Archive for the ‘Rant’ Category

When sports decide which teams make the playoffs, there are often tiebreakers used to sort-out teams with identical records.  One of the most common tiebreakers is the “head-to-head” record.

Head-to-head record is a poor tiebreaker, especially compared with, say, strength of schedule.

Let’s NCAA basketball as an example.  Suppose Wake Forest (my alma mater) and Western Carolina (the school where I teach) both go 29-1 in the regular season.  Suppose Western Carolina’s only loss was to Mars Hill, and Wake Forest’s only loss was to Western Carolina.

Image result for western carolina basketball

The diehard “head-to-head” people would say “Western Carolina should be ranked higher!  They won the head-to-head matchup!”  But I say: what about the other 29 games?  Wake Forest plays in the ACC, and has multiple games against Duke, UNC, Miami, NC State…you get the picture.  Western Carolina has a much weaker schedule against the likes of Wofford, the Citadel, VMI, Chattanooga.  Sure, Wake Forest lost to Western Carolina, but in turn, Western Carolina lost to Mars Hill!  Which loss looks worse, hmm?

Image result for wake forest logo

The problem with head-to-head is that it’s only one data point.  Any team can lose a single game.  Maybe Wake Forest was missing their starting 5 due to the flu for that one game against Western Carolina.  (Clemson’s loss in football to Syracuse, earlier this year, was partially due to their starting quarterback being out).  A tie-breaker should be as broad as possible, and take the entire year into consideration.  This is especially true in basketball or baseball, when the long seasons make head-to-head records well-nigh meaningless.

I’m thinking about this now because college football is nearing its end for the year, and some arcane committee will have to decide who gets into the college football playoff and who stays out.  There are those who have complained that an undefeated Wisconsin team (currently #3) should be ranked higher.  But the Badgers have played an easy schedule, compared to, say, Auburn, who has faced the toughest road possible.  (Look at strength-of-schedule rankings here.)  In fact, I personally rank Auburn (10-2) higher than Wisconsin (12-0) for that very reason.  We only have 24 total data points here, but if Auburn and Wisconsin swapped schedules, then Auburn would be 12-0 easily and Wisconsin would be, at best, 7-5.

I can’t say it enough.  Head-to-head is a garbage tiebreaker.  It’s only one data point.  Strength-of-schedule incorporates literally dozens of data points and should always take precedence.

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Here’s something that will never happen, but it would be awesome:

The NCAA should go to a Swiss-system for college football.  And I don’t mean for the playoffs; I mean for the entire season.

First of all, here’s a brief primer on what the Swiss-system is.  I don’t think I can explain it better than the hive mind on Wikipedia, so here’s a quote:

“A Swiss-system tournament is a non-eliminating tournament format which features a predetermined number of rounds of competition… In a Swiss tournament, each competitor (team or individual) does not play every other. Competitors meet one-to-one in each round and are paired using a predetermined set of rules designed to ensure that each competitor plays opponents with a similar running score, but not the same opponent more than once. The winner is the competitor with the highest aggregate points earned in all rounds.”

Such systems are very common in chess tournaments, and also used in backgammon, squash, and eight-ball tournaments.  I’ve never heard of them being used in team sports, which is a pity.

Image result for bern

If I were Emperor of the World, here’s how I would implement the Swiss-system for college football.  At the beginning of the season, I’d rank the 128 FBS teams (teams that normally are bowl eligible) from #1 to #128.  (Well, I probably wouldn’t rank the teams personally, but I’d have a computer and/or a committee rank the teams much as the BCS does now.)  The great thing is that a ranking of #1 vs. a ranking of #5 (say) at the beginning of the season wouldn’t matter much at all.

The first week of the season, #1 would play #65, #2 would play #66, and so on.  For illustrative purposes, if we based seeding on the current NCAA rankings (as of Nov. 7, 2016), we’d have Alabama (#1) playing Southern Mississippi (#65), Michigan (#2)  vs. Texas Tech (#66), Clemson (#3) vs. Georgia (#67), Washington (#4) vs. NC State (#68), and so on, down to California (#64) vs. Florida Atlantic (#128).  Every higher-ranked teamed would be favored of course, but you’re going to get plenty of upsets: every one of the matchups I just (arbitrarily) presented would be a decent game.  Gone would be the days when an Alabama would play a non-FBS Western Carolina for their first game and win 49-0 to pad their resume.

Starting with week #2, things are already interesting.  Every week after the first, each team plays another team with the exact same record (if possible).  Continuing with my example, and assuming that all the higher ranked teams won in week 1, you’d already have on the table Alabama (#1) vs. Troy (#33), Michigan (#2) vs. Tulsa (#34), Clemson (#3) vs. Minnesota (#35), etc.  None of these games are cake-walks by any means (for perspective, the current records of Alabama, Michigan, and Clemson are all 9-0, but the current records of Troy, Tulsa, and Minnesota are 7-1, 7-2, and 7-2, respectively.)

Here’s the thing: starting with week 2, every single game in college football is a competitive game.  And starting around week 4, every single game is almost evenly-matched.  We’ve eliminated the all-too-common problem with the current system: that the top teams really only play 2 or 3 meaningful games a year.

Suppose we were using the Swiss-system, and we were making the matchups for the coming week’s games (Nov. 12).  What games would be on tap?  Well, there are currently 5 undefeated teams, which in a Swiss-system would be very unlikely after 9 weeks.  Just for fun let’s assume that it’s possible, but let’s ignore Western Michigan (no way they’d go 9-0 if they faced a few good teams).  With Alabama, Michigan, Clemson, and Washington all 9-0, this week’s marquee matchups would be Alabama vs. Washington, and Michigan vs. Clemson.  It’s likely that next week you’d have Alabama facing Michigan.  This, in early November!

The good matchups continue all the way down the line.  One-loss teams would all face each other, and you’d perhaps have games like Louisville vs. Ohio State.  Even at the bottom of the barrel, with a Rice playing a Florida Atlantic, the games would be evenly-matched.  This would be great for fans, because as it stands, when a Rice fan attends a game, they fully expect a loss; but with a Swiss-system, that same fan can be hopeful for at least a 50-50 shot at winning.

At the end of the season, an undefeated team would be almost impossible.  It’s likely you’d have 3 or 4 teams that were 10-2, and they’d all have already played each other.  That’s when a playoff would kick in.

For the playoff, we’d have the 4 (or better yet, 8) teams with the best records play each other in a standard elimination format.  At this point, it wouldn’t matter if they’d already faced each other in the regular season; rematches at this point would be desirable.  The great thing is that these teams would all be excellent teams.  In a Swiss-system, if you go 10-2, facing tougher opponents every single week, no one can argue you aren’t one of the best teams in the country.  Built into the Swiss-system is an important feature, which is that basically, every team at the end with a similar record faced a similar strength of schedule.

This is important, for in the current system, teams which are 12-0 can be left out of the playoff discussion if they’d didn’t play any good teams.  That’s never struck me as particularly fair.  If my team goes 12-0 and doesn’t get to the playoffs, then that means the team never even had a theoretical shot at making the playoffs to begin with.  What’s the point, then?  It’s a sordid fact that in the current system, there are only 30 or so teams that can ever even theoretically make it to the playoffs in a given year.  I’m sorry, Florida Atlantic, but if you go 12-0 next year you ain’t playing in a major bowl game.

There are obviously a few objections one could raise to my brilliant scheme.  Let’s address them.

  1. What about logistics? How in the world could you have teams flying around the country, facing each other, planning trips on only a week’s notice?  Well, as Emperor, it wouldn’t be my problem.  But in any case, it’s the 21st century for Xenu’s sake, so I think with some 747’s and the internet, it could be done.
  2. What about revenue? If Western Carolina doesn’t get to play and get crushed by Alabama, then Western Carolina loses out on some big time TV money!  OK, sure, but the games will in general be much, much more competitive, and many more fans will go to see WCU home games since they finally have a chance to win.  I really believe TV revenue would be up across the board.  We could even implement a TV revenue-sharing scheme, but that’s a topic for another day.
  3. What about rivalries? Well, what about them?  The current system doesn’t give a fuck about them in any case.  I can’t even keep track of who’s in what conference these days.  (Syracuse is in the ACC?  When did that happen?  They’ll always be a Big East team to me.)  With a Swiss-system, conferences become meaningless, and I say good riddance.

Image result for army navy game 1963

As for the handful of actual rivalries that still exist, and haven’t become jokes, such as Army vs. Navy (come to think of it, that has become a joke) or Alabama vs. Auburn, you could have the teams play an extra game in mid-December that doesn’t really count for anything.  If you think it’s unfair that a team has to play an extra game compared to other teams, well then, why not have every team pick a greatest rival that they have to play every year?  Hell, these games might even be the first games of the year, a sort of pre-season-type game, and the results don’t affect the Swiss-system per se, but the results might inform the seedings.  So Navy plays Army (a joke game, usually) but if Navy loses, we might initially rank them a little lower than otherwise.

Would any of this ever happen?  Not one chance in a million.  But it’s fun to speculate about.  And mark my words, in the universe(s) where I actually do become Emperor, initiating an NCAA football Swiss-system is one of my first magnanimous acts.

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Economics (still) don’t matter

[An updated version of a post from 2012 which first appeared here.]

Economics don’t matter in this year’s election.

At least, they don’t matter to me.

There are smart people who think Hillary’s economic plan is better for America than Bernie’s.  There are smart people that think Cruz’s’s plan is better.  (Of course, Trump has no plan.) We have some idea of what a Democrat as president would be like, and with Obama at the helm the economy has improved greatly since the Wall-street induced recession of 2008, even with an obstructionist do-nothing congress.  But maybe you think a Republican could do better.  Who knows?  I don’t really know as a fact which candidate would be better, from an economic standpoint.  (Except for Trump.  Trump would be a disaster by any measure.)

And let’s be honest.  You don’t know who would be better, either.

Oh, there are a few people who claim to understand the economic issues involved.  But let’s face it, “experts” can’t really pick stocks better than monkeys or dartboards.  Why do we expect the American economy to be any more tractable?  In the language of mathematics, the economy is a chaotic system.  Any small change in policy is likely to produce unpredictable results.  So when you pick a candidate based on “economic principles” you’re really just saying “I believe this candidate’s meaningless economic rhetoric more than the other guy’s meaningless economic rhetoric.”  If you have a PhD in economics, maybe I’ll give you the benefit of the doubt…but if you’re a truck driver, or a doctor, or a waitress, or a welder, then your ideas about the economy are probably total bullshit.

I am a physicist.  My ideas about the economy are bullshit.

Ever play one of the Civilization computer games, such as Civilization V?  If you have, you see how complicated and interconnected every decision is.  You have to juggle money, and the happiness of citizens, and threats foreign and domestic, and culture, science…the tiniest decisions can have huge ramifications, and no monolithic blanket ideology will get you to the promised land of victory.  It’s a balancing act.  Sometimes you have to raise taxes.  Sometimes you have to cut them.  Sometimes you increase education, sometimes you build infrastructure, sometimes you go to war, sometimes you seek a diplomatic solution.

If the pundits are to be believed, being president is simpler than this.  Just drink the Flavor Aid, follow the party line, and everything will be great.  Being president is as simple as doing everything that Rush Limbaugh (or Michael Moore) says.

I don’t buy it.  And if you’re honest with yourself, you won’t either.  Just say it to yourself: “I know nothing about economics.  I know nothing about economics.”

Why is it that people who admittedly know nothing about chemistry, poetry, physics, differential equations, music theory, pottery, animal husbandry, statistics, number theory, ancient history, modern Japanese culture, biology, leatherworking, genetics, Shakespeare, phonetics, linear algebra, astronomy, geology, philosophy, music history, Greek, marketing, calculus, modern history, evolution, quantum mechanics, medicine, world religions, and engineering, think that they know anything about complex economic issues?

(Not you, Ken Rogoff.  I know you know economics.)

Why is it that people who are ignorant of 99% of the world’s body of knowledge still have strong beliefs concerning tariffs or debt ceilings or free trade agreements or progressive taxes?  Let me be frank: if you don’t know what something is, you have no logical right to an opinion about it.  (Do you think that decoherence is sufficient to explain effective wave collapse, a la the Copenhagen interpretation?  Or do you feel that, ultimately, some non-local theory will gives us the loophole we need to sweep Bell’s Theorem under the table?  I didn’t think so.)  Just once I’d like to see a fry cook from Burger King say, “I have no opinion regarding stimulus money…I don’t understand all the complex economic concepts involved…but you know, the Thirty Year’s War was less about Catholic/Protestant bickering and more about the Bourbon-Habsburg rivalry.”

Economist John Maynard Keynes

If you don’t know who I am, then why do you even pretend to know the first thing about economics?

So.  The economy shouldn’t matter in your voting decision.  So where does that leave you?

Well, what’s left are social issues.  Issues like civil rights for the LGBT community, civil rights for women, civil rights for immigrants, the failed war on drugs, the continuing (attempted) theocratization of America, and the stranglehold that the vile NRA has on our political system.  I can’t in good conscience vote for a party that denies the fact of global warming (and here’s where I will play the “PhD in physics” card), the fact of evolution, the fact that the Earth is billions of years old.  The Republicans give every impression that they are the anti-science party, the anti-women party, the party of a solely-Christian America, the party of Wall Street.  If that is not the case, it is still true that very few Republicans distance themselves from such stances.

If you vote for someone, anyone, don’t hide behind the “I just prefer his economic policies” defense.  At least have the courage of your convictions.  Say what you truly are, and why you prefer the social ideas of your preferred demagogue.

I am a liberal, in the best sense of the word: the world could be better, and we have a long way to go.

What are you?

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’til is not a word!

[Reposted from Dec. 4, 2012]


For I ne’er saw true beauty till this night…

’til is not a word.

Please, use either until, or till.  Some people think that ’til is an abbreviation of until, but this is folk etymology.  “Till” is the older word by far, going back to at least Shakespeare’s day.  For example:

John 21:22 (KJV)     Jesus saith unto him, If I will that he tarry till I come, what to thee?  Follow thou me.

Romeo and Juliet: I, v     For I ne’er saw true beauty till this night.

Also note that “Till death us depart”, from the marriage liturgy in the Book of Common Prayer, dates back to 1549!  It became “Till death us do part” in 1662.

Seeing advertisements for the old Fox show ’til Death always grated on me like fingernails on a blackboard.  Luckily, like most Fox sitcoms, that show departed quite a while ago.

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I am a huge supporter of free speech.  I also support the right to make pariahs out of any bozo who still thinks the Confederate flag is not about racism.  And so, as a society, my proposal is simple:


If enough people make fun of these asshats, peer pressure will kick in eventually.  They’ll see themselves as the losers we know they are.

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On Monday, Republican presidential wannabe Rick Santorum said that the Pope should “leave science to the scientists”.


What that hell does that even mean?


What the hell?

If taken literally, it would mean that Santorum defers to scientists, and so if a policy issue concerning climate change were to arise, he would trust in the scientists’ collective judgment. That collective judgment is overwhelmingly unanimous; the fact that 97% of scientists in a particular field agree on a particular something is well-nigh miraculous.

But of course Santorum doesn’t mean that.

It could also mean that he thinks no one should talk about anything unless they’re an expert in the field. But that’s absurd, right? If a tornado approaches, would Santorum say that only meteorologists should talk about it? Surely not. [See my last post.]

In point of fact, “leave science to the scientists” is a kind of code these days among many Republican politicians. Here’s my rough translation:

“Despite what I may personally believe, my voting base is generally against human-caused climate change, and many of these voters even deny that climate change is occurring at all. On the other hand, if I personally deny climate change, I will look like an idiot to the something like 71% of the general public who agree that climate change is happening. So I will obfuscate: by punting to unnamed scientists, I can deflect the question; I can make my voting base happy while at the same time not actually saying I’m against climate change per se.”

This kind of obfuscation is odious to me. Slimy. Maybe it’s par for the course; maybe that’s how the game is played; maybe that’s just realpolitik. But I don’t have to like it. Someone needs to take Santorum (or any other Republican who spouts such nonsense) to task, and ask the following hard questions:

  • Does science ever effect policy making? If so, who do we turn to for answers? Should we listen to the experts, or listen to conspiracy-theory-soaked hate-spewing trolls?
  • If we should leave science to the scientists, doesn’t that mean we should accept the answers they give us? After all, they’re the experts, not us.
  • I hear, Rick, that you don’t believe in the plain fact of evolution. Do you by chance also believe in the Tooth Fairy? [OK, that was a non-sequitur, but I couldn’t help it.]


Imagine Santorum is sitting beneath a mountain, and there are 100 volcanologists around him. 97 of the volcanologists say that the mountain is about to explode; 3 of them have doubts. But Santorum doesn’t listen to any of the scientists; he’s got Rush Limbaugh whispering in his ear, telling him “it’s all bullshit.” So Santorum says: “Leave volcanology to the volcanologists. Let’s do nothing.” His fan-base cheers—at least until the pyroclastic flow hits them all at 450 mph.

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[Note: this is the article that I wish Nate Silver would write.  He’d be so much better at the number crunching.  Of course, he’s also paid a lot more.]

I’m tired of hearing pundits spew their opinions about this, that, or the other.  Let’s face it, most people don’t know anything.

Of course, that includes me, but hey: this is my blog.

I’m using hyperbole; it’s true.  And yet in a country where 9% of people think that space aliens may have caused the disappearance of Malaysia Air flight 370; in a country where 55.56% of Supreme Court justices are completely ignorant about the First Amendment; in a country where sizable numbers of people believe in a 10,000 year-old Earth, and where numerous people doubt facts like global warming, evolution by natural selection, and the supremacy of Matt Damon…in such a country, how can you really take anyone seriously?

OK; I take Neil deGrasse Tyson seriously.  But he’s earned it.

People (of every political ideology) spew forth talking points without any facts to back them up.  Hell, they spew forth talking points without any justification at all.  I have liberal friends who are against GMO foods…even though there is no reason to think they could ever be harmful, and in fact have already saved millions of lives.  (Trivia question: how did Norman Borlaug save a billion people from starvation and subsequently win the Nobel Peace prize?  Answer: genetically modified wheat.)

On the other side, all kinds of nifty-sounding talking points spew from the conservative font, again without even a shred of justification other than “well, that sounds right”.  For example, people claim that less government is good.  Shrinking government is a goal of Tea Baggers.  “Democrats want more government, Republicans want less government…everyone knows that.”  It’s become a cliche, and people don’t even question it any more.

But this is the information age.  We don’t have to rely on our gut feelings, or even our supposed “knowledge”, to evaluate claims like “less government is good”.  We have data.  Why don’t people look at the data and then make up their minds?

I’ll tell you why: because looking at data is hard work.  Let’s face it; most people just can’t do it.  Most people want to be told what to believe.  But I just got tenure, so I have some time.  Let’s try to get to the bottom of this.

It didn’t take me long to find this website, which has nifty (exportable) data on all kinds of economic indicators.  Hey, look, the USA is ranked 12th in economic freedom out of more than 165 countries.  Yay!  We’re doing OK.

What about the size of government?  This is harder to quantify, since it means different things to different people (for example, many Republicans want to “reduce” the size of the US government without touching our defense budget, which is a little like trying to lower world sea levels by draining the Mediterranean Sea).  However, the indicator “Gov’t Expenditure % of GDP” seems pretty good to me.

How does the USA do here?  Do we have a “bloated, huge, nanny state?”  Our spending is 41.6% of GDP.  This makes us rank 47th in this indicator, so about the 72-percentile.  We have a “bigger” government than about 72% of the countries on the list.

Who’s ahead of us?  The supposed “socialist” states are (Norway, Sweden, Findland, Denmark) of course.  Everyone “knows” they are entirely nanny states.  Also: France, the UK, Germany.  The usual suspects.  Liberal, bloated, big government monstrosities.

But also: Cuba!?  Libya!?  Bosnia!?  Iraq!?  Malta!?

Maybe Cuba fits well into the narrative.  Cuba is a Communist country, so of course the commies have huge governments.  (I personally think Cuba is an outlier, since its GDP is pitifully small).  But what about other Communist states?

Hmm.  The narrative is starting to break down.  China’s government spending is about 23.9% of its GDP, almost half the size of the US.  The commies in red China are spending half of what we spend.  Vietnam spends about 30.9% of its GDP.

The talking point that the USA has become a “bloated nanny state” doesn’t hold water.  We’re in the top one-third of spenders, it’s true; but our defense budget is Brobdingnagian to say the least; if you plotted “non-defense government spending as % of GDP” our rank would be much lower.  (Note: I lack the skills to do this…feel free to do so yourself.)

But all this is distraction.  Ultimately, I don’t even know if big government is inherently bad or good, and more importantly, you don’t either.  Admit it.  You’re just guessing.

But we don’t have to guess.  We can try to understand the data a little bit more.

It didn’t take long for me to stumble on the cute Where-to-be-born index, a kind of “happiness index” which takes multiple factors into account like quality of life, health, economics, and so on, in order to rank countries based on where you’d prefer to be born.  (Admit it: you’d rather be born in Australia than Bangladesh.)  So hey, I know how to use Excel: let’s plot Size of Government vs. Where-to-be-born and see if there’s a correlation!


Firstly: there’s not much of a correlation (the R^2 value is only around 0.17).  This is not surprising; the size of government has little to do with anything.  (It certainly shouldn’t be the entire frakking basis for a political movement.)  But what correlation there is, is positive, meaning that as governments get bigger, people tend to get happier.  All the Viking countries are in the upper right.  And those Scandanavians are doing well, dammit!

Some countries stand out.  Russia and China are lower and to the left of the USA, meaning they have smaller governments (is that surprising?) but are also more miserable.  Cuba, though, is a huge government spender…why is that?  Also, what’s the deal with Singapore?  They’re happy and (apparently) almost an anarchist state.  Tea Baggers take note: emulate Singapore.

The main idea I want you to get out of the graph is this:  there’s a lot of noise there.  You can’t really draw any conclusions.  If you want to say that “Big Government Bad!” in the same way that Tarzan says “Fire Bad!” you’d better have some data to back up your claim.  And finding such data is, well, hard work.  Good luck.

And now I’d better get back to studying something I know about: physics.






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