Quick hits (part I)

Lots this week.  More tomorrow. Here we go…

1) This security system tested at the World Cup seems pretty great.  Would love to see it in airports soon.

2) Krugman’s nice column on the failure of Obamacare to fail.

3) This NYT piece on the utter mis-handling of a rape and a college is truly a must-read.

4) Heck, not just marijuana, the case for decriminalizing all legal drugs.  This Vox piece presents a very even-handed analysis.

5) As if I could somehow ignore an article entitled “We are our Bacteria.”

6) NC Republicans have argued that cutting unemployment benefits has helped get more people working.  The evidence (and Dean Baker) suggest otherwise.

7) Former Obama Budget Director Peter Orzag with a nice column on political polarization.

8) I’ve actually said some nice things about Politico here.  Charles Pierce takes on an article that shows all that is wrong with them.  Remind me never to get on Pierce’s bad side.

9) Fascinating NYT column on just how hard it is to learn a foreign language as an older adult.  And how good it may be for your brain.

10) Sweden has totally embraced vouchers and school choice.  The result?  Declining student performance.

11) Loved this Mark Bittman column on the true cost of a hamburger.  If there’s one concept from public policy, I wish more people understood, it’s externalities.  And hamburgers are all about externalities.

12) I had the same thought as the person Sam McDougle upon seeing the trailer for Lucy.  As if humans only use 10% of their brain.  Sadly, aparently a lot of people still belief this total malarkey.

13) Apparently nitrous oxide, yes, laughing gas, is quite an effective anesthestic for child birth.  It is widely used in Europe, yet hardly in America.  In part, because of a turf battle between anestheloiogists and nurses.

14) Loved this Guardian column on Manuel Neuer’s goalkeeping, especially this part:

 On a football pitch you are looking to gain any advantage you can. Like the opposition, you only have access to 11 players so you must use these players as efficiently as possible. If one of them has no role other than babysitting the net, then you’re already at a disadvantage.

Football is a lot like chess. You have the same number of pieces as your opponent, you face-off on the same playing surface and you both have the same aim. The great chess players know they need to get the most out of each of their pieces to win. This gives rise to the maxim: “The King is a fighting piece – use it.” …

By using your goalkeeper not just to protect your own goals but to actually participate in defending, building attacks and keeping the ball, you are utilising your 11th man. If your opposition are not doing this, you immediately have a man advantage.

How the running shoe industry is like pre-Moneyball baseball scouts

So, a friend knowing I obsess about most things I purchase, came into my office to ask about running shoes a couple of days ago.   We had a lengthy discussion of the research that suggests that shoes fitted to one’s particular gait (i.e., over/under pronation, etc.) are not actually better for you.  I was familiar with this research from Gretchen Reynolds’ The First 20 Minutes which I’ve plugged here before and will plug again, but I also found her NYT column summarizing the research:

Over the course of three large studies, the most recent of which was published last month in The American Journal of Sports Medicine, the researchers found almost no correlation at all between wearing the proper running shoes and avoiding injury. Injury rates were high among all the runners, but they were highest among the soldiers who had received shoes designed specifically for their foot types. If anything, wearing the “right” shoes for their particular foot shape had increased trainees’ chances of being hurt.

Scientific rumblings about whether running shoes deliver on their promises have been growing louder in recent years. In 2008, an influential review article in The British Journal of Sports Medicine concluded that sports-medicine specialists should stop recommending running shoes based on a person’s foot posture. No scientific evidence supported the practice, the authors pointed out, concluding that “the true effects” of today’s running shoes “on the health and performance of distance runners remain unknown.”

And, a more recent study I had not yet learned about:

Then they gave all of the volunteers the same model of lightweight, neutral running shoes (rather than motion-control shoes, which are designed to correct pronation problems), along with a GPS watch to track their mileage and instructions to report any injury, which would then be assessed by medical personnel.

The volunteers subsequently ran as much as they wished at a self-chosen pace for a full year. As a whole, the group covered more than 203,000 miles and developed about 300 medically confirmed injuries.

Contrary to received running wisdom, however, those who overpronated or underpronated were not significantly more likely to get hurt than runners with neutral foot motion.

Among those who covered at least 600 miles during the year, injury rates in fact were slightly higher among the runners with neutral feet than among those who overpronated…

The research reinforces a widespread belief among scientists studying running “that pronation doesn’t play much of a role” in injury risk, he says.

It also suggests, he says, that trying to alter pronation with a specific type of shoe is probably misguided. At the university’s running clinic, “we see so many injured runners who’ve been told that they overpronate” and need sturdy motion-control shoes to fix the problem. “They wind up injured anyway.”

Instead, he says, this new study and common sense suggest that comfort is likely to be a better guide to shoe choice than foot posture.

I’m pretty confident, though, that if you go into any running shoe store they will quite confidently tell you that you need a particular shoe to match your stride and you will surely get blank looks and push back if you mention this research.  The traditional approach just seems to make so much sense.  Amazing how far that can take us without evidence (the examples within medicine are myriad, many great examples in Overtreated).  For my part, though, I couldn’t help thinking about Moneyball and how baseball scouts just know what makes a good player because it all makes so much intuitive sense.  Only when Billy Beane et al., started to look at data, did people finally realize otherwise.

So, as my shoes are three years old (worn out for sure, but surprise, surprise, there’s actually no evidence that this is more likely to lead to increased injury risk):

Dr. Schelde did find a study on injury rates among runners, published in 2003, that had some relevant data even though it was not a randomized clinical trial and shoe age was not its main focus. The study was large and regularly tested runners in a 13-week training program. The researchers failed to find any clear relationship between how long running shoes were worn and a runner’s risk of injury.

I did decide to get a new pair.  Thus, even though all the gait analyses I’ve had tell me I need a “stability” shoe for my overpronation, the research suggests I should just buy a neutral.  Why go back to the fancy running store when the employees will sell me shoes based on pre-Moneyball baseball scouting?  So, I didn’t.  I researched on-line and I just went to Dick’s and used my gift card that my soccer team parents got me.

In the end, I kind of hedged a little bit.  Brooks now has “guidance” shoes which are kind of like stability-lite or neutral-plus.  That struck me as a good compromise.  More importantly, they felt great when I tried them on.   So, the Brooks Ravenna 5 it is.

What can the World Cup can teach about U16 Rec soccer?

So, I’ve just spent a huge amount of time the past month watching the best soccer players in the world compete at the highest level.  It’s been awesome.  When I hit the practice field again in about a month, I will have a group of 14 year old boys with very modest skills.  The vast majority of kids in our area who have decent technical skills are playing at the Challenge or Classic level.  There’s very few players left in Rec who are good on the ball or have a knack for scoring.  There’ are a few, though, and the Blasters have had more than our fair share which surely accounts for our success more than my coaching.  That said, the league is generally full of modestly-talented players who are some pretty good athletes and understand soccer reasonably well, but are generally lacking in a lot of key soccer skills.  So, that said, what in the world could I as a coach at this level possibly learn from the World Cup?

A few thoughts– and mostly I just want to bounce them off the soccer fans among you.  I think they basically come down to this– let skilled offensive players beat you (because there’s just not going to be many of them).

1) A high defensive line.  This was one of the keys to the German approach (nicely summarized here by Michael Cox aka Zonal Marking).  Push the whole team far up the field and leave the space behind the defense, not in front.  This is something I’ve already been pushing for years, but now I think I understand why it works for us and why I am going to emphasize it even more.  A skilled and speedy offensive team can potentially be murder on a high defensive line (look what Netherlands did to Spain and what Algeria would have done to Germany if not for Manuel Neuer).  But we don’t really face speedy and skilled offensive teams.  There’s not a lot of pretty through balls in U16 Rec soccer.  Furthermore, we have assistant referees that are actually pretty good at calling offside, making it all the more harder to get the timing down on a nice through ball.

Now this high defensive line will give away more than it’s fair share of breakaways, but giving the paucity of strong offensive players, many of these breakaways will be thwarted by good defense, good goalkeeping (two areas where my teams have been strong) and by mistakes from the offensive player.  We’ll surely give up some goals this way (and have in the past), but I strongly suspect we would give up far more goals by setting up our defense further back on the field.  The truth is, there’s going to be lots of mistakes– it’s the nature of our players.  I want these mistakes to happen as far from my goal as possible.  Our defenders are not Greece or Costa Rica who can just face wave after wave of crosses and offensive attacks and fend them off because we have 9-10 players organized deep behind the ball.  We’re never going to be all that organized giving constant substitutions and 90 minutes of practice a week and, regardless, there’s going to me plenty of physical and mental errors.

2) Press, press, press.  It’s in the nature of the players to attack the ball, not fall back into organized line of defense (which again, is going to be hard to successfully coach in limited time, even if I had a good sense of how to do that).  I read one comment that Chile’s constant pressing requires a huge amount of energy and is just not cut out for an extra-time game.  Our games are 70 minutes and have unlimited subs– let the kids burn up their energy attacking the ball whenever they can.  Now, as with the high defensive line, a few skillful passes strung together can put your poorly-organized press to shame, but we just don’t see a lot of “a few skillful passes strung together” at this level.   I also think that decent team-work and positioning on the press, i.e., pressure-cover-balance, can probably be taught fairly well with small-sided practice games.

3) Formation.  My teams play a 3-4-3 with a diamond midfield.  I think most teams play four on defense.  Watching this World Cup and learning more about formations (courtesy Michael Cox), I think that’s probably a mistake.  These days, at the elite level, your two outside defenders (fullbacks) are expected to be offensive threats who push the ball up the side and make crosses.  Nobody  in U16 Rec is doing that.  There’s really only two full-time defenders in an elite 4-x-x system.  The teams that play 3-x-x actually have a more defensive-oriented system as those are typically three full-time “central defenders.”   I think this is probably one reason a lot of teams at our level struggle to score goals– there’s four kids who basically never get involved in the offense.  It’s a rare kid told they are playing “defender” who goes up much past the center line, even on corner kicks.  Take one of those defenders and make him a defensive midfielder, and now you’ve got an extra attacker (not to mention more protection in the center of the field).  Partly it is the talents of my players, but often, my best player on the field is my defensive midfielder, serving effectively to both break up opposition attacks and as a deep-lying playmaker.

Now, this isn’t World Cup related, but as long as I’m on my coaching approach… So, why three forwards?  That’s simple.  There’s pretty much always going to be at least one weak player out on the field (obviously not a problem at the elite level).  Play him at outside forward and his mistakes will not cost us goals given up and we’ll still have two forwards for the attack.

So, soccer/football aficionados, what do you think?

Photo of the day

The Telegraph brings us the 60 most iconic World Cup photos (so, guess this will probably be my last World Cup photo for 3 years and 11 months):

I’ll go with this one, since it’s pretty much my favorite goal ever.

World Cup 2014: Thrills, spills and lots of drunken Chileans

Magic moment: Robin van Persie scores the goal of the tournament with his outrageous, gravity-defying leap and headerPicture: GETTY IMAGES


Here’s the moving gif of the goal, if you somehow haven’t seen it:

Van Persie Header Goal GIF

Photo of the day

Great In Focus gallery of World Cup images.  So many good ones, but given my fear of insects– even small ones– I loved this series showing James Rodriguez making a penalty kick even while being molested by a massive flying insect.  That would have made me miss.  Also, I have taken to calling my son, Evan James, Evan Ha-mes.

A combination of pictures shows a giant insect flying toward, and landing on Colombia’s midfielder James Rodriguez, after he scored from the penalty spot — and then later on a photographer’s seat, during the quarter-final football match between Brazil and Colombia at the Castelao Stadium in Fortaleza on July 4, 2014. (Fabrice Coffrini/AFP/Getty Images)

Photo of the day

Apparently the Tour de France has started in England this year.  Great gallery of images from Buzzfeed:

Stage two departed from York. Here the peloton passes Bettys.

Anthony Chappel-Ross/PA Wire

Practice (and good genes) make perfect

I read a terrific book this past spring that I meant to blog about at least a half dozen times.  A quick check of the archives, though, finds that I failed to do so.  So, even though it’s beach vacation week, The Sports Gene by David Epstein gets its due.  I was inspired by a Vox post (shared by DJC on FB) that emphasizes just how little of success is explained by practice:

Over the past 20 years or so, some psychologists have been arguing for an appealing idea about expertise and success: they’re hugely dependent on putting in lots of practice time. This idea is a nice one, because it suggests that successful people earned their expertise, and that many people have a shot at becoming successful if they work hard enough. It gained especially wide attention through a rule it inspired in Malcolm Gladwell’s book Outliers: that to become really, really good at something, you have to intensely practice at it for around 10,000 hours, the “10,000-hour rule.” But this is an area of active dispute among psychologists — and over the years, dozens of studies have collected hard data on the link between practice and top performance in all sorts of fields. A new statistical analysis of 88 of these studies comes to the exact opposite conclusion: success mostly reflects other factors (probably things like innate talent and opportunity) rather than hours and hours of practice.

Of course practice matters, all else being equal.  But all else isn’t equal as simply looking at an NBA or NFL roster will tell you.  In fact, my favorite factoid from Epstein’s book is that literally only two players in the entire NBA have an armspan to height ratio of less than 1.o.  (One of them being Duke great JJ Reddick).   The average adult male is about 1.01; the average NBA player is 1.06 (Josh Levin has a nice piece building off Epstein’s book).  That’s just genes.  No amount of practice in the world is going to make you 6’5″ or give you freakishly long arms. As mentioned in the Vox post, a lot of people just get the 10,000 hour thing wrong (and I think go far beyond what Gladwell intended when he popularized the notion– here’s Gladwell in response to Epstein’s book).

All this soccer has had me thinking about a book I read last year, The Numbers Game which purports to be a Moneyball of soccer.  It’s pretty good, but I couldn’t believe it when the authors basically said, well, yeah, all these Premier League and La Liga players put in their 10,000 hours and that’s that.  Seriously?  Genes, anybody.

The Sports Gene has all sorts of good stuff about body type, training, gender, race (!), etc., but what really stuck with me was the idea of baseline versus trainability.  Some people have genes for an amazing good baseline, i.e., could run a 5 minute mile with little training.  Other people of good genes for high trainability, i.e., maybe start at a 7 minute mile, but respond very well to training and end up at 4 minute miles in far less than 10,000 hours.  Obviously, the truly elite in most sports have the genes for both.  But it is important to recognize that they are separate things (nicely discussed by the author on Fresh Air).

In fact, when Evan wanted to give up soccer after 3 seasons this past spring, I had to admit that he was simply lacking in trainability at the sport.  Other kids had clearly progressed significantly more with roughly the same amount of practice.  If he still loved it, of course, we’d stick with it.  But I wasn’t going to make him play soccer just because I love to coach it.

Evan’s failed efforts as a soccer player, though, had me thinking about trainability.  And one area where my children should have high trainability is music.  My mom was a piano teacher and terrific musician; my dad an all-state clarinetist.  I was pretty good piano player and percussionist myself and Kim was an all-district clarinetists.  The kids ought to be able to play some damn music.  Well, Evan’s been playing piano for 4 weeks now and I don’t really have a lot to compare him to, but I’d say his musical trainability is pretty high– sure puts his soccer trainability to shame.

Wow, that’s a heck of a long blog post for being at the beach.  The least you could to is put The Sports Gene in your reading queue.

Photo of the day

From the N&O’s World Cup gallery:

APTOPIX Brazil Soccer WCup Argentina Belgium

Belgium’s Vincent Kompany, left, and Argentina’s Lionel Messi fight for the ball during the World Cup quarterfinal soccer match between Argentina and Belgium at the Estadio Nacional in Brasilia, Brazil, Saturday, July 5, 2014. THANASSIS STAVRAKIS — AP

More quick hits

As promised…

1) I really wanted to give this its own post, as I so agree with Josh Levin here, but in truth, I’m just not going to get around to it.  Short version: it is asinine to blame a soccer player for one particular mistake that, by happenstance leads to a goal, when literally dozens of similar mistakes happen thoughout a game that don’t lead to a goal.

If you get on me for that one play, Bradley is saying, then you have to blame me for every other little slip-up that could’ve led to a Portuguese goal. Sports punditry, though, is fueled by ex post facto logic: Identify the game’s most important play, and then work backward to deduce who screwed up in the seconds before it happened…

For journalists and commenters, harsh criticism of Bradley represents a willingness to offer the unvarnished truth, matter-of-fact observations that we all need to hear. In reality, the sports blame game does the exact opposite. It’s a quest for a conversation-stopping answer when there are no easy answers to be found.

2) So, no thing can travel faster than the speed of light.  But the expansion of space itself can.  Freaky!  And nice visual explanation here:

3) That led me to this awesome webpage that explains the end of everything (i.e., the sun, the earth, the galaxy, the universe, etc.).

4) TNR’s Eric Garcia on how paid leave for new mothers and fathers is working great in California.  Just like it does in the rest of the developed world– minus the other 49 US states.

5) You know I love me some This American Life.  Interesting NYT story about how they are leaving their distributor to try and go it alone the public radio world.  Of course, if anybody can, TAL can.

6) For some reason, made me think of last Sunday’s wonderful Doonesbury.

7) Great summary piece on how the NC GOP legislature has so quickly taken this state so far backward.

8) Loved this Onion headline that perfectly captured my mother’s experience most summers:

Mom Spends Beach Vacation Assuming All Household Duties In Closer Proximity To Ocean

9) After reading yet another piece about how sitting is slowly killing me, I decided to do something about it.  I’m pretty sure the best evidence suggests that all you really need to do is make sure you get your muscles moving a few times an hour.  I decided to install this little app on my desktop to have me get up every 20 minutes.  So far I love it.

10) Great piece by a couple of law professors in Slate that really breaks down what is so wrong and so aggressive about the Hobby Lobby decision.


Quick hits

1) Derek Thomspon on how college is like sunscreen (a basic protection from the vicissitudes of the modern economy).  On a related note, Americans think we have the best colleges– we don’t.  Actually, our elite universities really are the best.  But on average, we’re not so special:

When President Obama has said, “We have the best universities,” he has not meant: “Our universities are, on average, the best” — even though that’s what many people hear. He means, “Of the best universities, most are ours.” The distinction is important.

2) I so want this camera.  From what I can tell, pretty much everything you could ever possibly want in a camera you can easily take with you anywhere.   Bokeh with a truly pocket-sized camera!

3) Is it just me, or do soccer players trade jerseys less than they used to.  I love this tradition.  From this great NYT story on jersey trades from the last World Cup.

4) Just to get some attention, Ann Coulter went on an anti-soccer rant.  Here’s why she’s right to fear the World Cup.

The core problem with embracing soccer is that in so doing, America would become more like the rest of the world.

Which is why Coulter should be very afraid. Because America is embracing soccer…

Worse, from Coulter’s perspective, Americans like soccer for the very reason she loathes it: It connects us to the rest of the world. Earlier this year, I wrote an essay entitled “The End of American Exceptionalism,” which argued that on subjects where the United States has long been seen as different, attitudes in America increasingly resemble those in Europe. Soccer is one of the best examples yet.

5) As two of my favorite shows ever, I loved this Slate piece on how Seinfeld actually set the groundwork for The Sopranos and subsequent great television.  Seriously!

But Seinfeld’s impact resonated beyond comedy. Its serene belief that characters did not have to be likable as long as they were interesting foreshadowed a change in TV drama that wouldn’t settle until the late ’90s, when HBO turned a show about violent gangsters into an award-winning hit. We tend to forget that the first coldly expedient hero to anchor an influential, long-running series named after him wasn’t Tony Soprano. It was Jerry Seinfeld.

6) Joseph Stiglitz argues that extreme inequality is not inveitable.  Rather, it is a policy choice.

7) With all the attention to the facebook experiment (my take: every time you log into your feed, facebook is “manipulating your emotions.”  It’s always been a non-random sample that FB will tweak as they like) here’s a nice piece on how FB decides what’s in your feed.  Always a good idea to “like” stuff you actually like and ignore or hide stuff you don’t.  I “like” Wired and “New Yorker” and certain friends and see a bunch of them.  I’ve never “liked” a photo of food and I never will.

8) The rise of DIY abortion in Texas.

9) I enjoyed telling my teenager about this “why teenagers act crazy” piece in the NYT.

10) Finland’s school kids get a lot of recess.  David Greene would be so jealous.  Is this a key to their educational success?  Maybe, maybe not.  But it is interesting and certainly shows you can have high achievement with lots of time for breaks.

11) Want somebody to like you more?  Ask them to do a favor for you.  Seriously.

12) Fascinating story of a mentally ill bonobo and how human psychiatry helped him.

13) How Lionel Messi is just amazing via an exhaustive 538 statistical analysis.  Interesting how there’s Messi and Ronaldo and then everyone else way below.  Also, Messi gets it done without actually even running all that much.

Alright, 13 is enough for one go.  Back with some more tomorrow.

Physical attractiveness of athletes

Kim and I have both noted that there’s a lot of very attractive men participating in the World Cup.  This is most likely quite true and no accident.  Here’s some evidence from cycling:

IT IS unfair, but true, that beautiful people are more successful than ugly ones. Data indicate that this rule applies in both business and politics—and biological theory suggests the underlying reason is that beauty is an indicator of good genes and good health. How that reason translates into success, though, is more questionable. It could be that the pretty and handsome get a helping hand from their colleagues, bosses (and, in the case of politicians, voters) which is denied to the plain and the unseemly. Or it could be that beautiful people’s underlying qualities mean they really are better, on average, at doing things.

One way to disentangle these explanations is to look at a field of endeavour which is about as close as it is possible to get to a true meritocracy: professional sport. Though favouritism here might put you in the team, it will never land you on the winner’s podium. Erik Postma, of the University of Zurich, has therefore done just that, using long-distance cycling as his example. His results, just published in Biology Letters, suggest that good looks really do reflect underlying fitness, in both the athletic and the biological senses.

Dr Postma recruited 816 volunteers (72% women; 28% men) as judges in a beauty competition. He also assembled a collection of 80 mugshots of participants in the 2012 Tour de France…

Both sexes agreed on who was good-looking and who was not, though women tended to give those at the top of the list higher marks than men did—especially if the women in question were undergoing natural menstrual cycles. (Women on the pill gave assessments closer to those of men.) Overall, on the five-point scale Dr Postma used, the top 10% of cyclists in the race were reckoned 25% more attractive than the bottom 10%.

So there’s probably some real science behind this list.

Or that the Croatian soccer coach looks a lot like Joseph Gordon-Levitt

Who’s following the World Cup

Enjoyed this from Pew about what major events Americans are paying attention to.  Somewhat surprisingly, Democrats and Republicans are equally interested in the World Cup:

Republicans interested in IRS scandal

Where there is a big difference is age:

Young Adults interested in World Cup 2014

Forget about talking to your parents/grandparents about the World Cup.


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