Monday, November 23, 2009

Blessed with Suck

1. Every form of strength covers one weakness and creates another, and therefore every form of strength is also a form of weakness and every weakness a strength.
- Bill James, from the 1983 Baseball Abstract, related in Moneyball by Michael Lewis

Generally, this is a blessing to a character that seems to cause nothing but trouble:
- "Blessed with Suck",

By any rational analysis, this past weekend was a really good weekend. On Friday, I ran a session of 4th edition Dungeons and Dragons for a group of friends who, at one point, seemed utterly uninterested in trying out 4th edition D&D. On Saturday, I won a reasonable amount of money playing in a nickel-ante poker game. On Sunday, I attended a Minnesota Vikings game where the home club won a comfortable 35-9 victory.

Then the sun goes down on Sunday evening, and the weekend's events replay themselves in my mind, and I'm reminded not just of Bill James's comments at the start of this essay, but the aphorism about success containing the seeds of failure in order to keep us humble. There are enough seeds for quite a harvest just in this one weekend:

- Friday night involved me creating a series of pre-generated characters. My intention was to put together an interesting, integrated group that would demonstrate the degree of teamwork that 4th edition D&D calls for in successful party composition and execution. Sadly, my own tendency toward procrastination meant that, by Friday morning, I'd only completed one of the five pre-gens, and barely worked out the roughest details of the three-encounter delve that would be the focus of the evening's entertainment. I thought we'd start by 8pm and be done by 10-10:30pm; instead, we started at 8:30pm and weren't done until well after midnight. The session went reasonably well, but by the time the evening was over, the main topic of conversation was how badly most of the pre-gen characters had been designed, which doesn't bode well for future game sessions.

- Saturday night was the most entertaining of all; I don't consider myself a card sharp by any means, and the game was more social than serious. Still, it's fun to win money -- the old adage about money won being twice as sweet as money earned seems just about right from where I'm sitting. Unfortunately, I offended at least one of my friends at the table with my insistence on an odd dealer's-choice game.

(If you're wondering how you can offend someone simply with a game of cards, let me explain with an example, which is not the specific example I encountered on Saturday: say you have a game where the value of wild cards changes frequently -- on one betting round 4s and 7s may be wild, but then the next round may see 3s and Js wild, and the final round before the lay-down may change yet again so that only 8s are wild, and that these changes are essentially unpredictable, save that they'll happen. Someone who prefers to understand how good their own hand is before betting and the likelihood that their own hand may win (or improve enough to win) before deciding to stay in is going to find this kind of game frustrating unless they're also the kind of person who likes juggling multiple sets of probabilities in their head at the same time -- what cards are likeliest to become wild, what are the odd my hand will improve by that change, etc. Someone who just wants to play cards and not feel stupid for betting a ton of money on a hand that becomes worthless just before the lay-down isn't going to appreciate your tour-de-force of rapidly shifting wild cards.)

I don't think I've necessarily lost a friendship through my poker choices on Saturday, but money, even for low stakes (Henry Kissinger would say especially for low stakes), can be a real stickler when it comes to feelings between people. I've apologized, but I'm not sure that'll be enough.

- On Sunday, just the process of getting someone to use the second ticket I'd purchased was like pulling teeth. At first, I thought it'd be a great chance to spend time with an attractive woman, and even had more than one in mind to ask (in order, of course) - none were interested. I then asked other friends who I knew had an interest in football; each one either was uninterested in the game or had some other event going on that they decided should take precedence. I did eventually find someone to take the ticket, but the experience of having so many people, for their own reasons, say that they weren't interested in attending a football game with me started me off on the wrong foot to begin with.

Next, though I'm firmly a bandwagon fan these days, I still have little patience discussing games with people who aren't willing to take even a little time to think about what they're saying. Case in point: third down, five yards to go, coach calls for a running play. Person next to me complains that it's stupid to call a run on third and five.

Well, person, when you have one of the top running backs in the league, who in a good season averages about five yards a carry, that's not so stupid right on its face. Then add in the idea that, if you give the opponent the information that you'll always pass on third and five, that changes the kinds of defenses you'll see, so that passing will become significantly more difficult. You run, even in those situations where you might not make it, to keep the defense honest -- because running now keeps your options open for later. (And 'later' even means games against other opponents, since every NFL game is extensively taped and reviewed by upcoming opponents -- if you establish a pattern of always passing on third and five, every team in the league gets the benefit of that information for when they play you.)

So start with, what for a normal person would be a great weekend, salt in my own personal quirks, and you end up with a string of disappointed and/or offended people, including in an odd way, myself. And the really screwed up part of this whole thing? Even I can see that this reaction to the weekend, skewed and potentially unhealthy as it is, is more interesting and even possibly valuable than simply recounting, "Hey, I ran a game on Friday, won at poker on Saturday, and saw the Vikes kick ass on Sunday. Awesome!"

If you disagree, may I respectfully direct you to the title of this blog?

Tuesday, November 03, 2009

The March of Progress

Been taking some time this evening to burn some episodes from the "Star Trek Alternate Realities Collective" to disk so that I can carry them around in my iPhone. (Thanks, Andy, for the advice in iPhone Fully Loaded!)

It's a depressing sign of progress that I can generally identify the episodes in Handbrake even though the order of the episodes on the disk doesn't actually match the order listed on the DVDs or on the cover art, and Handbrake doesn't actually give an episode name, just a track number and file length in minutes and seconds.

If the episode is in excess of 50 minutes in running time, it's an original series episode (ST:TOS).

If the episode is just over 45 minutes in running time, it's a Next Generation episode (ST:TNG).

If the episode is just under 44 minutes in running time, it's either a Deep Space Nine (ST:DS9) or Voyager episode (ST:VOY).

If the episode is under 43 minutes in running time, it's an Enterprise episode (ST:ENT).

At the risk of belaboring the obvious, anything that isn't running time is advertising time, at least during the original broadcast of the episodes in question. Sadly, it's not just a broadcast TV problem: episodes of my favorite series at the moment, Leverage, run about 43 minutes (for a one-hour broadcast time slot) or 57 minutes (for a two-hour broadcast time slot).

One more among the many good reasons to skip the broadcast and just go straight for the DVD. If the networks can only stay in business by shrinking the content we actually want to watch, then they should go away and be replaced by something that meets viewers' needs better.


Anger helped make Larry Johnson into a breathtakingly good NFL running back. Anger helped make him famous and successful and rich. Anger helped him fulfill the dreams he had been having since he was a child.

The trouble is, at some point, all those other things faded away. He’s not a breathtakingly good running back now. He’s not especially famous, not particularly successful, and being rich — assuming he has been smart with his money — isn’t enough. This is the the sad thing about Larry Johnson. All he’s left with is the anger.

- Joe Posnanski, in this blog post

[W]e are what we repeatedly do. Excellence, then, is not an act but a habit...

- Will Durant, "The Story of Philosophy: The Lives and Opinions of the World's Greatest Philosophers"

You may recall the second of the quotes above being attributed to Aristotle; I know I thought he wrote it, but it turns out that's not true. There's probably an essay in that observation alone, but that's not what I came out here to talk about.

Durant is basically summarizing Aristotle's position on how people acquire virtue, so in a sense the idea is still Aristotle's even if the quote isn't. Still, there's reason to believe that Aristotle, on this topic, was just writing what he thought was obvious, and as a result just blowing smoke out his ass.

On the other hand, Aristotle might actually have something here, but it's sportswriters who are blowing smoke. (Posnanski is a sportswriter, though one of my favorites -- another note to self: update the Five Favorites essay from over three years ago.) The idea that Larry Johnson might believe that his anger is part of what makes him an outstanding athlete, despite not having shown himself to be an outstanding athlete in his chosen field for a few years now, doesn't mean that anger is actually what make Johnson good at football. Being young, being hungry to prove something to the world, having outstanding teammates helping you: all of these things pretty clearly also have something to do with Johnson's success, even if these things are far less under Johnson's direct control.

And that, I think, is where we hit the fundamental fallacy of Aristotle's sentiment (and Durant's words): the illusion of control.

We want to believe that we are responsible for our successes; that we succeed because we are good people doing good things. Though many of us will accept that chance and other factors outside of their personal control may have influenced a given successful outcome, most of us will still assert that, even in the absence of those factors, we would still have succeeded 'in the end', just that the additional factors meant that we had to spend less time and effort on the attempt.

In a case where the thing we personally had control over wasn't really all that significant, then we choose to develop habits that aren't helpful, and in fact can become harmful. When the habit we learned no longer appears useful, frustration develops. Just look at Larry Johnson -- injuries have stolen away some of his athletic ability, and ownership decisions and age have taken his most talented teammates away and not replaced them with equally talented counterparts -- yet Johnson, who appears to believe that his anger was an integral part of his success as a runner (and why wouldn't he believe that, when he was repeatedly told by sportswriters that they believe it themselves?) now has nothing but his anger to fend off a growing sense of frustration.

It behooves each of us, if we are considered successful, to look very closely at the factors that went into that success and not assume that the factor we have control over was the main determinant of that success. Doing so will leave us, years later, with a habit -- but not a habit of excellence, just a habit of self-delusion.