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kottke.org posts about sports

Walking the Basketball Dog

posted by Tim Carmody   Jan 30, 2023

Ja Morant lets the basketball slowly roll in front of him while his defenders wait across half court

If you’ve watched a high-level basketball game in the last ten or so years (NBA, WNBA, NCAA), you’ve probably seen something a little strange. Instead of throwing the ball inbounds directly to a teammate, the inbounder will slowly roll the ball on the floor in their general direction… and then the ball handler will wait as long as possible before he picks it up and starts dribbling. Sometimes it’s just a few seconds, and sometimes it feels like an eternity. What is this, and why do they do it?

It’s called “walking the dog,” and it exploits a rule that’s as old as the shot clock itself. The shot clock (24 seconds long in the NBA) begins counting down as soon as a team takes possession of the ball after an inbounds pass. If you don’t shoot and make contact with the rim within 24 seconds, the other team takes possession of the ball.

The shot clock is designed to speed up play. Walking the dog is a loophole designed to slow it down. You use it for two reasons: to delay starting the shot clock (giving you longer to get down court and set up a play) and to run time off the game clock (giving your opponent less time to control the ball and score).

Walking the dog is very old — the 60s Celtics used to use it after the other team scored to give them more time for their legendary center Bill Russell to get down court and set up the offense. And generally, that’s been how it’s used in the modern NBA, to get more time back on the shot clock. But in recent years, more ball handlers have been walking the dog to run time — sometimes, lots of time — off the game clock. So it’s becoming more controversial.

One of the most notorious dogwalkers is Ja Morant, who usually makes highlight reels for his explosive dunks. But his slow roll strolls up the court are becoming just as much a signature move:

Two years ago, Morant became a regular dog walker in his sophomore season and quickly got his team to buy in. He’s utilized the move 41 times across all quarters and has been the ball handler on 23 of those 34 plays in crunch time, wasting over three minutes of game clock. In just over half this season, Morant has wasted more time walking the dog than any team had in an entire year and holds three of the longest dog walks recorded in the NBA this season (his teammate Desmond Bane has one of the others)…

The Grizzlies don’t discuss this in practice or plan these plays in advance. Morant often motions to his inbounder to roll the ball in slowly in these situations right as they materialize, especially when leading late in a game. The guy will do anything to shave a few seconds off. He’ll leap out of the way instead of catching the ball if the inbounder throws it too hard in his direction. If Morant finds himself inbounding, he’ll play dumb and misplace the ball as the game clock keeps running.

How has Morant become so good at walking the dog? He declined to speak with ESPN for this story, but his teammates think it boils down to his speed and athleticism. Opponents are hesitant to really press him 75-plus feet from their own hoop. If they make a mistake, he could have a huge runway with a numbers advantage. Others think it’s more a combination of fatigue and a never-ending game of chicken.

How do you stop a player from walking the dog? It’s so simple that it’s stupid: send a defender to make them pick up the ball. There’s some risk on either side here: an inattentive ball handler might allow an aggressive defender to steal a rolling ball. But an overaggressive defender might accidentally foul the ball handler in the back court while trying to steal the ball. That’s exactly what happened to Ben Simmons in a recent game against Morant:

As the Grizzlies’ star guard makes his way up the court, he lets the basketball roll alongside him, slowly, slowly, slowly, an inch at a time, untouched. Morant only needs to maintain a slow walk to keep up as he scans the court, uncontested by any Nets defender.

The ball rolls another inch, another inch, another inch. Morant is almost at half court. He keeps letting the ball roll alongside him, knowing the 24-second shot clock won’t start until he touches it — burning precious game clock at the same time, almost 21 seconds now.

As he crosses half court, Morant finally picks up the ball and glances over to his bench. His defender, Ben Simmons, suddenly closes on him and lunges at the ball, looking for a steal — but he’s too late. Morant sees it coming and protects the ball. Simmons hits him in the arm. Whistle. Foul. That’s Simmons’ sixth; he’s out of the game.

Thanks in part to that play, Memphis wins by 10. Afterward, Morant explains that he was baiting Simmons, knowing he’d bite based on past experience. Clips of the play soon go viral.

Personally, I like it when clever players find ways to play games-within-a-game in sports, especially basketball. So I have no problem with walking the dog. Other people think it’s boring, unfair, or it slows down the game too much. It definitely seems like if a lot of games come to a literal standstill, then the league office might step in and make a rules change. But until then, it’s worth enjoying the players who play this game — and all of its wrinkles — the best.

Walls Cannot Keep Us From Flying

posted by Jason Kottke   Jan 20, 2023

Jonathan Mehring’s short documentary Walls Cannot Keep Us From Flying follows two young Palestinians who have found freedom in skateboarding while surrounded by walls & barbed wire and facing harassment from Israeli authorities and their own families & communities.

What do I feel when I skate? What do I imagine? I imagine there’s no occupation, there’s no wall. I feel freedom.

With every new trick, it’s like you become aware of a new life, new ideas. It’s not something that I can describe, it’s something you feel in your heart. It’s like when something has been missing and you’re looking for it and slowly you find it.

According to one of the young skaters in the film, when a new skatepark opened in the West Bank, the Israeli army came and fired tear gas. And no wonder — when oppressed people start doing things like skateboarding and begin to feel like they are free, authoritarian regimes can’t have that — they’ve got to crack down.

Mink!

posted by Jason Kottke   Jan 19, 2023

In the course of making his Oscar-winning documentary about basketball star Lusia Harris, director Ben Proudfoot became interested in how Title IX, the federal civil rights law that prohibits sex-based discrimination in any educational program that receives federal funding, was passed. And that led him to former US Representative Patsy Mink, who was the first woman of color elected to Congress and a key advocate in the fight for Title IX.

As the first woman of color elected to Congress, Ms. Mink — and her path to office — was influenced by the discrimination she experienced in her personal and professional lives. Many doors were closed to her as a Japanese American woman, and she became an activist and later a politician to change the status quo.

As I learned more about the early history of Title IX in the 1970s, I found that lobbyists and legislators mounted a formidable campaign to dilute and erode the law. This effort would culminate in a dramatic moment on the House floor, where Ms. Mink was pulled away during a crucial vote on the future of the law.

A Short History of the Basketball Mile World Record

posted by Jason Kottke   Jan 10, 2023

People running “unconventional miles” is a thing now (see the beer mile) and during the pandemic, when meets and other usual track activities were cancelled, running a mile while dribbling a basketball became part of the human competitive story.

What started out as a curiosity-driven gimmick on YouTube eventually transpired into a competitive record among plenty of athletes, to the point where very experienced milers are now the only candidates that can pull this off.

The record for the basketball mile is 4:28, which also happens to be the current record for the aforementioned beer mile. It’s interesting that dribbling a basketball while running is equally as time-consuming as stopping to chug four beers and then running; I would have guessed the beer mile would take longer.

A Beautiful Typographic Mini Golf Game

posted by Jason Kottke   Jan 05, 2023

As a former mini-golf champion, I am completely charmed by Alphaputt, an mini golf iOS game where the courses are shaped like letters of the alphabet.

mini golf courses shaped like a variety of letters

mini golf course shaped like the letter J

mini golf courses shaped like the letter K

mini golf courses shaped like a variety of letters

You can play through the alphabet or play a customized course by typing out a word (come on, that’s pretty cool). (via colossal)

The Top 15 Goals of the 2022 World Cup

posted by Jason Kottke   Dec 22, 2022

Since I’m probably not alone in wanting to hang onto the magic of the World Cup a little longer, here are the top 15 goals of the tournament, featuring the likes of Messi (twice!), Rashford, Mbappe, and of course Richarlison’s incredible effort against Serbia. See also this other take on the top goals.

Talking Trash with George Eliot

posted by Jason Kottke   Dec 20, 2022

I read (and loved) Middlemarch this summer and was delighted to find this surprisingly modern usage of the concept of trash-talk about halfway through the book (boldface mine):

But in this doubtful stage of Lydgate’s introduction he was helped by what we mortals rashly call good fortune. I suppose no doctor ever came newly to a place without making cures that surprised somebody — cures which may be called fortune’s testimonials, and deserve as much credit as the written or printed kind. Various patients got well while Lydgate was attending them, some even of dangerous illnesses; and it was remarked that the new doctor with his new ways had at least the merit of bringing people back from the brink of death. The trash talked on such occasions was the more vexatious to Lydgate, because it gave precisely the sort of prestige which an incompetent and unscrupulous man would desire, and was sure to be imputed to him by the simmering dislike of the other medical men as an encouragement on his own part of ignorant puffing. But even his proud outspokenness was checked by the discernment that it was as useless to fight against the interpretations of ignorance as to whip the fog; and “good fortune” insisted on using those interpretations.

Curious if that term had been in use before George Eliot wrote Middlemarch in the early 1870s, I found Mark Liberman’s post on Language Log, where the earliest citation of the “abuse of opponents” sense of the phrase seems to be 1933. I will leave it to the etymological experts whether what Eliot meant by the phrase can be linked to the competitive speech of Muhammed Ali, Michael Jordan, and other athletes.

“Fox Sports’ US World Cup Coverage Is An Unmissable Abomination”

posted by Jason Kottke   Dec 06, 2022

There are plenty of problematic things about this year’s World Cup, starting with the human rights situation in the host country, but for US viewers, Fox Sports’ coverage is really stinking up the joint. Aaron Timms burns them down in The Guardian:

In these circumstances you might expect Fox’s coverage of the matches, untroubled by politics, to be razor-sharp. You would be mistaken. From its Orientalist redoubt on the Doha Corniche (Arabesque motifs, casino lighting, no actual Arabs unless they’re from the Qatari tourism agency), the Fox team has set about its task with vigor: to beam all the tournament matches into the living rooms of America while being maximally patronizing to the country’s soccer fans. In those rare moments when Fox is not jamming a brand down our throats (“Here’s the player to watch segment, presented by Coca-Cola”, “Your first-half moment, sponsored by Verizon”, “Our player spotlight is hosted by the Volkswagen ID.4”), the network’s hosts, analysts, and match commentators seem determined to mansplain the sport as if we, the soccer-watching public of the United States, have spent the past four decades with our heads in the desert sands surrounding Lusail Iconic Stadium.

Insults to our collective intelligence have come from all angles: the constant, tedious analogies to American sports (stepovers and feints described as “dekes” and “hesis”, corners constantly compared to “pick and rolls”); the neverending quest to “contextualize” the world game by comparing whole countries to American states (“Qatar is the size of Connecticut,” we were told repeatedly on the opening day); the network’s embrace and promotion of the interminable “it’s called soccer” cause (who cares?); the strange extended segment in the run-up to USA v England about how much Harry Kane likes American football (ditto); the employment of Piers Morgan as a special guest pundit (no thanks).

The “it’s called soccer, no it’s football” thing is beyond stupid — it’s the sort of debate that 4th graders have on the playground. I watched the Netherlands vs. USA match the other day with my friend David and it was so bad we switched the channel to Telemundo even though neither of us speaks Spanish — and you know what, it was better because you could just enjoy the game. (Also, my pet peeve about the coverage: when showing the starting lineups and formations, they do not list the possible subs. The bench players matter, especially on these deep international teams! They come on late in games and score winning goals! Tell us who these people are!)

Danny MacAskill’s Postcard From San Francisco

posted by Jason Kottke   Dec 06, 2022

Trials rider and mountain biker Danny MacAskill is one of my long-running obsessions here — I first posted about him all the way back in 2009 and if there’s ever a kottke.org konference, you’d better believe MacAskill will be performing at it. Anyway, MacAskill recently visited San Francisco with Red Bull and explored some of that beautiful city’s most iconic locations on his bike. Wow, the tennis net ride at 2:45 — BONKERS.

This video is actually a trailer of sorts for a 4-episode series that’s available on Red Bull’s site:

Watch as Danny lands a host of new tricks — some five years in the making — in spectacular spots around San Francisco. Then go behind the scenes and learn what this deeply personal edit means to him.

Super Rider (another trials rider) also did a behind-the-scenes video with MacAskill where they go in-depth on the tennis court setup.

Extreme Pogo Stick Riding

posted by Jason Kottke   May 05, 2022

Inspired by this short video I found on Twitter of people doing extreme stunts on pogo sticks, I found a few videos on YouTube that showcase what’s possible on what’s commonly thought of as an old-fashioned children’s toy.

Gotta admire the spirit of humanity that turns absolutely everything into an extreme sport.

An Interview with a Professional Jump Roper

posted by Jason Kottke   Apr 14, 2022

I have to admit: before watching this video, I was unaware that there were professional jump ropers. But of course there are, and Tori Boggs is perhaps the best one in the world. She’s won dozens of world championships and holds some impressive world records. And the tricks she can do with a rope…it’s a joy to watch someone who so obviously loves what they do perform at such a high level. (via the kid should see this)

The Queen of Basketball Wins the Oscar

posted by Jason Kottke   Mar 28, 2022

At the Oscars last night, The Queen of Basketball won the award for best documentary short. The film is about Lusia Harris, the only woman to officially be drafted by an NBA team. Here’s what I wrote about Harris and the film back in August:

Before this morning, I had never heard of Lusia Harris and now she’s one of my favorite basketball players. Playing in the 1970s, before the enforcement of Title IX in athletics, the 6’3” Harris dominated in high school, led a small university to three consecutive national basketball championships in the first 5 years of the program (while averaging 25.9 points and 14.5 rebounds per game), scored the first basket in Olympics women’s basketball history, is the only woman ever officially drafted by an NBA team, and was inducted into the National Basketball Hall of Fame.

Great to see this film win, but also bittersweet because Harris died only two months ago at the age of 66. The director is Ben Proudfoot, whose stuff I have been posting about since 2011. Really fun to see him be rewarded for his talent.

A Regular Guy Tries to Compete at Olympic-Level Curling

posted by Jason Kottke   Feb 25, 2022

In this video, complete curling novice Clay Skipper spends a day getting trained up by some of the best curlers in world and then tries to apply what he’s learned in a doubles match. This is actually really interesting and well-done — not only do you get a good overview of the rules and strategy of curling, you also see the progression of coaching & learning, from the basic approach (that will get the stone down the pitch) to fine-tuning techniques to reliably place your shots where you want them. Oh, and you can see just how difficult it is to play at a high level.

See also The Worst NBA Player Is Way Better Than You.

Skateboarding in Urban Isolation

posted by Jason Kottke   Feb 09, 2022

If you’re a skateboarder from Southern California, you have probably dreamed of a Los Angeles landscape full of empty concrete and devoid of cars, buses, bikes, and people. This video delivers exactly that — skating around a big, empty LA with everything else automagically removed. (via the morning news)

Female Bolivian Skateboarders Shred in Traditional Dress

posted by Jason Kottke   Jan 07, 2022

a group of Bolivian women skateboard in traditional clothing

a Bolivian woman in traditional dress stands on a skateboard

a Bolivian woman in traditional dress stands holding a skateboard

Brazilian photographer Luisa Dörr travelled to Bolivia and photographed the members of ImillaSkate, a group of Aymara and Quechua women who skateboard, often in traditional cholita clothing. From a slideshow of photos by Dörr in El Pais (translated from Spanish by Google):

I traveled to Cochabamba in September and was struck by the strong prejudice that exists in Bolivian society against indigenous people. There are medical cholitas or lawyers there who radically change their way of dressing if they go to the city and you hardly see young cholitas. It is a culture that is being lost. However, these women, beyond emboldening girls with sport, show their pride in being cholitas.

Here’s a short documentary about ImillaSkate with English subtitles and you can follow more of Dörr’s work on Instagram. See also the Girls of Guanabara.

Winning Time: The Rise of the Lakers Dynasty

posted by Jason Kottke   Dec 21, 2021

From executive producer Adam McKay (who also directed the first episode) comes a glitzy HBO series about the Lakers’ NBA dynasty in the 80s called Winning Time. It’s based on Jeff Pearlman’s book, Showtime: Magic, Kareem, Riley, and the Los Angeles Lakers Dynasty of the 1980s. The casting looks great — Adrien Brody as Pat Riley is particularly fitting.

Winning Time was also the last straw in the disintegration of the creative partnership between McKay and Will Ferrell. From a recent profile of McKay in Vanity Fair:

McKay had been making an HBO limited series about the Los Angeles Lakers basketball team in the 1980s based on the book Showtime and Ferrell, a huge Lakers fan, had his heart set on the role of Jerry Buss, the legendary ’80s-era team owner. After Gary Sanchez dissolved, however, the Lakers show moved under McKay’s new production banner, Hyperobject Industries. And Ferrell, it turns out, was never McKay’s first choice. “The truth is, the way the show was always going to be done, it’s hyperrealistic,” he says. “And Ferrell just doesn’t look like Jerry Buss, and he’s not that vibe of a Jerry Buss. And there were some people involved who were like, ‘We love Ferrell, he’s a genius, but we can’t see him doing it.’ It was a bit of a hard discussion.”

The person McKay wanted for Buss was John C. Reilly, who looks more like the real thing, and who is Ferrell’s best friend. McKay hesitated. “Didn’t want to hurt his feelings,” he says flatly. “Wanted to be respectful.”

In the end he cast Reilly in the role anyway-without telling Ferrell first. Ferrell was infuriated. “I should have called him and I didn’t,” says McKay. “And Reilly did, of course, because Reilly, he’s a stand-up guy.”

Winning Time debuts in March 2022.

Award-Winning Photos from an Action & Adventure Sports Photo Competition

posted by Jason Kottke   Dec 20, 2021

a climber jumps away from a cliff face

a person in a kayak shoots out of a massive wave in the rapids

dozens of paragliders fly in the air over the mountains

a man skateboards on a curved rock face next to a stream in the forest

The winners of the 2021 Red Bull Illume Image Quest photography contest have been announced. You can take a look at the winners, runners-up, and finalists in the contest — so much impressive work here. Photos above are by Will Saunders, Rod Hill, Andreas Busslinger, and Adrien Petit. (via in focus)

Vintage Photos of Venus & Serena Playing Tennis as Kids (1991)

posted by Jason Kottke   Dec 02, 2021

Venus & Serena Williams as kids

Venus & Serena Williams as kids

Venus & Serena Williams as kids playing tennis

The Smithsonian’s National Museum of African American History and Culture is home to a collection of photographs taken by Rod Lyons in 1991 of Venus and Serena Williams practicing tennis at the ages of 12 and 10 on a tennis court near their home in Compton. Their father Richard is in the photos as well, coaching his daughters. Patrick Sauer talked to Lyons about the photos for Smithsonian Magazine:

“Where I was sent to shoot an up-and-coming tennis player was interesting because [the sport’s] ’70s [to] ’80s boom was over, so [tennis] wasn’t that popular overall, and you certainly didn’t see Black people in Compton out there playing. But other than that it was no big deal,” Lyons recalls. “I got there and started taking pictures of two young sisters named Venus and Serena, 12 and 10, taking lessons from their father, Richard. The practice session was disciplined and intense. Richard was really coaching ‘em up that day, but he wasn’t dictatorial, and [he] treated his daughters with kindness and respect.”

There’s another photo of the sisters from 1991 in this NPR piece, as well as some stories from locals about the Williams family:

Barbee was a 21-year-old limo driver and part-time tennis coach when Richard Williams invited him to train with his daughters.

“Tennis was a passion,” he says.

Barbee was a tennis prodigy himself, so when he faced Venus and Serena on the court, he had finally met his match.

“Man, it was unbelievable,” Barbee says. “Never seen nobody that good. It was something I’d never seen before in my life.”

Venus wasn’t even a teenager yet.

Training meant hitting hundreds of balls with enough force to break the strings on their racquets.

“Every other day, I was restringing my racquets,” he says. “My shoes, once a week. A hole right in my foot of my shoe. Used to tape them up.”

Here are still more photos from 1991 and you can find a photo of the sisters posing with Ronald and Nancy Reagan at Sports Illustrated.

King Richard, a biopic of Richard Williams produced by his daughters, takes place during this period of time, is now out in theaters and on HBO Max, and is getting great reviews.

How Bowling Balls Are Made

posted by Jason Kottke   Nov 16, 2021

I have been a fan of how things are made videos since my Mister Rogers and Sesame Street days, so I was not expecting to be so surprised watching the video above about how bowling balls are made. It’s a ball — how complicated could it be? Well, it turns out that modern bowling balls contain an asymmetric weight block in the middle that looks a little like a car’s starter. Weird, right?

As I started to wonder why it would be advantageous to include such a lopsided core in a ball you want to roll predictably down a lane, I noticed YouTube’s algorithm doing its job in recommending that I watch Veritasium’s recent video on How Hidden Technology Transformed Bowling, which totally explains the wonky weight block thing:

The weight blocks are wonky in a precise way. They’re designed to cause the ball to contact the lane over more of the surface of the ball, giving it more traction once it hits the unoiled part of the lane, which is desirable for expert bowlers looking for a wicked hook. So cool! (thx, mick)

Update: Brendan Koerner wrote a piece for Wired several months ago about Mo Pinel, who revolutionized bowling with the asymmetric cores described in the video above.

Pinel toured Faball’s factory and examined a freshly made core that the company used in its Hammer brand. It had a symmetrical and unexciting shape — the center looked like a lemon, and there were two convex caps of equal size on either side. In a moment that has now passed into ball-design legend, Pinel grabbed the core, which was still soft because the polyester had yet to cure, and sliced off the ends with a palette knife. Then he smooshed the caps back on into positions that were slightly askew, so that the contraption now looked like a Y-wing fighter from Star Wars.

The ball that contained this revamped core, the Hammer 3D Offset, would become Pinel’s signature achievement. “That ball sold like hotcakes for three years, where the average life span of a ball was about six months,” says Del Warren, a former ball designer who now works as a coach in Florida. “They literally couldn’t build enough of them.” In addition to flaring like few other balls on the market, the 3D Offset was idiot-proof: The core was designed in such a way that it would be hard for a pro shop to muck up its action by drilling a customer’s finger holes incorrectly, an innovation that made bowlers less nervous about plunking down $200 for a ball.

(via @danhwylie)

The Ultimate Ski Run

posted by Jason Kottke   Nov 04, 2021

This is a really entertaining ski video from Markus Eder that combines the playful free skiing of Candide Thovex with JP Auclair’s street skiing. My kids do free skiing — not on stuff like this quite yet — and let me assure you that as steep, fast, and big as everything looks in that video, it’s steeper faster, and bigger in real life. It took so much effort and planning to make that run look so easy.

Tiny Soccer Stars

posted by Jason Kottke   Nov 01, 2021

a tiny Erling Haaland celebrating a goal

a tiny Lionel Messi celebrating a goal with a normal sized Neymar

a tiny Cristiano Ronaldo celebrates scoring a goal

a tiny Kobe Bryant dunking

I am a little bit obsessed with Phetru’s miniaturized soccer stars (along with the occasional other sports stars or celebrities, like Kobe above or Emma Raducanu) — they’re like bobbleheads come to life. It was tough picking out just 3 or 4 to feature…each successive photo was funnier than the last.

Is the 3-Pointer Breaking Basketball?

posted by Jason Kottke   Oct 13, 2021

The three-point shot has become the focus of the offensive strategy of every successful NBA team. But is it also making the game boring?

The math states that scoring one-third of your shots from behind the 3-point line is as good as scoring half your shots from inside the line. In other words: Shooting as many 3s as possible will likely lead to a higher score.

The league took notice, and teams and players followed suit. 3s have become so prevalent in recent years that fans are criticizing the league for being oversaturated with them. Critics worry that the game is on the verge of becoming boring because everyone is trying to do the same thing. And that’s led some to wonder if the NBA should move the 3-point line back.

Check out the “additional reading” in the YouTube description, like The NBA is at a breaking point with three-point shooting and Is It Time to Move the NBA 3-Point Line Back? (2014).

Flat Earth FC

posted by Jason Kottke   Oct 08, 2021

From 2019 to 2021, a small Spanish football team was renamed Flat Earth FC, both as a publicity stunt and because club president Javi Poves couldn’t understand how water “curves”.

“Football is the most popular sport and has the most impact worldwide, so creating a club dedicated to the flat earth movement is the best way to have a constant presence in the media,” said Poves earlier this year. “Flat Earth FC is the first football club whose followers are united by the most important thing, which is an idea.”

The club’s crest is now a circular image of the earth, pressed flat on to all kits, and fans are encouraged to spark regular conversations in their pursuit of answers from the powers that be. The team mascot? An astronaut. It’s a radical move, but the club is bringing in supporters from afar. “It’s really amazing to be part of this amazing movement,” says Flat Earth player Mario Cardete. “I think it’s more than a club.”

During the pandemic, the club also became anti-mask and anti-vax — because conspiracy theories come in price-saving 3-packs, I guess? Poves resigned in late 2020 and the club was renamed and then purchased by a larger club to become their reserve team. The Earth remains round.

Simpson’s Paradox, a Mindblowing Statistical Gotcha

posted by Jason Kottke   Oct 06, 2021

Even for mathematically minded folks, statistics can be hard to grasp. Take statistical paradoxes for example: Simpson’s Paradox is a real mind-boggler. Ryan Anderson explains this paradox in a recent issue of Why is this interesting?

It’s simple to describe, yet it still stops me in my tracks when I see it in the wild. The paradox is that a measurable effect on a large population disappears, or even reverses when that population is split into subgroups. The cause of these results is almost always a material change in the denominators from one period to the next.

Showing is easier than telling with paradoxes, so here is a classic example: In 1995 and 1996, David Justice had a higher batting average than Derek Jeter in each year. However, Jeter had a higher cumulative batting average over those two years.

It’s true; look:

comparison of batting averages

Anderson continues:

How does this work? Jeter’s 1996 stats accounted for over 92% of his total performance over the two years, as he was 20 years old and only called up to the major league for a few games in 1995. Meanwhile, Justice’s 1996 stats were only 25% of his total performance due to a separated shoulder he suffered barely two months into the season. So while Justice performed better on smaller sample size, Jeter’s 183 hits in 1996 were the strongest signal for overall performance.

Read the rest of the piece; he goes on to connect statistical paradoxes to efforts to mislead people about the pandemic and vaccine effectiveness.

Update: A pair of videos on Simpson’s Paradox, in case you need some more explanation or examples.

(thx, @JunieGrrl)

Attention Deconcentration and the Secrets of Freediving

posted by Jason Kottke   Sep 22, 2021

This is a lovely, almost poetic piece by Daniel Riley about the sport of freediving and one of the best freedivers in the world, Alexey Molchanov.

Freediving is, after all, a lifelong opportunity to radically reshape one’s body and mind in the process. In pursuing depth, humans must train their lungs and brains to unlock secret sources of clarity and strength and oxygen and potential that are hidden within the body. They are secrets that, once revealed, make the divers not just more effective at their craft, they argue, but more effective, conscious, skillful, and thoughtful as human beings. There is a shift in perspective. A global realignment within one’s consciousness. The look in their eyes when they talk about this thing…every diver who’s gone truly deep sounds like those rarest of individuals who’ve seen the earth from the moon, or died and been resuscitated.

Alexey learned how to excel in the sport of freediving from his mother Natalia Molchanova:

When Alexey was younger, his mother, Natalia Molchanova, was the world’s best freediver, a distinction that she held for many years. She was a pioneer in the sport and the practitioner of a mind-and-body-control technique called “attention deconcentration.” She passed her secrets to her son, who perfected them and uses the regimen to reach a state of intense calm. By doing so, he can slow his heart rate, his metabolic rate, while simultaneously slowing the activity of his brain and his body. His focus deepens. He relaxes to the point of seeming asleep. He takes deep, drowsy breaths, like a summer breeze filling a sail.

I first learned about freediving from Alec Wilkinson’s 2009 piece in the New Yorker, where Natalia explained attention deconcentration:

To still the unbidden apprehensions that might interfere with her dive - what she describes as “the subjective feeling of empty lungs at the deep” — Molchanova uses a technique that she refers to as “attention deconcentration.” (“They get it from the military,” Ericson said.) Molchanova told me, “It means distribution of the whole field of attention — you try to feel everything simultaneously. This condition creates an empty consciousness, so the bad thoughts don’t exist.”

“Is it difficult to learn?”

“Yes, it’s difficult. I teach it in my university. It’s a technique from ancient warriors — it was used by samurai — but it was developed by a Russian scientist, Oleg Bakhtiyarov, as a psychological-state-management technique for people sho do very monotonous jobs.”

I asked if it was like meditation.

“To some degree, except meditation means you’re completely free, but if you’re in the sea at depth you will have to be focussed, or it will get bad. What you do to start learning is you focus on the edges, not the center of things, as if you were looking at a screen. Basically, all the time I am diving, I have an empty consciousness. I have a kind of melody going through my mind that keeps me going, but otherwise I am completely not in my mind.”

After reading both of these great pieces, you can check out one of Molchanov’s recent world record dives:

Every Sport a Bowling Ball

posted by Jason Kottke   Sep 15, 2021

What if you substituted a bowling ball for the ball in sports like ping pong, golf, cricket, tennis, and soccer — but also in darts and skeet shooting? This very funny video imagines just that.

Meet Lizzie Armanto, Olympic Skateboarder

posted by Jason Kottke   Aug 09, 2021

The 2020 Summer Olympics are over, but it’s never too late to find inspiration in the athletes who competed. For the New Yorker, Nathan Fitch made a short film about professional skateboarder Lizzie Armanto, who was then preparing to represent Finland in the first ever skateboarding competition at the Olympics.

“There [are] no masters,” Armanto says. “And even the people that we call masters — they haven’t done every trick. No one can do everything on a skateboard at all times without failing. Everyone falls, and everyone will have something that they can work on.”

Armanto didn’t medal at these Games — she broke several bones and underwent surgery after a skating accident in late 2020 and was perhaps still recovering from that. But she represented Finland and her sport in fine style; she helped design the uniforms she wore:

Those distinctive squiggles were actually an homage to Finland, the country Armanto was competing for. Specifically, she was inspired by architect and designer Alvar Aalto. “In 1939, he designed a kidney-shaped swimming pool which became synonymous with pool skateboarding much later in the ’70s,” Armanto says. “The various patterns on the jumpsuits are modeled after empty swimming pools around the world.”

(thx, pete)

Track Star Races the NYC Subway

posted by Jason Kottke   Aug 05, 2021

BuzzFeed enlisted NYU track athlete Jon Diaz to help answer a burning question: Can a fast runner beat an NYC subway train from one station to the next? I don’t want to spoil the answer, but they probably wouldn’t have made the video if he’d failed, right? (via clive thompson)

Update: See also subway races in other cities like London & Paris. (via @philipkennedy)

Lusia Harris, the Only Woman Drafted by an NBA Team

posted by Jason Kottke   Aug 02, 2021

Before this morning, I had never heard of Lusia Harris and now she’s one of my favorite basketball players. Playing in the 1970s, before the enforcement of Title IX in athletics, the 6’3” Harris dominated in high school, led a small university to three consecutive national basketball championships in the first 5 years of the program (while averaging 25.9 points and 14.5 rebounds per game), scored the first basket in Olympics women’s basketball history, is the only woman ever officially drafted by an NBA team, and was inducted into the National Basketball Hall of Fame. And those aren’t even her proudest achievements — you’ll have to watch the video for that.

For an electrifying young basketball player on the national stage, success often comes with a lucrative professional contract and brand deals — but Harris’s moment came in the 1970s, decades before the W.N.B.A. was founded, when few opportunities were available to female athletes interested in pursuing a professional career. In Ben Proudfoot’s “The Queen of Basketball,” Harris tells the story of what happens when an unstoppable talent runs out of games to win.

This video is part of the NY Times’ Almost Famous series, which also includes stories about radio astronomer Jocelyn Bell Burnell and actress/singer Kim Hill.

The Twisties

posted by Jason Kottke   Jul 28, 2021

Yesterday, world champion gymnast Simone Biles removed herself from the women’s team final at the Olympics after not doing one of the planned two-and-a-half twists on her vault and stumbling on the landing. Biles said after the final:

I just felt like it would be a little bit better to take a back seat, work on my mindfulness. I didn’t want to risk the team a medal for, kind of, my screw ups, because they’ve worked way too hard for that.

On Twitter, former gymnast and diver Catherine Burns explained that Biles was likely experiencing a case of “the dreaded twisties”.

When you’re flipping or twisting (or both!) it is very disorienting to the human brain. When training new flips and twists, you need external cues to learn how it feels to complete the trick correctly. (In diving, a coach yells “OUT” and you kick your body straight and pray).

Once you’ve practiced a trick enough, you develop the neural pathways that create kinesthesia which leads to muscle memory. Your brain remembers how your body feels doing the trick and you gain air awareness.

It’s like driving a car, she explains. At first everything you do is unnatural and requires deep concentration to learn but once you’ve got it down, you can do it instinctively, without thinking or even paying that much attention. Then sometimes, in stressful situations, you start thinking too much about how to do the familiar thing and you lose it completely:

Suddenly, in the middle of driving on the freeway, right as you need to complete a tricky merge, you have totally lost your muscle memory of how to drive a car. You have to focus on making you foot press the pedal at the right angle, turn the steering wheel just so, shift gears..

It’s terrifying. You’re moving way too fast, you’re totally lost, you’re trying to THINK but you know you don’t usually have to think to do these maneuvers, you just feel them and do them.

The twisties are like this, and often happen under pressure. You’re working so hard to get it right that you stop trusting your muscle memory. You’re getting lost in the air, second guessing your instincts, overthinking every movement.

And when you’re driving a car or performing a high-intensity sport like gymnastics, second guessing and overthinking can cause serious injury.

I used to write a lot about this kind of thing in this loosely connected series of posts on relaxed concentration. This phenomenon goes by many names — performance anxiety, stage fright, choking, the yips, cueitis (in snooker), and target panic (for archers) — and the world-class are not immune. Daniel Day-Lewis had stage fright so bad he quit the stage decades ago — an affliction he shared with Laurence Olivier, Barbra Streisand, and Mikhail Baryshnikov. If you’ve read anything at all about this stuff, Biles’ case of the twisties doesn’t seem so unusual or mysterious — it’s just one of those things that makes her, and the rest of us, human.

Update: I’d missed this yesterday: Biles herself told reporters about the twisties.

They saw it a little bit in practice… having a little bit of the twisties.

Which is something she’s struggled with before:

The twisties are an issue Biles has faced before, including in the lead up to the 2016 Olympic Games in Rio and prior to the 2019 season.

“2019, at the beginning of the year, I forgot how to twist and flip. It was great,” Biles told Olympics.com in January 2020.