Get rid of the football helmet
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Get rid of the football helmet

Last month I suggested in a post about concussions in football that it’s football helmets that are the biggest problem. Helmets are ostensibly protective gear, but they’re what enable football players to use their bodies as weapons. Most concussions are caused by helmet to helmet collisions, and those that aren’t are usually caused by the fact that players where enough protective gear to stay out of control. Now Reed Albergotti and Shirley Wang have a story in the Wall Street Journal asking the same kinds of questions. Football with different protective gear would be a different sport, but that may not be so bad.

Concussions and football
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Concussions and football

One of the oddest things I’m thankful for in life was that I didn’t love football enough to be really good at it. I played football in junior high and high school, but I never really loved it. To be more specific, I love the game of football, but I was never able to turn off the part of my brain that constantly does cost/benefit analysis. I have known for a long time that the more years you spend on the football field, the more you have to deal with joint pain and stiffness later in life, but it’s only been recently that people have started talking about the huge concussion problem that afflicts former football players.

I remember first hearing about the long term effects of multiple concussions when former Pittsburgh Steelers center Mike Webster died in 2002. It was also discussed when Merell Hoge was found wandering around his neighborhood, suffering from memory loss. HBO Real Sports has done a number of pieces on concussions, forcing the NFL to address the issue. And then this week, 60 Minutes ran a piece on concussions, and Malcolm Gladwell writes in the New Yorker on the similarities between football and dog fighting.

Every football fan should think about the moral implications of taking enjoyment in watching a spectacle that is literally killing the competitors. I love football, but I wonder if I should support it, given the injuries inflicted on the players.

I also wonder why we never hear about what is to me the real root of the problem — hard plastic helmets and face masks. Players make helmet to helmet contact because the shell and padding give the feeling of impunity.

Back in the good old days, players wore leather helmets like the one pictured here. I can guarantee you that these guys didn’t smash into each other face first or have hard helmet to helmet contact on every play. Players would hate it if the protective equipment were scaled down in football, because it would take a lot of the speed and recklessness out of the game, but it would increase the safety in a big way.

Learning to love an upwardly mobile coach
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Learning to love an upwardly mobile coach

So the big news for me this weekend was that the University of Houston football team beat Oklahama State (then the number 5 team in the country) 45-35 on the road. It was their first win on the road against a top 5 team since 1984. For one weekend, my team was the toast of college football and the subject of widespread discussion. It’s not every day that UH leads the highlight real on the college football scoreboard show. Unfortunately, in the wake of the win, some people are saying unhelpful things that need to be addressed.

Houston Chronicle sports columnist Richard Justice wrote a column on Saturday congratulating the team on its big win, and in the process gave the school and its alumni some really, really bad advice. The context here is that UH has a second year coach, Kevin Sumlin, who’s doing a great job. The team went 8-5 last year and won its first bowl game in 27 years, and just won its biggest game in 25 years this weekend. Things are going well. So his advice is to do whatever is necessary to keep Sumlin around:

UH has found one of those special coaches in Kevin Sumlin, and now it’s a matter of holding onto him. UH should be aggressive, not reaction. Sign him. Now. Offer him 10 years or 15 years or whatever he wants. UH president Renu Khator wants a Tier One university. She wants money for research and facilities and all the rest. She knows a winning football team can do wonders for a school in terms of enrollment, donations and exposure. At the moment, Kevin Sumlin is about the best ambassador UH could have.

Let me say that I would love for Sumlin to stay at UH forever. When UH was looking for a coach, I came up with a set of criteria for the kind of coach I’d like to see them hire, and Sumlin fit every one of those criteria. But UH cannot put all of its eggs in the Sumlin basket. I think Sumlin has a real chance to take the UH program as far as it can go, but Sumlin is an ambitious young coach, and I’m sure that once he’s taken UH as far as he can, he’ll want to pursue opportunities to take his own career further.

What I worry about with Justice’s column is that it risks convincing UH fans that things won’t be OK if Sumlin does move on. It’s the UH program, not the Kevin Sumlin Program. It wasn’t the Art Briles program either. Briles, the coach before Sumlin, came to UH, took the team to four bowl games, and was hired by Baylor at twice his old salary. Of course he took the job. And that was OK, Briles did a great job for UH for four years, and put the program in position to hire an even better coach. Thanks, Art! Things are working out well for him and for UH.

For a program like UH, this is an approach that will work. Every program in college football with a coach under the age of 65 is subject to having their coach hired away, either by a bigger, richer program or by the NFL. So counting on building around a particular coach for the next 15 or 20 years is not a realistic strategy. What UH needs to focus on is hiring well and getting the most out of the coaches that they do hire in the time that they have them.

This is the thing that worries me most about UH’s having lost athletic director Dave Maggard earlier in the year. He was great at hiring football coaches. Art Briles was a high school football coach who had spent a couple of years as running back coach at a school that never runs the football. Kevin Sumlin was co-offensive coordinator at Oklahoma, a great program with a great head coach, but he wasn’t at the top of anyone’s list of head coaching prospects. And yet Maggard saw something in both of them, and UH has gone from the dregs of Division I football to being the country’s media darling, at least for a week.

That’s the strategy UH has to pursue. Remaining a place where coaches can make their bones and advance their own careers is the most a school in a non-BCS conference can hope for. At one time, Nick Saban was head coach at Toledo. Rich Rodriguez was head coach at Glenville State. Urban Meyer was head coach at Bowling Green. Those guys are all making many millions of dollars now but they started out somewhere. UH needs to focus on being the very best stepping stone it can be.

And UH supporters have to learn to be the kind of fans who don’t get their feelings hurt when coaches take a better offer. Many UH alumni were so depressed by losing Art Briles that they wanted to hire former coach Jack Pardee, who is 73 years old and has been out of coaching for 13 years, because they knew he’d be loyal. Loyalty is an elusive commodity in college football — Pardee himself left in 1990 after only three years for a job in the NFL.

UH fans, enjoy the team’s success, and worry about the coaching situation if and when Coach Sumlin gets that offer he can’t refuse. And when he’s coaching UCLA in the Rose Bowl or OU in the Fiesta Bowl, you’ll be able to say, “I remember when …”

Your 2009-2010 NBA Preview
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Your 2009-2010 NBA Preview

The Wages of Wins blog has some bad news for most NBA fans:

Here is an interesting factoid about the NBA Finals. Since 1978 (the first year we can calculate Wins Produced) no team has won an NBA title without one regular player (minimum 41 games played, 24.0 minutes per game) posting at least a 0.200 WP48 [Wins Produced per 48 minutes]. Only one team – the 1978-79 Seattle Super Sonics [led by Gus Williams with a 0.208 WP48] – managed to win a title without a regular player crossing the 0.250 threshold. And only four other champions didn’t have at least one player surpass the 0.300 mark. This tells us – and hopefully this is not a surprise – that to be an elite team you must have at least one elite player.

Okay, now let’s connect this factoid to the draft. Since 1995, no player who posted a below average college PAWS40 [Position Adjusted Win Score per 40 minutes] his last year in college managed to post a career WP48 above the 0.200 mark (after five seasons, minimum 5,000 minutes played). So although college numbers are not a crystal ball (and really, college numbers are not perfect predictors of what a player will do in the NBA), it does seem like players who don’t play relatively well in college are not likely to become superstars in the NBA.

In short, if your favorite team doesn’t already have a truly great player, they’re highly unlikely to win a championship. And the odds are that they won’t find the great player they need in the draft.

This article also makes an important point about synthetic stats. PAWS40 is a stat that the Wages of Wins people made up. Its value is solely in its correlation with more tangible measures of success. Many people who are suspicious of quantitative analysis hate stats like these, but the proof is in the pudding. When you have a derived statistic that correlates this closely with something useful to measure (like championships or wins), that statistic carries more value than any of the more organic stats, like rebounds per game, or shooting percentage.

Links from May 20
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Links from May 20

Long delayed roundup of links:

Are great programmers hired or made?
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Are great programmers hired or made?

As sports fans know, the NFL draft is this weekend. In many ways, it’s the most exciting event of the year for football fans. Every team gets to participate, and fans have the chance to believe that their favorite team has improved itself, at least until games are played and reality sets in. Mike Tanier has written the best article I’ve read analyzing the meaning of the NFL draft — Made, not Born. I don’t want to talk about it in terms of football, though, but rather in terms of hiring software developers.

Years after the draft, players are called a “bust” or a “steal” based on how they perform, but Tanier’s inarguably true argument is that how players develop once they reach the NFL is more important than their qualities when they were drafted. Incredible athletes who are drafted into a bad situation often have short, unimpressive careers. Lesser athletes who are drafted into good situations wind up in the Hall of Fame. People obsess too much over draft analysis and not enough over how well teams develop players. (Indeed, many teams that are considered great at picking players in the draft are more likely great at developing the players they pick.)

What does this have to do with software development? Obviously hiring developers is different than drafting football players. What I think is similar, however, is that what you do to enable programmers to succeed once they start work is just as important is hiring the right people in the first place. There are all kinds of situations a talented programmer can be placed in that will lead to their writing poor quality code and developing bad habits that are hard to break. A lesser programmer on a good team with solid processes and better mentors can produce great software.

This is one of the things I wonder about when I read articles about Google’s hiring practices. Does Google produce the software that they do because they hire incredibly talented people, or do they create an environment for developers that enables them to make the most of their talent? I expect that they’re good on both counts, but people seem to obsess more over the former than the latter.

Pick up basketball etiquette
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Pick up basketball etiquette

Jan Chipchase mentioned the specific etiquette of a skateboard park he visited in San Diego, and it made me think of a conversation I was having recently about the rules of etiquette at basketball courts.

I learned basketball court etiquette when I was in college, playing with people from the dorms and the neighborhood around the school on an outdoor court on campus.

The first and most basic rule is that winners stay. I can’t remember how many points we played to, although I think it was 11, but regardless, the winning team stayed on the court to be challenged by the next group of people who were waiting. You get dibs on leading the team to challenge the winner by saying, “I got next” before anybody else did. The person who “has next” recruits the challengers from the group of people who are also waiting — taking someone from the losing team if there are more than enough people waiting is bad manners. That’s how basketball courts are run everywhere.

In half court games, the additional rule is “make it take it”. In real basketball, the ball changes possession after a team scores, but in pickup half court games, when you score you get the ball back. That keeps games moving quickly so that more players can rotate in.

When there aren’t enough people to play a game, people tend to shoot around while they wait for more people to show up. There’s etiquette for that, too. First of all, it doesn’t matter if you brought a ball, in a shoot around situation everybody gets to play. Getting a rebound entitles you to take a shot. If you make your shot, the person who fields the ball passes it to you. That’s called “change”. If someone else tries to keep the ball after you make a basket, you say, “Gimme my change,” and they are supposed to pass the ball back to you so you can shoot again.

There are a lot of other rules, too, and judging from a street game I was watching the other day, the rules are pretty much the same as they’ve ever been.

What’s interesting to me is that every community or subculture has its own etiquette, whether it’s a message board for fans of a TV show, the regular crowd at a popular restaurant, or an IRC channel. I’m always a little surprised by people who don’t take the time to pick up these rules of etiquette before jumping into a new situation.

The limitations of blog coverage
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The limitations of blog coverage

The USS Mariner (a baseball blog) has as good a short explanation of where blogs trail newspapers and other outlets in terms of what they can provide. The topic in this case is sports, but it holds up for other topics as well:

I’m (obviously) a huge proponent of blog coverage, but there’s no way it fills the gap of a major paper. We don’t get press access. We can’t go talk to Wakamatsu or anyone on the team unless we know them personally. We don’t have the ability to spend eight hours interviewing people about a breaking issue and turning around something insightful for the next day. The research and analysis done here or on Lookout Landing or anywhere is done essentially for free (well, not Lookout Landing, obviously, as they get to bathe in a hot tub of Kos’ money every night). There’s a lot you can’t do as a writer when your budget is zero.

This disparity isn’t as large as it once was — Talking Points Memo alone has shown that “blogs” can break big news stories, but sites that do commentary are reliant on the professional, full time media to dig up the news that they comment on.

Links from January 23rd
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Links from January 23rd

I’m going back to packaging up my del.icio.us bookmarks daily and posting them here.

  • The Black Triangle is an article from 2004 about game development found by Jason Kottke. It describes the disconnect between programmers and users, where users are unimpressed by seeing something relatively simple on the screen, and developers are thrilled at the huge amount of work that into getting that simple thing onto the screen. I’ve found it’s never a good idea to show customers the Black Triangle. It always comes later in the process than they’d think and often freaks them out.
  • waferbaby: The Setup. Interviews with people about their computer setups. I can never read enough of these.
  • New York Times: Gazan Doctor and Peace Advocate Loses 3 Daughters to Israeli Fire and Asks Why. The horrific cost of war.
  • Dr. Saturday: Australian Rules’ blood’s worth bottling. A proposed playoff structure for college football. A more interesting approach
  • Going.com: Newspapers Covering Obama’s Inauguration. A huge collection of newspaper front pages from President Obama’s inauguration. And yes, it still feels weird to type “President Obama.”
  • CSS Newbie: The EqualHeights jQuery Plugin. I’m always looking for better ways to set columns to equal heights on a Web page.
  • Glenn Greenwald: Mohammed Jawad and Obama’s efforts to suspend military commissions. When anyone questions whether the United States tortures people or tortures the wrong people, you can forward them the story of Mohammed Jawad, a teenager captured in Afghanistan who was coerced to confess to killing US soldiers with a grenade. The military prosecutor in his case petitioned that he should be released and ultimately resigned rather than prosecute him.