Sunday, February 28, 2010

Paragraph of the Week

From Roberto Bolano's 2666:

Soon the end of the sacred came to the movies. The big theaters were torn down and up went the hideous boxes called multi-plexes, practical, functional. The cathedrals were filled by the wrecking balls of demolition teams. Then the VCR came along. A TV set isn't the same as a movie screen. Your living room isn't the same as the old endless rows of seats. But look carefully and you'll see it's the closest thing to it. In the first place, because with videos you can watch a movie all by yourself. You close the windows and you turn on the TV. You pop in the video and you sit in a chair. First off: do it alone. No matter how big or how small your house is, it feels bigger with no one else there. Second: be prepared. In other words, rent the movie, buy the drinks you want, the snacks you want, decide what time you're going to sit down in front of the TV. Third: don't answer the phone, ignore the doorbell, be ready to spend an hour and a half or an hour and forty-five minutes in complete and utter solitude. Fourth: have the remote control within reach in case you want to see a scene more than once. And that's it. After that it all depends on the movie and on you. If things work out, and sometimes they don't, you're back in the presence of the sacred. You burrow your head into your own chest and open your eyes and watch, pronounced Charly Cruz.

Thursday, February 25, 2010

Hack-a-Shaq and Sport's Rule of Law

The Olympics always make me question the rules of sports. I watch all these new sports with unfamiliar rules and I'm often struck by the seeming arbitrariness of these laws. But the weirdness might not be limited to foreign sports played on ice: questions about the meaning and motivation of the rules of familiar American sports abound, once we take a step back and look at them objectively.

A friend of mine directed my attention to what turns out to be a damn good Wikipedia article on the Hack-a-Shaq strategy. (He had to read it in lawyer school, in the context of legal loopholes; thanks, Dave.) For the uninitiated:

The Hack-a-Shaq name was originally used during [Shaquille] O'Neal's college playing days, and during his NBA tenure with the Orlando Magic. At that time, however, the term referred simply to opposing teams employing an especially physical style of play in defending against O'Neal. Teams sometimes defended him by bumping, striking or pushing him after he received the ball in order to ensure that he did not score easily with layups or slam dunks. Because of O'Neal's poor free throw shooting, teams did not fear the consequences having personal fouls called against them when using such tactics. However, once [Don] Nelson's off-the-ball fouling strategy became prevalent, the term Hack-a-Shaq was applied to this new tactic, and the original usage was largely forgotten.

The interesting part is the tension between the rulebook and the spirit of the game. The Wikipedia article goes into some detail describing the NBA's attempt to limit this fouling strategy (whether in Wilt Chamberlain's playing days or Shaq's) by awarding two-shots and possession to the team whose player is intentionally fouled in the final two minutes of game action, in order to preserve the sheer watchability of the contest. But should the governing rules of the sport be compromised for considerations of entertainment value?

This is a cool question, not least because fouling itself may be something of a compromise. The concept of free throws seems to be an invented solution to the problem of overaggressive defenders. In short, it's a punishment for cheating, rather than an essential part of the game. Theoretically, if defenders never fouled--if fouling wasn't possible--there'd be no need for free throws. (You can listen to Bill Cosby's take on this development here.) The flaw which the Hack-a-Shaq strategy exploits itself derives from a compromise solution.

Similar questions have been raised about the infield fly rule, most notably by William S. Stevens, who wrote a celebrated article titled “The Common Law Origins of the Infield Fly Rule” in the University of Pennsylvania Law Review. You can find the article here (PDF link), but here's the relevant section:

The Infield Fly Rule is obviously not a core principle of baseball. Unlike the diamond itself or the concepts of "out" and "safe," the Infield Fly Rule is not necessary to the game. Without the Infield Fly Rule, baseball does not degenerate into bladderball the way the collective bargaining process degenerates into economic warfare when good faith is absent. It is a technical rule, a legislative response to actions that were previously permissible, though contrary to the spirit of the sport.

Where because the men who oversaw the rules of baseball during the 1890's were unwilling to make a more radical change than was necessary to remedy a perceived problem in the game, or because they were unable to perceive the need for a broader change than was actually made, three changes in the substantive rules, stretching over a seven-year period, were required to put the Infield Fly Rule in its present form. In each legislative response to playing field conduct, however, the fundamental motive for action remained the same: "To prevent the defense from making a double play by subterfuge, at a time when the offense is helpless to prevent it, rather than by skill and speed."
[Note: I've left out the footnotes of this excerpt because they aren't strictly relevant to my point and because I'm stupid at HTML.]

Sportswriters often crack wise about the infield fly rule but I always thought that was due to the obscurity of the rule; I failed, until tonight, to understand the legal ramifications.

And--just so we hit all three major American sports--this makes me wonder about the onside kick in football. I'm not sure why it's allowed. Why can the kicking team recover the ball just because it traveled ten yards? Why is this rule limited to free kicks, and not, for example, punts? Is it allowed because of the increase in entertainment value, giving hope to teams teams trailing by multiple scores in the fourth quarter?

Maybe curling isn't so weird, after all.

Wednesday, February 24, 2010

The Great Rivera

Baseball's in the air. At least in Florida and Arizona. But even up here in chilly and rainy New York, now is prime time for baseball annuals. I'll have more on Baseball Prospectus 2010 sometime soonish, but, for now, I'd just like to point out how lucky Yankee fans have been since 1995, able to watch the great Mariano Rivera pitch an average of 67 times per annum. From the Baseball Prospectus 2010 non-numbers section on Rivera:

Rivera has had an entry in every edition of this book. Superlatives we have employed: "something special" (1996); "amazing...the most important player in baseball" (1997); "completely unhittable" (2000); "the best closer of his generation" (2002); "otherwordly" (2004); "a one-trick pony [but] the best of all time (2005); " Fort Apache: The Lead" (2006); "the-by-acclamation Greatest Closer of All Time" (2008); "the closest thing baseball has to Fred Astaire" (2009). Get the picture?

But maybe the most important thing Baseball Prospectus has said about Rivera comes from the 2009 version. It's not quoted above because it is more a piece of advice than a superlative: "We don't know how many more years of this Rivera has in him, so enjoy it while you can still see him without having to schlep up to Cooperstown."

Monday, February 22, 2010

Bret the Speed Skater

Hey, cool. I didn't realize that Bret McKenzie moved from New Zealand to Canada and became an Olympic speed skater.

He should have worn his hair helmet.

Sunday, February 21, 2010

Knicks Recap

Thanks to Seth over at Posting and Toasting, I attended last night's Knicks-Thunder game in T-Mobile's luxury suite. Even though the suites at MSG are way up in the rafters (the dual "15" banners for McGuire and Monroe were just about eye level), it's really a nice experience, mostly because of the free food and the private bathroom.

But this game would have been fun to attend even if I was rubbing elbows with the common folk. I haven't seen the Garden this excited for a Knicks game in years and years. And with good reason: despite the extremely high price they paid at last week's trade deadline to clear cap room for two max-contract free agents this summer, the Knicks have a plan for the first time this decade and they're sticking to it.

And it was exciting to see three new faces get serious minutes. Let's consider them one-by-one.

Tracy McGrady
The night, in short, belonged to him. The Knicks reordered their pre-game player introductions to save the shooting guard position (read: McGrady) for last. If this didn't make a clear enough point, the crowd erupted into a sustained "We Want T-Mac" chant during the fourth quarter. Besides for the injuries, the question with McGrady has always been motivation, and quotes like this make me think that he might come to play through April:

“I haven’t felt that good in a while, to really be received that way, to hear those chants,” McGrady said. ”It really gave chills down my spine.” 

I don't think McGrady will be with the team past June, but I understand the rationale for the crowd's excitement: Tracy McGrady is the biggest name to play for the Knicks since Ewing.

On the court, McGrady looked a step-slow, a little sluggish, and just a bit sloppy. But it's hard to argue with the results. He ended up with a few favorable foul calls that could have easily been called offensive, banked in a jumper from the top of the key, but managed to slither and scoop his way to 26 points on 10-17 shooting from the field. Some of the sloppiness may be attributed to the fact that there are T-Mac's first meaningful minutes since February 2009. The athleticism from McGrady's younger days was nowhere to be seen, but he's only 30 years of age and seems to be capable of transforming himself into a key member of the crafty-scorer club. Two skills that didn't disappear during the twelve-month layoff are McGrady's passing and court vision, most notably on display during his length-of-the-court fast-break bounce pass to Al Harrington. This, more than anything else, is what we can expect from McGrady.

Eddie House
It feels weird rooting for House after all those years he played for the Celtics, but he's a fun player. A gunner without a conscience (in a good way) who plays off his dead-eye shooting by making clever passes when a defender overreacts to the threat of a shot. Pairing him with Gallinari holds promise as a fun and effective lineup.

Sergio Rodriguez
Rodriguez played 26 minutes last night and limited himself to only two turnovers. This would seem to be the big concern with his play, as he's averaged 3.4 per 36 minutes over the course of his career. He's a dynamic creator and contributor--those six assists could easily have been eight or nine if some players (Al Harrington, in particular) knocked down a few wide open looks facilitated by Sergio. Knicks point guards have been of the solid and nondescript variety for as long as I can remember. From Derek Harper, to Ward, Childs, and Duhon, the Knicks haven't employed a point-man who excelled at getting to basket and distributing in a whole long while. (Don't get me started on Marbury.) Rodriguez can't shoot a lick, but he brings a skill to the team that they've been missing.

In the end, the Knicks lost for three reasons:
  1. The team can't defend the interior at all. Russell Westbrook put up 31-9-10, and he got to the rim whenever he wanted. A quick consultation with ESPN's shot chart reveals that only four of his thirteen field goals were jumpers, and only two of those came from beyond ten feet. 
  2. The Knicks were in the penalty for what seemed like every minute of the game action after the half. The Thunder shot 41 free throws, and even though they only made 30, the twelve extra converted freebies kept the Knicks from really building and then maintaing a lead.
  3. Kevin Durant is a cold-blooded killer.
The game was a fun watch and the Knicks played with the sort of urgency that's been sorely missing during the past six weeks. The playoffs are just about an impossibility at this point, but, if last night's contest is any indication, the remaining 28 games should be entertaining. That's all a fan can ask for as we count down to the summer free agency period.

Friday, February 19, 2010

What Are New Yorkers Reading?

I've spoken once before about how nice it is to be able to judge people by what books they're reading and how e-readers jeopardize that fun. It's not stated explicitly that the growing e-reader market motivates them, but the fine folks at CoverSpy are doing a great job cataloging what New Yorkers are reading on the subway before it's too late. It's a fun little read, especially because I keep searching for a description of me. But so far I haven't seen any mention of 2666; I'm still scheduled to be reading that through the beginning of May.

Thursday, February 18, 2010

Yet More Evidence that Laugh Tracks are Bad

We've spoken a few times about the problems with laugh tracks. There have been some new developments, so I think it's high-time we revisit this issue. Let's begin by witnessing what would have happened if David Simon had decided that creating the greatest American work of art of the '00s wasn't sufficient and had, instead, opted to try to broaden the appeal of The Wire. (There's some profanity in the following clip.)

More interesting, perhaps, is the effect of Gawker TV's video edit of a great scene from Arrested Development. The edits were similar: they added a laugh track. It's amazing how the addition of a laugh track makes this scene decidedly unfunny. The result is not embeddable, so you should definitely click over and check it out.

Shows without laugh tracks are still in the minority today. So let's take a look at what happens when one of those standard sitcoms has it's laugh-crutch taken away. Without further ado, here's CBS' Big Bang Theory with the laugh track stripped away:

So we've learned that laugh tracks:
  1. Ruin good dramas;
  2. make funny shows unfunny;
  3. and, lastly, mask the unfunniness of unfunny shows.
And I think that makes a pretty appropriate 200th post in The Daily Snowman's history.

Tuesday, February 16, 2010

How to Make it in America Credits

YouTube politely informs visitors that embedding the pilot episode of How to Make it in America is disabled by request. Presumably that request was made by HBO, which, to its credit, has agreed to screen the entire first episode of this particular TV program on YouTube. I would have liked to embed at least part of that video here, but I can't, so feel free to visit the YouTube page directly if you're interested in checking out this episode.

I bring this up not because I think this show is any good--I wouldn't know; I haven't watched past the first 67 seconds--but because the opening credits are extremely good. No less an opening-credits arbiter than Alan Sepinwall calls it "one of the best HBO's given us in a while." And it's especially cool for the New York-centric audience which I imagine the readers of this blog comprise.

I think these credits are interesting because New York resentment seems pretty popular these days. There is, of course, the (false) dichotomy drawn between Wall Street and Main Street. And the sentiment expressed by some politicians over the past two years that New York isn't the "real" America. But these opening credits, combined with that song about an empire state of mind, demonstrate a sort of celebration of New York by some artistic types. Now, granted, the target demographics those politicians were trying to hit differ pretty dramatically from Jay-Z and HBO fans. It would be easy to conclude this post with some half-developed idea about the fracturing of American society. But I'm not sure that there's a larger point here, and, if there is, I'm fairly certain the fracturing of American society wouldn't be it. As a New Yorker, though, I appreciate the cultural attention being paid to the city. I think a couple songs and a montage or two is the least we deserve for cramming ourselves into subways and enduring a cost-of-living index more than double the national average.

Wednesday, February 10, 2010

A Quick Spelling Lesson

Just because I always screw this up, here's Mr. Bryan A. Garner on the proper spelling of the third Monday in February:

Presidents' Day; Presidents Day.
The spelling with the apostrophe is better and more common. Until 1971, Lincoln's Birthday (12 February) and Washington's Birthday (22 February) were both observed as federal holidays. In 1971, President Richard Nixon proclaimed that the two holidays would be combined into one, "the Presidents' Day," honoring all past presidents of the United States.


The singular possessive--President's Day--is clearly wrong but still occasionally appears.

Good to know. And, also, it's crying shame that Garner only has 239 Twitter followers. He is the best person in the whole world at knowing Modern American usage.

Monday, February 1, 2010

Paragraph of the Week

From "Class Warrior," Carlo Rotella's profile of United States Secretary of Education Arne Duncan, in the Feb. 1, 2010 issue of The New Yorker:

Duncan likes talking about how pickup basketball reveals character, an article of cultic faith in Obama's inner circle. (When I asked Axelrod about that, though, he said, "I hope that's not entirely true of me on the court.") He also believes that basketball teaches lessons in practical politics. Thinking back to his teens, Duncan said, "A bunch of places where I played were extraordinarily dangerous. I couldn't fight. There were times when I was really scared, but that's where the best basketball was." And so "I learned to read people's character. I learned to trust certain people completely."

This is the whole of our ideology.

Also, if you've been hesitant to check out because you aren't necessarily interested in the marketing of phones, here's a good place to start: my take on how the ad campaign leading up to last night's Grammys has redefined what it means to be a fan. It's a piece that would fit in nicely on this here blog.