Thursday, 30 April 2009

Miraculous, really?

"Head Coach Bruce Boudreau raises his fists in triumph as the Capitals complete a miraculous comeback from a 3-1 series deficit." (emphasis added)

I think the WaPo is setting the bar on miracles a bit low here. The Caps were ranked no. 2 in their conference, Rangers 7th. If two teams are equally matched, there's a 1 in 8 chance that the team behind 3-1 will come back to win, and here we can argue that they weren't equally matched, Caps were better. Historically, 9% of teams behind 3-1 have come back to win the series. So, I'd say this comeback is about as miraculous as seeing three red cards come up on the flop in a game of Texas Hold 'em or flipping heads three times in a row. But I guess "as the Capitals complete a mildly surprising comeback ..." isn't very compelling copy.

Saturday, 18 April 2009

The Torture Memos

I had mixed feelings this week when the Obama administration took the bold step of releasing the Bush administration secret torture memos. Link.

On the one hand, I think it's more or less clear that releasing the memos is a positive step toward openness and resolution. We can get some verification and clarification of what had long been rumored, we can get clear on the attempted justifications, etc. (Some are arguing that it was a bad idea to make these procedures public because they worked. I've written before (sept. '06, jan. '05) what I think about these arguments so I'll leave that alone now.)

But, while I'm pleased that the memos have been released I've become increasingly troubled by Obama's decision and commitment not to prosecute any of these people. Here's some of what Obama said to explain why he didn't want to pursue prosecution of those who participated.

But at a time of great challenges and disturbing disunity, nothing will be gained by spending our time and energy laying blame for the past. Our national greatness is embedded in America’s ability to right its course in concert with our core values, and to move forward with confidence. That is why we must resist the forces that divide us, and instead come together on behalf of our common future.

There are a number of things I find objectionable here. (And, I refer interested readers to Keith Olbermann's commentary and a post by Chris Floyd that probably do a nicer job of articulating some of these concerns.) Let me try to spell out in three interrelated points.

1) The principle that "nothing will be gained by spending our time and energy laying blame for the past" seems to undermine a cornerstone of our system of justice, i.e., that crime cannot go unpunished. As Floyd notes "And cannot every criminal on the face of the earth now claim the Obama defense: 'Surely, your honor, nothing will be gained by spending our time and energy laying blame for the past. So let's forget the fact that I (raped/murdered/robbed/tortured), and move forward, shall we?' "

2) Anyone suspicious that the rules in the U.S. are only for the "little people"; that big finance and big auto and big brother can get away with flouting the rules, now has more basis for their concerns. If we contend that our government is above the law, that their illegal activity won't be prosecuted for whatever reasons, don't we undermine respect for the rule of law? Juxtapose this with recent data about the high incarceration rates in this country, particularly amongst African Americans and it suddenly becomes very difficult to argue that we don't have two sets of rules in this country.

3) Finally I'd like to further consider a point that Olbermann and Floyd have made, i.e., the concern that this response appears to appeal to the Nuremberg defense, i.e., the assumption that flouting the law is permissible when one is "simply following orders". It's useful to consider the reasons that we've rejected this defense. The Nuremberg defense suggests a very disturbing position on the role of law and the obligations of citizens. Laws, in this view, seem to be nothing more than manifestations of what the powerful want us to do. If, as I'd argue, laws implement and instantiate abstract principles of just practice, principles that we're all, qua humans and citizens, obligated to follow, then no dispensation from the powerful can override them. The Nuremberg defense is legitimate only if we assume that we're in a system in which laws are nothing more than rules and constraints put forward by 'the man", obligations created by and therefore retractable by those in power. If that's what we believe, then it's reasonable to allow that the government is allowed to make exceptions whenever it sees fit and the Nuremberg defense is a legitimate one. In the Nuremberg defense scenario, citizens are guilty if and only if they fail to do what the government tells them to do, there is no law beyond a base will to power. But we reject Nuremberg defenses if we hold that all people are citizens and all are obligated to follow the general principles of justice, rather than the pragmatic procedures decided on in secret by a small group of powerful men.

Monday, 13 April 2009

I'm sure I've ranted about this before, but I think hockey badly needs a "sabermetrification", i.e, a move to refine and take their stats more seriously. Here's an example from something I've been seeing lately. There's some talk that the Washington Capitals have set records for most points, most wins and most home wins in a season. But the problem is that the original records were set by the 1985-86 Capitals team. That team played at a time at which there was no shootout or regular season overtime, games tied at the end of regulation just ended with each team gaining a point. Also, that team played only 80 games, not 82 as they play today. Today, games ending in ties in regulation are 3 point games, a consolation point going to the loser, that wasn't the case in 85-86. So the teams now have more opportunities for wins and there are more points that can be won in a game. It's silly to just compare their records straight up. It's like comparing prices without adjusting for inflation.

It wouldn't be that hard to get a fair comparison, we'd just need to normalize the points. The most accurate way to normalize is to subtract all pts. gained in OT or SO (win or loss) and then give the Caps exactly one pt. for each game that ended in a tie in regulation. I don't have those numbers handy, an approximation is to drop the pts. gained in OT losses. So, this year's Caps have 96 "normalized" pts. after dropping the 8 pts they gained in OT losses. To finish with a comparable record they'd have to get 110 "normalized" pts. (they have 2 extra games, take the percentage of possible pts. the 85-86 team, won, .66875, and multiply by 82). But this year's team has only 3 games left. Or we could normalize the 85-86 records, perhaps most simply by assuming they'd have received a win in half their ties had they gone to a tiebreaker. This would give the 85-86 team 111 points in 80 games, which pro-rates to 114 in 82. So, IMO, the old record is safe.

What was Boudreau's, Caps coach, response when asked if these format changes rendered the record less impressive? "
You're going to have detractors anywhere you go when it comes to records. Everyone is going to want to put asterisks and things beside people's names. But in today's era, everything has changed. Everything has gotten bigger, faster, stronger, quicker. There was no salary cap in the '80s, either. There could have been a huge discrepancy. Everything evens out in the long run."

Hmm, I have no idea why the speed or strength of today's player is relevant. That today's players are faster and stronger doesn't change the fact that they give out more points and chances for wins today.