Tuesday, August 23, 2011

New Security Program from American Airlines

I got a couple of suspicious emails recently. Most of the time my suspicious emails are ridiculously poorly worded spam-shots trying to sell me Viagra (we're sadly long past the time of emails from descendents of African royalty hoping to get access to their rightful fortunes, that was a simpler time), but the emails I got were completely different.

These were from American Airlines, and while that didn't make them suspicious, what did was the vague terms with which they presented their offer. An excerpt:

Due to your status in the AAdvantage® program, you may be eligible to participate in a screening pilot program being tested by the Transportation Security Administration (TSA) this fall. The goal of this pilot program is to evaluate expedited screening processes for selected American Airlines travelers through designated security checkpoints at the Dallas/Fort Worth International Airport (DFW) and the Miami International Airport (MIA).

Some important things to note about participating in the screening pilot program:
- You must be a United States citizen
- There is no charge
- Your eligibility and participation will not necessarily ensure an expedited screening for every flight
- When you opt-in, you give American Airlines permission to share your AAdvantage status and passenger reservation information with the TSA's Secure Flight system
- At time of opt-in, although not required, you will also have the option to share information about your enrollment in U.S. Customs and Border Protection Trusted Traveler Programs such as Global Entry, NEXUS and SENTRI

Now, there aren't too many things that annoy me more than the current TSA security procedures. I realize it's the comedy equivalent of the squirting boutonniere, so I won't get into too much detail, but the elaborate-ness of the kabuki dance to pretend like it's making us all safer is exactly what makes it annoying.

The belts, and the shoes, and the separate bins for laptops, and the random checks for explosives, and taking the liquid bag out of your carry-on (secret tip: No one in the TSA cares if you leave it in the bag. I haven't taken mine out in years)

It's all a nice idea, until you realize that trying to prevent creative terrorists by implementing measures for things they've already done doesn't stop them from implementing NEW things. But I'm done with caring about the actual effectiveness of airport security, at this point, I really only care about my time and convenience. So American Airlines, consider me intrigued at the prospect of an expedited security process.

I was intrigued enough that I opted into the program, and hope to get the chance to see it when I fly American to Dallas Fort Worth in about a month. Now, unfortunately, the letter was sparse in detail. Expedited means it could be faster, but it doesn't say anything about it being less awkward, invasive, or uncomfortable. Maybe it's a set of probes, just a really fast moving set of probes. We'll have to wait and see about that. But honestly, the freaking backscatter machines already create naked pictures of me every week, so really, how much worse could it be?

Monday, August 22, 2011

What's in a Name

I'm sure back around the turn of the century, Mildred was a pretty cool name. It's not now (apologies to all the great-grandma's out there), but it happens over time, some names grow in popularity, and others decline.

If you were a pair of hipster parents in 1912, living on the edge with things like bathing suits that exposed your ankles, then if you had a little hipster daughter, you very well might have named her Mildred (It was the 6th most popular girls name that year, which today would be the equivalent of Emily). But that we look at Mildred as a stereotypical 'old' name, and that it once was hugely popular, makes you wonder about own own contemporary naming conventions.

In 100 years, it might be the case that the only Aiden you know is the old guy who always hangs out in the allergists office, or Emma is the kindly old librarian, or the only Sophia is the weird scary lady with a couple dozen cats who buys nothing but cat food to the point where you just kind of assume she's also eating the cat food, but you don't want to ask her about it because it seems impolite to imply that she likes Fancy Feast, but you're really pretty sure she's eating it herself. OK I'll admit that was a little far-fetched.

We all know there won't be libraries in 100 years.

But that's what happens to all these names, they ebb and flow. Except for names that fall victim to what we could call 'external shocks of uncoolness' You could also call it the Adolf factor. Most names probably come and go naturally, unless it happens to be the name of one of society's arch supervillains. It's weird, and probably a little unfortunate, that events completely out of your control could besmirch your name to the point that your mere introduction instantly reminds people of tragedy. And of course, it's not limited to mass murderers.

For anyone named Katrina, it stinks that when meeting for the first time, lots of people will immediately think back to flood waters, Superdome refugees, and the first time they ever got an inkling Kanye West was completely insane, but that's now the way it is. And the popularity of the name reflects that.

Below is the SSA ranking of the name Katrina for U.S. baby girls by year, starting in 2004 (year pre-Hurricane Katrina). A name ranked #1 would be most popular, a name ranked #12,301 would be something like Zorak or GoldenPalace.com

2004: 281
2005: 246
2006: 379
2007: 598
2008: 716
2009: 813
2010: 867

Pretty strong trend there. Although it's interesting that the biggest dip wasn't immediately after the hurricane in 2006 and 2007. Maybe a ton of expecting mothers had already ordered monogrammed bedsheets???

From this, it seems pretty clear. If you want to ruin someone's name, you have two options:

1 - You can help raise a murderous dictator who shares that name (somewhat impractical and probably morally questionable),

2 - Pay off the people who name hurricanes (which for some reason are the only disasters important enough to get their own names, which would tick me off if I were an earthquake, volcano, or gang of rabid attack squirrels) I feel like #2 is relatively reasonable.

The people who name the storms, they can be gotten to right? They're just meteorologists. If I were an eccentric billionaire (ok, if I were a billionaire), I might buy the naming rights to Hurricanes in perpetuity. If you can buy the rights to put a name on a stadium, I see no reason why you shouldn't be able to buy naming rights to a weather system. Plus, the government is in enough financial trouble as it is, so why should they turn down any revenue opportunity???

Then you have your very own Sword of Damocles. No one would mess with you if you could make their name synonymous with death and destruction (unless they were going for that sort of thing, in which case you should name a double rainbow after them) I'd probably just end up naming them after companies with terrible customer service. Although after the twelfth Hurricane Comcast, I'd probably have to think of some new ones.

Friday, August 19, 2011

Stupid WSJ Editorial

I was reading the Wall Street Journal editorials this morning, and thought an article was particularly interesting. That's not unusual, the WSJ op-ed page is always, if nothing else, an interesting read. It usually reads like something you'd expect from some secret Fox News/GOP cabal, echoing the talking points of Republican leadership and falling over itself trying to be as "pro-business" as possible. So, let's not pretend like I'm a completely unbiased reader. But, with that said, I like to think I give almost all the articles a chance to persuade me (except for Karl Rove's, I mean, really?) But this morning there was an article from Stephen Moore that struck me as particularly callous and ridiculous. The particular passage I found distasteful came in the first section, where Moore disputes the 'nonsensical' notion that unemployment benefits will lead to more consumption and therefore, indirectly, more jobs (emphasis mine). Mr. Carney explained that unemployment insurance "is one of the most direct ways to infuse money into the economy because people who are unemployed and obviously aren't earning a paycheck are going to spend the money that they get . . . and that creates growth and income for businesses that then lead them to making decisions about jobs—more hiring." That's a perfect Keynesian answer, and also perfectly nonsensical. What the White House is telling us is that the more unemployed people we can pay for not working, the more people will work. Only someone with a Ph.D. in economics from an elite university would believe this. I have two teenage sons. One worked all summer and the other sat on his duff. To stimulate the economy, the White House wants to take more money from the son who works and give it to the one who doesn't work. I can say with 100% certainty as a parent that in the Moore household this will lead to less work. Now, I understand if you want to argue on the idea that increasing unemployment benefits doesn't immediately boost consumption (but I'm pretty sure you'll be wrong), and I also get the point that you might not agree with the idea that additional consumption spurred by those benefits will result in more hiring (though again, I would disagree), but to use your own teenage kids as demonstrative of why unemployment benefits are ridiculous seems a tad absurd. I agree with Mr. Moore that his upper-middle class teenager would take free money and continue not to work. My guess is he'll continue to get fed and have a place to live and play Xbox long after that free ride ended. But to compare the plight of the unemployed to a kid on summer vacation and say, 'See! People who get free money will just sit around and live like Kings among men!'. Well, as I said, seems a bit callous. It also doesn't seem like it would be true.
The chart below is from a study which evaluates the time people spend looking for jobs relative to the duration of their unemployment benefits. If Moore is correct, people would spend no time looking for work until benefits run out (because it's free money!). But that doesn't seem to be the case, except maybe for Moore's punk kid.

Monday, August 15, 2011

My Experience with a Virgin

Probably an inappropriate headline, but how else could I attract attention to a blog post about a trip I took on an airplane?  This may be my best click-bait since I was back at Penn State's The Daily Collegian and specifically took a page 7 story and linked it on our home page because the headline read 'Local Man Attempts Sex With Horse' . (One of the most read articles that year BTW)

More recently, and in no way connected with man-horse intercourse, I got the chance to fly Virgin America for the first time. (And when I say got the chance, I mean paid for a plane ticket and went to the airport)

Virgin America is another company started up by Sir Richard Branson, who pretty much established the caricature of an over-the-top billionaire (unless you count Standard Oil's Rockefeller dropping silver dollars from a blimp, which may have only existed in a Simpsons episode, but that's how I get my history)

Virgin, in a nice change of pace, is an actual low-cost airline.  I think a ticket for me to go out to LAX from Chicago was $200-$250, which seemed extremely reasonable and a welcome reprieve from Southwest (They may act all happy and sweet and chirp about not charging you baggage fees, but their ticket rates stink just like everybody elses).  It's also worth noting that American and United feeds from ORD to LAX have since dropped dramatically.  Yay mircoecon class principles at work.

Anyway, beyond the cheaper fare, I was also excited to try out Virgin's new planes, complete with a bunch of bells and whistles that most airlines don't have yet.

It may seem weird to get excited over a new plane, but considering I'm flying at least twice a week, it doesn't seem so strange right?  Exacerbated by the fact that I've been flying to and from Arkansas on a regional plane that may have been re-purposed since its first tour in Vietnam.  I'm going from mysterious shrapnel to leather seats and personal entertainment units, wouldn't you be excited???

We had a mid-morning flight out of Chicago (FYI, that's consultant's mid-morning flight, which means 8:45), and a short 4 or 5 hours later, we touched down in Los Angeles.  Details below:

 - First ever plane I've been on to have mood lighting.  I've never seen purple light on a plane, but the Virgin cabins seemed awash in it.  Like a trendy club, but filled with families and other travelers.

 - Personal Entertainment Units: Major points to Virgin on this, the centerpiece of their offering (at least to someone like me).  A small touchscreen panel just over the tray table lets you control a wide array of entertainment options.  If a touchscreen gets too much work, there's also a little tethered remote that's stored in the armrest.  Definitely slick.

 - Bonus Personal Entertainment Unit Fact: You can actually use them to watch TV as soon as you sit down on the plane.  Such a relief for those of us who hate talking to neighbors (or spouses).  I've always maintained that the longest distance on any airplane flight is between 0 and 10,000 feet when they release passengers to their electronic devices.  The only way I can cope is by bringing along a WSJ from the hotel (or if forced, USA Today) and hoping it gets me all the way up.  But on Virgin, I can just plug in and start watching TV, just like I could at home! (but no bonus points for enabling me to change into sweatpants, maybe someday Sir Richard)

 - Alternative Entertainment Options: The previous sections imply that TV is what you can use the in-flight unit for.  However, there are several other entertainment choices available.

On-Demand movies, which looked like a good set of selections, until the price tag of $8 was factored in.  I don't remember exactly what movies they were, only that I wouldn't pay $8 for them, and I'm a guy who paid $12 to see Thor

On-Demand TV episodes, which extended from premium content (e.g., Curb episodes for a fee), to less than premium content (e.g., all the NCIS LA episodes you can watch!)

On-Demand Music, which is in my view the most underrated thing they have going.  Virgin has a stable of radio stations to choose from, none of which were that exciting.  However, they also let you build your own playlist from a whole bunch of options.  I had to do work on the flight, and was able to put together a nice set of background music that wouldn't distract me too much.  The interface isn't the smoothest to use, but it was great for someone like me, a veteran of the Napster era who still has a hard time paying for music (but won't steal it either)

 - Cool Food Ordering System: You also control ordering of food or drink through the magical little screen.  I had to order a snack box just to test it out.  The credit card swiper didn't seem to be working that well, or I paid $246 for some Famous Amos cookies and a cup of Mott's applesauce (so maybe the kid's food looked better than the adult's, what of it?)  It was also nice to be able to order beverages whenever you want and get pretty prompt service (although I doubt they'd be as chipper if I tested out ordering three dozen Frescas)

- Also Cool, But Slightly Creepy, Social Functions: You might think the personal screen would turn everyone into a completely anti-social weirdo (for those who weren't already).  Perhaps in an attempt to avert such consequences, Virgin has added a chat function into the entertainment center.  What does that mean exactly?  It means you can touch a few buttons, pick another seat on the airplane (or other seats if you're into the group thing), and send them a chat invite.  Cool idea in theory, but I see definite potential for a high creepiness quotient.  In hindsight, I should've messaged the entire plane like it was an AOL chat room.  A/S/L?...29/M/7C.  I did message my wife, who was right next to me.  I think she thought I was being creepy.

- Lastly, I have to commend Virgin on its crack squad of flight attendants.  Above all else, they are cool and collected in the face of a crisis.  And I say that with no trace of sarcasm whatsoever.  Absolutely none.

OK, so they were the opposite of that, but let me explain the story.

We're cruising comfortably somewhere over flyover country, when out of nowhere one of the flight attendants flies by us in a full sprint to the front of the plane.  She grabs the other attendant and quietly talks in a panicky looking manner.  After a few seconds, she bolts back as fast as possible to the back of the plane.  I looked over to my wife, who was watching the Kardashians on E!, so she was completely oblivious.  Just when I start to tell her what happened, the attendant flies by again, like the Usain Bolt of flight attendants, and then almost like this was some kind of elaborate cricket match, reverses course and goes back, again at top speed.

On the list of things that might freak the heck out of the passengers, this wasn't number one, but it's not too far off from deploying the oxygen masks.

Finally, on her third lap of the plane, one of the passengers volunteered that he was a doctor and was there someone hurt.

At that point I think she realized no one knew what was going on, and she explained that the toilet in the bathroom was flooding.

Ah.  Definitely a huge emergency for row 26, but definitely NOT an emergency for row 7.  Certainly not something that warranted a huge sprint-inducing freakout.  It didn't exactly give me the most confidence that in the event of a water landing this lady would be able to help us as opposed to passing out right in the middle of the emergency exit and sending us all to Davy Jones' Locker.

So that was a bit weird, but I got to watch Law & Order, so in my book, it's still a good trade-off.  I'll fly Virgin anytime.

Tuesday, August 9, 2011

Go HBO Go, Go! An App Review for HBO Go

Broadcasting and Cable ran a good summary article yesterday covering what apps are out there in the market to help all of us watch television.  The ability to watch television via our mobile phones is a big deal, because we have such little exposure to television everywhere else in our lives.

I'm usually pretty diligent about trying to get access to TV on my phone, mainly because of all the travel and the fact that I'm usually separated from my DVR

Before anyone suggests it, yes, I know about Slingbox.  But to quickly explain why that won't work...we don't have internet access in our apartment because our building has free wi-fi, however, that free wi-fi isn't fast enough or has the right configuration to enable video streaming through it.  It's why my poor Roku box sits unused next to the DVR (Although I highly recommend the Roku for anyone who actually does have their own internet connection, it's pretty sweet)

But the goal remains to get as much TV onto my phone as humanly possible, and there are a number of apps out there that B&C explain in detail.  Like for instance, did you have any idea that America's Funniest Home Videos was even still making new episodes???  They apparently have their own app!  Crotch shots for everybody!  Although in the article the creator of AFHV tries to take credit for the development of social media, which seems a bit much.

I also didn't know that ESPN has its own app that lets you watch one of four different ESPN on your phone.  Finally a cure for the broken screens on hotel treadmills.  But unfortunately, the Watch ESPN is only a mirage for those of us linked to the wrong cable companies (which is to say, the vast majority of cable companies).  You basically have to have Time Warner or Verizon for TV, and although I'm sure they'll get to more networks, the fact that Kabletown Comcast owns NBC and ESPN is under the ABC/Disney umbrella should pretty much ensure I'll never get it on my phone until I get a new cable provider.  Sigh.

However, I did just download the HBO Go app, and it's everything I could've dreamed of.

Access to what looks like every HBO show, any season, any episode, with pretty darn good quality even over standard data connections.

I watched the first episode of this season's Curb Your Enthusiasm on an elliptical machine, I queued up a couple of Season One Flight of the Conchords episodes from Arkansas, and they have the complete Wire series in case I really want to dive back into the depressing story of a decaying Baltimore.

Now, like ESPN, you have to belong to one of their chosen cable partners (which is a much longer list than ESPN's).  You also have to subscribe to HBO (which I recently won back in our household's biannual threat of cable cancellation to improve our deal)

But, I can imagine a world off in the future where you can pay to subscribe to HBO's app without needing a connection through a designated cable partner.  Payment straight to the content creator doesn't seem all that unrealistic when you think about how the app ecosystem has evolved (someday our TV interfaces could very well look like our phones, with apps as channels, it's one of the things I like about the Roku).  

What's stopping HBO from doing that today with their app and charging anyone who doesn't currently subscribe?  Probably a few things:
  1. Proof of concept - They need to test it out and ensure people will actually watch HBO on their phones apart from nomadic loners
  2. Erosion of physical media sales - Maybe a small factor, hard to say if they're still selling lots of DVD Box Sets.  Those margins would be pretty huge, but if you've been in a Best Buy recently (my first question would be, why?) take a stroll through the physical media section.  Ghost town.  Besides, the mobile app doesn't allow you to watch on a computer/TV, so it isn't exactly a substitute for the DVD experience.
  3. Erosion of paying subscribers - I'm not sure how scared I'd be about this...see above.  This app isn't a substitute (yet) for TV, and most of the stuff I've seen makes it sound like there aren't tons of people excited about cable cord cutting besides me.
  4. Ticking off cable partners - It certainly would make a few people in the Cable industry throw up a little bit, as it would basically cut them out of the loop from taking on another $10 to cable bills.  But as I think about it, what recourse would those guys even have?  I don't think that stripping their channel is a practical solution, but what you might be able to do is take any of your channels and rip them off of Time Warner (HBO's owner).  Comcast has a bunch of channels people would miss (Bravo, MSNBC, Oxygen, and for like four people out there, Versus).  But off the top of my head, I can't think of another company with such an integrated presence that could present a retaliatory threat.
So I don't think there are a ton of roadblocks, although I feel like I need to think more about retribution.  The whole thing is also also based on the assumption that HBO can keep cranking out shows people will pay a premium to see (even if they all seem to run for like five episodes every two years).  If HBO wasn't confident in its ability to consistently crank out the good stuff, then it would be a non-starter to even consider it.

But just download the app and look at the lineup.  It's a freaking gold mine in there.

Monday, August 8, 2011

Future of Baseball

I came across two articles recently that got me thinking about the future of baseball.  Not the future of this season, which will hopefully end with a Phillies championship, but the long-term sustainability of the game itself.

The first article I read specifically focused on the decline in major league attendance and how it's becoming a major issue for some teams.  Apparently ticket sales league-wide have been on the decline since 2007, and the author raises the idea that the sudden accessibility of tickets on secondary markets may be hurting the league from a financial perspective.

That idea is an interesting one, because it does seem likely that those fans who would've once bought a 6-game package now might be buying games individually on StubHub.  However, it also seems clear that it would be tough to distinguish a technology-driven change in behavior from the fact that the global economy is imploding and has been getting worse progressively over the same time frame. (And after checking my retirement portfolio today, I can't see any reason to suspect it'll get better any time soon). 

The other article, entitled, "Baseball has no Fighting Chance Against Football," discussed the ease with which football has thrust itself back into the public consciousness and shoved baseball aside quicker than Albert Belle shoving aside a young autograph seeker (wow, that was a dated reference.  Does anyone else even know who Albert Belle was?  And if they did, would they remember the fact that he was always annoyed?).  Anyway, plug in your own current reference if you'd like, but football went and had a huge labor dispute, then came right back and it was like it never left.

Baseball may have been America's sport at one time, but football snuck up behind it, put it in a choke-hold, gave it an atomic wedgie, and stuffed it inside it's locker.

With it's place atop the U.S. sports world already surrendered, what can baseball do to make itself more important? Or even to keep itself culturally relevant?

Historically, baseball could always fall back on its rich traditions and records.  A game that never changed the rules, the fall classic and what not.  Unfortunately, baseball executives threw all that out the window the minute they started turning blind eyes to juiced-up roiders.  The offensive explosion (a.k.a. PED) era completely destroyed part of the game's contextual link to its storied past.  We're now at a point where none of the traditional performance numbers mean anything to anyone. 

Frankly, even if that whole mess had never happened, our collective attention span has become so compromised that no one cares what happened ten days ago, let alone ten years ago, really let alone one hundred years ago.  So even if Roger Maris' record was still standing, no one under 25 would care unless his ghost came back and either had a reality show or made a sex tape with Kim Kardashian.

Based on that, one could assume that I'd recommend a completely crazy liberal strategy of changing up the game to keep with our modern times.  You could certainly envision such a strategy.  The way I picture it would have slicked-up executives in suits and sunglasses talking about great ways to change baseball that could include ideas like laser bats, neon colors, and strobe lights.

I guess in my mind they'd be doing for baseball what others did to turn bowling into Rock 'n Roll Bowling, which is to say, make it so much less fun, more annoying, and vaguely resembling a Pink Floyd show at the planetarium.

Suffice it to say, I don't think that would be a great idea either.  But I did have a couple quick thoughts on what they could do:

Force a better TV product: The NFL feels like it was designed purely for television. Baseball feels like it was designed purely for radio, which is great if it's 1924 and anyone talking about television was burned at the stake for witchcraft, but is less of a good thing today.  While I didn't recommend making the rules of the game all liberal, I certainly think we can loosen the reins a tad on the gameday production.  There are a lot of options here, and not all of them involve swearing and nudity.

It would be great to have more players miked up, I feel like that's completely missed in today's sports television world.  I'd also try more experimentation with the commentary, because when you've got a 162 game season, you have no good reason not to kick the tires on ideas for a game or two.  Two drunken fans in the booth?  What could possibly go wrong?  I'm pretty sure they've done it in Europe.  Or maybe we change the on-screen dynamic to resonate more with today's viewing audience.  Get some Twitter feeds on there, I would love to see that scrolling up the right side of the TV.  You're telling me you couldn't find a staffer to curate tweets and throw the funniest lines up on screen?  You could get an intern to do it for $5/hour.

Go where football can't get you: This might be the most legitimate of my crazy ideas, but baseball does have one advantage over the NFL, apart from the fact that its players won't develop mental disorders from repeated head trauma.  It's the fact that people in other countries actually LIKE their sport!  NFL Europe crashed and burned, and the league continues to try and push itself on the rest of the world as the global community collectively shrugs its shoulders and wonders what the hell a nickel package is.  Baseball, on the other hand, actually has some presence on the rest of planet Earth.  Why the league can't get its act together and bring some of that money/energy/interest into their organization is anybody's guess.  I'm sure that part of it is that many places where the game is popular don't have completely developed economies (e.g., Cuba, Panama), but at the rate the U.S. is going, we might be at parity soon enough, so it wouldn't hurt to have a plan to reach out to those guys.

Introduce relegation: Another idea from Europe, this would be absolutely dynamite, but is in no way feasible due to the economic interests of owners.  Take your AAA and AA leagues and make them the second and third divisions of MLB.  Then at the end of every season, the worst team from the majors has to switch leagues with the best team in AAA.

You'd have to reconfigure the entire minor league system, and basically make it like soccer.  Teams would've have affiliates, and it would become a much more free market system for talent because each team would be looking out for themselves.  You could argue it would hurt the development of younger players because minor leagues would emphasize wins over building major league talent, but hell, it would be exciting, and I'm sure fans of the cellar dwellers would pay some attention

I had a bunch of other ideas, but it's already late, and I told my wife I'd call her ten minutes ago.  It's too bad, I really wanted to come back to that laser bats idea.

Sunday, August 7, 2011

New iPhone Game = New Obsession

Whenever I'm sitting on the tarmac in Northwest Arkansas or some other place, I go through my own pre-flight check in process, before the flight attendant comes over the PA and tells us all to turn off our electronics in what's always kind of a buzzkill. 

I like to quickly cycle through the apps I have to make sure any content I'd want in flight is downloaded.

Refreshing my twitter feed, downloading the newest Sporcle quizzes, and updating the Huffington Post and NY Times, all with the idea that I need as much to do (assuming I don't have to get work done)

But last week, I was reading an article on Grantland about iPad gaming, and the article mentioned a new game, 'Game Dev Story'.

As it was described in the article:

Kairosoft's Game Dev Story, which is another older title I regret not having played sooner, for it comes packed with wit and metacritique of an industry in desperate need of both. In Game Dev Story you start a game company and go about your game-developing business.

There's more in the article, but that's all I needed to see.  I went to iTunes, and despite a hefty $1.99 price tag, it held enough promise that I thought it might be worth it.

So I bought it, and it led to an interesting race against the clock where I stared at the iPhone's screen, with the newly purchased icon safely tucked in the lower right hand corner, waiting for it to load while the attendant tried to get the door closed. 

It was a close call, but the app finished right before we had to turn everything off.

Once we hit the right altitude and got the go-ahead, I fired up my new game, and didn't look up until we were making a final descent into O'Hare.

It was another simulation game, and I was hooked.  Developing my own little fake games and managing my own little fake game developers.  It was pretty addictive.  I like to think I was a fair manager.  I only fired one little fake coder because he was bad at his job, but I felt really bad about it.

His name was Norm, and he begged me not to fire him.  But he wasn't cutting it, and even though it broke my heart, I had to send his bespectacled face out into our crappy economy.  It got even worse when I placed a fake job ad for new programmers a fake year later and Norm showed up as an applicant.  I know it's probably just a lack of space in the game that made him pop up again, but I couldn't help but wonder how Norm was managing for a year out there, applying for jobs with no hope of success (as I said, he was a really bad programmer).

But aside from forcing me to confront the harsh realities of management in a digitized way, it did get me wondering why the heck these games appeal to me so much.

I thought about the games I played in my youth, and the list is full of these Sim games.  Below, a sampling:

SimCity - Of course, who didn't play SimCity.  The SNES version got me started on what might have been a great career in urban planning, although I was always obsessed with having no roads.  We only had trains in my town, because even as a kid I hated traffic.  SimCity let me build my utopia, like a Chicago with nothing but El Stops.  Ew.

SimTower - This one was like SimCity, but in a building!  You got to build restaurants, offices, condos, and a bunch of other stuff.  You could also pick out individual people in the tower and name them.  There was a little version of me in my tower, but I think he got ticked off and closed his office when I had trouble managing elevator capacity.  What was amazing was that he did it seemingly out of spite.  What can I say? He took after his father.

SimLife - If the religious right ever picked a Sim game to protest, it would probably be this one (at least until SimAbortion gets released).  The game let you create your own species of animal, combining different parts of other animals.  Yeah, not the best game if you think we were all put on this planet by a divine creator, but it was the best game if you wanted to cross-breed giraffes and alligators.  You couldn't hide in the trees from those suckers.

SimFarm - Yes, this was actually a game.  You got to run a farm.  But you couldn't even hire illegal migrant workers, so how accurate could it have been?

The Sims - This didn't come out until I was in college, but at some point I did play it and kind of got into managing my little Sim.  I made him get up early and work out, then go to work, then eat, and then pray a girl would walk by for him to talk to.  Didn't realize it'd be a preview of real life at the time.

Roller Coaster Tycoon - Two things made this game, where you run your own theme park, hilarious.  The first was that you could make all your guests sick to the point they vomited.  The second was that if you were really good, you could design a roller coaster that would crash and kill guests.

Baseball Mogul/Eastside Hockey Manager - These two games were, simply put, the best sports games NOT named Super Tecmo Bowl.  They were a baseball and hockey simulator, respectively, and I must have played them for about a billion hours.  Baseball Mogul let you run a baseball team, and I got pretty obsessed with running a profitable team and winning every World Series.  The Phillies won a ton of games under my leadership, which for a kid growing up in Philadelphia, seemed like pure fantasy at the time.

Eastside Hockey Manager was a rough equivalent, but for the NHL.  The game was amazingly detailed, and built solely by some guy in Europe who must've been some kind of genius.  Again, many Philadelphia titles.  Those years were great for the fake fans of digital Philadelphia, although I bet they still had to contend with digital traffic on I-76 and digital flash mobs.

But I have a hard time figuring out exactly what got me into those games so much.  You sit and manage your team, your theme park, your farm, whatever, and try to make it awesome.  Was I always just an MBA pretending to be a kid and implementing sound operational processes? (The exception would be the designing roller coasters to kill people.  That is no longer part of my repertoire)

I guess maybe they appeal to me because they're puzzles, and I like figuring things out.  So for at least the next few weeks, I'll probably be obsessed with developing new games in Game Dev Story, and making a ton of fake money for my fake studio.  Maybe even enough to hire that fake Norm guy back and stop feeling bad.

Friday, August 5, 2011

Thoughts on ESPN's New Qb Rating QBR

The whole Chinese calendar thing never really made sense to me.  I think I was born in the year of the rooster, or maybe the year of the rat?  ESPN apparently has no love for it either, they've recently proclaimed 2011 as...


As far as ESPN promotional campaigns go, this one is relatively innocuous.  Whether it's the year of the quarterback for any kind of clear reason would be debatable, but at least it isn't the absolute travesty that was the absurd 'Who's More Now?' campaign.

Anyway, ESPN has opened the Year of the Quarterback (which was almost called the Year of Boring CBA Negotiations), with the debut of a new statistic, conceived to take the current QB rating and advance it.

They're calling it QBR, which somehow is short for Total Quarterback Rating.  I guess it's technically TQBR, or Total QBR.  I guess that part needs work.

But ESPN is trying to give us a better QB Rating, and it's hard to argue with their logic.  The current standard for QB Rating is a relatively straightforward formula, but no one remembers it offhand or can easily calculate it.  It also can yield a perfect score of 158.3, which doesn't have the same ring to it as a perfect 10, or even bowling a 300.

So they want to replace it.  Cool. 

From their description, it seems like ESPN is trying to keep pace in the stats arms race, the one that gave us the MIT Sloan Sports Conference, Moneyball, and dozens and dozens of eager young quant jocks trying to break into the business.

Again, makes sense to me.  Anything that gets more analysis into the public consciousness is fine.  Then maybe we'd get some more insights from our broadcast announcers.

But I wonder to what extent this new Total QBR is going to seep into the public.  Most specifically, I wonder about this because I can't seem to find any details on how the formula itself is even calculated.

It spits out a number for each QB between 0 and 100, that's a good idea.

And a review of it's results over the last three seasons pass the initial smell test.

Peyton Manning has the top two slots with his 2009 and 2008 seasons, the middle rankings have QBs like Matt Cassel and David Garrard, and Jamarcus Russell comes in dead last.

And I also get the logic behind including the win probability via expected points per play.  That's a reasonable approach to me, based on my understanding of what they've done.

But the inclusion of 'Dividing Credit' and a 'Clutch Index,' give me some pause.

In terms of 'Dividing Credit', this is what they say about the formula:

On a pass play, for instance, there are a few basic components:
• The pass protection
• The throw
• The catch
• The run after the catch

In the first segment, the blockers and the quarterback have responsibility for keeping the play alive, and the receivers have to get open for a QB to avoid a sack or having to throw the ball away. On the throw itself, a quarterback has to throw an accurate ball to the intended receiver. Certain receivers might run better or worse routes, so the ability of a QB to be on target also relates somewhat to the receivers. For the catch, it might be a very easy one where the QB laid it in right in stride and no defenders were there to distract the receiver. Or it could be that the QB threaded a needle and defenders absolutely hammered the receiver as he caught the ball, making it difficult to hold on. So even the catch is about both the receiver and the QB. Finally, the run after the catch depends on whether a QB hit the receiver in stride beyond the defense and on the ability of a receiver to be elusive. Whatever credit we give to the blockers, receivers and quarterback in these situations is designed to sum to the team expected points added.

The ESPN video tracking has been useful in helping to separate credit in plays like these. We track overthrows, underthrows, dropped passes, defended passes and yards after the catch. The big part was taking this information and analyzing how much of it was related to the QB, the receivers and the blockers. Not surprisingly, pass protection is related mostly to the QB and the offensive line, but yards after the catch is more about what the receiver does. Statistical analysis was able to show this, and we divided credit based on those things.

In an earlier post where I discussed why the NFL doesn't lend itself to statistical analysis as easily as baseball, I talked a lot about the difficulty of measuring intent and assigning value to different teammates coordinating the activity.

It's clear the ESPN stat gurus have also thought about this, and apparently have developed some solution.

But they don't describe how exactly they did it, which has me quite curious, because it seems like that would be by far the greatest challenge in building this metric.  Who's responsible for the success of the pass?  And how would you even start to divvy that up amongst the players?  Because if you could do that accurately, you'd be in a whole new world in terms of attributing the reasons for victory, which would have dramatic implications for players and their earnings potential (by this I mean, if we could suddenly say the right guard drove a significant proportion of his team's offensive success, and could somehow measure that with objective data, suddenly that guard might argue he should get paid more than the right tackle)

I'm pretty confident the guys at ESPN haven't gotten that far deep into details, but without knowing it just has me wondering how they got to where they are.  Maybe they're talking about it in their TV debut tonight, but I would assume not.

That brings me to the larger question of how broadly this will be adopted.

If you want a metric to become the standard for everybody, it sure as heck helps if you tell us all how to calculate it.  Even if we can't do the math ourselves, showing it removes the black box 'trust us' element from the equation.

They can integrate it into Monday Night Football all they want, but until I see a little more under the curtain (or skirt for a more adult analogy), I'm withholding judgement.

Even if I agree with it about Manning and Russell.

Thursday, August 4, 2011

Random Path Crossing with Instapaper

There are few things quite as disappointing as exiting the airport terminal, only to be met with a cab line half a mile long.  It's like when you would go to Disney World and wait forever to get on Pirates of the Caribbean...only in this line your reward is beat up Crown Victoria cab and no catchy songs (though sometimes there may be a pirate)

And when that happens, I usually head straight for the CTA.

Tonight was one of those nights, and as I boarded the train, I navigated myself through the tourists and their luggage to the back of the train car. (And a note to said tourists, do we really need the giant bags in the aisle?  When your bag gets to be the size of a person, just pay for the freaking cab)

But I get to the back of the train and there's a couple sitting in the second to last row.  Behind them is a single seat, which the guy had put his bag on.  I didn't even know the seat was there, as I think it's usually occupied by a crazy and/or homeless person when I'm on the train.

But the guy assumed I wanted the seat, and went and took his bag off so I could sit down.  That was nice of him.

And as I sat down I saw him start playing with his iPhone.  Like just about everyone between the ages of 15 and 35 does on public transportation these days.

I saw him pull up Twitter, and as I watched him scroll through his updates I wondered, who is this random guy who moves bags off chairs for a stranger?

So I looked at his handle, pulled out my own iPhone and booted up my own Twitter account.  Then I looked him up.

It was the founder of Instapaper.

Wait, what???  Instapaper like the app that lets you download articles for later? An app that I downloaded? And he's also a developer behind Tumblr? (Now I actually ended up deleting Instapaper, and I use Blogger instead of Tumblr, but still)

Frankly, it seemed pretty amazing that I was randomly sitting behind this dude who had such an impact in mobile media (with 23k Twitter followers, just a shade ahead of me)

It also got me thinking about what it would be like in a few years, when geo-location on mobile devices becomes much more popular.

foursquare is really only the beginning, and while it's designed to help you let your friends know where you are and what you're doing, it's only a matter of time before we have the ability to know who everyone is wherever we are.

Through a combination of more precise locators (which are probably good enough already), facial recognition technology (which already exists), and the continued erosion of the desire for privacy (dwindling), you could imagine a world where you get on the train.  But instead of everyone just fiddling on their smart phones by themselves, you can pull up a view of everyone on the train with you who has opted into the web.  It might seem crazy, but at some point, people won't think anything of putting that information out there.  It'll just be the way it is.

That makes me feel old, prematurely.

And I should also stop looking at other people's phones, that's not polite.

Monday, August 1, 2011

The Eagles are NOT the Miami Heat

Quick post today, because I read an article that made me roll my eyes.  Now granted, I'd say a good 80% of the things I read make me roll my eyes, but this one was especially roll worthy.

For those of you who don't follow football, the Eagles made what some might term a 'splash' in the free agency pool this year.  Free agency is where you go out and buy new players for your team, with the idea that they'll be an improvement over your current players, some of whom you'll get rid of.

The Eagles signed the best overall player on the free agent market, a cornerback named Nnamdi Asomugha (which I spelled right on the first try here, despite giving Blogger's spell check a seizure).  Asomugha is arguably the best defensive coverage player in the NFL, and was only available as a free agent because the Raiders screwed up something with his contract (I'm assuming the intern responsible was fired or had his organs harvested by Al Davis).

So the Eagles signed this guy, as well as a number of other players.  In commenting to the press, one of these players, new backup quarterback Vince Young, referred to the new collection of teammates as a 'Dream Team'.

And for a sports media that loves to traffic in misconstrued off-the-cuff remarks, a stupid waste of time was born.

Because as soon as Young made his comments, they became the fuel for the sports media echo chamber, and everyone suddenly had to provide a comment or opinion (irony quotient of me saying that - high).  Googling the term 'vince young dream team eagles', returned over 338,000 results.

And of course, others were asked to comment in response

Speaking to reporters at Cowboys camp, (Defensive Coordinator Rob) Ryan said that he was happy with the Cowboys’ relative lack of big-name free-agent signings because he thinks the players the Cowboys already have are good enough. And then he said he’s looking forward to playing a certain other team that has received more attention in free agency.

“These are proven players, and that’s what we need,” Ryan said. “I don’t know if we win the all-hype team, I think that might have gone to somebody else, but we’re going to beat their ass when we play them.”

Ugh. Really?

The new backup quarterback for the Eagles had one thing to say, and now all of a sudden they're a bunch of self-promoting showboaters akin to the Miami LeBrons?

Maybe people would say I'm overreacting to the comment, and that may be true.  But as an Eagles fan who's had to endure years and years of abuse from other Eagles fans because their owner once referred to the organization as the 'Gold Standard,' I can see where this might go.  That's despite the fact that the comment came from the backup quarterback, which is only one step removed from the third quarterback, which is only one step removed from me.

Of course, if the Eagles did manage to win the Super Bowl, I'd probably buy a Dream Team shirt