Wednesday, November 7, 2012

The Electoral Graduate School

I dig electoral maps.  I get a lot of joy out of watching the states turn red or blue.  I love how this extremely important process is broken down into coloring-book form.  Of course, you could argue that recent elections have been so childish and pedantic that a coloring-book outcome is quite fitting.

Leading up to a presidential election, websites and media outlets project the voting in each state and produce predictive electoral maps based on polling and historical trends.  Their work reveals the states where the data suggests a close election result (these states are known as 'battleground states' or 'swing states').  Candidates wisely devote the most resources to these states, as swaying the votes of a small amount of voters could 'swing' the state and all its electoral votes.

This 'Moneyball' approach to campaigning makes a lot of sense.  Citizens in the battleground states (Ohio, Florida, Virginia, Pennsylvania, Colorado, etc.) are bombarded with political ads and campaign rallies.  When I lived in Philadelphia in 2004, candidate John Kerry seemed to be town every other day in the months leading up to the election.  Conversely, presidential candidates only stop in New York for fund-raisers or to do presidential stuff if they're, y'know, the president.

There is nothing politically relevant about these battleground states.  Folks in Ohio and Florida are not more thoughtful or insightful about their ballots.  Neither state has a population of people that are more 'representative' of the national populace.  It is simply a matter of randomness that these particular states have borders that contain the perfect mix of rural and urban, rich and poor, and liberal and conservative to consistently create a near 50/50 election result.

The focus on appealing to voters in battleground states creates some unwanted consequences:

1. Presidential candidates themselves (and their vice-presidential selections) are more likely to be put forth by a political party if they are from one of these swing states.  Therefore, a superior candidate from a non-swing state may be passed over for a slightly less appealing candidate from a swing state.

2. Candidates are more likely to promise (and follow-through on) programs that will provide a disproportionate benefit to voters in swing states.  As an example, Michigan and Ohio derive many jobs and rely heavily on the auto industry.  So, regardless of whether the auto bailout benefited the country as a whole, candidates know that supporting the bailout would win the favor of voters in these important swing states.

3. Voters in non-swing states cast votes that are very unlikely to affect the final result and therefore have less incentive to vote.  In states like New York, Alabama, California, and Texas, the results are all but locked-in even before candidates are selected.  For these voters, the decision to vote comes down to either a strong desire to express their opinion or a sense of civic duty.  For many, these two factors are not sufficient to overcome the inconvenience or cost of travelling to their polling place.

In my opinion, every potential voter should have the knowledge that their vote could influence the outcome of the election.  A vote from Texas should have the same weight as a vote in Florida.  More importantly, a voter in Texas should have the same motivation to vote as a voter in Florida.  Likewise, candidates should have an equal incentive to reach undecided voters in Texas as they do undecided voters in Florida.

Many argue to abandon the Electoral College in its entirely and simply count the popular vote.  I just do not believe that's practical (or fun).  You only have to remember the 2000 (Bush-Gore) election that called for a recount in Florida.  That recount was a disaster, but at least it was limited to one state.  If that recount had been nationwide, I don't think the final result could have been determined in an acceptable time frame and the financial cost would have been astronomical.

Thus, any proposed Electoral College fix should accomplish two goals: (1) provide all voters with the knowledge that their vote is as likely to affect the outcome as any other vote, and (2) limit the possibility of and contain the damage of a close or disputed ballot count such that the final outcome may be resolved fairly quickly.  

Here are three potential proposals and an assessment of how well they accomplish these two goals:

Plan 1: Allow states to divide their electoral votes based on percentage of votes received.  This accomplishes the first goal.  Ohio's 18 electoral votes are very likely to be split either 9-9 or 10-8 assuming a very close popular vote.  The incentive for a candidate to focus their energy here as opposed to elsewhere is gone.  For voters in non-swing states, they know that their vote may push important electoral votes towards their candidate, regardless of how their state as a whole votes.  Unfortunately, this proposal opens does not fulfill the second goal.  In a state like California, there were roughly ten million votes cast.  Dividing up the states 55 electoral votes, we see that every 18,000 or so votes would yield one electoral vote.  Lawyers for either side could reasonably argue that the ballot-counting was in error by this small amount, greatly increasing the odds that the election will be disputed and that a recount is needed.

Plan 2: Randomly redraw the electoral 'states' and not release the redrawn 'states' until immediately before the election.  The first goal is met for the most part.  Voters in Ohio may be in a redrawn 'state' with parts of Pennsylvania or Indiana.  Or, it could be divided in such a way to only include a small piece of the state.  For certain areas, voters may still believe their vote will not affect the election.  There are certain parts of the country that no redrawing will affect the overall result.  For instance, the areas in and around New York City would be very unlikely to go to a conservative candidate regardless of how the area is delineated, while any area in the Bible Belt would likely go the other way.  The second goal would be mostly accomplished, as the new 'states' should be no more unmanageable than the current states.  However, as voting rules are set out by state law, conflicts will undoubtedly arise if a close race is made up of votes from multiple states.

Plan 3: Randomly pair up the states.  The election would occur as it always does, but with one extra step.  After all votes are cast, each of the 50 states (sorry, DC) are thrown into a hat (not a literal hat, but if a literal hat, definitely one of those Uncle Sam top hats).  Two states are selected at random and the aggregate popular vote of the two states determines where combined electoral votes of the two states are allocated.  For example, lets say that Obama wins Ohio by 30,000 votes and Romney wins Georgia by 90,000 votes.  If those two states are randomly paired up, Romney would win all of Georgia's electoral votes AND all of Ohio's electoral votes.  The selections would continue until all fifty states are paired up.  Crazy, right?  Crazy awesome.  Based on the two part test, this one passes on both counts.  Regardless of how your individual state votes, each vote is important as voters do not know what pool of voters will be included in their count.  Also, recounts are no more likely.  While a recount of dual-state outcome would require two states to conduct a recount, there would only be twenty-five dual-state outcomes as opposed to the current fifty state outcomes.  Plus, every state would have equal recount risk, as opposed to just Florida, Ohio and the rest of the swing states.  The basic fact that all states may face a recount supports our first goal: that each vote is equally likely to affect the final outcome.

Plan 3 will never happen, despite how much I would want to watch the live state pairing selection show (would this be the highest rated show in history?) and the drama that would follow.  But this approach is superior to the current format.  After all, is anything more ridiculous than having a federal election determined by the people of Ohio?

Monday, June 25, 2012

Flip-Flopping on Soccer in America

Today, I had my first chance to watch some of the Euro2012 soccer matches.  When the stakes are high and national pride is on the line, soccer is a joy to watch.  The game is perfectly set up to build drama, test players' nerves, and (best of all) limit television commercial breaks.  Further, soccer does not face the headwinds that other major sports are facing, specifically player concussions and rampant steroid/performance enhancing drug problems.

In the US, professional soccer is clearly a second-class sport.  Unless the national team is making waves in the World Cup, the game is an afterthought.  Die-hard soccer fans cannot fathom how their game only captures the interest of Americans during the World Cup, though there are no shortage of theories:

1. Soccer is considered a foreign sport and we are drawn to more "American" sports.  Rightly or wrongly, this is a hurdle that the sport must overcome.  It has been my experience that American soccer fans are considered "elitist" unless they are immigrants or are first generation American. Meanwhile, soccer is played by a huge percentage of American youths and an even bigger percentage of kids around the world.  So, to follow the logic, you're an elitist if you follow the least elitist sport in the world unless you can prove that you are not, in fact, socially elite.  Americans are awesome sometimes.

2. Americans don't follow soccer because we just aren't very good at it.   I think there's an argument here, too.  We are spoiled by our professional leagues.  The NHL pulls in the best players from Canada and Russia; the NBA grabs the best European players; Major League Baseball attracts the most talented players from the Dominican and Central America; and the NFL employs the finest... um... Samoans. Our best national players need to go to Europe to experience playing against the best competition, giving the impression that American soccer is an inferior product.    

3. Soccer is boring.  No, it isn't. 

4. Too much flopping.  To me, this is the smoking gun. "Flopping" in soccer parlance is the art of dramatically throwing oneself on the ground and writhing in staged agony in an attempt to have a foul assessed on the opposition (typically to draw a penalty shot or a free kick). This is taken to point of absurdity, as players are put on stretchers and carried off the field screaming in agony, only to hop off the stretcher and immediately return to the game with no ill-effects.

American sports fans simply refuse to accept this. We revere athletes that play through injuries, conceal physical pain and never use an injury as an excuse (see Reed, Willis and Strug, Kerri).

As an example, the NBA has been rigorously defending its players against accusations of players flopping in the playoffs. In the recent past, basketball players from Europe and South America have been labeled unsportsmanlike for embellishing fouls. True or not, the insinuation is that players from "soccer countries" are not as physically or mentally tough as their American counterparts.     

European Floption

Americans like to project the image we want onto our athletes: tough, fair and honorable. Flopping represents everything we claim to disdain in our athletes.

If we collectively looked in a mirror (convex would be best), we would see that while we claim to reject flopping, we actually embrace it in other sports and in our every day lives.

American sports fans love when their team wins, of course, but only slightly less enjoyable is making excuses when their team loses- especially when a bad officiating call is to blame. To deride flopping is to rebel against controversy and complaining, which is the very essence of being a sports fan.

The flop is also a cultural norm. Our new favorite past-time (Reality Television) is all about the flop. You say something that might possibly be considered vaguely disrespectful to a non-specific person or persons and, boom, you have an episode of the Kardashians, the Jersey Shore or the entire Bravo! network.

Our politicians are world-class floppers, treating every offhanded comment and gesture as an personal insult and a condemnation of at least one major voting constituency. This is how innocuous comments turn into a "War on Women," a "War on Marriage," or a "War on Algebra" (give it a few months). As 2012 is an election year, expect the flopping to reach epic proportions as we get closer to November. Every time Obama or Romney expresses an opinion, expect to see the opposition writhing on the ground crying foul.

Eventually, I believe that soccer's appeal will take hold in the States. The catalyst may be an extremely strong showing in the World Cup by the American team, a crisis in one of the major US sports, or the entrance of an American team into one of the top European leagues (a New York team in the English Premier League, anyone?). I have no idea when this will happen, but I know that certain media members and fans will be unhappy. These folks will complain about the dramatics, moan about the perceived lack of sportsmanship, and decry the eroding of the American sports ideal... in other words, they'll flop like Americans:

Wednesday, April 4, 2012

A Hammer for Major League Baseball

I love baseball.  Opening Day of baseball season is one of the best days of the year.  It's tangible proof that winter is over... and winter sucks.

As an affirmed baseball fan, it's my responsibility to defend the sport.  That means that when someone says baseball is boring, I have to insist that it isn't, even though it is.

The season is too long.  Playoff games start too late at night.  The game is too slow for today's short attention spans.  Pitchers and hitters waste too much time between pitches.  Pitching changes and visits to the mound make games last forever.

I happen to agree with this last point.  It irks me that relief pitchers are allowed to throw warm-up pitches from the mound after already warming up in the bullpen.  This would be like me showering and brushing my teeth to go to work, arriving at work, then showering and brushing my teeth again while my co-workers were waiting for me to get started.  Or, in sports terms, stopping a basketball game to allow substituted-in players to shoot practice free throws when that player had just spent ten minutes shooting free throws in a "free throw pen" located next to the court.

In the macro sense, the Major League Baseball's most egregious error has been their inability to really resonate within the sports news cycle.

There is nowhere near enough actual news occurring the in sports world to justify all the sports websites, blogs, tweets and the hundred or so ESPN channels that I pay for... not to mention the sports radio and internet message boards.  Sportswriters are like hungry arctic wolves fighting over a buffalo carcass or a pod of Orcas trying to knock a seal off an iceberg (By the way, I advise you to watch 'Frozen Planet' on the Discovery Channel).  The sports media will beat any story, no matter how mundane, to death.  Then they will revive the story with the clear intention of re-beating it to death.

To today's fan, following their team is as much about following the media coverage as it is about actually watching the game.  While baseball can match football and basketball in the off-the-field drama (free agency, trades, DUIs, steroids and trampoline injuries), the games themselves do not generate nearly enough controversy or arguments.

Football and basketball fans can dissect their coaches, evaluating their in-game decision making and second guessing every failed decision.  Baseball fans have very few opportunities to do the same. Managers set the lineup, handle pitching changes, and put in pinch-hitters or pinch-runners in certain situations.  When these decisions blow up (see Little, Grady and Brenly, Bob), the media and the internet ignite and baseball steals the headlines for weeks at a time.

At its core, baseball is a game of execution.  Pitchers pitch, hitters hit.  The outcomes are dictated by which side executes better.  This is a wonderful set-up, but baseball should take a cue from its counterparts and put more of an emphasis on strategy.

To that end, I propose that MLB throw the biggest wrinkle into their rules since the inception of the Designated Hitter: the "Roving Hitter".  Here's how it would work:
  • Under current rules, managers submit their lineup and their complete batting order (consisting of all nine players in a set order) to the umpire and the opposing team before the first pitch of every game.  Per the new rule, the submitted lineup will contain only eight of the nine players in a set order.  The final hitter will be listed as a "Roving Hitter" (dubbed "The Hammer" in honor of Hank Aaron) and will not have a set spot in the order.
  • Any of the nine starters (including a designated hitter) can be selected as the Roving Hitter. 
  • Managers can send the Roving Hitter up to the plate one time during each turn of the batting order and such hitter will slide in between the previous hitter and the hitter who would naturally follow in the batting order.  Once the eight hitter has completed their at bat, the lineup is considered "turned over" and the Roving Hitter may be utilized again.
  • In any inning where the Roving Hitter is inserted into the lineup, the Roving Hitter will maintain that position in the batting order until the inning ends.  Therefore, the Roving Hitter cannot bat twice in an inning unless all eight other hitters come to the plate between his at bats. To that end, managers have the option of holding back the Roving Hitter and not deploying him during a certain turn of the batting order in order to bat him at a later time during that inning.
  • The Roving Hitter will be considered to have batted at the moment he steps into the batters box. If a baserunner is picked off during his at bat, the Roving Hitter will be considered spent that time through the lineup and would not be allowed to lead-off the following inning.
  • After the Roving Hitter is announced, the opposing team will have the opportunity to change pitchers. 
  • If the Roving Hitter is removed for a pinch-hitter, pinch-runner or replacement fielder, the Roving Hitter's spot will become locked into the batting order at the spot where the Roving Hitter last batted.  


Let's see how this would play out:

The Yankees are playing on the road against the Red Sox during an important September game.  The Yankees submit their lineup with Alex Rodriguez as their Roving Hitter and the Red Sox submit a lineup choosing Dustin Pedroia as their Roving Hitter.  

In the top of the second inning, the Yankees put runners on second and third with one man out.  As the Yankees have not yet deployed ARod as their Roving Hitter, the Red Sox will think twice before intentionally walking the current batter to set up a potential double play, since that will likely bring up the Roving Hitter with the bases loaded. On the other hand, if the Yankees had batted ARod in the first inning, such an option would not exist and the Yankees fans would likely second guess the manager's decision.  

In the bottom of the eighth inning, the Sox are down by two runs and are sending up the bottom of their order (with their Roving Hitter still available).  Knowing that two runs are required to tie the game, will the Sox' manager send up Pedroia at the beginning of that inning?  Does he save Pedroia for a situation where there are runners on base and he could potentially tie the game (and risk losing the Roving Hitter that time through the lineup)?  Or do the Sox consider Pedroia's success facing the Yankees' current pitcher verses facing the Yankees closer in the following inning?

While longtime baseball fans will howl about such a significant change to the rules, this is no more of a change than than the DH rule.  The upside is that while the DH decreases the number of strategic decisions made in each game, the Roving Hitter rule will dramatically increase role of the manager.

From a fan's perspective, this is a win-win-win.

On the field, intentional walks will decrease, overall offense will increase, and every inning will have an increased sense of urgency.

Off the field, statheads will rush to analyze the new rule to a ridiculous degree.  Fantasy baseballers will be all atwitter evaluating how this rule affects their game.  Each manager's decisions will be dissected and will be a constant source of fans' discussions.

The media will be given something meaty to sink their teeth into.  Managers will essentially need to pick their best hitter each game, making some heads expand while bruising some egos.   The Roving Hitters themselves will be put under an extreme microscope.  Contracts for the game's best Roving Hitters will increase dramatically.  All of this will make the game more compelling.

Enjoy Opening Day.  I know I'll be watching... at least the first five innings.

Thursday, March 15, 2012

The New New Reality

My dad has seen every episode of Cops.  This is amazing, considering that there have been nearly 1,000 episodes since the show began in 1989.  The show has outlasted two VCRs and TiVo and now gets scooped up on his DVR.

What ya gonna do?  
Cops is a reality show that records police officers as they respond to various situations.  There is no voice-over or narration.  The take-aways of the show are pretty simple: (1) drugs and alcohol cause problems, (2) jumping out of a moving car during a car chase is probably not your best option, (3) people who live in trailer parks address most issues by punching/stabbing their spouses, and (4) police officers are on their best behavior when they know they are being filmed.   

The amazing things about Cops, besides my father's investment in it, is that reality television has gone nearly full-circle since it came on the air.  Popular shows like SurvivorBig Brother and Biggest Loser place ordinary people in extraordinary and contrived situations.  Over the years, these shows have become formulaic.  Every reality contestant has seen every other reality show and such experience influences their behavior. In the end, each season becomes a variation of the previous season.

Reality TVs next big thing is already here.  Why place ordinary people in crazy contrived situations when you can film ordinary people who have already put themselves in crazy situations?  As a bonus, instead of having "contestants" who aspire to stardom, these new reality stars have their own aspirations (usually to make money in the most dangerous way possible).

Below, I've put together a useful ranking of the best of the new reality television world:

7. IRT (Ice Road Truckers)- History Channel

This blog has riveting visual aids!
Synopsis: A bunch of idiots drive trucks through over frozen stretches of the Arctic or narrow, dangerous roads.  The cameras follow these clowns as they drive and explain to the viewers that ice is cold, ice is slippery, and cold and slippery ice is slippery and cold.

Reason to watch: Ice looks cool in HD.

Reason to not watch: The lack of drama.  The big payoff would be a huge crash, but the fact is that crashes just don't happen that often.

Cigarette consumption: Moderate-High.  These people are the opposite of healthy.

Possibility of my doing this job: 10 out of 10.  I like driving.  I like ice.  I like being left alone.  I like the idea of getting use out of my prescription sunglasses.

6. Ax Men- History Channel:
I can't find the top of the boat.

Synopsis: Teams of men in the Pacific northwest and the swamps of the US search for lumber.  Workers operating big machinery try not to kill their co-workers, with limited success.

Reason to watch: The father and son team trying to pull up logs from a swamp.  The father of this team (pictured above) is dumber and has less social graces an inanimate carbon rod.  Also, kudos to the History Channel for computerized graphic simulations that all result in decapitations.

Reasons not to watch: The drama is contrived.  On land, cutting down trees is fairly straightforward and success is just a matter of competence.  Not so in the swamps, where the logging is much more of a roll of the dice.

Cigarette consumption: Moderate.

Possibility of my doing this job: 5 of 10.  Forget about diving in the swamp- I don't trust anyone on these boats to not asphyxiate themselves on their own underpants while I'm underwater.  I could do the tree cutting thing, but only because being pancaked by a tree missile sounds like it would make an interesting obituary.

5. Whale Wars- Animal Planet

"Did you know that so called 'volunteers' don't even get paid?" - Homer Simpson
Synopsis: Where to even begin??  This show follows a group of Greenpeace-type activists as they try to deter Japanese fishermen from poaching whales from the Arctic.  Their methods would be amusing if they were a joke, but in reality their methods are f-n hysterical.  Such methods include throwing stink bombs at massive Japanese whaling ships and pelting said ships with paintballs.

Reason to watch the show: The members of fleet trying to save the whales are seemingly devoid of both basic boating skills and common sense.  This makes any potential "operation" both life-threatening and compellingly pointless.

Reasons not to watch: After about 30 minutes of watching our heroes whine, you actually want to choke a whale to death.

Cigarette consumption: None. Cigarettes cause cancer.

Possibility of doing this job: N/A out of 10.  These folks obliterate the line between success and failure.

4. Bering Sea Gold- Discovery Channel

Synopsis: Treasure hunters in Alaska try to get gold off the floor of the ocean on barges that look like they were made by eighth-graders.

Reason to watch: One of the workers lives in an abandoned school bus, which the narrator casually mentions at every possible opportunity.

Reason not to watch: These guys all have serious drinking problems (and may be sex offenders), a fact that clearly does not disqualify them from almost drowning themselves and their coworkers.  This should be the basis of the show.

Cigarette Consumption: Low to moderate.  Cigarettes get wet when you fall in the ocean trying not to spill your malt liquor.

Possibility of doing this job: 3 out of 10.  Would be zero, but I do want to try mining for gold from a boat made out of a refrigerator box, a hammock, and a volleyball.

3. Gold Rush Alaska- Discovery Channel

Synopsis: Treasure hunters in Alaska try to get gold out of the ground while their machinery falls apart.

Reason to watch: If these dudes were more grizzled, they'd be trying to grab salmon out of a half-frozen river.

Reason not to watch: Unfortunately, these guys only get eight or nine flecks of gold after digging up a hole the size of Dodger Stadium.

Cigarette Consumption:  Heavy, limited only by two-hand operation of back-loader.

Possibility of doing this job: 8 out of 10.  This actually looks like fun, to the point where I would consider doing it if only to grow a neck beard.

2. Storm Chasers- Discovery Channel:

Synopsis: Meteorologists drive special vehicles into the paths of tornadoes trying to get video footage and research data, while arguing like old married couples.

Reasons to watch: The footage is actually quite good, and they have enough tornadoes to keep the episodes moving.  Also, golf ball-sized hail.

Reasons not to watch: The drives into the tornadoes are slightly less amazing when you consider that someone is filming these guys from a different vehicle.  I want to see a show where they follow the video truck called "Storm Chaser Chaser Chasers".

Cigarette consumption: None.... which is probably a good idea considering these guys are sitting in the same car for literally days on end.

Possibility of my doing this job: 4 out of 10.  I think I'd get car sick and tornadoes are terrifying.  At the same time, the science is kind of cool and one guy wears a football helmet for some reason.

1. Deadliest Catch- Discovery Channel

Synopsis: The torchbearer of this genre, this one has everything.  Down-on-their-luck dudes trapped on a disgusting fishing boat and forced to work 36 hours straight without a break.  And they've got crabs.

Reasons to watch: Numerous.  Bon Jovi theme song ("Dead or Alive"!), brutal weather, fistfights, screaming matches, near-death experiences and big rubber sledgehammers used to break up ice.

Reasons not to watch: Will make you feel better about your job, which might not be a good thing.

Cigarettes smoked: Ridiculous.  I feel like the surgeon general might want to get involved.

Possibility of my doing this job: 0 out of 10.  No.  Thanks.  All I needed to see was a "making of" episode where one of the camera men was incredibly seasick for days and said:, "I would kill everyone I know to get off this boat."  I feel you, camera guy.