What I've been reading, featuring the imperialism of data analytics in the NBA, academic gatekeeping, and Bill Hader's "Barry"

Finally returning to writing up some of what I’ve been reading after a more-than-four-month hiatus. Was tied up with commitments to my thesis and preliminary exams and then I had an extended post-exam period of absolute indolence, which included watching that new Netflix show about competitive glass-blowing (recommended!). In that time, I’ve accumulated a large stack of unread publication subscriptions I’ve neglected and over a hundred browser tabs of links I’ve saved to sift through. A first run-through:

  • At 35:30 of this podcast, Sixers head coach Brett Brown talks to journalist Zach Lowe about how his team integrates counterintuitive insights from data analysis into on-the-ground basketball strategy, which has generally entailed having defenses overload on corner three-pointers and in-paint field goals at the cost of mid-range jumpshots, purportedly the least efficient shot in the game.

    Brown recounts the discomfort of watching his Sixers concede three straight midrange jumpers to All-Star opponent LaMarcus Aldridge. The analytics suggest it’s still a winning strategy in the long run, but Brown noted the effect of the perceived futility on his players' morale and adjusted his defense accordingly. Lowe refers to it as "the battle between math and humans... I don't think [the players] care about the math in that moment."

    Brown: "That's when you get a really big hammer and smash your calculator... The players are the pulse of what's really going on… The comfort of a player... people don't want to see repetitive buckets. Defensively. Competitively."

    Lowe: "That's exactly what it is: to get beat by the same thing over and over again even if you know in your heart that same thing's not gonna beat us much longer."

  • Relatedly and embedded below, ESPN commentators Bomani Jones and Pablo Torre discuss the perceived imperialism of empiricism into sports management. I disagree with a number of points Jones makes (e.g. analytics have been an overwhelming success beyond just the Warriors; to dispute that is just wrong), but found their discussion refreshing and much better than the Jalen Rose interview in the New Yorker that it aligns itself with.

    Jones’ main point is important: the consequence of the increased prominence of data analytics into basketball decision-making is that the diversity problems endemic to STEM fields and corporate executives—those who typically govern NBA franchises—is now being imported into the most powerful positions in a sport where 80% of the talent is black. It crowds out the one pathway into positions of power in the NBA that black people have traditionally enjoyed: through the basketball expertise of former players.

 
 

A recent New Yorker profile of Hader here on the expansion of his career through his writing, starring, and occasional directing of Barry:

Now comes editing, when you watch the first cuts and want to go die. I’ll say, ‘Hey, do we have one where I’m not angry?’ And the editor will say, ‘No, but we have footage of you very specifically saying, ‘We don’t need that option.’

Have since watched both seasons of Hader’s HBO series Barry on a friend’s recommendation (h/t Junho) and loved it. That and running through both seasons of Fleabag made for some great sometimes-absurdist dark comedy to sustain me through the exam period.

In the course of my interviews, I discovered that American working mothers generally blame themselves for how hard their lives are. They take personal responsibility for problems that European mothers recognize as having external causes. The lesson here isn’t for overwhelmed American parents to look longingly across the Atlantic; it’s to emulate the Swedes, Germans and Italians by harboring the reasonable expectation that the state will help.

Last July, NEF published a report advocating a sharp increase in the number of British co-operatives. On one of its later pages, with almost no fanfare, the report also proposed that conventional companies be required to give their employees shares, to create what NEF called an “inclusive ownership fund”. In September, with a few modifications, the proposal became Labour party policy. “I’ve never seen anything like it, from thinktank idea to adoption as policy!” says Mathew Lawrence, one of the report’s authors. This month, a version of the policy was also adopted by the US presidential candidate Bernie Sanders.

  • Forthcoming at the AER is a study titled “Does Science Advance One Funeral at a Time?”, a reference to a famous Max Planck quote. Ungated three-year-old version here (pdf), gated one-year-old revision here (pdf). From the abstract (h/t @page_eco):

…these results suggest that outsiders are reluctant to challenge leadership within a field when the star is alive and that a number of barriers may constrain entry even after she is gone. Intellectual, social, and resource barriers all impede entry, with outsiders only entering subfields that offer a less hostile landscape for the support and acceptance of ‘foreign’ ideas.

The authors, Pierre Azoulay and Joshua Graff Zivin, discuss the paper in this blog post:

In 2003, the two of us made a wager. We had just left a talk by a renowned scientist, when Pierre quipped, “It must be amazing to work in his orbit, where his brilliance and the intellectual exchange of ideas must raise the level of scholarship of everyone around him.” Josh, a bit more sardonic in nature, replied, “I don’t know. I bet he consumes a lot of scarce research resources and commands an oversized amount of attention. He might well suck all the oxygen out of the room.” Without missing a beat, Pierre countered that this was really an empirical question. Nearly a decade-and-a-half later, we have some answers. It seems we were both right.

…These results paint a picture of scientific fields as scholarly guilds to which elite scientists can regulate access, providing them with outsized opportunities to shape the direction of scientific advance in that space.

I’ll be honest: I have looked up the birthyears of some senior academics to gauge how long the field would have to tolerate their influential wrongness. Reminds me of this academic dispute between senior and junior paleontologists when the latter presented evidence that T. rexes were hunters and not (just) scavengers:

The discovery helped refute an old hypothesis, revived by the formidable paleontologist Jack Horner, that T. rex was solely a scavenger. Horner argued that T. rex was too slow and lumbering, its arms too puny and its eyesight too poor, to prey on other creatures. When DePalma’s find was picked up by the national media, Horner dismissed it as “speculation” and merely “one data point.” He suggested an alternative scenario: the T. rex might have accidentally bitten the tail of a sleeping hadrosaur, thinking that it was dead, and then “backed away” when it realized its mistake. “I thought that was absolutely preposterous,” DePalma told me. At the time, he told the Los Angeles Times, “A scavenger doesn’t come across a food source and realize all of a sudden that it’s alive.” Horner eventually conceded that T. rex may have hunted live prey. But, when I asked Horner about DePalma recently, he said at first that he didn’t remember him: “In the community, we don’t get to know students very well.”

  • A review of “Charged” by Emily Bazelon, a recent book on prosecutorial overreach. There’s an affecting appeal for compassion in the prison reform movement not just for the wrongfully convicted, but for those who have served their time:

Cartwright’s story reminds us that the critical cases in arguing about incarceration are the cases not of the innocent but of the guilty. If we believe that Noura Jackson was innocent, it is easy to be indignant about her years in prison. The challenge is to justify her incarceration if we stipulate that she wasn’t.

…The evidence is overwhelming that, even with the most seemingly noxious criminals, age and time wear away danger: little violent crime is done by middle-aged people, and eliminating all hope of release is one of the crueller, if unfortunately not at all unusual, punishments we impose.

…Justice without compassion is something other than civilized. We look back now in proper horror at the rituals of prison hangings, once so frequent in Britain and America both, without thinking that homicide is now acceptable. What was at stake was not the convict’s fate but ours. We have to want to humanize the treatment of those we think “belong” in prison with the same energy with which we agitate for those we don’t.

It brings to mind the story of Michelle Jones, incarcerated for over two decades for the murder of her infant child. During her incarceration, she led a team of inmates conducting research in American history using photocopies of archival documents, which she would present via videoconference. She was accepted to multiple PhD programs, but her offer from Harvard’s history department was rescinded.

Jones would go on to enroll in NYU, but to quote the book review, was Harvard’s rescindment “essential or merely vindictive”?

“We didn’t have some preconceived idea about crucifying Michelle,” said John Stauffer, one of the two American studies professors [at Harvard]. “But frankly, we knew that anyone could just punch her crime into Google, and Fox News would probably say that P.C. liberal Harvard gave 200 grand of funding to a child murderer, who also happened to be a minority. I mean, c’mon.”

  • Emily Wilson thread on why translating Homer into English is such a nightmare. She would later announce she is also translating The Iliad.

 
 
  • I was linked to the video below and unexpectedly found myself transfixed for its entire 28-minute duration. Cities: Skyline is a PC game in which the the player basically acts as an urban planner whose responsibilities include the designation of residential and commercial zones and construction of roads and power plants, very much like Sim City. This YouTube channel is basically a guy getting sent city files from players of the game who’ve run into issues with traffic congestion. His videos are him diagnosing and fixing these problems in real time with live commentary, for example by assigning right-of-way rules at at intersections, imposing merging rules, removing unnecessary four-lane roads or installing roundabouts. Mildly therapeutic, though daunting as someone as someone who cannot drive.