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    Entries in Sports (148)

    Wednesday
    Nov302016

    When the feedback loops get shorter, the performance process can get ruthless

    Quick foray into the world of sports, (Shock!), for a look at what can happen in an organization, and their view of what is unacceptable employee performance, when feedback loops, (or review periods if you like), get shorter and shorter. Kind of like what seems to be happening in many large organizations who are moving away from annual performance reviews/ratings and toward more frequent, regular, lightweight, feedback loops.

    The back story is from the University of Oregon, who yesterday terminated their head football coach Mark Helfrich after four years in charge, (and four years as essentially the #2 person in charge), and a impressive 37- 16 win-loss record as the head coach. From the USA Today article titled Mark Helfrich's firing sends chilling message to coaching trade:

    (After a loss to arch rival Oregon State), Helfrich met Oregon athletics director Rob Mullens to discuss his future Tuesday night and left the meeting without a job. Internal discussions about the football program began before Saturday’s loss, according to USA TODAY Sports. Since Saturday, Helfrich had been in coaching purgatory, with two feet straddling the line between retention and dismissal.

    There is something far bigger than just Helfrich at play at Oregon, which in the past two decades has grown into one of college football’s elite programs. First as the offensive coordinator and then as head coach, Helfrich deserves recognition as a key figure behind the Ducks’ surge.

    But this is about more than just Helfrich, and the reach of Tuesday’s decision extends far beyond Oregon.

    If you’re a college coach, take note: If Helfrich can be fired after one losing season, two seasons after the finest year in program history, after coaching the program’s only Heisman winner, with an eight-figure buyout — so can anyone else.

    A few things to unpack here, especially if you are not a fan of or at least familiar with some big trends in college athletics in general, and football specifically. The sport at its highest levels - think Alabama, Ohio State, Texas, and yes, even Oregon - has become a high-pressure, big-money endeavor for that set of 40 or 50 schools that choose to compete at that level. They invest enormous resources in facilities, recruiting, support staff, and they pay their coaches, especially head coaches, astronomical salaries.

    And in exchange for making these massive commitments of the school's resources, the administration expects to recoup that investment in revenue from broadcast and cable TV contracts, ticket sales, donations, and whatever else they can get their hands on. But to maximize those revenue streams, the football team needs to win lots of games, consistently, and every year. And that is where the feedback loop idea comes in.

    Let's take this back to the Oregon situation and the recently fired Helfrich. From 2009 - 2012 Helfrich was the Offensive Coordinator (the most important coach aside from the head coach) on teams that went a combined 46 - 7, including reaching the national title game in 2010. In 2013, Helfrich was promoted to Head Coach following the departure of former Head Coach Chip Kelly to the NFL and the Oregon team proceeded to go 11 - 2, 13 - 2, (with another national title game appearance), 9 - 4, before stumbling this year to a disappointing 4 - 8 record.

    So in eight years in 'executive' level positions with the Oregon football program Helfrich had what amounts to one bad year, this past year when the team struggled, and had its worst season in some time. In the past, and really the not so recent past, university administrators would look at that kind of record and see what has been, largely, fantastic performance. There may be only 3 or 4 other programs in the country who have won more games in that 8-year span than Oregon. But, and this is a big but, Helfrich's (and Oregon's) worst performance in some time was this past year, and since Oregon's, (and probably lots of other schools as well), window for performance evaluation is compressing, Helfrich was let go.

    Seven years, (with three as head coach), of impressive results. One 'not acceptable' year. And you're gone.

    No probation, no warning, no 'performance improvement plan'. Just, 'Thanks for your service. Take care.'

    Look, I don't feel that bad for Helfrich. He (and every other big time college coach), makes a ton of dough, and sort of gets that all of these jobs are pretty tenuous and often kind of cruel.

    But why I think it is important to consider is that a few years ago Helfrich's performance and contribution to the success of the organization would have been assessed with a wider angle lens. He certainly would have in the past been given at least one more season to try and 'right the ship', and return Oregon back to its expected winning standards, (standards he himself had a large part in creating with his coaching).

    But as the performance and feedback time horizon for college football coaches has contracted, 'What have you done for me lately?', then Helfrich's 'review' didn't really take into account, nor give him much credit for his efforts over his 8-year tenure at Oregon.

    I think this same kind of compression is one of the potential dangers for organizations who are moving towards more frequent, and real-time performance management and coaching kinds of schemes as well. As these windows shrink from what typically was once per year, the opportunity for HR and business leaders to get subjected to recency bias is much more present. If we are all being evaluated much more often, the chances of any given evaluation to be negative are much higher - even for those folks who would average out to be 'good' or 'really good' performers when considered over a longer time horizon.

    We all have bad days. Bad weeks even. Maybe a project we didn't really do the best with. But that may be one project out of 27 we wlll work on this year. In the past, one or two bad projects would more or less get lost in the wash of 25 other good ones. But when we move to a process that demands we assess performance pretty much all the time, then those one or two bad projects are going to stick out, be remembered, and probably carry more weight in the aggregate than they should.

    Helfrich had one bad year out of eight. In today's world of college football that is enough to get you fired.

    I guess the real question is how many bad days are you allowed to have in your job until you get fired too?

    Monday
    Nov142016

    Basketball, media, and robots coming for our jobs

    With the events of last week's election pretty much consuming and subsuming national attention last week you probably missed this really interesting story on the intersection of sports, media, and technology, one that raises some interesting questions about the future or automation and work.

    First a little background on the story from last week, then some thoughts on why it is interesting beyond the narrow, 'sports' focus.

    Last week Mark Cuban, famous rich guy and owner of the NBA's Dallas Mavericks suddenly revoked the media credentials at Dallas' arena for two Dallas based ESPN basketball writers, Mark Stien and Tim MacMahon. From the first reports that came out, Cuban made the decision to revoke the ESPN pair's credentials because he was disappointed that MacMahon would not be covering every Mavericks game, a change from prior years; and Stein, as a national NBA reporter was thought to only want to cover Mavs games to gain access to players and coaches from the Mavs opponents as they came through Dallas. It was reported that Cuban was particularly miffed by the fact that no ESPN media attended and reported on the Mavs opening night game.

    If this story was just about a team owner trying to play strong arm a major media outlet into providing more coverage for his team, it would not be all that interesting, and I would not have decided to write about it here.

    But a day or two after the initial media credential ban was announced, the story became more nuanced, and well - interesting. 

    What Cuban was also protesting, in addition to the reduced coverage of Mavs games in general by ESPN, was what he feels like is going to be the inevitable replacement for at least some human media game coverage - automated game summaries and stories generated by machine learning and algorithms.

    Here's some additional detail from an email Cuban sent to the web site Deadspin, who had been reporting on the Mavs-ESPN kerfluffle: (Note: I edited this some for brevity and clarity, the full email is at the link above)

    Two things triggered this whole thing. First was when I found out they (ESPN) had cut back or had always offered reduced coverage for 19 nba teams I had no idea this was going on

    The second was when espn didn’t cover our opening night and the resultant coverage on their website was a tweet, One highlight and a wire service story

    It made me realize that I had expected to be covered by all media, but it no longer was a given

    Even though espn was covering the same number of games, if they didn’t think it was a big deal to miss opening night. I had a problem. Not necessarily an espn problem , but a coverage problem

    And if it’s 30 games now for 19 teams. What would keep it from being 60 games for 25 teams ?

    What was their long term thinking ?

    When you realize that the hottest area in technology, and it’s not even close , is machine and deep learning , then it’s an easy step to see where this was going

    I told espn this was my concern. They didn’t say they were taking this path. They didn’t say they weren’t. But I voiced these concerns to them

    They said they would run their business . I can run mine

    So the next question is where would it leave Mavs fans who wanted game results coverage of nothing changed and espn didn’t send a reporter for 30 games ?

    It meant for 30 games and inevitably more in the future they wouldn't have a good experience with espn

    It meant it was likely that in the near term when they went to espn Dallas they find a couple videos, tweets and a wire service story

    How is that positive for any nba team or their fans when 30 games have second rate coverage ?

    And what happens and what message is sent to fans when those games are covered by an algorithm in the future ?

    Short term this is a Mavs issue. Long term it’s a certainty that our games will be covered algorithmically. Thats a problem across the board for us and the NBA

    IMO that devalues our brand . It devalues the fans experience. I feel strongly that now is the time to partner with those who commit to the Mavs and to sending real people to cover the games for Mavs fans

    It may seem like we are picking on espn or telling them how to run their business. We aren't. We are trying to protect ourselves and our fans and our future by partnering with those in the written media who commit to us

    I know the whole automation thing may not make sense to some. But to me this is no different than saying that streaming would change media in 1995. Or social media would change coverage of sports , etc

    Machine and deep learning and algorithmic coverage of sports events is going to happen.

    This isn’t about replacing writers. The best writers will always have a place

    This comes down to how do we value reporting on a game . Right now I value it more than espn and others and want to partner with the DMN FWST (media outlets), and use our own writers as our focus

    Really interesting takes coming from a guy who got rich back in the day, selling a technology company, (Broadcast.com) for millions to Yahoo. Cuban is no Luddite or technophobe.

    But at least in 2016, he (probably rightly), feels that despite advances in machine learning and automation that NBA game coverage is still best produced by actual human reporters and not the algorithms. And if you think that the entire idea of an algorithm replacing a human reporter to write sports event coverage think again - it is already happening mostly via technology created by a firm called Automated Insights. You can learn more about what they are doing with automated reporting of minor league baseball games here.

    Let's go back on one line of Cuban's email above - "Long term it’s a certainty that our games will be covered algorithmically. Thats a problem across the board for us and the NBA."

    In the same message where Cuban admits to using some tough negotiating tactics to push ESPN to continue to provide quality, human coverage of Mavs games, he admits that the algorithmic coverage of these games are a certainty. Today while technology like the one provided by Automated Insights is inferior to human reported coverage, over time it seems apparent to Cuban that the difference in quality will matter less to the media company than the sheer cost savings and efficiency gains that could be realized by replacing human reporters with a computer program.

    And Cuban has a problem with that, as it is in his best interests to have top-notch coverage of Mavs games in the media, as he sees that as an extension of his team and of the Mavs brand.

    I know this post has gotten pretty long, especially for a busy Monday, but I thought it important enough to try and lay out the context before hitting what I think is the main takeaway which is this:

    Just because something can be automated away or a job be done by a robot or a machine instead of a human doesn't mean that it necessarily should. Your customers will decide and balance the tradeoffs between costs, convenience, and quality about the products and services you are offering. 

    You might think, or your CEO might insist, that automation is always the way to go, but until the robot or the algorithm can do the job almost as good as the human it is replacing, then don't be too quick to agree.

    Think I am wrong?

    Take a look at the 'self-service' checkouts sometime at a busy grocery store or big box home improvement retailer?

    Anyone using those? Do they provide a great experience?

    Or would you rather wait an extra few minutes and check out with a human cashier?

    Have a great week all!

    Monday
    Aug222016

    Wanting to win is a great motivator. So is not wanting to come in last place

    Over the weekend I was coerced had the opportunity to participate in a 2-mile time trial with my son's high school cross-country track team, and the results of which were pretty sad and interesting at the same time.

    Let's step a bit to set some context. I heard about the Saturday morning time trial pretty late on Friday evening and was informed that the cross-country team coach encouraged the student runners to invite their parents and other family members to attend and even compete in the time trial, and in fact, many, many parents would indeed participate in the race. Armed only with that small bit of information, and since I am a very casual two or three times a week jogger, and I knew I could cover the two miles with collapsing, I agreed to show up early on run on Saturday morning.

    Fast forward to the actual morning of the race and it turns out that no, 'many, many' parents were not intending to participate in the race. It was just me, one other older guy, (I say older, I probably had him by 8 or 9 years), and about 30 high school cross-county athletes lined up to race the two miles. 

    My focus immediately shifted from ' I hope I can run a respectable time' to 'I can't let myself come in last place in this race', as a fairly decent-sized crowd of non-running parents, (as well as all the high schoolers), had gathered to watch the race (and eat donuts and bagels). 

    After unsuccessfully feigning a pre-race injury in order to try and back out of the race, I was off and running with the 30-odd kids and the one-odd other old dummy like me tricked into doing this.

    Here's how the rest of the race unfolded: first half mile or so I tried to stay connected to the back of the pack of kids, second half mile I lost contact with all but about five of the slowest kids, last mile or so I ended up passing a few kids, (most of whom I later found out were making their very first training run that morning).

    And oh yeah, the other 'old man' in the race? He stalked me, about 15-20 yards back for most of the race and then tried to outkick me, (term used very, very loosely), in the last 50 yards or so. Once I realized this, I managed to speed up enough to hold him off at the tape. I ended up placing about 25th out of about 31 or 32. My time, while slow, was about one minute per mile faster than I would normally run.

    What's the point of all of this, i.e., why place it on the blog?

    I was thinking about how incented I was to raise my performance level not to win or even try to win the race, because there was no chance of that, but to a level where I simply would not be the worst performer. And it worked, to a degree.

    The fear of being the worst, and having that be a public thing, drove me to perform better than I would had I been squarely in the middle of a typical pack of weekend 5K runners. I knew I had to push myself to beat even just one other person in the race and avoid the indignity of coming in last.

    All performance is relative. It is true in running, and in most every other activity we take on that calls for measurement, (and rewards).  And motivation to perform to be the best, while certainly powerful and meaningful, isn't the only kind of motivation that can drive improved relative performance.

    That's is from me. Happy Monday. Have a great week. 

    Saturday
    Aug132016

    REPRISE: 10 reasons why you should quit the NFL for the Premier League

    Note: Today is the launch of the 2016 - 2017 season in the English Premier League. This is the sport you should adopt as your favorite this Fall. In that light, I am re-running a piece from last October where I laid out the case for you. Go Liverpool!

    10 Reasons Why You Should Quit the NFL for the Premier League

    October 31, 2015

    I am up early on a Saturday taking in Barclays Premier League match between my beloved Liverpool Reds and Chelsea, the defending Premier League champions currently mired in a slow start to the new season. I watch a fair bit of sports on TV, (I have pretty much no life), but after many years of increasing interest and appreciation of top-level soccer, I have mostly given over my Fall and Winter weekends to the Premier League, and have pretty much lost interest in the much more popular, (here in the US anyway), American football games (both college and in the NFL).

    Why is that? Why have I basically given up on American football, with only a passing interest in the country's most popular sport? Here are 10 reasons, just off of the top of my head. And if you are saying to yourself, 'Who cares what sports Steve likes?', I would answer, 'Probably no one. But it is my blog. And I am up early on a Saturday and this is what I feel like writing about.' So there.

    Ok, here are 10 reasons why I, (and maybe you too), should quit the NFL for the Premier League:

    1. Soccer has about 3 rules you need to understand in order to appreciate the action. Sure, there are more rules than that, but the essential ones are very few, they are pretty simple, (we teach 4 year olds how to play using these rules), and you can grasp them in about the first 15 minutes of watching a game. American football, and the NFL in particular, has about 3,593 rules, many if not most of them are incredibly complex, vary in their application, and even 'experts' of the game often fail to understand them. NFL football is akin to the worst of governmental or corporate bureaucracies - hopelessly dense, complex, and often unexplainable.

    2. Because of this complexity in the rules, NFL games are interrupted dozens of times (and on EVERY punt or kickoff it seems), by penalty flags, interminable on-field conferences amongst the numerous game officials, and delays in the game for video reviews, often frame-by-frame, of controversial plays. Again, the NFL resembles the worst in big corporations in that the games are really just a few seconds of actual things happening that are interrupted by meetings of paunchy, middle-aged men discussing and attempting to explain what just happened. 

    3. Let's talk about the actual game action then. A Premier League game consists of two 45 minute halves with the clock running constantly, with a few minutes of 'extra' time usually added for injuries and other delays. Add in a 15 minute halftime break, and the normal (meaning EVERY one), Premier League game takes a bit under 2 hours to complete, start to finish. It is a perfect amount of time to dedicate to a sporting event, a movie, a dinner with your in-laws  - pretty much anything. NFL and especially college football games regularly require 3 to 3.5 hours to complete. And for the amount of actual action that occurs in a game, (see Point 4), 3.5 hours for a sporting event is just insane.

    4. It has been estimated that the average NFL game, the game that takes about 3.5 hours to complete, and has 60 minutes of official game time, actually has only between 7 - 8 minutes of action, i.e., where the players are actually PLAYING football. The rest of the time consists of players walking back to the huddle, standing in the huddle, walking back to the ball from the huddle, and waiting for the quarterback to scream a series of incomprehensible commands and making wild gesticulations. The ball is then put into play for a few seconds, (the average NFL play lasts about 7 seconds), and the entire process is repeated. Unless it is interrupted by a penalty flag and a corporate board meeting by the aforementioned old men. Football is 3.5 hours of almost nothing happening.

    5. Premier League soccer (and all soccer really), consists of 90 minutes of almost constant action. There are no 'time outs', there are fewer delays for penalties and fouls. When there is a foul the one on-field referee in charge makes the decision, and the ball is put back into play quickly. There are no meetings to talk about the fouls, there are no lengthy delays to 'check the video replay', and there are no 'coaches challenges' like in American football. Soccer realizes, correctly, that it is a GAME, and not every tiny decision needs to be examined under a electron microscope.

    6. While the rest of this post is a little cheeky, this point is pretty serious. While injuries happen in all sports, and sometimes they are serious injuries, for the most part soccer at all levels is much, much safer than football. Despite all the advances in protective equipment, the nature of football leaves almost EVERY player injured at some point. While NFL players are grown men, and are compensated well to accept these risks, the culture of American football extends much further into society, where the participants are neither grown men or compensated at all for these risks. This season alone 7 high school football players have died from direct football related injuries. Read that again. SEVEN high school kids have DIED from playing football. I find it incredible that 99.9% of American society is ok with that. 

    7. In the US, Premier League games (that last a total of 2 hours like I mentioned), are played in the morning across all US time zones. That means you can wake up early, take in a couple of matches, and still be free by Noon or so to do whatever it is you SHOULD be doing on the weekend instead of sitting on the sofa watching sports. You can get your fill of game action and still not be a jerk to your family or friends who don't care about your fantasy team and want you to be an actual contributing member of society on Saturdays and Sundays, and not some loser who is constantly checking his phone to see how many receiving yards Odell Beckham Jr. has racked up. 

    8. The match commentators for the Premier League games are exceedingly better and more entertaining than their NFL counterparts. Premier League commentators use words like 'comprehensive' and 'beguiling' and describe players with phrases like 'He is a wily campaigner'. NFL game analysts mostly like to talk about what team coaches said to them in meetings the day before the game. When NFL commentators try to move past the obvious 'The team that makes the least mistakes will win today', and get into the intricacies of the game action, 'Tampa rolled their high safety over to the weakside to guard against the naked bootleg action from Seattle', almost no one watching the game has any idea what they are talking about.

    9. And speaking of TV coverage, in the US anyone with a decent cable sports package has access to EVERY SINGLE Premier League game on LIVE. Every game is on TV. In the NFL, America's most popular sport, the only way you can get access to every game live on TV is to subscribe to the satellite TV provider DirectTV and order a premium NFL package to get access to all the games live. There are a couple of ways to get access to streams of NFL games as well. But in 2015 the fact that I as a subscriber of Time Warner Cable, one of the largest cable companies in the US, can't order up or subscribe to any NFL game that I would like to see on my TV is absolutely insane.

    10. (I promise this is the last one. If you have made it this far well, bless your heart). The pinnacle of the NFL season, the Super Bowl, is primarily enjoyed by millions not for the actual game, 'Who is playing again?', but for the TV commercials. The actual game is just a side note for the commercials, the halftime show, the endless tweets and columns about which big corporation 'won' the game by having the best TV spot, and the discussions of what kind of plausible excuse can you come up with to call in sick to work the next morning. Aside for the fans of the two teams playing, and the people who have bet on the game, no one really cares which team wins the game. Let's talk more about that Doritos spot instead.

    That is it. I am out. Thanks for indulging me. 

    And by the way, Liverpool 3 - Chelsea 1 - Full Time. Go Reds.

    ----------------------------------------------------------------------------

    Friday
    Aug122016

    Over, Under, and Properly Rated #2 - Summer Olympics Edition

    My current favorite sports talk show is the Russillo and Kanell Show that airs nationally on ESPN radio. On the show, the hosts occasionally do a 'rated' segment where they categorize sports teams, players, and other aspects of sports and pop culture into one of three buckets. 'Overrated' for things they think are generally praised or valued more than they should be. 'Underrated' for the opposite - things that do not get enough attention or accolades. And finally 'Properly' rated, for the things that receive about the correct level of praise or derision.

    It is a fun segment, complete with sound effects, and in the spirit of running out of good ideas this week, I am going to steal borrow for this site. So here goes, the second installment, of 'Over, Under, and Properly Rated' (SFB edition). I am going with a Summer Olympics theme this time around, as I have caught just enough of the proceedings, (about 15 minutes a day), to render an authoritative evaluation of the spectacle and competition.

    So here goes...

    Overrated

    1. Opening Ceremony - Too long, too much nonsensical blathering by the commentators, and what essentially amounts to the the most boring parade of people wearing funny hats you've ever seen. Is it fun to see a few recognizable superstars milling about with the rest of the interchangeable rowers and team handball players? Sure. But on the whole, the opening ceremony is terrible. And overrated.  

    2. Rowing - If the entire sport consists of the activity you do to train for doing the sport, that adds up to a really uninteresting event. It really is not that far removed from watching a line of people on the treadmill at Planet Fitness. Side note: Ask the rower in your life about the classic movie, Oxford Blues sometime.

    3. Zika, deadly, bacteria-laden water, crime - In the run-up to the Rio games, much of the reporting was frightening in nature. Zika virus carrying mosquitoes were rampant, the waters for some of the competitions were horribly polluted and unsafe for the competitors, and if you strayed too far off course, you were likely to be mugged, or worse. Aside for a few, seemingly isolated issues, the games (so far) have been executed well, more or less.

    4. Judo - I watched one judo match. It lasted for four minutes, almost nothing happened, neither combatant scored a point, and the match was decided on the equivalent of 'yellow card warnings'. I've been at funerals that had more action and excitement.

    5. Golf and Tennis - Probably should not be in the Olympics, or perhaps should take a page from soccer and become Under-23 events, or something like that. The top tennis players and golfers in the word are colossally wealthy, and the source of their wealth has never been nor will ever be winning a medal at the Olympics. When the very best athletes at a sport don't really want to show up at the Olympics to compete in that sport, it is probably time to have a re-evaluation of the entire event.

    Underrated

    1. Rugby - I caught a fair bit of both the Men's and Women's Rugby (in the Olympics it is the 'Sevens' format), and just about every game was exciting, fast-paced, and blissfully over in about 30 minutes. Rugby Sevens might become the next big thing. After Tikka Masala flavored potato chips that is.

    2. Table tennis - Makes the underrated list as the top , 'I bet I could do that if I only had a couple of years to practice' Olympic sport. No, no, you can't. But it is still a really fun watch. Add a few red solo cups of cheap beer to the table and you have America's next great spectator sport. 

    3. Archery - Makes the underrated list solely for one reason - the cool as hell bucket hats that most of the archers wear.

    4. Javelin - Of all the 'throw this thing as far as you can' sports, the best has to be javelin. The USA would be better at this if the government hadn't banned lawn darts about 20 years ago. Lawn darts was how many an aspiring javelin thrower got their start as a 7 year-old. 

    5. Fencing - A lot of yelling, a lot of slashing at people with a sword, and a lot of normal-sized people competing that gives you at least a hint of (false) hope that someday you might be an Olympian too. I am all about the Fencing.

    Properly Rated

    1. Men's basketball - Pros: Most of the teams have several, or at least a few NBA players, and the overall talent level and competitiveness of the games has improved. Cons: It still is a little dull to watch the USA beat some over matched team by 45 points. 

    2. Swimming - Is it great as a USA citizen that we seem to win just about everything? Yes. Is it a little bit falling into Men's Basketball territory in that regard? Yes. And I hate the chlorine-heavy air that always seems to surround any indoor pool. And don't even get me started about what might be in that water.

    3. Team Handball - Sort of relatable because it seems like a combination of sorts between soccer and basketball. Sort of not relatable because after about 3 minutes you have no idea what is really going on. The one game I saw pitted Denmark v. Croatia who were wearing similarly colored uniforms and it was impossible to figure out who was who.

    4. Weightlifting - Would be on the 'underrated' list if not for the occasional gruesome injury. And it would definitely be on the underrated list if they somehow incorporated some of the classic 'World's Strongest Man' type challenges. It would be awesome if the Beer Keg Throw or the 'See how far you can pull a bus using a rope that you have to hold with your teeth' were Olympic sports.

    5. Race Walking - Ridiculous to look at on one hand, but on the other hand weirdly compelling.

    What do you think? Do I have it right? 

    Is this post itself over, under, or properly rated?

    Have a great weekend!