Monthly Archive: August 2015

RG III and the art of quarterback survival

Being a quarterback in the NFL is a matter of survival. Sooner or later your protection will start to break down, and very soon after that one or more heavyweight guys will be heading toward you in a determined attempt to weld you to the ground.
That being the case, quarterbacks have to have situational and peripheral awareness of what is going on around them, and either be able to get rid of the ball, or, if they can run, take off in some less dangerous direction.
The world of the NFL is full of history stories of quarterbacks who lacked pocket awareness and survival skills. One example that comes to mind is the contest at Buffalo between Rob Johnson and Doug Flutie. Johnson looked like the prototypical NFL quarterback – tall, athletic, with a big arm. He impressed the Bills enough for them to trade for him from Jacksonville and make him the starter over a little short guy from Canada. (The fact that he was not the starting quarterback at Jacksonville, and that there might be a reason for that, was lost in the burst of enthusiasm to trade for him).
The problem soon became apparent. While he could throw the ball, Johnson had no survival instincts. When protection broke down, he either got sacked, or he ran all over the place and heaved the ball, sometimes with bad results. The Bills eventually inserted Doug Flutie, who, while lacking the arm strength of Rob Johnson, knew when to take off and could make things happen on the run. Johnson’s career eventually fizzled out in a collection of injuries and short-term starts.
The Dallas Cowboys similarly inserted Tony Romo into games in the 2006 season, when it became apparent that Drew Bledsoe was not able to handle playing behind a deficient offensive line. In only a matter of minutes, Romo showed that he could work out when his workplace was about to be invaded by The Other Guys, and could make things happen despite that issue, although he also had to learn when not to desperately heave the ball downfield.
The Washington Redskins have the same issue today with Robert Griffin III. After setting the NFL on fire in his debut season, when his blazing open-field speed and playmaking ability led to predictions that he would revolutionize quarterback play, Griffin was seriously injured in his second season, and has not looked like the same player since. The injuries appear to have robbed him of his speed, which means that he now has to learn to be a pocket passer. The problem is that he does not seem to even know where he is in the pocket, and does not currently have the skills to determine when the pocket is collapsing, As a result he now resembles an indecisive statue, and is being sacked and hit at a rate that will ensure he never completes a full NFL season. The main question is whether he can learn enough survival skills before he gets seriously injured or replaced. While he may be more naturally talented than his backups, Kirk Cousins and Colt McCoy, those backups seem to have pocket awareness and survival skills that he lacks.


Dysfunctionality in school boards – Perryville MO

Although at the highest level the US political system is driven by money, and lots of it, this is not true of many local political races. If you want to get elected to a City council or a School board, you do not need much money at all, just a reasonably good platform and the ability to get your supporters out to vote.
The low barriers to entry, however, create their own set of issues. In my home city of Duncanville, two aquabbling factions have been negatively impacting the functioning of the City council for years. All over Texas, school districts end up periodically mired in scandal (or, in the case of Dallas, a continuing string of dysfunctional events and scandals) because the school board members are either single-issue wackaloons (most usually Christian creationists) or just plain incompetent.
Or, maybe, in the case of Perryville MO, the elected member turns out to be a raging misogynist who thinks that it is a smart thing to make comments about women needing to be on their back with their legs spread.
What is more frightening. as one commenter in the article points out, is that the vote to censure this doofus was not unanimous. Clearly there are three members of the school board to failed to think that his verbal snark was significant enough. The people of Perryville probably need to be thinking about whether this how they want their town to continue to appear on Google search results.


The phony Wars on anything and everything

Every time I look around the internets. It seems that a person or a group has declared that a series of events constitutes a “War on (insert noun here)”.
When I further look into the series of events, I find that in some cases it is not even a series of connected events, and in some cases it is a production of fevered imagination rather than analysis.
When the word “war” starts to be used in a conversation, I get worried, unless there is really a war. War involves an existential struggle for survival by nations or allies against a common enemy. The choice is usually fairly binary – win or be eliminated.
None of the current “wars” meet that criterion. Some of them do not even belong in the same continent as that criterion. War On Poverty? Yes, poverty is a pervasive issue, and the less poverty the better. However, the existence of the USA is not contingent on winning a war on poverty. (If it was, we would probably not be hearing people pissing and moaning about the money that the USA disburses in foreign aid every year).
War On Drugs? We know how that is panning out. Billions of dollars spent every year, drugs still available at all levels of society, and entire nations under the control of narco-terrorists whose existence is fuelled by drug revenues. One would think that the USA had learned the lessons of Prohibition, but it seems not.
War on Religion in the US? Nope. Pointing out to a segment of the population that they are not uniquely privileged, and that they do not get to direct how others should live their lives, is not persecution, as people claim. The United States is the most-religion friendly country I have ever been in. Anybody can start a religion or a cult here (see Hubbard, L. Ron). The tax advantages alone make it a worthwhile endeavor.
One thing I learned a long time ago is that privileged groups in societies do not like (a) being reminded of their privilege, they think it is normal, and (b) they react to any attempt to reduce or eliminate their privilege as if it is an existential threat. Hence the massive amount of light heat and sound being generated as obvious events like the granting of marriage rights to people of all sexual orientations are allowed by the legal system. None of this rises to the level of a war on either side.
Now we have the War On Coal. Apparently, the existence of whole areas of the USA is threatened by this evil phenomenon.
The War On Coal is a classic example of a strawman. It implies the existence of groups plotting to eliminate the use of coal from the world, by any means possible, including violence. This is nonsense. Yes, there are a whole collection of groups who would like to see coal usage dramatically reduced. This is because coal is an environment pollutant. Coal mines leave spoil heaps, pollute streams and rivers, and disfigure the landscape. Burning coal also releases pollution into the atmosphere. However, campaigning in favor of reduced coal usage is not a war. It’s being conducted peacefully without recourse to weapons of destruction. To people living in areas where coal extraction is an employer, it might feel and look like a war, since there are communities that may exist in their current form only because of coal extraction. However, that by itself does not justify the “war” label. The move away from coal is occurring mostly because other sources of power such as natural gas are cheaper and easier to use, and create less pollution. Renewable energy sources are also becoming more important.
There is an inherent romanticism in man working on, in and under the land and sea. It is what permits many governments to disburse billions every year in farming and other agricultural and industrial subsidies. There is also a sound electoral imperative driving the subsidies. These industries are labor-intensive, so perpetuating them keeps people employed, expanding them always creates employment, and politicians are always sensitive to the idea that they should create jobs, even if those jobs are economically non-viable. In the UK, governments subsidized losses from extractive and smoke-stack industries for decades (principally the coal and steel industries), until the truth dawned that those activities were never going to be economic in the modern economic climate in the UK, and the coal mines and steel plants were closed. It was a disruptive series of events, with significant ongoing social consequences, but it was not a war.
War tends to result in all manner of destructive activities. Most importantly, it leads to a mindset that the end justifies the means. When the end is pure survival, that makes sense. In a kill-or-be-killed scenario, legal niceties disappear. However, if the end is merely some societal evolution or improvement, any extra-judicial (or illegal) measures adopted to assure a favorable outcome by the government or authorities soon cease to look justified, and start to look like state-sponsored abuse of the legal process, which is what has been happening in the War On Drugs. It has also happened in the War On Terrorism (which, as the grammar experts have pointed out, is an even sillier construct, since it is waging war on an abstract noun). The PATRIOT Act, nodded into existence in the dark days following 9/11, drove a coach and horses through all manner of protections in the Constitution against government overreach. We The People allowed this to happen, because we failed to learn the first rule of responding to Terrorism – Do Not Allow Yourself To Be Terrorised. We also, in our fear and loathing, made the fundamental mistake of treating all dissent as disloyalty, a monumentally stupid trap that ensured that any dissenters could be dismissed using almost exactly the same language that Hermann Goering divulged in his post-war Nuremberg interrogation. In that context, describing attempts to eliminate ISIS as a “war on ISIS” is yet more extravagantly useless framing. There is no publicly available evidence that ISIS currently poses an existential threat to the USA. As an organization built on the principles of asymmetrical warfare, classical military responses are not the answer in any case, unless the USA wants to enter the genocide business.
Re-framing every campaign for improvement in the world as a “War on XXX” is a dangerous and juvenile approach to problem-solving. It trivializes real war, which is a horrible and messy event, and it allows all manner of actors to justify actions and tactics which are not only ineffective, but in many cases, illegal and damaging to the perceptions of fairness expected of authorities and legal frameworks. In short, these phony wars bring both governments and the law into disrepute.


The mess at the University of Illinois over the dismissal of Prof. Steven Salaita

Brief summary; in 2014 the University of Illinois hired Professor Steven Salaita. Then he made a number of pointed and acerbic public comments on social media about the plight of Palestinians in the Middle East that angered large-money University donors, who, behind the scenes, threatened to withdraw their support. The university then fired Salaita, whose position was a tenured one. Salaita eventually sued for unfair dismissal. The university then tried to get his lawsuit dismissed. They failed, the judge excoriating the university in his ruling against the University’s attempt, although some of Salaita’s other claims were dismissed. The University’s Chancellor then tried to resign, but the University suddenly claimed they had dismissed her pre-emptively, supposedly because it became public knowledge that she had started to use a private email account in discussions about the University’s response to Salaita’s public comments.
Sounds like a mess, and it is. Here is Juan Cole’s more detailed exposition of the events. There are several takeaways from this article:

1. When universities are not properly funded by the state, private donors can step in and cover funding shortfalls. However, some of them will require things from the university in return. Like the ability to influence university hiring…and firing. As one of the commenters at Cole’s article points out, it is as if some donors have eliminated the distinction between a gift and a bribe.
2. Firing a professor after you have hired him, given him an email address and office space, and then claiming that he had not yet been hired, is likely to result in ridicule from a Federal judge
3. When a Federal judge declines to dismiss a plaintiff’s lawsuit against you, and ridicules your arguments in doing so, he is doing a lot more than suggesting that the plaintiff has a case. He is signalling that barring a miracle, you are going to lose when the case comes to court.

UPDATEThe University appears to have decided to accept Chancellor Wise’s resignation after all. The cynic in me believes that they did so after realization that if she sued the University, then all of the correspondence involving Prof. Salaita’s firing could become the subject of discovery, which might dig the University into an even deeper hole over its firing of Professor Salaita.


UK Question #2 – Why do you play a 5 day cricket match that can end in a draw?

I was first asked this question 30 years ago by a group of US students on a Summer trip around Europe. I was a cricket umpire in the UK for several years, so I know a fair amount about the game and its history.
The reasons for the acceptance of draws in extended-duration cricket are bound up with the origins of cricket as a game. Cricket as an organized game originated in order to occupy people on Sundays in English towns. According to the Church you were not allowed to work. However, at some point, the church decided that playing sports was OK. So….one of the games that sprung up to pass the time was cricket. This is why, to this day, most Test Matches start at 11.30 am, and complete at 6.30pm for a day’s play. 11.30 was the time at which churchgoers left church after the morning service, and 6.30 pm was the time for Evensong. When you watch an all day cricket match, you are watching, to some extent, a fossilized replay of Sunday in an English town or village.
As for the ideas of winners and losers….the game was originally a time-filler, not a means of keeping score, so who won or lost was relatively unimportant. What is still known as Test Match cricket, where a game lasts for 5 days, still has provision for a draw. Also note that this parallels the game of chess, where a lot of matches end in draws, albeit via a slightly different process. In Test Match cricket a draw occurs when time runs out without one team having a decisive advantage, whereas in chess the players agree on a draw because they both can see that neither of them can gain an advantage.
Having said that, teams take winning VERY seriously. The longest-standing Test Match series of note, the Ashes series between England and Australia, is one of the most keenly-contested series in the world. If England loses, national angst and hand-wringing occurs, and Australians the world over lift their beers in celebration of walloping the “whingeing Poms”. If Australia loses, a LOT of beer is drunk in Australia as they agonize, and England has an attack of quiet, understated satisfaction.
I should note that today, most of the cricket matches played at the top level of the game, especially between countries, are played with a rule system that assures a winner. 20/20, which is now the most popular form of mass market cricket, particularly in India, has rules that guarantee a winner.


Anti-abortion memes, fallacies and uncharitable arguments

Folks, this is my Friday pulpit time. Those of you who want pictures of the cats might want to click through.
There can be no better exemplification of the Fallacy of false dichotomy than the fallout from another report about an anti-abortion speech by pastor Matt Chandler.
The fans of the speech appear to start their analysis from the viewpoint that anybody who disagrees with them is “pro-abortion”. This therefore means (in their world) that their opponents are one or more of: monsters, immoral, murderers, Nazis, eugenicists….
This is lazy, intellectually risible claptrap.
I know of nobody that I have met in 60 years who has ever said to me “you know, I am in favour of abortion because I think it is a jolly good thing”. The idea that the world is full of evil people promoting abortion is a fabulist, dystopian invention.
What we are witnessing here is the end result of what George Lakoff terms Framing. The people and the organizations who oppose the use of abortion realized a long time ago that by describing themselves as “pro-life”, they could then claim that anybody arguing against them on any front or using any form of objection is “anti-life” and therefore their arguments, by inference, are unworthy. Ditto “anti-abortion” as a framing phrase.
Anybody who argues in favour of any abortions is therefore a person with unworthy arguments. Actually, it’s far worse than that. Not only are the arguments of opponents unworthy, the opponents are entirely unworthy as people. Hence the rapid or immediate jump to the use of emotive words like “monster” and “Nazi”.
I am pro-life and I am also (in some limited circumstances) pro-abortion. I reject the framing of the opponents of abortion, and I also reject their arguments, particularly their juvenile, intellectually risible attempts at ad hominem smears. I mostly refuse to engage with people who have that mindset. Their arguments are, in most cases, ridiculous, devoid of logical or intellectual depth, and therefore worthy of dismissal or ridicule.
As John Scalzi said, if you want me to respect your arguments, have a good one. Starting from a logical fallacy, then moving via framing to establish strawman caricatures of opponents in order to be able to insult them, doesn’t even begin to make those people into serious opponents or debaters. As far as I am concerned, until they start to show a good deal more maturity and pragmatism, they can go pound sand, and I will work to make sure that their censorious, crypto-fascist ideas do not prevail.



Folks, you are going to hear a lot of self-aggrandisement in the next 18 months.
Discount any person who uses it…heavily.
One thing I have discovered over the years is that truly successful people are often modest and unwilling to claim much credit for their successes. They prefer to keep their heads down, and, you know, devote energy to continuing to be successful.
The other thing I noticed (and studies have consistently confirmed this) is that leaders in all walks of life, with very few exceptions, are a lot less important than they claim to be.
So…people who start their bios with definitive phrases about their wonderfuiness always trip my BS detector. Ditto any politician or business leader who rattles off claimed successes like confetti.


Conservatism in the NFL and Kevin Kelley of Paluxy Academy

The NFL is a strange place…for the top echelon of football, many of its tactics are stiflingly conservative and risk-averse. Teams punt continually on 4th and short, even though this gives the opponent the ball, often with good field position. The statistics consistently show that going for it on fourth and short is likely to result in a first down, so the underlying rationale appears to be bound up with not wanting to risk a muffed attempt, the handing of field position to the opponents, and derisive cries or questions afterwards of “why didn’t you punt?”.
As commentators have noted, punting is a way of shifting the blame back to the team. If the coach punts, and the defense then fails to stop the opponents from scoring, the defense gets the blame. If the coach orders a conversion attempt on fourth down and the attempt fails, the coach gets the blame for ordering the conversion attempt.
In 2005 Kevin Kelley, a high school coach in Arkansas, after doing some number-crunching on high school football stats, began avoiding all punts. His team at Paluxy Academy goes for it all of the time on fourth down, and he always onside kicks instead of performing a regular kickoff. His tactics have resulted in multiple state championships, as a result of which the NFL, after 10 years, has woken up and now NFL coaches and general managers are flying to Arkansas to pick Kelley’s brains.
Kelley’s philosophy is fundamentally different to the rooted philosophy in the NFL. He regards possession as more important than field position, reasoning that as a general rule you cannot score unless you have the ball. It seems to be working for him in high school football. Whether it will work in the NFL remains to be seen. If listening to Kelley results in more teams abandoning the fraidy-cat punt on fourth and short, I’m all in favor.


The strange implied arc of human achievement

I have been musing on a tendency that is highly pronounced in the USA, but which also exists in other places. It is the process by which we assign descriptions, greetings and modes of addressing to people based on what we perceive to be their peak of achievement. It is like we treat lives as akin to a parabola – an arc of rising achievement, a peak, followed by a decline, presumably ending when the casket is shut.
In the USA, it manifests itself in odd ways. Like the requirement that ex-Presidents continue to be addressed as “Mr. President” 30 years after they left office. Or calling your former high school coach “Coach Smith” 30 years after he stopped coaching. Or calling a retired General “General” 30 years after he served.
I used to think that this was peculiar to the USA, but no, it happens elsewhere, albeit in a slightly different way. I read an interview with George Harrison in the 1990s where he pointed out that he had really only spent 7 years in the Beatles, and had been an ex-Beatle for over 20 years, yet many people still asked him questions as if being in the Beatles had been the only thing that ever happened in his life. I read it in obituaries for sports stars, where, in some cases, it reads like the rest of their life after they retired hardly even existed.
It may be the case, of course, that for some people, there is a genuine peak in their life, after which time they may literally retire and not do a damn thing. However, most humans are not wired like that, especially perennial high achievers. I think as a society we need to stop addressing and defining people entirely by their past achievements, and engage them more on the basis of what they are doing in the here and now.