NBA All Stars are retiring older

With Vince Carter’s NBA career seemingly now over at 42 years young, I started to wonder whether NBA players are playing longer. There’ve been a fair few long-toothed retirees recently – Kobe Bryant was 37 and Dirk Nowitzki was 40 in their final seasons, for instance.

A couple more come to mind from earlier decades – Bob Cousy retiring (for a second time) at 41 in 1970 or Kareem Abdul-Jabbar at 41 in 1989. A quick scrape of suggests these legendary players are, in fact, outliers. But even so, All Stars, at least, have been retiring older.

Here’s a chart of all 503 All Stars listed on basketball reference. Their age in their final season against the season:

There’s limitation here. I didn’t feel like getting IP blocked for scraping every NBA player ever, so I decided to focus on a small subset – NBA All Stars. This is problematic for a number of reasons, noteably that All Stars are (probably?) more skilled and athletic than the average player, therefore more likely to play longer even if they do drop off. They probably also have longer, guaranteed contracts – meaning they stick around a few extra years regardless.

But as you can see from the following chart, the mean age of an All Star in their final season has increased in the past ~70 years.

So, the next obvious question is what’s going on? Some part of this is that athletes and the league are richer – NBA players aren’t likely to be working other jobs or have better offers elsewhere. Also medicine has advanced greatly and so some of what used to be career ending or degrading just isn’t anymore.

I wondered whether it might also be about better “load management”. That stars just play fewer, more strategic minutes per game nowadays, meaning they have fewer injuries and put less of a toll on their bodies. But a quick scrape suggests that isn’t So. Career minutes per game seems about the same for guys retiring recently as it did six decades ago.

If anything it seems that All Stars are playing far more. There’re definitely playing more total games. Some of this is due to more games in seasons and playoffs as the league has expanded. Private charters have also become a thing etc.

But better gear, medicine and sports science must come into it somewhere. Players and teams have access to so many more resources than they ever did, such as conditioning coaches, dieticians, chefs, masseuses and other therapists. This reminds me of a brilliant article from a few years ago, delving into all that Lebron James and his team go through to help him recover between games. The techniques are full on and constantly evolving.

But while they show their careers are lengthening, none of this really captures the impact over a career, which players and positions survive longest, and how a big a drop off there is. Maybe that’s what I’ll stick my nose in next.

Why I’m uneasy about Facebook as arbiter of acceptable

Moderating on Facebook sounds like a nightmare. Casey Newton had an explosive story last year of panic attacks and high turnover. But the problem isn’t just for the moderators themselves, but in aggregate. As a philosophical problem.

Moderation sets the bounds on reality and acceptableness for billions of people. Across cultures and contexts. Across time. Will a private organisation ever be equipped for this? Could anything, really?

I was thinking about this as I finished up Steven Levy’s new book on Facebook. It’s a sweeping account of Facebook’s rise and recent bout with internal territorialism. But there were really interesting digressions on moderating content at scale.

Levy describes intense debates over what is and isn’t kosher. I use the word deliberately as the image of ever expanding notes and commentary strikes as a quasi religious one. A guide that is first quite narrow and absolute but must be argued over, reinterpreted and contextualised to new situations. Interpreted. At scale.

The rules can venture into confounding, Jesuitical flights of logic. Some things are fairly straightforward. There are attempts to define levels of offensiveness in subjects like exposure to human viscera. Some exposure is okay. Other varieties require an “interstitial,” a warning on the screen like the one before a television show that might show a glimpse of buttocks. Outright gore is banned. It takes a judgment call to fit a given bloodbath into the right box. “If you rewind to Facebook’s early, early days, I don’t think many people would have realized that we’d have entire teams debating the nuances of how we define what is nudity, or what exactly is graphic violence,” says Guy Rosen of the Integrity team… Facebook has created a vast number of non-public supplementary documents that drill on specific examples. These are the Talmudic commentaries shedding light on Facebook’s Torah, the official Community Standards. A New York Times reporter said he had collected 1,400 pages of these interpretations

As an abstract problem, sure, Facebook needs to crackdown on abuse and misinformation etc. etc. But in practice they are dealing with oceans of grey.

And there is no average set of values. Give my grandma and me the same stack of posts and we’d whittle them down to different subsets.

This is why the word interpret is important. Not just of the rules but the posts themselves. And layered on top of all this is that it apparently takes place at such speed as to make the nuances moot.

Facebook expects moderators to make about 400 “jumps” a day, which means an “average handle time” of around 40 seconds for them to determine whether a questionable video or post must remain, be taken down, or in rare cases, escalated to a manager, who might send the most baffling decision to the policy-crats at Menlo Park. Facebook says that there is no set time limit on each decision, but reporting by journalists and several academics who have done deep dives on the process all indicate that pondering existential questions on each piece of content would put one’s low-paying moderation career at risk.

The scale and speed, maybe more than anything else, is what concerns me. At least for now it doesn’t seem like a technological solution is in the offing. The incentive of those tasked with interpreting marginal content is to be restrictive. Better over than underdo it. And recourse is opaque and minimal.

Even given good will among everyone involved, top to bottom, this isn’t a great recipe. This isn’t how we should be determining reality for billions of people.

Hide and seek during a lockdown

Foot traffic has fallen dramatically because of the coronavirus. Obvious things have stopped, like air travel and professional sports. But what about less high profile activities? One’s that aren’t explicitly banned and could even count as exercise.

Geocaching is kind of like a global game of hide and seek. Someone hides a container somewhere, publishes coordinates or clues and others try to find it. When you find a geocache you “log” it through an app or a website, maybe with tips and photos.

Geocaching should be the perfect social distancing activity. They’re usually off the beaten track. It can be done solo or just with your household. Geocache logs are also a pretty clean indicator of non-essential movement – nobody has to go geocaching or logs for work.

I’ve hidden a few geocaches. One under a bridge on the Gold Coast in Australia and another in a Sri Lankan park. Even now I get occasional alerts that they’ve been found. But I scraped the logs of 300 geocaches around the Gold Coast and there has been a 50% drop in geocaches found from March to April. April is down 45% from the previous year.

I wanted to make sure this isn’t an anomaly, or that there isn’t some state bias here. So I also scraped 300 geocaches from Adelaide, Sydney and Melbourne. The numbers in Adelaide aren’t as dramatic but the effect still appears. There were 38% fewer finds in April than April last year.

The effect is even clearer in Sydney and Melbourne. Finds in April are about a quarter of the previous month. There were only a couple hundred finds in April, down from almost 1500 last year.

My dataset goes back almost a decade. April normally is a solid month, with a couple of public holidays and the weather starting to turn. There’s also a general upward trend over the decade, probably due to an accumulating number of geocaches but maybe also smartphone uptake. Apart from those succeeding a massive outlier, this kind of drop off seems anomalous.

This is a pretty clear sign of how hunkered down everyone is. It hasn’t fallen off completely because some people probably use it as exercise – I often plan my walks around where geocaches are present. But the marginal users have completely fallen away.