you’re going to experience the movie itself a bit less directly. A friend just sent me a link to this Kevin Kelly review of a book that makes a similar suggestion:

Years back, in CS Lewis’ essay ‘On The Reading of Old Books,’ I encountered a suggestion that has stuck with me ever since. Lewis posited that each generation of humanity takes certain things for granted: assumptions that go unexamined and unquestioned because they are commonly held by all. It was Lewis’ opinion that reading books written by prior generations would help us to see around these generational blind spots.

In her new book, Monoculture: How One Story Is Changing Everything, FS Michaels suggests that just such a blind spot has, over the course of generations, come to dominate the narrative and values that our society lives by. From education and the arts to how we eat, think, and play, Michaels asserts that we have been steeped in a single point of view, the economic, where value is reduced to what can be sold and worth is determined by financial expediency.

(Indeed, the research that Lewis cites on the fourth down effect was done by an economist, David Romer.)

These kind of statistical debates are part of the fun of being a fan, but we shouldn’t confuse quantitative arguments with qualitative ones. If some NBA fans want to see more strategy and team play, and others want to see “Hero Ball” even if it costs them a few close games, those are just two sets of preferences. Neither is right or wrong in any absolute sense, and wrapping one of them in numbers doesn’t change that.

What Makes Games Addictive?

In about five years of owning various smartphones, the single most addictive app that I’ve found is one called Math Workout. Believe me, no one is more surprised by this than I am. In any other context, if you asked me to do math for no reason, you wouldn’t get a very friendly reaction. But there’s a simple element of competition to this “game” that changes everything. I regularly delete apps from my phone when I get tired of them or they’re taking up too much of my time, but this is the only one I’ve never been able to delete.

It works like this: You get fifty randomly-generated arithmetic problems, one at a time, and the software times you in solving them. They range in difficulty from 2+2 to squares and roots. At the end, your time is ranked against everyone else in the world who’s played that day:

Math Workout screenshots

You probably don’t need me to tell you that competition is addictive. What’s interesting to me about Math Workout is that it breaks the other “rules” for addictive games in a few ways:

1. No social element. Many popular mobile games let you play against your friends on various social networks, or at least pollute their Facebook and Twitter feeds with your “achievements.” This one has nothing like that. It’s made me realize that, while playing with people you know can keep a game interesting, it also dampens the pure competitive spirit. If I lose to a friend or family member at Scrabble, well, it’s just a game, right? But the depths of resentment that I can summon against strangers like “ap0791 from Italy” are truly frightening.

2. No cumulative achievements. That leader board is wiped clean at midnight (GMT) every day. Not only can you not build on your past success, there’s not even a record of it. As with #1, it’s an example of how the absence of an addictive feature can be addictive in a whole other way. Even if you had the best score in the world yesterday — even if it was the best score ever — there’s no record of it today. You’ve got to prove yourself all over again.

3. No way to cheat. I know, I know — YOU would never use one of those anagram solvers while playing Words with Friends, or watch the walkthrough videos for Angry Birds or tower defense games. But a whole lot of people do. And cheating plays a big part in keeping people engaged with the game. This has always been true for some video games; for example, if there hadn’t been cheat books (“strategy guides”) when I played Myst as a kid, I would have wandered around that damn island for an hour and gotten nowhere, then tossed the CD-ROM back on the shelf. And if I hadn’t used a walkthrough video when I got stuck on an occasional Angry Birds level (or given it to my younger brothers to beat it for me) I probably would have quickly given up on that too. Cheating at Scrabble games feels like a more grave offense, but for the people I’ve known who admit to doing it, it’s often a way to level the playing field with friends who are better than them, and without it they’d probably get discouraged and stop playing. (Hmm, if only there was another way…) Personally I don’t cheat in Words with Friends, but in the German Scrabble app that I’ve recently found, I have no qualms about handing my phone to German friends for help.

But I wouldn’t let someone else play for me at Math Workout and then enter my own initials on the high scores list. That would feel like an outright lie. And short of actually writing your own “bot” software to rapidly answer the questions for you (and I won’t say that I’ve never, in my darkest moments, suspected people of doing this), there’s really no other way to cheat. There’s no language, culture or age advantage: it’s just a matter of how fast you can do basic math. This purely level playing field is probably one reason it wouldn’t work as a “social” game — it would seem too self-aggrandizing to play it with friends, almost like you were comparing your raw brainpower. But against strangers, it makes things somehow more real. I may not want to believe that “eddy from FR” got that 45 second time, but on some basic level I have to accept it. Even if they got a friend to do it, what’s the difference if a stranger’s friend was faster than me rather than a stranger? And if people persist in doubting them, they may even post the whole thing to Youtube.

Of course, leaving out these features also makes the app much easier to write, support and maintain. And it’s a pretty basic piece of software. But with a million downloads for the free version and tens of thousands for the paid one (and the iphone version not even out yet), I’m sure it’s outperforming hundreds of more complex, “professional” apps.

Take another look at that Youtube link. That’s 23,000 views and counting [Edit: now 160,000!] for someone doing math. Which should be a reminder that there are many different ways a game can be engaging, and the currently dominant Zynga-type games are only taking advantage of a few of them.

A Practical View of Gay Marriage

I try to avoid politics on this blog, but this isn’t a directly political post. I’m in favor of legalized same-sex marriage, but if you’re not, I won’t try to change your mind. Instead I’m going to offer you a practical reason to just keep quiet about the subject.

Many people think of gay marriage as one of a group of “social issues” that divide the US, like abortion or the death penalty. It’s actually something very different. Here are some recent results from two polling firms on public approval of gay marriage:

gay marriage polls

Don’t get distracted by the difference between the two polls in 2011, which probably comes from phrasing the question a little differently. Just focus on the sheer speed of change: a 50% increase in the last seven years alone, and a doubling of support in the last fifteen years. Part of what’s going on here is that people are changing their minds about the issue as they learn more about it, see more openly gay people on TV or get to know them in their own life, and so on. That may be a one-time shift. But the other factor is simply demographic — young people are overwhelmingly more supportive of gay marriage than older people:

So even if that one-time shift is largely over, all it takes is the passage of time for support to keep steadily rising.

Public opinion on abortion does not exhibit these same trends — it’s actually been pretty stable over the last 40 years, and the differences by age are much more muddled. And support for the death penalty, while more cyclical (peaking with high crime rates) has also been relatively flat over the long term. Support for gun control has been steadily weakening but at a much slower rate.

In fact, it’s hard to think of another modern social issue where public opinion has been such a dramatic straight line upward. How about interracial marriage?

If you click here for more charts, you’ll see that the same kinds of significant age gaps are driving that line upward. “Millennials” (18-29) are well above 90% on this question, with their parents in the 80-90% range and their grandparents in the 60s. Members of those older generations have become significantly more tolerant over time, but that effect seems to be levelling off, with the simple demographic turnover now dominating.

Now, I am not directly comparing gay marriage to interracial marriage. There are obviously some important differences. For one thing, interracial marriage hasn’t been a legal issue (in the US) since the last anti-miscegenation laws were struck down by the Supreme Court in 1967. The law in that case was a leading indicator of public opinion, with only 20% of Americans approving of interracial marriage at the time. With gay marriage, which the courts are just beginning to get to, it may be more of a trailing indicator. (Here’s one good discussion of some other differences.)

What I am comparing is the standing of those two issues in polite society. Concern about interracial marriage is (happily) no longer a legitimate subject of mainstream political rhetoric in the US. Showing even a hint of doubt about it would take you out of contention for nationwide office in either party, as this recent Onion article jokes about. When Mitt Romney was asked about it recently, he gave perhaps the most direct answer of his career:

Romney was confronted at a town hall meeting here Monday by a young man who read from a book of scripture published by the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints, and asked Romney whether he agreed with his church’s one-time belief that interracial marriage was a sin.

Romney, who is on the cusp of becoming the first Mormon ever to win a major party’s presidential nomination, became visibly agitated with the man’s line of questioning. The former Massachusetts governor replied to his question with a terse “No.”

I have no reason to doubt him, but was the answer to that question ever in doubt? Any American politician today, whatever they really thought, would give the same reply. To do otherwise would be political suicide.

How long has opposition to interracial marriage been politically beyond the pale, not just as a legal proposition but even as a talking point? Well, there are obviously big regional differences, but at the national level I’d put the shift somewhere in the ‘80s or ‘90s, when the polls were about where they are now on gay marriage. The last Presidential contender who I can imagine even flirting with the subject was Pat Buchanan, and his last gasp was winning a few primaries in 1996. Anyway, some people would put it even earlier, but it’s hard to say exactly when things changed — and if you’re an opponent of gay marriage, that’s the part of the story that should really worry you. There was no alarm bell that went off to warn people that their views were about to go from a strain of mainstream social conservatism to the sort of fringe bigotry that most conservatives would be embarrassed by.

So here’s the alarm bell: if you have a problem with gay marriage, it’s going to become your problem. It doesn’t matter whether you’ve come to that view for simple homophobic reasons or more nuanced intellectual or religious ones. It doesn’t even matter whether you’re right or wrong. Either way, you are lashing yourself to a hopeless losing cause, and not the kind that people forget about. There will come a time — not this year or next, but sometime in the next decade or two — when your position today will be just as embarrassing to you as if you’d taken a firm stand against interracial marriage in 1980. When that happens, I can almost guarantee that you’ll change your tune in public, whether or not you actually change your mind. So why not save yourself a lot of stress and get it over with now?

Few things are more unpleasant than having been on the wrong side of history on a subject like this, but few things are easier to avoid. You don’t have to march in any pride parades or shout anything from the rooftops. Just drop the subject. That’s all. Focus on your other political priorities. This one’s a losing battle.

I am hardly the first person to make this point — for example, see here for one recent op-ed, or here for a better statistical analysis — so it’s amazing to me that so many smart people are unable to see the writing on the wall and get themselves ahead of this issue. Take this NYT column by Ross Douthat, a young and relatively moderate conservative pundit, in which he rejects almost every rationale for opposing gay marriage but still finds his own complex reason to object to it. I don’t know why he would write a column like this, but I do know that one day he’ll be embarrassed that he did. Actually, in some ways this kind of qualified intellectual defense of prejudice is harder to live down than just the crude prejudice on its own. For example, William Buckley had to fight harder to repudiate his ‘50s segregationist views than did Robert Byrd and other Southern senators, largely because people had higher expectations of an intellectual like Buckley. Similarly, Bill Clinton won’t have to work hard to make people forget that he signed the Defense of Marriage Act — in fact, it seems like many liberals have already forgotten it — but in twenty years, Douthat may still have readers linking to that column in the comments section of everything he writes.

If your opposition to gay marriage is really one of your top priorities, I don’t expect to have much influence on you. But for most of the people I’ve met with that viewpoint, it’s not a top priority at all. It’s one of a cluster of conservative positions, many of which are far more important to them. So why are they risking so much of their own personal reputation and political identity on this one?

What if you’re already in favor of gay marriage? Well, if you know someone who’s not, you might want to show them some of those numbers. It’s a lot easier to change someone’s priorities than it is to change their mind. And you shouldn’t do it just because a less vocal opposition means faster progress — you’ll be doing them a favor on a personal level too. One day they may even thank you for it.

A Theory of Swedish Pop Music

There’s an effect in computer animation called the “uncanny valley”: when human characters look too real, there’s a sudden shift in the way we perceive them, and they become uncomfortable to watch. Our focus switches to the tiny differences between simulation and reality, precisely because they’re so small.

I have a related theory about the disproportionate success of Swedish pop music: the English spoken there is a little too good, too similar to native English, so that the lyrics trigger the same kind of mental switch. But in this case it has the opposite effect — rather than being off-putting, it makes the songs more catchy and compelling. I’ll come back to why that might be, but first let me give some examples of what I mean.

A lot of what I’m talking about is not so much any specific syntax as a general tendency towards bluntness and exposition. You can see this right from the beginning, in ABBA’s Eurovision-winning breakout song “Waterloo” (1974), which is almost too easy an example. Could any native English speaker have written the lyrics “at Waterloo Napoleon did surrender / and I have met my destiny in quite a similar way”? Compare it to the Phil Spector-produced “You Came, You Saw, You Conquered,” which makes the same central joke (falling in love = military defeat) without spelling it out quite so clearly.

This matter-of-fact tone is especially well-suited to bad news, as demonstrated by everyone from Roxette (“It must have been love / but it’s over now”) to the Cardigans (“I fear we’re facing a problem / you love me no longer”) to Jens Lekman (“I’m leaving you / because I don’t love you”).

But there are also subtle differences in word usage, as in ABBA’s “Dancing Queen,” which uses a gerund where it sounds like a participle (when I heard it as a child, I pictured a queen, in full regalia, dancing); or in their “Money Money Money,” which uses “funny” like “fun.” The best example of this is “All That She Wants,” by Ace of Base, which confused millions of listeners with the lines “all that she wants / is another baby / she’s gone tomorrow, boy.” Because “baby” as a term of endearment isn’t often used in the third person, much less for a one-night stand (which is what the song’s about), it sounded like the title character was actually trying to get pregnant and have “another” baby. Since she spends the rest of the song lying in the sun and picking up men, without any previous babies in evidence, it made for a pretty complex character sketch, and ranks with Alanis Morrissette’s confusion about the meaning of ironic as one of the more puzzling musical moments of the ‘90s.

Why doesn’t this happen as much with other European acts who sing in English? Often because they get native English speakers to write their lyrics, as Nena did when she turned the German “99 Luftballons” into “99 Red Balloons,” or Peter Schilling when he translated “Major Tom.” But even when they do write in English, they don’t always have the same delight in wordplay, quirky expressions and figures of speech. And this is the real key to why Swedish lyrics are so appealing. Having fun with language is half the point of pop lyrics, and it may be that you need a little distance from a language (but not too much) to really have fun with it. It’s possible to achieve that distance from your native language, of course, but it’s not always easy. Think of John Updike’s famous quote about non-native English speaker Vladimir Nabokov, that he wrote English prose “the way it should be written — ecstatically.”

Two more recent examples of a Swedish band using the English language creatively are “Heartbeats” by the Knife and “Rent-a-Wreck” by Suburban Kids with Biblical Names. The lyrics of both songs lie somewhere between a string of imagery and a coherent narrative. A sample from the second one: “I visit your city and I slept on your floors / I borrowed your swings and I’ve heard you’re hardcore / All the scores / of the C to the A / and the youth of today / and it’s beautiful…” It’s like the singer is trying to tell a story, but keeps getting distracted by the sound of the words he’s using and digressing into little side-rhymes and snippets of other things he’s heard. In that respect it reminded me a bit of Jack Kerouac, another writer for whom English was a second language.

Of course, there’s a lot of evidence that this theory doesn’t explain, particularly the massive success of Swedish acts in places like Japan. And why haven’t other Scandinavian countries been as prolific on the global scene? They all have big metal scenes, but that’s a whole different thing. And there’s Bjork, of course, but frankly it seems like the idea of Bjork is more popular than her actual music; an interesting form of purgatory would be an all-Bjork karaoke bar, in which all of us teenagers of the ‘90s who’ve alluded to her with casual familiarity realize that we can’t actually remember any of her songs all the way through. Denmark has given us Lars Ulrich and “Barbie Girl,” of which the latter displays some of the above elements. The few Norwegian acts I’ve heard also seem to fit the bill: Röyksopp’s lyrics have some of that same impressionistic feel to me as the Knife, and the Kings of Convenience share the faux-innocent bluntness of Jens Lekman.

Now, I’m not saying that these effects are unique to Scandinavian artists singing in English. I think you could get them with any artist writing lyrics in a second language that they’re equally familiar with. And lyrics are hardly the only reason these artists have been successful. But I think these lyrical quirks are definitely an overlooked factor in their appeal.

[Thanks to my Swedish friends Elsa and Jenny for their help on this post, especially with the more recent bands. Jenny adds: “it’s easier for us to say/write things in English that feel too rough or hard to say in Swedish. The English words don’t mean the same thing to many as the Swedish words. A word like ‘love’ has almost lost its effect on many Swedes, it’s so easy to say to anyone and it doesn’t mean that you love (in Swedish: älskar) them. ‘Falling in love’ and the Swedish ‘kär’ are so different for a Swede, even if they are essentially the same word.”]

“Stranger in a Strange Land”: Don’t Bother

It’s not often that a book is so bad that I feel the need to write about it as a warning to others, but this is one of those times. So here’s a quick rundown of why this is one you can skip.

Not that I’ve read enough science fiction to be an expert, but I usually enjoy it, and I’ve always felt that I should read this book. The publisher now calls it “the most famous science fiction book ever written,” and it’s definitely up there. Written by Robert Heinlein — along with Isaac Asimov and Arthur C. Clarke, one of the “big three” sci-fi novelists to emerge in the postwar years — it was published in 1961 and became a huge crossover hit later in the decade. To this day, for many baby boomers who weren’t into science fiction, it’s the only true sci-fi novel they’ve read (“true” just in the sense that you’d find it in the sci-fi section of a bookstore, unlike more “literary” SF writers like Kurt Vonnegut or Margaret Atwood).

So, what’s wrong with it? First of all, it’s incredibly sexist. And not just “it was a different time” sexist, as Heinlein fans all over the internet will inform you. I’ve read a lot of books from this era, including some other genre fiction, and I’ve never encountered anything quite like this. Here’s how the main female character is introduced:

Gillian Boardman was a competent nurse, and her hobby was men.

Gillian later offers up such pearls of wisdom as “The truth is, I get a kick out of having men stare at me …lots of men and almost any man” and “Nine times out of ten, when a woman gets raped, it’s partly her fault.” And Heinlein is equally nuanced and insightful on the subject of religion:

’Well …Jesus made quite a splash with only twelve disciples.’

Sam grinned happily. ‘A Jew boy. Thanks for mentioning Him. He’s the top success story of my tribe — and we all know it, even though many of us don’t talk about Him. He was a Jew boy Who made good and I’m proud of Him. Please note that Jesus didn’t try to get it all done by Wednesday. He set up a sound organization and let it grow.’

But the real star is Jubal Harshaw, Heinlein’s obvious wish-fulfillment stand-in for himself. Jubal is an aging popular writer who lives with a harem of three beautiful, brilliant young women who take turns keeping house, splashing around in the pool and serving as his personal secretaries. He’s also an unbelievable Renaissance man, displaying categorical knowledge of everything from law to philosophy to sculpture to herpetology:

It was the handsomest specimen of Boidae he had ever seen — longer, he estimated, than any other boa constrictor in captivity.

We are treated to Jubal’s wisdom partly through bizarre non sequiturs like that one, and partly through various monologues in which he serves as the mouthpiece for Heinlein’s political and social views, which are at best charmingly muddled and at worst a complete chore to read. Jubal fancies himself a kind of curmudgeonly Hunter Thompson-esque libertarian, but first and foremost he’s a pedant. There’s nothing another character can say to him that won’t produce a lecture in reply, and even the most interesting of these often slide back into tired sexist stereotypes by the time he’s done. For example, here’s his response when someone compliments one of his sculptural replicas:

Anybody can look at a pretty girl and see a pretty girl. An artist can look at a pretty girl and see the old woman she will become. A better artist can look at an old woman and see the pretty girl that she used to be. But a great artist — a master — and that is what Auguste Rodin was — can look at an old woman, portray her exactly as she is… and force the viewer to see the pretty girl she used to be…. and more than that, he can make anyone with the sensitivity of an armadillo, or even you, see that this lovely young girl is still alive, not old and ugly at all, but simply prisoned inside her ruined body. He can make you feel the quiet, endless tragedy that there was never a girl born who ever grew older than eighteen in her heart…. no matter what the merciless hours have done to her. Look at her, Ben. Growing old doesn’t matter to you and me; we were never meant to be admired — but it does to them.

At any rate, here’s the main plot: a human baby named Michael Smith is orphaned on Mars, raised by Martians, and returns to Earth as a young man with magical powers, befriending the characters above. He spends the first half of the book waiting for Jubal to shut up, then ditches him to start a free love cult and become an all-purpose hippie Christ figure.

Aha, you say, a free love cult — so at least there’s some action, right? Sorry to let you down, but that’s another area where Stranger fails to live up to its reputation. There’s almost no sex at all until the last third of the book, and even then it’s all just implied, in a “then they went off to the bedroom together” kind of way. (On the other hand, Heinlein describes every chaste kiss in the rapturous tones of a twelve year old at summer camp.)

Even the book’s famous contribution to the English language, the Martian verb “to grok,” isn’t really a new concept at all, just a cute way of saying “to understand.” A lot of space is devoted to explaining the term, but it can all be summarized as “to understand in some intense Martian way.”

One of the ironies of this book’s popularity is that, of the two central figures — Smith the communal cultist and Jubal the rugged individualist — it’s Smith and his hippie ethos that so many readers identified with, although Heinlein seems more sympathetic to Jubal. But if he had a point to make here, the readers can hardly be blamed for missing it; there’s never any real conflict between the two, so this tension between their worldviews remains frustratingly unexplored.

Indeed, the line from fans of the book seems to be “yeah, it’s a little dated, but if you get past that, it’s a really interesting commentary on American society at the time.” They will rarely be any more specific, and I can understand why — because while Heinlein obviously has something to tell us about society, it’s never clear exactly what it is.

I don’t really have a better theory about the book’s appeal, though. For whatever reasons (and I don’t think it was just the New Agey cult stuff) it struck a cultural nerve in the ‘60s and meant a lot to some people at the time. Those people have every right to remember it fondly. And it might still mean a lot today to someone who reads it at a young enough age that the pseudo-philosophy and just-off-camera sex are still exciting. But for the rest of us, this is one of those “classics” that’s better to read about than to actually read.

In Memory of Square One

I saw a Thundercats t-shirt on the street the other day, and it made me wonder why my favorite childhood TV show hasn’t experienced the same ironic revival as so many others. Here’s my attempt to help it along.

For those of you who never saw it, Square One was an educational show on PBS that taught grade school math — sort of a math equivalent to 3-2-1 Contact (science) or Reading Rainbow. Among other segments, it included Sesame Street style pop song parodies, occasionally featuring a major artist but more often just the house cast.

If you’re a fan of The Wire, you know Reginald Cathey as Norman Wilson, Mayor Carcetti’s political advisor. Here he is about twenty years earlier, singing a country song about the multiples of nine:

And working out a fraction:

My favorite music video was ‘8% of My Love,’ in which the singer enumerates for his girlfriend how the other 92% has already been allocated — which includes ‘6% for my Springsteen tapes’ and 9% for his science tutor. He even remembers to use the official full name of the ‘New York Football Giants’:

But the show’s crowning achievement was Mathnet, a parody of Dragnet that featured two police detectives who carried calculators in their holsters instead of guns, and solved every case via a series of math problems. The Joe Friday role was filled by Kate Monday:

Then there was “Mathcourt,” in which a dramatic case turns on the area of a triangle:

And “The Mathematics of Love,” in which a singer has to learn roman numerals to record his new single in ancient Rome:

Was this the inspiration for George Clinton’s “Mathematics of Love,” first recorded just a few short years later in 1996? I report, you decide.

I won’t embed them all, but here are links to a few more highlights:

  • early rap group The Fat Boys singing ‘One Billion is Big’;
  • Tesselations’ (to the approximate tune of ‘Good Vibrations’);
  • the ‘Angle Dance’ (“The following song includes graphic descriptions of obtuse and acute angles. Viewers who might be offended…”);
  • and last but not least, Cathey again in ‘General Mathpital’ (“A rectangle was admitted, we need to double its area”).

Anyway, I’ll spare you the usual faux-nostalgic rant about how kids these days aren’t learning anything because they don’t have television like this. Actually, my favorite Youtube comment was “God i used to watch this and i still suck at math.” But as long as we’re revisiting everything from Thundercats to the Kool-Aid man, hopefully this excellent show is also fair game.

A Beginner’s Guide to Eric Kraft

Eric Kraft is one of my favorite writers, and he’s amassed some of the best and most consistent mainstream reviews I’ve ever seen, but I don’t know many other people who have heard of him. Even for those who have, his large and interconnected body of work can make it hard to know where to begin. This post is a modest attempt to remedy that — especially now that his older work is becoming available again in both print and electronic formats. I’ll talk about what to read first, how to choose among the rest of his work, and why I think he isn’t more well-known.

Where to Start

Kraft’s oeuvre begins with nine stories he wrote in the 1980s which are each somewhere between a short story and a novella in length. On the surface, they’re all whimsical tales of  small-town America in the ‘50s, centered around a boy named Peter Leroy. Just below the surface, Kraft weaves in various literary references, (often hilarious) undertones of adult sexuality, and a gently cynical view of American society and ambition —  but with such a light touch that it never interrupts the narrative or weighs it down.

It’s hard to describe these stories any further, except to say that they are easily the most fun literary fiction I’ve read that was published in the last 30-40 years. The material is somewhat like that of Garrison Keillor’s Lake Wobegon stories, but with none of the same ironic distance or occasional smugness. Even the best “serious” fiction today is so weighed down with cultural context and in-group assumptions that it’s hard to find a contemporary point of comparison for these nine stories. To find another author who is trying as sincerely as Kraft to connect with everyone, you might have to go back to The Adventures of Augie March, or even further to Mark Twain, who’s obviously one of Kraft’s major influences.

These nine stories were collected in one volume called Little Follies, which seems to be long out of print. You can often find used copies online, which is how I first read them, but now there are two other options as well: ordering a new edition directly from Kraft’s website, or buying electronic copies at the Amazon Kindle or Barnes & Noble Nook stores, where they’re now selling for only a dollar each.

If you have never heard of Kraft before, I would encourage you to stop reading here and try one of the stories out. The first, and arguably the best, is called My Mother Takes a Tumble, and you can find the online versions here (Kindle) and here (Nook).

If you’ve been through these stories and are looking for more, or if you’re just curious to learn more about Kraft, then read on.

What to Read Next

Kraft’s output since then consists of about ten novels (many still in print) that I’d put into three main categories. The first group is longer stories of the same general type as the ones in Little Follies, with the young Peter Leroy staying on as a main character. This includes Where Do You Stop (1992), At Home with the Glynns (1995), and Inflating a Dog (2002). My favorite of these three is Inflating a Dog, which tells the story of Peter Leroy’s mother attempting to start a houseboat restaurant.

The second category is novels that take one or more of the secondary characters from the original stories as protagonists. There’s Herb ‘n’ Lorna (1989), which tells the story of Peter’s grandparents and how they met; Reservations Recommended (1990) (my favorite), which imagines his troubled schoolmate Matthew as a troubled adult in Boston; and What a Piece of Work I Am (1993), which follows the older sister of another of Peter’s friends.

To understand the third category, you need to know something about the conceit of the whole project, which is that all these stories are framed, narrated and/or introduced by an adult Peter Leroy, who is presented as a dreamy, nostalgic and unreliable narrator, and is largely a stand-in for Kraft himself — just as the town of “Babbington,” where most of the above stories are set, is a thinly-veiled Babylon, on the south shore of Long Island, where Kraft grew up.

So: in this third category are the later novels that break down the walls even further between Peter Leroy the protagonist, Peter Leroy the narrator, and Kraft himself. These books generally interweave stories of Peter Leroy’s childhood with stories of his contemporary life, which seems to mirror Kraft’s own life much more closely. At a few points, they even raise the curtain completely and make brief references to Kraft by name. These novels include Leaving Small’s Hotel (1998), Passionate Spectator (2004), and the Flying trilogy (collected in 2009). My favorite of these is Leaving Small’s Hotel, but all three are more of an acquired taste than his earlier work. Like many writers, Kraft seems to be getting more sentimental with age, and without the context of his earlier work, parts of these books can come across as a little too sweet and sappy for some. On the other hand, if you prefer something with a sweeter, less cynical tone, Flying is not a bad place to start (and The Static of the Spheres will probably be your favorite of the original nine stories).

Why Isn’t He More Widely Read?

I think it’s because the reviews, as positive as they are, tend to focus too much on the postmodern aspects of Kraft’s work: How much of this Peter Leroy character is really Kraft himself? How honest and/or accurate are his recollections, even within the context of the novel? How “real” are the other characters and their storylines supposed to be? And how are all of Kraft’s books connected?

In particular, Kraft’s work is often called “Proustian,” a reference to Marcel Proust’s epic Remembrance of Things Past, a 15-year project in seven volumes that deals with many of the same questions around memory, reality and truth.

Stephen Hawking was once told that every equation he included in a popular science book would reduce his readership by half. My theory is that calling a book “Proustian” has approximately the same effect. Most of us have read little or no Proust, and fairly or not, we have a general impression of his famous book as being long, dense and difficult.

I confess to some doubt as to how many of the people applying this adjective to Kraft have actually made it through Proust’s 1.5 million word opus (and I certainly haven’t), but there’s no question that it was a major influence. And Kraft himself seems very interested in these “Proustian” or “meta” aspects of his work. He includes lots of digressions along these lines in the books themselves, particularly about the unreliability of memory, and he’s taken advantage of the hypertext format to build a dizzyingly complex website that adds various other bits of writing, photos and ephemera to all the works, and attempts to knit them together into a complex whole.

Now that I’ve read everything, especially the books in that third category, I am starting to understand this project a little more than I did at the beginning, but I still see it as an unnecessary distraction for first time readers. You do not need to be interested in the Peter Leroy / Eric Kraft “universe” to enjoy Kraft’s books, any more than you need to be interested in Yoknapatawpha County to appreciate Faulkner, or in the Marvel Universe to appreciate the Spider-Man movies. Kraft’s stories stand up perfectly well on their own, and their fun, infectious tone makes them a ray of sunshine in the too-often dour and over-intellectual landscape of modern fiction. I hope you’ll give them a try.

Why You Are Not an “Agnostic”

The modern usage of the word “agnostic” has long been a pet peeve of mine. Most people think of it as a middle ground between theism and atheism: “I don’t believe in God, but I don’t believe there’s definitely no God.”

This isn’t exactly what the word has meant historically, as Wikipedia will tell you. But that’s OK. Languages change over time, and a widely used colloquial meaning can become just as valid as the “official” one.The real problem is that 99% of self-declared atheists believe exactly the same thing.

Atheism is just the absence of theism. It does not require the affirmative belief that there is no God. A few atheists hold this belief — which philosophers call “positive” or “strong” atheism — but as far as I can tell, it’s a tiny academic and scientific fringe. I have never met anyone in person — and I’ve known a lot of self-declared atheists — who would make this claim.

Even the most famous atheists, like Sam Harris, Richard Dawkins or Christopher Hitchens, aren’t saying this. In fact, Dawkins has addressed the subject directly:

Dawkins … reserves the term “strong atheist” for “I know there is no god”. He categorizes himself as a “de facto atheist” but not a “strong atheist” under this definition.

So this is the real problem with the “middle ground” usage of the word “agnostic”: it doesn’t serve any useful purpose. Atheism and theism exhaust all the possibilities. If you don’t believe in God, you’re an atheist, whether or not you are open-minded about his possible existence.

So why have you been calling yourself an “agnostic”? Probably to signal your tolerance and open-mindedness, and distinguish yourself from all those dogmatic atheists. Or maybe you’ve come to associate the word “atheism” with “anti-religious” and you don’t see yourself that way.

As a fellow atheist, I understand how you feel. I’m not against all religion, and I’m no great fan of the authors above. I can see why anyone might want to disassociate themselves from the more strident, anti-religion wing of pop atheism. But calling yourself an “agnostic” is disingenuous. It implies that millions of self-declared atheists believe something they don’t, in order to use them as a straw man to boost your own status. If there were really hordes of “positive” atheists out there, then yes, your “negative” atheism would make you open-minded by comparison. But there aren’t.

If you have a problem with Dawkins or other prominent atheists, or with your know-it-all “atheist” friends, then your problem is probably with their rhetoric, their tone or their views on religion and society — not with their core beliefs about God. So don’t cede the “atheist” label to them — if anything, it will only encourage them.

One of my favorite bloggers, John Scalzi, has recently written about this general subject. Unfortunately, he defines himself as an agnostic, although he comes closer than most to the real definition:

I’m an agnostic of the non-wishy-washy sort (i.e., I don’t believe in a god nor believe one is required to explain the universe, but I acknowledge I can’t prove one doesn’t or never did exist)

But then he perfectly expresses what many self-described “agnostics” are trying to say:

There are a number of people who have come to agnosticism or atheism because of conflicts with or disillusionment about religion, and in particular a religion they were born into and grew up in, and others who are agnostic or atheist who feel that religion and the religious impulse must be challenged wherever they find it. For these reasons among others I think people assume those people who aren’t religious are naturally antagonistic, to a greater or lesser degree, to those who are. But speaking personally, I don’t feel that sort of antagonism; I don’t look at those who believe as defective or damaged or somehow lacking. Faith can be a comfort and a place of strength and an impetus for justice in this world, and I’m not sure why in those cases I, as a person without faith, would need to piss all over that.

It’s a shame that so many people don’t think of this view as compatible with atheism, but it’s not too late to change that. You can start by describing yourself accurately.


World’s Smartest Animal

This is a proposal for a Survivor-style reality show. It’s based on the fact that we’ve observed nearly human intelligence in a wide variety of animal species. The show would take one member of each species and pit them against each other in “IQ tests” each week. The field would be slowly narrowed by an “expert panel” or viewer call-in voting, and you’d eventually wind up with a single champion each season. This champion would return the next season to compete against new members of the other species, with a few new species thrown in for variety.

Each week would feature a broad category like tool use, memory, vocabulary, self-recognition, speed of learning, and so on. The animals would rarely be competing head-to-head, and not every animal could compete in every category, so you might go with some kind of round-robin approach rather than voting off one animal each week. Most of the actual screen time would consist of the animals and their trainers preparing for the tests, with the host or narrator following them and filling us in.

People love watching animals, and animal intelligence is a universally fascinating subject. But animal shows are still a fairly niche market. A look at the current lineup on the Animal Planet network is instructive: most shows are organized around cuteness (‘Puppy Bowl VII’), danger (‘Fatal Attractions’), or a human-centered storyline, like animal hoarding or Mike Tyson training pigeons (No, I’m not making up that last one). And despite the recent boom in nature programming, most of us still associate this subject matter with the David Attenborough approach — long shots, delicate background music, calm narration and slow pacing. “World’s Smartest Animal” would be a happy medium between these old and new styles; faster-paced than an old-fashioned nature documentary, but with more substantive scientific content than most of these modern shows. The ‘competition’ framework and the additional focus on the trainers will make it a more natural extension of mainstream reality shows, and help reach people who would normally never tune in to a nature program.

Show me someone who says they wouldn’t watch this show, and I’ll show you a liar. Think about your friends and you can probably already imagine who would root for which contestant — the girly-girl who goes for the cutest animal, the tough guy who picks the ugliest one, the hipster who likes the octopus just to be different (although he knows about an even smarter animal that the show didn’t include). Or maybe it’s the trainers that people will identify with — some of whom will be young and telegenic like the dolphin show staff at Seaworld, others endearingly nerdy and weird. Then there’s the “expert panel,” which could feature celebrity animal lovers along with serious scientists.

Which species should be included? My top four categories would be:

1. chimps, bonobos and other great apes
2. dolphins and other cetaceans
3. crows and other corvids
4. octopi and other cephalopods

You’d also mix in more familiar animals like dogs, pigs, rats and mice, and a few exotic choices like monitor lizards, rhesus monkeys, or even jumping spiders.

And the final touch: a single human contestant, someone dumb enough that the animals could occasionally beat them — maybe a contestant from another reality show on the same network. If both shows last long enough, you could even establish a regular system whereby the top-ranked animal and the lowest-ranked human switch places each year, the way a top seeded sports team can sometimes switch with the bottom seed in the next division up.

For those who don’t believe that animals are this smart, here are videos of (1) a crow bending a piece of wire into a hook to retrieve a bucket of food, (2) an octopus that uses coconut shells for camouflage, (3) a dolphin that can answer yes/no questions, and (4) a dog with a 1,000 word vocabulary, including some verbs and category nouns (as featured in this recent NYT article).

A New Way to Play Scrabble

One of Bobby Fischer’s few non-crazy ideas after retiring from chess was a format in which the arrangement of the pieces in the back row was randomized at the start of each game. Fischer was trying to make chess less a game of memorization (of openings and subsequent board positions) and more about on-the-fly reasoning.

There’s an analogous problem with Scrabble, which is that players even one notch above “casual” have memorized dozens of obscure words that appear in most dictionaries. For those of us still in the “casual” category, playing with these people can be a frustrating experience. Words like “pht” (an interjection) can seem almost unsportsmanlike. But they’re not, of course. These people are just playing by the rules. The problem is that the rules of Scrabble reward memorization (or prior knowledge) of words that no one would ever use in another context. How can we fix this?

Here’s my proposal: a word is legal if (a) the New York Times has used it, (b) without defining it. Of course, the usual dictionary rules apply: if it appears as a proper noun, as an abbreviation, or in quotes, it doesn’t count. How can you check on this? With the paper’s searchable online archives. And you don’t need to be a paid subscriber or even logged in to the site — the clip of the article that comes up in the search results usually provides enough context to show whether the reporter defines the term.

The idea, of course, is that the average New York Times reader is a decent proxy for a literate American adult. If a reporter feels they can take it for granted that someone like this will know a term, there’s a good chance that everyone around the table will see it as fair. Although it’s a small change, this rule creates a whole new game — one that will usually be more evenly matched, since differences in vocabulary and Scrabble experience will be less of a factor. And by adding an element of uncertainty to challenges, it can make them more exciting and more frequent — and therefore more important to the outcome.

More importantly, it captures the intuition that most of us have about Scrabble: that it’s not about having memorized odd words, or showing off an extensive vocabulary, but about skill with anagrams and the creative use of words that everyone recognizes. Think about the times when you’re really impressed with an opponent’s move. It’s generally not when they use an esoteric word that no one knew (this is more likely to produce groans around the table), but when they use words that you do know that you don’t think you would have seen.

It’s also flexible — you can adapt it to a different language, country or age group (or your own tastes) just by choosing another publication. Of course, not every publication has an online archive search that works this way, but the list will only grow over time.

Finally, note that you can use just (a) and not (b) to be less strict — so as long as it appears, it counts, even if it’s defined. This would allow words like “rya” (a type of rug) or “oud” (a musical instrument) — words that a reporter would explain, but still legitimate words that could appear in a newspaper and that a non-Scrabble player might know. And it also opens the door to a lot of specialist vocabulary, like lesser-known medical terms. (But these are often still a gamble. “Adenitis,” for example, only appears once in the Times archives as of this writing.)

There’s one obvious disadvantage: you need a computer at hand, or at least a smart phone. But given the increasing ubiquity of smart phones, this shouldn’t be much of a problem. You probably already have a friend or relative who constantly checks their phone during board games, right? Here’s a good way to put them to use.

Another disadvantage: the search function is occasionally fooled. For example, “et” (a non-standard past tense of “eat”) turns up hundreds of results for “ET” (eastern time) in bylines, and “ain” (a Scottish variant of “own”) returns nothing but “ain’t.” With these non-searchable words, the other players can just vote (“would i define this if I was using it as a reporter?”), or they can simply be allowable by prior agreement, cancelling the challenge without the usual one-turn penalty to the challenger.

So it’s not perfect. But some people will hate this rule for another reason. For them, Scrabble is supposed to test your vocabulary and your experience with the game. And that’s fine — they can go on playing the standard way. In fact, for most of the history of the game, there was no other practical way to play — a dictionary was the only objective source. But now the Internet has given us an alternative. Why not give it a try?