The long-suffering American teacher corps

warring-teachers-243x366My new review of The Teacher Wars in the Los Angeles Review of Books opens with a comparison to Drew Gilpin Faust’s This Republic of Suffering. Here’s where it goes:

Like the battered blackboard on the book’s cover, the American public school is revealed to be a body riven with scars — some from heroic struggles, some from neglected deformities, some from mistreatment. Goldstein rehabilitates this body of knowledge for the 21st-century educational scene, frequently salving the wounds with context but occasionally cauterizing them with caustic wit. Her treatment is a book that ought to be read by all American teachers, and read twice by anyone who presumes to advise them.

Here’s the full piece.

My first attempt at sabermetrics

1960-Program-320As of this writing, the Kansas City Royals are currently tied with the San Francisco Giants in the World Series at two games a piece. That’s a wonderful and miraculous thing for me to be writing in the first place, given the Royals’ postseason drought since 1985. After a painful game last night, however, I’ve been looking for signs of hope as we head into the home stretch. This led me to commit my first act of sabermetrics.

I’ve been intrigued by sabermetrics (the art and science of baseball statistics) ever since first reading about it in the essays of Stephen Jay Gould. I can’t claim anything like expertise in it — there are plenty of baseball stats used by folks like my friend Ben that I can’t even explain — but I always liked the idea that this great big data set was there for anyone to use and play with.

The Royals’ present dilemma gave me the perfect chance. Today’s Royals are a defensive team known for impossible catches and even more impossible-to-beat pitching. They do well holding on to a one-run lead. So it’s not surprise that the Royals edged out the giants 3-2 in Game 3. Our margin in Game 2 was more respectable — we won 7-2.

But in the two Giants victories — one in KC and one in San Francisco — we got clobbered. The first game was 7-1. Last night’s loss truly stung, with the Giants beating us 11-4. Each of these games left Royals fans wondering whether we truly deserved to be in the Series at all.

But runs don’t win the series — games do. Hoping to take away the pain from last night’s loss, I spent a few hours today running an analysis of the number of runs versus final victory in all of the World Series matchups since 1903. I hoped to answer the question, “How often does the winner of the World Series score fewer runs than the loser?” It’s probably a question someone out there has investigated before, but it was fun for me to try on my own… and the results are also encouraging for the Royals fan at this moment. Some of my conclusions:

1. The lopsided run result is more common than you might think. In the 109 World Series matchups since 1903, it has occurred 23 times — a little over 21 percent of the time. (I’m including 1948, when the Cleveland Indians beat the Boston Braves with both teams scoring 17 runs in the series.) It comes as no surprise that all these examples come from World Series that went to six or seven games, since this outcome is technically impossible when there are only four games and extremely unlikely when there are five.

It’s also not surprising that in series of this type, the overall numbers of runs scored by both teams are closer to each other than in average championships. The losing team tends to have scored about four more runs than the winner (and the average goes down to three when you exclude a notable outlier that I’ll discuss in a moment). By contrast, in World Series games overall, the winning team leads the losing team by an average of about 6.8 runs.

I also noticed that the lopsided series tend to have a higher overall number of runs than the average World Series. However, I suspect that has more to do with the higher number of games played than anything else.

2. The lopsided run data seems to bode well for the Royals in this series. The two teams that have been on the losing side of a lopsided run result most often are the Giants and the Yankees — both four times. But given the Yankees’ obnoxious habit of making it to the Fall Classic again and again, these losses represent a much small percentage of their World Series appearances — just 10 percent. They also won with fewer runs than their opponents in 1962, 1977, and 1996.

The Giants, on the other hand, have lost about 21 percent of their championship appearances in this way. In fact, a full third of their losses have occurred with more runs than the winning team. And they’ve never won with a lopsided result. (My father-in-law, a long-time Giants fan, dismissed this result by saying, “When you’ve lost twelve World Series over the years, you find all sorts of ways to lose.”)

Of course, this stat has little predictive or strategic value in the middle of a World Series — overall, scoring more runs all the time is a much more effective path to victory. But it’s a nice reminder that double-digit run totals like last night’s don’t necessarily foretell a Giants victory.

3. If you’re still worried about this series, have a look at 1960.

When putting together my data, one year clearly stuck out. In most years with a lopsided run result, the losing team had just a few more runs than the winners. But the Pittsburgh Pirates beat the New York Yankees in 1960 despite the fact that they scored 28 fewer runs than the Yanks.

It’s worth sharing the scores of the individual games to drive this point home.

Game 1: Yankees 4, Pirates 6

Game 2: Yankees 16, Pirates 3

Game 3: Yankees 16, Pirates 4

Game 4: Yankees 2, Pirates 3

Game 5: Yankees 2, Pirates 5

Game 6: Yankees 12, Pirates 0

Game 7: Yankees 9, Pirates 10

Heading into Game 5 this year, the Giants had scored 22 runs and the Royals 15. Even if the Royals lost another game by seven runs then won the remaining two games by one run each, the difference between run totals would only be (22 – 15 + 7 – 1 – 1), or 12. That’s still less than half the number of runs that divided the Pirates and the Yankees before the big swingers ultimately went down in 1960.

All stats from the Baseball Almanac site. Math errors are mine. I’ve provided the spreadsheet I used to figure all this out here. It didn’t occur to me to track the number of games in the series until I was about halfway done, but I went back and added the results for the lopsided series. Other potential inquiries: does it matter if the winner is from the AL or NL? In which game of the series are the losers likely to score all those runs? How does all of this correlate with teams’ other offensive stats?

Postgame update: Shutout? Meh. If the Pirates could come back from 12-0…

Here’s to Game 7 in KC!

Post-series update: One thing my father-in-law observed was that in the end, the run totals between the Royals and Giants were closer than most World Series — proof that the teams were equally matched. It’s a nice thought, though I don’t quite have the energy to investigate it right now. Here’s to 2015!

Forbid them not

Episodes from LAX:

A tall blonde woman waiting in line for her boarding pass is holding a child a few shades darker than she with black hair and deep-set eyes. An Asian couple approaches the baby and starts cooing at him in Korean. The woman responds, “I’m sorry, he isn’t Korean, he is a Mexican like me.” All the time the child has been babbling enthusiastically in response.

At security, two parents were embarrassed over holding up their line with all their truck — the strollers, the diaper bag, the toys. Their son (who looked like he had probably just learned to walk) tried to pick up his own stroller and put it into the machine. Since he wasn’t strong enough, it kept banging against the tiled floor. After Dad took that away, he kept loading empty bins onto the conveyor belt. Mom reprimanded him each time before pulling him toward the metal detector.

At baggage claim, a tiny Ninja Turtle toy fell out of a big bag as it was picked up by a member of a big group. The leader of the group asked if everyone had collected all their things. A little boy started screaming, “No!” then whimpering wordlessly as the group moved on, longing for the lost toy as insistently and obstinately as the good shepherd longed for his lamb.

The man who spoke in parables said, “Suffer little children to come unto me, and forbid them not: for of such is the kingdom of God.” Thank God he didn’t add an interpretive frame — foolish adults did that. But if we look at the world the way he told us to look, we can see that the world children see is real and present and full of love, and the one we see is the inauthentic compromise. The Kingdom of Heaven is not a metaphor or a moral lesson or a millenial promise. It is here, now, and it is theirs.

Detecting equity

bellonaAn overlong excerpt from The Unpleasantness at the Bellona Club by Dorothy Sayers, recounting an argument between Lord Peter Wimsey (bibliophile noble and dilettante detective) and Inspector Charles Parker (a perfectly reasonable Scotland Yard man who only reads theology):

“Yes,” said Wimsey. “But—look here, Charles.”

A taxi drew up.

“What?” said Parker, sharply, with his foot on the step. “I can’t wait, old man. What is it?”

“I—look here, Charles—this is all wrong,” pleaded Wimsey. “You may have got the right solution, but the working of the sum’s all wrong. Same as mine used to be at school, when I’d looked up the answer in the crib and had to fudge in the middle part. I’ve been a fool. I ought to have known about Penberthy. But I don’t believe this story about bribing and corrupting him, and getting him to do the murder. It doesn’t fit.”

“Doesn’t fit what?”

“Doesn’t fit the portrait. Or the books. Or the way Nurse Armstrong described Ann Dorland. Or your description of her. It’s a mechanically perfect explanation, but I swear it’s all wrong.”

“If it’s mechanically perfect,” said Parker, “that’s good enough. It’s far more than most explanations are. You’ve got that portrait on the brain. It’s because you’re artistic, I suppose.”

For some reason, the word “artistic” produces the most alarming reactions in people who know anything about art.

“Artistic be damned!” said Wimsey, spluttering with fury, “it’s because I’m an ordinary person, and have met women, and talked to them like ordinary human beings—”

“You and your women,” said Parker, rudely.

“Well—I and my women, what about it? One learns something. You’re on the wrong tack about this girl.”

“I’ve met her and you haven’t,” objected Parker. “Unless you’re suppressing something. You keep on hinting things. Anyhow, I’ve met the girl, and she impressed me as being guilty.”

“And I haven’t met her, and I’ll swear she isn’t guilty.”

“You must know, of course.”

“I do happen to know about this.”

“I’m afraid your unsupported opinion will hardly be sufficient to refute the weight of evidence.”

“You haven’t any real evidence, if it comes to that. You don’t know that they were ever alone together; you don’t know that Ann Dorland knew about the will; you can’t prove that Penberthy administered the poison—”

“I don’t despair of getting all the evidence necessary,” said Parker, coldly,” provided you don’t keep me here all day.” He slammed the taxi-door.

I have a theory about the significance of detective stories. Or at least, their significance to me. I think there is a reason the genre got its start with private detectives and amateur sleuths rather than police procedurals. Because for anyone to arrive at Sam Spade or Lord Peter’s door, something must have gone wrong with the system — with the police, the evidence, the prosecutors, the courts, and the powers that be who fund them all. And for the story to be interesting, there must be something for the detective to discover — a case of mistaken identity, a misinterpreted motive, a misplaced piece of evidence. So in its way, the genre addresses an anxiety all we moderns have: that our lives are caught up between imperfect and arbitrary systems we don’t understand… systems that drive even perfectly good men like Inspector Parker to slam the door in the face of a contradictory perspective.

I’m told that philosophers and some more enlightened lawyers call the effort to close gaps between these systems and true justice “equity.” (In fact, in the book above, Lord Peter considers at some point that if the case he is investigating went to trial, it would never be decided by evidence or logic, but by the two lawyers’ emotional appeals to the jury — which he decides not to trust.) Anyway, I like the idea that each of the great fictional detectives represents his or her own form of equity, a personal vision of justice that for one reason or another, doesn’t quite fit with the system. Some of Lord Peter’s way is illuminated above — a gentlemanly code of honor, a mode of inquiry that is as much as aesthetic as it is empirical, a plodding or galloping scholarly speed in the pursuit.

And then there’s the War. Peter’s alliance with his friend and manservant Bunter was formed in the trenches. His struggles with shell shock give him empathy with all sorts of people who might otherwise be beneath the notice of the aristocracy. And I think it must have been the decimation of Europe that give him his simultaneous determination to prevent another death and his detachment from even the weightiest cases.

In The Unpleasantness at the Bellona Club, when any little thing goes wrong, the aged Army men of the club reliably remark that it wasn’t this way before the War. Further down the pike of history, one may wonder whether the Great War (and all of the other wars) are more effect than cause of various violent systems coming to bear on the body of the people. That may be unfair to the many perfectly decent Inspector Parkers who serve and protect as a part of those systems, but I’m still glad we have the occasional remnant or eccentric like Lord Peter to rescue us.


Two estimable gentlemen across from me at the coffee shop
are alternating between a discussion of the Holy Spirit
and how many more air strikes Obama would need to undertake
against ISIS to prove that he’s really against them.

It’s enough to make me wonder whether
I want to have anything to do with this idea of God at all.

Then a man leaning heavily on a cane approaches
I vacate my seat and move my work outside
knowing that God — not the idea of God — is with me
and I don’t need to worry today
about what others might do in His name.

A curious find

When your wife is in the antiques business, hundreds of odd and interesting items come through your door. Many of them have stories; most of them we’ll never know. But sometimes a little digging can yield something amazing.

As part of a lot of odds and ends she bought off an estate sale dealer, Lindsay found this commemorative “Pony Express” liquor bottle. Sort of neat-looking, but nothing special.


Yet Liz heard a rattling noise while moving it, so she decided to check if there was something within. There was — several Indonesian bills and a beat-up pink piece of paper with writing on both sides.



Front side: “Mel, – Tues –  God spared us. I hope your ok if you come here leave me a note to let me know your ok – Love – Erika”

In a different hand: “WERE FINE” 



Back side: “WERE FINE. Our Homes Are gone – Love you – M” 

Our best guess is that the note must have been left from one person to another in the aftermath of the 2005 tsunami that devastated Indonesia. The bills date to the late 90s and early 2000s.

It’s a privilege to be connected, through Lindsay, to these kinds of stories… and a reminder of all the different meanings objects can carry to different people.

P.S. — I have wondered if there might be a way to contact either party in the correspondence and return the note. We have no way of directly finding the original seller of the estate, but if through the magic of the Internet you happen to know who it is, please get in touch.