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Writing Worth Reading

How To Get Paid To Drop Out Of Races

Conversation with Matt Scherer, professional track pacer — or “rabbit” — whose job is to help other people run fast. He leads a race through the first lap or so at a precise speed, set by the race director, before stepping quietly off the track. “Once I established myself, runners were excited when I showed up because then they felt like they didn’t have to think about the first 500 or 600 meters. I got satisfaction from that” (2,139 words)

How To Win A Tour De France Sprint

It’s teamwork. You need a ‘leadout train’ of several riders. “The team’s designated sprinter is at the back of this train and is sheltered by the efforts of those riding in front to save his energy. With four cyclists riding in a line, a rider positioned four men back only has to produce 64 per cent of the power of the rider at the very front”. The front runners peel off one by one, leaving the sprinter to win (1,100 words)

The Secret Of Minecraft

To know how to play Minecraft, you have to know how to play Minecraft. It isn’t intuitive; there is no in-game tutorial. The knowledge passes between players, and gets codified in third-party books and websites. The purpose of acquiring this arcane knowledge is not to beat the game, but to continue the game, to build new things. Minecraft is telling us something encouraging about our cultural needs (1,300 words)

How To Flawlessly Predict Anything

It’s easy. So long as you are predicting an event with a limited number of outcomes, you predict all possible outcomes and then take credit only for the prediction that comes true. On the internet you can delete the wrong predictions, leave the correct prediction in place with timestamps, and make your claim even more plausible. Which leads to a rule of thumb: “Never trust a prediction revealed after its outcome” (900 words)

Man Versus Machine

Reflections on Germany’s victory over Brazil. Even recollected in tranquility, emotions run high: “It’s at least not crazy to argue that it was the worst defeat in the history of sports. Here’s what Germany did to Brazil. They produced something so staggering that it still feels irreducible. They left the soccer world functionally speechless. They broke metaphor. They stunned hundreds of millions of people” (2,000 words)

The Long Shadow Of Hillsborough

Excerpt from Buford’s classic soccer book, Among The Thugs, recounting the 1989 Hillsborough tragedy in Sheffield where 96 fans were crushed. “I have mentioned that the experience of standing in the terraces is a herd experience, but I had not known, until watching this police video, that the accepted language used to describe the supporters’ arrangements — pen, pit — is borrowed from livestock farming” (3,300 words)

Football Is Unquantifiable

Why does data-based predictive analysis work so well in baseball and so badly in football? Because football has far more external variables, many of them related to environment and emotion. “Baseball players can only perform actions that have a limited range of outcomes, making it not too dissimilar to games like chess. Loving football requires an acceptance of devastation or ecstasy, without warning, with regularity” (1,450 words)

Lionel Messi Is Impossible Pick of the day

Statistical analysis of Messi’s play shows him to be the world’s best soccer player by an almost incredible margin. Only Ronaldo comes close: “When it comes to scoring, these two aren’t just on top of the pile, they’re hang-gliding way above it”. Messi is also “a crazy outlier” when it comes to assists: “No one else (aside from, yes, Ronaldo) even comes close to his combination of goals scored versus goals dished” (4,730 words)

The Ninety-Minute Anxiety Dream

A football-loving philosopher writes: “Soccer is a collective game, a team game, and everyone has to play the part which has been assigned to them, which means they have to understand it spatially, positionally, and intelligently and make it effective. Talk of national tactics, national behaviors, national pathologies is overblown and misplaced. There is one way to play soccer and that is well” (1,680 words)

How To Catch A Chess Cheater

Profile of Ken Regan, computer scientist, chess master, and world champion at detecting cheaters in chess. His algorithms analyse tournament play in real time and flag when a player makes a series of exceptional moves implying covert help from a computer. They also produce an intriguing flow of hard data about human behaviour in general, and cognitive biases in particular, along the way (6,820 words)

The World Cup And Economics 2014

Companion guide to the World Cup; assessments of teams and countries; with a statistical prediction for the 2014 tournament using stochastic modelling, regression analysis, Monte Carlo simulation, but no human judgement. “The most striking aspect of our model is how heavily it favours Brazil to win, with Argentina and Germany much lower down. Our probability for an overall Brazil win is almost 50%” (PDF)

Throw FIFA Out Of The Game

Abolish FIFA. Replace it with two bodies: One to promote soccer, the other to keep the game and the industry clean. Having one body in charge of everything is a recipe for corruption and megalomania. The scandals in Brazil and Qatar expose FIFA as “a battering ram for world leaders who want to use the majesty of the World Cup to push through their development agendas at great human cost” (1,050 words)

Working-Class Ballet Pick of the day

A philosopher’s tribute to soccer. “Football is an experience of enchantment. For an hour and a half a different order of time unfolds, a temporal rupture with the routine of the everyday. At its best, football is about shifts in the intensity of experience. At times, it’s like Spinoza on maximizing intensities of existence. At other times, it’s more like Beckett’s Godot, where nothing happens twice” (3,850 words)

Who Wants To Shoot An Elephant? Pick of the day

If we did trigger warnings there wouldn’t be room for anything else here. This is a vivid piece of writing about elephants and the people who kill them. If the notion of trying to understand the latter boggles your mind, it boggles the mind of the narrator too; who manages nonetheless to present an enthralling, horrifying, maddening portrait of the hunt (such as it is, the elephants are basically helpless) and the kill (8,000 words)

Chess Tournament Games And Elo Ratings

Exercises in data visualisation using results from 675,000 chess tournament games dating back to the 15th century. Elo ratings reliably predict which player will win: “I’d imagine the only reason this trend levels out at ~90% is because this data set contains games where a talented new player hasn’t quite reached their proper Elo rating yet”. Playing white confers a strong advantage to an expert, less so to a rookie (1,110 words)

Bullfighting, Sport, And Industry (1930)

On the economics of Spanish bullfighting. “It is not the bullfighters in general who make the money but rather the twenty or so who are in the first flight of their profession”. Spain’s top matador, Marcia Lalanda, earned $172,000 last season, tax-free. By comparison, Spain’s leading bull breeder reported a profit of $33,000; the Pamplona bullring $29,000. A picador working for Lalanda earned $92 per fight (h/t longform.org) (6,330 words)

The Secret World Of Pro Wrestling

How professional wrestling stopped pretending to be a combat sport and reinvented itself, much more profitably, as a branch of reality television. Wrestlers and promoters used to observe a code of silence called kayfabe, which barred them from ever acknowledging that bouts were scripted. If you broke kayfabe you were out of the business. The code crumbled in the 1990s thanks to the internet and a federal trial (1,280 words)

The Rise Of Nintendo: A Story In 8 Bits

Enthralling. How a 19C Kyoto playing-card maker morphed into a gaming giant. The founder’s grandson, Hiroshi Yamauchi, saw the potential of videogames in the 1970s, and deputed his son-in-law to break into the American market. “By 1990, Nintendo of America had sold nearly thirty million consoles, in one out of every three homes. Videogames were a $5 billion industry, and Nintendo owned at least 90% of that” (5,000 words)

Thoroughbreds Are Running As Fast As They Can

Human runners continue to set new records for speed. But racehorses appear to have hit their limit: the Kentucky Derby has been won in roughly two minutes and two seconds every year since 1949. Secretariat’s 1973 record may stand for all time. Why? Perhaps because American racehorses are bred from such a small and static gene pool; 95% of them descend from a single 18C horse. A case for genetic engineering? (900 words)

The Kentucky Derby Is Decadent And Depraved Pick of the day

The mighty Grantland introduces, annotates and reprints Hunter S. Thompson’s report for Scanlan’s Weekly from the 1970 Kentucky Derby — first classic of gonzo journalism and the start of Thompson’s collaboration with artist Ralph Steadman. “I warned Steadman about some of the other problems we’d have to cope with. Neither of us had brought any strange illegal drugs, so we would have to get by on booze” (9,000 words)

Vegas, March 2014

Notes from a three-day gambling trip. Nice rhythm to the writing, and the language of poker has a music all its own: “The turn was the 8 of clubs, completing the flush. I was hoping that the Spaniard was on a flush draw. I checked again, the Bulgarian bet $65, and the Spaniard tanked before mucking. Now I smooth-called again. The river was an offsuit 6, and I decided to jam for my remaining $160 or so” (1,770 words)

The Istanbul Derby

Epic portrait of Istanbul’s annual soccer derby between Galatasaray and Fenerbahçe, old and bitter rivals who first met in 1909 under Ottoman rule when “none of the Turkish players had their own surnames.” To see a Muslim city heaving with drunken Iranian tourists and even drunker Turkish soccer fans “is all very life-affirming, and a reminder that Islam is nowhere near as monolithic as you might think it is” (7,200 words)

Running

Rude and funny. Notes on taking up running, concluding with a brutal fisking of the advice offered to women by Runners’ World website. “In the changing rooms I discovered two things: 1) that most sports clothing manufacturers hate women and 2) that female runners know of a secret supplier, who fashions magic leggings that hold in your stomach, lift up your arse and make the outline of your knickers disappear” (1,600 words)

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