Apr 222003

It’s been a while since I’ve thrown a sop to my baseball-oriented readers and the season is under way, so I’m gonna make it up to you with a new statistic, because the one thing baseball suffers from is not enough statistics.

I was trying to explain the game to an Icelandic friend of mine the other day. What’s with guys charging the mound? he wanted to know. (This from a hockey fan.) Well, they get upset when pitchers throw at them, I said. So why do the pitchers throw at them? he asked. To instill fear, I said. It’s a lot harder to hit when you’re worrying that the next pitch might come at your head. Don’t pitchers get thrown out for doing that? he asked. Yes and no, I explained. It’s complicated. He asks, can’t they at least keep track of the pitchers who do it all the time and punish them later? Why yes, I mused. Yes they can. And then and there I conceived the VI, or Viciousness Index.

VI relies on the premise that a pitcher’s true wildness can be roughly judged by the number of walks he allows. The fewer he allows, the better idea he has of where the ball is going most of the time. So if he allows very few walks and still hits a lot of batters, the way Pedro Martinez does, one can assume that it’s not entirely or even mostly by accident. Therefore VI = HBP/BB. I submit this will prove an excellent index to pitcher viciousness.

I’d like to oblige you with some actual numbers, but HBP pitcher data turns out to be scarce. It’s not in the Lahman database, Baseball Reference doesn’t have it, and that means I don’t have it either. In lieu of numbers, I offer two hypotheses. First, pitchers with headhunting reputations, like Bob Gibson and Don Drysdale, will have high VIs. Second, the VI leaders, seasonally and career, will be a better set of pitchers than the VI trailers. (This is of course largely because the trailers walk more hitters. A stronger version is that if you match pitchers with similar walk/inning ratios, the ones with the higher VIs will tend to be better.) If somebody out there has HBP data for pitchers and wants to share it with me so I can confirm or deny, I pledge that I will not only publish the lifetime and 2002 leaders for the Viciousness Index, but I will add the data to my pitching search engine. Now is that a deal or what?

(Update: I’ve mentioned before how impressed I am with my commenters — it’s a regular little salon around here — but Greg Padgett has outdone himself. He actually grabbed the HB numbers from the Yahoo MLB database and posted the VI leaders and trailers, both raw and adjusted, for 2002 in the comments. He also extracted a few VI comparisons for pitchers with similar walk rates. I’ll have more to say about this later, but on casual inspection the results are inconclusive. There are some excellent pitchers at the top, like Pedro Martinez, Brad Radke, Derek Lowe, and Mark Mulder, but there are some pretty good pitchers at the bottom too, like Bartolo Colon and Jason Schmidt. Each end of the list has its share of washouts too. I suspect career results will be more conclusive, since we’re dealing with a relatively rare occurrence. Adjusted VI doesn’t range much beyond plus or minus 5 in a single season. But go read Greg’s comment.)

Apr 212003

A larval town, Arcata, CA, pop. 16,000, puffs itself up like a banded newt, seeking not a mate but media attention, and lo! it succeeds. Arcata already has a foreign policy, like all self-respecting municipalities these days, including my dear old Manhattan, bless its grimy heart. Arcata is against the war. It is against global warming. And now it is against the Patriot Act.

When Arcata is against stuff it passes resolutions, and so Arcata “has become the first in the nation to pass an ordinance that outlaws voluntary compliance with the Patriot Act.” Outlaws voluntary compliance, mind you. “I call this a nonviolent, preemptive attack,” says David Meserve, the Arcata freshman City Council member and latter-day Jefferson Davis who drafted the ordinance, bravely sounding the call to nonviolent arms.

Arcata objects, in particular, to noxious provisions of the Patriot Act that allow the FBI to commandeer information from libraries and bookstores about the reading habits of their patrons. Earth to Meserve: law requires force, and in a showdown between the United States Army and the Arcata Municipal Police and Affiliated Busybodies Association, I know where I’m putting my money. You want to condemn the Patriot Act, fine; I’ll be there right beside you. You want to try to force people to refuse to comply with the Feds, on pain of…on pain of…on pain of, let’s see, a serious talking-to and being sent to bed without supper? Think it over, OK? I would call the whole affair sophomoric, but for the fact that Meserve is not yet a sophomore.

(Update: Floyd McWilliams has another little California town that could, and a bonus fun fact about Arcata and the VodkaPundit, Stephen Green. Sorry no, you’ll just have to follow the link.)

(Another: Over at the Volokh Conspiracy, Juan Non-Volokh notes that in Printz v. United States, the Supreme Court ruled that the state and local officials could not be compelled to enforce a federal regulatory program — in that case, the Brady Act. So Meserve may actually have a legal case after all.)

Apr 192003

I note, belatedly, my loss in the Briffa/Grauniad contest to Cinderella. Here’s his link, as promised. Briffa fell on April 7th. Cindy had April 5th. I had April 1st. Let the gloating begin. While you’re there, check out his latest commentary on Pascal Bruckner.

Ian Hamet has an appreciation of the anime director Miyazaki Hayao, whose movies I’ve never seen but now want to see, and you can’t ask much more from an appreciation than that.

The Blowhards have been en fuego, as they say on ESPN, with Friedrich on scale-free networks and Michael on Econ for Poets, and really, the whole damn site has been great since the two of them finally finished their taxes.

Airline employees, as usual, aren’t any too happy with their executives, but this time Megan McArdle is passing out the pitchforks.

Sasha and Andrew need rear-door handles for their 1991 Peugeot — I kid you not — and they’re willing to make a deal.

Finally, Julian Sanchez’s economic analysis of regime change, responding to Henry Farrell’s, should keep you off the streets for a while.

Apr 182003

Saw A Mighty Wind tonight, Christopher Guest’s latest mockumentary (if you will) of folk music, and it was funny, but not funny enough. I almost feel sorry for Guest, who will have to labor in the immense shade of Spinal Tap for the rest of his life, and whose movies will never be possible to enjoy on their own terms because they will never stack up. All you need to know about A Mighty Wind is that its funniest moment involves Bob Balaban being slapped on the head: pure slapstick. At least Guest soldiers on; bully for him. Early success paralyzes some artists, like Ralph Ellison and Henry Roth, and no one ever quite lives it down. Stephen Vizinczey said once that failure is a kind of luck, as long as it doesn’t kill you.

Apr 162003

Jim of Objectionable Content, the Blogger With No Last Name, posts an amusing, if incestuous, history of the great Hugh MacLeod’s dizzying ascent from utterly obscure to moderately obscure cartoonist, all thanks to bloggers! And people say we have no influence. He neglects my own small but vital contribution: I too found MacLeod through his blog, and without my link to him my immediate family would never have seen his cartoons. I forgive him.

Apr 152003

A day after posting this, I get spammed with this:

Actual, professional 55 card deck of casino style playing cards with the most-wanted Iraqis’ names and photos, manufactured by one of the playing card companies shipping these to Iraq. In case you didn’t already know, Saddam is the Ace of Spades.

A limited number of these decks are available. Order at [URL of evil genius omitted] for just $14.99. Plus a poster file with all of the cards’ photos included will be sent to you.

Either the spambots are getting far too clever, or the Zeitgeist moves in mysterious ways.

Apr 142003

Richard Price has now written seven novels; Samaritan is his latest. He also writes screenplays for booze money, although some of them, notably Sea of Love and The Color of Money, turned into quite decent movies. Price grew up in a tough neighborhood in the Bronx and knocked about some before finding his vocation. His first four novels, The Wanderers, Bloodbrothers, The Breaks, and Ladies’ Man, were written from his own experience. They have their moments, especially his first, The Wanderers, which still enjoys a considerable reputation. But in retrospect they look like apprentice work.

Price eventually ran out of experience, and sallied forth to do some reporting, out of which came his fifth novel, Clockers, an epic of the crack trade. With Clockers Price became the Balzac of the underclass. Like Balzac, he has an unerring eye for status detail — which soft drink, which brand of sneaker, how low you wear your jeans. In the first chapter of Clockers you learn that the preferred reading of crack dealers is shopping catalogues.

Ever since Peanut fished a dozen catalogues out of a garbage can, everybody was in a state of mild disorder, passing around the thin glossies as if they were sex books. Strike would have cracked a whip if it was anything else, but he was the worst. He’d meant to go over to Rodney’s store an hour before, during the dinner lull, but had remained glued to the bench, a half-dozen catalogues on his lap, running his fingers down page after page of camisoles, hand-carved Christmas-tree angels, computerized jogging machines, golf putting sets for den and office, personalized stationery, lawn furniture — anything and everything for man, woman or child. The catalogues made him weak in the knees, fascinated him to the point of helplessness, the idea of all these things to be had, organized in a book that he could hold in one hand. Not that he would order anything — possessions drew attention, made you a target. None of the boys would order out of a catalogue either, not necessarily because they were paranoid like Strike, but because the ordering process — telephones, mailings, deliveries — required too much contact with the world outside the street.

You don’t find this out hanging around writers’ workshops.

Price also has a remarkable ear. (He spends a good deal of his time in Hollywood doctoring dialogue.) One of the characters in Samaritan is a prison autodidact, but Price never says so, he doesn’t have to; just listen to him talk:

“You working?”

“Yeah, well no, not like an employee per se. However, I’m working on something. I got this idea for a nonprofit organization to help inmates return to so-called society? I call it LIFE — Living in Fear of Extinction. I want to set up a whole reentry program, you know, literacy, computer literacy, how to fill out résumés, how to communicate, how to be prompt, how to be inspirational, how to make eye contact. See right now, I’m at the research stage, I need to learn how to file an application for tax-exempt status, how to find sponsors, how to–“

“Anything else?” Ray unable to hear this shit.

“Other? Well, yeah, I had this T-shirt thing goin’ on, you know, bought shirts in bulk, designed my own logo, hooked up with this printer did silk-screening on a delayed payment schedule but that’s all on financial hold for the time being, and I was also working on a comic book I wanted to publish, called Dawgs of War, about the future, when America wages war on the Republic of Nubia and it was gonna focus on one platoon of guys from the hood, how they get educated over there, you know, come to understand that they’re fighting…you know, that they’re on the wrong side…”

“Per se,” “inspirational,” “on financial hold for the time being” — all of this is exact. But the acronym and, especially, the question mark after “so-called society” betray the hand of the master.

Children are prominent in all of Price’s novels, and the only novelist I can think of who shows a comparable understanding of the species is Richard Hughes, in A High Wind to Jamaica. Price’s children aren’t the precocious wiseasses of sitcoms, or Spielbergian tuning forks who, quivering to the music of the spheres, always sense the truth and can’t persuade the cold-hearted adults to believe them. They’re children — half-formed, amoral savages struggling to become adults.

Samaritan, like its predecessors Clockers and Freedomland, is a police thriller. A crime is committed early on, the perp is unknown, and the story ends approximately when the investigating officer, always a major character, discovers who did it. (The legal machinations are always omitted. Price likes cops but seems to have no use for lawyers.)

Although the plotting is always handled competently, and the identity of the perpetrator is always difficult to guess, Price’s real interests lie with motive. His novels are whydunits more than whodunits, which I guess you could say about all good novels. They are mysteries because human motives are mysterious.

In Samaritan the victim is Ray Mitchell, a former high school teacher and cabdriver turned television writer who, at loose ends, decides to move back to his own neighborhood and do good. Mitchell is assaulted and seriously injured. He knows who did it but refuses to talk. An old acquaintance of his from the neighborhood, Nerese Ammons, a twenty-year veteran with six months to retirement, winds up investigating the crime. The novel alternates chapters, to impressive effect, between the events leading up the assault and its aftermath.

Mitchell spreads his money around — pays for one woman’s funeral, underwrites another man’s T-shirt business — learning the hard way the truth of John Jacob Astor’s remark: “Why does that man hate me? I never lent him money.” It buys him first bemusement, then solicitation, and finally enmity and a serious whack upside the head. “Ray thinks he wants to make a dent,” his ex-wife says, “when he really only wants to make a splash.” Nerese, too, questions her own motives in bothering with this case when she could just ride out the last few months to her pension.

Ray himself is far from stupid, and he knows that his motives are mixed. He tells Nerese about blowing a big TV deal and taking it out on his daughter Ruby at the mall:

“We get in the mall and I say, ‘Ruby, the hell with it. Let’s just buy shit. Whatever you want, who cares…’ She says, ‘That’s OK, I’ll just look.’ I’m like, ‘Ruby, c’mon, I just swung a big deal [he’s lying and she knows it], a dollar’s like a penny today.’ And I sort of bully her into buying some studs for her ears, can’t get her to buy clothes, can’t get her to buy any skin stuff, she grudgingly lets me buy her some teen magazine and it got really tense, the both of us like in this battle in the mall. And at one point she stops at a kiosk where they’re selling belly-button rings, and she got hers pierced a few weeks before and I see her eyeing this one ring, sort of a curved silver rod with dice at either end and, I’m instantly breathing down her neck, ‘You want that? You want that?’ Which of course makes her want to run away. She says, ‘Just looking,’ and wanders off. I’m so panic-stricken, the minute her back is turned, I buy it plus two others, then I sort of mosey up behind her, say, ‘Miss, did you drop these?’ and show her the three belly-button rings in my hand and she, goes, berserk. She starts sobbing and screaming at me, ‘Stop buying me stuff! Stop buying me stuff! Please! Daddy! Please! I don’t want anything!'”

Ayn Rand covered thoroughly the horror of altruism for the giver. Price deals with its horror for the recipient, for whom it’s like an oversolicitous host raised, in this case, several orders of magnitude. While Clockers is painted on a larger canvas, it lacks Samaritan‘s psychological penetration.

Which is the better book? Depends on your taste. But they’re both awfully good, and in different ways, which gives me hope that Price may have yet to do his best work.

(Cross-posted to BlogCritics.)

Apr 122003

Our victory in Iraq demonstrates several propositions:

  • The military knew what they were doing. I suppose it’s logically possible that a different plan would have achieved even better results, but with Coalition deaths around 150, Iraqi civilian deaths at well under 1,000, and the war essentially over in three weeks, it’s hard to imagine how. Never, as many others have pointed out, has an opposing force been more careful with the lives of enemy civilians, and even soldiers, than the enemy itself. Quagmire? What quagmire?
  • The Iraqis prefer us to Saddam. Well, duh. You would have had to be insentient to believe anything else in the first place. And anyone who can remain indifferent to the Iraqis’ overwhelming joy at the end of Hussein’s regime or scold them for lifting a few souvenirs from his blood-soaked palaces is morally depraved.
  • Iraq will be better off. Cf. Afghanistan. We still have no idea what the government will look like in Iraq, but really, it can’t be worse. The word “liberation” is fully justified.

    It does not, however, demonstrate that invading Iraq was a good idea in the first place. I think it was, and recent developments have done nothing to change my mind. But even as the bankruptcy of the anti-war left becomes apparent, the best arguments against the war retain their force. First, it will massively increase the size of the federal government, as all major past wars have, war being the health of the state (Arthur Silber has been making this point tirelessly). Second, we are letting ourselves in for years of foreign garrisons — although I can think of a few troops in, say, Germany that we can spare. Finally, Iraq is just our opening salvo in the Middle East, where Iran and Saudi Arabia are even more serious troublemakers, and how we deal with those countries remains to be seen.

    Just be a little careful with the “I told you so’s,” is all I’m sayin’.

  • Apr 102003

    Michael at 2 Blowhards discusses how publishing fads — which he charitably refers to as “consensus” — come to be. His commentators offer various unsatisfactory explanations. Many are of the “workshop” variety: editors and publishers have to promote books, therefore they promote what they have, and what’s wrong with that? The economics of the publishing industry puts this out of court. Publishers, like movie studios, depend on blockbusters for their survival. These are lottery industries, and it matters far more if you can squeeze 100,000 extra copies out of the latest Clancy or King than if Morrison or Rushdie sells 25,000 or 30,000 copies.

    Social theories are more to the point. Publishing people all go to the same parties, where they exchange opinions about books. Naturally they expected to do an ungodly amount of reading. Michael Kinsley wrote an amusing article a while back about being a book prize judge. He was theoretically required to read more than 400 books.

    Nobody in book or magazine publishing reads even one-tenth of what he’s supposed to have an opinion on, and shortcuts become indispensable. This is why book critics are far more widely read than books. They save time. If you haven’t got round to Rushdie or Morrison or Jonathan Safran Foer or whoever happens to be the novelist du jour — and you probably haven’t — it’s safest to praise them, most likely in the terms of Michiko Kakutani, whom you have read. (I, too, have opinions on Morrison and Rushdie despite having read only brief excerpts of the latter, which struck me as show-offy and not half so clever as the author obviously thought them, and the former not at all. Morrison’s fatuous public utterance makes me doubt that she is intelligent enough to be a good novelist. This is slender evidence, and it may be the opposite of the publishing consensus, but then they don’t invite me to their parties.)

    The Blowhard thread evinces a simultaneous distrust of publishing fashion and genuflection toward the Canon. This is very common, and very odd. Woody Allen’s movie Crimes and Misdemeanors features an incredibly annoying TV writer, played by Alan Alda, who keeps repeating, “Comedy is tragedy plus time.” Well, the Canon is the fashion plus time. It’s subject to exactly the same vicissitudes. Shakespeare largely owes his reputation as the greatest English writer to two 19th century German critics, the Schlegel brothers. Nobody read John Donne 100 years ago. In 1921 Sir Herbert Grierson published an anthology, featuring Donne, of “metaphysical” poets, borrowing the term from Samuel Johnson, who used it disparagingly. T.S. Eliot picked up on Grierson, emphasizing Donne’s “difficulty” when difficulty was all the rage. An entire generation of academics, steeped in Eliot, began to teach Donne, things picked up steam, and now he is a “classic,” and the streets are littered with college graduates who know nothing of Donne except that he is “metaphysical.” Note that in this process one critic, maybe two, formed an independent opinion of Donne’s actual merits.

    Time has its virtues. People have been reading Homer for three thousand years, and there’s probably a reason. But English poetry is only 500 years old, English prose even younger. Hapless undergraduates still battle the Red Crosse Knight mostly because C.S. Lewis thought Spenser was the exemplar of the “Golden Style.” Bulky self-regarding Wordsworth is too much with us, late and soon, because he happened to come along with the Lyrical Ballads in 1798, just as the heroic couplet was going out of style, and because he promoted himself tirelessly. The Canon is more reliable than the fashion, as some of the dust has settled, but it is a sort of fashion, just the same.

    (Update: Brian Micklethwait comments.)