“Very” vs “Really”

I was painstakingly transcribing a recipe in Korean earlier today, and my sister — who was glancing over my shoulder — noted the word, “아주,” which means “very.”

“I was told that that’s an old person’s word,” she said.

“What do you mean?”

“Young people don’t use that word. They say, ‘진짜.'” (“진짜” roughly translates to “really.”)

It took me a while to wrap my head around the notion of a generational divide for the word, “very,” but I realized that it’s true in English here in the U.S. as well. I almost never say, “I’m very hungry.” Instead, I’ll say:

  • “I’m really hungry.”
  • “I’m starving.”
  • “I’m ravenous.”
  • “I’m so hungry, I could eat a horse.”
  • “Get away from me before I tear your head off and eat it for lunch.”

I wonder how “very” became old-fashioned, both in English and in Korean.

The Mainstreaming of Analytics

John Hollinger, a long-time ESPN.com columnist and inventor of the Player Efficiency Rating (PER) for evaluating basketball players, is joining the Memphis Grizzlies front office as its Vice President of Basketball Operations.

This is wacky on a number of levels. First, it represents the ongoing rise of the numbers geek in sports, a movement pioneered by Bill James almost 40 years ago, given an identity a decade ago in Michael Lewis’s book, Moneyball, and gaining official acceptance in the NBA five years ago, when the Houston Rockets named Daryl Morey its General Manager. Want to run a professional sports team? These days, an MIT degree seems to give you a better chance than spending years in the business.

Second, Hollinger spent over a decade sharing his thinking and his tools for all to see. Now, all his competition needs to do to understand his thinking is to Google him. Tom Ziller writes:

The major difference between Hollinger and, say, Morey is that we all know Hollinger’s theories. We know his positions, and we’ve learned from his work…. Will his canon hurt his ability to make moves? We can lay out exactly which players he likes based on his public formulas and his writings. Other GMs will know which Memphis players he’ll sell low on. You can anticipate his draft choices if you’re picking behind him. If you’ve got a high-production, low-minutes undersized power forward, you know you can goose the price on him because history indicates that Hollinger values him quite seriously.

This is all a gross simplification: Hollinger’s oeuvre is filled with nuance. He doesn’t rank players solely by PER, and in fact he probably has some adjustments to his myriad metrics up his sleeve. He’s not going to be nearly as predictable as a decision-maker as anyone would be as a writer. The stakes are different, the realities of action are different. But no decision-maker in the NBA has had this much of their brain exposed to the world. Morey isn’t shy, but that big Michael Lewis spread on Shane Battier was as far as we ever got into the GM’s gears. Zarren is notoriously careful about what he says. He might be the only GM or assistant GM in the league more secretive than Petrie.

It’s interesting to consider the implications on the Big Data movement in business (on which Moneyball had a much greater influence than most would probably admit). Business is not a zero sum game like professional sports, so there’s more room for nuance and many positive examples of openness and transparency. Still, for all those who believe that openness and competition do not have to be at odds with each other, this will be fascinating to watch.

Ziller also makes a wonderful point about the importance of communicating meaning from analysis:

In the end, what Hollinger’s hire means is that the ability to do the hard analysis is important, but so is translating that to a language the people on the court can understand. That’s always been a wonderful Hollinger strength: making quant analysis accessible without dumbing it down. Even someone as brilliant as Morey, who has a team of quants, can’t always achieve that.

I’m reminded of a tale from Rick Adelman’s days in Houston. Morey’s team would deliver lengthy scouting reports to the team and coaching staff well before a game. It’d have player tendencies, shooting charts, instructions on match-up advantages — everything you could ask for to prep for a game. And out of all of the coaches and all of the players only two — Shane Battier and Chuck Hayes — would devour the reports. The rest (Adelman included) would leaf through, pretend to care and go play ball. That story might be an exaggeration on the part of the person who told it, but even if that’s the case, it shows how important accessibility is. You can build the world’s greatest performance model. And if you can’t explain what it means to the people using it, it’s worthless.

Leadership Lessons from Notre Dame’s Brian Kelly

Notre Dame has a proud football tradition, but for the past two decades, it’s been a tradition of futility. It last won a national championship in 1988, and it hasn’t been in the running for one since Lou Holtz retired. That finally changed this year under coach Brian Kelly, as Notre Dame will be duking it out against Alabama next week for the title.

Kelly had two mediocre years before turning things around this year. ESPN.com had a nice article about what led to the turnaround. One of his problems was that he was not spending enough time communicating with his players, building trust. After a bad loss to USC late last year, he challenged his players, but they did not react well. He took responsibility for that.

“They didn’t know me well enough,” Kelly said. “Not their fault. My fault. You’d want a response to my comments [like], ‘That’s Coach. He has high expectations. He’s demanding this.’ No, it was the other way. ‘Coach doesn’t trust us. He didn’t recruit us.’ That made it clear to me I was not doing a very good job with our players.”

He decided he needed to spend more time with his players, so he made a number of changes this past year to create that time.

Last winter, when he might have been driving to Chicago or Detroit for an alumni meeting, he held Monday meetings with his team. No assistant coaches, no support staff, just a head coach and his players.

“It kind of gave us a chance to get to know him a little better, and for him to get to know us,” offensive tackle Zack Martin said. “[Before the meetings,] I don’t think it was something that I thought, ‘Oh, I wish I had this.’ After he started it, people realized: Oh yeah, it’s nice to get to know your head coach on a more personal level, not just on the football field.”

Kelly no longer works his quarterbacks the way a position coach would. His assistants sing from the hymnal he wrote. It is a slight exaggeration to say that this is the first season in which Kelly didn’t need name tags for the guys on defense.

“He’s there as a more familiar face,” safety Zeke Motta said. “It’s great for the team because you not only have one focus but you have a focus on the entire team itself. That lends itself to a team that plays together and plays for each other.”

Kelly hops from meeting to meeting, drill to drill, watching, listening, reinforcing.

“I could be the guy who wasn’t jumping on them because they didn’t run the route the right way,” Kelly said. “I could be the guy who said, ‘Hey, look, if you step with your outside foot on that. That’s what Coach is trying to tell you.'”

It’s a new way of coaching for Kelly.

Folded Corners

I was recently reminded of a Richard Feynman anecdote I once read in James Gleick’s biography, Genius: The Life and Science of Richard Feynman. I had given the book to my Dad as a gift almost 20 years ago, and — as is tradition for me when I give books to family — I borrowed and read the book immediately.

Yesterday, I borrowed the book from my Dad again to see if I could find the passage. I vaguely knew where the anecdote was, but it was going to require some flipping and scanning, as the book is over 500 pages long with dense type.

To my delight, the corner of the page I was seeking was folded over! It was the only corner folded in the whole book. Apparently, I had been so struck by that very anecdote when I first read the book 20 years ago, and I had folded the corner to hold the place.

I stopped folding corners years ago (reverting instead to Post-Its), and I barely even read paper books anymore, thanks to my Kindle. This discovery was a nice, visceral reminder of the joys of paper artifacts that you can touch and feel and fold.

For those of you curious about the anecdote that has stuck with me all these years, it was about an informal lecture Feynman gave to his peers while he was at Los Alamos working on the Manhattan Project. Here’s the passage, from pages 181-182 of the original hardback edition:

Meanwhile, under the influence of this primal dissection of mathematics, Feynman retreated from pragmatic engineering long enough to put together a public lecture on “Some Interesting Properties of Numbers.” It was a stunning exercise in arithmetic, logic, and — though he would never have used the word — philosophy. He invited his distinguished audience (“all the might minds,” he wrote his mother a few days later) to discard all knowledge of mathematics and begin from first principles — specifically, from a child’s knowledge of counting in units. He defined addition, a + b, as the operation of counting b units from a starting point, a. He defined multiplication (counting b times). He defined exponentiation (multiplying b times). He derived the simple laws of the kind a + b = b + a and (a + b) + c = a + (b + c), laws that were usually assumed unconsciously, though quantum mechanics itself had shown how crucially some mathematical operations did depend on their ordering. Still taking nothing for granted, Feynman showed how pure logic made it necessary to conceive of inverse operations: subtraction, division, and the taking of logarithms. He could always ask a new question that perforce required a new arithmetical invention. Thus he broadened the class of objects represented by his letters a, b, and c and the class of rules by which he was manipulating them. By his original definition, negative numbers meant nothing. Fractions, fractional exponents, imaginary roots of negative numbers — these had no immediate connection to counting, but Feynman continued pulling them from his silvery logical engine. He turned to irrational numbers and complex numbers and complex powers of complex numbers — these came inexorably as soon as one from facing up to the question: What number, i, when multiplied by itself, equals negative one? He reminded his audience how to compute a logarithm from scratch and showed how the numbers converged as he took successive square roots of ten and thus, as an inevitable by-product, derived the “natural base” e, that ubiquitous fundamental constant. He was recapitulating centuries of mathematical history — yet not quite recapitulating, because only a modern shift of perspective made it possible to see the fabric whole. Having conceived of complex powers, he began to compute complex powers. He made a table of his results and showed how they oscillated, swinging from one to zero to negative one and back again in a wave that he drew for his audience, though they knew perfectly well what a sine wave looked like. He had arrived at trigonometric functions. Now he posed one more question, as fundamental as all the others, yet encompassing them all in the round recursive net he had been spinning for a mere hour: To what power must e be raised to reach i? (They already knew the answer, that e and i and π were conjoined as if by an invisible membrane, but as he told his mother, “I went pretty fast & didn’t give them a hell of a lot of time to work out the reason for one fact before I was showing them another still more amazing.”) He now repeated the assertion he had written elatedly in his notebook at the age of fourteen, that the oddly polyglot statement eπi + 1 = 0 was the most remarkable formula in mathematics. Algebra and geometry, their distinct languages notwithstanding, were one and the same, a bit of child’s arithmetic abstracted and generalized by a few minutes of the purest logic. “Well,” he wrote, “all the mighty minds were mightily impressed by my little feats of arithmetic.”

Living Life Like It’s the End

I got into a car accident yesterday. I was driving in the middle lane of a three-lane freeway, and an SUV snuck up to my left and changed into my lane without looking. I swerved to get out of the way, swerved again to try and regain control, spun out, crashed into the median, and watched helplessly as the oncoming traffic headed straight toward me.

Remarkably, neither I nor my friend Pete, who was in the car with me, were hurt. I find it miraculous that I am alive and unharmed. If any number of tiny things had turned out differently, I very well could be dead.

I shared this story this morning with my team at Groupaya, along with a reminder to live in the moment. In response, Kristin Cobble shared some wise words from her friend, Vanda Marlow. Vanda noted that we often go through life as if we are in the middle of our lives, but that we actually may be close to the end. We have no way of knowing.

My accident definitely woke me up to this, but Vanda’s words made me wonder: How would living our lives this way (as if we were near the end rather than the middle) affect our desire to do long-term projects?

For example, my friend, Matthew, was telling me the other day that Square has a 5,000 year vision (about the amount of time that money has existed). If you have a 5,000-year vision, you have no chance of seeing it through (ignoring, for a moment, my nanotechnology friends who believe that we are pretty close to unlocking the secrets of immortality). So why would anyone ever pursue anything like this?

I have two answers to this question. First, there’s the old saw about the journey being more important than the destination. I believe it. The destination can be valuable in shaping your journey, but ultimately, if the journey itself does not bring you alive, it’s probably not worth it.

I remember reading a story about how famed director, Robert Altman, was planning on making a new movie when he died. He was in his 80s and had leukemia. The chances of him finishing that movie were essentially zero, and he died before he even got started. But it didn’t matter to him. He loved making movies, and every step of that journey — whether or not he got to finish — brought him alive.

Second, thinking about impact beyond the length of your life does not render your actions futile. It simply requires that you think differently. You may not be able to live forever (again, nanotechnology not withstanding), but the impact that you have on other people will reverberate long past your own life.

In a strange way, whether or not you are a long-term or short-term thinker, the notion of living your life as if you’re near the end results in the same conclusion: Honor and nurture your relationships. They’re the things that matter most.