Soccer, Baseball, Football

June 16, 2010

The world cup has started. I’ve only seen ten minutes of it; they happened to be the ten minutes in which the US scored its goal against England (or, rather, the English goalie scored against himself). Good luck on my part, I suppose, tuning in when I did.

Unlike the great majority of the world, I’m not a fan of soccer. Partially, I admit, it’s because I’ve never spent the time needed to understand the sport. I have a basic understanding of the rules – even the off-sides rule isn’t that hard to understand, after all (compare it to the arcane definition of a balk) but the strategy of the game I’ve never spent a great deal of effort trying to understand. I don’t have much desire to, though; the game is too fluid for my tastes.

This is really the main distinction between soccer and baseball. When it comes down to it, I suspect, there are really only three kinds of team sports: soccer, which is the same sport as hockey and basketball; baseball, which is the same as cricket; and American football, which is the same as rugby.

  • In soccer (and hockey and basketball), you have a completely fluid game where two sides are trying to get the ball into the opponent’s goal but possession can shift at any time, and there is no clear division of the action except after goals and out-of-bounds, and thus at each division both teams are back to being equal except for the score.
  • In baseball, you have a completely delineated game, where teams take turns going on offense and defense, which involve completely separate goals, and each at-bat is a separate action. The game has basically no fluidity to it, and there are numerous states (having men on base, getting outs) that a play can begin in that make the teams unequal yet with the score remaining the same.
  • In football, you have a strange mix of the two. There are separate offensive and defensive squads, but both teams intend to get the ball in the opponent’s goal, and possession can shift at any time. There are clear divisions between plays, and teams can gain yardage and lose downs without scoring. Yet the basic symmetry of the game gives it a sense of fluidity not found in baseball or soccer.

Of all the professional sports baseball is my favorite, and I think  it is because it is so delineated – it makes it possible to describe it is a step-by-step progression in a way you can’t describe a soccer game. Football I can enjoy for similar reasons, but I find myself easily bored by soccer (though I find it easily the most interesting of the soccer class of games); it always seems the same except when someone scores, and once there’s a score, there’s nothing to be excited about because it’s already back to normal.

Still, I wonder if I wouldn’t like soccer better if it were higher scoring – not as high as basketball games, but more like a baseball game, with an average score being 5-4 not 1-0. That’s about an average football score too, once you factor out the x7 multiplier – a 5-4 game translates into a 35-28 game, which is quite reasonable, and since field goals are only x3 not x7, it makes sense that they tend to be a bit lower than that.

So, though I prefer baseball mainly for its divisions and ability to be analyzed, I wonder if the reason I actively dislike soccer, or at least find it boring, has more to do with the low scores. If a 5-4 score, i.e. 9 total scores, is ideal for a 3-hour-game including commercials (so, a 2-hour game without them), does that mean the proper ratio for sports is a score every 10-15 minutes? Anything significantly more than that leads to a repetitive monotony (in basketball it’s a score every 30 seconds, which is way too often), while anything significantly less leads to a boring game (soccer is probably about a score every 45-60 minutes, though I couldn’t say exactly).

How much deviation from this 10-15 minutes can there be, I wonder, before the sport becomes boring? I also wonder if having such a ratio for some reason requires delineation, separation into different plays. At first glance that may seem preposterous, but it makes a sort of sense. All achievements in sports, I suspect, will be either really difficult (and so happen extremely rarely) or be really easy (and so happen quite often). Delineation means you can have multiple steps that are easy to achieve while requiring that many be achieved in succession in order to score. Having a pitch go in one’s favor is relatively easy; scoring a run requires that happening several times without three outs occurring first. With a more fluid game, you can’t do this, and so either scoring is easy (basketball) and happens too often, or it’s difficult (soccer) and happens too rarely. It’s hard to achieve a good mean.

As a simple thought experiment: consider transforming baseball into a game where there were no gradual accomplishments – it was either all or nothing, every time. The game would consist, basically, of team A making one pitch to team B, and if it results in a home run, team B scores a run; if not, team A comes up to bat. I don’t think that would be a very good game.


Crime and Punishment

February 18, 2008

A simple question – what is the purpose of punishing criminals?

A common answer is that you want to deter future criminals by showing what will happen when they commit a crime. Punishment as deterrent. Makes sense, right? Well…

The obvious problem with this is that you’re not showing what will happen when they commit a crime – you’re showing what will happen when they commit a crime and are caught. In a sense, this turns it all into a game of odds. As a potential criminal, you just evaluate what you will gain from committing the crime, what you will lose from being caught, and what your chances of getting caught are. If it ends up being an average gain for you, commit the crime; otherwise, don’t.

Following this reasoning, “an eye for an eye” is only effective if your chances of catching the criminal are greater than 50%. Otherwise, he gains an eye if he succeeds, the changes of which are >50%, and he loses an eye if he fails, the chances of which are <50% – the estimated result is a gain of a fraction of an eye.

Of course, most people don’t actually consider taking an eye from an enemy to be exactly equal to losing one of their own eyes. They’d rather have the eye themselves even if it leaves the enemy with the eye. But consider theft – there, you actually do gain something from the crime. Let’s say I’m planning on stealing $10,000. If I get caught, I’ll have to give it back, and I’ll go to jail for, say, 10 years. Let’s throw in that I’ll pay a $10,000 fine. So if I get caught – if I lose the crime game – I lose $10,000 and 10 years of my life. If I win, I gain $10,000.

Sure, that looks like a bad deal, but only if my chances of getting caught are fairly high. Let’s say I value a year in prison at $50,000 per year (in other words, that’s how much I’d be willing to pay to avoid that punishment). So, in defeat, my total losses would be $510,000, and in victory, my total winnings would be $10,000. That means that if my chances of success are over approximately 98%, I should commit the crime – it averages out to a benefit, not a loss. It all depends on how much risk I’m willing to take on, of course, but to reduce risk just ensure that your chances of success are higher. 99%? 99.5%?…

The point is that some people will have those chances at success – or at least they will think they do – and so people will still commit crimes. Even with a literal eye for an eye – at some point, if I want to harm the other person badly enough and I think my chances of success are high enough – I will take his eye even if there’s a chance of it costing me mine. It’s actually an even better deal than the theft because they can’t make me give the eye back.

And, as Saint Thomas More pointed out, you can’t just increase all punishments to be extremely harsh because then people have no incentive to commit lesser crimes not greater. If I’ll get hanged for stealing, why not kill the witnesses so there’s less of a chance of getting caught? If I get caught, I die either way. Might as well decrease the chances of that happening. So you need punishments that are fairly reasonable. But then people only have to have good, not even great, chances of success before it’s worth it for them to commit crimes – 70%? 60%?

So how exactly is punishment a deterrent? It deters criminals who were likely to get caught. It doesn’t deter the ones who will probably succeed. But that’s really what we need to do. They’re probably the more dangerous kind anyway. An executive at a large company who can steal $1,000,000,000 and probably get away with it is far more dangerous than someone who can rob a convenience story, get $100, and have a fairly good chance of getting caught for it. “Deterrence” might stop the latter, but it won’t stop the former.

Anyway, that’s why I’m wary of the idea that punishing criminals is useful as a deterrent. So what is it good for? Education? Retribution? The former sounds absurd (the criminals who get caught aren’t the ones who need to be convinced that crime is wrong) and the latter potentially blasphemous (who are we to decide who is guilty and deserves punishment?). It might well be that deterrence is really all that punishing criminals is good for – the idea being that you don’t have to deter all the criminals, just enough to have some semblance of order in your society. Anarchy tends to be unpleasant.

But I suspect that so long as we have to punish criminals at all, there’s no hope of creating some sort of crime-less society… that would, after all, be a Utopia, a no-place. And any claim that a change in how criminals are punished will somehow drastically reduce crime should be examined very, very carefully. The only way to reduce crime is to reduce the criminals’ chances of success.

Pointlessness of Relationships

September 24, 2007

I’ve now been at college for about three weeks, and I think that’s time enough to observe and digest the social dynamics of the situation we freshmen are in. For those of you who are past their freshman year, you probably have more developed ideas on this than I do right now, but the post still might be interesting.

College is strange in that there is essentially no social continuity between high school and college. From elementary school to middle school to high school, there are transitions in who you are around on a daily basis, but there is a great deal of continuity – for the most part, the same people you go to elementary school with go to your middle school, even if you don’t hang out with them. The same for high school. Now, this is not true for all people; some people move from city to city, some transfer from school to school (*raises hand*), whatever. But that’s the exception, not the rule. There will always be less new people (even if you’re one of them) than old people.

When you go to college, that completely changes. Two other people from my high school are going to my college. Two people that I knew from another high school (I went to an all-boys school, this other school was all-girls) are going as well. So I came into college knowing about four people – and that’s many more than most people do.

The consequences of this are rather odd. For one, the first few days feel like a summer camp. You’re meeting a bunch of new people, not remembering very many of their names, and somewhat randomly picking which ones to hang out with. But it isn’t a summer camp. You’re going to be around these people for four years. So after a few weeks, if you realize that the people you began the year hanging out with aren’t the ones you want to keep hanging out with – you have a problem (this part isn’t autobiographical – I don’t have this problem).

What astounds me is how luck-based it all is. You randomly hang out with someone the first few days of orientation, and suddenly you are in some sense friends, while you have no connection to any of the other 300-whatever freshman, many of whom might be equal or better friends than this random person.

I suppose that this is how it worked in elementary, middle and high school, as well, and that it works out in the end. But since we’re much more mature[1] and aware of what’s going on now, it seems stranger. I haven’t the vaguest idea how I became friends with the people I was friends with in elementary school, or if describing them as friends is even the right word (‘friend’ has kind of been corrupted by things like MySpace and Facebook, of course…).

Another rather amusing feature of the first few weeks of college life is the romantic tension, I suppose is the term, in the air. Perhaps I’m just more aware of it because I went to an all-boys school and now, going to school with girls, I view any such tension as a giant increase. But I think it also has a lot to do with the fact that a bunch of people who have never met are introduced at the same time, and there has to be some time to sort out what’s what. For some reason that I don’t understand, these people think that because they have a crush on someone after the first two weeks they have to act on it. It seems to me it would be much wiser to wait a bit longer and let everything settle down without adding the additional factor of relationships to the social mix. The consequences of not doing this are, well, amusing[2], at least to the observer, but they sound like they really suck for the people involved.

I also don’t understand why people feel the need to have relationships at this point at all. After all, we’re freshmen in college, none of us plan on marrying while in college, most of us are good Catholics who aren’t going to have sex before marriage, and so what exactly are you going to gain from starting to date now as opposed to waiting until your junior or senior year?

There are essentially three possibilities that can arise from a relationship in college – you break up and hate each other, you break up and are still friends, or you keep going out until graduation and end up getting married. If you break up and hate each other, the relationship was obviously a bad idea – whatever emotional satisfaction you got from it, it’s erased by the break up. If you break up and are still friends, it’s not a total loss, you might have some good memories, whatever. But it still seems like a bad idea, because you’ve poured a bunch of time, energy and money into it and gotten nothing back – nothing that you wouldn’t have gotten by just remaining friends with that person. (Though I can see an argument that such a relationship would actually strengthen and deepen your friendship, I don’t believe it. In most cases ‘breaking up but still friends’ really means ‘breaking up and not hating each other but not really interacting a whole lot afterwards’.)

The final possibility is that you end up getting married. If so, that’s wonderful, congratulations. But… first of all, this seems very unlikely. Secondly, even if this does happen, did you really get married because you started going out your freshman year? Or wouldn’t the same thing have happened if you had asked the other person out your junior or senior year? I suppose she[3] might have been ‘taken’ by that point, but it seems unlikely. Thirdly, not dating exclusively your freshman and sophmore year means you have more opportunities to scope out the possibilities, if you will. If you start dating this person your freshman year and have eyes only for her all of college, it might turn out that someone in all ways superior was waiting for you but you never saw her because you were blind. That wouldn’t be terrible, but it isn’t great either. Finally, if you start dating your freshman year then the pressure over the next four to have premarital sex is just going to keep increasing.

I sound like my theology teacher (sans the Hungarian accent). I suppose that’s not altogether a bad thing. Of course, I talk the talk, but I’m not sure if I can walk the walk – I don’t plan on actively seeking out relationships and whatnot, but if a perfect opportunity comes along I might end up taking it….

[1]: I use this word with some hesitation. I don’t think most of us are particularly mature, but we are significantly more so than we were at age, say, seven.

[2]: I should probably make clear that I’m not laughing at the people who get screwed over by this. I’m friends with some of them, and I do sympathize with them. I’m laughing at the absurdity of the system that brings it about.

[3]: I’m assuming a male perspective here because I’m male and, since the roles of male and female are very different in relationships, I can’t claim to really know anything about what girls should do regarding this issue.


June 23, 2007

Last Wednesday (the 20th) I was at the Rangers baseball game where “Slamming” Sammy Sosa hit his 600th home run.

That was cool, I admit, but the very idea of celebrating the 600th occurance of something makes me think about the fact that the 600th occurance of something is only worth celebrating because we happen to use a counting system based on the number 10. If we had evolved with 3 fingers and a thumb instead of 4, we would have celebrated his 512th home run (though we would have called it home run number 1000), his 576th (=1100th), and, if he gets it, his 640th (=1200th).

And even given that we evolved the way we did, there’s no need for us to use base ten. The Babylonians used base twelve. (Incidentally, Tolkien’s Numenoreans did so as well.) And we could have counted base six on our hands just as easily as we do base ten. Use one hand for the ones digit and the other for the tens (well, sixes) digit, and you can count up to 100 in base six (36 in base 10). That seems to me considerably more efficient than using base ten, where you can only get up to 10 (that would be 14 in base six) on your hands. If you couldn’t tell, I’m partial to base six. Count with me now – one, two, three, four, five, ten, eleven, twelve, thirteen, fourteen, fifteen, twenty… fifty-four, fifty-five, one hundred!

My basic point is that the number ten has absolutely no significance. We use it only because we happen to have ten fingers and happen to have decided to count on our hands in one particular way (and not a particularly good way). It is absolutely meaningless when it comes to actual mathematics.

Yet we cannot escape from it, because we were brought up to count base ten, and it is very hard to change that habit. I don’t have any proposal to change that; and it isn’t like switching to a different base would really fix anything. But we could at least stop emphasizing in our culture the significance of insignificant things, by stopping this inane celebration of events that are only meaningful because they are divisible by the number 10 or some multiple thereof.

So some part of me wants to say – do not celebrate Sammy Sosa’s 600th home run. It is no greater an achievement than his 599th, or his 598th, or his 601st which he hit last night. We shouldn’t be comparing ballplayers against meaningless standards like 500 or 600 home runs, or 5000 strikeouts, or 300 wins, or 3000 hits. We should be comparing them against each other. Much more interesting than Sammy hitting 600 would be Barry Bonds passing Hank Aaron with 756. Celebrate (or boo, as I will) that as much as you want.

Accuracy Spades

March 31, 2007

[The first part of this post was based on a post I made on the Wesnoth forums]

My two favorite games of skill (other than Wesnoth) are chess, and a card game named Accuracy Spades which my brother made up.

Chess, as you all know, is entirely deterministic. In addition, a chess game, if played well, can take hours.

Accuracy Spades is luck, in that the cards you get are random. But it takes a lot of skill to manipulate them correctly. And – this is important – if your hand is completely horrible (which is rare, because what matters in this game isn’t so much what specific cards you have, but what combinations of cards you have), you can try to make that round worth less so your opponent extracts as few points as possible from your bad hand. And the individual rounds only take a few minutes (probably around two or three). The whole game will take maybe half an hour.

So – my basic opinion is, if you’re not going to have luck in a game, you have no choice but to make it a long, somewhat complex, very deep (=can always improve your skill) game. For example – tic-tac-toe sucks.

If you’re going to have luck, you have to do a few more things. You need the luck to balance out (which means a LOT of luck-based events – a game in which every ten minutes you flip a coin and whoever wins the toss gains 100 life would be, though balanced, idiotic), and a way for the player to win or at least minimize his loss even if he gets bad luck. Lucks needs to be able to be both anticipated and reacted to in a skill-based manner.

In light of this view of the role of luck in games, I’d like to explain the rules of Accuracy Spades, as an example of a card game that has luck, and uses it in a fair way that retains the factor of skill.

[ II ]
How to Play Accuracy Spades

Players: Two
Materials: One deck of cards, plus paper&pen if you want to keep score (which isn’t strictly necessary)

The game proceeds in a series of rounds, in each of which one of the players is the defender and the other the declarer. These alternate every round.

It is a trick-taking card game, which means the basic structure of each round is similar to that of the games Spades, Hearts, and Bridge, among others, though there are only two players, not four. In this game, spades is always trump.

The game begins with each player receiving thirteen cards. The defender makes a bid, a number between 0 and 13, indicating the number of tricks he believes he can take. The declarer then makes a similar bid. At this point:
If defender bid + declarer bid = 13, the round ends, with no players scoring, and the declarer and defender switch positions (this is called the declarer folding).
If defender + declarer , the objective of the game becomes to take as FEW tricks as possible.
If defender + declarer > 13, the objective of the game becomes to take as MANY tricks as possible.
(Clearly the declarer has complete control over which of these three occurs, unless the first player bids 13. This is why he is the declarer, and the other player the defender.)

The trick-playing then begins. For the first trick, each player plays their lowest club. The winner of that trick then leads any card (there is no “breaking trumps”), and gameplay continues until thirteen tricks have been played (each player should be out of cards at this point).

Only one player gets points each round. The amount of points is given for each player by

(opponent score – opponent bid)^2
– (player score – player bid)^2

There are two ways to score the game. Under the first variation, the player for whom the above formula yields a positive number gets that many points. For the second variation, this formula is calculated for the declarer, and he gets that many points, positive or negative.


Player Bid Tricks
Defender 7 9
Declarer 5 4

Declarer won the round. He gets (9-7)^2 – (4-5)^2 = 4 – 1 = 3 points.

Player Bid Tricks
Defender 6 6
Declarer 8 7

Defender won the round. Under variation one, he gets (7-8)^2 – (6-6)^2 = 1 – 0 = 1 point.
Under variation two, the declarer gets (6-6)^2 – (7-8)^2 = 0 – 1 = -1 point.

Gameplay continues until one of the players reaches a predetermined score, usually 21. This can take as many as 41 rounds (minus folds), since only one point is guaranteed per round, or as few as one, if one player makes a completely horrible bid and is off from it by over 5 tricks.

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