Sports: The Funnel Theory

In my last post, I explained why some sports are better than others. There is an semi-empirical test (a thought experiment really) to evaluate the relative merits of sports too. That last post had gone on way too long though, I had to separate it out.

(The funnel theory was developed in collaboration with Mr. Kid. In keeping with the psedononymous nature of this site, I will only use his real name if he requests.)

The funnel theory was born in 1997 or so, when I got a new roommate. I was then in my volleyball and basketball years, playing 5 or 6 times a week. He also claimed to be a sportsman. What sport did he play? Underwater Hockey. I’m not kidding, underwater hockey. Here’s the best link I could find. Needless to say, I didn’t think much of this. I grew more contemptuous when he claimed to be one of the top 20 players in the world. Big deal! I could be in the top 500 just by jumping in the pool. If I can avoid drowning, I’d make it to the top 100. Anyone who plays professional basketball, football, baseball, soccer, tennis — if they chose to play underwater hockey instead, they would be the best player in the world. But instead, they chose to play a real sport instead. This insight birthed the funnel theory.

Imagine all the people in the world at the top of the funnel. At the top are sports anyone can play. Hopscotch, Hide and Seek, etc. As you move downwards, the sports get more difficult, and it grows harder to keep moving down. At the bottom of the funnel are sports that you have to be something truly special to excel in. The sports at the bottom of the funnel are “better” in some real, empirical sense.

What distinguishes the levels? Let’s say curling is above hockey (as it is). I claim that means that if you took all the hockey players, and pretended they had spent their life training in curling instead, and did the same with the curlers (brought them up to be hockey players), more of the ex-hockey players would be great at curling than the ex-curlers would be great at hockey. Another example, if you took all the skiiers of the world, and had them start their life over playing underwater hockey, they would dominate the sport. But the underwater hockey players would not dominate skiing, they’d be terrible.

This is all statistical. It’s not to say that Shaquille O’Neal could beat Tiger Woods at golf. But more basketball players would be world class golfers than golfers could be world class basketball players.

Note that very few people could become worldclass boxers, basketball or football players who aren’t already. These are the sports at the bottom of my funnel, and the top of my list of great sports.

Some folks may be muttering “Michael Jordan and baseball!” under their breath. The best basketball player in the world, and he was an average baseball in the minor leagues. True, but remember, he was good enough to be in the minors. And the thought experiment is to imagine if Michael Jordan had spent the time and effort in baseball that he did in basketball. There is no doubt in my mind that more basketball players could succeed at baseball than the reverse. None at all.

(Not sure how Bo Jackson, Deion Sanders and Jim Thorpe fit into this theory, suggestions are welcome.)

Grading Sports

I have a lot of disputes with people about why some sports are just plain better than others. I am anti-baseball, and virulently anti-golf. But it is not merely random preferences. There are some definite parameters that define what makes one sport better than another.

Defense / Competing directly against another human being: Golf is not against a person. It is against the course, which another person happens to occupy at the same time. Same for track and field events, swimming events, skating. These all score low. Competition should be against another person. Sports that score highly are boxing, basketball, soccer, tennis, fencing, dodgeball, and most card games and board games. Baseball is an interesting case. At first glance, it seems like two full teams, but it isn’t. It is pitcher against batter, and sometimes a batter against the fielders. But the fielders are not playing defense to the extent a polo player does, and most of the offensive team is sitting around spitting tobacco.

After getting in an argument with several people about this one, I will clarify that a bit more. Let’s say you are running the 100-yard dash against someone. It is true that you are competing against that other person, and that you must beat them to win. However, you can’t do anything to directly influence their performance. You are not allowed to touch them, there’s no way to slow them down, no way to affect their time. The only reason you are simultaneously on the trackat all is so that no one gets an unfair advantage of knowing a time to beat. And even that is pretty weak, there are plenty of sports (downhill skiing, for example) where going first or last is a definite advantage and you aren’t even on the course at the same time as the other competitor(s).

Team: Team sports are better than individual sports. The level of complexity and interest is much higher. Even a lousy relay race in swimming is better than an individual event. Sports where a player can be great but their team terrible are more interesting. Sports where a player must not only be individually great, but work within a framework of tactics and strategies, and bring out the best and cover the worst skills of their teammates are a higher level. Sports that score high are football, soccer, rugby, lacross, volleyball.

Different tactics and strategies are encouraged under the rules: All great bowlers are the same. All great darts players are the same. It’s just one stupid muscular motion repeated over and over. There’s no tactics, there’s not strategies, there’s no testing, the goal is always to aim the object as precisely as possible in the exact same motion and minimize variance. Even baseball scores highly here. You can be a singles hitter, an RBI specialist, a homerun slugger. You can steal bases. You can sacrifice for other players. The rules of the game encourage this. If you look at basketball (one of my top 4 sports), it’s unreal how many styles of play there are. Just look at the players bodies and you wouldn’t know that Shaquille O’Neal and Steve Nash play the same sport. They almost don’t, they represent two completely different skill sets, two completely different ways of succeeding at basketball.

Update: While doing some reading on game theory, I came across this distinction. “The essence of a game of strategy is the dependence of each person’s proper choice of action on what he expects the other to do.” Exactly. Darts and Whirlyball both have elements of strategy, but in Darts it is almost nothing. Even in a weak game like Whirlyball you must constantly be evaluating your opponent and revising your actions based on what they do and what you predict they will do.

Different athletic components tested: Competitive weightlifting is incredibly boring. It’s the same motion over and over. But the World’s Strongest Man contest is interesting. A football player has to have upper body strength, lower body strength, incredible speed, toughness, flexibility, quick reaction times, and just about everything else that goes under the heading “athletics”. Decathaletes (who for centuries were considered the best athletes in the world) need to master many disciplines.

Athletic effort: If you never have to dig down, battle against pain and fatigue, you aren’t playing sports. I love chess and strategy games, but they ain’t a sport. When Kevin McHale played the ’86 playoffs with broken bones (essentially ending his career in the process) — that, my friend is sports. Walking along green grass is not.

So what sports score highly? Here are my top 4, not in order:

Boxing (which came in #1 on ESPN): Incredible amounts of athletic skill and toughness needed. It couldn’t be more directly against another human. It couldn’t be tougher.

Basketball: My favorite sport. Loads of strategies, just about every athletic component tested, a team sport played against other sports

Football (American): The most complex, orchestrated sport out there. It is easy to see the fat on the lineman and think they are just lumbering rhinos, but they are some of the best athletes on the planet. Every player plays hurt all the time.

Soccer: Running non-stop for 90 minutes, requires the most complex foot work of any sport, intricate strategies, bonus points for being truly international.

Now let’s step back and see why I hate golf so much.
Defense: Zero points. You don’t play other people.
Team: Zero points. Purely individual.
Tactics/Strategies: Negligible. Your goal is always to get to the hole, the tactics are pretty much the same all the time.
Athletic components: Weak. There is some small element of strength. There is some fine motor skill needed for putting. Aside from that… well, you don’t even need to be able to walk!
Athletic Effort: Huge. I remember the time Nick Faldo passed out on the 17th hole of the Masters. It took 30 minutes to revive him. He barely knew his own name, and blood was streaming down his leg, but he shook off his caddie and proceeded to sink a miracle eagle on the 18th for the victory. No wait, that never happened did it. Have you ever seen a golf player sweat? From exertion, not from pressure or being fat. Never.
Clothing: Extra point against golf for requiring ridiculous clothing that is self-evidently antithetical to any athletic endeavor.

Next post: The funnel theory — empirically testing sports

The Fair Tax

I know you’ve all been spending this last day examing the Fair Tax idea. So what do you think?

I think it’s great. It’s simple and it’s transparent. These are two great angles. Simple means that everyone can understand it. Transparent means everyone can see exactly how it’s working. Between them, it means that everyone can see the worth of the idea, and how it’s being used at any time. Handouts to various consituents can’t be disguised. I think I am a big fan already.

However… one piece does stick in my craw. No purchase is taxed except actual consumption. Corporations are not taxed at all. The reasoning seems to be that their money is either going to people who use it to consume something and are taxed then, or is being reinvested in the business which is worthy of tax-free status. I don’t agree with either of those arguments. First, that people will eventually get the money and consume it. This line of thought gives companies a reason to never disperse profits. Much like non-profits today, they are incentive driven to put all the money in the company, whether or not that is a productive use of that money. I am reminded of Stanley Kaplan. They somehow got a non-profit status. They make huge huge amounts of money, but since they are technically a non-profit, they keep pouring that money into luxuries. Take a look here. Or here. Or here. Is there any reason any other company wouldn’t do the same?

Let’s imagine a hypothetical. Imagine you are the owner and manager of a company. You have $60,000 in corporate profits. You really want to get one of those sweet new C6 Corvettes. If you give yourself a salary of $60,000 and buy the car, you pay the tax (about $15,000). If you pay it to yourself in any form and then buy it, you pay taxes. But, if your company buys the car, you don’t pay anything. That’s a business transaction and isn’t covered. Now this happens in this example because the shareholder/owner (who would otherwise get the money) and the employees (who get the benefits of the money) are the same. Nevertheless, it illustrates that this creates a warped incentive to keep as much money in the business as possible.

It is also a double-standard. Why is the assumption that businesses keeping money is reinvestment, but not so for families? If I go down to Home Depot and buy a new gate, that is an investment in my house. The carpteting I am buying is also and investment in the value of my house, not to mention a safety feature form my toddler son when he falls down the stairs. But these are fully taxed, regardless of how it will be used.

The best analysis of double taxations I’ve ever seen is this brilliant cartoon.

This a gaping flaw, however I still would have to come out for The Fair Tax. Looking for comments on this one, please.

Movie Review: First Blood

In contrast to my other posts about movies that get worse every time I see them, this movie always delivers. Even Mrs Muttrox agreed, and she is not overly supportive of action movies.

Keys to success:
1) Stallone is ripped. Let’s face it, he looks cool, and not in a Rocky III oily kind of way
2) No love interest. Except guns maybe.
3) Morally ambiguous characters. The “bad guy” is not very bad, the “good guy” is not very good. They are both complex characters — the conflict is more of the wrong person in the wrong place at the wrong time, and things get worse.
4) Realistic violence. One bullet does not blow up a Vietnamese village, Rambo does not free Afghanistan by himself or any craziness like that. Motorcycles swerve, rocks hurt, wounds need to heal, etc. That’s not to say it’s perfectly realistic, but it’s a good deal more than most action movies.
5) Very little actual violence. The conflict is not direct most of the time. There is suspense and tension most of the time. Desperation, chase scenes. That’s not to say there is no violence, just not as much as you would think.
6) Brian Denehy. He’s awesome. I don’t care if he lied about his military service*, he’s a great actor, and perfect for this role.

A lot of this comes because it’s based on a real novel, where it’s hard to get away with the same stuff action movies get away with.

There’s probably more too, but you get the point. First Blood rocks!!

* I just finished The Post-Truth Era: Dishonesty and Deception in Contemporary Life. This is an excellent read, and deserving of it’s own post at some point. It cites the work of Burkett in debunking many of those who falsely claimed Vietnam military action, including Brian Denehy. I can’t find any other links to this research. On the one hand, it’s a book about truth, it’s hard to believe that it would be a hoax. On the other hand, Burkett was one of the folks who launched the Swift Boat campaign against John Kerry, which was itself so riddled with lies I have a hard time believing it’s core assertions.

…ok, I’m spelling Dennehy’s name wrong. Now I can search the web a bit.
Cite 1
Cite 2
It’s hard to tell if these are more links to Burkett’s work, but since they refernce specific events (an apology in 1999 after winning Best Actor), I’m going to say Burkett’s on the up and up.

And to think that I heard it on NPR

NPR is currently in their spring pledge drive. Today, I heard the sales spiel from Ira Glass, host of This American Life. It was appalling.

Ira explained to we listeners how normal TV and radio work: There are $42 billion spent every year on advertising in those media. Where does that money come from? From you and me, every time we buy a product. That works out to $208 per person, every single one of us, whether we like it or not. He then contrasted this to public radio where you have the choice to support the exact station you want, your money doesn’t go to places you don’t want it to go.

This has to be one of the most deceptive and plain stupid arguments ever promulgated on the airwaves. And I’ve listened to Rush Limbaugh.

1) The money comes from corporations, not people. If you’re going to follow the chain back from where the companies got the money to the people who gave it, it’s only fair to see where the people got the money. Hey, they got it from companies (either in the form wages or investments)! Gee, it’s like we got ourselves some kind of Economy boys and girls! Can you say Economy?

2) Sure, when I buy a rotisserie chicken, I’m funneling a couple cents of profit to Kroger or Costco, who can then, if they choose, spend some of that on advertising to me on TV and radio in the hopes I’ll buy more chickens from them. I chose to buy the chicken, the company chose to pay for advertising, the media choose to view it, I chose to watch it, and then I choose whether to respond to it or not. What’s so anti-choice about that?

3) The math is based on a figure of 200 million people. No idea where that came from, current US Population is at 300 million or so. Ira’s show is called This American Life, but these companies are mostly multi-nationals, so you can’t make any kind of per person estimate without figuring in the world population, where companies spend money, what percentage of revenues Americans contribute, etc.

4) Worse than the math is the warped conclusion he draws from it. If we accept the specious claim that the average citizen spent $208 on advertising last year, this does not mean that each person actually spent $208! C’mon Ira! If this thinking made any sense, the problems of poverty and iniquity would have been long since solved. After all, every person in America made over $37,000 in 2003, that’s plenty! On the other hand, the average American family has over $9,000 of credit card debt, so by Ira’s logic I should be worried although the Muttrox family lives debt-free.

5) Lastly, the element of who I support. I loathe Clear Channel and Sinclair Broadcasting, and I’m sure some of my money is going to them. On the other hand, Car Talk is one of the most annoying shows ever created. If you edited out all the laughter and rambling stories, you are left with a five minute show. It could be stuck in between other shows, like the excellent Moment of Science. But Ira, if I give my money to NPR, some of it goes to Car Talk. How anti-choice! The horror, Ira, the horror!!

(But I’ll give money anyhow. It is my hope that NPR [really the Corporation for Public Broadcasting in this context] will get enough money to eliminate government funding so the Republicans can finally quit their whining. $60 million dollars a year. Whoopee. That’s about two hours worth of the Iraq war. Or take a look at the Porker of the Month archives to see what else the feds decide to spend $60 million on.)