All posts by jmooney

Riddler Express Answer, 22 Feb 2019 (it’s been awhile)

This week’s Riddler Express:

We are marooned on an island that has the following curious property: Everyone over a certain age lies all the time. More specifically, there is an age limit L — a positive integer — and all islanders who are younger than age L only tell the truth, while islanders who are at least L years old only tell lies.

We are greeted by five islanders who make the following statements:

A: “B is more than 20 years old.”

B: “C is more than 18 years old.”

C: “D is less than 22 years old.”

D: “E is not 17 years old.”

E: “A is more than 21 years old.”

A: “D is more than 16 years old.”

B: “E is less than 20 years old.”

C: “A is 19 years old.”

D: “B is 20 years old.”

E: “C is less than 18 years old.”

What is L? And what did we just learn about the ages of the islanders?

Up late and having trouble sleeping so I decided to give this problem a try. I used to love logic problems as a kid, and this one tickled that nerve.

The first step in this problem is to identify which statements are contradictory and what that says about each individual:

  • B & E cannot both be truthful; if both liars, C = 18.
  • C & E cannot both be truthful because they disagree on A’s age.
  • A & D cannot both be truthful because they disagree on B’s age.
  • A & C cannot both be liars because that would imply they disagree on D’s age.
  • B & D cannot both be liars because that would imply they disagree on E’s age.

There are a finite combination of groupings of liars and truth-tellers. If you list these all out and eliminate all that that violate the above 5 statements, you’re left with:

Truthful Liars
ABC DE
BCD AE
AB CDE
BC ADE
CD ABE

Let’s consider these cases one at a time. There are more than one way to organize your thoughts here; I found it especially helpful to go through the people in order listing the statements everyone made about them.

ABC DE
BC ADE

If either of the above are the configuration, D is a liar and then E is 17 years old. However, all of these imply C > 18, which is a contradiction because E is a liar and should be older than C.

AB CDE

If the above is the configuration, D is a liar and then E is 17 years old. However, A is truthful, implying B > 20, which is a contradiction because E is a liar and should be older than B.

BCD AE

If this is the configuration, then C is truthful implying A is 19, and D is truthful implying B is 20, which is a contradiction if B is truthful and A a liar.

That leaves

Truthful Liars
CD ABE

Which, just to verify, tells us

  • A <= 21 (because E lies), A = 19 (because C tells the truth). This is consistent.
  • B <= 20 (because A lies), B = 20 (because D tells the truth). This is consistent.
  • C <= 18, C >= 18 (because both B and E lies). This implies C = 18.
  • D < 22 (because C is truthful), D <= 16 (because A lies). This is consistent.
  • E != 17 (because D is truthful), E >= 20 (because B lies). This is consistent.
  • Truth tellers D is 16 or less and C is 18. Liars A is 19, B is 20, and E is 20 or more. This tells us that L must be 19.

QED

I tried a bunch of those obnoxious scooters, here’s what I think

Though I work in Silicon Valley, I live in Santa Cruz County away from a lot of the madness. We just recently got Jump bikes in Santa Cruz, but it wasn’t till a visit to Atlanta, and a bit later to San Diego that I was astonished to see those hundreds of scooters lying all over the sidewalks. Lying, not so much–littered.

So of course, I had to try one.

Lime

You know what? They’re pretty fun, and useful.

I stayed at the Kimpton Hotel Palomar in San Diego for the AIAA SciTech conference, held at the Manchester Grand Hyatt. The two hotels were about a 20 minute walk apart; the weather was quite nice and fine for walking, but Monday night, January 7th, I had to get back to my room quickly to see Clemson open a can of you-know-what on Alabama.

I kind of arbitrarily selected Lime as the one I would try because a) there were a plethora of them outside the Grand Hyatt, and b) let’s be honest. They LOOK a bit cooler than the other option, Bird.

After downloading the Lime app, agreeing to the terms, and putting in payment details (more on that in a sec), I was able to scan the QR code on the handlebars with my phone, unlock the scooter, and be on my way.

First surprise was that they don’t “just go,” you have to push a few times, then press the right thumb switch to turn on the motor. No big deal, just a little effort. Driving all out, the scooter does about 15 mph.

The good: it got me where I needed to go, in less than 10 minutes. The ride cost $2.50 (though you get a dollar credit when trying for the first time). And again, it was kind of fun–I can only imagine my kids begging to ride one.

The bad: the ride is a little bit squirrely, so if a person isn’t used to riding scooters or even a bike for that matter, they may find controlling the thing takes a little learning curve. The app tells you that you’re supposed to ride in the street in a bike lane, but San Diego apparently has no bike lines downtown, and so I chose to ride in the street. The cars made me a bit nervous, but it made me more nervous to think of dodging pedestrians on the sidewalk. Side note: the apps tell you you’re supposed to wear your own helmet, but I didn’t have one and frankly neither did any one of the dozens of people I saw riding.

Overall, this is a good little piece of tech that is perfect for downtown areas like this.

Bird

The second ride I decided to give Bird a try, since it’s the second most prolific scooter. As far as the actual ride goes, it was virtually identical to Lime, so I won’t talk any more about that. The main difference was in the app.

I would say that the Bird experience was inferior to the Lime one: signing up took longer (it asked for my drivers license, and made me scroll through a ginormous terms of service), the app was similar but not as easy on the eyes, and the scooter took nearly a minute to unlock, even after the clock started ticking.

The one plus on the Bird app was that it let me scan my credit card rather than have to peck out the numbers.

[Side note: after writing most of this review, I discovered that Bird has recently engaged in some dirtbag-ey lawyering, so take that FWIW.]

Wheels

I’ll be honest, I didn’t ride this one, and felt I didn’t need to.

The Wheels scooters look actually more fun than the Lime or Bird scooters, because they’re actually sit-down mini-motorcycle things. I saw several people riding them and it looked like a good time, with performance similar to stand-up scooters.

I refused to ride one of them, though, because on the morning of the third day of the conference, I watched a guy in a suit eat it right in front of the Hyatt. Turns out that the handlebar snapped off as he was coming to a stop. What’s worse was these scooters are so new that they were in the middle of a launch promotion. No thank you.

Lyft Scooters

For Lyft, the app experience was terrible, it was not clear how to find scooters without looking really closely at the map.

When I finally did figure that out, there were only 3 scooters in a 10 block radius, where there were at least 50 of Lime and Bird ones. I gave up trying to find one.

On a later jaunt I found a Lyft scooter, but they blew it because it wasn’t charged enough to carry me at a decent speed even though it was first thing in the morning. Thumbs down.

Razor

I tried the Razor scooter share heading from my hotel to a restaurant to meet a friend. The Razor app experience and set up process was as easy as Lime’s, but I had to walk a couple of blocks to find one as the Razors are much less numerous than the Bird and Lime ones.

Razor also had a different scooter design than the others and frankly, it’s not a good difference. The Razor felt like a rattletrap, shaking noisily with every bump I hit. Another problem is that the throttle and brakes were quite touchy, with the result that I found myself anxious about the scooter getting away from me. I’ll pass on future trips.

Jump Bikes

On the last day of the conference, I decided to give the Jump bikes a try. This is actually the only one of these devices that I had seen before Thanksgiving as they’ve been deployed to Santa Cruz this summer.

First, the app experience. The good is that the app was straightforward and not hard to navigate; it was clear where to sign up and how to find a bike.

A few bummers: a) I had to create a new account (come ON people. The Google/Facebook account linking thing should be standard now!) and b) I had to manually type in my credit card number (other apps linked to my Google Pay or could take a picture of my card and do OCR), and c) unlike, for example, Lime, you have different money accounts for different cities. I had to put $10 down for San Diego (ok, they need to save on transaction fees) but then I went to switch to Santa Cruz so I could do this at home, and it wanted me to charge another $10 to open that account. Saywha’?

On to the ride. Finding the bike was a little harder than finding a scooter, which makes sense because they’re a bit beefier and I’m sure more costly to collect from the street and distribute. Incidentally, Jump offers a small credit if you park the bike at one of their predefined charge points instead of randomly on the street.

Unlocking was also not a smooth experience compared to the others on the list; I tried the app’s QR code scanner but it was a pain to find the QR code (it’s kind of behind and under the seat) and when I scanned it didn’t work. I had to select a bike near me, reserve it, then type my PIN into a keypad on the back of the bike. You then have to pull the locking bar out of the wheel and stow it before getting on your merry way. I assume that I missed some key instruction to tell me a better way, but a good design should make these things self evident.

So why did I go through all this? Because the ride was way better than any of the scooters and felt way safer. The electric assist on Jump, even at the lowest setting, made you feel like Lance Armstrong. Rather than rattling your bones at every crack and bump, the bike just trucks on through very stably. And while I think all the devices are governed to under 15 mph, the bike just felt faster, more responsive to accelerate, and more consistent.

Others that I didn’t get to

We also saw Lime Bikes, Discover Bikes, Jump scooters, and Spin Bikes. I didn’t get to them because most of the time I didn’t feel like riding a bike, and the Jump scooter looked identical to the others.

Where is this all going?

I know three things:

  • This is a really great transportation option for cities with dense, flat downtowns. These things make getting around a city at distances less than a mile or two so much more convenient than either walking, taxi/ride-sharing, or public transit. Cities with hills, cities that spread out, cities with no bike lanes–not so much.
  • The scooters are an eyesore. They litter the sidewalks. I hope they figure out how to fix that.
  • There are too many competitors to allow any of them to make money. Curious to see who comes out on top.

Will I be a repeat customer?

Definitely for the Jump bike, as there have been occasions I needed to get around Santa Cruz without my car or a bike, and for all the reasons above. If I were in a place where scooters make sense, I would probably choose Lime or Bird, whichever was more available but slight edge to Lime.

Just Saw Solo, And It Was Not Good [SPOILERS]

SPOILER ALERT. Avert your eyes if you don’t want to be spoiled for Solo: A Star Wars Story.

My family and I just saw Solo today, the day after opening day and I walked out of the theater pretty disappointed. To be fair, the film exceeded my low expectations, but overall for the Star Wars franchise I was pretty let down.

I suppose I should start with a quick plot summary:

  • Han starts life as a thief in servitude to this worm-thing that hates light. He and his girlfriend, Q’ira, nearly escape, but she is just barely captured while Han makes it away. Desperate to find a way off the planet without being caught, he signs up for the Imperial military and swears he’ll be back for her.
  • Three years later he’s in the imperial infantry doing some kind of battle thing when he accidentally runs into Woody Harrelson and a couple others trying to steal a ship in the middle of the battle. He convinces them to take him. By the way, he runs into Chewbacca and rescues him from slavery.
  • This new crew of 5 attempt to steal a bunch of hyperdrive fuel from a train. Two people from Han’s new group die trying. This group of masked dudes called Infant Squad or something try to steal the stolen goods, but instead everyone leaves with nothing.
  • The bad guys who hired Woody to steal the stuff, called Crimson Tide or something, get mad and the boss, Vision, threatens to kill them if they don’t finish the job. Vision’s girlfriend is actually Han’s girlfriend who magically shows up and goes on their adventure to help.
  • To start the job, they have to get Lando to lend them his ship, the Millenium Falcon. Then they take Lando and his social justice warrior, quasi-lover droid to this slave place that makes the hyperdrive fuel. They manage to swing it; meanwhile Chewie rescues some other Wookies. They escape into a super dangerous asteroid field thingy in space where they run into a space whale. The Falcon gets really banged up in the process.
  • Woody and Han meet Vision on this desert-y planet. Woody and Han seem to have a plan to double cross Vision, after finding out that the Infant Squad are actually good guys. Lando runs away with the ship. Woody double crosses Han. Han’s girlfriend double crosses Vision. Then Han’s girlfriend double crosses Han and steals Vision’s ship to go meet with Darth Maul (!?).
  • Han seeks out Lando and wins the ship from him in a game of cards. They fly to Tatooine to do a job for Jabba the Hutt. The End.

Ok, I’ll start with the good:

  • Alden Erhenrich ended up being more likable than I thought. He was not Han Solo, but he at least was kind of endearing.
  • The start of the relationship between Han and Chewbacca was pretty cool, though way too accelerated to be totally relatable.
  • Chewbacca got to do way more in this movie than in any other, and that’s a good thing.
  • The action scenes were fun, not too cheesy.

Now, a sampling of the bad (because I don’t have the patience to write down everything):

  • It seemed like the scriptwriters watches Episodes IV, V, and VI to find every offhand reference to Han’s past, and tried to figure out a way to cram it into this movie. Did Han shoot first? Check. Got hold of the Millenium Falcon? Check. Got his blaster? Check. Got sent on his way to meet Jabba? Check-a-roo. It all seemed so contrived–we don’t need to squeeze everything we know about Han’s past into a few days of story time.
  • Deux ex machina alert: How in the world did Han’s girlfriend show up just at the right time and place? They were both nobodies.
  • Lando and L3-37 (get it?) were just kind of comical, but without actually being funny.
  • Han’s behavior didn’t really set up how he behaved in A New Hope. In the end, he played the good guy, but by the time we meet him in Episode IV, he’s back to being the self-centered rogue.

Overall, thumbs down. That’s two in a row that Lucasfilm has blown. Please, please give more work to guys like JJ Abrams, Jon Favreau, or Ryan Coogler and kick Ron Howard and Rian Johnson to the curb.

How to Enjoy Baseball for My Foreign Friends, Part 5: Traditions and the Experience

Over the last several weeks, I’ve tried to explain the ins and outs of baseball–the central drama, the basic rules, and a little bit of strategy. Today I’m going to shift gears and explain some of traditions and the history and atmosphere that surrounds the sport and amplify the fun of it all.

Ballparks

It may sound funny, but in Major League baseball every park is a unique experience, and many of them based on configuration and orientation have an impact on the game. Every stadium has a different experience for the fans as well.

The outlines of every MLB field.

Consider:

AT&T Park, with it’s incredible view of the San Francisco Bay, and the seagulls showing up in the 9th inning to pick up food scraps.

Fenway Park in Boston, with the Big Green Monster in the shortest left field in baseball.

Or Turner Field in Atlanta, which started its life as the venue for Olympic track & field.

Traditional Songs

Every single major and minor league ballparks sing “Take Me Out To The Ballgame” during the “Seventh-Inning Stretch” (the break in the middle of the the 7th inning). This song is so quintessentially American that nearly every schoolchild will learn this song within the first several years of elementary school.

In addition to Take Me Out To The Ballgame, individual parks often sing other songs: many will sing “God Bless America” before the 8th inning on Sundays; Fenway Park will sing Sweet Caroline, Yankees fans sing New York, New York, and Giants fans hear I Left My Heart in San Francisco as they head for the exits.

Umpteen other traditions

The catcher always throws the ball to third base after a bases-empty strikeout. The first baseman ball always keeps a ball in his glove in the dugout. Nobody steps on the baselines when entering or leaving the field. Fans throw home run balls back on the field when the opposing team hits them. Every player has a song they play as they walk up to bat, and many relief pitcher have music that plays when they come out to pitch. A VIP with throw out a ceremonial first pitch (including the President of the US!) This just scratch the surface of the many, many other traditions beyond just the game itself that make baseball America’s pastime.

Baseball, the constant

Baseball serves a really different role for me than any other sport. During football season, we sit down and watch games on Saturday afternoons and sometimes Sundays. There is little football during the week. However, baseball is always on, and when we’re just watching at home, it’s something to keep on in the background, checking in and watching a little bit here and there. Even at the park you can easily sit back and just enjoy the atmosphere and nearly lose track of the game going on.

Additionally, baseball is the one major professional sport left where the average person can easily afford a ticket–we could regularly get $10 – $15 tickets for the Atlanta Braves while we lived there, and as a result, we attended 5-10 games a season. For contrast, tickets for the Atlanta Falcons (the football team) cost a minimum of $50 each even for meaningless exhibition games.

I hope you’ve enjoyed this short series, and I hope when we next see each other that I can take YOU out to the ballgame!

How to Enjoy Baseball for my Foreign Friends, Part 4: Exceptions and Strategy for the Defense

Last time I talked about offensive (batting and baserunning) strategy. This time, I have a shorter piece on defensive strategy, mainly pitching.

Substitutions

As I pointed out before, once a player has been removed from the game and replaced with a substitute, he cannot return to the game. The player most commonly substituted for is the pitcher, which typically happens because of one or more of the following reasons:

  • The pitcher’s performance has degraded from what is needed and expected from him.
  • The pitcher has thrown a large number of pitches (100+) and further pitching is likely to degrade his performance, in addition to causing fatigue and long-term damage that affects his performance in future games.
  • Especially in high-leverage situations (ones where the outcome of the game can hinge on a small number of events), another pitcher provides a better chance of striking the batter out.

Starters

A starting pitcher is the one who starts the game and typically throws the majority of pitches. A starter tends to have more endurance and a wider variety of effective pitches, because he has to throw longer and change his tactics to keep batters guessing the third or fourth time the bat against the starter.

Relief pitchers

In general, relief pitchers have less endurance and fewer pitch types to throw, and thus will struggle to get the same batter out multiple times. Conversely, since relief pitchers know they don’t have to face that many batters, they often throw pitches at maximum effort and have higher pitch velocity.

Middle and long relievers

Middle and long relievers come in the game if the starting pitcher is having a bad day, struggling to get batters out and prevent runs. A good middle reliever is often similar to a starter, but he is usually not as good.

By the way, the group of relief pitchers is called the bullpen for reasons mostly lost to history.

Lefty specialists

Left-handed hitters are rarer in baseball than right-handed hitters, as are left-handed pitchers. Left-handed batters typically hit better against right-handed pitchers, so a left-handed reliever will come in during key situations against left-handed batters to negate this advantage. These specialists will often face only one or two batters before being substituted again.

Setup Man

The setup man comes in near the end of the game to keep the other team at bay and protect a tie or a lead. The setup man is often in line to become …

Closers

A closer is a special pitcher who is brought into the game usually in the last inning when his team has a narrow lead because he has the capability to record three quick outs. Closers tend to not have a wide variety of pitches but often throw harder than any other pitcher (98+ mph).

Aroldis Chapman, one of the best closers in baseball with his 100+ mph fastball.

Pitching Strategy

Pitchers have three basic tactics they can try to get the batter out:

  • Throw the ball in the strike zone but convince the batter to not swing (“take”).
  • Throw the ball so the batter swings the bat and misses.
  • Throw the ball so the batter makes contact with the ball in a way that is easy to field.

Types of pitches

There are many variations of pitches, but they boil down to some combination of the following:

  • Fastball: the pitcher throws the ball so fast that the batter can’t react in time. The natural backspin on ball causes the ball to sink less gravity alone would dictate.
  • Changeup: the pitcher throws the ball with the same motion as a fastball but at a slower speed to disrupt the batter’s swing timing.
  • Curveball: the pitcher throws the ball with forward spin to get it to sink unusually fast.
  • Slider/Screwball: the pitcher throws the ball with sideways spin so that it curves toward or away from the batter.
  • Knuckleball: the pitcher throws the ball with virtually no spin, which due to alternating vortices on the back of the ball cause it to move erratically.

Pitchers study film and statistics of opposing batters to try to pitch toward their weaknesses; some batters hit high balls better than low ones, some batters can’t hit balls that pass close to their body.

Pitchouts and pickoffs

In a situtation where a runner is on base, pitchers can attempt the throw the ball to the first baseman to tag out the runner while he is leading off the base. This is called a pickoff move, but the pitcher has complicated rules he has to follow to ensure he doesn’t fake a pitch. Faking a pitch is called a balk and results in the batter being walked. Pickoff moves rarely work, but they keep the baserunner from getting too large of a lead, and gives the pitcher a chance to rest as well as throw off the batter’s timing.

Occassionally, the pitcher will throw a ball outside the strike zone intentionally to bait the runner into stealing second base, after which the catcher throws the ball to second base to tag the base stealer out; this is called a pitchout.

Fielding

Fielding strategy is a little less interesting; with one exception, most strategy involves relatively small adjustments of the fielders’ positions based on the situation and the batter’s tendencies. The one exception, which has only become popular in the last roughly 5 years, called The Shift. The Shift is a major adjustment of the shortstop and the second baseman toward the first base side, while leaving the third baseman to cover the entire baseline between second and third base. This has been employed against left handed batters who have a major tendency to hit the ball to the right side of the field.

How to Appreciate Baseball for my Foreign Friends, Part 3: Some Exceptions and Strategy for the Offense

My previous two posts about this topic were oriented on understanding the basic rules, the basic tension and drama of the game, and the things that you might see happen most commonly if you watch a game. In this post, I’m going to focus on the offense to explain a few exceptions to the rules and some of the strategy that goes into scoring runs.

Batting strategy

I said in the last post, the batter’s primary objective is to get on base by putting the ball in play or taking four balls. Batters’ objective are actually a bit more sophisticated.

Elevating Pitch Count

A primary concern for the starting lineup is tiring out the pitcher. Good starting pitchers have the energy to pitch 7 to 9 innings at 10 to 15 pitches per inning. After a lot of pitches (say, more than 80-90), the pitcher’s performance typically starts to sag. They have less ability to throw the ball hard and accurately, and are more likely to make a mental mistake and pitch into a batter’s strengths.

Accordingly, batters do their best early in the game to hit a lot of foul balls, keeping themselves from striking out, but extending their turn to bat. This in turn causes the pitcher to have to throw more pitches, which will a) make the pitcher easier to hit later in the game, or b) will force managers to put in a (less capable) substitute pitcher. Every pitcher dreams of getting a batter out with a single pitch; they dread batters who hit foul ball after foul ball, and a really good at-bat may require the pitcher to throw 9-10 pitches to get the batter out.

Swing Adjustments

Very good baseball players can change their swing based on the situation. They can start their swing far behind their body as soon as the pitch leaves the pitcher’s hand in order to accelerate their bat to the maximum speed possible when the bat makes contact with the ball. This “long swing” is harder to control and make contact with the ball (and thus more likely to result in a swinging strike), but when it does the ball is much more likely to go far.

Alternatively, the batter can start his swing more in front of his body and a split second later, which gives him more time to recognize the pitch and put the bat in the right place, but in a short swing, the bat’s speed is much slower and more likely for the ball to travel a shorter distance.

Advancing the Runners

The other objective for a batter is to advance the runners already on base, even if he is likely to get out through a sacrifice bunt or sacrifice fly (more on both later.)

A hit-and-run is a coordinated play where a batter and runner coordinate using hand signals. The runner is going to start running to steal the base, which will draw the defense out of position, while the batter employs a short, contact-type swing to put the ball in play in a space left vacated by the defense. This in turn means the runner may have an improved chance of scoring when the ball is put in play. The risk, however, is that the batter will swing and miss, meaning that the catcher can throw the runner out (see ‘caught stealing’).

Speaking of defensive positioning, most players have strong tendencies to hit the ball to certain locations. Left handed batters in particular tend to hit the ball in the gap between first and second base. Defenses, especially recently, will drastically move players around in the field to cover the batters’ most common hitting direction and distance. In this case, batters will try to adjust to hit at the weaknesses of the defense–the very best players can actually control the direction they hit!

Bunting

Sometimes, instead of swinging the bat at the ball, the batter will hold the bat out in front and let the ball hit the bat. This results in the ball being put slowly in play right in front of the plate. If the bunter misses the ball, it is counted as a strike. If the bunted ball rolls into foul territory, it is a strike even if it is the third strike.

This play can happen for several reasons:

  • The player at bat is the batting team’s pitcher, and there is a runner on first base. The defending pitcher or catcher usually field a bunted ball, and only have enough time to record an out at first base because the baserunner had a good lead. This is a sacrifice bunt because you sacrifice an out to advance a baserunner to 2nd base. This is a good option for the pitcher because he is usually a terrible hitter, and bunting is much easier than regular batting.
  • The player at bat is very fast, and the bunt comes during an unusual time and is thus a surprise bunt. Because the catcher or pitcher can usually reach the bunted ball quickly, only the very fastest players have a chance of reaching first base in time.
  • There is a fast player at third base and the game is very close in the late innings. The batter bunts the ball in coordination with the baserunner hustling to reach home plate and score a run. This is called a squeeze play and is a very exciting and risky play but not very common.

Lefty-Righty Matchups

Another surprising aspect of batting strategy is the handedness of the pitcher and batter, and managers make decisions about substitutions around this phenomenon. Left-handed pitchers are more likely to strike out left-handed batters than right-handed ones; for right-handed pitchers the opposite is true. Some players are skilled enough to bat left- or right-handed, depending on the pitcher–these are called switch hitters.

Hit by Pitch

If the pitcher hits the batter’s body anywhere but on the hands, and the batter hasn’t swung the bat, the batter is awarded a free base just as if he had taken four balls.

Baserunning

Leading Off

Baserunners usually leave their base before a pitch is thrown and take 2-3 step in the direction of the next base. This gives them a head start when the batter puts the ball in play. In this case, the pitcher can only get the player out if he can throw the ball to a nearby defender to tag the baserunner before he can get back to the base.

Stealing

A baserunner is allowed to attempt to advance to an empty base before the batter has put the ball in play. If he does, usually the pitcher or catcher try to throw the ball to a nearby defender to tag the baserunner out. If the baserunner successfully makes it to the next base, he is said to have stolen the base. If he is tagged out, he has been caught stealing. The best base stealers tend to be exceptionally fast runners.

Tagging Up

If a batter hits the ball in the air (a fly ball), the baserunner cannot safely leave his current base until the ball is caught. If he has left the base, he has to return to touch it before he can advance to the next base. This is called tagging up and the rule is in place to prevent scoring on fly balls that go very high in the air. The defense can get a player out by either tagging him with the ball or holding the ball and touching the base the runner has left prematurely. This rule does not apply if the ball touches the ground first. If a player hits a fly ball, where a baserunner tags up and scores a run, it is called a sacrifice fly.

Substitutions

First of all, an important rule to know is that baseball teams have a limited number of players (25) that are allowed to play in a game. There are only 9 players in the game at any given time, called the lineup (with a slight exception, in a second). The decisions the manager (coach) makes to substitute players into the game are critically important because once a player in the lineup leaves the game, he cannot return to the lineup for the rest of the game.

Managers will typically start the lineup with players that represent the optimal balance between offensive and defensive ability. As the game goes on, normally in the 7th inning and beyond, he may substitute stronger defensive players into the lineup if protecting a lead, or stronger offensive players in when the score is close, there are runners on base, and one of his reserve batters can hit well facing the current pitcher. The manager may substitute for a player that has reached base; for example, if the substitute is a much faster runner, he will have a better chance of rounding the bases and reaching home plate when the ball is in play. A player that substitutes for another while batting is called a pinch hitter, while one who substitutes for a player on base is called a pinch runner.

There is an important distinction here for Major League Baseball: half of the teams, the ones designated National League, play exactly as I’ve described. The other half of the teams, the American League, allow teams to designate a player to bat in the place of the pitcher (pitchers are notoriously poor hitters). This has the effect of boosting the number of runs scored in the American League as compared to the National League, but also simplifies the strategy of substitution (which I’ll talk about more in the next post when discussing pitching substitution).

How to Appreciate Baseball for my Foreign Friends, Part 2: Now Things Get Exciting

Last time, I explained the central drama of a baseball game, the duel between pitcher and batter. I covered that one first because 90% of the time in a baseball game is spent watching just the pitcher and the batter, and if you know nothing else, you can at least appreciate how this conflict builds the tension in the game.

Now to explain how that tension pays off.

Let’s look again at the field.

You can see three small squares in the field forming a diamond with home plate. The square along the right foul line is 1st base, the one in the middle is 2nd base, and along the left foul line is 3rd base. A team scores a point (called a run) by advancing a batter around the three bases and back to home plate. Here are the basic rules:

  • The batter can attempt to reach first base when he puts the ball in play. If he instead draws a walk by taking four balls, he automatically moves to first base, and any player on first base moves to second, and so on.
  • The batter (now called a baserunner after he puts the ball in play) can be put “out” by the defense unless he is touching one of the three bases.
  • In order for a run to count, he must touch each base in succession.
  • A baserunner cannot advance past another baserunner who is ahead of him.
  • Only one baserunner may be on a specific base at a time.
  • A baserunner may attempt to advance to the next base at any time the ball is “live” or “active”. I’ll discuss some of the implications of this rule in another post.
  • If a baserunner has no open bases behind him, when the ball is put in play he must attempt to advance to the next base; his current base is no longer safe.
  • If a defender holding the ball touches the base that this baserunner is attempting to reach, the runner is out–this is called a force out. The most common play in baseball is a force out at first base.
  • Two force outs can happen in a single play, most often second and first bases. This is called a double play. Double plays typically happen once or twice per game. Three outs can also happen on a single play, but these are exceedingly rare (on average, about once in every 500 games).
  • If a defender touches the baserunner
    • With the ball or a glove holding the ball,
    • Maintaining full control over the ball,
    • While the runner is not touching a base,
    • Then the runner is out. This is called tagging out.
  • And finally, there is a very common exception to the rules that must be explained: a runner who has just hit the ball can run past first base and be considered safe as long as he makes no attempt to advance to second base. This rule exists to prevent injuries.

So what does this all mean?

When the batter is able to put the ball in play, the distance and direction he hits it makes a HUGE difference. The different situations that can happen are too many to enumerate, but they can boil down to four basic outcomes:

  • He could hit the ball beyond in fair territory beyond the barrier marking the field of play (in Major League Baseball, usually a spectator area). This is called a home run and the player may advance around the bases to score without the threat of being tagged out. If there are one, two, or three runners on bases when he hits the home run, then each of those runners score a run as well, meaning a home run may be worth up to four runs. A four-run home run is called a grand slam, and is quite unusual (there is a grand slam on average only once every 20 games).
  • He could hit the ball and a defender catches the ball before it hits the ground for an out. This is usually called a fly out. The effort that defenders make to catch a fly ball for an out makes for spectacular plays:
  • He could hit the ball so that it touches the ground but is picked up by a defender who then relays the ball as necessary to force him out or tag him out.
  • He could hit the ball to that it touches the ground and is able to run fast enough to reach first, second, or third base. The runner has to be able to judge whether it is wise to attempt to reach the next base or remain at the current base.

I’ll go back to what I said before: the pitcher-batter confrontation builds the tension of the game, whereas the payoff to that tension, the exciting part, comes when the ball is put in play and the defense must orchestrate their actions to create an out. While some plays in the field are pedestrian (so pedestrian, in fact, I had a tough time finding an example on Youtube!):

Others make your fist pump:

And still others you wish would happen far more often:

Incidentally, since I’ve only mentioned outs as something to avoid, let me expand on their meaning. There are nine periods of play in the game, known as innings. During each inning, the visiting team gets an opportunity to bat and score as many runs as possbile before receiveing 3 outs. Then any remaining baserunners are cleared, and the home team has a chance to bat; again, to score as many runs as possible before receiving three outs. The two halves of the inning are the top and bottom. If the home team is ahead after the top of the ninth inning, the bottom half is not played as the home team cannot be beaten. There is no clock for the game, and play only advances by recording outs.

In these first two posts, I’ve talked about the basic idea of the game so you can follow the action. In the next posts, I’ll talk about a) some important exceptions to these rules that make the game a bit more interesting, and b) some of the strategies used by pitchers, batters, baserunners, and defenses to accomplish their objectives.

How to Appreciate Baseball for my Foreign Friends, Part 1: The Center

Over the last several years, I’ve had European and Indian friends at work whom I’ve been bursting to share my appreciation for baseball with, but have struggled to articulate what makes the game so great. Sometimes I’ve been able to take them to a game, but even then (especially when you have to take them to see the Braves or the Giants) all the best pieces don’t necessarily come out. So, I’ve decided to write a 4 or 5 part guide, hopefully easy to read and digest.

To start with a rundown of all the rules would be boring and missing the heart of what the game is about, so instead I shall start with the central drama of the game: the duel between pitcher and batter.

In the above photo, the pitcher is the one closest to the camera, standing 60 feet away from home plate. The batter stands to one side or the other of the plate, a catcher squats behind home plate, and a referee (called an umpire in baseball) stands behind the catcher. The pitcher begins the action by throwing the ball to the catcher (called a pitch).

The batter’s objective is (usually) to get on base by either striking the ball with the bat to put the ball in play, or by drawing a walk. The pitcher’s objective is (usually) to get the batter out by inducing them to swing and miss, or to not swing on a ball thrown in the strike zone. I’ve broken down the flow of events below:

Some of these blocks bear explanation.

First, we have the count. The count is the number of balls and strikes. In this case, ball means “balls thrown outside the strike zone”–if somebody says that there are “three balls”, this is what they mean; there is never more than a single physical ball active in the game. If somebody says “the count is two and one”, they mean there are two balls and one strike (often seen on the scoreboard as 2-1). If somebody says “the count is full”, it means there are three balls and two strikes, and the next ball or strike will walk the batter or put him out, respectively.

The strike zone is (roughly) a rectangle suspended over home plate (pictured below from the top down), which extends from the batters knees to about the middle of his torso, with the left and right extents matching the left and right bounds of the plate. I say roughly, because while there is a precise definition of the strike zone, it depends on a human eye (the umpire’s) to declare whether a pitch actually passed through the strike zone or not. Not surprisingly, they can be quite inaccurate at times. Many times these days, broadcasts will include a CG-imposed outline of the strike zone for viewers to use to complain about the umpires.

The rest of the field looks like this:

For the purposes of this explanation, the only thing that matters is the lines extending left and right from home plate at a 90 degree angle: the foul lines. Though there a few complexities to the rule, generally any ball struck by the batter that lands outside of this 90 degree wedge is foul, and those that land within are fair.

So there you have it–the center piece of a baseball game. This post hasn’t touched at all about strategy, or what goes on once the ball is in play, or the number of outs or innings, or even how to score points. No matter: while those other parts make up most of the excitement, the drama of man vs. man, pitcher vs. batter, is the fundamental way the game builds tension to make the rest of the game pay off.

My Take, One of Many, on The Last Jedi

So, for those of you whom have been living under a rock for the last 6 weeks, there is a new Star Wars movie in theaters, and we went to see it two weekends ago. Much ink has been spilled, and much hot air has been expelled, over reviews for this movie. I sort of doubt that I have much new to offer, but need to get this off my chest anyway; seeing how I pay for this site, I think I can take the liberty.

DUTIFUL SPOILER ALERT!

Overall impression: I didn’t like it, but I’ll admit that it might grow on me with time. To be fair, I wasn’t so jazzed about The Force Awakens when it came out, either. Full disclosure: Rogue One is actually my favorite Star Wars movie, followed by Empire, Jedi, then A New Hope.

Big picture things I liked:

  • The cinematography, sound, and music was excellent, just as in TFA. Skellig Michael is beautiful, the space scenes excellent, the Crait salt flat battle, all good.
  • The tension and dialogue between Rey and Ben Solo was the centerpiece.
  • The portrayal of the sacrifices made in this Resistance (Rose’s sister and Admiral Holdo being the primary ones) gave this film a gravity that wasn’t clear in the original trilogy save for the loss of the Lars family, and in fact is one of the reasons that Rogue One resonates with me. It was especially nice that one of the characters (Rose) actually shows some signs of real grief instead of shrugging it off (a la Luke after losing Uncle Owen and Aunt Beru, or his best friend Biggs).
  • Most of the interactions between Luke and Rey were great, and Luke’s finale at the end of the film was epic–a fitting way for Luke Skywalker to die. I loved the cameo by Yoda–it was just the right amount in that it moved the plot and developed Luke’s character, while not being just blatant fan service.
  • I liked the theme about how Rey is no one; the little boy at the end is no one; that the Force can be with anyone and that the fight continues.
  • I liked that Kylo Ren’s experience with Luke has a real, human, satisfactory explanation compared to his grandfather’s abrupt turn to the Dark Side.
  • The female heroes were not at all sexualized–they were just strong women doing their part. Even Princess Leia, who broke movie gender norms with her blasters and leadership in the Rebellion, had to go around braless in ANH, all wobbly kneed for Han Solo in TESB, and in a metal bikini in RotJ.
  • I was glad that Luke expressed something that had been implied throughout the prequels but never really hinted at by Yoda or Obi-Wan in the original trilogy, and that is the Jedi were done in by their own hubris, by the idea that they “owned” the Force.
  • TFA received a lot of flack (rightfully) for being too much a re-hash of Episode IV. Lucasfilm responded that they wanted the films to “rhyme”. This film actually gets the rhyming thing right, without recycling the story–Rey going into a cave to face the Dark Side; the training; Rey running off to save her friends; the throne room scene (echoing Episode VI); the Rebel evacuation and the Empire’s assault on a base with giant walker vehicles.

Ok, now for the problematic parts.

  • First of all, this movie was just WAY too long. I actually felt myself wondering several times if it was almost over. There were several parts, namely the casino scenes, which could have drastically reduced.
  • I felt really tired after this film. The original trilogy had great pacing and rhythm–tension & action, then drama, then tension & action, then drama; and just the right lengths. TLJ had really fast cuts from one setting to the next to the next, and I felt like the dramatic bits and the action bits were intermixed too fast. The whole thing felt very frantic.
  • The other films had great, majestic openings. This one started with what looked like three boogers emanating from the planet.
  • Why is the Resistance running away? Didn’t they just blow up this crazy huge base with lots of First Order resources put into it? Does the First Order–the remnants of the dismantled Empire–have unlimited resources??
  • Leia using the Force to save herself from the vacuum of space. D-U-M-B. I get it they wanted to show her actually using her Force abilities; but did it have to be in the most hokey way possible? Did they have to fake us out expecting her to die? Hello?
  • I was pretty grossed out by Luke milking the alien and drinking it. I’ll be fair and say that it was germane to the plot in that it helped us see how low and pitiful Luke Skywalker had fallen, but by the same token, the timing of it made people in the theater laugh instead of cringe which I think has the opposite emotional effect.
  • Speaking of humor, the humorous bits in this movie tended to be poorly timed, and carried on the more modern, cynical style of humor from TFA. When Poe pulls his “holding for General Hux” stunt, it makes Hux this punching bag that seems incongruent with the scariness he and the First Order are supposed to convey. Similarly, Luke’s tossing the light saber over his shoulder flippantly didn’t properly convey the gravity of his situation, nor did his bit where he tickled her hand with the leaf. Contrast these moments with the banter in the original trilogy (“I am NOT a committee!”, or “Who’s scruffy-lookin?”) or the quasi-slapstick of Luke’s first meeting with Yoda. Or even contrast them with TFA (“That’s not how the Force works!”) In fact, Yoda’s appearance in this film carried it’s own humorous bits that made an important scene with a lot of gravity work, while remaining kind of light.
  • The casino scenes, when Rose has her soliloquy about getting rich from arms dealing (and DJ quips about how the guy he stole the ship from sold stuff to both the First Order and the Resistance) was pretty preachy and anti-wealth. The truth is, the galactic economy has many more opportunities to generate wealth than just weapons. Raw materials, food & alcohol, space ship parts, you name it. The five most valuable companies on earth right now (Google, Apple, Facebook, Amazon, and Microsoft) are incredibly wealthy and successful without being the recipients of government/military largesse.
  • When Rose kissed Finn, it was jarring and added nothing to the story. First, it was out of the blue–there was no hints of romantic tension through their whole casino caper. Second, it was unnecessary–Rose’s “sacrifice” would not have been any less powerful if she was merely a comrade in arms. Third, if Rose had actually died, it might have been a poingnant goodbye, but instead she actually survives!
  • Fuel running out? Hyperspace tracking? I hate when technological breakthroughs or technological shortfalls/breakages are the basis for plot points. Sci-fi movies by definition have some kind of technology that we don’t have now, or defy the laws of physics–but they establish a self-enforced set of rules. In none of the other 8 Star Wars movies do we ever hear about having enough fuel for ships, and escaping through a jump to hyperspace has been accepted as the way to get away. At the very least they could have brought back the Interdictor-class Star Destroyers from Rebels–at least that would build upon existing canon. Breaking those rules is lazy scriptwriting.
  • TFA built up Snoke as this mysterious figure, only to have him whacked unceremoniously in the middle of the film. I mean–for goodness’ sake! TFA made him into this 30 ft tall holographic monster. This character is a critical link–where/who was he in Episodes 1-6? How did he manage to amass the resources and manpower to kickstart another galactic empire? How and why did he manage to start turning Kylo Ren remotely? This is lazy storytelling in the Nth degree–even a small explanation would satisfy this gargantuan plot hole.

Here’s to hoping that some of the things here are mitigated by the events of Episode IX. I have a sneaking suspicion they won’t because it is sooo difficult to catch lightning in a bottle–the original Star Wars trilogy was a fluke, and managed to touch all the right buttons with audiences. George Lucas thought it was the special effects that made everyone like it, and thus delivered us the Special Editions and Episodes I-III. TFA and TLJ tried to replicate the human elements, but failed to replicate the

Freakonomics Read My Post!

Or maybe they didn’t and my thoughts aren’t as unique as I thought they would be.

I did learn a couple of new things here; I didn’t know that the AMA was fighting so hard to exclude nurse practitioners from independent practice (and presumably other highly trained but under-utilized medical professionals including physician’s assistants, pharmacists, and physical and occupational therapists). I also didn’t know much about retail health clinics though in retrospect I’ve seen the signs for services from CVS and Rite Aid everywhere.

Nurses to the Rescue | Freakonomics