Category Archives: sports

…on the Entrepreneurial State

With the next Canadian federal election less than a year away – and undesirables like Wayne Gretzky soon to be purged from the voter lists – I’ve been getting a lot more fundraising emails lately. As of mid-December I’d received nineteen in eighteen days. It was like a Christmas advent calendar, but in my email inbox! (Like a beleaguered Silician storekeeper, I paid my “protection money” and now they’re leaving me alone. :) )

Politicians are often derided for their short-term thinking, which is probably a fair criticism. If you ballpark an election cycle at roughly four years, newly-elected officials might take a year to learn the ropes, a couple years trying to be effective, and then a year trying to get re-elected. Judging by how successful those old Soviet and Chinese Five-Year Plans typically were, that might not be quite enough time…

The kind of decade-scale industrial policy used so effectively over the past half-century by Japan and South Korea (and Singapore… and Taiwan… and to an extent in Norway) typically occurred when these countries were dominated by one political party. This political stability may have allowed government and industry to set effective long-term plans without fear that a few years on, a new Prime Minister would reverse course on everything.

Of course, one-party dominance is no guarantee of long-term economic success – as evidenced by Mexico, parts of both the American South and South America, and … Alberta. As recent history shows, our neighbours would rather stay a Saudi prince’s whim away from economic catastrophe, than raise sales and income taxes to build up a treasury to buffer themselves from the ravages of the resource cycle. It’s as if they’d read Aesop’s Fable about the ant and the grasshopper, and concluded the grasshopper was the role model!

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The losers of Superbowl XLVIII will be…

Francis facepalm

Religious moderates.

Here’s my reasoning.

After the game, someone on the winning team, exulting ecstatically, will say “God was on our side” or words to that effect. It’s as sure as a post-touchdown two-point conversion attempt late in the fourth quarter, if the team is still down by a pair.

This will lead humorists and atheists alike to mock the athlete’s egocentric theology, along the lines of the great “God-Man on the Gridiron” cartoon from a few years back. Which will inspire angry rebuttals from offended fundamentalists.

Religious moderates are the collateral damage in this snake-vs-mongoose battle, bitten by both sides.

I’ve read aggressive atheists argue that religious moderates “give cover” for fundamentalists, by making religion seem respectable. The faulty reasoning is that if the only religious people around were crazed fundamentalists, no one would ever be converted to religion, and humanity would break the chains of irrational superstition forever. I find great humour in such atheists’ irrational belief that we could one day cure ourselves of our own irrationality. :)

I’ve also listened to religious fundamentalists classify religious moderates as pseudo-apostates, who have fallen away from the authentic faith the fundamentalists (naturally) perpetuate. The flawed logic here sees moderate religious views are seen as a kind of “gateway drug” to the godless secular atheism, the rise of which has led to, uh, the lowest crime rates in the U.S. in fifty years. This misplaced ethos is aptly captured by the misplaced priorities of God-Man’s sidekick Fan-Boy in this cartoon here.

The book Freakonomics popularized the incorrect idea that crime rates in the U.S. dropped because abortion was legalized. (Given the machinations of Goldman Sachs, J.P. Morgan et al, one would be forgiven for thinking we’re living in a golden age for white-collar crime.)

The strong factor actually seems to have been reduction in kids’ lead exposure. Another economist found that in each of nine countries he studied, violent crime rates fell off a cliff, about twenty years after their respective governments phased lead out of gasoline. But his publications weren’t best-sellers. :)

Basically, religious moderates get fragged by both sides.

Back, briefly, to the Super Bowl

Though I’m an atheist, I’m sincerely glad so many football players are religious.

Statistics and psychological studies show that religious people are more generous than heathen like me. And the religious are particularly generous towards fellow worshipers, and others in their faith-defined “in-group”.

As an atheist, I value this factoid. It’s dangerous to think one is morally superior to one’s occasional opponents. So in a sense, I want to believe that some of the people who disagree with me, live with more upright selflessness – whether it’s a fact or fiction, the idea itself should keep me from developing a caustic arrogance about myself or my “side”.

Considering how much head trauma an NFL player will suffer in his career, after he retires and the symptoms start to show, he’s almost certainly going to need help. A lot of help. Possibly, very expensive help. For years and years afterwards.

As such, if I want the best for an NFL player when he retires, I would want him to be part of a large, supportive faith community. (I would also them to have access to single-payer universal healthcare, to prevent medical complications from bankrupting them or any other American, but hey, that’s just my Canadian perspective.)

Sadly, all light casts shadows

Unfortunately, when it comes to religious fundamentalists, there’s a downside to their generosity – while they’re more generous to members of their in-group, they tend to be more hostile to members of out-groups. (As the authors of this paper explain, religious fundamentalism combines the benefits of religious pro-sociality with the defects of authoritarian intolerance.)

In our day and era, gays are a favourite scapegoat of so many Christians who must otherwise be well-meaning people. This despite the fact that the centurion’s servant whom Jesus healed, was probably the soldier’s teenage gay lover, and He seemed fine with that. (Actually, all this really proves is that liberals can proof-text the Bible to argue what they want, as skilfully as conservatives.)

Still on the NFL, former Minnesota Vikings punter Chris Kluwe was released from the team after the 2012 season, several months after he expressed his support of gay rights and same-sex marriage. While his stats were middle-of-the-pack, he claims to’ve gotten pushback from some members of the coaching and management who were particularly opposed to his opposition to, uh, bigotry.

[update: from this ESPN report, it looks like Kluwe may have been a bottom-dweller in some stats important to the Vikings, and as such, he may be less of a martyr than a mediocrity whose time was up. Keeping in mind that being a mediocre NFL punter is still someone in the top 30 or so at that position in the world. I edited the last sentence of the following paragraph to reflect this.]

To their credit, the Vikings have launched a formal investigation. And it’s entirely possible that the Vikings thought they could get a better punter for less money. Sadly, given the religious views of some members of the Viking staff and management, there’ll always be the question of whether faith-based reasons may have partially influenced the decision to cut Kluwe.

I’m hopeful that by the time Leo grows up, things will change and there’ll be comfortably out athletes. No doubt there will still be other social prejudices still to overcome – I may be an atheist, but I’m hardly a utopian.

And Warren Moon

To end with on football, I remember when I first found out that CFL and NFL Hall-of-Fame quarterback Warren Moon had a tough time becoming a quarterback in the 1970’s, because of an apparent social inertia in football culture that blacks didn’t become quarterbacks.

University football teams would convert high school prospects to other positions. This wasn’t only a football thing either; there was a strong anti-European sentiment in the NHL, until pioneers like Borje Salming proved that Europeans were just as good – and just as tough – as North Americans. (Hockey’s last remaining Europhobe can be found on Hockey Night in Canada’s Coach’s Corner…)

When Moon finally got to be a starting quarterback, he led his college team to the Rose Bowl, and was the game’s MVP. And he still didn’t get drafted. So he played in the CFL, where he was part of an Edmonton Eskimos team which won five straight championships. Then, finally, the NFL came calling.

The thing that shocked me the most was that the NFL’s antipathy to black quarterbacks – and the NHL’s reluctance to give Europeans a shot, for that matter – was recent enough that it I was alive for the back end of it!

I do hope that, as a society, our definition of “in-groups” keeps growing, so that one day Leo can tell his own kids that, as frustrating as the day’s social issues may seem, he too was alive at the back end of this long-standing social inertia, which swiftly, satisfyingly dissipated, soon thereafter.

(As for why I chose the Pope, that’s another post. While they’re hardly religious progressives, the Catholic Church’s acceptance of the reality of evolution, and its almost two-thousand-year-old tradition of interpreting parts of the Bible allegorically instead of insisting it’s all factually accurate, mean that by my amateur classification, they go in the “moderate” pile. Moderates whose hierarchy has shielded countless pedophiles from the law for decades, yes… but moderates none the less.)

Very amateur investing, yellow-tinted glasses edition

(originally written Oct 2, 2011.  Part of Great Upload of 2013.)

I find it amusing that, while many of my fellow Vancouverites are attending places of worship this Sunday morning, I’m taking a break from work to muse about money, that root of all kinds of evil.  :)

Right now, the stock market is a relatively cheery (I said relatively) topic for me, since I’ve fared so badly in my first few attempts at Fate of the World, a computer game in the “Civilization” genre where you, at the head of a UN-like agency, attempt to prevent catastrophic global warming.

Designed in conjunction with climate researchers, you need to shrewdly manage your budget by enacting effective climate legislation, while appeasing locals on each continent just enough that they don’t kick you out and pursue their own path.  :)

In addition to the well-known options like cap-and-trade, renewables, biofuels, nuclear and efficiency policies, you can do more exotic things like legislate organic farming, enforce a vegetarian diet (cows burp a lot), spray aerosols to reflect sunlight, or use a Tobin Tax on financial speculation to raise funds.

Meanwhile, back in Reality…

While the planet (or at least, Texas) burns, stock markets hit an important milestone recently, with dividend yields from American blue-chip companies surpassing the yields on US gov’t bonds.  This hasn’t happened for a very long time, and is a signal that in several years, the price of most stocks (relative to earnings) will reach the point where even your financial advisor can invest your money for a decent rate-of-return.  ;)

This is due to the fact that — for whatever reason — stock market prices tend to cycle between too-optimistic (1929, 1966) and too-pessimistic (1947, 1980).  We came off a too-optimistic high around 2000, so one would reasonably expect that after about five more years of investment purgatory, stock price trends will slant upwards again.

In the absence of catastrophic global warming, that is.  :P

Gold

Gold feeds off stock market pessimism, so one would expect that maybe sometime between the next two Winter Olympics, it will spike upwards in a manner that dwarfs the frenzy that happened in August.  I guess I’ll insert yesterday’s Dilbert cartoon here:

Dilbert Oct 1 2011

Gold has properly dropped for the past month, but past precedent has such hangovers lasting two.  Too many enthusiasts are still humming “don’t stop believing”.  ;)

The corporate locusts known as gold mining stocks didn’t go up much earlier this year, and as such are likely to enjoy a big run-up through next spring.  [note from 2013: this totally didn’t happen.  By which I mean, the absolute opposite happened.]  The main reason is that companies’ profit margins have now gone through the roof, which means they’ll increase dividends, which in turn will attract pension funds and other big money pools.

It’s worth wondering why the stocks would rise with the metal in winter but not in summer.  The most plausible explanation I’ve encountered, is that when a commodity price rises to unprecedented levels (as gold did in the summer) no one thinks they’ll stay there for long.  After all, it’s unprecedented…!

A Tim Thomas tangent

Taking a hockey example, goalie Tim Thomas had a great year in 2008-2009.  But since he was 35 at the time, and had never really shone before, a lot of people thought it was a fluke.  Especially since he had a ho-hum year in 2009-2010, even losing the starting goalie position to Tukka Rask.

But if a commodity starts creeping upwards a second time to hitherto-unprecedented levels, stock analysts start revising their price assumptions upwards; companies get valued much more richly; and thanks to stock options, mediocre executives get valued most richly of all.  ;)

Back to hockey, Tim Thomas did the impossible and put up better-than-Dominik-Hasek numbers in 2010-2011; what with his 2008-2009 performance, everyone now expects him to the best goalie in the league, and he was probably the first goalie picked in every hockey pool this fall.  This, despite the fact that at 38, he can’t have that many good years left in him.  Such are our human foibles.

On Expert Foxes and Hedgehogs

We recently covered a book (Future Babble) in our work book club about the uselessness of expert predictions for the future.  The author argued that experts who present themselves (over)confidently — that is to say, expert “hedgehogs” — are more likely to be wrong than the ones who hedge their predictions (expert “foxes”).  A good pairing here would be that of Dennis Gartman and Richard Russell.  …and the argument holds!

Gartman, a bombastic investment newsletter writer, made the mistake of enabling skeptics (such as me) to follow his performance, by allowing an exchange-traded fund to follow his instructions.  It was outperformed by 98% of mutual funds in 2009, and 82% of funds in 2010.  I’m looking for a three-peat come December.  :)  [note from 2013: I think Gartman actually did above-average in 2011 among mutual funds.  But not compared to the index, of course.  :)  ]

Richard Russell has been writing his financial newsletter writer almost as long as Elizabeth II has been the Queen of England.  Apart from beating his drum about decadal trends, he doesn’t claim to know much about where things are going.  But he takes subscribers’ money anyways.  ;)

He’s credited with recommending buying stocks at the bottom in 1974, switching from gold to stocks in 1980, and then switching back in 1999, all of which were prescient.  I remember reading something he wrote around 2003, suggesting that by the time gold finished rising, one ounce would almost buy the Dow.  Emphasizing his reluctance to predict the number, he suggested that if absolutely forced to guess he’d say $3000, but that he wasn’t confident in it.  (It was about $300/oz at the time.)

At the time I thought, “must be nice to have rich-person problems”.  Actually, come to think of it, I still do… :)

The Black Swan’s Thanksgiving Turkey

(originally written Nov 24, 2011.  Part of Great Upload of 2013.)

It came to my attention that Naseem Nicholas Taleb, who authored The Black Swan (surprisingly, not about a ballet dancer, but about financial crises) discussed other avians in his book, among them the Thanksgiving turkey.  Per the Wikipedia page, he seems to’ve co-opted the idea from a turkey anecdote by philosopher Bertrand Russell, whose atheism doubtless led antagonists to brand him cuckoo.  ;)

The abrupt change in the turkey’s situation is part of an argument that it’s ridiculous to project present trends very far into the future, because, well, things change.  Hockey-wise, the Gretzky-led Edmonton Oilers of the 1980’s inspired a high-scoring decade for the NHL.  This was followed by a low-scoring decade inflicted on fans by the New Jersey Devils’ success with the neutral-zone trap in 1994-1995.  (As per the viral video most of you’ve doubtless seen, the Tampa Bay Lightning are going retro with their 1-3-1 system.  Lightning GM Steve Yzerman was part of the Red Wings team the Devils upset in the 1995 Stanley Cup Finals.)

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Second fiddles (usurping first-fiddle status)

(Originally written April 29, 2012 — part of my Great Upload of 2013)

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Cory Schneider’s replacement of Roberto Luongo as Vancouver’s #1 goalie has been all the talk for the past week or so.  But so solely focused was I on a work deadline, that I didn’t even cobble my thoughts in the extraneous minutes of each day, as I normally do.  (Tea-drinking social caterpillar that I am, I don’t spend much time chatting or on coffee breaks.  ;)  )

So, now’s my chance!

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One really feels for Schneider, who put up astounding numbers (1.31 GAA! .960 save percentage!) but got two losses in the three games he appeared in.  It’s a bit like Dominik Hasek’s performance in ’93-’94 (1.61, .950) when the Devils beat his Sabres in seven, in the opening round.  Since Devils’ goalie Martin Brodeur went three playoff rounds and only faced twice as many shots as Hasek, you can roughly guesstimate that Hasek was 50% busier than Brodeur each night — and still almost pulled it off.

Schneider’s rise to #1 status triggered a few items in the quirky relational database that is my brain, about understudies making it big.  Gloria Gaynor’s disco anthem I Will Survive was actually the B-side of the record, until DJ’s decided it was better than the now-long-forgotten A-side (“Substitute”).  What’s a B-side?  A “throwaway” song which wasn’t good enough to be on the album, so got dumped on the back side of a vinyl record single.  ;)

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A case with more cultural impact was when Bobby Taylor and the Vancouvers got eclipsed by their opening act… the Jackson Five (featuring a young Michael Jackson).  Perhaps despairing of ever making it in music, Vancouvers’ co-founder Thomas Chong drifted for awhile before embarking on a series of, ahem, counter-cultural movies with Cheech Marin…

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And on the business side, William Wrigley made baking soda.  His chewing gum started off as a freebie giveaway in baking soda tins, at least until demand for the gum exceeded demand for the baking soda, and he decided to focus on that instead.  (Funnily enough, the baking soda itself had started out as a freebie giveaway with soap, which was Wrigley’s original business before he’d switched to baking soda!  Who knows?  In an alternate universe, “Ivory” might be manufactured by the conglomerate of “Proctor, Gamble & Wrigley”.)

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Moving back to hockey, everyone’s familiar with the freewheeling, “firewagon hockey” the Gretzky-led Edmonton Oilers played in the 1980’s.  The all-offense all-the-time style was actually brought to North America by the Winnipeg Jets in the 1970’s, back when they were part of the World Hockey Association.  The Jets paired a couple Swedes (Anders Hedberg and Ulf Nilsson) with the aging-but-still-great Bobby Hull, and built their team around the European game.  They won three WHA championships, including the last-ever one in 1979, against an Edmonton Oilers team featuring Wayne Gretzky, which coach / GM Glen Sather was savvily building around the same model.

In a twist, the WHA championship was called the Avco Cup, named after a division of Textron, a conglomerate whose carbon fiber materials division Ballard bought, eleven years ago.  So there’s actually a (very tenuous) Ballard link to all this!  Cool, eh?

[note: I was working for Ballard Power Systems, when I wrote this, primarily for work colleagues]

Fun with (hockey) statistics

(Originally written March 5, 2012 — part of my Great Upload of 2013)

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Steve Stamkos got his 50th goal of the season last night, in his 69th game — a phenomenal achievement obscured by this low-scoring era.  Putting one’s statistics cap on, one can do a few quick comparisons to see how this compares to hockey’s better-known goal-scoring records: Wayne Gretzky’s 50 goals in 39 games in ’81-’82, and Rocket Richard’s 50 goals in 50 games in ’44-’45.

Eyeballing the NHL stats, it looks like there are roughly 5.4 goals per game this season.  Gretzky scored his 50 goals before New Year Eve’s 1981, in a season in which the average game had 8.02 goals.  So goals were “only” 2/3 as difficult to score in that season.  This is how “relatively easy” goals were to come by that year — Dave Lumley, one of the Oilers’ goons, scored 32 goals that season doing part-time “protection duty” on Gretzky’s line.  Heck, the year before, Canucks’ enforcer Tiger Williams scored 35!  ;)

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Stamkos

In very broad terms, all other things being equal (which they’re not, but for the purposes of this email let’s assume they are!) one would expect that if Stamkos played this season thirty years ago, he’d’ve reached 50 goals in about:

69 games * (5.4 / 8.02) = 46 games

Which is impressive.  He’d’ve made it into hockey’s hallowed “50 in 50” club!

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The Rocket

Moving on to the Rocket, Richard did “50 in 50” in a season where there were an average 7.35 goals.  All other things being equal, Stamkos’ scoring rate this year suggests that if transported back to that season, he’d’ve hit his 50 goals in:

69 games * (5.4 / 7.35) = 51 games

Pretty darned close!  So, though Stamkos’ achievement looks modest compared to the inflated totals of earlier years, it’s truly history-worthy.

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The one place where today’s low-scoring era will advantage Stamkos — providing he can stay healthy, and play on half-decent teams — is that he’ll have a heck of a lot of game-winning goals by career’s end.  When there were 7 to 8 goals per game, you had maybe a 1/8 or 1/9 chance of scoring a game-winning goal.  (Back then, there were ties.)  If there are 5 to 6 goals per game, even with shootouts, there’s a much better chance that the goals you do score, wind up as game-winners.

Such scoring-era factors explain why, of Gretzky’s 894 career goals, only 91 were game-winners: he played most of his career in a “firewagon hockey” age.  Meanwhile, the recently-retired Sergei Federov, playing in today’s “Dead Puck” era, scored 93 game-winners, despite having about half of Gretzky’s career total (483).