The recently opened Wasserstein Hall at Harvard Law School has a lot of little plaques around to recognize the donors that made such a behemoth new building project possible. However, only one of those donors has won my heart and mind and that is William A. Falik, who (in collaboration with then HLS Dean Elena Kagan) perpetrated this gem:

Professor Falik's enduring gift to HLS (photo from Above the Law blog, 2012).

Yes, you read that right and yes, the donor knew what he was doing. Here’s an explanatory excerpt from Elie Mystal’s slightly surreal phone conversation with Professor Falik (he’s on the faculty at the Boalt Hall School of Law at UC Berkeley) in which he explains his actions:

Although I have developed several new communities in California, with a name like “Falik,” there are limited naming opportunities. (Somehow “Falik Blvd” or “Falik Ave” does not cut it). [As the] piece in the SF Chronicle suggests, I thought the best use of my name would be to name a Gentleman’s Lounge (aka Men’s Room), when I made a large donation to the Berkeley Repertory Theater. Dean Kagan, who has a great sense of humor, liked the idea, but for reasons that I cannot articulate, the Falik Gentleman’s Lounge moniker did not get through the chain of command at HLS, so alas, it is now the Falik Men’s Room.

So basically, this guy has successfully trolled future generations of students and theatre-goers at HLS and Berkeley Rep.

Best. Donations. Ever.

(H/T to my fellow residents of the Geek Cave at the Berkman Center – and especially Dan Jones for forwarding the story to me)

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Long Tail Sports

February 19, 2012

Neymar-mania vs. Lin-sanity?

Lin-sanity notwithstanding, this is a time of year when I always find myself wanting more as a sports fan in America. The memories of the Super Bowl and BCS Championship game have already started to fade; March madness remains a long way off; pitchers and catchers have yet to report for Spring Training; and both the NBA and NHL have just passed the midpoint of their respective regular seasons. Add that it’s the middle of Winter (even an historically mild one), and these factors combine to make mid February a less than thrilling few weeks.

Lately, I’ve partially solved my urge for non-stop sports entertainment by turning to leagues that have much less popularity and almost no visibility in mainstream U.S. media coverage.

First, during a brief trip to Brazil for a conference, I enjoyed watching some early round action in the Paulistão, or the elite soccer league of São Paulo state. With historically dominant teams like Corinthians, Santos, and Palmeiras, São Paulo boasts one of the most competitive state-level championships within Brazil and usually includes several young players who will become international superstars with household names within a few years (e.g. if you haven’t heard of Neymar yet, just be patient, the teenage phenom will likely figure prominently in the Brazilian national team’s efforts when the country hosts the World Cup in 2014).

Then, the week after I returned from Brazil, I spent a few afternoons watching the final games of the Serie del Caribe, an international tournament that wraps up the Winter leagues in the Dominican Republic, Mexico, Puerto Rico, and Venezuela. The games were tight, competitive and included a number of Major League players who seemed either to have chosen to return home as triumphant stars or to hone their skills among Latin America’s most competitive leagues.

Despite the fact that you’ll never see your local ESPN network cover either of these events, both have a ton of history behind them and tremendous fan-bases (ESPN’s Brazilian and regional Latin American affiliates cover both). They are also extraordinarily competitive and played at a very high skill level.

Latin American soccer and baseball are not the only options. There are also a whole range of winter sports that never show up on U.S. television schedules until the Olympics. In other words, the only thing preventing you from watching terrific, exciting sporting events in the middle of the annual mid-Winter lull is the fact that you would probably either need to pay an inordinate sum for satellite coverage or seek out unauthorized streams on websites that serve sketchy advertisements and mal-ware along with the game.

At the risk of making a very Ethan Zuckerman-esque point, the Internet makes it theoretically trivial to solve this problem, but that theoretical triviality only underscores a much bigger problem in the way our attention is distributed and canalized by a combination of cultural habits and incumbent media networks. In other words, maybe you’d be more likely to watch Neymar and Santos take on Palmeiras if either your local television network would it or if you could easily find a high quality stream broadcasting in English (I also enjoy watching these things online because I get to listen to Portuguese and Spanish language announcers). Indeed, as long as somebody is streaming a broadcast of any of these games anywhere around the world, there’s no practical reason that it isn’t possible to watch that stream anywhere else. But for a whole variety of reasons that I don’t fully understand, that just doesn’t happen yet.

My point is that American sports fans live in a media ecosystem that has not yet figured out what to do with its (long) tail. There has to be a better, less monopolistic solution than satellite and cable providers charging high rates for access to particular sports packages or leagues. This model ensures that only existing fans who are willing to pay to watch teams they already like will ever subscribe to such services, condemning these sports and teams to continued obscurity. Instead, it would be great to see some affordable way for fans to take advantage of existing Internet streams to experiment with new sports, new leagues, and new cultures by tuning into otherwise less popular or less well-known events when their hometown favorites are not in season.

Unknown Fiddler from Southern US Field Trip, 1959 (Lomax Collection, US Library of Congress)

  1. Supposedly, much of the Alan Lomax archive of music will eventually go online. Until then, I console myself with this tiny playlist from the album versions of his “Southern Journey” (and in particular the Fred McDowell track “What’s the Matter Now”).
  2. The New York Public Library released a stereogranimator.
  3. The experimental turk website includes a nice list of Mturk experimentation resources (via John Horton).
  4. Chris Blattman’s offered some sound recommendations on how to be a better reviewer & respondent.
  5. Henry Farrell (and many others) are taking a stand against Elsevier and you can join.

For the second time in recent memory, the New England Patriots and the New York Giants delivered a competitive, exciting finale to the NFL season last night, from which the Giants emerged as Super Bowl champs. From a fan’s point of view, the game pretty much had it all: stellar individual and team performances, multiple lead changes, dramatic shifts in momentum, as well as some late-game tension and heroics (okay, maybe this isn’t from a Patriot fan’s point of view). However, upon further review, there was one aspect in which the game was, if not completely predictable, at least not as extraordinary as it might have been.

Let me preface my explanation  by saying that I, like many of my fellow Americans, celebrated the evening with some casual small-stakes gambling. At the party I attended, a bunch of us agreed to buy into a Super Bowl Square pool. For those of you who haven’t seen this before, the rules vary depending on local preferences, but each square in a 10 x 10 grid usually corresponds to a pair of single digit numbers (e.g. 0-1, 9-8, 3-3, etc.). These number-pairs correspond to the final digit of the home and away team’s scores respectively. Each player “buys” a given number of squares for a given price and, if they “own” the square that corresponds to the final digits of the home and away team’s scores at the end of the game (or the half, or a quarter – ymmv), that player wins the pool (or some fraction thereof). Since the game is usually meant to be polite and accessible to party attendees who are neither serious about gambling nor football, the number-pairs are often randomly assigned after everybody has already bought their squares, but before the game has begun.

Now, if you stop to think about it, it should be pretty obvious that the second digits of football scores are not distributed randomly. Points can only be scored in combinations of 1, 2, 3, and 6, and there are some combinations which are historically more common than others. As a result, even though nothing has been decided in either the betting pool or the football game when the number-pairs are randomly assigned, some squares are now worth much less (are less likely to win) than others.

As it turns out, the 17-21 final score of the Patriots and Giants corresponded to one of the most likely combinations of second digits (7 and 1). I didn’t run the calculations myself, but pretty much every. single. person. who did agrees on the fact that 7 and 1 are, relatively speaking, much more likely than most of the 100 possible combinations of home and away team last digits. The precise extent to which people claim this combination is more likely depends on the method they use. I am not sure what the relative advantages and disadvantages of the various methods are, but among the sites I consulted, I intuitively prefer approaches like this one and this one, both of which were written by Dough Drinen and use actual game data since 1994 (when the current two-point conversion rules came into effect). If Doug’s done his math right, a 7-1 final digit outcome was among the ten most likely combinations. In the more precise language used in Doug’s analysis, the expected value of “owning” that square was quite a bit higher than the expected value of an average square.

So, why was the Patriots and Giants outcome almost improbable? When the Giants scored what wound up being the final touchdown with a little over a minute to go, the game seemed likely to finish with a relatively rare 7-2 combination once the Giants kicked the extra point. However (and here’s where both gambling and football get a bit more interesting), Giants Head Coach Tom Coughlin chose to have his team attempt a two-point conversion in an effort to reduce the possibility of a tie or a loss (should the Patriots somehow have scored a touchdown in the remaining minute). When the Patriots’ defense prevented the Giants from making the conversion, the score wound up 17-21 instead of 17-22, resulting in an outcome that was…well, almost predictable.

I find it hard to avoid thinking about the material impact of Coughlin’s decision: a truly awesome amount of money was riding on his choice when you aggregate all of the low- and high-stakes betting going on around a major sporting event like the Super Bowl. At a certain level, I guess that’s true at many points in the game, but it’s hard not to see it more clearly when the clock is ticking down and so much clearly depends on the outcome of a single play.

Of course, I have already said that the stakes were incredibly low in the specific case of my Super Bowl party. However, that did not prevent the lucky winner from appreciating the irony of the situation: the final digits in the score had suddenly gone from highly improbable to substantially more probable as a result of the failure of a somewhat improbable play that, on average, results in success a little more than half of the time (sorry if you need to read that last sentence twice). In case you haven’t already guessed it, that lucky winner was me!