The Ties That Bind


In time of tragedy, Don and others turn to those they've often shunned - family. (Credit: AMC).
In times of tragedy, Don and others turn to those they’ve often shunned – family. (Credit: AMC)

All of the vaporous allusion seeping through the plot lines of  this season of “Mad Men” converged into one big storm cloud on Sunday night’s installment, aptly titled “The Flood.”

So far, ominous murmurings of civil rights and Vietnam have peppered the episodes, in cocktail conversation and background radio, but 1968 really soaked in on Sunday, when Matthew Weiner decided to dress Don up in a tuxedo on the night that Martin Luther King Jr. was assassinated.

Weiner was bold in choosing to focus on MLK’s assassination, considering the criticism the series has received for failing to infuse its African American characters with the authentic dimensionality that has defined the core cast. But since “Mad Men” is simplistically a show about a Madison Avenue advertising agency in the 1960’s (and not about the 1960’s itself), it seemed appropriate that Weiner didn’t attempt to use the event as an opportunity to cheaply memorialize the civil rights movement. Instead, the plot developed around the central characters’ (primarily upper-middle-class-white ones) respective reactions to the tragedy and the turmoil that followed.

The hour begins with Don and Megan, along with the rest of the SCDP crew (plus Peggy), at The Ad Club of New York’s Awards Dinner. A tiny Paul Newman is just wrapping up his speech when an anonymous crowd member shouts that Martin Luther King had been shot. Everyone moves to the lobby, stunned by the news. Abe heads up to Harlem in a tux, Megan dries her tears on Don’s shoulder, Peggy pops a breath mint and Pete gets aggravated with everyone ahead of him in line at the phone banks.

At the same time, Ginsberg is nervous, eating soup at a diner, on a date with a pretty girl that his father had insisted he take to dinner. “Do you like kids?” he asks the young student teacher, before a misdirected justification for the question clumsily transforms into a declaration of virginity. Then over the radio they hear that MLK has been shot and the date is cut short. In comparison to the award’s gala, the scene was well-lit and awkward, but proved to nicely highlight the redemptive implication of “The Flood,” which Ginsberg’s father seemed to spoon-feed later on:

“Now is the time when a man and woman need to be together the most – in a catastrophe. In The Flood, the animals went two by two. You, you’re going to get on the Ark with your father?!”

Thematically, the episode was very similar to a combination of Season 2’s “Meditations in An Emergency” (which pivoted around the Cuban Missile Crisis) and Season 3’s “The Grown Ups” (which followed the week of John F. Kennedy’s assassination). All three episodes are hinged on the notion that in times of fear and sadness, people seek love and security.[1] But I thought “The Flood” was most effective at communicating catastrophe’s ability to temper existential indulgence, to push people to glean a version of clarity through the promise of purpose that comes only through family.

After news of the assassination, Pete displays some uncharacteristic decency when he calls his wife Trudy, asking to come home and be with her and his daughter Tammy. This is a stark contrast from Pete’s behavior in “Meditations” when Trudy asks Pete to come with her to Rehoboth Beach out of apocalyptic precaution. Pete responds, “If I’m going to die, I want to die in Manhattan.” After Trudy’s response to him this week, I wouldn’t be surprised if he does.

At the office the next day, Pete instigates an argument with Harry when he expresses frustration that business will suffer in wake of the tragedy. “It’s a shameful, shameful day,” Pete says, reprimanding Harry for his insensitivity and reminding him that MLK “was a man with a wife and four children.” The scene suggests that Pete, despite his terribleness, may have a soul. I’m not sure there’s hope for Harry.

Peggy appears uncharacteristically conventional when disappointment over losing her chance at an Upper East Side apartment transforms to joy after Abe insinuates it was for the best, since he had envisioned raising their kids in a more diverse neighborhood. This scene, again, directly contrasts Peggy’s attitude toward motherhood in “Meditations.” Back then, when Pete confesses his love for her, she responds: “I had your baby and I gave it away. I wanted other things.”

Don, whose initial reaction to the tragedy closely resembles his response to JFK’s assassination,[2] appears genuinely moved after a trip to the movie theater with little Bobby to see “Planet of the Apes” (twice). Don is touched by Bobby’s reaction to the to the film’s bleak conclusion, coupled with his unassuming exchange with an African American usher at the theater (“Everybody likes to go to the movies when they’re sad,”).

Later that evening, hunched in his bedroom, Don tells Megan that he’d only ever felt a kind of guilt-induced love for his children, but “[t]hen one day they get older, and you see them do something and you feel that feeling that you were pretending to have. And it feels like your heart is going to explode.” Don’s paternal epiphany is tainted when Bobby later tells Don that’s he’s only scared his stepfather Henry Francis (aka Don’s replacement) will be killed just as MLK had been murdered. “Henry’s not that important,” Don responds.

The final scene of the episode is Don standing on his balcony, overlooking a city drenched in mourning. It suggests that Don is beginning to realize he, too, may not be all that important. Perhaps it takes a tragedy of this proportion to make a Don Draper realize that the “catastrophe of [his] personality” that he’s been quietly nurturing since Season 2 may in fact never “seem beautiful, or interesting, or modern”[3] again.

[1] In “Meditations in An Emergency” Don is living in The Roosevelt Hotel, “staring at the back of Sally and Bobby’s heads,” when he decides to write Betty a note telling her how much he loves her and at the end of the episode Don moves back home and Betty tells him she’s pregnant. In “The Grown Ups” the tragedy of the day was counter-balanced by the celebration or Roger’s daughter’s wedding.

[2] “I can’t sit here and watch the T.V. all day,” Don says to Betty. “Bars are closed,” Don says in response to Peggy asking why he’d come in to the office.

[3] Meditations in An Emergency by Frank O’Hara, as quoted by Don.


Appearance Is Everything


Don handles his affairs more discreetly than Pete, but both men find themselves cut down by episode's end. (Photo Credit: AMC.)
Don handles his affairs more discreetly than Pete, but both men find themselves cut down by episode’s end.           (Photo Credit: AMC.)

A topical synopsis of the this week’s “Mad Men” (titled “The Collaborators”) might match the pitch and pallor of Megan’s soap opera. There was a lot of sex, smoke and blood.

Don and Pete are sleeping with their neighbor’s wives; Megan considers an abortion. Pete’s new fling is beat up by her husband; Trudy issues a verbal restraining order (VRO?) against Pete. Peggy leaks a secret; Joan pours herself a stiff drink. But “Mad Men” is “Mad Men,” so while the hour was chock-full of good, old-fashioned drama, the meat of it was heavily marinated in charade and allusion.

The plot parallels the extramarital dalliances of Don and Pete, highlighting the differences between their respective approaches toward infidelity. And in the end, the episode suggests that while sin is sin, fortunately for Don (and unfortunately for Pete), “it’s all about how it looks.”

With Trudy’s blessing, Pete has purchased an apartment in the city. After some dinner party flirtation, Pete lures his neighbor’s insipid wife, Brenda, to his Manhattan pied-a-terre with the promise of Broadway tickets. He greets her much like he would a client, offering to take her coat, pour her a drink, put on some music and change the temperature. He compliments the color of her lipstick and escorts her to the bedroom. Afterward, as Brenda is gathering herself to leave, she suggests next steps in the relationship, including various clandestine modes of communication and real Barbie dream phone material. These insinuate that she’s been toying with the allure of an affair for quite some time. But Pete seems uninterested, annoyed and eager to hurry her along.

This somewhat choreographed exchange between Pete and Brenda is contrasted by the passionate, opera-inducing romance that unfolds between Don and Sylvia. “Everything [works] out perfectly” for Don and Sylvia when their spouses skip out on dinner plans ((due to illness and emergency), both insisting that the two of them “have fun” together, alone at a candlelit dinner. Sylvia is initially tense and bothered by the trusting innocence of her loving, life-saving husband, but Don swoops in with a solid pitch:

“Now I understand. You want to feel shitty, right up until the point that I take your dress off – because I’m going to do that. You want to skip dinner, fine. But don’t pretend.”

If anyone other than Don Draper had delivered this, Sylvia may have realized that he’s not saying much of anything, and he’s kind of being a dick.  But it’s Don, so Sylvia responds by ordering him the steak diavolo and telling the waiter that they are in a bit of a hurry.

The variations between Pete and Don’s methods of persuasion in many ways mirrors their respective approaches to client interaction. Pete is a salesman, baiting suburban housewives with the promise of Broadway tickets and cosmetic compliments before closing the deal. But Don is an adman. Unlike Pete, his unfaithful tendencies seem to develop from an internal, desirous nostalgia, or as he called it in the Season 1 finale, “pain from an old wound.”

The correlation between Don’s past and his cyclic disloyalty is suggested through this episode’s flashbacks to Dick Whitman’s childhood, which are invoked upon Don’s encounters with Sylvia. We learn Don (aka Dick Whitman) spent his adolescent years in a brothel, run by his Uncle (“The Rooster”) Mac.  Through anecdotes from previous seasons, we know that Don respected Mac, so it makes some sense, given his indiscreet exposure to loose conceptions of marriage that, as an adult, Don has become a master at transforming “the affair” into an art form.

Unfortunately for Pete, his afternoon with Brenda is brutally revealed to his wife Trudy when Brenda’s bloody face arrives knocking and screaming at the Campbell’s backdoor. Brenda and her husband had gotten into a violent fight, presumably about the affair, and she did not know where else to go. Trudy immediately comforts crumpled Brenda, while Pete, alarmed and unprepared to be juggling the presence of his wife and mistress, is his terrible self. Pete’s apparent unease directly contrasts the finesse with which Don navigates an equivalently triangular scene between him, Sylvia and Megan, during which he casually reminds Sylvia of their dinner plans with a “See you tomorrow.”

After Brenda has cleaned and iced her face, Trudy escorts her to an inn for the evening, which is when, we deduce, Brenda tells Trudy about the affair. Trudy, who has tolerated Pete’s reckless tactlessness for a whopping five seasons, finally puts her foot down. The following morning, she tells Pete on his way out the door that their marriage is over (sort of), clarifying that she would have continued to tolerate his indulgent affairs had he possessed the decency to keep them discreet. “ Couldn’t you just pretend?” she asks. “I let you have that apartment […] She lives on our block.”

The episode further illustrates the distinctions between Don and Pete’s approaches by reintroducing Herb, the miserable, paunchy Jaguar dealer whom Joan is asked to sleep with in last season’s “The Other Woman” in order to secure the Jaguar account for the firm (and a partnership for Joan). The arrangement was ironic in that the “sale” of Joan in as many ways undercut (both literally and figuratively) the poetry of the Jaguar campaign, along with the credibility of the agency. “Jaguar: At last, something beautiful you can truly own,” relies not on the guarantee of satisfaction, but the potency of desire. This is similar to the way that Don has no intention of leaving Megan, and his affair with Sylvia is contingent upon its frivolity.

In this episode, Herb insists that Don persuade his superiors at Jaguar that a larger portion of its budget be allocated toward the rudimentary exposure of his dealership and “moving cars” rather than focusing on developing the Jaguar as a luxury brand. “I don’t want another thing with some schmuck on his lawnmower, fantasizing that he’s gonna win the Grand Prix driving a Jaguar,” Herb says. “I need foot traffic. Get em in the door so I can move metal.”

Herb’s boorish greed, reminiscent of his indecent proposal with respect to Joan, disgusts Don and reminded me of his response to Peggy’s shy boldness at the start of Season 2. After her insistence that “Sex sells, ” Don responded:

“Just so you know, the people who talk that way think that monkeys can do this. They take all this monkey crap and stick it in a briefcase, completely unaware that their success depends on something more than shoeshine. You are the product. You feeling something. That’s what sells. Not them. Not sex. They can’t do what we do and they hate us for it.”

The agency’s persistence in placating Herb’s crude demands seems to not only insult Don’s ego by undermining his creative talent, but also appears to affect Don’s ability to tolerate his own selfish sins. Don tells Sylvia he doesn’t feel guilty about the affair because he doesn’t think about it. “This never happened.” But this foolproof method of denial is tested when Don returns from Sylvia’s (maid’s room) and discovers that Megan is awake, waiting up to tell him that she had a miscarriage earlier that week. Her exhaustion over the guilt of considering an abortion and not telling Don is the complete opposite of Draper’s denial. Megan’s confession coupled with Herb’s unvarnished gluttony seems, finally, to have an impact on Don.

In the episode’s final scene, Don stands in the hallway outside his apartment, unable to walk inside. He sits down against the wall, suggesting that while it’s possible to romanticize sin, guilt is an entirely different beast.

Mad Men Returns: Peggy Leans In, Roger Breaks Down, and Don Jumps Off


Is Don searching for salvation?
Don used to sell happiness. Now, he pitches suicide. Is he seeking rebirth or salvation? (Photo Credit: AMC)

When we left Donald Draper at the close of Season 5, he was walking off the bright sound stage of Megan’s acting debut toward a dimly lit bar. The scene closed with a young, attractive woman approaching him and asking, “Are you alone?” as the overture of the James Bond theme “You Only Live Twice” faded into the credits.

In several ways, it feels like that scene should have opened Sunday’s Season 6 premiere, “The Doorway.” Even Don’s first line – a voice-over of an excerpt from Dante’s Inferno (because who doesn’t like to read about Hell in paradise) – could be read as a prolonged response to the young, attractive woman’s hovering question. “Midway through our life’s journey,” Don reads, “I went astray from the straight road and awoke to find myself alone.”

But “The Doorway” didn’t begin on Don and Megan’s holiday in Hawaii. Instead, the dream-like opening shot (Megan’s scream and a doctor’s face, administering CPR) is from the perspective of doorman, Jonesy. After Don and Megan return from their tropical vacation, we flashback to them seeing him falling to the ground, experiencing a heart attack. Luckily, new friend Dr. Arnold Rosen rushes to the rescue, as Don stands speechless and Megan calls for an ambulance. In short, the opening scene of Season 6 is shot from the perspective of a man quite literally coming back to life.[1]

Much like last season, this week’s episode included its share of allusions to death. But more subtly, this opener heavily focused on rebirth and transformation. There seemed to be a pure, meditative quality underlying the character plot lines  Perhaps it was because several new characters were introduced, and in many ways seemed to be driving the action, but I thought the familiar cast (Don, Roger, Betty and Peggy) seemed particularly introspective about their respective relationships between role and circumstance. It was appropriate that the episode ended with a New Year (1968), a fresh start. [2]

The rebirth theme was most directly alluded to through Don’s pitch for Sheraton’s Royal Hawaiian Hotel. After all, he didn’t go on vacation to Hawaii – he had “an experience.” He suggested that the ad feature a picture of a man’s suit and tie strewn on the beach, with footprints leading to the water and the tagline “Hawaii: The Jumping Off Point.” But the client felt the image suggested suicide, which surprised Don, since the association hadn’t occurred to him. “This make you think of suicide?” Don asked Art Director Stan after the meeting. “Of course!” Stan responded. “That’s what’s so great about it.”

Don’s pitch made me think of the final scene of Season 2’s “The Mountain King,” where Don walks into the Pacific Ocean after his three-week hiatus in California. It makes sense that a man so accustomed to reinventing himself wouldn’t associate this kind of baptismal ritual with suicide. Perhaps in the same way he didn’t recognize how incapable Lane Pryce would be at moving forward after scandal, Don is proving himself to be almost toxically resilient.

Peggy also has a bit of this freakish knack for adaptability. We’ve seen in previous season’s how much Peggy mimics Don in spirit, but it’s perhaps most clear in this episode when we see her thriving as a creative director at her new agency. Upon coming up with a brilliant campaign for Koss Headphones under pressure, her boss congratulates her, telling Peggy she’s “good in a crisis.” This scene again made me think of Season 2 and its references to Frank O’Hara’s Meditations in an Emergency, along with Don’s guidance to Peggy at that time.[3]

There was also a lot of taking and leaving behind in this episode. It is curious – for a show about advertising – how many of the character vignettes centered or culminated around once useful objects becoming, in one way or another, useless.

For Don, it was a lighter. While in Hawaii with Megan, Don ends up alone at a bar.[4] He then meets a young Private Dinkins, who is on R&R from Vietnam and has come to Hawaii to get married. He notices that Don has the same army-issued gold Zippo lighter inscribed with their names and the line “In life, we often have to do things that just are not our bag.”

He drunkenly asks Don to give away his bride at the wedding, since all the hotel employees that would otherwise substitute “just look like the enemy.” It all sounds a little too emotional for Draper, until Dinkins, in his stupor, bangs out: “Look, I believe in what goes around comes around. One day I want to be a veteran in paradise. One day I’ll be the man who can’t sleep and talks to strangers.” That gets Don, and he agrees to give away the bride, while Megan snaps a picture.

Somewhere in the exchange, the boys exchange lighters. Don doesn’t discover this until he’s back in New York City attempting to radiate Draper dominance in front of the camera for a SCDP publicity photo shoot. Upon noticing that he inadvertently, in a small way, has stolen yet another soldier’s identity, his face drops. I would like to have seen that photo. This small thing seems to disrupt Don for the remainder of the episode, from vomiting at Mimsey Sterling’s funeral to stumbling through a pitch for The Royal Hawaiian resort. Like some bad luck charm, Draper had no interest in becoming Dinkins.

For Roger, it was a shoeshine kit. Roger has replaced his Dictaphone with a psychiatrist. Last season, we left him naked on an acid trip and this season we find him fully clothed, lounging in a psychologists’ chaise, ranting and musing about the meaning of the meaningless of life. Most of the things he says in are depressing in flavor, but sprinkled in sterling wit: “Experiences are nothing. Like pennies you pick up and put in your pocket, they mean nothing.”

At the office, Roger demands to have his shoes shined before his publicity portrait. “No one is going to see your shoes,” his secretary Caroline ensures. But he is adamant she contact Giorgio, the shoeshine boy. Later that day, Caroline enters Roger’s office sobbing, to tell him his mother passed away from a stroke in the bathtub. Roger is unmoved, practical, almost comic about the news. “I suppose I’m in charge of the arrangements,” he says. “[My Aunt’s] a fruitcake, she’ll want to have a seance.”

At the funeral, Don throws up, Roger throws a tantrum and then throws everyone out. He seems verbal and unimpressed with the entire notion of grief.[5] When Roger asks Caroline when Giorgio is coming to shine his shoes, she responds that he’d passed away, but that his shoeshine kit had been sent over, since Roger was the only person that had inquired his absence. Roger looks stunned, takes the shoeshine kit into his office, closes the door and breaks down in tears.

For Betty, it was a violin. Since Betty’s marriage to Harry Francis, we’ve watched her transform (or regress?) from a statuesque, steely-eyed fox of a woman to a kind of awkward, innocent adolescent girl inhabiting a pudgy homemaker’s body. In this episode, we’re introduced to her daughter Sally’s friend Sandy, who frequently spends time at the Francis household and is accustomed to repaying their hospitality with impromptu violin recitals. “Please play,” Betty says. “It makes me feel so much.”

Betty especially seems to enjoy Sandy’s company, despite her awkward playful urging that Henry rape the girl. In a meeting over a midnight snack and cigarette, Sandy confides in Betty that she didn’t get accepted to Julliard and plans to runaway to a tenement in the East Village. Betty advises against it, encouraging Sandy to tell people she wanted to finish high school instead of moving onto Julliard so soon.[6] Regardless, Sandy runs away, and Betty later chases her like an owner searching for a lost puppy on St. Mark’s Place.

It was uncomfortable watching Betty’s blonde-and-baby-blue-self poke around the hip and dirty tenement where she thought she might uncover little Sandy. When she found Sandy’s violin, she decided to hang around and help the team make goulash on the hunch that the girl would return for her precious instrument. But Betty is stunned to learn that Sandy had sold the instrument to one of the tenants and put the money toward a ticket to California. The tenant she sold the instrument to seemed particularly keen on putting Betty right in her place, grabbing her purse, mocking its contents and calling her a nark. “We don’t like your life anymore than you do.” Betty leaves without the violin.[7]

It was interesting that several of the product campaigns introduced in this episode had a sharp, sensory edge.  Air fresheners! Headphones! Cameras! Everything, even the Hawaiian vacation, was about heightening some experience through the consumption of a product. It proved to be poignant that Don’s meeting with creative, when he rejects their prosaic usage of the word “love” in an air freshener campaign, is interrupted by a visit from Jonesy’s savior, Dr. Rosen. “Why are we contributing to the trivialization of [love]?” Don asks, “It’s like a drug, it’s not domestic. What’s the difference between a husband knocking on a door and a sailor getting off a ship? About 10,000 volts.”

The scene quickly turns when Don notices Dr. Rosen standing in the doorway. “These are great,” he closes with and ends the meeting. We learn in the last few minutes of the episode (through structural reveal similar to the pilot) that Don is sleeping with Dr. Rosen’s wife, Sylvia. This gives his rant on love, along with most other events in the episode, new light and weight.

Overall, the season began much like the series itself. Although most of the characters have undergone drastic transformations through the last few years, Don’s persona – the centerpiece of both this episode and of the pilot – appears to have regained its signature, impervious gloss.

One thing has changed though, a small distinction that suggests the anxiety of life is beginning to permeate Don’s perpetual ease. In the pilot, Don equates advertising with happiness, but in “The Doorway,” he unintentionally associates it with suicide. Ironically, Don aligned cigarettes with happiness and paradise with death. Roger says it best: “You know, we sold actual death for 25 years with Lucky Strike. You know how we did it? We ignored it.”

It’s a subtle shift, but still suggestive that in some small way, even Don, despite all the pomp, is in the market for some form of salvation.

[1] Again, “You Only Live Twice” is almost stupidly applicable here.

[2] Or as The New York Times headline put it: “World Bids Adieu to a Violent Year, City Gets Snowfall.”

[3] “This never happened,” Don tells Peggy, after the shock of her pregnancy. “It will shock you how much it never happened.”

[4] Classic Draper.

[5] Roger vents to his psychologist: “My mother loved me in some completely pointless way and now it’s gone. So there it is. She gave me my last new experience. And now I know that all I’m going to be doing from here on is losing everything. Dammit. I don’t feel anything. All I’m doing is acknowledging life, unlike this analysis, will eventually end. And someone else will get the bill.”

[6] Sandy’s response? “It’s incredible how fast some people can come up with lies.”

[7] We discover later that Betty quite characteristically responds to this much like a 14-year-old girl who was just bullied at the school dance would respond. She dyes her hair dark.

Why Stats Are Ruining Sports


Image via Sloan

I write this despite being convinced of and appreciative of the usefulness of properly-applied statistics. I write this even though the first memory of my life is of walking to a Browns game with my father and older brother. I write this despite the last book I read (and thoroughly enjoyed) being Naked Statistics. I write this while wearing a Richmond Basketball t-shirt that I purchased before the Spiders’ miraculous Sweet 16 run from 2011, which I watched every game of with several fraternity brothers.

Spectator sports are becoming less enjoyable, and statistics are to blame.

Michael Lewis’ 2003 book, Moneyball, detailed how a jock-turned-luminary used advanced statistics to gain a competitive edge over his better-funded opponents. The book started a popular and professional revolution in sports. It made fans and front offices question why we settled for subpar statistics like batting average and points per game, when technology allowed us to do better. When evaluating any sports outcome, we should critically examine what we’re looking at, and go to great pains to separate junk from juice.

Moneyball took an old cliché that we already knew (“sports are businesses”) and prompted us to think of the logical next step: So how do we do things smarter?

Stat heads, as Lewis chronicles, used to have to fight with scouts to even get a seat at the table for personnel decision-making. No longer. Quants have implanted themselves in every MLB front office, a majority of those in the NBA, and a growing number in the NFL. Teams have hired extensively from Ivy League MBA programs; some of the most famous and successful personnel guys (Mark Shapiro, Theo Epstein, Mark Cuban) come from business backgrounds.

Despite the protestations of lazy, math-illiterate sportswriters, the Moneyball revolution hit home as well. It has fundamentally changed how even casual fans watch and think about sports. ESPN NBA box scores now include “plus/minus” calculations. Graphics on most local sports networks show a batter’s on-base and slugging percentages next to his batting average. (Side note: this is likely 75% of the reason that Clevelanders have not kicked Indians catcher Carlos Santana out of town.)

This was Adam Smith’s “invisible hand” at work. As fans learned about these stats, they demanded more of them, and major sports media has had no choice but to provide. Every piece of sports content we consume, be it a Web article or an episode of “Baseball Tonight”, is volumes more sophisticated than what was available twenty years prior. The authors of the now-defunct Fire Joe Morgan blog captured one famous commentator’s struggle to adapt to this sea change. A Hall of Fame second baseman, Morgan simply couldn’t – or wouldn’t – converse in the new normal language. He quickly slid into irrelevancy.

On multiple occasions, I have lauded this change. It makes absolute sense. Professional and major college sports are billion-dollar industries. The folks in charge damn well better get it right, or people lose their jobs. There’s simply too much at stake for team owners to treat their rosters like fantasy teams. Additional insight and accountability is crucial. Back to that cliché: sports are businesses. You can’t run payroll like you work for the government and money doesn’t matter.

So I get it. It’s logical. It’s inevitable. But it kinda sucks.

For those who don’t work in sports, they serve as a distraction. You throw the game on when you’re home from work, or you check a box score when you need a break from that TPS report. Now, most decent articles require you to actually think. Reading a piece by some of ESPN’s writers feels more like work than a distraction. The other day I spent thirty minutes picking apart KC Joyner’s methodology and trying to figure out a better way to measure what he was trying to measure. For an article about the Percy Harvin trade. At my last job, a coworker gave me tutoring in advanced Excel using data about the 2009 Cleveland Indians from I no longer play fantasy baseball because I don’t want to spend the hours necessary combing through preparing for the draft to compete in the league.

Advanced analytics have also eliminated much of the spontaneity of sports. We don’t even really need directional measures like on-base percentage anymore. We now have, in all three major sports, “wins above replacement” (or WAR) calculations. Major trades and roster transactions are literally described by how many wins a team can expect to have netted. PECOTA and other proprietary tools can tell you, with shocking accuracy, how many games a Major League team will win before the season even starts. As an Indians fan, this now means that after a surprisingly good start, I find myself saying “we’re going to regress to the norm, huh” rather than “I think we’re gonna tank.” And I have an insanely-complicated algorithm to back me up!

If you think this is bad, it’s only going to get worse. Much, much worse. The revolution just started. By the nature of statistics, as we get more people and more data sets, the predictions will become better. Right now, PECOTA gets a few things wrong every season. In five years, it will not. Cinderella stories will be rare outliers, not the semi-frequent surprises that we’re accustomed to. Florida Gulf Coast won’t be a 15 seed, and no one will be shocked when the first-ever NBA eight-seed beats a number one.

This lack of the unknown and lessening of surprises has already lessened my enjoyment of sports. Like most twenty-somethings, I derive much of my joy from sports by yelling at my friends and unabashedly claiming my correctness. The fun of these arguments, of course, was that there was never a way to impartially decide them. So I was always right. Now? An ESPN Insider subscription can solve most of our arguments.

I don’t expect everyone to agree with me. Some people genuinely enjoy applying themselves intellectually to sports. (When I want to think, I read Hayek or Heinlein.) And in no way can I come up with a valid reason for teams and media outlets to slow this trend. Most frustrating of all is its stunning logic.

But not being able to scream at your friends about sports? Not being able to play fantasy without devoting several hours a week? Being unable to participate in a conversation about the game without referencing a player’s adjusted plus/minus? That’s pretty weaksauce, bro.

Yi! Interviews: Neil Ruddock on Education Reform


Image via PolitiFact
Image via PolitiFact

Editor’s note: Education reform has received a great deal of attention from politicians, business leaders, and celebrities. To learn more about the topic, Yi! News spoke with Neil Ruddock, a State Advocacy Director for the Foundation for Excellence in Education. (Full disclosure: Ruddock is Contributing Editor Brian’s brother.) Neil’s resume includes stints as a congressional staffer, consultant for Educational Testing Service, and Policy Advisor for the Indiana Department of Education. He holds a Master’s Degree in Government from Johns Hopkins University and a BA in Government from the University of Notre Dame.

Yi! News: We’re seeing the topic of education come up a lot. Fortune 500 executives are talking about it. The president dedicated several lines of his State of the Union Address to it. Why now?

Neil Ruddock: First of all, you have a realization that the notion of a good-paying, low-skill job that you can support a family on is largely a thing of the past. Increased education is crucial. That doesn’t mean everyone coming out of our system has to get a degree from a Yale or a Harvard, or even have a four year degree necessarily. But for most of the jobs providing a livable wage, a 12-year education won’t do it. There needs to be some sort of formal, post-high school education.

A lot of folks will start post-secondary and not be prepared for it. So not only will they not finish, but they’ll wind up with a lot of debt on top of it. That’s not sustainable for the economy in the long term.

Yi!: So for those of our readers who don’t actively follow education policy, can you provide a quick definition of charter schools and vouchers?

Ruddock:  A charter school is public school that walks, talks, acts like, and is recognized as, a public school. The key difference between a charter and traditional public school is that charters, by and large, aren’t subject to collective bargaining. For the most part, charter schools are run by folks who don’t want to be tied down by the regulations that come with collective bargaining.

Vouchers provide public funding that allows a student to attend a public or private school they may otherwise not be able to afford. In practice, they’re generally used at private schools, but state laws usually allow them to be used at public schools. The number of regulations that a private school has to implement to accept vouchers varies state by state.

Yi!: Both Republicans and Democrats agree that there has to be reform, and they seem to have some common ground. Yet nothing of significance has been passed. What are the main sources of disagreement?

Ruddock: No Child Left Behind has not been renewed, to be sure, but I don’t think it’s accurate to say that nothing of significance has passed. Race to the Top pushed states to start taking meaningful steps towards reform, but implementing those reforms is hard work.

Efforts to pay the best teachers more; to make layoff decisions based on merit, or lack thereof, rather than seniority, are going to be controversial because they get at the current power structure, where unions have built in protection for members as a justification for membership. This isn’t to say they’re the source of all issues. We still have school boards and superintendents that allow a lot of these harmful provisions in there. It takes two to tango. So there are some serious structural issues that get in the way of progress.

Yi!: You mentioned some unwise policies like seniority-based firing. What are some of the most ill-advised rules or laws you’ve come across?

Ruddock: Before we worked on reform, the collective bargaining agreement for one of the largest districts in Indiana had a rule that when two teachers being considered for a layoff had the same seniority, they’d add up the last four digits of each teacher’s Social Security number. The one with the lowest sum was let go. You’d have other places where maybe one teacher’s last name started with an “R”, and the other started with a “B”, and the teacher with the “R” name was let go. So you had all kinds of things that were really harmful to students. Several Teacher of the Year candidates were laid off, because there was no evaluation system, no baseline, in place.

Yi!: It seems that there’s a lot of opposition around metrics for teachers. Do you think the main problem critics have is with quantification overall, or with specific methodologies and how the numbers are calculated?

Ruddock: What you’ve highlighted is the difference between teachers and teachers unions. I think you have a lot of teachers one hundred percent comfortable being evaluated with some objective measures. When the rubber meets the road of implementation, the unions are not as comfortable including test-score data as many of their members are.

Evaluation is still in its early stages. I don’t think anyone thinks one metric, one test score should determine things. Any class can have a bad test on a particular day. But in guarding against that, you can’t say “Does the teacher try hard?,”  “Do they have good relationship with the students?,”  etc…some of those soft variables that take focus away from whether or not the students are actually learning. But there’s a lot of work still to be done.

Yi!: President Obama mentioned in his State of the Union address the need for increased federal education funding, specifically for lowering student loan interest rates and providing more tuition subsidies. Critics point out that such policies have contributed to increasing tuition costs. Do you agree with this critique?

Ruddock: There’s a fair argument to be made there, that you’re feeding the beast. The reality is that both student financial aid spending and tuition rates have gone up by a significant amount.

Yi!: Some of the calls for reform, particularly from pundits on the right, have revolved around using education to reduce the deficit. Do you think it’s more important to cut the waste from education, or to just “get it right” with existing funds?

Ruddock: State budgets are written by legislators, and they have many priorities to balance when they write those budgets. Dollars have just been poured at the same system rather than using the extra money for structural reform. My position, and the position of my organization, is if a state wants to spend more money on education, where is it being put? To help truly good teachers be paid well? To help kids improve their reading skills? Or is it simply going into the existing system that pays based on tenure and how many degrees a teacher has? If it’s the latter, we’re missing a huge opportunity.

As far as how it plays into deficit reduction, entitlements are the main drivers of the deficit. It’s confusing as to why the same folks who want more money in the same system, ala teachers unions, why aren’t they more in favor of entitlement reform? The tragedy is that Medicare, Medicaid, Social Security, etc. will swallow programs like education.

I struggle to understand why those who advocate for more education funding are so hesitant to challenge the seniors lobby and join the effort to reform entitlements. They have nothing to lose, because the dirty secret is that senior citizens vote even in low-turnout elections., i.e. elections where many school levies fail.

At day’s end, education spending is something that is threatened by the deficit–not something that drives it.

Yi!: You deal with politicians on a daily basis. Who are some Republicans and Democrats that are getting education reform “right”?

Ruddock: On the GOP side, [Louisiana Governor] Bobby Jindal has been very emphatic about doing what’s right for students. [Former Indiana Governor] Mitch Daniels took a very aggressive stance and didn’t apologize for it. He really provided cover to people that were doing the tough but necessary work. As far as Democrats go, a lot of interesting things are coming out of Colorado. Governor Hickenlooper is willing to have the hard conversations. [Chicago Mayor] Rahm Emmanuel, who has a steeper hill to climb because of how powerful unions are there, has worked very hard to push for reform.

Yi!: We tend to think of reform as just happening through public or government channels, but we’ve seen the private sector come up with the concept of MOOC’s, or massive open online courses. Do you think MOOC’s are a real game-changer, or more just something that can help out on the margins?

Ruddock: It remains to be seen, but I think it will fundamentally alter the higher-ed market. It won’t eviscerate the brick-and-mortar model necessarily, but you have a system where the cost increases have been outpacing ability of customer base to pay for some time now. Whether it will happen in two, five, or ten years is open for debate. What is clear is that the current higher-ed model is unsustainable. So I think MOOC’s will have a significant impact.

Yi!: Any closing thoughts?

Ruddock: What I would point out is that at a broad level, there’s a lot of money, there’s a lot of turf, and the folks that want to protect that turf have been better informed and active than the regular citizens. Somehow, someway, those numbers have got to start shifting in order to make reform sustainable.

Say what you will about legislators, but they know how to count votes. It’s one thing to make a difficult vote. It’s another thing to make a suicidal vote. The more your average citizen follows these things, the better. Policy change doesn’t happen in a vacuum.

How To Navigate The Legal Job Market


You may have heard that it’s tough out there for law school graduates.

Here in New Jersey, only about 60 percent of 2011 graduates of the state’s three law schools found full-time, legal employment within nine months of graduation. Meanwhile, about one-fifth of each of the classes remained under-employed through the same time period. The 2012 class data, which should be released in mid-March, doesn’t figure to vary much. And, comparatively, New Jersey is in better shape than many other states.

Traditional methods of finding post-graduate employment are changing. For example, fewer than four percent of Seton Hall Law’s class of 2011 reported on-campus interviews as the source of their eventual job. More than ever, the path to one’s first professional opportunity is one that must be proactively paved by the individual.

Luckily, we live in an era that makes that arduous task slightly more manageable. Though legal positions are scarce, there has never been a better time to break into professional networks and build relationships capable of yielding dividends in both the short- and long-term. As a recent law graduate, here are three keys I kept in mind as I navigated the legal job market.

The first is connectivity. Expand your web of contacts as wide as possible. Your alumni network – whether undergraduate or law school – is more than willing to help, but think a little more outside the box. I spoke with professors and family friends, but also attorneys I had caddied for and fraternity brothers 20 years my elder. The Internet allows these contacts to be just a few clicks away, but you must take the initiative to connect.

The second is consistency. Lawyers are busy people. The resume they were happy you passed along will soon be pushed aside for more pressing business. Stay on their radar with brief follow-up messages or offers to meet for coffee. Their schedule is busy, but if you show a respectful willingness to work around it, most will find the time to speak with you.

The most important key is confidence. Stop taking rejection personally. Build off of your strengths. Translate your experience into a form that will impress potential employers. Establish a professional presence on LinkedIn or Twitter. Blog about legal trends. Be active in your local bar association. Make it easy for others to see that you have something valuable to offer. If you don’t believe that you do, there’s no reason to think anyone else will either.

Luck will likely play a role in your eventual job, but these tips should diminish your reliance on chance and place your fate more directly in your own hands.

State of the Union, Tea Party Response Detail Fault Lines


Image via Business Insider
Image via Business Insider

President Barack Obama made last Tuesday what many are considering to be one of the most liberal State of the Union addresses in history. Obama advocated an extensive second-term agenda and, despite brief rhetoric to the contrary, defended big government as an answer to our ailments.

The media largely seems to have focused on Senator Marco Rubio’s (R-FL) infamous “water-gaffe”. (Rubio gave the Republican Party’s response to the SOTU, as is tradition for the opposition party.) Rubio’s gaffe was unimportant, and anyways, his speech wasn’t much different from most opposition speeches: light on detail and entirely uncontroversial.

Lost in all of this was that Senator Rand Paul (R-KY) delivered a speech that showed the points of divergence between today’s two major governing theories: Obama’s blue-model liberalism and the Tea Party’s neo-constitutionalism. Whether because of 2016 presidential rumors or as his influence as a sitting senator, Paul is worth paying attention to.

The differences in theories have been split into four major categories: the purpose and size of government, the role of the executive, the budget, and new policies proposed. For each, we’ll examine a relevant quote from both Obama’s and Paul’s speeches.



This country only works when we accept certain obligations to one another and future generations; that our rights are wrapped up in the rights of others; and that…it remains the task of us all, as citizens of these United States, to be the authors of the next great chapter in our American story


What America needs is not Robin Hood but Adam Smith. In the year we won our independence, Adam Smith described what creates the wealth of nations. He described a limited government that largely did not interfere with individuals and their pursuit of happiness.

Obama ties the concept of obligations into citizenship: as someone living in this country, there are things you must do because the state’s functioning requires it. He speaks of joint responsibility, collective action, and a shared future. Paul instead focuses on prosperity through freedom; we thrive because of individuals seeking their own ends. Obama makes a subtle rip on individual liberty (“our rights are wrapped up in the rights of others”), which is a common argument against the sort of individualism, or natural-rights based government, Paul seeks. Essentially, the argument goes, no man exists in a vacuum, so your right to pursue your own ends will often come into conflict with my right to prosper.



…if Congress won’t act soon to protect future generations [from climate change], I will. I will direct my Cabinet to come up with executive actions we can take.


We cannot and will not allow any President to act as if he were a king.

Obama believes that in many debates, there is Right and Wrong, or Good and Evil, and that sometimes politics prevent people from doing the right thing. Thus, the President can and should do whatever is possible to make sure Right prevails.

Paul, by contrast, is extremely sensitive to executive overreach. As a member of the legislative branch, he is offended by the notion that an executive thinks he can bring a certain piece of legislation to the floor, or demand he vote a certain way. This is similar to government power in that Obama takes a very end-centric view: we do whatever we need to to achieve the best result. Paul is more sensitive to rule of law concerns, in which it is crucial to respect existing procedures and limitations.



These sudden, harsh, arbitrary [sequester] cuts would jeopardize our military readiness. They’d devastate priorities like education, energy, and medical research.


The President does a bit “woe is me” over the sequester…the sequester doesn’t even cut any spending. It just slows the rate of growth. Even with the sequester, government will grow over $7 trillion over the next decade.

The sequester was essentially a “poison pill”; if the two parties couldn’t come up with enough deficit reduction, automatic cuts to both military and domestic spending would kick in. The thinking was that Republicans wouldn’t want the military cuts, and Democrats wouldn’t want domestic cuts, so both parties would be pressured to cooperate.

Obama is trying to press Republicans here by mentioning the military cuts first. Some Republicans think military spending is sacrosanct; Paul is not one of them, so he doesn’t take the bait.

The president sees a lot of good being done by spending that would be cut as a result of sequestration. He’s less worried about deficits, since America is still the world’s reserve currency; the debt is something that may or may not come to bear, whereas these cuts will definitely cut important programs.

Paul’s take is that the budget will grow regardless, and that we need to start having honest conversations about what a “cut” really is.


Obama proposes, among other things: a government-written “college scorecard”; tax reform that hikes rates on millionaires; executive action to combat climate change; a public-private “energy security trust” to reduce oil consumption; federal subsidies for states that build energy efficient buildings; increased pre-K funding; an increased minimum wage; a voting-rights commission that would enforce its recommendations at the state level; American assistance in the eradication of global poverty and AIDS.

Paul’s major proposal was a Balanced Budget Amendment coupled with a budget that will balance the budget in five years. He also advocates for greater government transparency, school vouchers, cessation of foreign aid to countries hostile to us, and a flat tax.

Each politician’s policy prescriptions are reflective of their overarching philosophies. The president wishes to use the government’s considerable power to solve everything from climate change to poverty. Paul wants to narrow the focus of our activities and let the private sector work its magic. Obama’s proposals would require a considerable increase in taxes and the size of government; just about all of Paul’s proposals involve shrinking government influence.

These speeches represent a fascinating philosophical contrast; they’re likely a good indicator of the lines along which the 2016 presidential race will be fought (even if Paul is not a candidate). Both were direct, ideological, and aggressive. They present us with a real contrast that makes us think about the role we want government to play. This is what our political discourse should resemble.