Saturday, March 6, 2010

A few more...

observations about the Winter Olympics, in particular NBC's coverage of it, before the whole thing retreats from our memories.

° Most of my most ardent feelings come from figure skating, because that's the winter sport I've followed the most closely. My brother and I used to watch it with our mother, and now I watch with my wife. When I refer to the broadcast team of Scott Hamilton and Sandra Bezic as a "train wreck," I do so based on some decades of watching figure skating.

I don't have the same points of reference for other winter sports. I really enjoy the biathlon because of its juxtaposition of cross-country skiing (a sport which, as a marathon runner, I can relate to) and shooting (which I can't relate to at all). To me it's like running as hard as I can for 15 minutes, then stopping to thread five needles as fast as possible, then running some more. (I also have to admit to a fondness for sports that are abstracted out of real things. One can see where the biathlon simulates something a soldier might have to do. Similarly, I have a great affection for modern pentathlon. Until figure skaters can shoot lasers out of their sequins, it's difficult to find the real activity there.)

But I don't "get" biathlon well enough to determine whether NBC's Chad Salmela is doing a good job. There's no obvious screeching about the mundane, no crying, and a reasonable amount of information (most of it about ski wax), so I'd guess he's doing OK. But I'm not really sure.

With skating, however, I know enough to know that we're being poorly served by the current analysts. Bezic and Hamilton offer almost nothing in the way of insight; it's just their emotions spilling out the airwaves, and I'm honestly not very interested in how they feel about things. As I wrote before, I want either information to help me understand the event better, or a sense of what it is to be there experiencing it for myself. I get neither from the screaming and the crying and the rampant self-indulgence.

The saddest thing is that NBC has better people on staff. Tom Hammond, a generally competent play-by-play guy in many sports, sinks to the level of his co-commentators. He could easily be replaced by Andrea Joyce (who's done a fine understated job hosting the Grand Prix events televised on NBC's Universal Sports) or Terry Gannon (who did figure skating for 14 years on ABC, understands the sport, and knows a lot of the players).

The Universal Sports coverage has been illuminating, as we have heard Joyce working with a few different color commentators, each of whom has surpassed Bezic or Hamilton. I only caught Michael Weiss once, but he, while unpolished, did a nice job and shows real potential. Paul Wylie gives a nice analytical look at what's going on. And Peter Carruthers, Joyce's most frequent partner, has become quite good. (Just a few years ago, he wasn't particularly good at all, talking way too much about a skater's "lack of concentration," but he's rounded into someone who can emphasize the important aspects of a routine without hyperbole or Hamilton-esque screaming.) Any of them would be better choices than Bezic/Hamilton.

º A lot has been made about the new skating scoring system. Very simply, they replaced a system in which each judge gave a mark for technical execution and another for artistry, with a system in which each element (jump, spin, step sequence) gets a value, then is judged as +3 to -3, and includes five presentation areas for which scores are given a 0 to 10 ranking. There are various weights given, the numbers are added together, and the score rolls out. (A more detailed treatment can be found here.)

[A word about the usual description of the system. It's often termed "mathematically complex." It's not. The system is based on multiplication and addition, and any reasonably smart 4th-grader could handle its complexity. What's complex is how the numbers are arrived at, and the motivation behind the calculations.]

What's odd is that they took a system which was faulted for a lack of accountability and transparency and replaced it with a system that has almost none of either. The scores that are used are not identified by judge, and the numbers they put down seem arbitrary.

The system does, however, replace two numbers per judge with a whole lot of numbers per judge, and demonstrates what I like to call the "false certainty of more data." Anyone who has seen a work performance evaluation system in which there are weights and measurements and defined criteria, all of which are used to come up with one number that reflects an employee's performance for the year, knows what I'm talking about. Each skater ends up with a whole bunch of numbers to look at, but that specificity doesn't imply greater accuracy. Any judge can still show systematic bias; instead of being clear ("The Russian judge only gave 5.2?"), that bias is buried under a mass of GOEs and base values and factors, but it can still easily be there.

º There was a lot made about the "world record" performance of Kim Yu-Na in winning the ladies' gold medal. Unfortunately, the code of points changes each year, the required elements change, and so forth. World records, national records, personal bests, all are meaningless within a system that revamps its rules each year. It's as if high jump records were kept, but the length of an inch changed each year. The records would be irrelevant, just as they are today in figure skating.

º Also in figure skating - there were some comments on the under-rotation of jumps, especially when it turned out that US hopeful Rachael Flatt had been marked down twice in her long program for failure to complete her triple flip. Bezic and Hamilton were indignant, arguing that the judges were "tough" on Flatt (indignation which seemed to come mostly from their inability to see it).

Here's the rule: if, upon slow-motion review, it is decided that the skater was more than a quarter-turn away from completing a revolution, the skater gets credit for the next smaller jump (a triple loop becomes a double loop, for example). The points are correspondingly less, so the skater will not score as high.

This debate is ludicrous. My feeling is that there shouldn't even be a quarter-turn leeway. If you complete three revolutions (not 2-3/4), you've done a triple. Anything less, it's a double. It's the only way figure skating can be considered a sport, not a dance on ice. There's no "almost" clause in any other real sport.

º Listening to NBC's coverage, one would think there was a new nation called "North America." Especially as the first week full of United States success gave way to a second week dominated by Canadian gold, there seemed to be a push to appropriate Canada's victories as, somehow, ours. This was particularly true in the ice dancing final, as a lot was made of the "first gold medal in ice dance earned by a North American team."

It may be noteworthy that Russia lost what was once a lock for a gold medal (only two exceptions, 1984 and 2002, versus 7 golds for various incarnations of Russia), but it isn't clear that "North America" has finally found the magic. The gold and silver medal-winning teams were coached by skaters who came up in the Soviet system, so it's not as if we've found some kind of capitalist magic. It hardly constituted a "Miracle on Ice."

And it isn't clear at all that, NBC notwithstanding, we in the 50 states should take a huge amount of pride in the victories of a non-entity called "North America."

º In general, I think that many of the problems NBC has in covering the Games is their omnipresent hope of finding a transcendent moment. We're supposed to believe that these athletes come to the Olympics and do the impossible (and NBC's there to capture it for us). Michael Phelps wins 8 gold medals in swimming and, despite the essentially repetitive nature of what he's doing, is instantly touted as the greatest Olympian of all time. Usain Bolt sets sprinting world records - because he happens to do it at the Olympics, he's an instant immortal.

In most cases, however, success comes as a result of long hours of mastering skills. Evan Lysacek wins an Olympic gold not by transcending human performance, but by strategically simplifying his program (by omitting an attempt at a quad jump) and executing it in a way he has hundreds of times before. You can respect his ability to perform under the exaggerated pressure of an Olympics, but you can't argue that he's doing something unprecedented. The same is true of pretty much every sport. Biathlon is impressive, but success is the result of untold hours of hard training and genetic fortune, not in willing one's self to ski faster and shoot better simply because it's the Olympics.

This is where commentators get themselves into trouble. Scott Hamilton (yes, him again) is fond of talking about "muscle memory," in which a skater does something almost automatically because they've trained the move again and again in practice. But, if that's true, then what accounts for Scotty's ecstasy at the landing of a "TRIPLE LUTZ...TRIPLE TOOOOE! Ohhhhhhh!" combination? These athletes do that every day, it just isn't that amazing.

Which brings us to Joannie Rochette (whose case I've already commented on). Her mother passed away two days before Joannie was to start competing, and NBC treated it like the most remarkable thing possible. How can she possibly skate? How can she go out there?

Here's how. She's done these routines many times. She's jumping and spinning using her "muscle memory," so her performance does not depend on being in the right frame of mind. If anything, her two routines constituted seven minutes in which she didn't have to think about her mother. It's NBC which needs to portray her performances as impossible.

I don't mean to minimize Joannie's pain. I lost my mother a few years ago; while we had an oft-contentious relationship, the pain I felt was still real. And now Joannie has to go through that, and, despite its being something most of us have to deal with eventually, I wish she didn't.

But we shouldn't ignore the context. Had she dropped out of the Olympics, no one would have blamed her, but NBC would at best have treated it as a footnote and moved on. Joannie would not have received thousands of texts and messages of support, she would not have become the icon of the Olympic spirit (and, of course, not been overscored in her long program). I'd suggest we take a moment and consider the kind of coverage an Estonian biathlete would have received in the same circumstance: pretty much none.

NBC has decided that the Olympic Games needs these kinds of over-arching narratives, these personal dramas writ large, and, as long as they arise in certain sports and from certain countries (how much attention did Petra Majdic receive for winning a bronze in the cross-country sprint immediately after falling and breaking four ribs and puncturing a lung?), they'll get the full focus of the network. And maybe they're right, maybe they do need the Tonya-Nancy kind of stuff to sustain interest as they grub for ratings.

But, occasionally, I find it kind of wretched, that we can't just be left to appreciate the effort and the training and the performance, that everything has to be augmented by heaping servings of bathos. Because it's a pretty fine line between admiring the pluck of a Joannie Rochette and shamelessly using her heartbreak to pull in the Nielsens.

Thursday, March 4, 2010

NBC's lost weekend

I have commented before on what a big fan of the Olympics I am (I'm sure I wrote a few posts about it in August of 2008). The Winter Games are no exception, and I watch pretty much every minute that I can. That watching is, of course, all on the big network, as I don't have cable TV, but one certainly gets one's fill from the flagship.

And the coverage was pretty much what we've come to expect. I'll probably have a post or two over the next few days about specific quibbles, but there really were no surprises. The pre-selected stars (Vonn! Ohno! White! Lysacek!) were given far more than their share of attention, and the network left some time to accommodate the stories that actually grew out of the events (Mancuso! Miller! That big bobsled guy!). Naturally, these were all Americans, as someone needs to be really special in a marquee sport to be noticed if they aren't from the 50 states (Kim Yuna! Joannie Rochette! Alexandre Bilodeau!). [Note: it really helps if they are from or train in Canada.]

This is all pretty standard stuff. What I don't understand is the series of odd decisions NBC made in their final weekend coverage. I could chalk some of it up to having to give 3 hours to a hockey game that they had not anticipated (do we really think they would have given most of Sunday afternoon to the Czech Republic vs. Finland?).

The problems actually started Thursday night in the coverage of the ladies' figure skating final. This is one of the major events of the Games, there's a massive amount of hype, and NBC gave it surprisingly short shrift. They showed a total of 9 programs, and, other than the final group of six, made curious choices as to who they showed. We "got" to see Tugba Karademir, who finished last (I wonder why NBC finds her so compelling, as they featured her four years ago), Cheltzie Lee, who finished 20th (and we saw her short program as well), and Elene Gedevanshvili, who finished 14th. Why they picked these three is beyond me.

[By the way, who finished 4th in the free skate? Laura Lepisto of Finland, who jumped from 10th after the short to 6th overall. As far as I can tell, she was never mentioned once, and was omitted from the graphic showing the final scores - we saw 1 through 5, then 7th.]

On Saturday night, NBC showed six programs in the figure skating exhibition gala. I personally don't care too much for that, but I would think it a big draw for the audience, and NBC kind of threw it away. Of course, if you had cable, you could have risen at 5:30 AM (Central Time) on Sunday and watched it on MSNBC, but I still don't grasp the rationale.

Then, Sunday afternoon, they showed almost every minute of the Men's 50K cross-country race. I like endurance athletics; had I grown up in a place with recreational skiing, I'd probably be out there myself. But watching it was not all that interesting; NBC could have cut it by about half, had a perfectly exciting event to show, and left time for other things.

Finally, there was the bizarre decision to cut abruptly from the Closing Ceremonies to Jerry Seinfeld's new show. There was almost no warning before Bob Costas told us to come back in an hour. As I get older, I find the Closing Ceremonies to be less interesting - I mean, Nickelback? Avril Lavigne? - it's like watching video of a party to which I wasn't invited. Nevertheless, it seemed like an odd choice to move so quickly from one to the other.

What a shame NBC had to end that way.

Tuesday, March 2, 2010

Followup on health care

I know that all my readers have been breathlessly anticipating my second post on the myths of health care (the first was here). I stated there that the most ardent pro-health care advocates are making, amongst the very true things they're stating, a couple of arguments that seem quite questionable.

The first one was the idea that, no matter how flawed the legislation, it will inexorably be made better over time. I find the evidence for that rather sketchy.

My second installment is coming along one of these days, but the urgency seems undercut by the near-total lack of movement on this effort. It would appear that the coming mid-term elections will doom us to the status quo. For completeness' sake, however, I will get around to Part 2 at some point.

Wednesday, February 24, 2010

There is an "I" in Olympics

“What a gift she's given us.” - Sandra Bezic, NBC, 2/23/2010

Joannie Rochette's story is truly sad. She comes to Vancouver as a potential medalist in the ladies' figure skating event, in an Olympics held in her home country. And her mother arrives to see her skate, then passes away before the competition begins. The juxtaposition of what should be the greatest moment in this athlete's life with one of the greatest personal tragedies one can endure makes for an almost unbearable poignancy.

Rochette chooses to skate, and, in last night's short program, skates very well and ends up scoring enough points to put her in third place at this point.

As she comes off the ice, Sandra Bezic, one of NBC's skating experts, utters the quote above. I'm willing to cut her some slack, in that stupid things can be said in the excitement of the moment, but later, during the post-competition wrap-up, she essentially repeats herself.

I could spend some time unpacking this quote, but, if you can't see the fatuousness of it, no amount of explaining is going to help. To suggest that Rochette skated for us, rather than for herself, or her father (misidentified by NBC, corrected only far after they had milked the pathos out of it), or for the memory of the mother who had supported her through her quest for a dream, strikes me as amazingly inappropriate.

But I'm not surprised.


There are, I think, two schools of thought as to how sports commentary should work. There are those who believe that the role of the analyst is to, well, analyze and explain and teach. The audience should gain insight into how these accomplishments are done, into what distinctions are made by judges, into what separates mediocre from good from excellent. The analyst, who was a practitioner or teacher or both (Bezic herself was an excellent pairs skater with her brother, then became a top choreographer), can lead us through even unfamiliar sports and, while not necessarily deluging us with minutiae, lead us into a greater understanding and appreciation of these feats.

I'm reminded of the great Al DeRogatis, who called football for NBC in the '60s and '70s. He had been a fine player, and, in the booth, broke down football in great technical detail, allowing the viewer to understand some of the intricacies of the game. One could learn a lot from DeRogatis. But after 1975, he was out, because the new breed of broadcaster had come.

The other kind of commentator is the one who attempts to create excitement, who tries to convey a picture of what it feels like to be there. He or she might sprinkle in the occasional technical term to prove their bona fides, but that's mere seasoning in the stew of emotion that they're trying to cook up. (In football, they might mention a Cover 2 defense, but they'll never take the time, or risk viewer boredom, by actually explaining what that is.)

There are some who can play both roles. John Madden, particularly in his early days as a broadcaster, could convey with a kind of verbal shorthand what the game felt like ("Boom"), but also provide some real insight broken into 15 to 20-second chunks.

But that's all gravy, especially in something like the Olympics where we thrill to events to which we'll pay absolutely no attention until 3 years and 50 weeks from now when the next Winter Games come along. I'm certain that NBC is making a concerted effort to provide us with 99% feel, 1% information, and that's the way they're going to do it (and perhaps they have research to indicate that they get higher ratings when they handle it that way).

The problem is, of course, that facts can get in the way of the narrative excitement. Snowboardcross and skicross are the two newest additions to the Winter Olympics, and they can be exciting in the final rounds when four athletes are on the course at the same time, jostling for position.

However, qualifying for these sports is really, really boring. A course that presents numerous challenges when two competitors are an elbow shove away from each other seems to be of little interest when only one person is going down. But, in NBC terms, these sports are NEW! EXCITING! THRILL RIDES! So we're not told that the men have 33 skicrossers competing for, yes, 32 positions. The women, 35 for 32. The announcers were careful to stay away from mentioning that nothing much is at stake.

So we end up with powerful incentives to "go surface," to hype and emotionalize everything instead of explaining. NBC hires nominal experts, then has them ignore their expertise in favor of creating a word picture of the experience.

But what happens when they hire people who can't do that, who have impressive resumes but no ability to convey the ambiance of the competition?

We know what happens - we the viewers are subjected to the train wreck that is the team of Sandra Bezic and Scott Hamilton. Hamilton, a man I think very highly of for his personal story and his charitable work, is possibly the worst "analyst" working for any major sports network. Bezic is better only because she shuts up more often (with execrable lapses like the quote above).

The problem, I think, is that they don't the narrative gifts to deliver to us a sense of what it's like to be there. Instead, they substitute their own feelings. So we don't get, "Triple lutz, triple toe loop, well done with a small turnout on the landing." We get Hamilton's "TRIPLE LUTZ...TRIPLE TOE...OH, HE FOUGHT FOR IT, BUT HE GOT IT!!!" And that's actually a high point in content for our Scotty.

Everything is filtered through the prism of their emotions. To some, it might seem more vivid, but it far more often comes off as information-free blather that appeals neither to our brains (because there's no content) nor to our hearts (because we really don't care how Sandra and Scott feel about things).

One might have thought this reached its peak in the 2002 Olympics, when Bezic told us she was "ashamed for our sport" when her favored fellow Canadian pairs team was, in her opinion, underscored. National jingoism aside, this was the apotheosis of her self-importance, as scandal, duplicate gold medals, and a new judging system followed. It's hard to avoid feeling that Bezic began to overestimate her impact after this, leading her to think that she really was a major mover and shaker in figure skating.

So we end up with the most subjective look possible, one which asks us to think more about the announcers than about the event. And we get fatuous quotes like the one from Bezic, which tells us nothing except that she feels that Joannie Rochette skated for the good of Sandra Bezic. And the "we" just makes it worse, as this hack "analyst" attempts to include us in this most inappropriate feeling possible.

NBC really needs to take a look at this team and see if there isn't some talent somewhere that could do a halfway-competent job.

Saturday, February 6, 2010

The two great myths of health care - part 1

I'm returning from my self-imposed exile because I'm finally fed up with the rhetoric surrounding the endless and, almost certainly, failed bid to create a health care plan that will actually help Americans at a reasonable cost. Having read endless amounts of prose on the two sides over the past year, I don't need to articulate the very real concerns that the right has over these proposed plans (of course, 95% of everything they've said is garbage - death panels? - but worrying about future costs is perfectly reasonable), because they seem to be carrying the day.

No, I have a problem with the left, particularly that segment of the left which says, "We're not getting everything we wanted at the beginning, but it's still a good start; let's not make the perfect the enemy of the good." I'm with them up to a point. I think something should be done, and the bills that are on the table represent some progress toward treating health care, to some level, as a right of citizenship rather than just another consumer good.

But it is profoundly unhelpful to advance arguments that are wildly speculative and questionable as justification for passing such major legislation. And, as I've had the opportunity to read and ponder much of the rhetoric, I've identified two such arguments that are seen as "proof" that we must move ahead with what's on the table. In this post I'll take up the first: the idea that whatever is passed will inevitably be improved in the near term, so we better get the ball rolling.

Any number of bloggers and pundits have taken up this idea, this utopian vision of "It must get better, so let's get started." Matt Yglesias, Ezra Klein, et al seem honestly to believe that flawed legislation will inevitably be followed by better legislation ad infinitum, that somewhere in the future we will end up with a near-perfect system in which everyone gets what they deserve and no one has any problems. This viewpoint is exemplified by a Kevin Drum post from today:
In 20 years this bill will be entirely forgotten except as the first step toward broad national healthcare. The excise tax, the public option, the subsidy levels, the exchange — all forgotten because they will have been steadily replaced by an entirely different infrastructure. It's true that some of that infrastructure will be path dependent on the details of the current bill, but most will simply evolve as a result of technology and public demand. By 2030 arguments over the public option will seem as antiquated as rants against the tin trust.
Wow, that sounds great. But do these folks have any evidence to offer along this route to perfection? Well, they love to cite both Medicare and Social Security, which started out in limited ways, requiring years of pressure and legislation to achieve their current status.

And I will admit that these programs, each of which were thought wanting in their original creation, have been refined over the years and become closer to their original intent. And national health care kind of looks like those programs, so it is natural (if somewhat pat) to believe that the arc of development will be the same.

However, the rationalist must then look more broadly, across all government programs, and must ask: "Has that been the fate of all large-scale government programs? Do they inevitably start out small and limited, and grow to something wonderful over time?"

The answer must, alas, be no. I'm sure there were people who felt that our periodic stabs at creating better schools would eventually lead to, yes, better schools. And some of those people have been waiting for three generations to see those schools improve, and they're still waiting. The war on poverty was going to stamp out the injustices that prevent people from achieving their dreams, and it is a war as yet unwon.

There is very little evidence that there is political tide which inevitably makes bad or flawed legislation into good policy; there are numerous examples on both sides of that ledger. I'd like to see those who are willing to settle for whatever Washington may eventually pass to concede that it may not ever get a whole lot better than what we start with. If there are flaws in National Health Care 2010, they may well still be there in 2030 (and 2050...), and we had better be prepared to live with that. [The other myth later...]

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