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Archive for December, 2016

There once lived a man who had strange dreams.

One of the dreams regularly involved a tennis tournament played on a mountaintop in Peru.  Another had an origami master who was the operator of an armored personnel carrier.  Yet another consisted of an Australian women’s rugby coach who moved to Serbia, opened a brewery, and wrote a novel based on the life of Python of Byzantium (Πύθων ὁ Βυζάντιος).

The worst of these dreams, however, was a nightmare which tormented the man periodically.  In this nightmare, there was a xylophone made from human bones: finger bones for the high notes on the right, down to an enormous femur for the lowest note on the left.   In this nightmare, the man was invariably tied to the xylophone with shigawire, while a demonic musician played something execrable (such as Vivaldi’s Four Seasons).  At the climax of the music, just when the man was on the point of being driven entirely insane, the ghost of Warren G. Harding poured grape juice onto the xylophone from an amphora made of jade.

At this point the man always awoke with a start, in a cold sweat, sometimes screaming, sometimes crying.

It goes without saying that the man developed a lifetime phobia of grape juice being poured onto xylophones.  And worse: he developed a fear of almost any juice product being dumped onto any percussive mallet-based instrument.

He avoided Kindergarten classrooms, for who could say that little Timmy might not pour his juicebox onto that glockenspiel?  He avoided performances of Danse Macabre by Saint-Saëns, for might not the percussionist have a flask of wine which could spill forth?  And forget ever going to see the Rolling Stones in concert: might not a band member spill a screwdriver onto the marimbas during “Under My Thumb”?  All told, the man’s phobia represented a very minor, but non-zero, inconvenience.

Our story would be of little interest were it not for the fact that the man became Emperor of the World.  How this was achieved is of no consequence to this parable; suffice to say that the man lied, preened, stole, and schmoozed his way to the top.  But once he was in power, the now-Emperor decided that he could now rid himself of fear, by passing a law.  The law was presented thus:

As Emperor of the World I hereby ban the pouring of grape juice onto xylophones.  Anyone caught committing such a traitorous, cowardly act, will face the full wrath of our justice system, and be imprisoned for not more than 33 years.

The Emperor released this edict and went to bed content, confident that his nightmares were over.

But there were unintended consequences.

Most people had never, in their wildest fantasies, entertained the notion of pouring grape juice onto xylophones.  The whole concept never crossed their minds.  But now, with the Emperor explicitly banning the practice, the pouring of grape juice onto xylophones (PGJOX) became A THING.  Suppose you wanted to irk the Emperor, get under his skin, be a gadfly, protest his policies.  What better way, than PGJOX?  Whereas before the Emperor clawed his way to power, there was not a single case of PGJOX, after the edict there were thousands of such cases.

The Emperor was too dense to realize that his law had caused all that grape juice to be poured.  Indeed, the ballooning of PGJOX cases reaffirmed his pre-conceived notion that PGJOX was A THING, and had always been A THING, and so his law was justified.  There was a vicious cycle: the more he railed against PGJOX, the more people performed the act he hated; this in turn caused him to rail against PGJOX all the more.

What became of the Emperor?  And what became of the law?  And what became of pouring grape juice on xylophones?  In the first case, his nightmares returned, his dreams became indistinguishable from reality, and we are still to this day (centuries later) recovering from the 30-year rule of the Mad Emperor.  Of course, the law banning PGJOX was repealed eventually, but (interestingly) pear juice is still poured onto vibraphones every Nov. 30 in parts of Alberta and Saskatchewan (on Banff Day).

Moral: if you’re a lawmaker, and there’s some strange act that makes you uncomfortable, then shhhhhhh…don’t do anything.  Don’t bring attention to it.  Passing a law against your pet peeve is just lighting a match and handing it to your opponents.

But don’t trust me.  Trust the ghost of Warren G. Harding.

harding.jpg

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There’s a lot of talk these last few days of how horrible it would be if, for example, Penn State wins the Big Ten championship but doesn’t make the college football Final Four playoff.  This would happen if, say, Washington (the current #4) loses to Colorado in the Pac-12 championship.  Presumably, then, Michigan (now currently #5) would move up into the #4 slot, leaving the Nittany Lions crying into their Wheaties.

Why would this (ostensibly) be horrible?  Well (the argument goes) you’d then have two Big Ten teams (Ohio State and Michigan) in the playoffs who didn’t even win their conference.  Some people think this would be a travesty.

I disagree.  Winning (or not winning) a conference is essentially meaningless.  That’s because it’s entirely possible to win the conference with a shitty record.

Image result for big 10 trophy

First, we have to discuss how the Big Ten champ is chosen.  There are 14 teams in the Big Ten, not 10. (We’re already in Twilight Zone territory here).  7 of the teams are in the West division, and 7 are in the East.  Each year, each team plays 4 non-conference games, and 8 conference games; of those 8, 6 are in the same division, and 2 in the other division.  The winner of the West will play the winner of the East to determine the Big Ten conference champ.

Suppose, in the East, Michigan, Ohio State, and Maryland all post 11-1 records; each losing only one division game to one of the other two.  Based on arcane tie-breaks, one of these (presumably) good teams will be invited to the Big Ten championship.  Let’s say it’s Maryland.

In the West, however, imagine that all 7 teams have identical 3-9 records.  They achieve this by losing all non-divisional games, and splitting their West division games 3-3.  One of these (crappy) teams will go to the Big Ten championship game by tie-break.  Let’s say it’s Iowa.

So it’s Maryland (11-1) vs. Iowa (3-9).  Maybe Iowa wins on a fluke (Maryland’s QB gets the flu, or a ref gives the game to Iowa by awarding a 5th down…these things happen).   Despite this head-to-head result, is anyone really going to rank the now 4-9 Iowa Hawkeyes over the 11-2 Maryland Terrapins?  Of course not.

Here’s the mathematical reason that conference championships are meaningless: all they tell you is that you’re the best team out of a subset of teams.  And that doesn’t really tell you much at all.

Suppose we had a tournament for BIG COUNTRIES.  Who would you rank among the top BIG COUNTRIES?  My top four would be Russia, Canada, USA, and China.  “But wait!” says Algeria.  “I won the Africa division!  And the USA is smaller than Canada and so didn’t even win its division!”

If we want to pick the BIG COUNTRIES, then being the biggest country in your continent is meaningless.  Similarly, if we want to find the best teams, finding the best teams in conference divisions is meaningless.

One way to mitigate this problem is to eliminate conference divisions entirely.  In the hypothetical scenario mentioned above, if the Big Ten just had one 14-team division, then Iowa would stay home and Maryland would play Michigan (say) for the conference title.  Still not perfect, but we’d definitely know then that a good team had won the conference.

I’m not lobbying for any sort of change in the NCAA playoff selection rules.  I have every expectation that the committee will do the right thing, regardless of whether Washington wins or not.  Their ranking Ohio State #2 despite not even going to the Big Ten title game is indicative of that.  What I am advocating for is for people to shut up about conference champions.

Hey, Algeria: just because you’re the biggest country in Africa doesn’t make you a top-4 country.

Image result for algeria flag

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