Monthly Archives: July 2016

Hacking Moneyball: What We Can Learn from the Cardinals

cardinals moneyball

Baseball is the most arcane of modern sports. For a typical fan, it takes years to learn its intricate, often counterintuitive rules and its odd terminology, let alone its statistics and their acronyms—BA, ERA, RBIs, and OBP. It was as if in embracing baseball, Americans made sport out of the statistics, managerial sciences, and bureaucracies that were coming increasingly to characterize their professional and civic lives.

Professional baseball, however, turned up the statistical game several notches during the early 2000s. Sabermetrics, or “Moneyball” as it came to be called, entailed the invention of all sorts of new metrics—BsRs, PERA, WARs, and numerous others—to predict better and more efficiently player performance and team success. Major league baseball front offices started hiring not only MBAs, but also PhDs with expertise in data science, programming, and other areas of statistical wizardry.

However, coming as it does out of a tradition of ritual and loyalty, a certain brand of American wholesomeness, even comic associations (“Who’s on first?”), baseball was distinctly uncomfortable with its turn to sabermetrics. Baseball executives lit up at the new profts promised by metrics, but they sheepishly hid the Moneyball operations in the back office. Continue reading

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Outlaw or Criminal?

The Pursuit of D.B. Cooper, a 1981 film version starring Robert Duvall

The Pursuit of D.B. Cooper, a 1981 film version starring Robert Duvall

Last week the FBI announced that it was ending its forty-five-year manhunt for D.B. Cooper. In case you are unfamiliar with the case, Cooper (real name unknown) famously hijacked a passenger plane from Oregon to Seattle in 1971 by claiming he had a bomb on board, freeing thirty-six passengers in exchange for $200,000 in cash (equivalent to about $1.2 million today), and taking off again with the pilot and a small crew. What made Cooper a legend in our popular imagination, however, is that Cooper subsequently managed to parachute out of the plane with the ransom money—and was never seen again. Before formally ending the search last week, the FBI interviewed hundreds of people, amassing a file that reportedly measures more than forty feet long (much of it now on-line) including information on more than 1,000 suspects.

Viewed dispassionately, the case against Cooper is straightforward and obvious: Cooper threatened violence, endangered the lives of many people by forcing an emergency landing, and stole a lot of money. These are serious crimes. Yet, he is viewed by many as more of an inspirational outlaw who pulled off an amazing heist than a true villain. His story has inspired movies, books, songs, a pretty funny Far-Side cartoon, an annual festival with a look-alike contest, and Mad Men conspiracy theories. Google “D.B. Cooper,” and if you are like me, you’ll get a little thrill at the fact that he pulled off something that seems so impossible today. Continue reading

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Black Oxygen: Suttree Reconsidered

suttree mcwilliams

Yes, there’s Blood Meridian. But it’s Suttree, published six years earlier (in 1979), that stands as Cormac McCarthy’s masterpiece. At first pass, it hardly seems so. Suttree is a novel in which Homeric language appears to do little more than adorn a plotline that moves slower than the Tennessee River around which much of the story takes place. During my initial reading, twenty years ago, I thought: Wait a second. McCarthy is asking me to grapple with nearly 500 pages of thick, idiosyncratic blocks of wordplay without even offering up some cheap narrative excitement? Who does he think he is? Joyce? Faulkner? Melville?

Well, yes. McCarthy, especially in his Tennessee novels, invented a literary idiom to explore questions bearing on existence, place, sex, and death. But the quality worth admiring most isn’t the language driving his explorations of these universal phenomena. It’s rather how language and storyline fuse to create characters who viscerally negotiate violence, loss, hope, and love. McCarthy’s tight weave of prose and plot makes a novel that, after several readings, appears to be the twentieth century’s Moby Dick, and perhaps even a viable transatlantic counterpart to Ulysses. Continue reading

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Introducing the Summer Issue: Meritocracy and Its Discontents

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A-1, 1962 (acrylic on canvas) by Robert Indiana (b.1928), photograph © Christie’s Images/Bridgeman Images; © Morgan Art Foundation/Artists Rights Society (ARS), New York.

Whatever lies at the end of this surprise-filled electoral season, most observers would agree that it has already exposed a widespread distrust of those whom we selectively call our elites. Even before this election season, the word elites had become one of the nastier epithets hurled back and forth across America’s cultural and political divides, each side having its own catalog of particularly loathsome nabobs.

Today’s leadership class inspires remarkably little confidence. Explanations for this abound, from the anecdotal to the systemic. Elites are distant, aloof, and increasingly selfish. They are deracinated. Their orientation is global, not local. They have no loyalty to their nation or their fellow citizens. In a winner-take-all economy, they are grossly overcompensated for the questionable services they perform. They are condescending toward, even contemptuous of, the poor, the working stiff, the small-town provincial, or anyone else who lives outside their narrowly circumscribed socio-economic ambit. Seeing themselves as winners in the meritocratic contest, they lack the humility to acknowledge the advantages or good fortune that helped paved the way to their success and exalted station.

How, then, have elites and the system that selects and forms them fallen into such disrepute—or at least become the objects of widespread calumny? That is the question that lies at the heart of our thematic essays in our summer issue, Meritocracy and Its Discontents.

Traditionally, we’ve released ten articles from each issue for free and then held back the rest of this issue. This is great for browsing, but means that a few articles tend to eat up all the attention. This time, we are trying something slightly different—rolling out the articles a few at a time so that they have a chance to stand on their own.

To that end, enjoy our two launch articles:

For subscribers, of course, the whole issue is available right now, whether in print or ePub form. In addition to the above, they’ll get to read the contributions of Robert Frank and Wilfred McClay, and great free-standing essays like John J. Lennon’s “The Murderer’s Mother.” They can dive straight into our special symposium on Richard Rorty, in which Susan Haack, Matthew Crawford, and Robert Pippin discuss a previously unpublished lecture that Rorty delivered at the University of Virginia in 2004.

If you aren’t a subscriber, it’s an easy problem to fix: click here and subscribe today.

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