Aaron Haspel – Page 60 – God of the Machine

Aaron Haspel

Jun 182002

Mickey Kaus complains that, since he moved his blog to Slate, the back button on the IE browser is broken if you go to his old address, and so it is. (Fine, don’t believe me. If you’re using Internet Explorer, click the first link in the previous sentence, then click the back button. Now, before clicking the second link, bookmark this site. Now click the second link and try the back button again. Now come back here and finish reading.) Web monkey to the rescue: I emailed Mickey the following:

I don’t know what kind of software your web server in Nevada is running, but if it’s Apache, then there’s a simple solution to your back button problem. Your trouble is, you (or they, I guess) are redirecting URLs when you should be rewriting them. Let me explain. A redirect is like a forwarding number. If I type in http://www.kausfiles.com, I actually go to that old address, where I’m told that the new address is such and such, and off I go again. Then when I try the back button, I get stuck in the endless kausfiles/slate loop because I’ve actually been sent to two addresses.

What you want is not a redirect but a rewrite. With a rewrite, I type the same address, but the server, instead of forwarding me anywhere, examines the address and changes it on the spot. I go one place, not two–giving me a nice bonus of a faster response time–and my back button still works.

I know how to do this with Apache. If the Nevada boys are running some other software like, God forbid, Microsoft’s Internet Information Server, then all bets are off. But for Apache here’s one way to do this:

In the httpd.conf file, under the kausfiles hosts directive:

RewriteEngine On
# Rewrite all requests for the kausfiles main page to this new URL
RewriteRule /index.html http://slate.msn.com/default.aspx?id=2066854

That’s it! You can get a lot fancier if you want to, but even this simple setup beats hell out of what you have now.

This was three days ago, and it’s radio silence from the Mick. He cites several readers who point out that you can use the history arrow or hit the back button twice real fast, and one who says it’s no problem in Mozilla, but I offer an honest-to-God fix and…nada. Sheesh.

Jun 182002

Many people actually watch baseball (though not as many as there used to be), which amazes me. Have you ever tried to watch a baseball game with someone who knows nothing about sports, like your girlfriend? Mine can appreciate, at least for five minutes, the balletic grace of basketball or soccer, the raw violence of football, even the ebb and flow of hockey, but when baseball comes on the channel is changed. Immediately.

But there is one beautiful thing about baseball, and it isn’t the Cartesian symmetry of the diamond. Baseball playing fields aren’t even symmetrical, actually, except in the ugliest parks. Perhaps the fact that it’s played in the summer?

It breaks your heart. It is designed to break your heart. The game begins in the spring, when everything else begins again, and it blossoms in the summer, filling the afternoons and evenings, and then as soon as the chill rains come, it stops and leaves you to face the fall alone.

Giamatti doth protest too much, methinks.

No, the beautiful thing about baseball is that it’s transparent to statistical analysis. This is fortunate, because it means you don’t have to watch baseball to understand it. All you have to do is read the box scores.

Jun 172002

Chapter 1: The Foundations for a New Kind of Science. Hi. I’m Stephen Wolfram, the smartest man on earth. My discoveries will revolutionize mathematics, physics, biology, social sciences, computer science, philosophy, art, technology and a bunch of other stuff people haven’t thought up yet. The few fumbling attempts at my insights to date — in artificial intelligence, catastrophe theory, chaos theory, complexity theory, cybernetics, dynamical systems theory, general systems theory, nonlinear dynamics, and statistical mechanics — are nowhere.

Chapter 2: The Crucial Experiment. You can apply a few simple rules to coloring squares on a sheet of graph paper and come up with random-looking patterns sometimes.

Chapter 3: The World of Simple Programs. You can make the rules a little more complicated but the patterns don’t get any more random.

Chapter 4: Systems Based On Numbers. You can get random pictures from numbers and functions too.

Further posts as I digest the implications of this revolutionary work.

Jun 162002

Several premises underlie Bill James’s new book, some of them radical, and it seems best to examine them individually.

1. It would be valuable to have a single number to represent the value of a player’s season. Well, sure. Wouldn’t it? People spend a lot of time rating things on a scale “from 1 to 10.” James proposes to do the same thing with baseball players, except it’s on a scale of 0 to about 50 or so (there are only about a dozen seasons in baseball history that rate higher than 50, including Barry Bonds’ 2001, which clocks in at 54). Each integer represents a third of a win, a “Win Share”. This would come in handy to resolve salary disputes, trade questions and bar arguments, for sure.

2. It is impossible to evaluate players by taking the average as a baseline. This too is true, and it has already been acknowledged by many other analysts who have introduced the concept of replacement value (the Baseball Prospectus boys with VORP, among others). James justly says that the value of a player is not in how far above the average he is but in the fact that he can play at this level at all. Poor Pete Palmer and his Linear Weights system take it on the chin for using average performance as a baseline, implying that a slightly-below average major league player has a value of less than zero.

3. The best way to analyze performance, particularly fielding, is to look at the team’s performance first, and then allocate it among the individual players. True again. For hitters it’s easy to separate individual hitting performance by ignoring situation-dependent statistics like RBI; for pitchers it’s a little more difficult; but fielders cannot be evaluated properly apart from the team.

4. The Win Shares of the players must add up to the wins of the team. Here we start to get into trouble. A team’s record can be predicted quite accurately by a Pythagorean formula, and in Win Shares James introduces a new formula, based on “marginal runs”, that is nearly as accurate. (In fact calculating Win Shares is just a matter of figuring a team’s marginal runs and allocating them among its members.) Some teams, however, significantly overperform or underperform, relative to the number of runs they score and allow. The 1984 New York Mets, who finished 90-72 despite being outscored by 24 runs, are a notorious example. It follows from James’s formulae that each marginal run a 1984 Met contributed was more valuable than each marginal run from an underperforming team, say, the 1984 Pittsburgh Pirates, who finished 75-87 despite outscoring their opponents by 48 runs. The adjustments here can range to 20% or more, dwarfing things like park factors. And it follows further that Hubie Brooks and Tony Pena both get 21 Win Shares, despite the fact that Pena outhit Brooks slightly and played a far more difficult defensive position far better. In other words, Brooks, according to James, was a better player in 1984 because his team was lucky. (All analysts agree–James himself may have been the first to say so–that when teams win a lot of close games, it’s mostly luck.) James defends such conclusions obliquely in an essay called The Snider/Mays Dilemma, as follows:

But in that case [of another overachieving team, the 1969 Mets], it seems OK, because, after all, we know what this team accomplished. We all understand that this isn’t the usual case. But in the Win Shares system, we follow the logic that whatever is accomplished by the team is credited to the players, wherever that leads us.

Now maybe we all know what the 1969 Mets accomplished, and won’t be thrown by Cleon Jones’s 30 Win Shares, but do we all know what the 1984 Pirates failed to accomplish, or will we take Tony Pena’s and Hubie Brooks’ 21 Win Shares apiece at face value? I am not certain that we should evaluate players relative to their teams’ expected instead of actual won-loss records, but I am certain that James can give a better defense of his method than he does here.

Smaller points: James says in The New Historical Baseball Abstract and elsewhere that closers are overrated and managers ought to ignore save situations and pitch their best relief pitchers when they are most valuable, i.e., in tied and one-run games. Couldn’t agree more. But in Win Shares he appears to ignore that argument, giving relievers arbitrary extra credit for saves to make his numbers work out. James also asserts that stopping the running game constitutes 50% of a catcher’s defense, although he admits that such an estimate is desperate work. This should be easy to add up, however, because we know, offensively, what stolen bases and caught stealings are worth. When I am feeling less lazy I will add up the alleged defensive contributions of some cannon-armed catcher like, say, Ivan Rodriguez, and see if they match up with what the offensive result of his SB/CS record would be worth.

(Update: Read Part 2.

Jun 152002

When I read this book at 40 I realized that when I read it at 20 I didn’t understand Madame Merle and Gilbert Osmond at all. It is tragic in the novel, if retrospective balm for the ego, that Isabel is taken in by them herself.

Osmond is indeed a monster, and James is very specific about how. He is a solipsist: everything in his tiny universe must be a reflection of himself. This is why he is prepared to marry off his daughter to a man who doesn’t love her, why he does nothing for Madame Merle, who devotes her life to helping him, and why, finally, he hates and tortures his wife: she is too independent, her ideas are her own rather than reflections of his. James says much, and his characters still more, about how clever Osmond is, but his ideas, for all the care he lavishes on them, are really quite dull. They boil down to an abiding respect for forms, customs, traditions. When his sister, the silly but shrewd Countess Gemini, explains to Isabel that Madame Merle never married Osmond because “she has never had, about him, she had never had, what you might call any illusions of intelligence,” we are surprised, but we feel, on reflection, the force of the judgment. Yvor Winters complains that Osmond, although a “thoroughly unpleasant neurotic aesthete,” is not adequate to inspire the sort of terror that Isabel, and later Pansy, feels. But what can be more terrifying than a clever, well-plotted attempt to stifle one’s ideas, one’s person, one’s very identity? That’s what Osmond does, and what he is.

A few words about Ralph Touchett, one of the most unforgettable of the substantial galaxy of Jamesian minor characters. Ralph, unlike God, must pay for his omniscience in impotence: he is ill, and must take his pleasure from the gallery. In the plot, however, is Ralph is very much a man of action. The two great turning points of the novel–Isabel’s inheritance, and her break with Osmond–are both precipitated by Ralph. He does a great deal more than watch.