Can’t be Contained

taking your network up a notch

So the other day I was thinking about CAT 6 vs 6E plenum vs non-plenum networking cable and…

Just kidding. This post isn’t about that. And honestly I almost never think about networking cable (not because it’s not important, but rather because there are many out there that know it better than I do and I rely on them for their expertise).

A while ago, there was a product called inmaps. I think it started as an independent tool, then was acquired and then shutdown by LinkedIn. Inmaps was just great because it visualized your entire network. It literally drew a visual representation of all your connections, how they clumped, how certain long distance connections could be used to “shrink” the world, etc. It even color coded things in a logical way. I could have red be my old Stanford classmates, blue my co-workers from Santa Clara, and green various vendors with whom I’ve connected over time.

When LinkedIn shut this service down, it was sad news. With as many connections as just about any of us have, getting a different view of things can be very powerful. Being able to see that many linkages all at once can really say a lot about not only what connections we’ve made but the choices we’ve made in creating those relationships. I realized, for instance, that I had been too willing with vendors. Yes, they are useful connections, especially if they move to another company. But it’s a double-edge sword – as I’m able to leverage existing relationships with them at new companies, they are also able to connect them me from new businesses that I’m not even interested in. My mistake. And I could really see it when visualized.

There are some replacements coming out – the best so far is from sociallab.com though I’m not a huge fan of it’s actual visualization clumping method, and it is limited to 499 contacts. For those of us that went a bit contact-crazy for a while, that’s not enough. It generally clumps connections in a logical way, but not nearly as cleanly as inmaps did. I’ve heard linkurios is pretty good, too, but you have to install python and whatnot to get it working. More of a DIY deal.

While visualization is a great way to get further insight into your network, there are lots of other ways to leverage your connections. The easiest is to just take your closest connections and go to the next level, where you are interacting outside of purely professional settings. Usually we see each other at conferences, or send the occasional email when we have a question on something someone else is working on. “How are you doing video conferencing?” or “what help desk software are you using?” Stuff like that. But, while we all want to maintain a professional demeanor as often as possible, the fact is that we do grow close to some of our contacts, and we can in fact be informal and even – gasp – friends in the long run.

And when you can become friends, with a foundation of professional context, things get really powerful.

There are some of us that know each other from the SIGUCCS annual conference that have, over time, grown closer and closer in a personal and social way. When we talk, we still sometimes talk about professional matters. I recently grabbed a white paper from one about ITSM-based ticketing systems from a member of this group. But largely we interact in purely social ways. Joking about things at work or, on the other end of the spectrum, griping and venting about frustrations. The bulk of our conversations are in the middle, though – seeking advice from each other about how to handle things. There are many times when I’ve taken suggestions from this group and directly applied them to my work. It’s truly a group of peers, and we’ve fallen into a culture of sharing as such quite quickly.

Similar connections can be built from something as simple as a regular lunch group (though taking that up a notch, too, can be even more powerful than the straightforward decision to eat together) or getting together outside of work occasionally. It builds, at the least, a set of confidantes that can be valuable sounding boards or even peer mentors.

Of course, you can throw in formal mentors-mentee relationships that have grown out of professional connections (I am very thankful for the ones I’ve built over of time, as those people have made such a difference for me) as one of the undeniably most powerful “enhancements” to one’s standard network.

My point is that we can all take our networks above and beyond a set of connections with others. Whether through visualizing something as potentially-superficial as LinkedIn connection to building friendships to formal mentoring relationships, we can enrich our experiences so strongly through just a bit more commitment to such efforts. Just asking – “hey, can we get lunch together, I really value your opinion on a topic?” or something a bit more brave such as “will you be a mentor to me as I move forward in my career and face new challenges?” can lead to a exponential benefit to your overall existence.

I encourage you to take the next step, build your own tribe of friends from professional contacts, and transform your network into something else.

if you don’t put up a new building, you might as well give up

The title of this post is purposely provocative.  Over and over again, we are seeing examples here at the Leading Change Institute of these innovative, collaborative and creative spaces that are parts of new or heavily renovated buildings.  Redo all classrooms, put in tools for untethered teaching, and now you’re an examplar of innovation.   Tear out all the traditional materials in one space and convert it into an innovation space and you are cutting edge.

The depressing part of these examples is obvious – if one cannot do such extensive renovations or new builds, are we destined to fall behind?  Should we just give up?

Of course I am aware that it’s very possible to be very innovative while utilizing existing spaces, or perhaps with only minor changes.  We can put in untethered teaching tools while doing a “standard” technology refresh for a classroom.  We don’t need entirely new buildings.  A conference room with new monitors, screens, and white boards is suddenly a dynamic collaboration space.

But the examples, time and again, are of new buildings, and it is depressing at times.  Let’s start focusing on existing spaces that have been converted, without massive related changes.  If you have to completely alter one practice in order to free up space – that doesn’t count.  Can you take a location, building, lounge, etc. and modify it in perhaps several small ways and provide dramatically improved teaching/learning/social interaction aspects?  Let’s hear about those.  Let’s see photos of those spaces.

 

brain space

Something else I’m learning from the Leading Change Institute from CLIR/EDUCAUSE?  That a lot of people keep track of a lot of trends, articles, and ideas, all the time.

“Have you read that article from X?”

“I was thinking about the writings of Y and how they apply to what you are saying”

“Well, if you consider the ideas put forth by Z then you can really understand your point better about topic ‘something I don’t even understand yet'”

All of this makes me wonder if I just need to spend more time reading things, need to spend less time worrying about the “weeds” and day-to-day (those first two go hand-in-hand of course) or, perhaps, if I just don’t have the brainspace for all of this.  I have not even heard of the things people are referencing, much less unaware of the specific article being cited.

This is humbling more than anything else.  And instructive. To be an effective leader and one recognized as being knowledgeable, I do need to read more.  I need to track trends but, more importantly, I need to keep track of who is saying what.  If I know what one author has been saying about a topic, then I can more effectively track other ideas coming out of that field.  I’ve always been a pretty prolific reader, but I need to take it up a notch in sophistication.

Here’s to all those other attendees with me in this room with their incredible pool of knowledge.  I am truly impressed.

the great pretender (syndrome)

This is one of those posts where I”m choosing to be really honest about myself.  The good thing about that is that I’m taking the time to look at myself, consider who I am, where I am, and where I still need to go.  My shortcomings as well as my strengths.  And that’s, generally speaking, a good thing to do.  The bad part is that I could reveal something about myself in a very public forum that allows readers to focus on only the weaknesses and miss the strengths.

I think it’s more important to be honest, sometimes, even in an open space, than not.  So here I am.

Right now, I am at the EDUCAUSE/CLIR Leading Change Institute, their top leadership workshop program.  There is a part of me that feels out of place.  Perhaps even a pretender at times.  I am around campus leaders at universities that are orders of magnitude larger than my institution, both in student population and level of IT complexity and sophistication. We might be facing the same challenges, conceptually, but the basic fact is that the specific topics they are working on are far beyond what I’m doing, at the least in terms of scale and sometimes for bigger reasons than that.  For instance, we have an ERP, and so do other schools.  We have to deal with the data integrity issues that accompany such a system just as other schools.  But our ERP is small enough that we literally moved it from one location to another by picking up a single box and carrying it from one building to another, whereas other schools have dozens of servers and incredibly complex network environments that would make such a concept a herculean operation.  In this case, I enjoy freedom from the smaller size of Menlo College, but I also find it hard to relate to such a dramatically different environment.

In the “scarier” case, the other institutions are dealing with challenges that aren’t even on my radar.  Items that are just beyond the scope, entirely, of what we need.  I don’t spend any mental cycles on these topics at all, yet they are important to the overall field of higher education IT.

I have spoken with a few other CIOs about “imposter symdrome.”  This isn’t a new idea – someone gets a job and feels he or she doesn’t below there.  They feel they are not qualified, the others are way more qualified, etc.  Since I got to Menlo College, I have felt this at times.  However, I feel it more when I am away, working with those from other institutions.

It’s not that I think Menlo College is an easy place where just anyone with a brain can be CIO.  It is a challenging place for a leader and manager, and the kind of strategic planning required takes skill and focus.  My job is not easy by any means.  But I feel I have earned a spot at the table.  I definitely don’t feel I am over-qualified to be at the leadership table, mind you.  Just that I am comfortable being there, at Menlo, where I have established my credentials (I think and hope).  I certainly still feel quite in awe of the others at that table more often than note, and sweaty palms prior to speaking up are still common.

Here at the Institute, “big data” came up over casual dinner.  Now, I’m well-versed enough to know what big data is and the hundreds of ways different schools approach interpreting and managing it.  The challenge of big data is how to analyze it effectively.  Beyond this basic understanding, though, I felt lost.  We don’t have big data problems at Menlo.  Take our ERP example.  Our entire enterprise database fits on a single server.  The stories from others at the table were  astounding, in terms of scale, and sophisticated.

To my left were two people talking about not only data warehouses and technologies such as Hadoop, but how to effectively utilize data warehouses beyond the basic notions.  They were past the fundamentals, and onto how to be more efficient, more effective, etc.  Business process that leads to business intelligence.  They were on step 2 (or, depending on your institution, step 10 or 100).  Others at the workshop speak of managing departments of dozens of staff.  An introduction from another attendee spoke of the initiative to design a new integrated IT/Library/”knowledge center” of the 21st century where the budget had been slashed to “only” $1.2M.

My entire budget is $1.5M and our entire department is 7.5 FTE.  Including myself.

I have to admit, I felt like a pretender and a bit of a crisis of confidence arose.  I almost forgot what Hadoop was for a minute, and then, in a terrified state of ignorance, couldn’t think of other alternatives at all.  And I have never been involved in a business intelligence project beyond the superficial, despite my professional goal to bring greater awareness of operations to Menlo.  My version of business process improvement is to get people to use our ERP tools more often.  Yes, I still think that the breadth of what I work on justifies my title, but I was reminded of how small my world is compared to others.

This morning, while ruminating on this sensation during my walk to breakfast, I tried to think of analogies that would help me wrap my mind around this sensation of not belong.  I first came upon the idea that while I’m not ready for the majors just yet, in my most optimistic mood I was at least a top prospect in the minor leagues.  The organization (EDUCAUSE) thought I was worth some investment, and I was hitting well with a good OPS+.  I’d be called up in a year or two.  I felt this was a good analogy, and felt a surge of confidence about my future.

That is, until I realized that the minor leagues are no substitute for the majors.  Thousands of top-flight prospects in the minors never make it to the big show.  Hundreds make it and are complete failures.  How many actually succeed, truly?  And while such failures are hard to diagnose, sometimes it’s something very simple.  The competition even at the highest levels of the minors just isn’t the same as at the major league level.  The fastballs are faster and the curveballs break better.

This realization didn’t do much for my confidence, and I continue to struggle to find a good mental balance.  After a few hours into the first session, I felt much more at ease and of course realized that I have a lot to offer to the overall group.  And my ambitions for my career remain the same, and my drive undeterred.

I am truly honored to be in a workshop along side these other attendees, because I could tell just over dinner that they truly are campus leaders today, deserving of inclusion at such a program that will only improve their abilities down the road.  I am flattered that EDUCAUSE thinks I belong among them.  I know that what I do on a daily basis is in the realm of a CIO and not, say, a director.  But I was reminded last night that scale does matter and, while perhaps the “minor leagues” is not a good analogy, there is something to that idea that is perhaps more applicable than not.  And it is eye-opening in a good.

finding your inner avatar

I’ve probably given dozens of talks to students about the importance of being aware of one’s online presence.  The importance of having a professional picture on LinkedIn rather than using the one taken at a party with friends holding red Solo cups on Facebook.  Or even just cropping the party photo.  And I’m not even a career counselor.

Most of these chats have been pretty rudimentary.  Maybe just a couple of topics beyond the photo one and letting students know that many companies will do research into their social media activities in one manner or another.  My thoughts on this, therefore, have evolved towards what I like to think of as a higher awareness of one’s online presence.  More than just how one represents one self superficially, through pictures and the types of facebook wall posts or Instagram photos.  But at a deeper level.  At a point where what one posts online in all manners is part of a cohesive persona that is purposely chosen as a representation of your identity.

We use avatars all the time, but the most common instance is in video game play.  In those cases, a great deal of effort is often put into the avatar’s appearance, from clothing to armor to weaponry.  More than that, though, there is a conscious choice about the type of “person” that avatar will be.  The personality reinforced by actual behavior.  A wizard tends to be seen as sagacious, and I know many players who “speak” as their avatar in language tending towards the more knowledgeable and learned.  I know others that have chosen to be represented as warriors, and speak aggressively and sometimes even belligerently.  Certainly oftentimes these avatars are somewhat similar to the actual person – one that it perhaps a bit more fight-oriented chooses to be a soldier.  But sometimes the connection isn’t so obvious, and, again, some kind of decision has been made to not only look the part, but act and speak it, too.

Similarly, we should paying attention to not only how we look (better than that facebook party picture, hopefully) but also how we represent ourselves online.  Do you blog?  If so, what do you write about?  It could be about the intricacies of leadership and communication, which perhaps shows that I am one is a bit nerdy or bookish or about cooking, which demonstrates a life outside of work.  Something enjoyed on a different level.  Do you tweet?  About what?  Is the train late?  Or is there an interesting article about new trends in higher education?  What else do you use?  Might you actually use a facebook page as a discussion point above and beyond the purely social?

More importantly, have you made a conscious decision to do some combination of these activities?  If so, have you developed a kind of online personality through such an amalgamation?  Is it one that you like or intended to create?

pause

I’ve started and stopped several posts over the past few weeks.  Stuff about my job, my career goals, technology in higher ed.  The type of stuff that’s become the focus of this blog as it has migrated towards one about my professional rather than personal life.

The reason why I kept stopping, though, is for a very personal matter.

On Saturday November 10, my father fell while walking down a set of stairs by his apartment in Brooklyn.  On the morning of the 11th, I found out the injury was worse than expected.  He had lost all sensation below his neck, leaving him essentially a quadriplegic.  That afternoon, I was on a plane headed to New York.  On Tuesday November 13th my father, having made his decision while completely lucid and with all his wits about him, started on morphine to control the pain he would be experiencing over the next few days.  He had opted not to have surgery that possibly – but not likely – would have recovered the use of his arms.  He would never have walked again in any case.

On Monday the 19th, a day after I had flown home and a few days before Thanksgiving, my father passed away.

Before I left, when there was a chance I’d still be in New York when he passed and possibly there for the funeral, my sister asked if I’d be willing to give a eulogy.  I was torn.  This would be for a man from whom I’d become estranged for probably the last 15 years.  A man who spent much of his life feeling frustrated about how everything had held him back, had prevented him from being a success.  Someone who spent the last decade of his life finally accepting that he had in fact been the main culprit in these failed dreams and aspirations, and that he had in many ways let down everyone around him.  Someone who had left my mother, sister and myself to find our own ways.

I have spent the last 15 or so years – since leaving home for college – trying to become a man using my father not as a role model but as a counter-example.  I did not explicitly try to be the opposite of him, but he was a cautionary tale in almost every decision I made.

Yet, on that night a couple of weeks ago when my sister and I asked my father if he was in pain and wanted to start the morphine, when he asked me if he was brave or a coward for choosing not to have the surgery and live a life that he did not want, in a wheelchair and fighting through painful physical therapy, I cried.  I sobbed.  I felt that rare type of emotion that simultaneously overwhelms yet does not cloud one’s thoughts.  The sadness and sense of loss was one that came from somewhere deep in my core, a place that was beneath the logical, conscious level from which “normal” emotions exist. It is with the residual of such a visceral emotional experience that I offer the following.

Robert “Bob” Chen was not a perfect father, but he was my father.  He yelled, he was short-tempered, and he sometimes saw us as holding him back and preventing him from achieving his dreams.  Depending on his mood, he either felt it was his destiny or his curse to be successful, as the oldest child in his family.  In either case, it was always external forces – such as his family – that thwarted his efforts.  But he was also a man that did eventually change.  He spoke repeatedly over the last decade that it was us – his son and daughter – that were the true successes in his life.  That if there was even the tiniest bit of our achievements as adults, professionals and now parents that could be attributed to him, he would be happy and content.  We were not perfect children nor did we make a perfect family, but we were his children, and his family, and in the end he thought of us with pride and took every opportunity to say as much.

Even when he was in the throes of placing blame on others, he did not entirely forget his family.  When he ran an office supply company, he named his products after us.  It is perhaps telling and was indeed prescient that his lack of attention to detail caused him to stumble even in this effort.  When he used my name as part of the brand of a line of paper products, he spelled my name incorrectly.  I could easily look back and think of him as hapless and that it was merely a portent of years of frustration to come.

I prefer to remember that he thought of me as his “Prince Allen.”

My father was not a perfect man, but he was an honest man.  Sometimes to a fault, to an almost child-like degree of naivete.  When he asked to borrow money for some venture, he truly did feel it would be a success.  If only you would invest in his dreams, you’d be paid back many times over.  Each time he embarked on a new project he honestly felt that he would succeed, that this would be the one.  Whether he was trying to climb the corporate ladder at the United Nations or striking off on his own, he was on his way to success.  How can you not find a degree of merit in such optimism?  How can you not find some value in that innocent faith in one’s ability to succeed?  How can I not hope that I will have that confidence when I am faced with a challenge?  How can I not hope to be like him in this way?

My father would say things that seemed confrontational and perhaps even hurtful at times.  What is the point of doing this or that?  Why would you study history, or anthropology, when there is no profitable future in those fields?  Why did you not visit more often or even talk to me online?

Yet I came to realize that these not judgments.  My father lived in some kind of meta-space where he could truly, honestly feel that there was no point in studying something other than business yet also accept that we had our own reasons for choosing our own paths.  That while he was deeply disappointed that I did not write him as much as he wished, he did not fault me or even question the reasons – really excuses – that I gave.  It’s not that he chose not to judge.  He simply did not.  His questions were questions, and his faith in the honesty of others in response to his own rarely faltered.

My father did not really know how to maintain a friendship, but he was perhaps the friendliest person I have ever known.  Even to his last days, when he was not in pain, when the morphine was not too strong and he could be clear of mind, he was smiling, talking, and reminiscing.  I spent many years wishing to be anything but my father.  Yet when relatives commented that I inherited his personality and good humor, I found myself filled with pride.  I found myself hoping that I could make the most of such a gift.

Robert Chen was my father.  No matter what I think of, remember, or even perhaps dwell upon from the last 34 years, I have and will always know that he was my father.  Someone that helped raise me and shape who I am today.  Whether the lessons I learned were pleasant or not, whether I was blamed or praised, whether he is the rule or the exception, I cannot be separated from him, nor he from me.  And I will treasure this for the rest of my life.

learn to project, but don’t expect to defy physics

A colleague passed along some interesting tips for doing good presentations.  These were originally written by Cory Doctorow.  No 10 states:

“Visualize your voice. Imagine your voice is a laser and try to project it strongly to the opposite wall”

I try to do this and I think I am pretty good at projecting my voice and filling a room.  However, some evaluations I got from a recent presentation remind me that while I can project all I want, I’m not going to defy physics.

Sound diminishes by the increase in distance squared.  That is, if someone is 2 feet away, the volume of my voice reaching them is 4 times (2^2) lower than someone 1 foot away.  You figure that some presentation rooms are 20, 30, even 40′ deep at a small conference, and one’s voice can get awfully quiet to those in the back of the room.

The specific comment was about how there was a fan in the room creating constant noise (and the fan was part of an HVAC system far, far larger than my own, lung-based air-exchange system) drowned out my voice.  How there was a preference that I use the microphone available (and even pass that mic around to others).

I had felt I did a pretty good job projecting and I could hear most others quite well.

This is a short post.  It’s just a remark on my own “revelation” that no matter how much I try to hit that back wall with my voice, how booming I think I am, and how clear I think my voice is that particular day (because sometimes we are a bit hoarse, after all), I cannot defy physics.

So I need to get over it and use the mic…

the (legal) future of collaborative documents

Fascinating post about the US v. Lawson case over at the blog run by Eric Goldman (a professor here at SCU Law).  It’s actually a guest post by Venkat Balasubramani.

I’m not a lawyer, do not have a JD, and am generally often only about 95% informed on things which makes me very dangerous and likely to make myself look foolish.  To make things worse, the blog belongs to a professor at the law school where I work.  I don’t know the guest author, but this is still a pretty dicey situation.  But I’m going through with this post anyway.

Basically, the ruling in US v. Lawson, which was essentially about cockfighting (or “gamefowl derbies”) but involved issues of “sponsorship” of the events, was overturned because a juror printed up the definition of the word “sponsor” off of Wikipedia and brought it into deliberations.  That, unto itself, apparently would not necessarily warrant overturning the decision – the original court ruled that it did not prejudice the jury.  The Fourth Circuit, on appeal, ruled that it did prejudice the jury, however, and issued an opinion (but not a decision on the appeal?  this is where my understanding of the various rulings a court can have gets really muddy) on the matter.  The opinion is fundamentally arguing that the inherent effect of bringing an outside source into the jury deliberation room.  It also, however, makes a lot of comments about wikipedia specifically, and suggests certain things about other collaborative editing situations.

One way the court discusses the possible validity of the document brought into the jury room is whether the definition procured from Wikipedia was the legally correct one.  But since Wikipedia is always changing, someone would need to prove that the definition on wikipedia the day that the juror printed it out was accurate, not just the one that is on the site “today.”  The government didn’t bother to do that, which is weird but that isn’t want struck me.

What really intrigues and disturbs me is this quote from the ruling:

the court notes that even if historical edits were presented by the government, it could not consider these, absent some indication that Wikipedia archives of historical changes are “accurate and trustworthy.

So…while I think it’s awfully strange that the government didn’t even try to retrace the versions of the wikipedia page, the court would need an “indication” that the archives would even be accurate.  The court wouldn’t even consider the evidence presented unless it could be “proven” that Wikipedia archives were accurate.

What would be sufficient indication?  What would be enough to make one court feel that the archives of Wikipedia (or…revision history in Google Docs?  on Dropbox?) are accurate and reliable?  Wikipedia is based on the MediaWiki platform but what about other ones (like…Wordpress, which is the one that powers this blog?)  Would that “indication” for the Fourth Circuit be enough for the next court if there is an appeal?  What about a court in one state vs. the next?

Considering how many different collaborative editing tools we use these days, this is, to me, a frightening question.  Almost all of these tools – whether a productivity tool like Google Docs or a file storage/sharing system like Dropbox or Box – have some kind of version history system.  If for some reason a document that has been edited collaboratively becomes important in a legal case, what if the court decides that Box’s version history system is not sufficiently accurate?  That it is possible to somehow “break into” the history and alter it, such that it is no longer a reliable part of an e-discovery effort?  Or what if one person collaborating on the document – a “low-level” team member – went through the revision history and restored the document to some earlier point?  Then there is more editing.  If you go from version 1 to version 3, then back to version 2, then edit to version 4…I have no idea.

Do we now have to start vetting archiving and versioning systems to meet exposure, e-discover and other legal needs in addition to just general security of information?  And should we just be paranoid in general?

black Friday and beyond

My weekend (and the future):

  • Wednesday: good news:  got to leave work early with permission from Dean.  bad news:  still got dragged into work-related brouhaha a few hours late.  Almost made me miss The Muppets.  Which was so awesome, it would have been a TRAGEDY.
  • Thanksgiving Thursday: Ate a lot of food.
  • Black Friday:  Did almost nothing to help major retailers start to make a profit for the year.*
  • Small Business Saturday: Did just a tiny bit to help small businesses with their cash flows.  Still scared of overall crowds.
  • Sunday:  Did battle with yard.  Yard won.
  • Cyber Monday:  Contacted Cybertron, informed Autobots and Decepticons that it was time to start buying online (hey, we all need to look out for Gold Box Deals on Amazon)
  • Techie Tuesday: – Called all engineering friends and told them to take over the world.  Oh, wait.  They all work at FB or Google.  They have already taken over the world.
  • Wacky Wednesday: What happens on wacky Wednesday, stays with Wacky Wednesday
Not sure what the future beyond Wednesday will bring.  I’m sure that somehow there will be Black Friday deals running for many weeks beyond…Black Friday.  All for items that were good last year but aren’t worth it this year (60Hz LCD TV?  Pffffffft!).
*Occupy protestors in San Francisco (and I’m sure elsewhere) affected Black Friday shopping.  Isn’t it contrary to the “movement” that they would negatively affect GDP (whether to large or small companies)?  A movement without a rallying cry…or much logic, it seems, these days.  Onto SOPA I guess.

 

throwing a cement mixer

[Since I don’t get to the definition very quickly…cement mixer curveball defined.  I can’t find video for it…]

I’m a baseball fan. I would not say I’m a “hardcore” fan if only because I don’t have enough time to remember individual OBPS or WHIP for hitters or pitchers, respectively.  I do know enough to know what those stats are, though…

What I do know is that a lot of analysts and color commentators get the technical stuff wrong during games. This always drives me crazy because, of your job is to help enlighten viewers and listeners about why that was a poor fielding decision or that bad mechanics les to the pitch that led to that home run, then do it right – don’t be lazy and take the easy way out.

A great example has to do with curveballs and, in some cases, breaking balls in general.  These are funny beasts.  The best of them can be devastating pitches that can easily be a number 1 pitch (see:  Barry Zito when he was good).  A mediocre one can be a third pitch that keeps a batter guessing just enough to make the first two pitches even better.  The worst of them…well, they’re bad.  But the point is that a breaking pitch is something almost every pitcher throws, but to varying degrees of effectiveness.

They’re also odd pitches, plain and simple.  They rely entirely on the spin on the ball, letting all 108 laces and friction with the air coupled with incredibly fast rotation to make the ball drop anywhere from 6″ to 2-3′ (yes, feet).  To achieve the right rotation, you basically let the ball slip out of your hand.  Rather than putting your fingers behind the ball to impart velocity, you actually release the ball over fingers that are facing the hitter.  Depending on how much pressure you put on the ball, where the grip is tighter or looser and even how much you extend your arm at release, you get different kinds of spin and end up with big looping curves to hard, “power” curves to sliders that come in at one side of the plate and dive towards the other (anyone that’s seen Randy Johnson and his power slider in his hey day can attest to just how much movement a pitch like that can have).

The mechanics behind a good curve are just as critical as the grip and finger pressure.  It’s hard enough making sure that your arm slot is always in the right place or that your weight shift is right.  Now you have to make sure to stay “on top” of the ball.  Since a curve goes up before it goes down, you have to use the fact that you’re on a raised mound to throw a curve downward, essentially.  But this isn’t easy – as someone that had a big looping curve in high school, it’s more just “doing it” than feeling it.  I shortened my stride a few inches and, for a curve, kept my arm in a bit (a slider, which is thrown with more velocity and breaks more sideways, is thrown with more extension) but otherwise just let it fly and let the spin do its thing.  Making sure to always bring that stride in just a little bit, and to stay focused on every curve to stay on top of it is hard, and requires excellent mechanics from the beginning.

As a result, you get all kinds of terms.  If you release the ball with your entire hand facing the batter, you get a “cement mixer” where the axis about which the ball rotates faces the hitter.  It just spins sideways.  This won’t break much because the friction is on the wrong sides of the ball.  If you don’t stay on top, the ball will end up higher than you want.  If you put the wrong amount of pressure on one finger or the other, or don’t quite get as good of a grip on the seems as you’d like, the break isn’t as much as you want or perhaps, if you’ve got a pretty good curve, it might not break in the right direction (I could vary my slider from about 5″ at the last minute thrown quite hard, to about 1.5′ starting earlier on thrown with a bit less velocity with more pressure on my index finger).

A curve is not easy to throw, in other words.

If one watches even a moderate amount of baseball, one will invariably see a hitter launch a long homerun off of a breaking ball.  Often because of the reduced velocity of these pitches (even a slider, which is thrown pretty hard, is going to be a good 4-5mph slower than a fastball), it will look almost like the pitcher lobbed the ball in there and the hitter just nailed it.  Almost always, the commentator says that it was a “hanging” breaking ball – one that just didn’t break as far as it should have, and the hitter could anticipate and time the movement.’

But saying that every curve that is hit hard is a “hanger” is simply unfair.  There are in fact many reasons why a curve might get hit.  And this is where my analogy begins…

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