Monthly Archives: November 2012

Consider the Fingerprint.

In the State of Georgia’s 10th congressional district, Republican Congressman Paul Broun ran unopposed, which, in and of itself, really isn’t news at all. Congressman Broun, though, gained a fair amount of notoriety in the weeks leading up to the election because of a video which surfaced online in which he – a sitting member on the House Committee on Science and Technology – called evolution, embryology and the big bang theory “lies straight from the pit of hell.” Now, given the way in which the state was re-districted after the 2010 midterm elections, it wasn’t going to affect his campaign (especially since he had no Democratic opposition) in the same way in which comments about rape and abortion completely changed the senate races in Indiana and Missouri. Therefore it wasn’t really that big of a deal, politically – even if it did become a go-to punchline for satire and comedy.

Where this became fun, though, was when a “plant biology” professor (I’m not sure why this isn’t simply “botany,” but I guess it’s all the same) at the University of Georgia named Jim Leebens-Mack created a “Darwin for Congress” Facebook page. First off, as a nerd, and as a non-believer, I can’t tell you how happy something like this makes me, but, secondly, Dr. Leebens-Mack’s movement exploded (in a relative sense) and Charles Darwin received four thousand write-in votes, which, really, is a staggeringly high number for any write-in candidate not named Mickey Mouse. Darwin for Congress, at it’s most basic level, was really just meant to lampoon Congressman Broun for his laughable position on evolution and the big bang relative to his position on the House Committee on Science and Technology. It, instead, proved to be the perfect example of why church and state were meant to be separated in this country. Paul Broun’s positions were so ludicrous that instead of voting for the only candidate on the ballot, four thousand Georgians chose to vote for a scientist who died 130 years ago.

For anyone who knows me reasonably well, my bona fides as a non-believer are pretty well known (I’ve even touched on them here). As a non-believer, and, more importantly, as a nerd, it goes without saying, then, that I don’t just believe in Darwin’s theory of evolution, but accept it as fact.

The nature of our world is such that confusion is an inevitability. There are so many questions that man cannot (yet) answer. The issue I have with religion – the reason why it’s impossible for me to be religious – is that the nature of scripture is such that it attempts to define our world in unambiguous terms – religion leaves no room for the confusion of man. The difference between religiosity and science, then, is that those strict adherents of scripture have simply given up on intellectual, existential and epistemological discourse and have (more or less) accepted, what amounts to, the modern day equivalent of mythology, while those who accept – or are at least willing to listen to – science are implicit in the pursuit of knowledge.

This isn’t meant to be a castigation of the religious, though. I actually, sort of, understand the faith that people have in their chosen God(s) (to the extent that your religion was chosen, given that it was likely something to into which you were indoctrinated as a child). I also, sort of, understand the need that people seem to have in believing that there is some form of an omniscient, omnipotent, omnipresent  God in the universe. This is a confusing, and often times cruel, world, and a belief in this God provides flawed human beings with rationalizations for all of the crazy things this world has thrown at them. I (again), sort of, understand this – and I even envy others for their faith – but I just can’t buy into the abstract idea of a supreme being without being shown tangible evidence of Their existence, and, therefore, I cannot believe in a God in the same way that I cannot believe in the existence of an Easter Bunny or Tooth Fairy or Santa Claus or Bigfoot. If the case for God was a murder trial it would be thrown out for insufficient evidence. At this point it’s (almost) a waste of time even discussing His existence.

But I can’t stop.

If you couldn’t already tell from the murder trial simile, I just finished watching an episode of Law & Order and now I’m absolutely fixated on human fingerprints. Consider the fingerprint for a moment: the fingerprint may be the most simple, yet most confounding part of our entire existence. The conventional wisdom for the existence of fingerprints is that the ridges on our fingers and toes help us with our grip. That certainly makes sense – if our fingers were smooth where they are currently ridged, it would seem as if it would be more difficult to hold things, but certainly not impossible. But then, if – as this argument would suggest – this was an evolutionary development for us, as a species, why is it that, while some primates such as the gorilla (and even a marsupial like the koala bear) have fingerprints, our closest evolutionary relative, the chimpanzee, does not? And why, then, are our fingerprints each unique and exclusive to us? Why is it that the fingerprint is the most unique aspect of our individual existences? Identical twins are called identical twins because they are just that – identical. Why is it, then, that identical twins each have different sets of fingerprints?

The fingerprint has, in some ways, become an object of fascination for me. As someone who doesn’t believe in any particular God, I could never seem to understand the fingerprint and why it was such a perfect identifier for humans. The only thing I could ever think of – the only reason I could come up with for the fingerprint’s existence – is that our Creator wanted it to be this way. What other possibility could there be for every human being that has ever existed – Julius Caesar, Jesus Christ, Muhammad, Catherine the Great, Carrot Top – to have their own unique fingerprint? It’s not as if one human being’s fingerprints give them any sort of Darwinian advantage over another’s, so why must they be unique?

It may sound silly, but as a believer in the big bang and in evolution, and as a non-believer in the existence of a God, the confounding nature of the fingerprint had always kept me fairly grounded as far as my atheism has been concerned. It’s one of the few aspects of human life that has kept me from dismissing God altogether – from becoming antitheistic like the late Richard Dawkins. When I started writing this piece I was expecting for my curiosity about fingerprints to lead me towards some sort of affirmation that there must have been a Creator even though there was still no tangible evidence of His existence. Instead, I found this (and for more the more layman, this).

Most people really don’t care about the fingerprint, but it has also been a part of our existence that no one has ever really understood – we’ve just taken it for granted. But some people do, and they’ve devoted portions of their life to understanding it. And that is, in a way, the most beautiful thing about human existence. Curiosity never ends, it only grows. And curiosity is what leads us to ask these evolutionary and existential questions. If there’s one thing I’ve learned, it’s that if we simply credit all of the ephemera of our existence to a God – if we accept scripture as fact – we’ll never truly understand this universe. It certainly hasn’t been lost on me that God, the big bang, and evolution are not mutually exclusive ideas. There’s a possibility that all three exist as fact, but the evidence overwhelmingly supports only those last two. I understand the need that some have for religion, and I understand the need that that some have for faith – religion, if used properly, can be a truly uplifting experience. But if your religion, or your belief in a God, affects your ability to accept basic truths, you’re not doing it right.

– bhb

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Nate Silver, Obama for America, and the nexus between baseball and politics: why the white vote is the new RBI.

These past few weeks have been far too familiar.

Over the past decade-plus baseball has gone through what has been, essentially, a religious war. On one side lies a group of statistical analysts who – through math and pure inductive reasoning – are looking to change the way we evaluate our players and teams and what it takes to win; on the other side is a group of baseball conservatives, who believe in superficial analysis of a player, but who, mostly, fear change.

The statistical revolution in baseball has been all the more polarizing because of who it was proposing these theories. This new breed of baseball analysis wasn’t something brought on by the traditional baseball establishment, but, rather, by outsiders – by fans simply searching for answers. What is now commonly referred to as sabermetrics is really a set of ideas and theories brought about through analyzing statistics quantitatively and finding their deeper meanings. What started with Bill James and his Baseball Abstracts has evolved into a multi-million dollar industry which has revolutionized a multi-billion dollar industry. This statistical revolution has spawned an entire analytically-based ecosystem on the Internet, in collectives such as Baseball Prospectus, Baseball Think Factory, Fangraphs and countless others, and has led to an influx of baseball outsiders into the establishment – people such as James, Voros McCracken, Keith Law, Mike Fast or Kevin Goldstein. Quantitative analysis has not only led to an evolution in how we evaluate players, it has also lead to new systems for projecting players and future performance. Dan Szymborski, Tom Tango and Nate Silver (along with many others) have each created algorithmic projection models which – fairly accurately – predict how individual players or teams will fare in a given season, as well as in future seasons.

In the early days, the baseball establishment wasn’t having any of this. Pundits like Joe Morgan – a man who was at one time paid to analyze the sport of baseball – essentially wrote them off, and even antagonized the sabermetric community. Grumpy, old baseball writers around the country poked fun at the “nerds in their mother’s basements.” (The feeling was mutual – sabermetrically inclined bloggers around the country constantly poked fun at the out of touch establishment of writers and analysts; the apex of this was the brilliant blog Fire Joe Morgan, created by a group of comedy writers working on [then] The Office and [now] Parks and Recreation.) The thing is, the baseball establishment didn’t actually have issues with what the sabermetric community was saying or doing, it was that – now that people could do their jobs better than them – they feared irrelevance, and so they instigated a widespread practice in denial.

Most of this was made famous by Michael Lewis’ Moneyball, and of course, now, the movie based on the book, starring Brad Pitt. At the turn of the 21st-century, Billy Beane’s Oakland A’s teams had been consistently successful – winning between 91 and 103 games every year for a five-year period, spanning 2000-2004, during the regular season – despite their limited payrolls when compared to the financial powers in the American League, most notably the New York Yankees and Boston Red Sox. Beane and his front office, the most noteworthy of whom was Paul DePodesta, favored quantitative analysis as an evaluator of talent – a philosophy instilled in Beane by his predecessor, Sandy Alderson. What Beane and DePodesta and the rest of the Oakland front office did was search for undervalued assets by exploiting market inefficiencies – they sought after a more efficient allocation of resources. What Beane and his staff had recognized was that – at that time – On-Base Percentage (OBP) was undervalued on the current baseball market. What they had determined was that if they had compiled an offense whose core focus was getting on base, scoring runs was a mere inevitability. This strategy worked for the Athletics, and with great success. The problem for the A’s, however, was that – as Beane was famously quoted as saying – his “shit doesn’t work in the playoffs.” Oakland, for as well as they did in the regular season, could never seem to shatter that small-market glass ceiling.

While we had discovered that, in baseball, the playoffs were largely a crapshoot, we learned that the real winning formula, or at least the model for sustained success, was a sort of hybrid of financial largess and an analytically inclined front office. When Billy Beane turned down the Red Sox’ offer to become their general manager after the 2002 season, the Red Sox, instead, hired a young Yale graduate who used to work in public relations named Theo Epstein. Epstein, like Beane, was analytically inclined and, unlike Beane, was given a nearly unlimited budget with which he could field a team. The idea, of course, was that if Beane could field a 103 win team with his limited payroll, how successful could those same philosophies be if supplemented with a budget the size of Boston’s? In short: very. Boston went on to break an 86 year drought by winning the World Series in 2004, and then again in 2007. Epstein’s teams, really, became the paradigm for the 21st-century baseball franchise – an emphasis on not just analytics but also on scouting and player development. The money was really just an insurance policy – if Beane invested money in a player and failed, so too would his team; Epstein’s budget simply gave him the opportunity to take risk, a luxury which Beane was not afforded.

We’re now at a point in the revolution where most – if not all – front offices employ some form of quantitative analysis within their organization. Even the most statistically disinclined front offices like Pittsburgh and Cincinnati use at least some form of analysis. Consequently, we’ve seen a greater emphasis on the non-traditional statistics – OBP, OPS, OPS+, FIP, ERA+, WAR and various defensive metrics – and less on the traditional ones such as RBI, pitcher wins, or saves. Statistics such as the RBI or saves – which provide little to no value in evaluating a player’s talent level because of their nature as being opportunity-driven – have now, except to the most old-school guys like Ron Washington or Dusty Baker, close to no relevance within the baseball community. If you’re building your team with players you have evaluated as run producers because of lofty RBI totals, or as successful pitchers because of wins or saves totals, you will better than likely find yourself losing a lot of games. It’s a lesson which far too many change-averse teams have learned over the last decade.

This vicious cycle seems to have repeated itself over these past few weeks. Not in baseball, though – in politics. What happened was that the establishment of political punditry – talking heads like Bill O’Reilly and Karl Rove and Charles Krauthammer and Ann Coulter and George Will and Dick Morris (are you sensing a theme here?) – blinded themselves with a veil of ignorance when a new generation of psephologists (those who study and scientifically analyze elections) had told them that they were all wrong.

Chief among these new analysts was the New York Times’ Nate Silver – who, really, constitutes the nexus of sabermetrics and modern psephology. Silver famously, or perhaps infamously if you’re a part of the establishment, runs the FiveThirtyEight blog for the Times, and his algorithmic projection system had been the focus of conservative scorn in the weeks leading up to Tuesday’s election. Silver’s FiveThirtyEight projection had President Obama’s chances at reelection as high 92.2 percent in the final 24 hours of the election cycle, which, in turn, led to conservative blowhards decrying liberal bias on his part. They believed that, because national polling had shown that the popular vote would be fairly close, the election was a toss-up. What they refused to acknowledge, however, was that elections were not won on popular vote, but, rather, electorally, on a state-by-state basis. The greatest tricked the devil ever pulled was convincing the world America was a democracy. This election was – for better or worse – a 7 to 12 state election; it was going to be won within those battleground states, nowhere else. Silver’s model – which is really an aggregator of polls, while also including other outside factors such as historical and economic data – had shown that President Obama was consistently favored in the most important of those battleground states – Florida, Ohio and Virginia (or FlOhVa as Chuck Todd, for some reason, loved to call them) – which would mean that if Silver’s model was incorrect and Romney would go on to win those states (which he didn’t) he wouldn’t be wrong, but, rather, the polls were wrong. An algorithm can only be as accurate as the data which is entered into it. If Silver’s model was incorrect – which Republicans had mislead themselves into believing – it would mean that the entire system was incorrect: CBS, CNN, the Wall Street Journal, Public Policy Polling, Rasmussen, everybody.

They weren’t.

You can only get the feeling, though, that these pundits weren’t just in denial, but that they were scared – scared not only that their candidate would lose (and lose badly) but that their punditry no longer served any purpose. Why would networks pay these pundits tens, if not hundreds, of thousands – if not millions – of dollars to analyze and predict the outcomes of elections when (and I say this with the utmost love for him) a nerd in Brooklyn with Microsoft Excel renders them irrelevant?

Silver’s psephological model, though, only shows one half of the electoral story. While he studies elections in order to project their outcomes, others study elections in order to properly strategize for political campaigns. When President Obama thanked the “best campaign team and volunteers in the history of politics” it wasn’t really an emotionally driven statement of hyperbole. Such as these things can be quantified, the Obama campaign, Obama for America (OFA), may have run the single, most groundbreaking and effective campaign in the history of presidential politics.

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Why I’m Upset With (But Still Voting For) Barack Obama.

Over the past few weeks I’d been asked why I was so outspokenly supportive of President Obama and so negative about Mitt Romney. To each inquiry my response was the same: “how much time do you have?” This, I suppose, is why:

I’ve spent the past two years vigorously following this election, beginning with the three-ringed circus that was the Republican primary, and culminating with this year’s general election between President Barack Obama and his Republican challenger, Governor Mitt Romney. I’ll fully admit that while there was approximately a 0.01% chance that I would vote for anybody other than President Obama, I felt it was my duty, as a citizen, to listen and search for alternatives.

I voted for the first time in 2008 and, like nearly 70 million other Americans, I chose to elect Senator Barack Obama of Illinois. The 2008 election, unlike any other in recent times, was considered to be a movement election, rather than one driven by policy. The overarching theme of that year was that of the concept of change – a theme which was adopted by both the Obama and McCain campaigns. As a result, though, America was never tasked with choosing a president based on substantive debate or policy initiatives, but, rather, based on whom they believed would represent a greater ideological shift from the Bush administration. For 53% of the electorate, that candidate was Barack Hussein Obama.

As someone who takes pride in his contrarianism, I wasn’t as quick to jump aboard the Obama bandwagon as others. In the early stages of the Democratic primary I had considered John Edwards to be my preferred candidate. After his loss in Iowa, however, I realized that just wasn’t a feasible option (and then, of course, the Rielle Hunter controversy happened). I had wavered several times after that between Obama and Hillary Clinton, eventually cementing my support for Barack Obama on Super Tuesday, even though he had actually lost my home state of New Jersey to Senator Clinton. Throughout that primary campaign, though, I had always believed that Hillary had more depth to her candidacy (particularly on the issue of universal healthcare), but I was wary of her vote on the Iraq war. Obama, it seemed throughout the primaries, moved himself further left as they moved along, and his staff seemed to be piecing together his policies during the campaign. The shift leftward was a welcomed move for me, the shallow policies, however, seemed troubling.

Once it came to the general election, though, I became an ardent supporter of Barack Obama’s. It was hard not to be, really. As I said, 2008 was a movement campaign, and it felt great to be a part of something historic. My vote for Barack Obama, however, was equally an endorsement of him as it was a condemnation of John McCain, as McCain – once a moderate conservative – was being pulled further right by the conservative caucus. His staunch support of the Iraq war was another troubling aspect of his policies. Of course, the kicker came on August 29th of that year when Senator McCain chose Governor Sarah Palin of Alaska as his running mate – I was already 99.99% sure I was voting for Obama (I had already donated to and begun volunteering for his campaign at this point), but now there was absolutely no possibility, no matter how he fared in the debates (again, it was a movement election, not a policy one). Of course, as the campaign moved further along, eventually Obama’s team was able to iron out policy positions which had finally appeased me. As a result, I wasn’t just comfortable with my vote for Barack Obama – I was proud of it.

Four years later, I still remain proud of my choice – even more so after the 2010 midterms left us a Tea Party dominated, Republican House. President Obama’s record through his first term has proven to be the most successful one of any president in my lifetime (Bush 41, Clinton, Bush 43, Obama, you could also include Reagan even though I was only alive for the last six months of his second term), and yet also, somehow, the most polarizing one. Consider the successes of his first term for a minute: he signed the Lilly Ledbetter Fair Pay Act instituting equal pay for equal work on his first day in office; saved the US auto industry; spared the US economy from depression through economic stimulus; reduced taxes for 95% of working families; repealed “Don’t Ask, Don’t Tell”; publicly stated his support for same-sex marriage; extended benefits to same-sex partners of federal employees; used Executive Order to implement portions of the DREAM Act; won the Nobel Peace Prize; ended the war in Iraq; began oversight for troop withdrawal from Afghanistan; killed Osama bin Laden, Anwar al-Awlaki and Muammar Qaddafi; pushed the international community to enforce economic sanctions on Iran; banned torture; regulated Wall St; reformed student loans; expanded Pell grants and financial aid; ordered the EPA to regulate carbon emissions; instituted tax-credits for purchasing plug-in hybrid vehicles; doubled federal spending on clean energy research; appointed two pro-choice women to the Supreme Court (including the first ever Latin American); and (most importantly) passed the largest comprehensive reform of health care since Medicare and Medicaid were established. To borrow a phrase from Joe Biden, that first term was a big fucking deal.

With all of that out of the way, the Obama administration has been far from perfect. While running for office, Senator Obama vowed to close the prisons at Guantanamo Bay – he hasn’t. He has waged two secret wars under the umbrella of the War on Terror using drone strikes in Pakistan and Yemen, killing thousands of innocents, including hundreds of children. When placing the directive to assassinate Anwar al-Awlaki via drone strike, President Obama effectively ordered a death sentence for an American citizen without their being afforded due process. He began drone strikes and an American mission to dethrone Muammar Qaddafi (albeit successfully, and without casualties, all at minimal cost) without congressional approval – a violation of the constitution. Each of these directives represents a legal, moral and ethical dilemma which, for whatever reason, has never become a part of our national political discourse.

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Gym. Tan. Donate.

On August 28, 2005, Hurricane Katrina made landfall on New Orleans, causing fifty-three levees to be breached in some capacity, devastating a major American city and a large region of the country. One day earlier, the mayor of New Orleans, Ray Nagin, ordered a mandatory evacuation of the city – an evacuation that (by all means) went fairly smoothly. Thanks to a well-executed plan which had been adopted by the state of Louisiana (drawing on the experiences of their past), there were no real traffic jams while exiting the city, and everyone with access to a motor vehicle was able to escape, largely unharmed.

What the local governments hadn’t accounted for, though, was that as many as three hundred thousand residents of the Crescent City were unable to evacuate their homes, mostly because they couldn’t evacuate their homes. The populace left behind in New Orleans was largely black, poor, elderly, or disabled (and often times a combination of at least two of those, if not all of them). The 2000 US census determined that among those households living in poverty nation-wide, 20 percent of them did not have access to a car; in New Orleans that number was 47 percent. The problem that the bureaucrats of Louisiana hadn’t accounted for was that a very large percentage of their residents could not drive out of the city because they, simply, had no car which they could drive. Compounding this further, even if they did have a car, many of them had no money with which to fill their gas tank at prices as high as $3-a-gallon; most of that subsection of New Orleanians were on a fixed income – social security, pensions, government assistance – and the storm had occurred on the 28th of the month: if these people had likely spent the money that they had received on the first, how were they expected to leave?

The reason something like this happens is because our society is largely socially stratified. We’re governed by a higher class of people – the plutocracy – whom, due to their large social distance from the everyday issues of Americans, are less likely to respond properly in the event of a crisis. Chris Hayes wrote in his book, Twilight of the Elites: America After Meritocracy (which I highly recommend), “As a general principle, the more vertical distance there is in an institution the greater the threat that its leaders will grow out of touch and lose the ability to govern the institution for the maximal benefit of all…the closer those in charge are to the consequences of their actions, the more responsive they’ll be, and the better decisions they will make.” The argument here is that unless a leader can understand, or relate to, what his plebeian citizens may experience, it is highly unlikely that he will be able to act in their best interests.

This phenomenon – if it can be called that – is what best explains the initial reaction to the disaster wrought by Katrina. The plutocracy charged with assisting these black, poor, elderly and disabled citizens stranded in New Orleans were largely disaffected by the entire circumstance – so disaffected that they could not even comprehend that so many New Orleanians couldn’t afford proper transportation out of the city. Newt Gingrich – one of those plutocrats who were incredibly socially distant from any of Katrina’s victims – said that these residents were “so uneducated and so unprepared, they literally couldn’t get out of the way of a hurricane.” Many Americans began to believe that these victims deserved what they had been dealt, that it wasn’t their job (or the federal government’s) to help them get back on their feet, and it’s something we’re seeing again in the aftermath of Superstorm Sandy, though on a much smaller level (whether or not you believe race is the reason for this is up to you).

That’s the thing that I’ve never understood about some of the reactions after Katrina: that some believed it was their fault that they were stranded in New Orleans, and that it was not our responsibility to help them in their recovery. Regardless of whether they had evacuated the city or not, though, it doesn’t change the fact that so many people had lost literally everything – their homes, cars (if they had one), their jobs/businesses, loved ones, pets. Regardless of whether they had evacuated the city or not, these people were now effectively homeless. What we’ve learned in the aftermath of Katrina, is that – while we are more socially stratified than ever – we cannot simply allow for our fellow man to fend for themselves in their time of need. That’s why the response to this disaster has provided such stark contrast to that of the immediate response to Katrina. It’s also why seeing the conservative reaction and the Twitter mentions that Governor Christie was receiving for simply working with President Obama in recovery efforts was so disheartening. Moments like these are when politics must be put aside in order for us to work together to allow for our brothers and sisters to piece their lives back together. The irony of a situation like this is that people can be “small-government” until something like Sandy comes along and affects them personally; it’s a cognitive dissonance that we only have in a country like America, and, in a weird way, that’s part of makes this country great.

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