End of an era in the NBA

With the 2016-2017 NBA season starting today and some high-profile retirees after last season, my thoughts wander back to twenty years ago.  Twenty years ago, Michael Jordan totally owned the NBA.  Shaquille O’Neal — young, slim, athletic — was perhaps the most dominant individual player.  The question was who would be the successor to Jordan.  My two favorite candidates were Allen Iverson and Kobe Bryant, though I wasn’t sure who would eventually be more successful; I hedged my bets by buying both their rookie cards.  (And, actually, this was my first “investment” in a sense, and the return has been great!)


Kevin Garnett and Tim Duncan were also on the rise and in the post-Jordan conversation as well.  Vince Carter and Dirk Nowitski were in the NBA pipeline and came on the scene a couple years later.

If we call that the dawn of the post-Jordan era, then that era is pretty much over now.  Shaq and AI have been retired for a while.  Kobe, KG, and Tim Duncan retired after last season.  The question of whether Kobe or AI would have the better career has been settled so definitively that it feels a little silly now even comparing them.  Vince Carter is an old man, a three-point-shooting specialist.  (Do the kids these days know how he used to play?)  Dirk is probably the only one still recognizable from his old self.  This all hit me with a strong wave of nostalgia, because this is around the time I really started following the NBA.

Twenty years ago, I was in elementary school in a small town in Missouri; I’d never really visited a big city.  I was finally able to convince my parents to get Internet access; we started with CompuServe, but made our way onto AOL not too long after that.  PCs were king, Apple was kind of a distant memory; our old IIGS was in a box somewhere.  Bill Clinton was president; I collected his card too!bc.jpg  The White House sent back a form letter and picture in response to a letter of mine that I’ve forgotten now — and yes, using physical mail carried by the Post Office.  Golf was an incredibly boring niche game that only old rich white guys played; somebody named “Tiger” was just turning pro.  The two movies I remember most from around then are Independence Day and Space Jam.   Although now that Independence Day, Space Jam, and a Clinton presidency have been or are about to be remade, some things haven’t changed much.

Alright, that’s enough nostalgia-indulgence for today.  The king is dead, long live the king and all that.

Stephen Jay Gould was the JK Galbraith of biology

If you’re reading this, you’re probably somewhat familiar with Stephen Jay Gould.  Most likely, you know of him as a paleontologist and evolutionary biologist, and you may even have read one of his (excellent) popular-science books like The Panda’s Thumb.  You probably assumed, like I did, that from this work and as a Harvard professor he was an eminent figure in academia as well.

Well, no.

I remember first learning about Gould’s most famous theory, “punctuated equilibrium“, quite some years back.  I won’t digress into the details here, but when I thought I’d understood it, I remember thinking something like, “OK this might be true, but then what?”  I assumed that I was missing something and didn’t think much more of it.

Then a few years ago, the scales fell from my eyes.  This letter in reply to a couple of Gould’s summarizes how “real” evolutionary biologists felt about Gould:

John Maynard Smith, one of the world’s leading evolutionary biologists, recently summarized in the NYRB the sharply conflicting assessments of Stephen Jay Gould: “Because of the excellence of his essays, he has come to be seen by non-biologists as the preeminent evolutionary theorist. In contrast, the evolutionary biologists with whom I have discussed his work tend to see him as a man whose ideas are so confused as to be hardly worth bothering with, but as one who should not be publicly criticized because he is at least on our side against the creationists.” (NYRB, Nov. 30th 1995, p. 46). No one can take any pleasure in the evident pain Gould is experiencing now that his actual standing within the community of professional evolutionary biologists is finally becoming more widely known.

In other words, evolutionary biologists considered Gould what we might call a “useful idiot”.  The letter continues with one of the meanest paragraphs I’ve ever read:

Now, given the foregoing, one is left with the puzzle of why Gould so customarily reverses the truth in his writing. We suggest that the best way to grasp the nature of Gould‘s writings is to recognize them as one of the most formidable bodies of fiction to be produced in recent American letters. Gould brilliantly works a number of literary devices to construct a fictional “Gould” as the protagonist of his essays and to construct a world of “evolutionary biology” every bit as imaginary and plausible as Faulkner’s Yoknapatawpha County. Most of the elements of Gould‘s writing make no sense if they are interpreted as an honest attempt to communicate about science (e.g., why would he characterize so many researchers as saying the opposite of what they actually do) but come sharply into focus when understood as necessary components of a world constructed for the fictional “Gould” to have heroic fantasy adventures in — adventures during which the admirable character of “Gould” can be slowly revealed.

Wow.  (To be fair, Gould really did bring this on himself.  Read the entire discussion.)  So, stay for Gould’s pop essays, pass on his “theory”.

Around the same time, I found a talk by Paul Krugman entitled What Economists Can Learn from Evolutionary Theorists.  Krugman had the same unpleasant surprise about Gould that I did, and dropped another nugget:

I am not sure how well this is known. I have tried, in preparation for this talk, to read some evolutionary economics, and was particularly curious about what biologists people reference. What I encountered were quite a few references to Stephen Jay Gould, hardly any to other evolutionary theorists. Now it is not very hard to find out, if you spend a little while reading in evolution, that Gould is the John Kenneth Galbraith of his subject. That is, he is a wonderful writer who is bevolved by literary intellectuals and lionized by the media because he does not use algebra or difficult jargon. Unfortunately, it appears that he avoids these sins not because he has transcended his colleagues but because he does does not seem to understand what they have to say; and his own descriptions of what the field is about – not just the answers, but even the questions – are consistently misleading.

Now, you’re probably less likely to be familiar with John Kenneth Galbraith.  I first encountered him in William F Buckley’s excellent Firing Line archive.  (Go watch for a while; I’ll be here when you come back.)  Galbraith played the role of “Serious Liberal Economist”, counterpoint to Buckley and his guru the (actual) Serious Conservative Economist Milton Friedman.  Before life as a public intellectual, Galbraith did extensive work in public policy and politics, in addition to economics.  But as Krugman introduces before the paragraph above,

And I guess it is no secret that even John Kenneth Galbraith, still the public’s idea of a great economist, looks to most serious economists like an intellectual dilettante who lacks the patience for hard thinking.

Ouch.  (Although, I’ve read that Krugman’s dismissal of Galbraith is somewhat more controversial than the dismissal of Gould, that Galbraith’s public policy work had substance.)

Both these were quite surprising to me — I hope you learned something as well.  And it’s always worth checking the credentials of the popular “TV experts”.

Paying for our free press

The concept of a “free press” comprises

  • free, as in free speech
  • independent, as in free from conflict of interest
  • pluralistic, as in free marketplace of ideas

Take away any of those elements and the system is weakened.  Authoritarian states always restrict free speech, and the results are well known.  If your press consists of multiple, free-speech publishers all dependent on the government, for example, then you would have to read their publications with heightened scrutiny.  And if you take away pluralism by gating access to journalism through a single large content distributor, for example, then your views become colored by the biases of the distributor.  This is all old news, of course (pun intended).

As the “press” has moved online, people have come to expect another “freedom”: free as in beer, no charge.  That’s eroded publishers’ traditional revenue streams, as many have written about already, and now the news has become a tough business to be in.  This is also not a new observation.

What happens if, in a worst-case scenario, high-quality investigative journalism becomes financially unsustainable and collapses?  Previously I’ve imagined this leaving behind a news vacuum, to be filled with clickbait rotgut.  (Maybe some think we’re heading into that territory already.)  This would be an Idiocracy-style tragedy, to be sure.  But now there’s something new on the horizon.

In this US election cycle, attempts by foreign governments to influence American thought through reporting with particular biases have become higher profile.  (Or you might call it “propaganda” if so inclined.)  Now, there’s absolutely nothing wrong with that.  In fact, it’s something we should eagerly welcome into a pluralistic free press; at best it provides another perspective to consider, and at worst we can roll our eyes and ignore it.  And, it’s a big middle-finger to authoritarian regimes who would, and have, banned the same at home.  The challenge comes from the fact that, when financially sustained by those foreign governments, those news outlets don’t face the same revenue-generation constraints as independent outlets.

Not to dabble in tinfoil-hat paranoia, but now imagine the worst-case scenario above again, but with foreign-government-controlled news outlets, with their own ulterior motives, ready to fill the vacuum.  By remaining free-as-in-no-charge and presenting the semblance of traditional journalism, they might be able to exert a real influence.  That would have been completely unthinkable thirty years ago, for a variety of reasons.

What’s the solution?  We have to financially support good reporting.  With the way online news is evolving, it’s almost a patriotic duty now as well; that’s not a thought that had occurred to me before.  I don’t want to get too sidetracked on the mechanics of financial support since lots has been written about it too.  Subscriptions are fine but have some flaws; crowdfunded journalism is interesting; micropayments, for example as implemented in the Brave browser, is a new idea that might have potential.  But really it can be all of the above.  The important thing is,

Please, pay for our free press!

ES6 + react + flow: achievement unlocked

This weekend I refactored a couple pieces of my react web app.  I kept whacking at the code until the flow type checker stopped erroring.  And after that, … my app still worked!  Achievement unlocked.  This is a major improvement over the dark-ages web-app workflow that went something like, edit; refresh; see what broke; repeat.  (Of course, not to poke the embers of that religious war, but fanciers of statically-typed languages, like myself, will be saying “well, finally”.)

In the react + flow development workflow though, type errors don’t block the app from updating on changes.  So I can quickly hack up something half-broken to try out an idea, and then if it works go back and fix up the code to be less broken.  (Gradual/optional typing enthusiasts won’t be surprised at this either.)  But of course, type errors do block deployment in my setup.

And I’ve been finding ES6 to be a pretty nice language to work with; a big advance over vanilla JavaScript / ES5, which is not my cup of tea.  Lots has been written on this topic, and I won’t go down that rabbit hole here.

Then finally, enabling all these goodies nowadays is as simple as

npm install -g create-react-app
create-react-app foo

Previously, you had to be something of a node.js pseudo-build-system ninja to set up this kind of environment, although it was possible.

In all probability, this environment won’t graduate beyond the prototype I’m hacking up right now (more on this later), but current mood: