Category: Sports

My Conversation with Masha Gessen

Here is the transcript and audio, here is the summary:

Masha joined Tyler in New York City to answer his many questions about Russia: why was Soviet mathematics so good? What was it like meeting with Putin? Why are Russian friendships so intense? Are Russian women as strong as the stereotype suggests — and why do they all have the same few names? Is Russia more hostile to LGBT rights than other autocracies? Why did Garry Kasparov fail to make a dent in Russian politics? What did The Americans get right that Chernobyl missed? And what’s a good place to eat Russian food in Manhattan?

Here is excerpt:

COWEN: Why has Russia basically never been a free country?

GESSEN: Most countries have a history of never having been free countries until they become free countries.

[laughter]

COWEN: But Russia has been next to some semifree countries. It’s a European nation, right? It’s been a part of European intellectual life for many centuries, and yet, with the possible exception of parts of the ’90s, it seems it’s never come very close to being an ongoing democracy with some version of free speech. Why isn’t it like, say, Sweden?

GESSEN: [laughs] Why isn’t Russia like . . . I tend to read Russian history a little bit differently in the sense that I don’t think it’s a continuous history of unfreedom. I think that Russia was like a lot of other countries, a lot of empires, in being a tyranny up until the early 20th century. Then Russia had something that no other country has had, which is the longest totalitarian experiment in history. That’s a 20th-century phenomenon that has a very specific set of conditions.

I don’t read Russian history as this history of Russians always want a strong hand, which is a very traditional way of looking at it. I think that Russia, at breaking points when it could have developed a democracy or a semidemocracy, actually started this totalitarian experiment. And what we’re looking at now is the aftermath of the totalitarian experiment.

And:

GESSEN: …I thought Americans were absurd. They will say hello to you in the street for no reason. Yeah, I found them very unreasonably friendly.

I think that there’s a kind of grumpy and dark culture in Russia. Russians certainly have a lot of discernment in the fine shades of misery. If you ask a Russian how they are, they will not cheerfully respond by saying they’re great. If they’re miserable, they might actually share that with you in some detail.

There’s no shame in being miserable in Russia. There’s, in fact, a lot of validation. Read a Russian novel. You’ll find it all in there. We really are connoisseurs of depression.

Finally there was the segment starting with this:

COWEN: I have so many questions about Russia proper. Let me start with one. Why is it that Russians seem to purge their own friends so often? The standing joke being the Russian word for “friend” is “future enemy.” There’s a sense of loyalty cycles, where you have to reach a certain bar of being loyal or otherwise you’re purged.

Highly recommended.

What is an optimal number of Pamplona bull gorings?

Two or more each year?:

Longtime runners voiced their frustration that the event had been “totally adulterated” and said it was time to “say enough to the distortion of the run”.

The problem for purists is not just that the run, known as the encierro, has become too safe — with only two gorings last year, the least since 1984 — but that the bulls are unable to break free from the highly trained steers that accompany them. This makes the adrenaline-fuelled race less dangerous but also less exciting.

“For the runners, this is the end of the encierro as they know it,” said Joe Distler, a semi-retired American who ran the bulls for 50 years and took part in the protest in solidarity.

For regular runners, a good day is when the bulls break free from the cabestros — the castrated steers that accompany them over the 875-metre course to the city bullring — and one can feel the adrenaline-drenched thrill of running half a block directly in the front of a bull’s horns before letting it pass.

Here is more from Ian Mount at the FT.  As you wish folks, but I for one am content to live “inside the algorithm.”

Learn like an athlete, knowledge workers should train

LeBron James didn’t always have thick calves, a raging six-pack, and arms like the Incredible Hulk.

Ask LeBron about his off-season training regimen, and he’ll share a detailed run-down of his workout plan and on-the-court practice routine. When he entered the NBA, LeBron wasn’t a strong shooter. I’d bet the house that early in his career, LeBron built his off-season training regimen around his weak jump shot and disappointing 42% field goal percentage during his rookie season. As his Instagram posts reveal, LeBron worked for his strength, agility, impeccable history of injury avoidance, and an outstanding 54% field goal percentage during his 14th NBA season.

Athletes train. Musicians train. Performers train. But knowledge workers don’t.

Knowledge workers should train like LeBron, and implement strict “learning plans.” To be sure, intellectual life is different from basketball. Success is harder to measure and the metrics for improvement aren’t quite as clear. Even then, there’s a lot to learn from the way top athletes train. They are clear in their objectives and deliberate in their pursuit of improvement.

Knowledge workers should imitate them.

That is from David Perell, more at the link.  Recently, one of my favorite questions to bug people with has been “What is it you do to train that is comparable to a pianist practicing scales?”  If you don’t know the answer to that one, maybe you are doing something wrong or not doing enough. Or maybe you are (optimally?) not very ambitious?

A simple model of Kawhi Leonard’s indecision

As a free agent, he is being courted by his current team, the Toronto Raptors, as well as the Los Angeles Clippers and the Los Angeles Lakers (now the team of LeBron James). And the internet is making jokes about him taking so much time for the decision.  In Toronto, helicopters are following him around.

Due to the salary cap and related regulations, there is no uncertainty about how much money each team can offer.  The offer that can vary the most in overall quality, however, is the one from the Los Angeles Lakers.  For instance, if Kawhi is playing in Los Angeles with LeBron James, he might receive more endorsements and movie contracts (or not).  If he is waiting on the decision at all, that is a sign he is at least sampling the Laker option, and seeing how much extra off-court value it can bring him.  So the existence of some waiting favors the chance he goes to the Lakers.  That said, if he is waiting a long time to see how good the Laker option is, that is a sign the Laker option is not obviously crossing a threshold and thus he might stay with Toronto.

We place too much weight on redundant information

The present work identifies a so-far overlooked bias in sequential impression formation. When the latent qualities of competitors are inferred from a cumulative sequence of observations (e.g., the sum of points collected by sports teams), impressions should be based solely on the most recent observation because all previous observations are redundant. Based on the well-documented human inability to adequately discount redundant information, we predicted the existence of a cumulative redundancy bias. Accordingly, perceivers’ impressions are systematically biased by the unfolding of a performance sequence when observations are cumulative. This bias favors leading competitors and persists even when the end result of the performance sequence is known. We demonstrated this cumulative redundancy bias in 8 experiments in which participants had to sequentially form impressions about the qualities of two competitors from different performance domains (i.e., computer algorithms, stocks, and soccer teams). We consistently found that perceivers’ impressions were biased by cumulative redundancy. Specifically, impressions about the winner and the loser of a sequence were more divergent when the winner took an early lead compared with a late lead. When the sequence ended in a draw, participants formed more favorable impressions about the competitor who was ahead during most observations. We tested and ruled out several alternative explanations related to primacy effects, counterfactual thinking, and heuristic beliefs. We discuss the wide-ranging implications of our findings for impression formation and performance evaluation.

That is from a new paper by Hans Alves and André Mata, via the excellent Kevin Lewis.

My Conversation with Russ Roberts

The podcast master himself, here is the audio and transcript, here is the opening summary:

What are the virtues of forgiveness? Are we subject to being manipulated by data? Why do people struggle with prayer? What really motivates us? How has the volunteer army system changed the incentives for war? These are just some of the questions that keep Russ Roberts going as he constantly analyzes the world and revisits his own biases through thirteen years of conversations on EconTalk.

Russ made his way to the Mercatus studio to talk with Tyler about these ideas and more. The pair examines where classical liberalism has gone wrong, if dropping out of college is overrated, and what people are missing from the Bible. Tyler questions Russ on Hayek, behavioral economics, and his favorite EconTalk conversation. Ever the host, Russ also throws in a couple questions to Tyler.

Here is one excerpt:

COWEN: Here’s a reader question. “In which areas are you more pro-regulation than the average American?” They mean government regulation.

ROBERTS: Than the average American?

COWEN: Yes.

ROBERTS: I can’t think of any. Can you help me out there, Tyler?

COWEN: Well, I’m not sure I know all of your views.

ROBERTS: What would you guess? Give me some things to think about there. In general, I think government should be smaller and regulations should be smaller.

COWEN: I’ll give you–

ROBERTS: Let me give you a trick answer. Then I’ll let you feed me some.

COWEN: Sure.

ROBERTS: Many people believe that the financial crisis was caused by deregulation. I think that’s a misreading of the evidence. It’s true that some pieces of the financial sector were deregulated, but government intervention in the financial sector was quite significant in advance of the crisis. In particular, the bailouts that we did of past failed financial institutions, I think, encouraged lenders to be more careless with how they lent their money, mainly to other institutions, not so much to people out in the world like you and me.

Deregulation’s a little bit tricky, so I wanted to get that in. I’m not sure how that pertains to the question. It does, probably, in some way. So give me something I should be more regulatory about.

COWEN: Well, one answer —

ROBERTS: Baseball? Baseball, of course. [laughs]

COWEN: I would say animal welfare — government should have a larger role. But also what counts as a tax-exempt institution, I would prefer our government be stricter.

ROBERTS: Well, I’m with you there. Yeah, okay, kind of.

COWEN: Well, that’s more regulation, okay?

ROBERTS: I guess.

COWEN: Kind of.

ROBERTS: Yeah, kind of. It’s different standards.

COWEN: Higher capital requirements for banks.

ROBERTS: I’m okay with that. Yeah, that’s a good one. I’d prefer a laissez-faire world for banks, more or less. If we can’t credibly promise not to bail out banks — if that’s the case, we live in a world where banks get to keep their profits and put their losses on taxpayers — bad world. A more regulated world would be better than the world we live in; not as good as my ideal world, though. But there’s a case where I would be in favor — like you just said — more capital requirements.

You’re on a roll. See what else you can come up with for me.

COWEN: Spending more money for tax enforcement, especially on the wealthy.

ROBERTS: Not the worst thing in the world.

COWEN: You can spend a dollar and bring in several times that, it seems.

ROBERTS: I don’t think rich people cheat on their taxes. Do you? [laughs]

COWEN: “Cheat” is a tricky word, but I think we could spend more money.

ROBERTS: We could probably collect more effectively.

COWEN: And it would more than pay for itself.

ROBERTS: Yeah. That’s probably true.

COWEN: We’re actually big fans of government regulation today.

ROBERTS: Yeah, we’ve really expanded the tent here. [laughs]

Do read or listen to the whole thing.

Thwarted markets in everything

Ahead of the second summit in Hanoi, North Korean dictator Kim Jong Un requested as part of the agreement between the countries moving forward that the U.S. send “famous basketball players” to normalize relations between the two countries, according to two U.S. officials.

The request was made in writing, officials said, as part of the cultural exchange between the two countries, and at one point the North Koreans insisted that it be included in the joint statement on denuclearization. The North Koreans also made a request for the exchange of orchestras between the two countries.

Here is the full story.  Via Ian Bremmer.

Baseball umpires are not so great, and older umpires are much worse

This deep-dive analysis demonstrated that MLB umpires make certain incorrect calls at least 20 percent of the time, or one in every five calls. Research results revealed clear two-strike bias and pronounced strike zone blind spots. Less-experienced younger umpires in their prime routinely outperformed veterans, and umpires selected in recent World Series were not the best performers. Results showed a declining but still unacceptably high BCR score, but on a positive note, only a marginal inter-inning call inconsistency.

The most likely mistakes are made at the top of the strike zone.  And older umpires really are worse:

Based on the research, professional umpires, similar to professional baseball players, have a standard peak. The study revealed that home plate umpires who made the Top 10 MLB performance list (2008-2018) had an average of 2.7 years of experience, and averaged 33 years of age with a BCR of 8.94 percent. None of these top performers had more than five years of experience or were older than 37…

In contrast to the overall top performers, research uncovered that umpires on the Bottom 10 MLB performance list (2008-2018) had an average experience level of 20.6 years, were 56.1 years of age, and had an average BCR of 13.96 percent. This group’s error rate was a staggering 56 percent higher than the top 10 MLB performers. Umpire Jerry Layne, with 29 years on the job and at age 61, sported the highest BCR, 14.18 percent. This performance research clearly indicates that more experience and age does not necessarily produce the best umpires.

Here is the full story, written by Mark T. Williams, who also did the data work, via the excellent John Chamberlain.

The Effect of Economic Vulnerability on Protest Participation in the National Football League

Also known as “Incentives matter”:

What distinguishes between National Football League (NFL) players who participated in protests during the National Anthem and those who did not? Does the finding of a personal vulnerability constraint in high‐risk activism apply to this relatively elite population?

Protest participation during 2017 was determined for every NFL player, along with several variables pertaining to their performance, compensation, and the political atmosphere of their team.

Bivariate and multivariate tests both reveal that protest participation was far greater among players with large guaranteed contracts and among players who were well regarded for their performance.

Economic vulnerability ranges widely within the NFL such that players hold contracts offering guaranteed payments of anywhere between $92 million and nothing at all. The data here suggest that the personal vulnerability constraint documented in protest participation research also applies to this unique population of high‐profile people engaged in a most high‐profile protest. Documenting the existence of these constraints helps offer a more systematic foundation to our understanding of political activism behavior among athletes.

That is from a newly published article by David Niven.

What Explains Labor’s Declining Share of Revenue in Major League Baseball?

Somehow I had missed this earlier paper by John Charles Bradbury:

Since the early-2000s, the share of revenue going to Major League Baseball players has been diminishing similar to the decline of labor’s share of revenue observed in the US economy. This study examines potential explanations for the decline in baseball, which may result from related factors and provide information relevant to explaining this macroeconomic trend. The results indicate that the value-added from non-player inputs, collective bargaining agreement terms, and related changes in the returns to winning contributed to the decline of players’ share of income. Competition from substitute foreign labor and physical capital are not associated with the decline in labor’s share of income in baseball.

There is also this sentence:

The decline in labor’s revenue share in MLB is consistent with changes in revenue share in the hospitality and leisure industry that experienced a decrease in labor’s share of income from 65.7 percent to 62.1 percent between 1987 and 2011 (Elsby, Hobijn, and Şahin 2013).

Another hypothesis I have heard is that baseball players are not nearly as good at, or as well-suited for, the use of social media, as compared say to the more visible basketball players.  Another (quite speculative) claim is that sabermetrics has commoditized a lot of players and in turn lowered their bargaining power.

The ongoing death of football?

From the NFL to rec leagues, football is facing a stark, new threat: an evaporating insurance market that is fundamentally altering the economics of the sport, squeezing and even killing off programs faced with higher costs and a scarcity of available coverage, an Outside the Lines investigation has found.

The NFL no longer has general liability insurance covering head trauma, according to multiple sources; just one carrier is willing to provide workers’ compensation coverage for NFL teams. Before concussion litigation roiled the NFL beginning in 2011, at least a dozen carriers occupied the insurance market for pro football, according to industry experts.

The insurance choices for football helmet manufacturers are equally slim; one helmet company executive said he was aware of only one. Pop Warner Little Scholars, which oversees 225,000 youth players, was forced to switch insurers after its longtime carrier, a subsidiary of the insurance giant AIG, refused to provide coverage without an exclusion for any neurological injury.

“People say football will never go away, but if we can’t get insurance, it will,” Jon Butler, Pop Warner’s executive director, lamented to colleagues after discovering that just one carrier was willing to cover the organization for head trauma, according to a person who was present.

Here is the full ESPN article.  It is substantive throughout, a very good piece, and hockey and soccer are having insurance troubles too.

Via John Chamberlain.

Continuous improvement, Lebron James edition

Curry and James are both taking four pull-up threes per game this season. Curry is making 45% of them. James is making 40% of them.

This wasn’t supposed to happen. James made 30% of his two pull-up threes per game in 2016. His shooting percentage ranked 19th of the 21 players who took as many of these shots as he did. He was closer to Kobe Bryant and Russell Westbrook than Curry.

There are 12 players this season with similar numbers to his. Curry is still No. 1 in terms of shooting percentage. James is now No. 2.

…James now relies on threes for nearly 30% of his shots. That percentage is by far the highest of his career. It’s also higher than Kevin Durant’s this season.

He’s not only taking more 3-pointers. He’s also taking longer 3-pointers.

Here is the full WSJ article.  Here is my earlier post on the three-point shot and the duration of the Great Stagnation.

Income risk-sharing in baseball

Pando Pooling is a startup headquartered in Palo Alto, Calif. The company’s founders, Charlie Olson and Eric Lax, met in 2015 at Stanford’s Graduate School of Business where they dreamed up an endeavor that would support people in high-volatility careers—entrepreneurs, primarily. (Pando is Latin for “I spread out,” and also refers to a colony of aspen trees, whose roots intertwine to make a massive underground network.) What if, they wondered, a large enough group of entrepreneurs pooled shares of their earnings, ensuring that each entrepreneur stood less chance of going bust? In theory this would allow entrepreneurs to take more risks in pursuing their ideas.

Olson and Lax didn’t start with entrepreneurs, though. They took their idea to a different field—literally. Just as MLB teams pool a third of their revenue to support smaller-market teams, Olson and Lax saw an opportunity to give young baseball players more security. As with entrepreneurs, only a small set of players go on to earn fortunes; many talented, driven players leave with little. (Less than 25% of first-round draft picks play more than three years in the majors.) Unlike tech founders, though, players are paid at regular intervals.

Here’s Pando’s pitch: A young player contributes a fixed share of his salary to his pool after he receives at least $1.6 million in MLB earnings. There is more than one pool, but every member in each pool must agree on every other poolmate, and Pando takes 10% of each pool. Pando recruits players through agents, financial advisers and players who have already signed with the company; Olson says he has 150 members so far. Once a player is on board, Pando then tries to match him with a handful of similar players to form a pool.

Here is the full Sports Illustrated article.  It is a longstanding puzzle why such arrangements never have taken off.  Is it some mix of adverse selection, excess optimism, too high resulting marginal tax rates, and bad PR because it is vaguely reminiscent of slavery?  Still, just think — if this could work the incentive to invest in the talent of other people would be so much higher.

Via Conor Durkin.

*Scouting and Scoring: How We Know What We Know About Baseball* (scouting bleg)

The role of reports and bureaucracy in the quantification of baseball prospects is a story that has long been obscured by a romantic notion of what scouts do and who they are.  Outside of scouting memoirs, only a handful of book-length studies of scouts exist, none of which take scouting tools and training as the central topic.  Scouts actively participate in their own mischaracterization.  Its possible to read entire memoirs of scouts without ever learning about the need to fill in a report, let alone how it is done.

That is from the forthcoming book — quite interesting — by Christopher J. Phillips. Not surprisingly, this book also discusses “scouting the scout.”

And so I ask you readers, what are the best things to read about scouts, scouting, and the scouting process?

The second cohort of Emergent Ventures winners

Here is the list of the second set of winners, in the order the grants were made, noting that the descriptions are mine not theirs:

Kelly Smith has a for-profit project to further extend a parent-run charter school system in Arizona, using Uber-like coordinating apps and “minimalist” OER methods.

Andrew L. Roberts, Northwestern University, a small grant to further his work on how sports relates to politics.

Stefan de Villiers, high school student, to create podcasts on the decisions of other high school students and how/why they become successful.

Brian Burns is working (with Samo Burja) on the history of mathematics and career networks, with special attention to the blossoming of innovation in 18th century Göttingen: “The secret to producing flourishing mathematical and scientific traditions may lie in a careful study of institutions. I will undertake this investigation and in the process uncover lost mathematical knowledge.”  Gauss, Riemann, and Hilbert!

Can Olcer is one of the two entrepreneurs behind Kosmos School, a K-12 school that exists only in virtual reality, a for-profit enterprise with an emphasis on science education.

Anonymous, working on a board game for ten years, aimed at teaching basic economics, including supply and demand and the core ideas of Ronald Coase.  The grant is for marketing the game.

Sophie Sandor is a 23-year-old Scottish film-maker making films with “noticeable themes [of] rational optimism, ambition and a rejection of the victimhood notion that millennials are prone to.”  She is also interested in making documentaries in the education space.

Nicholas Dunk has a for-profit to bring voice recognition/machine transcription to the daily tasks of doctors.  The goal is to solve paperwork problems, free up doctor time, encourage better record-keeping, and improve accuracy, all toward the end of higher quality and less expensive health care.

Lama Al Rajih, a young Saudi CS student, building Therma, among other projects, she received a travel grant to visit potential mentors.

I am very excited by this new cohort.  Here is a list of the first round of winners, and here is the underlying rationale for Emergent Ventures.  You can apply here.