Thursday, May 30, 2013

In 1991, the Pittsburgh Penguins met the Boston Bruins in the Wales Conference Finals. That's what we used to call the Eastern Conference. I was okay with that change, but I still think it's a damned shame this team doesn't still play in the Patrick Division. The coach of the Bruins in that series was Mike Milbury.

The Prince of Wales Trophy
The Pens coach that year was a beloved figure. "Badger" Bob Johnson won 3 NCAA Hockey championships. He coached a US Olympic Team and the US National Team. He took the Calgary Flames to the Stanley Cup Final. He coined the phrase "It's a Great Day for Hockey".

And, after a disappointing game 3 loss, an angry Milbury said of this relentlessly upbeat and positive guy, "The 'Professor of Hockey', as Bob Johnson is often called, is also a professor of goonism."

Image from

There is some irony here that Milbury is too clueless to see, of course...

during Milbury's career as a player he was a leader in penalty minutes, and was once suspended for 6 games for beating a fan with his own shoe. No kidding.

Anyway, the Penguins went on to beat the Bruins that year, and win the Stanley Cup. You can't say Milbury was scarred by the experience, because he remains the same stupid thug he was as a player. But he DOES continue to hate everything about the Pittsburgh Penguins.

And I hate the Boston Bruins, with every quivering atom of my body. Assholes. Let's do this! (Regular season stats, from ESPN)

Pens Goals per game: 3.38 (1st)
Boston Goals Against per game: 2.21 (3rd)

Boston GF/G: 2.65 (13th)
Pittsburgh GA/G 2.48 (12th)

Advantage: Pittsburgh, marginally. If Boston can force turnovers in the neutral zone, in the way the Islanders did and the Senators didn't, they can score on us. If the Pens passing remains as unearthly accurate as it was against Ottawa, Boston won't get scored on, they'll get absolutely shellacked.

Pens Power Play: 24.7% (2nd)
Boston Penalty Kill: 87.1% (4th)

Boston PP: 14.8% (26th)
Pens PK: 79.6% (25th)

Advantage: Pittsburgh, marginally. The Penguins power play can give even the best penalty killers in the League trouble, but Boston IS one of the best penalty killers in the League. Similarly, our weak penalty killing should be a match for their underachieving power play. Except...

the Pens power play shredded the regular season best penalty kill in the League when we beat Ottawa. I've mentioned before that I use regular season stats in preference to playoff stats until the Cup finals. But if the Pens power play keeps going the way it has been, Boston is in a lot of trouble. They really need to stay out of the Penalty Box, and that's a hard thing to do during the playoffs without getting pushed around.

Vokoun Save Percentage: 91.9% (15th)
Rask Save Percentage: 92.9% (3rd)

Advantage: Boston. Rask is perfectly capable of stealing games. He's phenomenal. Vokoun had had an excellent post-season, but he's objectively a back-up, not a starter. At some point, he will revert. It might be during this series. On the other hand, Rask was not as good as the Senator's Craig Anderson this season, and the Pens drove him from the net in 2 games.

Ultimately, the Pens can break any goaltender in the League if they can get enough shots on him. Preventing that is going to be difficult, particularly given that m Chara is a year older. His +/- fell from 33 the last 2 years to 14 this year. Forwards like Bergeron & Marchand & Seguin will help, but Andrew Ference is imminently beatable, and I expect Lucic will be a genuine problem for Boston as he accumulates penalty minutes.

Pens in 6.

Tuesday, May 28, 2013

Why would you build that? A cynical take on monuments.

Happy Memorial Day. 

Every human society that I know of builds monuments. It's one of the first signs that a society has made the big shift from chiefdom to the State. Monumental architecture precedes the city. The Sumerians built it, the Egyptians built it, the Chinese built it, and the Harappans built it.

Column from the Persian Royal palace at Persepolis
I find this troubling. We're not talking about casual decoration or utilitarian buildings here. Monumental architecture is BIG, it represents thousands of man hours of labor by societies whose food supply was a lot more precarious than ours. In modern terms, we're talking about projects that cost a considerable fraction of Gross Domestic Product.

There are better uses for the resources, conceivably. Instead of painstakingly quarrying enormous slabs of basalt, perhaps the gang could be draining a swamp, or making fish traps, or digging irrigation ditches.

Olmec stone head. I think this one is about 8 feet tall.
And after being quarried, all this stone has to be transported. In the New World, it had to be transported without useful freight animals. It had to be shaped, and if you screw it up, if you crack the monument or knock a piece off, you're back at the beginning of the project. The final monument has to be levered and winched and braced into place, onto a surface carefully prepared to bear the enormous weight. And for what?

Mohenjo Daro. In the foreground is a pool. The stones are so perfectly fitted that when filled with water, it doesn't leak a drop. There is no sealant.
A typical answer to this question is to say, "it's religious". This is a cop-out. To say that monumental architecture is built for religious reasons is to say, "it doesn't have to make sense to us." Of COURSE monumental architecture has religious significance; that doesn't tell us why it was built, with such massive effort and enormous expense, by people who had very real problems of food security.

Angkor Wat
Naturally, there's some ambiguity of purpose and intent in monumental architecture constructed by pre-literate societies. But the development of writing makes the motivation behind the construction of monumental architecture perfectly clear.

The Acropolis
Monumental Architecture is built at the bidding of elite members of the society doing the construction. They cause these projects to be built in order to legitimize their privileged position within the society. Stonehenge functions as a calendar. That's because being able to pronounce the exact date of each equinox and solstice gave the religious elites of the builders legitimacy. Stela C from Tres Zapotes depicts the priest/king in full regalia, and describes his triumphs and the legitimizing rituals he performed. The Forbidden City was laid out to demonstrate the divinity of the emperor.

Temple of Luxor
And, I remind you, these projects aren't cheap. They take decades to build, thousands of workers are needed, prestige goods like greenstone and limestone and marble and gold are consumed in huge quantities in order to fulfill the vision of the architects and prove the legitimacy of the society's rulers. It's insane. The Pharaoh, or the Emperor, or the High Priest of Baal harnesses the full productive potential of an entire society in order to cement their control. The monument may fulfill its function by providing a spot to host sporting events, or slaughter prodigious numbers of animals, or may proclaim the number of dead enemies defeated by the ruler. But the motivation is always the same: to demonstrate and memorialize the power of the elite who ordered the construction.

Taj Mahal
Of course, it's easy to mock the unenlightened primitives who get suckered into working like slaves for a project that provides evidence that their inferiority is good and just. But monumental architecture isn't unique to primitive societies.

Mt. Rushmore.
The Washington Monument was constructed not merely to memorialize George Washington, but to associate its builders with the beloved President. That's part of why it took so long. Lenin's Tomb was intended to illustrate the genius of his vision and by association, the eminence of the state he founded. and just recently....

The George W. Bush Presidential Center
the opening of the George W. Bush Presidential Library has provoked lots of accurate and entirely deserved snark about how it's not really a library, it's an attempt to justify his disastrous presidency. If this were ancient Egypt, some future president would remove Dubya's name from all public architecture and expunge him from history.

It's a little different now than in the past, of course. Modern technological societies are infinitely more wealthy than our agriculturally centered, muscle powered predecessors. Even the most elaborate elite vanity project costs only a tiny fraction of society's available resources. North Korea's acquiescence to the insanity of the Kim Dynasty may be an exception to this observation. And modern societies have a more diverse elite than ancient societies did, too.

The Chrysler Building
We would say today that Chrysler earned the money that built this building. But the artisans who carved the columns of the Temple of 1000 Warriors felt that their orders came from people who had "earned" the artisan's compliance. And the motivations behind the construction of Notre Dame Cathedral are identical to the motivations behind buying naming rights to the Console Energy Center.

Monumental architecture is self-promotion. There are people with the power and resources to have something gigantic built. They do so in order to enhance their prestige and dominance. And they do it with the labor of the very masses they're trying to impress.

Tuesday, May 14, 2013

2013 Playoffs, Round 2 Pens v. Senators

The last series against the Islanders showed us; the NHL playoffs are about guts, and determination, and luck, and coaching. More than anything else, they're about clutch goaltending. You can pretty much throw the statistics away before each series. Nevertheless, I refuse to concede my inability to predict results.

This and unlabeled mages from Wikimedia Commons

You'll note that I continue to use regular season statistics rather than those from Round 1. That will be true until the Finals, when we've got enough games to constitute a reasonable sample.

Pens Goals per Game Average: 3.38 (1st in the League)
Sens Goals Against Average 2.08 (2nd best in League)

Sens GPG Average: 2.33 (27th)
Pens GA Average: 2.48 (12th)

Advantage: Pens

This is going to be an amazing series; the Penguins have the most offensively talented teams in League history right now. They're going up against the 2nd best defensive team in the League. It would be an interesting case of an irresistible force meeting an immovable object, except Ottawa is an extremely weak team, offensively. On paper. Statistically. During the regular season.

The truth is, any team with Daniel Alfredsson is going to score on you. We're just damned lucky Spezza isn't playing.

Pens Power Play Percentage: 24.7% (2nd)
Sens Penalty Kill Percentage: 88% (1st)

Sens Power Play: 15.9% (20th)
Pens Penalty Kill: 79.6% (25th)

Advantage: Sens 

As with the Pens offense v. the Senators defense 5 on 5, the Pens power play v. the Senators' penalty kill will match the best units in the league against each other. And while the Pens penalty killing against the Islanders was the highlight of an otherwise dismal performance, it's hardly characteristic. We're going to have a very tough time scoring on the power play. Ottawa will probably have an easier time. This means that they'll be more able to rough up our guys more than we can theirs.

It's a problem.

Vokoun's Save Percentage: 91.9% (15th)
Anderson's Save Percentage 94.1% (1st in the league)

Advantage: Sens

Anderson's save percentage is just sick. In fairness, that's only over 24 games played; he was only in for half the games this season. He severed a tendon while preparing dinner. I'd mock him, but I've done damned near the same thing. Slippery vegetables.  And of course, Vokoun, played fewer games than that. It was a short season. But "in 24 games" is the only explanation for a save percentage that high.

This is going to be an absolute dogfight, Ottawa advantages in goaltending and special teams are made up by the larger advantage the Pens have 5 on 5. You can expect prodigious hockey out of Alfredsson, but the same thing should be true of Crosby, Malkin and Iginla.

This is going to be a great series. Ottawa is a MUCH better team than their regular season record indicates. Pens in 7.

Monday, May 6, 2013

The Burned Hand Apparently doesn't Teach at All

If the United States were a puppy, it's sheer inability to learn from past experience might be cute. Adorable even.

But it's a nation-state with the most over-funded military in the world, and so the current impulse in our policy circles to "do something" about Syria is frustrating, and scary, and DANGEROUS, in a way a puppy's antics are not.

This and unlabeled images from Wikimedia Commons

The debate is not about the nature of the Syrian regime. Bashar al-Assad and the Syrian Baath Party are savage, murderous abusers of human rights. Syria is a clear case of a demographic minority tyrannizing a majority population Their role in the sufferings of their neighbor Lebanon  is unforgivable. Their alliance with Iran destabilizes the region and threatens Israeli national security. The current civil war raging in Syria is the inevitable result of the despotic and authoritarian nature of Syria's ruling elite.

Given the despicable nature of the Syrian government, it's not surprising to find wide-spread sympathy for "The Free Syrian Army". Humans don't deal that well with complexity, and confronted with a "bad guy", our cognitive limitations incline us to find a "good guy". The Free Syrian Army can legitimately be seen as an agent of majority Sunni Syrians seeking self-determination against minority Alawi Syrians. But to think of them as "the good guys" is to both ignore the wide diversity within the rebel coalition and some of the more spectacular actions they have taken against the regime.

Bashar al Assad

Syrian rebels have been responsible for attacks causing disproportionate numbers of civilian casualties. They have used children on the front lines of combat. And there's "strong evidence" that they may have been responsible for the use of nerve gas against their enemies.

American interests in this conflict are quite clear. We have a strategic interest in seeing the end of Syria's alliance with Iran. Through our alliance with Israel, we have an indirect interest in seeing the end of Syria's support of Hezbollah. We have a moral interest in seeing the end of the atrocities and human rights abuses perpetrated upon the Syrian people by Assad's government.

These guys make Xi look like a bunch of murderous thugs. Oh. Wait...

It is equally clear what American interests are NOT. We have no interest in adding to the stresses on already over-burdened military personnel. We have no interest in replacing a horrible but explicitly secular government with an Islamic theocracy.

Like we did when we helped drive the Soviets out of Afghanistan.

There is no shortage of parties whose interests in Syria are more urgent than our own. Turkey faces a severe refugee problem as people flee to it from Syria. Most of the policies being urged by advocates of American intervention are well within Turkish capabilities, particularly with NATO helping share the financial and material costs. The Turkish air force can establish a no-fly zone. The Turkish Army can establish safe havens within Syria's borders. And as John McCain knows perfectly well, the US and Turkey are ALREADY supplying aid to the Syrian revolutionaries.

The Arab League has suspended Syria's membership and turned its seat over to the rebels. The organization includes some of the wealthiest nations on Earth. They could end this in 6 months with 50 million dollars and some South African mercenaries. For the most part they have not chosen to act.

Member States of the Arab League

In his phenomenal work Politics Among Nations, Hans Morgenthau discussed the "strategy of prestige" where a great power felt obligated to demonstrate its continued importance within the International System. This explains the reflexive neoconservative need to intervene in every conflict, dispute and argument over a parking place. At the heart of their policy preferences is the unexamined postulate that since the United States is at the apex of the international hierarchy it must be a central participant in every interaction that takes place within that system.

It is precisely this conviction which got us involved in Vietnam, by the way.

If it were only the Neocons urging us to greater involvement in Syria it would be easy to ignore. Iraq has cost them their credibility for a generation. But much more sensible Neorealists are also urging similar policies.

I don't wish to be unfair, but James Rubin has been everywhere the last few weeks urging increased American intervention in Syria.

I don't want to get bogged down here in a bunch of technical International Relations theory, because it fascinates me. On that basis I conclude that it bores everyone else. So without employing the jargon...

Neorealists believe that norms and rules in the International System prevent nation states from doing truly crazy stuff. Like using WMDs, for example. But if a nation-state DOES break the "rule", other states become much more likely to break the "rule" as well.

In other words, if Syria gets away with using chemical weapons, every brutal authoritarian will start using them.

I am a Classical Realist, so I have a soft spot for Neorealists. But I'd think the Iraq debacle would have taught them some humility. 1) They need to be a lot more cautious and skeptical regarding "intelligence", especially about WMDs, and 2) any large scale intervention in the affairs of a sovereign state needs to be done as part of a multi-lateral effort. At the very least the Turks need to formally request the specific actions we will take under Article 5 of the North Atlantic Treaty.

National treasure and Classical Realist Hans Morgenthau

Remember? The way it worked in Libya

Ultimately, the United States need not and certainly should not intervene internationally except in those instances where our interests are unequivocally at stake and where our involvement is as part of a legitimate international coalition.

These conditions have not been met in Syria, and the prospect of more demands being made on our exhausted military and our threadbare international credibility as an honest broker unmistakably tells us something depressing.

A large segment of the foreign policy establishment of this country has learned nothing from the last 12 years.

Wednesday, May 1, 2013

2013 Playoffs, Round 1. Pens v. the Islanders

An important aspect of my hockey fandom is hatred. I absolutely loathe the Philadelphia Flyers. I despise the Washington Capitals. I hate the New York Rangers and the Detroit Red Wings and the New Jersey Devils with "the heat of a thousand suns". And in the playoffs...

You may have noted I didn't link to any of the teams mentioned above. Fuck them, let them generate their own web traffic. Assholes. Oh, the image above is from Wikimedia Commons. And, my dart board.

well, just push the slide rule all the way to the right.

Which makes this years first round opponent, the New York Islanders, a little problematic for me. I don't hate the Isles. They've been too pathetic, for too long to get a good hostility built up. I deeply admire Al Arbour. I absolutely love Bryan Trottier, who joined the Pens for two Stanley Cups. John Tavares is an exciting young player who is an absolute blast to watch. And of course the Isles have something the Pens do not, despite all of our success. The Isles have a dynasty.

We were supposed to have a dynasty. In 1991 and again in 1992 we won the Stanley Cup under the leadership of Mario Lemieux. I think of him as God the Father. Those teams were thick with talent; including my favorite hockey player of all time, Ron Francis (the Holy Spirit) and Jaromir Jagr (God the Son). I had the most meaningful spiritual experience of my life at a Christmas Eve Mass when Jagr and Martin Straka showed up for communion.

After winning 2 Stanley Cups in a row, the Pens set the NHL record for consecutive wins the next season: 17. Scotty Bowman autographed a schedule for me from that season during the streak. The dynasty was a done deal in my mind; a third consecutive championship is a dynasty in the mind of any rational sports fan.

Having amassed the most wins that season, we drew the New York Islanders, who had squeaked into the playoffs as the 8th seed.

And, they beat us in 7 games. Darius Kasparitus and Rich Pilon hacked, and slashed, and held, and cheap-shotted our guys so brilliantly that we completely lost the chemistry and flow that had made us a success. Sure, it was dirty hockey...

and SO WHAT? It was the playoffs! Winning the Stanley Cup is the single most difficult feat in team sports; you have to win 4 "best of 7" game series, in an activity in which you are being slammed into by people traveling MUCH faster than a football player, in pursuit of a frozen rubber puck that can crack 100 mph... ON SKATES. It calls for levels of courage, and determination, and talent, and sheer indefatigable zeal that typically exist only in warfare.

We lost in overtime, after my 2nd favorite hockey player of all time fractured every bone in his face trying to run Rich Pilon. No dynasty.

You know what? Forget everything I said; I DO hate the New York Islanders. I hate their stinking guts. Let's do this.

Penguins Goals per game average: 3.38 (1st in the league)
Islanders Goals against per game average: 2.83 (21st)

Islanders Goals per game: 2.81 (7th)
Pens Goals against per game (12th)

Advantage Pittsburgh

We're going to score on these guys. Neal, Malkin, Iginla, Letang, Kunitz (full disclosure, I wanted to trade Kunitz early in the season) the inimitable Sidney Crosby... this is a preponderance of firepower that rivals the Edmonton dynasty. Make no mistake, the Isles will score on us, too. But we ought to be able to overwhelm them will sheer quantity.

Pens Power Play percentage: 24.7 (2nd)
Isles Penalty Kill percentage: 80.3 (21st)

Isles PP: 19.9% (11th) 
Pittsburgh PK: 79.6% (25th)

Advantage Pittsburgh... BARELY

It is absolutely essential we stay out of the penalty box. This team can hurt us on the power play. I will note that the addition of Brendan Morrow to the team, and his pairing with  Matt Cooke has made us a much better penalty killing team. I will also note that putting Jarome Iginla on the left point  during the power play has the potential to devastate the Isles. I haven't seen a slapshot that hard since Al Iafrate retired.

Pens Marc-Andre Fleury's save percentage: .916 (16th)
Isle's Evgeni Nabakov save percentage: .910 (22nd)

Advantage Pittsburgh... on paper

Fleury is a great goaltender. His stats are better than Nabakov, although Nabakov is playing for a mediocre team, and Fleury is playing for a great team. (This is why I cite save percentage rather than goals against average.) But in the playoffs, Fleury is infamous for giving up the occasional soft goal. Often, he does so on the first shot he faces. This is guaranteed to discourage his team, and encourage the opposition. In a playoff setting, where guts and determination and the weight and diameter of one's testicles are the key determinant of success, this is absolutely deadly.

So, I have a "system" I developed back when I was gambling on hockey. Over the years, it's been about as accurate as flipping a coin. I've stuck with it because damn it, it OUGHT to work. It does work in the regular season, but the playoffs are very, very different. Statistical analysis doesn't help when the most important variable is something as intangible as "guts".


I'm predicting Pittsburgh in 4 games