All posts by jonfwilkins

The Baseball Playoffs are a Crapshoot, but Having 100 Wins Doesn’t Hurt

The Cubs wound up the regular season with the best record in baseball: 103 wins (out of only 161 games, due to a rain-out that went down as a tie). Does this guarantee that the Cubs will win it all this year? No. In fact, if you read Slate, “having such a record is nearly a kiss of death.”

Hmm

The premise of the piece seems that winning 100 games actually hurts you in the playoffs, as does having the best regular season record. What follows from that assertion would be an exercise in p-hacking, if any of the supporting evidence were statistically significant. Instead, it is exactly the sort of exercise in anecdotal misinterpretation that statistics were invented to avoid.

It is certainly true that having the best record in the regular season does not guarantee postseason success. Baseball is a game where any team can beat any other on a given day. Typically, only one or two teams win more than 60% of their games over the course of the regular season, and winning 55% will usually get you into the playoffs. When these teams play each other in a best-of-five or best-of-seven series, the odds of the “better” team coming out on top are not much different from a coin toss.

But does it hurt you? Let’s see what stats Slate musters to support the argument. They restrict their analysis to the 21 years from 1995 through 2015, when the playoffs have had the current wildcard structure. During that time:

• No National League team has won 100 regular-season games and won the World Series. The only team in baseball to achieve the feat is the New York Yankees, in 1998 and 2009. Only two 100-win National League teams have even reached the Series.

Okay, during that time period six National League teams and eight American League teams have won at least 100 regular season games. If each playoff was a 50/50 coin toss, each of those teams would have a one in eight chance of winning the world series. So, the expected number of NL wins would be 0.75, and the expected number of AL wins would be 1.0. The NL falls slightly below expectation (0/6), but not significantly so. The AL exceeds expectation (2/8), as does the combined NL-AL record (2/14).

No team other than the aforementioned 1998 and 2009 Yankees has posted the outright best record in baseball and won the World Series. Boston won the Series in 2007 and 2013 after tying for baseball’s best record.

In five of the 21 years, there was a tie for the best record in baseball. So, in the 16 years with a single best record, that team won the world series twice. Again, coin toss would give you a one in eight chance, so 2/16 is right in line with expectations. In the five years with a tie, there’s a one in four chance that one of those two teams will win, so the expected number of wins would be 1.25, less than the 2/5 Red Sox wins.

Last year, Kansas City became the seventh team of the wild-card era to post the best record in its league (excluding Boston’s tie in 2007) and win the World Series. In that same span, six wild-card teams have won the Series.

Well, if it’s a coin toss, the team with the best record would have the same odds of winning as the wildcard (or the two wildcards combined, in the extra-expanded playoff structure in place since 2012). So, pretty much what you would expect.

• The top National League team in the regular season hasn’t won the World Series since the Atlanta Braves did it in 1995.

This is the first statistic that seems to deviate at all from expectation. In 21 years, if the top NL team had a one in eight chance of winning the World Series each year, you would expect 21/8 World Series wins. That is, more than two, but fewer than three. And one is less than two, right? Well, the probability that you would have zero wins in 21 years is about 6%. The probability that you would have one win is about 18%.

The standard way to ask this question is to say, “What is the probability that the observed value would deviate by this much or more from expectation”.  That probability, in this case, is about 24%. So, not really all that unlikely at all.

Or, in sciencey terms, p=0.24, and we fail to reject the null hypothesis that having the best record in the National League gives you less than a one in eight chance of winning the World Series.

Plus, it’s a bit weird to cherry-pick the top NL team. After all, we were just told that Kansas City was the seventh team to win the World Series after posting the best record in its league. The six cases besides 1995 Atlanta are all from the AL (and exclude the 2007 Red Sox, who tied with Cleveland for the best record).

So what would happen if we asked the analogous AL question. Well, of the 19 years when there was a single top record in the AL, six of those teams went on to win the World Series. The chances of at least six teams doing that, given 1/8 odds, is about 2.5%.

Now, we can’t really read anything into that result, since it is one of a number of statistical tests we did here, so any multiple-tests correction would eliminate the significance of the results. But if we had asked the question about top AL records in isolation, notice that it would have supported the conclusion that having a good regular-season record helps, rather than hurts, your playoff chances.

I wonder why they didn’t include that analysis . . .

 

You Can Stop Donating to the NC GOP Now, Please

Following the firebombing of a Republican campaign office in Hillsborough, NC over the weekend. Shortly thereafter, a group of self-identified Democrats (but not part of the Clinton campaign) set up a gofundme campaign to raise funds to help them reopen, and within a few hours, they had raised $13,000.

The impulse to donate to something like this seems honorable on the surface. It’s a way of rising above partisan politics to condemn political violence. It’s also bullshit.

There is exactly one legitimate reason to donate to a campaign like this: to disrupt the media narrative of “Democrats firebomb GOP offices”. Sort of a show-don’t-tell version of #NotAllDemocrats. Mission accomplished. This fundraising campaigns will now be part of the news story, which will blunt attempts by Republican operatives to make this a campaign issue, or, worse, to encourage and justify things like voter intimidation at the polls.

So, I’m glad the gofundme campaign happened. But you can stop now, and maybe pause to consider the ways in which donating to the NC GOP is a bad idea, and how the decision to do so maybe does not reflect so well on you as you might think.

1. We don’t know what happened, yet

Despite Trump’s claim that the firebombing was perpetrated by “Animals representing Hillary Clinton and Dems”, we don’t actually know who did this or why. Yes, one option is that it was people associated with the Clinton campaign and/or the Democratic Party. A more likely possibility is that is was some pissed-off, disenfranchised kids who are fed up with Trump’s hate-fueled campaign.

It’s also possible that this was a false flag attack as part of an attempt to undermine the emerging narrative of Trump supporters being particularly violent. I’m not saying that this is particularly likely, but it is certainly not unprecedented. The most famous case, of course, is the Reichstag fire, which at least some historians believe was ordered by the Nazis to create a pretense for curtailing civil liberties. Certainly if any group were predisposed to do something like this, it would be hangers on of the Trump campaign.

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There’s also the issue of the graffiti left at the scene: a swastika and the message “Nazi Republicans Leave Town Or Else”. What seems strange to me is the inclusion of the swastika. Most liberals perceive writing a swastika as an act of violence in itself, similar to using the N-word. I think your typical anti-Nazi activist would tend to shy away from drawing a swastika, even in the context of calling someone a Nazi. I’m not generally inclined towards conspiracy, but this, more than anything, makes me think that it’s a possibility in this case.

2. They don’t need the money

I assume that the NC GOP had insurance, and that the losses suffered in the fire will be fully covered. And I know that they have the financial resources to open another office, even if it takes some time for that insurance check to come through. So, while donating to “reopen the office” seems like fair play, in practice, your money is actually going to go to fund general operating expenses, that is, to elect Trump and down-ballot Republicans.

And if, for some reason, the NC GOP is not insured (or “self insured”, as the parlance goes), keep in mind that this is the party of personal responsibility. The libertarian argument against insurance mandates is that you should have the right to assume your own risk. The second half of the argument, for non-hypocrites, anyway, is that you should not expect anyone else to bail you out once you’ve made that choice.

3. Other charities exist

Donating to the NC GOP as a way of “not condoning” the firebombing makes a lot of sense, if you view the act in complete isolation. But the implication, of course, is that you are condoning every disaster – man-made or natural – that you did not donate to. And, in North Carolina, the NC GOP bears direct responsibility for at least some of the disasters befalling poor people, minorities, and LGBTQ folks.

If you’re a Democrat who was moved to open your wallet because some Trump/Pence signs got burned and the NC GOP is going to need to rent office space in a different strip mall, but you were not moved to open your wallet by the flooding of poor communities by Hurricane Matthew, or the systemic disenfranchisement of minorities, or the regressive anti-trans policies, maybe you need to take a good long look at what your actual motives were.

 

Future Kirk Kobayashi Marus the Trolley Problem

You know the trolley problem, where there’s a trolley on a track where it will hit and kill five people, but there’s a switch that will move it onto another track with only one person. The ethical dilemma is basically whether it is okay to proactively take a life in order to save five other lives. It’s a no-win situation, sort of like the Kobayashi Maru test from Star Trek.

A young James T. Kirk foiled the Kobayashi Maru by reprogramming the computer, changing the rules of the test in order to make possible a winning scenario. Now, this two-year-old future Starfleet Captain has done something similar to resolve the trolley problem.

h/t @nick_kapur

DNA Confirms Tyrolean Iceman Died of Extreme Fashion Violation

In 1991, the five-thousand year-old mummified remains of a man were discovered in the Italian Alps. Numerous DNA analyses have been performed on those remains in the past, providing a lot of information about who he was and what he ate. But now, a team of Italian and Irish researchers have analyzed ancient mitochondrial DNA recovered from his clothing, providing critical insight into his likely cause of death.

The results were published earlier this month  in Scientific Reports, and hoo boy is the ghost of Joan Rivers angry. Shoelaces made from cattle, sheepskin loincloth, and goatskin leggings; a quiver made from roe deer and a bearskin hat. His coat? Goat and sheep! I mean, this guy was basically wearing a Guy Fieri nacho recipe.

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Artist’s reconstruction of the iceman’s ensemble. Image via https://www.pinterest.com/pin/69242912993643041/

The results provide information about the ancient phylogeography of these animals, as well as insight into the iceman’s lifestyle. The cattle, goats, and sheep all appear to be closely related to contemporary domesticated populations in Europe, consistent with an agricultural/pastoral existence. The deer and bear point to an important additional role for the use of wild species.

Other analysis has suggested that this iceman died as a result of an arrow wound. Alternative theory: this is evidence of early mirror technology — a technology that, like the nanobots in Wool, developed before the culture was advanced enough to handle it.

Twitter Killed The Nightly Show

Last week marked the end of The Nightly Show, the Daily Show spinoff hosted by Larry Wilmore. It was a real shame, both because the show had great potential and moments of brilliance, and because its cancellation meant a real blow to the already meager diversity of late-night TV. So what went wrong?

Obviously, the proximal cause of the cancellation was low ratings. But why weren’t people watching? A part of the explanation is probably that there is simply not a large enough audience of people who are interested in / comfortable with the explicit emphasis on issues of race. But I’m not convinced that that is the entire reason.

I watched The Daily Show since forever, I loved Larry Wilmore’s segments, and I enthusiastically tuned in to The Nightly Show when it started. After a few weeks, though, I gave up, because it was boring. The problem wasn’t a lack of subject matter. Unfortunately, our country generates plenty of material to support a satirical news show with a focus on race.

The problem, in a word, is twitter. In a phrase, it’s the rise of short-form social media. Let’s rewind. For a long time — especially the ten or so years after 9/11 — The Daily Show offered some of the smartest takes on both news events and the traditional media coverage of those events. The format followed the standard topical-news satire formula of SNL’s Weekend Update and every late-night opening monolog: basically a series of one-liners. Even the correspondents’ segments were dominated by a series of thematically related one-liners. They were funny and intelligent, which is particularly impressive when the topics are actual news items, where the cycle of event to writers’ room to filming happens in less than a day.

For the last few years of Jon Stewart’s tenure, though, the show started feeling a little flat. Maybe Stewart was running out of steam — it’s certainly an exhausting schedule — but part of the story was the maturation of the ecosystem of twitter, facebook, and the like. When something newsworthy happens, the internet hivemind explores the space of one-liners with ruthless efficiency. A culture of appropriation and plagiarism means that a hundred minor variations emerge from the best takes, leading to fine-tuned joke optimization.

Over the past few years, when The Daily Show would cover a story that I had been following, I had often already heard some version of a lot of the punch lines. It’s not, I assume, that the writers were cribbing off of twitter, it’s just that the collective efforts of a million amateur comedians desperately vying for attention will outstrip any writers’ room.

Of course, if you weren’t following the news obsessively, The Daily Show was still great, it’s just that it was no longer special. There’s a limit to your show’s specialness when its content can be replicated by a Buzzfeed listicle of the 17 funniest takes on Trump’s latest gaffe. Trevor Noah’s Daily Show has been fine, but continues to suffer from this same fundamental problem: what it is offering is something that you can find a lot of places on the internet.

Contrast that with The Daily Show‘s other recent spinoff, Last Week Tonight with John Oliver, which feels vital in the way that The Daily Show did ten years ago. The key difference is its move towards longer-form pieces. It does the standard one liner–based news recaps, but this is a small part of the show. Each episode also features a deep dive on one topic. That deep dive features a lot of one-liners, but the featured topics are chronic societal problems, so they haven’t been freshly digested and regurgitated all over the internet.

Unfortunately, The Nightly Show went the other direction. Each show started off with the standard topical one-liners, but the show’s format centered around a round-table discussion among Wilmore and a mixture of guests and staff writers. The result was basically the equivalent of the sort of brainstorming session that might lead to a great topical news show. The results were occasionally brilliant, but more often resembled a comedy Before photo. The Daily Show‘s relevance declined when it became possible to replicate its comedy and insights with a well curated twitter feed. The Nightly Show is similar, but with less curation.

If there had been a network executive ten years ago with the courage to put The Nightly Show on the air, it might have been one of the most important shows of the decade. But now, the space of snarky news commentary and skepticism of traditional power structures is crowded — even after the demise of Gawker. The Nightly Show simply had too much competition for the limited number of eyeballs available for an in-depth look at race.

Launching The Nightly Show in a world with fully weaponized twitter is like launching a luxury rickshaw service in a city overrun with uber drivers. I hope someone figures out how to make this work. The combination of long-form investigations and elaborate stunts favored by Last Week Tonight is one option. (Next Week Tonight? Last Week Tomorrow?) But there must be some clever folks with other ideas. After all, people keep telling me that this is the golden age of television. Right?