Skating Off Ice

I appreciate that the Bay Area has no seasons: I don’t have to shovel snow to get out the front door, and I don’t have to hide from mosquitos. However, no winter also means that no ice skating season, and after going a handful of times this past year, I was starting missed skating and wished that I could do it without ice.

I soon realized that you can skate without ice, and like all bad ideas, I asked myself, “How hard could it be?”

Continue reading “Skating Off Ice”

Rooting for the Patriots Without Being a Fan

Let’s start with something we can all agree on: Super Bowl LII was a great game. It was close but high-scoring game with disputed calls, trick plays, missed kicks, a brewing comeback, and a dramatic turn that all came down to the last play of the game. Despite catching up on chores like laundry and cooking during the game, I really did enjoy it without having any allegiance to either team. However, it’s hard to watch any sports impartially, and although I don’t particularly like them, in my heart, I was rooting for the Patriots.

Continue reading “Rooting for the Patriots Without Being a Fan”

The Best and Worst of Football

This past weekend, I watched 2 entire football games and saw 1 touchdown. For reference, a typical football game will have maybe 6 touchdowns. Between 2 games over 7 hours, I saw 1 guy with the football in his hands in the endzone. Rough.

I watched the first game in-person at my 5-year college reunion, where Stanford lost to Colorado. I will not attempt to summarize the game any better than ESPN: “Sloppy Colorado holds off equally bad Stanford 10-5“. I watched the second game over pizza at my friend Tom’s place, where the Seahawks and Cardinals managed to both fail to win the game and ended in a 6-6 tie. Neither game had much of a highlight reel, and yet, I had very different feelings about both games. Continue reading “The Best and Worst of Football”

Baseball is back!

It’s April, and baseball season is back. So far, it has been a mediocre season for the Blue Jays, but it takes more than 1 season of success for me to get too comfortable with high expectations. As such, I remain pessimistic and await a hot streak to become unrealistically optimistic before having my hopes dashed again.

Baseball season comes and goes every year in roughly the same fashion. However, I as a fan will be experiencing this season in a very different way. Thanks to a winning project at the Baseball Hack Day, I got a free subscription to mlb.tv premium, so I can watch or listen to any tv or radio broadcast for any out-of-market games. As such, it is actually beneficial that my favorite team is located across the country because the games are never blacked out.

So far, I have watched parts of maybe half of the Jays games this season, and I think that might already put me above the total I have watched in any past season. When I was growing up, I mostly followed baseball in the newspapers and listened to Astros games on the radio. When I moved to college, I picked up the Baseball Today podcast. After I stopped listening to the podcast, I caught clips and read online. However, never through any of that was I consistently watching games. Now, I come home and can watch the games on my iPad or Apple TV.

Continuing my shameless plug, the At Bat app is quite good. The UI is easy to use, and the streaming works reliably. Past that, there are lots of fancy features like stats and split-screen, but really the important part is being able to carry the game around with me into the kitchen to have on in the background while cooking. Even if the Jays game is done, I have been watching other games as well. Particularly, I have found myself following a lot of Mets and Cubs games as I try to follow the favorites. So far, I coincidentally have caught every Jake Arrieta game. He’s having a great season.

I’m glad to be able to share baseball with Julie as well. Most of my passion for baseball has been expressed indirectly through memories of plays that happened years ago. Instead, it’s much easier to sit down, watch a game, and discuss the in-game decisions and see the different types of pitches one after another. Baseball is often criticized for being a very slow game, but it has actually been quite nice because we can watch the game passively and tune in every once in awhile between whatever else we’re doing.

Over the years, I have wondered how my life would be different if I actually lived in Toronto, went to a lot of games, spent the time watching games, and actually followed the team. It turns out that it didn’t take nearly that much effort to get engaged with the team again. Baseball is a long season, and hopefully I make good use of my subscription all throughout.

My Super Bowl 50 experience

As hopefully all of you know, the Denver Broncos beat the Carolina Panthers in Super Bowl 50 24-10 at Levi’s Stadium. As a football fan living here in the Bay Area where Levi’s Stadium is located, I got to experience in the game in a few different ways.

First, I saw the Bay Area as a resident annoyed at the effect of tourism. We were warned that millions would be descending upon the city and that traffic and public transit would be problematic. To be honest, however, I didn’t really notice much of a difference as my daily life doesn’t seem to intersect with the public very much.

Second, I saw the Last Monday, I headed up to Super Bowl City, a few blocks of downtown San Francisco taped off for a bunch of booths and free concerts for the public. On the evening I went up, it was relatively chilly, and there wasn’t a concert going on. As such, most of the activity was centered around modular buildings for companies such as Kaiser Permanente, Verizon, and Intel. Most of the things worth doing, however, had relatively long lines that we weren’t patient enough to wait for. Overall, it wasn’t a particularly interesting experience, but I’m glad I went since I would have regretted not seeing it.

Third, I saw the game like any good US resident: at a Super Bowl party. One of my co-workers helpfully “volunteered” his place to host, and we prepared the usual array of chips, frozen pizzas, chicken wings, and other generally unhealthy game snacks. Somehow, the Super Bowl has ended up being one of the great, annual American culinary events alongside Thanksgiving and the 4th of July. However, it is unique in my mind because I don’t think about elevating it with creative recipes or “good” food, per se. I would rather just eat the same bags of chips and bake frozen foods.

I also paid attention to the important parts of the game by taking my bathroom break while the Panthers were on offense so I didn’t miss any commercials. I generally enjoyed the commercials this year: it seems like they have cleaned up a lot of the most outrageous ads, and they generally seem to do fun ads now. I think my favorite commercials were the avocados in space and the prius getaway car. I also really enjoyed the half-time show.

Fourth, I saw the game like a football fan. Specifically, I watched as a fantasy football team owner who wasn’t really rooting for either team but wanted to see a good game. And for a defensive struggle, it was a surprisingly good game. Most defensive struggles end up being quite boring while nothing really happens as both teams stop each other. This game, however, had 7 fumbles and 2 interceptions for a totally wild ride.

Few, singular events end up affecting me in so many ways, but the Super Bowl really has its own culture around it far beyond what happens on the field itself. Like Game of Thrones, I see it as something big enough that it’s worth participating just because everyone else is. So regardless of whether you got a 4-faceted experience like me or if you were rooting for the winning or losing team, at least we all share something to talk about this week.

What I learned from Fantasy Football

A few weeks ago, I finished up the latest fantasy football* (FF) season in 2nd place in my work league and 5th place in my friend league. Having played for 3 seasons, I am mostly past the initial disgust about bad luck and mostly jaded about the entire process. Having gotten this far, though, I do have a few different lessons from the experience.

(*for the uninitiated, fantasy football is a game where a group of people (usually friends) play “games” in a season where, each week, your team’s performance is determined by the statistics of how real-life NFL football players perform (e.g. you get 6 points for a touchdown or points per yards gained). Everyone drafts their team before the beginning of the real NFL season, and over the course of the season, you can trade with other teams, pick up and drop players, and change your lineup week to week. )

1. Actual game knowledge can be very deceiving.

“A little knowledge can be a dangerous thing.” When you’re on a fantasy football website, there are going to be projections and rankings and all sorts of information to help you make good decisions. I have seen a lot of real football fans (i.e. people who actually watch and follow football and not just fantasy) try to outsmart the predictions with some obscure knowledge, but my experience is that typically, the football-naive (but fantasy savvy) people do better. Maybe you heard that your running back plays really well in sub-50 degree games or saw how fast he makes cuts and should crush a slower set of linebackers: the experts probably know that, too, and that he only plays that way in indoor stadums, and that his left guard still has a lingering injury.I think we tend to overvalue game knowledge in fantasy when rankings have already accounted for those facts.

2. Don’t trust anyone. Trust everyone.

Continue reading “What I learned from Fantasy Football”

Watching the Super Bowl with Librarians

What a Super Bowl. The game literally game down tot he last minute after several momentum swings throughout the game. With an acrobatic catch on the ground and a few interceptions, football doesn’t get much better than that.

Of course, I was largely neutral and only slightly favoring the Seahawks, so barring a total blowout, I would be hard to disappoint. Apologies to the Seahawks fans out there for the disappointment. Even more apologies to those around Seahawks fans who have listened continuously about Pete Carroll’s poor playcalling, where Marshawn Lynch didn’t get the ball on the 1 yard line. I know how it feels. I was at Big Game 2009, where we threw an interception in the end zone for the go-ahead touchdown when we had a running back averaging almost 7 yards a carry. It happens.

While I’m at it, sorry to those around Patriots fans as well. Following Ballghazi/Deflategate, I think we all understand what sore winners are like as well. Or so my east coast friends have claimed based on their Facebook feeds with endless Patriots-related posts. You also have my sympathy: my Facebook is strongly Texas-biased, and for 2 years, my Facebook feed could have been mistaken for a Johnny Manziel biography.

Sadly, I missed watching the Super Bowl with friends at home while hypocritically harassing my very international coworkers to find a party themselves to truly understand American culture. I spent my weekend under several inches of snow, some of which came at me sideways. It took less than 15 seconds and a 20 foot walk from a cab to the hotel entry for me to conclude that I would never live in Chicago.

Due to the forbidding weather conditions and excellent use of Marriott membership by my traveling companion, I watched the game in the hotel lounge with endless wings, tortilla chips, bean dip, and carrot sticks. And an open bar. Fun fact: I gave up my label of being mostly vegetarian.

Less fun fact: I still don’t drink, but I did let loose and drink some ginger ale and sierra mist. Out of glass bottles.

Anyways, I watched the game with a bunch of older, female librarians. The crowd was mostly rooting for the Seahawks. One was a hardcore Bears fan, so I guess she like me doesn’t really have a team.

At first, it was strange. Having gone to library conferences for several years, I have met many librarians, and they largely fit the stereotype. They look like the people who would “shh” you in a library, and not so much the people I would laugh about a Kim Kardashian commercial with. But it turns out they’re pretty normal. We cheered and booed and commentated on the games and commercials. I would talk about the 2008 Super Bowl, and I would hear about the 1985 Super Bowl. Despite not being asked my age, they rightly determined I wasn’t even born yet and gave me a hard time about it. When the 50 Shades of Grey trailer came up, I heard about an apparently wonderful discussion one library had and the local controversy it caused. In return, I explained the economics of mobile games and how they could afford Liam Neeson and multiple commercials.

Were it not for the weather and free food, I would never have picked to watch the game with librarians, but it ended up being a lot of fun. I never got any of their names, but we were so familiar and casual that it would have seemed awkward to introduce ourselves and point out that we didn’t actually know each other. There’s a lot wrong with our sports culture, but it is an institution and shared experience that cuts across all ideologies and communities. There’s some comfort in the absurdity and depth of our passions for some event that ultimately has no bearing on our actual life. We embrace rivalries so much that we manufacture and overplay them, but they work so well in a system bound by hard rules with highly random results.

As that guy who laments the state of modern society, I want to point out how intolerant our society has become of different ideologies, particularly political ones. Despite obvious progress on social issues, it feels like the left and right wings couldn’t be further apart, where we’re increasingly unwilling to date between political parties despite being tolerant of different religions or races. And I sense that the development of online communities filled with people who largely think like ourselves has weakened local communities and the bonds we build with people unlike ourselves except for having picked to live in the same dang latitude and longitude.

At a time like this, maybe we need sports to be that institution that anyone can talk to anyone about. People pay attention to in-depth analysis and can debate predictions because the sports are so random, and we can trust the facts of the game. About the games themselves (not counting the off-field shenanigans), sports have some of the most open and honest discourse and arguments in modern culture, and although it’s mostly about nothing, there’s something to be proud about because no matter who you root for and what side you are on, we can all sit down and watch a game together because we all just want to see a good game.

Anyways, I think I overstayed my moment on the soapbox. I enjoyed the half-time show quite a bit. I saw it coming, but it turns out that I’m a big fan of Katy Perry’s music. A childhood of top 40 music stations means I just can’t resist catchy songs. And apparently, neither can librarians based on their enthusiasm for singing along. Maybe they should pipe top 40 music through libraries. How much fun would that be?

Our Stanford Football Traditions

This past weekend, college football season returned, and as a loyal Stanford football fan, I had my season tickets to show up to our 45-0 walloping of UC Davis in sweltering heat (by our Northern California standards) with 49,000 fans in attendance. It’s exciting to be back.

Maybe it has always been like this, but it seems like college football is currently under a lot of scrutiny for policies, including NCAA abusing its privilege, unionization and pay for student-athletes, corporate interests and structure of post-season bowl/tournament play, concerns over the health of players, and more. As a guy who just wants to root for his own team, however, I scuttle past that just to enjoy the experience. When I interact with a limited number of people on a daily basis, it’s a big change to have a regular event in the fall to participate in something bigger.

Furthermore, sports breed traditions, rituals, and superstitions. From the individual to the local group to the community levels, we construct our own experiences, and I thought I would share a few from my group of game-attending friends.

Not Tailgating

Maybe this will change this season, but we don’t tailgate. As a student, I was never a member of a group that did tailgate, so that tradition never carried over for me. Seeing as it’s a great American tradition, however, I wonder whether our gameday experience would be enhanced by it.

The Michael Thomas Play of the Game

Michael Thomas is a recently-graduated Stanford alumnus who now plays as a safety (defense who stands in the back) for the Dolphins. He’s made it to play in the NFL, and he was good for us too, but what I best remember from him was his penchant for running with dead balls. In football, the defense can pick up dropped balls and run in the opposite direction to score, but only if the play isn’t already declared over. There’s a little bit of wiggle room, but Thomas had a generous interpretation and would take off with balls on obviously dead plays. It worked just often enough (see Stanford-UCLA 2010) to reinforce this belief, but it often looked ridiculous. As such, we have come to naming the “Michael Thomas Play of the Game” when a Stanford defensive player picks up and runs with an obviously dead ball.

Imitating the Quarterback Audible

When the offense sets their formation, the quarterback will often take a look at the defensive formation and may choose to change the play at that time. This is called an audible. Different quarterbacks indicate it differently, but our favorite comes from Stanford, when the quarterback yells something like, “Kill kill kill!” and does a strange sort of chicken flapping action with elbows and arms tucked in, hands pointing out from the shoulders, then poking outwards.

Tacos El G Season

I have started to refer to college football season as “Tacos El G” season since we transitioned into a post-game tradition of going to Taqueria El Grullense after games. The restaurant is a dive, but the food seems good and authentic. The wet green/red burritos are quite popular among us, and if it was a hot day, I will usually get horchata as well.

Now that I enumerate a few of them, perhaps there aren’t as many as I thought there were. Perhaps I’ll count season tickets as a tradition in their own right. What really seems to matter here is the regularity and the comfort and cohesiveness that the activity brings. Maybe football (and sports as a whole) are ridiculous, but at least I’m participating in something bigger.

Why Professional Athletes Deserve Their Pay (and other don’t)

I think professional athletes get a bad rap for what they’re paid. People complain how LeBron James  is paid $6 a second on or off the court just to play a game. Certainly numbers like that put in perspective how much more millions is than what most of us make, but I don’t think the magnitude should shock us away from it. There are many people out there who, in my opinion, probably deserve their fortunes much less than professional athletes do. I wouldn’t necessarily say they deserve our scorn, but maybe it can help us understand how to best allocate our resources.

Starting with athletes, they deserve their pay because they offer a valued service. A perhaps unfortunate truth is that things in society are valued not necessarily on the effort or innovation behind them but simply on what they offer to society. Brilliant mathematicians, biologists, and other academics can spend many years developing a new theory that maybe doesn’t have immediate impact on society, and they are forgotten. On the other end, there are “cloning” businesses that just copy a product or service from someone else and rake in the dough. Similarly, many people (including myself) enjoy watching professional sports and will pay money for tickets and merchandise for it. Athletes are the basis for those sports, and they receive much of the profit. The total salary can be quite large, but that’s simply because of the scale of their impact. Most jobs yield results that are limited in effect, but athletes can affect billions of people by their performance

Another point is that these athletes are not directly replaceable. There is only one best, active basketball player in the world, and he is LeBron James.  We pay to see the best, and he is it. We aren’t satisfied (at least in this context) by an inferior team. Moreover, sports as a whole is well-developed to ensure that (with very high probability) the best athletes do make it to top billing. I’m comfortable saying LeBron is the best because of his raw performance and stats. There are many analysts and scouts both in the media and in sports organizations who work exhaustively to find the best talent, and from elementary school onward, we have development programs for the athletically gifted. I can’t be entirely certain abroad, but I’m pretty confident that those who excel in sports can find the right venues to feature their skills and move forward if they are truly the best. Professional sports is one of the true meritocracies in the world: performance is the most important metric for advancement.

Compare to the world of business, at least as much as I have seen. In business, a large part of success is who you know. People, whether fresh out of school for an entry job or an industry veteran looking at a leadership position, are often hired by reference or something along those lines, and it’s fair that many of them probably are qualified for the job. That many of these jobs are filled this way, however, indicates that there is a much larger population out there who weren’t as seriously considered for the role, some of whom could have been more qualified for the position. Recruiting and job hunting is still a major obstacle in today’s business world because many businesses neither have the reach nor the ability to effectively screen all potential candidates for a job. Perhaps the inefficiency is intrinsic: having that personal connection is valuable, and it’s hard to know from an interview how good someone actually will be. Even so, it’s hard to call something like that a meritocracy.

I think that luck also happens to play a much larger role in business. Granted, there’s a lot of luck play-to-play in sports, but even great players on bad teams can usually manage to earn a good salary or be traded to a team that will pay.  Barring bad luck in injury, there are usually enough opportunities to demonstrate one’s ability. In business, however, so much of what happen is out of our control. Great businesses were crushed in the economic recession. Some websites or apps go viral because it got picked for one news story or picked up in one area while many other comparable products are left in the dust. A major contract is signed or falls through for things as little as someone being caught in traffic.

The difference in my mind between business and sports with regard to luck is that sports happen in a regular, well-defined, often replicated environment where one’s ability can be demonstrated with high certainty. Business (I’m thinking startups and entrepreneurship specifically), on the other hand, is a much looser world where no one really knows what’s going to happen. Success (and pay) can come out of nowhere, or disappear just as quickly. This is going to be extremely cynical, but I think even the biggest successes in business often provide stories that are illusory and understate the importance of variables outside of their control. They probably did a lot of things right and managed a lot of risk, but they also weren’t sunk by something out of nowhere.

Even if we get past execution, it’s hard to say that people in business get what they deserver when there are differences in opportunity from birth. Anyone born in the United States (or equivalently developed country) also has a huge leg up. Being born into a middle or upper class family helps even more. Most people who graduate from college worked hard to get it, but it turns out that family income is pretty good predictor of making that happen. I can’t concretely point out that sports are different, but I think stories like The Blind Side and the demeaning stereotype of dumb jocks indicate that we believe that athletes often don’t come from the best backgrounds.

So everything I have put out there so far has been really strongly-worded and definitely polemical (note I also have tried to avoid specifics to avoid demonizing anyone), but I really do want to offer a positive spin on this. First, lay off the hate: I don’t think it’s productive for us to be annoyed at how much professional athletes make. They deserve it.

Second, I wonder whether we can use sports as a model for improving our education in general. Despite the integrity of some of his work, Jonah Lehrer wrote an interesting piece awhile ago about athletic geniuses. I think our sports development program today is amazing: we identify talent at a very young age and have extensive support for it all the way through to adulthood. These programs are generally accessible  and really foster the best athletes possible. I wonder how well we can do in trying to bridge inequities in general education as well.

Furthermore, how can we come up with better, more efficient ways to allocate talent? The world is inherently messy and irregular, so maybe we can’t quite get the regularized conditions of sports, but anyone involved in either hiring or looking for a job can speak to the huge difficulty there. The scope is much greater than what sports organizations deal with using their scouts, but I think this can continue to improve here.