Linguistic Suggestion

Today, I’m putting on my filthy leftist Hating America First hat and suggest that American English could really benefit from being more like German. Y’know how German has compound nouns, words that are basically created by further modifying other nouns through attaching more descriptive terms to the original term? Well, that’s how German works, or at least so I’ve been told. It’s how German ends up with wonderfully descriptive nouns, such as “Backpfeifengesicht,” or “a face that cries out for a fist in it.”

Pretty cool, eh? So, English needs a little more of that. One compound term that keeps popping into my head is “totally unbelievable yet entirely unsurprising.” We need a word for that. Now, obviously, yes I could use that whole phrase every time I wanted to get such a sentiment across, but it’d be a lot easier to have one word.

Take this as an example: Cool little piece from Copyblogger about niche marketing. Money line:

Chris Christensen owns a business that manufactures and sells high-end beauty products … for dogs.

Yup, that’s right. Some guy has been enormously successful and runs a highly lucrative business selling makeup to dogs. Betcha feel pretty good about trying to get that law degree now, don’t you? This story, to me, captures both emotions of “totally unbelievable yet entirely unsurprising,” which, by the way, does occur in that order every time. I read that post and said, “Wow, some guy is making money hand over fist marketing makeup to dogs? That’s absolute bullshit!” And then I thought about it for a second and realized that in this world, in this day and age, that’s just not surprising at all. There are people who are willing to spray paint hair on their heads, fer chrissake.

Another example: this today from ThinkProgress (via):

Mitch McConnell rhapsodizing about how the goals of he and his cohorts supersede… elections? Pretty ridiculous when you think about the way that democracy is supposed to work. And totally unsurprising if you’re a follower of Mr. McConnell’s work. I rest my case.

Bags & Edgar

(Warning: Lots of baseball statistics herein.)

Typically thoughtful post up from Joe Posnanski about the Hall of Fame today and the prospects of several players. My Dad has always been a small HOF type of guy, someone who thinks that the honor should be reserved for the truly greatest of the great and I’ve inherited that sentiment to a large degree. Still, looking over the career numbers of Jeff Bagwell and Edgar Martinez, I think I’d vote ’em in were I a BBWAA member.

Bagwell’s numbers seem unspectacular for his first two years on the Astros (BA of .294 and then .273 with OPS of .824 and .812, respectively) but those years also had OPS+ splits of 139 and 135, respectively, which is surprisingly excellent.

But then take ’93 to ’04. Those numbers are astounding. OPS highs of 1.2 (!!!), 1.02, 1.01, 1.045 and 1.039 while OPSing below .900 only three times, twice of those barely (.894 and .897). And then the only other sub-.900 season is Bags’ second-to-last one, where he scores in at a still-very-respectable .842. His career OBP is over 400. Bags’ career SLG is .540.

Those are terrific numbers, but his stats are even more impressive when you look at his WAR. Here’s an eleven-year span, starting with ’91 (his rookie year) and ending in 2001, after which Bagwell played four more years, two of ’em at a very respectable level: 4.7, 4.7, 5.1, 8.9, 5.4, 8.3, 8.1, 6.7, 7.7, 5.5, 5.3. Those are monster numbers. That’s eleven straight All-Star caliber years (at minimum, ‘cuz rule of thumb for WAR is that 5 = AS) and three years at MVP-level with a fourth (the 7.7 being borderline MVP).

Bagwell may have only played 15 seasons, but for eleven of those he was one of the game’s absolute best. Doesn’t matter to me that he didn’t get 500 HRs. And my view on the steroid stuff is the same as Posnanski’s.

I think Edgar is a bit of a harder case. Playing at DH, there is that stigma. And although I agree with Posnanski that the “if X is in, Y HAS to be in” line of argument can be dumb for the reason that he writes out, you can’t really help but do that I’m going to do exactly that right now. Take Paul Molitor’s numbers, because Molitor is one of the few (the only?) DHs in the HOF. Career line of .306/.369/.448. That’s good but far from spectacular. Molitor, though, got to 3,000 hits, topping 200 in a season four times and three times leading the league in hits. Pretty damn good.

But now look at Edgar’s numbers. Edgar didn’t break in until he was 24 and wasn’t a full-time starter until 27. But then look at his stats from ’92 ’til 2003: his OBP was over .400 in eleven of those thirteen years. Starting in ’95 (an absolutely ridiculous [and strike-abbreviated] season for Edgar in which he posted an OPS+ of 185), the OBP numbers are: .479, .464, .456, .429, .447, .423, .423, .403, .406. That’s nine seasons in a row with an OBP above .400. Molitor achieved an OBP better than .400 three times in twenty-one years. Edgar Martinez did it in twelve out of his eighteen seasons.

Now, Edgar Martinez never reached 200 hits in a season, something that surprised me at first. But now, looking at his best year, I’m amazed that Edgar was able to get as many hits as he did. From ’95 to ’98, Edgar had 182, 163, 179 and 179 for hits, while walking more than a hundred times each season. The next two years he had 169 and 180 hits with 97 and 96 walks, respectively. So, a big part of the reason that Martinez didn’t reach 3,000 hits like Molitor did was 1) he became a full-time player at a later age (27 vs 21) and 2) his exceedingly high walk totals took away a lot of singles. Edgar Martinez walked 1283 times to Molitor’s 1094 in about 3,500 fewer plate appearances. Martinez also slugged better (.515 vs .448) and their WARs are comparable (Molitor’s 74.8 to Martinez’s 67.2).

Again, I know the “if X yes, then Y must be” argument is a cheap one, but that’s not all of my argument. Edgar Martinez may have numbers that stack up more favorable than those of Paul Molitor in terms of dominance and that’s an argument in Edgar’s favor. But the bottom line, as Posnanski writes, is that Edgar Martinez is one of baseball’s greatest hitters by pretty much any metric you want to use.

Bagwell and Edgar Martinez are in for me.

The NYT goes there

From a story that ran a few days ago, discussing the Mittster’s stance towards “entitlements”:

The 2-to-1 level of support found for spending on the poor for health care and other social services disappears when voters are asked specifically about welfare, according to the General Social Survey; when that word is used, voters by a better than 2-to-1 margin, 49.3 percent to 21 percent, say that “too much” is spent. In other words, a politician can either use the phrase “spending to help the poor” or the words “welfare” and “entitlement” to describe the government programs to alleviate hardship and therefore produce antithetical reactions in the public.

Emphasis all mine. This is interesting, though, innit? Exact same issue, differing responses based just on language. Could be an area for the NYT to look into, what with the idea of Social Security privatization individual accounts still floating around and the rest of the Luntz-approved tropes for ye Grand Ole Party. But such an expose might suggest (perish the thought!) that most Americans don’t know jackshit about politics and are easily manipulated, so I’m not gonna hold my breath.

Re-posted in full

One thing that is difficult for a political junkie like myself is to suppress a feeling of disdain for people who don’t follow politics and yet want to give you their political opinions. In election season, you will periodically see reporting on undecided voters like this piece in the Washington Post. It’s very formulaic. A reporter goes out and finds three of four or five average citizens who are planning to vote but are having a difficult time figuring out whom to support. The reporter supplies some basic biographical information (a grandmother who looks after a ton of grandkids, a salesmen struggling in a weak economy, a guy who is underemployed but dreams of going to medical school in the Caribbean), and then they provide some of their confused reasoning about the candidates.

These kinds of pieces always suffer from a sample size problem. If you only use 3-5 people, you can wind up with odd results that make it seem, e.g., that Rick Santorum will be the winner of the Iowa Caucuses. This creates a bias problem, but the articles are really intended to just provide a snapshot of a small corner of the electorate. In this case, it’s the portion of the electorate that is both conservative enough to reject President Obama out of hand, and politically disengaged enough to be surprised to learn about things like Newt Gingrich’s record.

They’ll vote in the Iowa Caucuses, and they’re taking an active interest in the campaign, but they don’t bring much accumulated political knowledge to the table. In other words, they can be easily influenced by the news story of the day, or by opinion leaders they respect, or by political advertising.

What the Washington Post piece seeks to demonstrate is that these types of voters are having trouble settling on a candidate. What’s different this year is that the same thing is happening even to more sophisticated and well-informed conservatives. Most of them are with Romney, but only by default and after a process of elimination. Everyone, it seems, wants to support someone else.

The truth is, though, that these voters (both the informed and semi-informed) really should keep applying their scalpel because they’ll eventually eliminate Romney, too, and realize that the only responsible choice is to reelect the president. They’ll get to that point if they examine their assumptions about the president, which are almost uniformly false. Even where they have Obama pegged correctly, they’re wrong about the Republicans. If they’re concerned about the national debt, for example, and don’t want the U.S. to become like Greece and default on its debts, the last thing they should do is vote for the party of Reagan and Bush. But hope springs eternal with these folks, and next time will be different. Next time, the GOP will eschew tax cuts for the rich, cut spending, and balance the budget. Except, they won’t. They’ve shown who they are now for thirty years, and they’re only getting more psychotic and less evidence-based.

It’s a sad spectacle to watch the GOP base voter try to use their reasoning faculties, but I have hope for them. Some of them, anyway, are going to figure this thing out.

First line so perfectly captures my thinking that I’m still shaking my head and smiling about it. Wish I had the optimism from which the last line derives. We shall see.

NYT paywall

Jeff Jarvis has an excellent post about the New York Times, its paywall and the concept of an engagement-based revenue system. I’m not going to excerpt the post because it isn’t a long one and you should read it in full.

Done then? OK. One other thing that occurred to me while contemplating his idea of rewarding engagement is that such a system would provide few incentives to first-time and causal readers, the sort that would have to pay (comparatively) more for less involvement. But maybe Jarvis sees their engagement as a losing proposition anyway because they aren’t engaged and are therefore unlikely to be so in the future. Either way, I think this is a fascinating idea.

The post also got me thinking, though, about my feelings on the NYT paywall, because Jarvis mentions that the Times is soon going to have a way to weed out those deviants who dodge the cyberblock (I am one of those deviants). I’m sure our community of tech people will find away around this new addition, but nevertheless, this all got me considering what I’d do if push came to shove and I had to either pay for the NYT or not use it. And I don’t think I’ve written down my thoughts on the paywall in Shadowy Silk land yet.

So, here goes: I’m deeply ambivalent about the New York Times paywall. And I don’t mean the dumb improper use of “ambivalent” for which people who don’t know the word’s actual meaning use the term (it does not mean the same thing as indifferent). I have extremely strong, opposite reactions to the concept of paying for the New York Times.

The good: The New York Times, for all its financial troubles, is one of the few news organizations left with the budget to sustain solid foreign bureaus. In addition to that, the Times employs Dexter Filkins and C.J. Chivers, two reporters whose work I find informative and enjoyable. I’ve read books by both of these men and I’ve found those quite worthwhile, too.

Due to its size, The NYT also has the resources to do good reporting. Michael Winerip does good work on education, David Leonhardt does good work on the financial sector and there are many other journalists at the newspaper who do excellent reporting. The Times’ platform, which is enormous, especially factoring in the digital reach, allows writers to set some sort of agenda for the day in news and when this agenda-setting power is used for good, that’s quite important. The NYT’s size allows it to focus on issues that other publications don’t have the capacity to cover and that’s worth keeping in mind.

Lastly (although I may think of more reasons later), the Times is a storied news institution, and although this may surprise anyone who’s read a few of my posts screeching about the media, I think there can be value to that. As much as I love the lefty blogosphere and would love to hardwire their editorial slant into “mainstream” media, there is something to be said, in my mind, about an organization that has the history, pedigree and reach of the NYT. How an institution goes about maintaining that credibility, however, is a different matter.

The bad: the NYT is afflicted, in its news coverage, by many of the problems that ail all news media. Much as PolitiFact must have been keeping an eye on the partisan origins of its lies for the year (see here for a good summary of the issue), the Times too must refrain from seeming too partial to one of the two political parties. And, of course, when one of the two political parties has gone off the deep end and is no longer dealing in good faith (also here), such a commitment stands in the way of honest reporting.

The NYT’s status as a hallowed institution is also one of its major failings because few people takes the Times as seriously as the Times does. This pride sometimes warranted, but so often it is not. The NYT never apologized for its disgraceful “coverage” of the Whitewater “scandal” in the 1990s and pigs will fly when it does so. During the 2000 election, the Times played a leading role in helping George W. Bush get elected. The Times caved on torture enhanced interrogation techniques during GWB’s presidency and also failed to cover itself in glory with regard to the Bush tax cuts.

Furthermore, so often the reporting on political matters focusing on trivial matters at the expense of substance. Some recent gems: a hard-hitting investigation on Mitt Romney’s grooming habits, a piercing look at Mitt Romney’s use of the word “zany” and a in-depth study of how Mitt Romney loves rules (??). This all harks back to what Katherine Boo termed “creeping Dowdism,” which runs rampant at the Times.

The above graf segues me nicely to the next trouble spot: the editorial page. The NYT is supposed to be our liberal bastion, no? The foremost platform for left-of-center thought, yes? Hardly. Although the Times will every so often publish an editorial that sounds like it could’ve been penned by one of the blogosphere’s more unSerious types, the editorial page is a disaster. To wit: Collins (awful), Friedman (awful), Bruni (awful), Cohen (invisible), Kristof (focused on international matters and fine by me), Blow (tribal), Keller (awful), Nocera (fine at times but becoming very Villager friendly), Douthat (awful), Bobo (AWFUL), Down (indsecribably awful). Is all that worth it for Krugman? Well, maybe. Because you can’t price Krugman. But wouldn’t it be better if the NYT didn’t devote more than half of its real estate to blithering idiocy? And, keep in mind, most of the best-known names (Bobo, Dowd, Captain Suck-on-this) are the worst of the bunch.

Aaand the Mustache of Understanding segues me nicely into the final and largest bone that I have to pick: the 2003 invasion of Iraq. I’m not going to rehash or excerpt the disastrous Times coverage in the buildup to the war in detail. I’m not going to bitch and moan about Judy Miller. I’m not going to complain about Joe Wilson and the yellowcake uranium business. All I’m going to say is this: there are so many political issues, so many news stories that are meaningless and transient. Your Casey Anthonys, your balloon boys, all of that stuff dominates headlines for a few days and then (rightfully) dissipates, never to be seen or heard from again. The amount of minutiae that the media focus on 24/7/365 is overwhelming. And none of that stuff really matters.

But on the largest issue of my lifetime (thus far), one whose impact will reverberate for Lord-knows-how-many decades (and that’s not an exaggeration), the New York Times fucked up. Big time. They had an opportunity to speak up against the plans for invasion, to point out the utterly fraudulent nature of the WMD claims and to make a stand on an issue of real consequence. And they didn’t. And we invaded. And 4,000+ American soldiers died. And 100,000 Iraqis died. And millions more Iraqis fled their homes. And we spent more than a trillion dollars. And we tortured people. And all that stuff is real. It won’t fade away like five days’ worth of round-the-clock coverage on Michael Jackson’s funeral.

So, will I pay for the NYT? I was hoping that I’d have it figured out by the time this post was through, but I still don’t know. I can refuse to pay for content that I view every day, which to me seems absurd given how much I value good journalism and given the fact that I’ve got enough money to pony up. Or I can send money to an organization for which, on an institutional level, I have zero respect. If NYT institutes a paywall that really can cut me off, I suppose I’d pay. And I’d send them a letter requesting that they fire Maureen Dowd. Wouldn’t make a difference, but it would make me feel better.

Learning on the Fly

Cool post from Chris Brogan, who not only mentions Patton Oswalt, perhaps my favorite comedian, but also gets in some good thoughts about expertise and task learning:

The Internet and computers in general have opened us all up to opportunities to do what we want. Lowered prices on all kinds of things open this up, too. In my immediate vicinity, I have an electric guitar that I can play well enough for people to say, “Oh, I didn’t know you play guitar!” I also have two prosumer video cameras that I use regularly, whether or not I know how to do that well. I have Final Cut Pro X, so I can edit things rudimentarily. I have a blog (you’re here!), so I can publish. I write books, because hey, this computer has a typewriter. I have an MP3 recorder so I could do a podcast, if I wanted (I want to, but I have run out of hours).

We are quite often given the opportunity to do something we’re not qualified to do. We often take on projects we’re not qualified to take on. I do it all the time. I will sign up for something, learn that I have no idea how to do it the way I imagine it, and then I rush to learn how to accomplish something that will make my client feel I’ve delivered value. It’s exhilarating (which I’m not an expert in spelling, but blogging software now has spell check). And yet, I have to accept that I’m not an expert.

The takeaway:

Wait to be an expert? Never. Just don’t sell yourself like that, either. Instead, lead with your enthusiasm, and then make damned sure you deliver.

Let’s go be non-experts.

I’ll take off my typically very cynical hat and totally agree with this. Getting more comfortable with jumping into things headlong is part of growing up and it really rewarding a lot of the time.

What this really made me think of, though, is a discussion I’ve had a few times this semester with my roommates and my Dad. Growing up, I think children tend to have this idea that adults are generally on top of their shit and know what they doing (actually, in a marvelous coincidence, Patton Oswalt has a good bit that touches on this). But the more you get older, the more you (if you’re like me and some of my friends) realize that lots and lots of people just aren’t really with it, at least not on the level that you’d expect.

This dynamic comes out when you have to do group projects with kids who just don’t really care about the work or aren’t prepared. But it’s even more interesting when you meet people in the real professional world who don’t answer emails or are rude to you or aren’t communicative in the way you expect.

Recently, I applied for an internship doing political communication work, something that would really interest me. I sacrificed working in PRLab, my school’s student-staffed PR agency, in which I’d fulfill a supervising role, to apply for this internship, which was not a sure thing. I get called back and told I’m first in line for the internship, which was very cool. I then realize that the internship is unpaid (which is fine) and is in Washington, D.C. (which isn’t fine, because I go to school in Boston). The internship application letter, which was distributed to Boston schools, is for the office of Barney Frank but makes no mention of the fact that you have to be in D.C. to do the work. When I asked the guy on the phone about this, he kinda laughed and said, “Yeah, I guess we should’ve mentioned that.”

I’ve got no ill will about this (seriously, I don’t), in part because I was lucky enough to get my role back in PRLab. But I couldn’t help but think, “How can the guy creating that letter not think of mentioning that the role in Barney Frank’s office requires being in D.C.?” Especially when this is going out to kids in Boston.

At a certain time, I realized that all of the kids I grew up with and attend school with will become the adults that surround me. Lots of those kids are attentive, hard-working people. But many of them aren’t. It really is amusing to me, looking back at my idea of the Professional World™ from even a year or two ago and just how that’s been shattered.

Of course, being less critical and jaded, I can guess the reason that the guy controlling the internship applications didn’t think of this. It’s not because he’s dumb or inconsiderate or a bad professional. It’s because he’s overworked, concentrating on other things and probably put that application sheet together at the last minute. Nevertheless, I think if you’re sending an internship opportunity out to Boston University and that internship requires being located in Washington, that’s something you gotta mention.

As is the case so often, Bill Watterson says it better than I can:

Turn it Again

Seth Godin seems frustrated about, I suppose, the lack of diversity in journalism topics. I sort of agree with that, although my criticism would be more about the negligence shown towards important topics rather than a critique of rehashing the same talking points. The latter causes the former, no doubt, but my complaint wouldn’t exist if more “important” topics were beat to death with the same fervor as the political horse race, Casey Anthony, etc. Godin ends by saying this:

How many times have I read the story about Louis CK in the last week? Did I need a newspaper to write precisely the same story days after I read it for the first time? How much do we care about the race for ‘first’ when first is now measured in seconds or perhaps minutes?

We don’t need paid professionals to do retweeting for us. They’re slicing up the attention pie thinner and thinner, giving us retreaded rehashes of warmed over news, all hoping for a bit of attention because the issue is trending. We can leave that to the unpaid, I think.

The hard part of professional journalism going forward is writing about what hasn’t been written about, directing attention where it hasn’t been, and saying something new.

Well… the hard part of journalism isn’t finding “new” topics that demand attention, it’s attaining a large enough platform from which you can discuss those topics and not succumbing to a combination of peer pressure, careerism and lethargy.

There are tons of topics that call for a thorough airing out. Like Republicans’ increasing extremism over the past thirty years. Or Democrats’ structural change to keep up with Republicans in fundraising. Or the effects of the War on (Some People Who Use Some) Drugs. Or the fact that we have a prison building company so large that it’s listed on the New York Stock Exchange. Or an honest look at the status of U.S. public education. Or the increase in salary of the upper echelon of people who cover the news for a living (wish I had a link for that one, but start by searching for the value of Chris Matthews’, Tim Russert’s and Tom Freidman’s houses). Or daily columns on lobbying in Washington and how that affects legislation. Or the fact that the United States loved some Jonas Savimbi. Or that the United States created slave labor conditions on Saipan for so many years (also see Thomas Frank’s book for a more exhaustive and disturbing chronicle of that episode). And on and on and on.

The issue isn’t that there aren’t new and relevant news stories (some of those above may not be new, but I think they are relevant). The issue isn’t that there aren’t people who have interest in writing about these subjects, because there are people who do. The issue is whether our major news organizations choose to cover them and in which way they do so.

Also, the problem with Godin’s complaint, with respect solely to the current political situation, is how do you say something different when the same thing keeps happening over and over again? Democrats have again presented Republicans with a plan that Republicans previously supported and Republicans now will not support such a plan. Today on MSNBC, a Republican from the House claimed that Republican opposition stems from the desire for a year-long plan. Which would almost make sense, except for the fact that the current two-month plan is being negotiated specifically because Republicans requested a two-month plan instead of a year-long plan. But now they want a year-long plan. So it went with health care. So it went with cap and trade.

For political coverage, why should you say something different when the story is the exact same?

UPDATE: Right on cue.