Being Measured

I stood in my socks in our unfinished basement.   My body tingled with anticipation.   But from my heels to my head, I tried to make my body as straight and flat as the poured concrete it was pressed against.  I looked straight ahead, as levelly as possible. My father held a metal ruler flat against the top of my head, its sharp edged pressed perpendicular to the wall.  “Ahora, ¡quédate quieto!” he commanded.

I froze myself, not just my bones and muscles and face, but all the way to my cells and the blood in my beating heart, I froze. It was important to keep perfectly still or everything would be inaccurate and ruined.

My father ran the freshly sharpened point of a pencil along the edge of the ruler against the wall, making a clean, straight line. I could hear the even steady scratch of the lead.

I didn’t need to be told to step out from under the ruler and get out of the way.  With one hand my Dad held the flat metal tab at the end of his heavy duty tape measure against the floor where my heels had been a moment before.  Pushing its right angle securely into the corner, he then jammed it still more firmly, just for good measure.   “Pón tu dedo aquí, y mantenlo fijo.”  Nervously, I obeyed, getting down on the cool floor and putting my finger against the tab, careful not to let it move.  I felt him push his own finger against mine, as if to nail it to the right spot.  Then, one end anchored, he slowly raised himself up, unspooling the tape measure up the wall toward the freshly drawn black line.

Watching silently, I saw the numbers appear from inside the metal housing, first inches, then the larger, bold “1” in red: the first foot.  “2.”  The second foot.  The inches rolled by and I counted them rapidly in my mind—“32,” “33,” “34,” “35,” “36”—then the big red “3”: the third foot.  But I already knew I was more than three feet tall.  I couldn’t even remember ever being less than three feet tall.  “37,” “38,” “39.”

Anyway, I was good at math.  I knew there were twelve inches in a foot, and so I knew that the key number was 47; that after 47 the next inch would be 48 and 48 was 4 feet: my goal.  As my father’s hand crept steadily up the wall toward the pencil mark on the wall, I watched more closely as the inches crept upward into the mid-forties.  It slowed down, I could see the tall, half-inch and even the shorter, quarter-inch hash marks march by.  “45,” “46,” “46 1/2.”  It slowed to a crawl.  “47,” “47 1/4,” “47 1/2.”  Almost there. “47 3/4.”  Focused intently on the parade of numbers, I’d lost sight of where the housing was in relation to the mark on the wall. I was surprised when my gaze came to an abrupt halt.  The tape measure had stopped.  The numbers held still, the red number “4” remained inside the housing, waiting implacably.

I had failed to become four feet tall.

Suéltalo hijo”: my father’s voice broke through the stupor of disappointed disbelief into which I’d had fallen.  My end of the tape measure obediently snapped back up to my father’s hand.

I was disappointed, but all was not lost.  I’d been through this before.  I knew that the absolute measure was only the first part, and not even the most important one.  What mattered more than my height was how tall I was compared to other boys my age.

I followed my father, past the engraved plaque—“Dr. Antonio E. Colás, M.D., Ph.D.”—by the doorway to his den, into the dense, comforting aroma of pipe tobacco mixed with old papers and books.  There, in its place on the metal shelving, was the thick, red, hard bound volume with the words “CIBA-GEIGY Scientific Tables” embossed on the spine.  I did not know what those words meant.  But I knew that inside the book, and (because I’d sneaked in here many times to look at it) precisely where inside the book, there was a page on which two groups of lines gracefully snaked their way from the lower left to the upper right of a graph.  The lower group was for weight, which I did not care about it. The upper group was for height.  At the top of the page was the chart title: “2-20 years: Boys” and below that “Stature-for-age and Weight-for-age percentiles.”

I’d learned what this meant two years before, just before my 5thth birthday.  Having measured me, my father showed me the graph, and carefully put a small plus sign at the point where my age intersected with my height.  The plus sign was just above the lowest line of the upper group.

Then, standing next to my father, who was seated at his desk, I watched as he drew a row of ten, faceless stick-figure boys on a blank sheet of paper.  Each boy was a little taller than the boy to his right, my left as I looked at them.  Next he drew another boy, all the way to the left of the page, who was a little shorter than the shortest boy.  Above that boy’s head he wrote my name: “Yago.”  Then he explained to me that “percentile” allowed me to see how I measure up against all the other boys my age: how many were taller than me, and how many were shorter. He was careful to note that even though his drawing made me look like the shortest boy of all, there were actually four boys shorter than me (out of 100), whom he had not drawn. That meant I was in the 5th percentile.

There were also other plus signs on the page, all marked above or very near to the upper-most line.  They were for my oldest brother.  He was nine years older than me, played basketball and already had two gold trophies: a basketball player standing tall, reaching high above his head with a tiny golden basketball cradled in his palm.  My goal was to have my plus signs bound up the page so they’d be next to his—that, and to get trophies of my own.

Already last year, at 6, having shot up 6 1/2 inches from the year before, I’d tasted the thrill of passing half the boys in the row.  Now at age 7, what mattered to me even more than being four feet tall, which I was not, was how high my plus sign would climb on that ladder of lines, where I would stand in that row of stick-figure boys.

My father opened the book to the percentile tables and laid it flat on a work table.  He hovered the fine-point pen he’d removed from his plastic pocket protector just above the page, following the line up from the number “7” printed above the word “Age” on the x-axis, while his left index finger moved to meet it from the left-hand side of the page, along an imaginary line just below the number “48.”  Before he even marked the spot with the little plus-sign, I could see where they’d meet: just below the middle one of the group of lines.  Not only had I not moved up any lines, I’d actually moved down, from just above the middle line last year to just below it this year.

One of the stick-figure boys had shouldered confident past me, dropping me from 5th place to 6th.  I had not grown fast enough. I did not measure up.  What was wrong with me?

 

 

The Culture of Moving Dots

Today I listened to a very well crafted, informative lecture by Rajiv Maheswaran on how basketball teams are using movement tracking devices and computing power to inform the decisions they make about roster composition, strategy and tactics.  Not only was the lecture itself admirable (something that, as a teacher, I care about a lot), but the human scientific intelligence and the technological power described in it leave me awestruck.  Moreover, the potential for the insights generated by this work to cut through certain persistent myths in basketball culture—myths that often harbor and purvey harmful social attitudes, especially about race—seems exciting to me.

Of course, as someone who has spent a lot of time analyzing the often irrational (if unconscious) attitudes embedded in the language and stories used to talk about basketball and basketball players from the game’s invention to the present day, the facts offered up by quantitative reasoning can be one useful instrument for countering these myths. And I can certainly see this presentation as a demonstration of the brilliant complexity of the physical and cognitive abilities of individual basketball players.  But still, quantitative reasoning and the technology and facts to which they lead remain just that—useful instruments—and ones whose utility depends, like that of any instrument, on the intentions of the user and the context of the use.  They are not, in my view any way, some sort of final horizon of human knowledge about basketball and its culture.  That’s why, despite these positive feelings, a reservation popped into my head almost from the outset, kept nagging at me throughout, and remained when I finished watching. 

At a linguistic and conceptual level, as I’ve expressed elsewhere on this blog, I’m concerned with the abstracting tendencies in basketball culture that lead us to see players as something other than human beings like ourselves.  So I get worried when Maheswaran boasts that in sports, through the “instrumenting of stadiums,” “we’re turning our athletes into moving dots.”

moving dots

we’re turning our athletes into moving dots.

There better be, in my view, some extremely compelling reason, some significant value delivered that outweighs for me the ethical cost of viewing (let alone “turning”) athletes—or any human being, for that matter—into a moving dots.  After all, psychologists have told us that seeing other people as moving dots, say on a radar screen, seems to make it easier to kill them.

But Maheswaran’s work seems driven by an assumption that the ability to track and quantify human movement is a desirable thing.  He asserts this more or less directly a few times in the course of his lecture, apparently to remind his audience of the practical value of the scientific research involved.  

So, he introduces his work with the relatively simple rhetorical assertion of value:

And wouldn’t it be great if we could understand all this movement? If we could find patterns and meaning and insight in it.

Then, after a detailed and informative explanation of how machines deliver NBA franchises information about shot selection and shooting ability, he explains that

it’s really important to know if the 47 [meaning the 47% shooter] that you’re considering giving 100 million dollars to is a good shooter who takes bad shots or a bad shooter who takes good shots.

Finally, in concluding he offers a touching glimpse of the personal value we might derive from non-sporting applications of this technology:

Perhaps, instead of identifying pick-and-rolls, a machine can identify the moment and let me know when my daughter takes her first steps. Which could literally be happening any second now.

Studying-Gothic-4

Think very carefully about this: are you prepared to live with what what you create?

Finally, he lands on a firmly optimistic and time honored Enlightenment era affirmation of the blissful marriage of science and progress in the quality of human lives:

Perhaps we can learn to better use our buildings, better plan our cities. I believe that with the development of the science of moving dots, we will move better, we will move smarter, we will move forward.

To some degree, I am with him on most of this.  However, I must say it’s no more important to me to know if the player that an NBA owner is considering giving $100 million to is a good shooter who takes bad shots or a bad shooter who takes good shots than it is to know whether my friend Johnny is moving his body in the most productive way during his shift as a stocker at the local Walmart. Beyond this, with regard to his final assertion, a great deal depends for me on what he means by better and smarter and even forward.

I am no scientist, but I am also no Luddite.  I recognize and depend upon the value of quantitative and scientific reasoning and its many technological applications countless times in the course of my daily life.  For example, at this very moment, I tap my fingers on a wireless computer keyboard that sends signals to my CPU that in turn transforms those movements into letters and words appearing on my screen in the post composition screen of a page on the internet. I may not understand the process in detail, but I know enough to know that my own work depends, directly or indirectly, on the work of people like Maheswaran.  And so I want to be clear that I am not adopting some sort of polarizing anti-technology stance whereby I’d advocate a world law banning the use of quantitative reasoning, science or technology in sport or elsewhere.

I am, however, advocating for a place at the table where decisions concerning the development and use of such instruments get made.  

I don’t mean a place for me personally (though I can think of worse candidates), but for people like me (but smarter and better informed—in other words, I can also think of better candidates) who have devoted much of their lives to studying the history of the relationship between human technologies and human values.  People, I mean, willing to attend to the annoying complexity of concepts like better, smarter, and forward.

Our technological power, as Maheswaran so ably demonstrates, is growing in leaps and bounds and the demonstrations, like his lecture, we have of it—themselves reliant upon new technologies—grow increasingly enticing and compelling to more and more people. Meanwhile, despite a shrinking budgets for higher education around the country, corporations and university administrators continue to prioritize spending for the development of facilities, faculty and resources in science, technology, engineering and math.

But this expansion has often come at the expense of investments in the humanities disciplines that have been the traditional home (in universities, at any rate) of critical conversation about the ethical costs and benefits of the developments we find so enthralling.  0When we contemplate, individually or collectively, using a new tool (which is how I see the technological application of scientific research), we must ask ourselves, informed by historical knowledge and by a deep interest in the causal web that extends around the globe, into the earth itself, and forward into the future, what we stand to gain and to lose by its use.  As you might imagine, the conversation that follows that initial query is likely to be complicated and messy and, dare I say it, inefficient.  But it is no less—and perhaps more—urgent that we have it on that account.

We need, in other words, to think very carefully and to talk about what we’ll gain and lose by moving “forward” into a “better” and “smarter” world in which we may all transform one another into moving dots.

In Praise of Inefficiency and the Incalculable

Much has been written in recent days about the Cleveland Cavaliers improbable victories over the Golden State Warriors in Games 2 and 3 of the NBA Finals.  The Warriors, the NBA’s best team during this year’s regular season and, according to several advanced metrics, one of the most dominating and efficient teams ever, were supposed to steamroll the Cavs, especially given injuries to Kevin Love and Kyrie Irving, two of Cleveland’s big three stars.  And yet, as we’ve seen and then read about, this is not the case.  Observers have noted a number of reasons for this.  Cleveland has slowed the pace of games by running down the shot clock, aggressively pursuing offensive rebounds (which prevents Golden State’s big men from releasing on fast breaks), and pressuring the ball in the back court.  Golden State has thrived on playing a fast paced game and they’ve clearly been confounded by Cleveland’s tactics.  Of course, a big factor in Cleveland’s ability to set the pace has been the play of LeBron James.  Here, we read how James, whose career has been marked by efficient scoring and unselfishness, has reluctantly adapted to the conditions of this series by controlling the ball more on offense and putting up many  more shots than usual.  The story, to boil it down to oversimple terms, is that, contrary to predictions based on statistical analysis of the regular season (and even the longer career trajectories of key participants), inefficiency is beating efficiency.

I find this heartening for many reasons, but I want here to focus on just one. Read more

What is Hoops Culture Class For? Unleashing Humanity

In my research and teaching on the culture of sports, I’ve oriented the intellectual tools of my discipline toward helping my readers and students understand and reflect critically upon how the language and stories that prevail in the culture of sports have taken shape, how and why we consume and purvey them, and, above all, how we may empower ourselves to become, as Nietzsche put it, the poets of our lives; how, I mean, to take a more active and creative role in shaping the language and stories, including those pertaining to sport, that circulate around and through us.

“Cultures of Basketball,” which was my first effort in this regard, is an advanced undergraduate humanities course with a typical enrollment of around twenty five. Because demand for the course is high, and given the way registration operates at Michigan with athletes and more advanced students having priority in course selection, the course usually has a high percentage of seniors from a variety of disciplines and varsity athletes including members of the men’s varsity basketball team.

The Problem

Here’s what I see when I walk into Cultures of Basketball on the first day:   Read more