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My Trip to MIT's Sports Nerd Conference

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[Image credit: John Marcus.]

On Saturday, I had the pleasure of attending the MIT Sloan Sports Analytics Conference—or the Sports Nerd Conference, as my girlfriend referred to it—at the Boston Convention and Exhibition Center. In its fourth year, the conference brought some of the sports industry's most innovative thinkers together for a forum on the expanding role of analytics in projecting player performance and informing in-game decision making.

The conference wasn't only for stat heads, however; it also featured panel discussions on such topics as international expansion, social media marketing, and the future of sports journalism. As a former psychology major who has only recently delved into the world of advanced analytics as they relate to sports (and only then in an attempt to gain an advantage in my fantasy drafts), this was refreshing. Here's a brief, stats-light summary of three of the three analytics-related panel discussions I observed.

Baseball Analytics

ESPN.com baseball writer Rob Neyer moderated a group that included three current front office executives (St. Louis Cardinals assistant general manager John Abbamondi, Arizona Diamondbacks director of baseball operations Shiraz Rehman, and Boston Red Sox advisor Tom Tippett), as well as former Red Sox general manager Dan Duqette, and John Dewan, who founded Baseball Info Solutions in 2002 after a career as an insurance actuary.

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[Image credit: John Marcus.]

Neyer opened the discussion by referencing a phenomenon described by Wellesley political scientist Craig Murphy in a recent New Yorker profile on Paul Krugman. Murphy noted that sixteenth century maps of Africa were misleading, but they included pertinent information about the continent's interior, including the location of major rivers. As mapmaking became more accurate and cartographical standards for what information was included on a map rose, secondhand travelers' reports were discarded and lost. As a result, the maps included less information than before. By the nineteenth century, the maps were filled in again, but for a period the sharpening of technique caused loss as well as gain. Neyer used the example to illustrate the challenge facing today's baseball executives, who have more statistical information at their fingertips than ever before, but continue to struggle to make sense of it and use it effectively.

"There are so many teams that we meet with that don't understand how to use the data that's out there," said Dewan, who consults with several MLB clubs. Abbamondi indicated that knowing what stats not to look at it in terms of predictive value is just as important as knowing what stats are useful. That goes for information used by the front office to make personnel decisions and information that is passed on to players with the intent of giving them an edge. With a little research, anyone can discover what Albert Pujols' batting average is on Tuesdays with a 3-1 count on natural grass against a pitcher whose last name starts with the letter B. That may be interesting information to know—or not—but it probably won't affect how Pujols or Joe Blanton approach their next encounter on a Tuesday at Busch Stadium. "The last thing you want is the hitter's mind cluttered," Abbamondi said.

The panelists discussed defensive analytics at length, including the concept of catcher defense, which attempts to quantify a catcher's ability to block pitches and manage a game. Catcher defense helps explain why Jason Varitek, who is a poor fantasy option, is an underappreciated contributor to the success of the Red Sox. "Defensive evaluation is taking its proper place in overall player analysis," said Tippett, who provides analytical support for Red Sox general manager Theo Epstein.

Neyer asked the panelists what they would like to know about baseball that they don't already know. "How to make sure the Yankees never win another World Series," Tippett said, eliciting cheers from the Red Sox fans in the room. Duquette wanted to know how to produce 20-game winners. Rehman echoed something Abbamondi mentioned earlier in the discussion about finding an accurate way to measure a player's makeup or personality. To a scout, Abbamondi said, good makeup is often synonymous with politeness. If a player says "yes, sir" and "no, sir," the scout is more likely to report that the player has good makeup, even if this tells the front office nothing about that player's work ethic, desire, and motivation. As they continue to look for ways to identify the next superstar, teams are focused on finding predictive psychological measures for young players.

Emerging Analytics

New England Patriots head coach Bill Belichick's controversial decision to go for it on 4th and 2 from his own 28 with 2:08 remaining and his team nursing a six-point lead against the undefeated Colts last November was a hot topic on at least two panels, including this one, which was moderated by Philadelphia Inquirer reporter Kate Fagan.

Kevin Faulk was stopped short of the first-down marker after catching a pass in the flat from Tom Brady, allowing the Colts to take over on downs. Peyton Manning led his team to a game-winning touchdown and Belichick was criticized afterward. Aaron Schatz, a Brown graduate who wrote the Internet column "The Lycos 50" before working as a disc jockey and founding FootballOutsiders.com, a site that uses innovative statistics to analyze football, defended Belichick's call.

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[Image credit: John Marcus.]

"Statistically, it was the right decision," said Schatz (pictured), who admitted he is a Patriots fans. While the statistical models used to come to that conclusion are not perfect, Schatz made the case that the decision was not stupid. But that's exactly how many media members reacted. As Schatz pointed out, broadcasters referred to subsequent decisions by NFL head coaches that they perceived as boneheaded as "Belichickian" for the remainder of the season.

Schatz and San Francisco 49ers Executive VP of Football and Business Operations Paraag Marathe had some interesting things to say about the NFL scouting combine. Marathe compared evaluating rookie football players by having them "play track and field" at the scouting combine to evaluating rookie baseball players by having them play ping-pong. Marathe and Schatz both emphasized the importance of evaluating players in the context of the scheme that they play in and the abilities of the players around them. Football analytics has lagged behind baseball analytics, they said, in part because it is inherently more difficult to evaluate one player's ability without accounting for what the 10 other players on his team did on a given play. If a running back breaks a 25-yard run, for instance, was it because he made a great cut, his fullback made a great block, or his offensive line cleared a huge hole? Perhaps it was for all three reasons.

Like the baseball executives who spoke before him, Marathe discussed the growing emphasis being placed on measuring players' personality traits. Marathe and Schatz said a poor score on the infamous Wonderlic test administered to prospects at the NFL's scouting combine might raise a red flag for teams—if only because it could indicate that the player doesn't take his draft prospects serious enough to find someone to help him prepare for the test—but that psychological traits related to dedication, motivation, and self-efficacy are more predictive of future success.

What Geeks Don't Get: The Limits of Moneyball

Michael Lewis, who wrote Moneyball and The Blind Side, moderated the feature panel, which featured ESPN.com columnist Bill Simmons, Dallas Mavericks owner Mark Cuban, Houston Rockets general manager Daryl Morey, Indianapolis Colts general manager Bill Polian, and New England Patriots president Jonathan Kraft. After Lewis introduced the panel, Simmons congratulated the audience of more than 1,000 on breaking the "Most Dudes in a Conference Room" record. He was only partly kidding.

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[Image credit: John Marcus.]

The goal of the panel was to unmask some of the inefficiencies of sports analytics and identify how numbers don't always tell the whole story in sports. Simmons proceeded to explain that the onus should fall on the people dispersing all of this new statistical information to explain it in a way that the casual fan can understand. Polian, who has been to four Super Bowls as an executive with the Bills and Colts, said that geekdom provides wonderful tools for teams to find the next undervalued player, but requested that stat heads "speak English, please."

Belichick's decision came up again, with Polian, Kraft, and Simmons, who wrote a column criticizing the move, engaging in a fascinating back-and-forth. Kraft said he was convinced it was two-down territory for the Patriots on third down and Polian indicated that he did, too, "without question." The Patriots were beat up defensively and the Colts had moved the ball at will in the second half, their thinking went. If Indianapolis got the ball back, they were going to score. Simmons said he thought the decision to go for it made sense, but that the events preceding the decision—calling a timeout after throwing an incompletion on third down—and the fourth-down play call didn't come from a position of strength. "It seemed panicky to me," Simmons said. "That's my opinion." "I disagree," Kraft said bluntly (pictured below, on left, with Polian and Simmons).

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[Image credit: John Marcus.]

The discussion turned to basketball and it was no surprise that when asked to name the biggest inefficiencies in basketball, Cuban mentioned referees. Cuban and Morey stressed the importance of finding players with the right psychological makeup to complement their skills on the court, but they had differing opinions on the value of a player who the stats indicate performs well in the clutch. Cuban said that part of the reason the Mavericks traded for Jason Kidd was that, statistically, he performs better in clutch situations than at other points in the game. Morey expressed concern about the sample size for measuring a player's "clutchness," and said he didn't factor clutch statistics into his personnel decisions.

Toward the end of the session, Polian raised an important question: Once you identify a tendency using analytics, can you make it better? If you have the answer to that, or you have developed a personality test that can predict athletic success, there's a job in professional sports waiting for you.

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13 Fantastic Museums You Can Visit for Free on Saturday
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On Saturday, September 23, museums and cultural institutions across the United States will open their doors to the public for free, as part of Smithsonian magazine’s annual Museum Day Live! event. Hundreds of museums are set to participate, ranging from world-famous institutions in major cities to tiny, local museums in small towns. While the full list of museums can be viewed, and tickets can be reserved, on the Smithsonian website, we’ve collected a small selection of the fantastic museums you can visit for free this Saturday.

1. NEWSEUM // WASHINGTON, D.C.

The Newseum in Washington, D.C. is an entire museum dedicated to the First Amendment. Celebrating freedom of religion, speech, press, assembly and petition, the museum features exhibits on civil rights, the Berlin Wall, and the history of news media in America. Their latest special exhibitions take a look back at the event of September 11, 2001 and go inside the FBI's crime-fighting tactics.

2. INTREPID SEA, AIR & SPACE MUSEUM // NEW YORK CITY, NEW YORK

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New York's Intrepid Sea, Air & Space Museum doesn’t just showcase America’s military and maritime history—it is a piece of that history. The museum itself is one of the Essex-class aircraft carriers built by the United States Navy during World War II. Visitors can explore its massive deck and interior, and view historic airplanes, a real World War II submarine, and a range of interactive exhibits. Normally, a ticket will set you back a whopping $33 (or $19 for New York City residents), but on Saturday, general admission is free with a Museum Day Live! ticket.

3. AUTRY MUSEUM OF THE AMERICAN WEST // LOS ANGELES, CALIFORNIA

Perfect for art lovers, history buffs, and cinephiles alike, the Autry Museum of the American West (named for legendary singing cowboy Gene Autry) offers up an eclectic mix of art, historical artifacts from the real American West, and Western film memorabilia and props.

4. MUSEUM OF ARTS AND SCIENCES // DAYTONA BEACH, FLORIDA

A massive art, science, and history museum located on a 90-acre nature preserve, the Museum of Arts and Sciences features the largest collection of Florida art anywhere in the world, as well as the largest collection of Coca-Cola memorabilia in all of Florida. Its diverse exhibits are alternately awe-inspiring, informative, and quirky, ranging from an exploration of 2000 years of sculpture art to an exhibition of 19th and 20th century advertising posters.

5. INTERNATIONAL MUSEUM OF THE HORSE AT THE KENTUCKY HORSE PARK // LEXINGTON, KENTUCKY

The International Museum of the Horse explores the history of—you guessed it!—the horse. That might sound like a narrow scope, but the museum doesn’t just display horse racing artifacts or teach you about modern horse breeds. Instead, it endeavors to tackle the 50-million-year evolution of the horse and its relationship with humans from ancient times to modern times.

6. THE PEGGY NOTEBAERT NATURE MUSEUM // CHICAGO, ILLINOIS

Pete LaMotte, Flickr // CC BY-NC-ND 2.0

The 160-year-old Peggy Notebaert Nature Museum is pulling out all the stops for this year’s Museum Day Live! In addition to their vast exhibits of animal specimens and cultural artifacts, the museum will be hosting a live animal feeding and a butterfly release throughout the day.

7. OGDEN MUSEUM OF SOUTHERN ART // NEW ORLEANS, LOUISIANA

The Ogden Museum of Southern Art aims to teach visitors about the rich culture and diverse visual arts of the American South. Right now, visitors can view a collection of William Eggleston's photographs and check out the museum's 10th annual invitational exhibition of ceramic teacups and teapots.

8. BALTIMORE MUSEUM OF INDUSTRY // BALTIMORE, MARYLAND

Marcin Wichary, Flickr // CC BY 2.0

Located in a 19th century oyster cannery on the Baltimore waterfront, the Baltimore Museum of Industry tells the story of American manufacturing from garment making to video game design. Visitors this weekend can meet video game designers and create custom games at the museum’s interactive “Video Game Wizards” exhibit.

9. SYLVAN HEIGHTS BIRD PARK // SCOTLAND NECK, NORTH CAROLINA

You can meet 2000 birds from around the world this weekend at the 18-acre Sylvan Heights Bird Park. Visitors to the massive garden can walk through aviaries displaying birds from every continent except Antarctica, including ducks, geese, swans, and exotic birds from all over the world.

10. DELTA BLUES MUSEUM // CLARKSDALE, MISSISSIPPI

Visit Mississippi, Flickr // CC BY-ND 2.0

Visitors to the Delta Blues Museum can learn about the unique American musical art form in “the land where blues began,” with audiovisual exhibits centered on blues and rock legend Don Nix, as well as Paramount Records illustrator Anthony Mostrom.

11. NATIONAL MUSEUM OF NUCLEAR SCIENCE & HISTORY // ALBUQUERQUE, NEW MEXICO

America’s only congressionally chartered museum dedicated to the story of the Atomic Age, the National Museum of Nuclear Science & History features exhibits on everything from nuclear medicine to representations of atomic power in pop culture. Adult visitors to the museum will delight in its impressively nuanced take on nuclear technology, while kids will love the museum’s outdoor airplane exhibit and hands-on science activities at Little Albert’s Lab.

12. MUSEUM OF THE MOUNTAIN MAN // PINEDALE, WYOMING

sporst, Flickr // CC BY 2.0

Dedicated to the mountain men who explored and settled Wyoming in the 19th century, the Museum of the Mountain Man brings American folklore and legends to life. The museum features exhibits on the Rocky Mountain fur trade and tells the story of American folk legend and famed mountain man Hugh Glass (the man Leonardo DiCaprio won an Oscar playing in 2015's The Revenant).

13. BESH BA GOWAH ARCHAEOLOGICAL PARK AND MUSEUM // GLOBE, ARIZONA

Arizona’s Besh Ba Gowah Archaeological Park and Museum lets visitors connect with history firsthand. The museum is home to the ruins and artifacts of the Salado Indians who inhabited Arizona from the 13th century through the 15th century, and even lets visitors wander through an 800-year-old Salado pueblo.

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12 Secrets of Sephora Employees
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Kimberly White/Getty Images

With more than 2000 stores in 33 countries, Sephora has arguably become the ultimate destination for all things beauty-related. Founded in France in 1970, the cosmetics giant sells a variety of makeup, nail polish, perfume, and skincare products, but it’s not your average beauty store. The shops offer customers an interactive experience, with beauty advice and free samples galore. We got the skinny on what it’s like to work there—from the special vocabulary they use to why they’re always happy to give out samples.

1. THEY HAVE THEIR OWN LINGO.

Sephora employees use a variety of terms to refer to themselves, their wardrobe, and where they work. Employees who interact with customers on the sales floor (a.k.a. the stage) are dubbed cast members, and managers are called directors. Continuing the theatrical theme, Sephora employees refer to their uniforms as costumes and call the back area of the store the backstage. There's also a particular term they use to describe all the free loot they get—gratis.

2. WEARING MAKEUP IS A JOB REQUIREMENT.

A Sephora employee in uniform applies eyeshadow to another woman seated in a chair
Bryan Bedder/Getty Images

Sephora employees sometimes jokingly refer to their costumes’ futuristic style—black dresses with red stripes or black separates with red accents—as Star Trek attire. But besides donning Trek-y garb, Sephora employees must also wear fragrance and a full face of makeup. “We had a minimum amount that we had to wear every day, and we got written up if we didn’t wear it,” writes Garnetstar28, a former color and fragrance expert at Sephora, on Reddit. “In the beginning it was fun, but when I started working the opening shift I really started to hate having to put that much makeup on at 6 in the morning."

While most employees must wear eyeliner, eye shadow, mascara, foundation, blush, and lipstick, some of them can get away with wearing less makeup, depending on their area of specialty and the location of the store. And although they don’t necessarily need to wear products sold at Sephora, management often encourages employees to do so because many customers ask cast members about the products they personally use.

3. THEY MIGHT NEVER HAVE TO BUY THEIR OWN MAKEUP …

Reps from various beauty brands regularly visit Sephora stores to educate employees about their new products and how to use them. In these trainings, which typically occur a few times a week, Sephora workers may receive free products (in full, half, or sample sizes) to try. That can add up quickly, with some employees estimating that they’ve accumulated thousands of dollars worth of products. “I will most likely never have to buy mascara ever again,” writes Kaitierehh, a Sephora Color Lead (the manager of a store’s color cosmetics section), on Reddit.

4. … BUT IF THEY DO, THEY GET HEFTY DISCOUNTS.

A line of women pour over a new Sephora display of makeup in Australia
Mark Metcalfe/Getty Images

If Sephora employees want a specific product that’s missing from their gratis goodies, they can always purchase it from their employer—at a steep discount. Store policies vary, but most employees enjoy a 20 percent discount for in-store and online products. During the winter holidays, this discount increases to 30 percent, and products from Sephora’s own collection are always available for a 40 percent discount. Additionally, Sephora employees who work at stores inside J.C. Penney (Sephora has a partnership with the department store chain) enjoy a 20 to 30 percent discount on J.C. Penney products. Not a bad deal.

5. THEY CAN WORK THEIR WAY UP FROM CASHIER TO SKINCARE PHD.

At Sephora, most new hires—who don’t need to have any makeup application experience—start at the bottom, working as cashiers or stocking the shelves overnight. But opportunities for growth abound. “Once you feel comfortable you can let your managers know you want ‘to go through build’ where you will learn about all the different ‘worlds’ the store has to offer,” a Sephora employee going by littleboots writes on Reddit. “Eventually you will be tested, and if you pass, you will have your very own brush belt.”

Sephora employees go through plenty of training, from the Science of Sephora (a curriculum covering makeup application and customer service) to hands-on learning from brand reps. “Sephora is amazing about education,” says Kim Carpluk, a Senior Artist and Class Facilitator at one of the company's New York City locations. “I’ve grown so much as an artist in just three years with the company,” she tells Mental Floss.

Cast members who complete additional training (beyond Science of Sephora) are eligible to earn a Skincare PhD, a senior title bestowed upon employees who have comprehensive knowledge and serve as personal beauty advisors to customers. Additionally, a select few become part of the Sephora Pro team, traveling the country to demonstrate makeup application techniques and represent the company on the brand’s social media channels.

6. THEY WISH MORE PEOPLE WOULD PRACTICE GOOD HYGIENE.

A display of Mar Jacobs makeup a a Sephora store in Australia
Mark Metcalfe/Getty Images

The various testers around the store let customers dab on concealer, experiment with a new shade of gloss, or test a bold eye shadow. Although Sephora employees work hard to monitor and sanitize the testing stations, they can’t completely control what customers do. “I’ve seen people with cold sores, people with really nasty chapped lips, and people who were visibly sick using lipsticks and glosses on their mouths,” Garnetstar28 says. Besides the gross factor, contaminated makeup brushes, applicators, and wands can harbor bacteria (including E. coli) and spread infections. To minimize the risk, Sephora employees use alcohol-based sanitizers and encourage customers to use disposable applicators.

7. THEY AREN’T PRESSURED TO MAKE COMMISSIONS.

Unlike salespeople at other beauty retailers, Sephora employees don’t work off commission—so they feel free to give customers their unbiased opinions about products. “We just really care. The reason a lot of us work for Sephora is because we don’t have to work off commission,” Carpluk says. “We’re there to support each other and make our clients feel beautiful and happy, and suggest what’s right for them based on their particular concerns.”

To encourage cast members to be positive and friendly (without the motivation of commissions), Sephora offers customers online surveys that allow them to rate their experience at a store. Managers may also reward cast members who meet hourly sales goals (selling more than $100 worth of products in the next hour, for example) with free beauty products. “If we do extra well a manager might randomly let you choose extra gratis,” littleboots reveals.

8. THEY'RE NOT ALL WOMEN.

5 Sephora employees, 2 of them male, pose in front of a display in a Santa Monica store
Rebecca Sapp/Getty Images

While many of Sephora’s employees (and customers) are women, you can still find plenty of men in the store. “I have three beautiful amazing super talented drag queens on my artistry team," Kaitierehh says. “At one of my previous stores, I even had two straight boys on my cast.” At Carpluk’s store in New York City, the employee ratio is almost 50/50 males to females. “We have a lot of men that work with us,” she says. “We even have a lot of male clients come in. I recently did a small makeover for an actor—I walked him through how to use foundation and concealer.”

9. THEY’RE HAPPY TO GIVE YOU FREE SAMPLES …

Sephora is generous when it comes to free samples, and employees fully embrace the store’s bighearted policy. “I love to give out samples,” Carpluk says. “We’re there to help and to give out as many [samples] as possible. If you’re having trouble choosing between two foundations, we want you to take them home and try it out.” Typically, employees stick to giving three samples to each customer, but some are happy to give even more. “Anything we can squeeze into a container is the easiest—think foundation, primer, skin care,” littleboots says. “We can make a sad attempt to scrape out lip gloss or cut off a piece of lipstick too, it’s just not as effective.”

10. … BUT THE STORE’S GENEROUS RETURN POLICY CAN IRRITATE THEM.

A selection of makeup on display at a Sephora store in Beverly Hills, California
Joe Scarnici/Getty Images

Sephora’s return policy lets customers return anything (even "gently used" products) up to 60 days after buying it for a full refund, and customers who return items without a receipt get full store credit. While customers love the flexibility of trying products and returning them, some Sephora employees get frustrated when customers abuse the return policy. “I’ve seen entire articles written about how to take advantage of Sephora’s generous return policy by returning half used products and shades when the trends change and you get tired of them,” writes Ivy Boyd, who worked her way up at Sephora from a Product Consultant to Senior Education Consultant. “It infuriates me, to be honest, and is a very entitled attitude. When items are returned used, they are damaged out. They are destroyed. They go to complete waste.”

11. THEY MIGHT NOT WEAR MAKEUP WHEN THEY’RE OFF THE CLOCK.

Sephora employees are passionate about makeup, but many of them choose to go barefaced on their days off. Besides saving time by skipping makeup, they can give their skin and pores much needed time to “breathe” without being smothered in products. Not all employees forego makeup on their days off, though. “Every single day of my entire existence I wear makeup,” Carpluk admits.

12. THEY LOVE MAKING PEOPLE FEEL CONFIDENT.

A male Sephora employee applies powder to a seated woman holding a mirror and smiling at her reflection
Steve Jennings/Getty Images

Besides scoring free products and getting paid to work with makeup, Sephora employees love making people feel confident and beautiful. Whether they help a customer with acne find a good concealer or boost the self-confidence of someone with the right mascara, Sephora employees know the importance of self-image and the power of makeup to transform. “That’s actually why I feel happy going to work ever day,” Carpluk says. “A lot of women haven’t heard how beautiful their skin is, or how sparkly their eyes are, or that their lips are their best feature. I try to compliment my clients as much as possible throughout the service to let them know how gorgeous they are.”

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