Product and Purchase Review: Apple Watch 2

September 6th, 2017

Really, all I wanted was a fitness tracker. I’ve been trying to get in shape for a long time and it seemed that a tracker would be a good way to help with that. Although many people don’t increase their exercise with trackers, I know me. Getting to that calorie goal on a regular basis would become an obsession (as indeed it has).

I had not really considered the Apple Watch since it seemed an overhyped product. And watches and I … do not have a good history. As as kid, I was rather infamous for breaking the many watches my mom bought me over the years. As an adult, people occasionally bought me a really nice watch and I would wear it for a while but eventually find it galling and stop (usually when a dead battery gave me an excuse). But Apple Watch 2 was one of the only water-resistant activity trackers on the market so … with some help from my dad, I took the plunge.

I’ve waited four months to write a report on it because it’s easy to get swept up in techno-joy when you get a new gadget. I have frequently found products reviews in places like Consumer Reports to be near useless because they only try out a product. There’s a difference between trying out a product and owning it for months or years. Over time, the drawbacks and flaws become more visible, the product shows you how reliable or unreliable it is and the verdict becomes much clearer.

And after four months, I … surprisingly … kind of like the thing. I’m still not sure I would have purchased it at full price but it does a great job of tracking my activity, motivating me to do more. I downloaded a sleep-tracking app, which is nice to have. It’s semi-useful for texting — the “scribble” function is awkward but speech-to-text works just as well/poorly as the iPhone. It is, however, a bit annoying to get a buzz on my wrist every time my brother goes off on a rant. The phone function is useful when someone calls me while my phone is in the other room. But the drawback is that it’s All-Speaker-Phone All-the-Time so it becomes useless for confidential conversations. It would be nice if you could pass calls back to the phone. But overall, as an extension of my phone … it’s not bad. I would definitely recommend it for someone, like me, who always needs to be tied to his phone.

Now I noted in the title that this is both a product review and a purchase review. I wanted to say a few words about how I ended up with the watch. We researched online and then went into Best Buy, which was having a sale on them. And when the staff there saw what I was shopping for, they immediately approached me. They answered all my questions and talked about other options. One of them even allowed me to try on his Apple Watch and see how it worked. And ultimately, I bought it from Best Buy. Not just because of the price but because of their approach — that they had people eager and willing to help me out.

I think that brick and mortar stores will continue to hemorrhage space for a while. We’re seeing entire shopping malls shut down. But they will not go away entirely. And my experience buying the watch is a big reason why. Brick-and-mortar stores bring you the one thing that online shopping can not bring you: people. And with some products, people can make a big difference in your purchasing choice.

I’ve been predicting for a while that the Sears chain is going to die. The reason is that they appear to be responding to the decline in customers by pulling back on their people. Our local Sears, at least, is like a ghost town. You have to practically stalk and hogtie an associate to get any help. Frankly, if I wanted to shop in a vacant building, Amazon can do that for me. After being a loyal customer of theirs for years, I’ve now switched to other stores which are either online or have enough staff that I can get help when I need it. Because sometimes it’s good to have a human being to ask questions of.

Eclipse 2017

August 21st, 2017

I just got back from Clarksville, Georgia, where I watched the total solar eclipse. I had flown down to Atlanta both to visit family and to see the eclipse. My brother and I had a vague plan that we would rendezvous at his house north of Atlanta and then see how far we could drive. Clarksville, within the path of totality, was where we stopped. There were a few hundred people gathered in the center of town to watch.

Despite being an astronomer, I had never seen a total solar eclipse before. I lived in Atlanta during the 1979 eclipse, but our teachers wouldn’t let us go outside. We watched it on TV. I was an undergraduate at Carleton during the 1994 annular eclipse. I didn’t see much of it, however, because I was working one of the telescopes, showing people Venus, which was visible during the eclipse. So I went into this as cold as my 10-year-old daughter.

(Funny story about the ’94 eclipse. One of the visitors during the eclipse was a girl I had a gigantic crush-from-a-distance on. She smiled at me and we exchanged a few words. But nothing more came of it since I was still shy as all hell. Talking to my crush during an eclipse under the light of Venus was a lovely moment. And nothing coming of it made it a perfect encapsulation of my love life at the time.)

It was surprising how bright the sun remained despite increasing lunar coverage. But as the totality approached, an odd twilight settled over the town. I began to noticed the shadows and odd crescent shape in dappled light. We watched through our glasses as the sun got smaller and smaller. It got slowly darker and darker. And then, to a cheer from the watching crowd, it was gone.

Words can not describe the next 100 seconds. I felt like I was on another world or maybe at the pole as summer ends or begins. It got so dark that the street lights came on. We could now see a circle of light around the Sun and the glowing solar corona. The entire 360-degree horizon turned a sunset red. We snapped a few pictures; my brother took some video. And, after what seemed a very short 100 seconds, the Sun peeked out again from behind the moon. The glasses went back on, the light rose and, not long after, we began the long drive home.

It was a magical event; one of the few things that lived up to the hype. I was so impressed by it that I’ve already decided to travel to Texas for the 2024 eclipse. I’ve been in astronomy for 25 years and I’ve seen a lot of cool stuff. But this was the most amazing thing I’d ever seen.

Pokemon GO Redux

June 30th, 2017

Last summer, I wrote about our experience with Pokemon GO. We’ve kept it up for the last year and it’s provided a lot of fun moments for me and Abby. There’ve been those rare occasions when we spotted and caught a rare creature. We had a lot of fun in Australia using my father-in-law’s phone as a hot spot to chase down the Australian regional Pokemon (and Generation 2 was released at that time, which made for a blast). But the game was starting to become a bit of a grind as we’d captured almost everything and both gotten past level 30, where the game levels off.

Recently, Niantic made some major revisions to the game. The changes to the gym system — where you can place Pokemons to fight those of other players — still needs a lot of tweaking. But the other change — the inception of raids where a massively powerful Pokemon appears in a neighborhood gym and can only be fought by players joining together — is a home run. It may now be the best aspect of the game.

The first day, we found a raid going on in a local park. We went to the park and, within minutes, a dozen other players had arrived and we fought with them to break down an exceedingly powerful creature. Later on, we went onto campus and joined a raid with a few biochemistry graduate students. We’ve been doing raids almost every day — sometimes just the two of us and sometimes with big teams of players who emerge from the woodwork. It’s just fun to cooperate with other players and see a dozen or more varied creatures attacking a massive one.

Today, though, we had the most fun experience. We spotted a nearby raid and came over. When we got there, there were two little boys trying to take down a Lapras — an exceedingly powerful creature. This particular monster can not be taken down by two players, no matter how good they are. You need at least five, preferably more. So we joined in and one other person happened by and, together, we finished the Lapras off just within the three-minute time limit. The boys were delighted and their dad was glowing.

Making another family’s day is a unique experience for a video game. And I hope that other games follow in those footsteps.

Why Rationalia Wouldn’t Work

April 23rd, 2017

I have a short story coming up soon. The spark that lit the story and this post was this tweet from Neil deGrasse Tyson:

This tweet set off an intense internet debate on the merits of such a country. Many people — mostly of a Lefty persuasion — embraced the idea. Many people — mostly of a Righty persuasion — wrote a number of good and readable critiques of this idea, going over some ideas I’ll discuss later.

Tyson later expanded on this idea, basically arguing, even if Tyson doesn’t realize it, for a negative view of governing: that policy should be implemented only after the massive weight of evidence shows that it would advance the cause being supported. But even with this caveat, there are three principle problems with Rationalia.

Read the rest of this entry »

Writing, Writing, Writing

March 31st, 2017

So a few updates on where I am with fiction writing, since it’s been over a year since The Water Lily Pond dropped.

  • The Water Lily Pond is available for free download just for today. It’s gotten a couple of very kind reviews and has had a couple of hundred downloads. That’s about as well as I could expect, all things considered. I have been toying with creating a paperback, which Kindle now has easy tools for. However, putting it onto dead tree is a bit intimidating. I would like to make one more pass through the book. And I’d like to get more comments as I suspect a lot of people would have issues with the liberties I’ve taken in describing New York and the art scene therein.
  • In terms of novels, there are two I’m tinkering with. Penumbra is a novel I wrote most of a decade ago and then abandoned when it became clear it was a shadowy reflection of The Moon is a Harsh Mistress. But I’m not terribly worried about its commercial prospects, so I will probably resume it and either publish it cheap through KDP or serialize it here. Most of my novel time has gone into Umbra, its sequel. But that too has been sidetracked now that a similar story is showing up in the highly successful The Expanse.
  • Much of my recent effort is on Oddish, a seven-part series of short novellas that tie together. Part One (Ben Olson’s Restless Leg) is mostly written, Part Two (Rachel Thorson’s Late Period) is partially written. But I will not put it out on this site until all seven parts are written. In the middle of working on it Stranger Things came out, which has some overlapping themes. But it’s still on the front burner.
  • I have four short stories in the can. The first — Highest Noon — I liked enough that I plan to submit it to a science fiction magazine. I have little hope but you can’t get shot for trying. It will show up here if it is rejected. The second — Perfect Justice — needs a lot of work to not stink. But it and a companion post on “Rationalia” will show up soon. The third is a three part story — Dreams in the Long Dark, Co-Orbital, and Table Manners. It is done and I like the first part. It will show up on this site once it has been cleaned up. The final one — Lost by Translation — may or may not show up. I’m kind of mixed on how I feel about it. At the very least, it needs heavy revision.
  • I know this sounds like excuse-making but, honestly, I’ve written more in the last year than I have in any previous year. That’s almost 40,000 words written in a year when I have been very busy with work and family and probably wrote a couple of hundred thousand about the election. So the purpose of this post is to just let you know: you’ll see the results soon.

    Update: After writing that, I had some second thoughts on Perfect Justice. The story is the first I’ve written in epistolary form. But … this being the internet … I’m thinking of getting creative in its presentation. Hyperlinks and readthroughs might make it a little more fun for the reader.

    Stay tuned.

    Writing as Magic

    February 6th, 2017

    A magician’s job is to fool you. But the secret of magic is that you are the one who does the actual work. The magician appears to do things and your mind, conditioned by millions of years of evolution, completes the trick. So a ball is not really passed from hand to another but your mind makes it pass. The lady isn’t actually sawn in half but your mind makes her seem to get sawn in half.

    Writing works the same way. I put words on the screen but they are a skeleton of an idea. The real work is done by the reader, who fills the spaces between those words with his own imagination and thought. I write seven simples words: the old man sat in a chair. And your mind fills in his appearance, the shape of the chair, whether it is a table, whether he was wearing hat (he was). You do the work.

    As such, I am usually a little too close to the trick to be fooled. I write fiction that I hope people like. I string together words that I hope will create tension or horror or amusement or joy. But it’s hard for me to know. I know the ball isn’t really the other hand. I know the lady hasn’t really been sawn in half. So I rarely feel those emotions myself. I know the effect I’m looking for. But I can’t really tell if the slight of hand has worked.

    On rare occasions, however, the slight of hand works on me. The ending of the The Water Lily Pond is one of those rare occasions. I’m about to do another full edit in preparation for making it available in paperback. But the ending is the one thing I know won’t change at all.

    Watch this space.

    (With apologies to Stephen King, he wrote about similar concepts in “On Writing”.)

    Super Bowl LI

    February 5th, 2017

    I have written before about the misery of being an Atlanta sports fan. 150 combined years of baseball, basketball and football have brought exactly one title to the city I grew up in. With the Cleveland Cavaliers finally having won a title, Atlanta can arguably be called the most miserable sports city in America.

    I’ve written many times about the Braves, but rarely about the Falcons. My relationship with the Falcons has often gone back and forth. They were my first NFL love, the team I followed when I first became aware of professional football. I did this right about the time they became good for the first time in history. Before 1978, they were a hapless team, mostly know for poor Dave Hampton, who became the Falcons’ first ever 1000 yard rusher … only to be tackled for a loss on his final play and end the season with 995 yards. But in 1980, right when I started watching, they had a great season. With Steve Bartkowski and William Andrews and Jeff Van Note, they went 12-4, won their division and took a big lead against the Cowboys in the first playoff game … which they proceeded to blow. One of my first clear memories of football is crying at the end of that game (I was eight).

    Over the years, the Falcons would occasionally flirt with contention but mostly be a doormat. In 1986, they won their first four games of the season and a song called “Falcons, you can win it all!” appeared on the radio (a very poor knockoff of the Bears’ Super Bowl Shuffle). I remember my dad commenting on how starved the city was for a winner that a 4-0 start had the town Super Bowl crazy. Of course, the Falcons fell apart, finished the season 7-8-1 and their coach was fired.

    I latched onto two other teams, great teams that were entering fallow periods. I came to love the Packers because my grandparents lived in Wisconsin. And I cam to love the Steelers because they could beat the hated Cowboys. And while I dearly love those teams (and Super Bowl XLV was almost a dream come true), the Falcons were still my first team.

    The Falcons would have personalities over the years — the colorful but ineffective Glanville, Billy “White Shoes” Johnson, Neon Deion, Bad Moon Rison. But very little success came to them. Then, in 1998, they stunned everyone by winning their division for the first time in 16 years, upsetting a powerful Minnesota team and going to the Super Bowl. Of course, Eugene Robinson then had one of the strangest weeks in history, getting the Bart Starr Award, then getting busted for soliciting a prostitute, then getting burned by Elway on the way to a devastating Super Bowl loss. And the success did not continue. Chris Chandler couldn’t stay healthy. Jamal Anderson blew out his knee. Dan Reeves left.

    Things began to change in 2002, when Arthur Blank took over the franchise from the Smith family. Blank immediately cut ticket prices, deciding correctly that huge enthusiastic crowds were a critical ingredient to success. The team then drafted Mike Vick, who became an electrifying player. They won the wild card in 2002, went to the conference title game two years later and the city suddenly had a real team.

    Of course, then Bobby Petrino left after one year. And Vick turned out to like torturing dogs in his spare time. By the end of 2007, the Falcons had reached the nadir, a terrible hapless team that was not worthy of one of the better owners in sports.

    Magically, however, it turned around. They drafted Matt Ryan and became a great team. Before 2009, the Falcons had never had back-to-back winning seasons. They then had five in a row. They were consistently one of the best teams in the game, getting within a pass of the Super Bowl in 2012. And now, after a few down years, they’ve come back with the best offense in football, an 11-5 division-winning season and a second trip to the Super Bowl.

    I must say … this is my favorite Falcons team. More than the Bartkowski-Andrews team of my childhood. More than the Chandler-Anderson team of grad school. More than the Vick teams or the 2012 team. They’re just so much fun to watch. Matt Ryan, finally given some protection, has shown everyone what a great quarterback he’s always been and walked off with the first MVP in Falcons’ history. They have two fun running backs, the incredible Julio Jones, a great pass rush and a spirit that you can’t help but find infectious.

    The Falcons are facing the Patriots today in the Super Bowl and I must admit that my hopes for a title are very muted. The Patriots are a machine, arguably the greatest team in NFL history. They are about as good as the Falcons offensively and better defensively. A Falcons win wouldn’t be a huge upset, but the decades of heartbreak have taught me not to get my hopes up. Still, win or lose, this is the best year I’ve seen from them.

    Rise Up!

    Update: Aaaand … another chapter is added to the long long suffering of Atlanta fans.

    The Doomsday Clock

    January 26th, 2017

    So a piece of news that floated out today was that the Doomsday Clock was advanced to 2.5 minutes until midnight:

    We are creeping closer to the apocalypse, according to a panel of scientists and scholars.

    The Chicago-based Bulletin of Atomic Scientists has moved the “Doomsday Clock,” a symbolic countdown to the end of the world, to two and a half minutes to midnight.

    It marks the first time since 1953 — after hydrogen bomb tests in the US and then Soviet Union — that humanity has been this close to global disaster.

    The group cited US President Donald Trump’s “disturbing comments” about the use of nuclear weapons and views on climate change among other factors, including cyberthreats and the rise in nationalism, that have contributed to the darkened forecast.

    “The board’s decision to move the clock less than a full minute reflects a simple reality: As this statement is issued, Donald Trump has been the US president only a matter of days,” the organization said in a statement.

    I’ve trying to sugarcoat this but there is simply is no way to do so. So I’ll just be blunt: any clock that thinks the world is closer to doomsday now than we were in the past is a clock that is badly in need of repair.

    According to the BAS, we are in greater danger than we have been since 1953. Let’s look over that 64-year span and take a year almost at random: 1962. In October of 1962, we had the Cuban Missile Crisis. The world teetered on the brink of nuclear war. At that time, one side was run by a drunken mass murderer and the other was run by a novice President taking enough medication to stock a drug store. And yet the Doomsday Clock was left at seven minutes to midnight at a time when we were almost literally seven minutes away from Armageddon.

    Oh, it gets better. In 1962, the United States was on the brink of starting its long bloody involvement in Vietnam. There were active civil wars going on in Laos, Sudan, the Congo, Yemen, Guatemala, Burma, Malaysia and Nicaragua as well as Communist insurgencies in other countries. By contrast, today is literally the most peaceful era in human history with fewer national and domestic armed conflicts than we’ve ever had as well as less violent crime. Blood and tears may dominate the news. But for most of human history, they dominated everyone’s life. It’s not just 1962 that was more dangerous. It’s almost every year up until the present.

    The BAS says that their clock has advanced, at least in part, because of concerns about the environment (which muddies the original purpose of the clock). But is the environment worse now than it was when half the planet was starving, cars were belching lead into the air and our rivers were so polluted they could literally catch fire? By every standard that can be measured — with the exception of greenhouse gases — our planet is better off now than it was 50 years ago. Or 40 years ago. Or 30 years ago. Smog is down, sulphur dioxide is down, species are rebounding to the point of being taken off the endangered list, the ozone layer is healing, etc., etc. And even global warming isn’t hopeless, Trump or no Trump. Greenhouse gas emissions in the United States have fallen in recent years. Greenhouse intensity — that is emissions per economic dollar — is plunging.

    I don’t mean to downplay the challenges we face. We still have enough nuclear weapons to ignite a cataclysmic holocaust. And global warming is a very real challenge. Nor do I mean to downplay the concerns about a Trump Administration, many of which I share. But to pretend that the world is closer to annihilation that it was during the last century is an idea that is simply not supported by the facts at hand. All it does is make the Doomsday Clock even more irrelevant.

    (More from Tom Nichols.)

    The Rise of the ACC

    January 2nd, 2017

    So another College Football Season is almost done. Time to revisit my Bowl Championship System:

    A few years ago, I invented my own Bowl Championship Points system in response to the Bowl Championship Cup. You can read all about it here, including my now hilarious prediction that the 2013 national title game would be a close matchup. The basic idea is that the Championship Cup was silly, as evidenced by ESPN abandoning it. It decides which conference “won” the bowl season by straight win percentage with three or more bowls. So it is almost always won by a mid-major conference that wins three or four bowls. The Mountain West has claimed five of them, usually on the back of a 4-2 or 3-1 record.

    My system awards points to conferences that play in a lot of bowls and a lot of BCS bowls. As such, it is possible for a mid-major to win, but they have to have a great year. The Mountain West won in 2010-2011, when they won four bowls including a BCS game. But it will usually go to a major conference.

    Here are the winners of the Bowl Championship Points system for the time I’ve been keeping it.

    1998-1999: Big Ten (12 points, 5-0, 2 BCS wins)
    1999-2000: Big Ten (10 points, 5-2, 2 BCS wins)
    2000-2001: Big East (8 points, 4-1, 1 BCS win)
    2001-2002: SEC (9 points, 5-3, 2 BCS wins)
    2002-2003: Big Ten (9 points, 5-2, 1 BCS win)
    2003-2004: ACC/SEC (9 points each)
    2004-2005: Big 12 (6 points, 4-3, 1 BCS win)
    2005-2006: Big 12 (8 points, 5-3, 1 BCS win)
    2006-2007: Big East/SEC (11 points each)
    2007-2008: SEC (14 points, 7-2, 2 BCS wins)
    2008-2009: SEC/Pac 12 (11 points each)
    2009-2010: SEC (10 points, 6-4, 2 BCS wins)
    2010-2011: Mountain West (8 points, 4-1, 1 BCS win)
    2011-2012: Big 12 (11 points, 6-2, 1 BCS Win)
    2012-2013: SEC (10 points, 6-3, 1 BCS win)
    2013-2014: SEC (11 points, 7-3, 0 BCS wins)
    2014-2015: Big 10/Pac 12 (10 points)
    2015-2016: SEC (19 points, 9-2, 3 CFP wins)

    You can contrast that against the Bowl Cup, which has been awarded five times to the Mountain West Conference and three times to Conference USA based on their performance in such venues as the Zaxby’s Heart of Dallas Bowl. I’m happy when the mid-majors do well, but winning three or four second tier bowls just isn’t the same as winning six bowls, two CFP bowls and a national title.

    I also keep track of “doubles”, when a conference wins both the Bowl Challenge Cup and my system. That’s been done by the Big 10 (1998, 1999, 2002), the ACC (2003), the Big 12 (2005), the Big East (2006), the Pac 10 (2008), the Mountain West (2010) and the SEC (2013, 2015).

    For years, I said that the SEC’s dominance was waning, based on the points system, from its 2008 peak. And to the extent that the SEC did dominate, it was a result of being one of the only conferences that played defense, not “SEC speed”. In 2014, I saw the Pac 12 rising and predicted we were moving toward two super-conferences — the SEC and the Pac 12 — dominating the college football scene. But then the Big Ten, with two of their top teams returning, moved into the picture, with more parity overall. Last year, however, the SEC dominated, shattering the record for the best Bowl performance.

    This year, however, we’re seeing something unexpected: the ACC has essentially already won the “double” with an 8-3 record, two CFP wins already and a chance at a national title. The SEC could finish a close second if Auburn wins tonight and Bama wins the title. However, if Clemson wins the title, the conference will have had the second most dominating performance in the last two decades. I don’t think anyone saw that coming.

    The B1G has been a disappointment, with a 3-7 record. Michigan and Penn State played well, but Ohio State was humiliated in their playoff game. Of the four B1G teams ranked in the top ten, only Wisconsin won and that was against MAC champ #15 Western Michigan. The MAC, incidentally, just broke their own record for most futile bowl season by going 0-6 (they went 0-5 in 2008-9). That makes Wisconsin’s win a bit less impressive as well. I think it’s fair to say the B1G was a tad over-rated, which always seems to happen when Ohio State and Michigan are both having good years, inducing a circularity in the press’s ranking logic. Still … the B1G has long put their status as a doormat behind them.

    Looking back over the last few years, I’m surprised at how much parity has asserted itself. I truly believed we were moving toward a system where two conferences would dominate, but the B1G came back in a big way and the ACC is having a great year this year. I don’t why there’s so much parity in college football right now, but it’s a good thing. Makes it much more fun.

    The SEC continues to dominate the all-time rankings, of course. Here are the conferences through tonight’s Rose Bowl:

    SEC: 102-65, 21 BCS/CFP wins, 160 points, 9.5 titles
    Pac 12: 62-57, 16 BCS/CFP wins, 83 points, 1.5 titles*
    Big 12: 69-72, 11 BCS/CFP wins, 77 points, 2 titles
    American: 54-46, 10 BCS/CFP wins, 72 points, 1 title**
    ACC: 70-77, 9 BCS/CFP wins, 72 points, 2 titles
    Big 10: 63-81, 18 BCS/CFP wins, 63 points, 2 title
    Mountain West: 46-38, 4 BCS/CFP wins, 58 points
    Conference USA: 47-50, 44 points
    WAC (defunct): 23-29, 2 BCS/CFP wins, 19 points
    Sun Belt: 18-20, 16 points
    Independents: 14-18, 10 points
    MAC: 27-45, 9 points

    (*Screw the NCAA. I’m counting USC as a champion.)
    (**This counts previous games from the Big East and Miami’s title.)

    The Playoff System Is Already “Fixed”

    December 4th, 2016

    Ah yes, another year, another playoff controversy for college football. The Lords of Football issued their edict today, picking Ohio State, Clemson, Alabama and Washington for the college football playoffs. Those are the four top-ranked teams, so it’s not exactly a surprise. But it has left Big 12 champ Oklahoma and B1G champion Penn State out in the cold. There was particular controversy over the exclusion of Penn State, which beat Ohio State earlier this year and took the title in the toughest conference in the nation.

    I’m not interested in arguments over whether Penn State is better than Washington or Ohio State. These arguments tend to be circular and pointless. On any given Saturday, any team can beat any other (as three of the four playoff teams found out this year). With 11-12 games a year, you can’t really claim to get that kind of fine-grained detail on the quality of college football teams.

    But I do want to address one argument in particular.

    One of the solutions proposed for this mess is that the playoff system should be expanded to eight teams. That way, Oklahoma, Penn State, Michigan and, say, Western Michigan, could all get a shot. While this idea has merit — I’ve long advocated an 8-team playoffs — it ignores one fundamental thing:

    We already have a playoff round of eight.

    We do. Really. It’s called the conference championships. Four of the major conferences — the B1G, the Pac 12, the SEC and the ACC — played conference title games yesterday. All features ranked teams and, in my opinion, all four winners should advance to the the semi-finals.

    “But Mike!” you might say, “You’re just saying that because you’re a Penn State fan!” Well, no not really. I have advocated this for a long time:

    Here’s how you do a playoff properly. You take eight conference champs — six from the major conference and then two from the other conference (or Notre Dame, if they are rated high enough). You play them off in the Rose, Fiesta, Orange and Sugar Bowls on January 1 maintaing traditional slots rather than seeding (i.e, Rose Bowl is Pac-10 vs. Big 10 no matter what the rankings). You have two more games on January 8, one more on January 15. Net result — one week and two games more than we have now. No controversy but a legitimate champion.

    There are two dangers of restricting a college football playoff to conference champions. The first is that it potentially cuts out independents like Notre Dame or BYU. But you could always make an exception for an unbeaten independent (as happened with Notre Dame a few years back).

    The other problem is what happens if a a top-ranked team is upset in the conference title game by a lower-ranked or even unranked team. But I also addressed this. The answer is they go to the championship anyway. I advocated this because, among other things, it would stop teams from scheduling cupcakes out of conference and encourage them to schedule real teams, knowing that an out-of-conference loss won’t hurt their title hopes.

    The really real way you would improve this, however, is to restrict the BCS to conference champions — with the Big Six conferences guaranteed entries and the remaining slots distributed among mid-major conferences and independents. That way, there is no advantage in beating the shit out of four wussy non-conference teams and no disadvantage to playing tough non-conference teams. If Penn State loses to Georgia, Notre Dame and Texas A&M, it doesn’t hurt their BCS chances as long as they win their conference.

    Sticking with conference champions and only conference champions has another big advantage: a lack of ambiguity. Places in the playoffs system would be determined on the field not in a computer or a smoke-filled room. It would suck for a team like Ohio State, who were one blocked field goal away from being the B1G champion and thrashed Oklahoma out of conference. It would also have sucked for Alabama, who wouldn’t have gotten a crack at the 2011 National title because of an overtime field goal. But … that’s how playoffs work. You don’t get second chances.

    (Or you could. In an eight-team system, you could give those last two spots to highly-ranked teams that failed to win their conference or to undefeated independents. But we don’t have an eight-team system now … unless you count the conference title games.)

    Yesterday, we had what was effectively a playoff round of eight. Four top-ranked teams — Penn State, Washington, Clemson and Alabama — won their conference games over ranked opponents, decisively in Washington and Alabama’s cases. Those should be your playoff teams. And yes, if Florida or Colorado or Virginia Tech had won, I’d be advocating for them (although I would probably put Oklahoma, another conference champ, above them). You shouldn’t be able to win a national title if you can’t win you conference.

    The Meta-Metamorphosis

    November 29th, 2016

    My latest short story is here.

    Election Post-Mortem

    November 9th, 2016

    I have many scattered thoughts on last night’s tumultuous election. Apologies if this is a bit incoherent. I didn’t get a lot of sleep.

    I will not back down from my assessment of Trump as terrible candidate and poor human being. Now that he’s elected, I’m willing to give him a chance but I strongly suspect this will end poorly. But before we pull the plug on the American experiment, let’s consider a few points:

  • Elections are not really about “movements” and rarely about history. They are about candidates and parties. Trump will be the winner, but he will likely end up with fewer votes than McCain or Romney did when they lost. So the idea that he is bringing in new “Trump Republicans” or riding some wave of racial resentment is a bit much. The key difference here was that the Democrat turnout was terrible. Clinton drew ten million fewer votes than Obama did in 2008, six million fewer than in 2012. She lost this in the rust belt, not in the South. Clinton’s electoral history now includes winning a gifted Senate seat by 10 points in a state Gore won by 25, losing a gifted Presidential nomination to a half-term Senator with a funny name and almost losing a second to a 73-year-old socialist. Trump was a bad candidate, but Clinton was just as bad. The Democratic turnout tells you that. And the refusal of Democrats to understand this is a big reason they are full of despair today.
  • This was a cry against the establishment and, for all her pretenses, Clinton was absolutely the establishment: in Washington for 25 years, in politics for 40, feted by Wall Street interests, supported by the media and the political experts, extremely wealthy, a supporter of every war since Vietnam and advocating traditional Washington policies (such as a no-fly zone in Syria of all places). You can claim it’s sexism but remember: Jeb Bush lost for the same reasons. With all the establishment at his back and all the money in the world, he was even more soundly thrashed. Because as it turns out, Americans aren’t that fond of political dynasties. I believe that America is perfectly willing to elect a woman. They just weren’t interested in electing this woman.
  • I have no idea how Trump will govern and, frankly, neither does he. The best case scenario is that he’s a figurehead and Pence/Ryan really run the country. The worst case is that he’s serious about ending free trade, abandoning our alliances and making global warming worse. The early tell will be his cabinet appointments. If it’s a bunch of Trump sycophants (and early indications are that it will be), this could be a long four years. While I’m willing to give him a chance, I am very pessimistic and the danger of a real calamity — a World War or a Depression (or both) — is very real. For the first time in my life, I wonder if my kids will have it better than I did.
  • I know a lot of Democrats are depressed right now. And a lot of minorities are outright scared. I guess it’s easy to just write off half the nation as evil racist sexist monsters. But that would be a mistake. The same country that just elected Trump elected Obama. Twice. Instead of retreating even further into epistemic closure, find out why people really voted for Trump. It wasn’t because they hate black people. And it wasn’t because they hate women. Don’t close off. Don’t isolate. Don’t cut off your family members or friends who voted against you. Argue. Persuade.
  • You think Trump voters can’t be reasoned with? Garbage. Much of the Republican base has moved left on gay marriage and marijuana in just the last decade. Trump openly supported gays during the primary. Some of the loudest voices against mass incarceration are on the Right (although Trump may silence them for the time being). A lot of eyes have been opened to racism and sexism in our society, particularly in the last year or two. Trust me. I spend a lot of time on conservative blogs. Your voices are being heard and making a difference. It’s just an awfully awfully big hill to climb.
  • And don’t despair. There’s nothing Trump wants to do that hasn’t been done before. This country has long and ugly histories of protectionism, religious persecution, racial bias, anti-immigrant hysteria and environmental carelessness. We muddled through. The difference is that these policies were pursued by people who actually believed in them and were way more competent than Donald J. Trump. And if you think the country is going backward, look how far forward it has come. Gay marriage is legal and the GOP basically doesn’t care. Legal marijuana is spreading and the GOP is whistling in the dark. Our society … our society outside of politics … is more open and dynamic than it has ever been. 60 million votes can not turn back that tide.
  • Trust me, your conservative friends are not happy about this either. Trump is not a conservative, he’s a dim-bulb populist. At its best, conservatism is about restraint of government power and respect for existing institutions. My conservatism, such as it is, is the conservatism of Milton Friedman. Trump is against free trade, against small government, against civil liberties and for a massive powerful state. With him in charge, there is no conservative party anymore. Oh, the conservatives will try to cling to him. But in the end, they will be sacrificed on the populist altar.
  • We have, for the last decade or more, lived in an Culture of Outrage. We are constantly hearing about how some celebrity, some politician or even some random internet person has said something so ridiculously OUTRAGEOUS that they must be shunned from public life (and yes, conservative are just as eager to indulge in outrage culture as liberals). This anger is sometimes legit. But it has become so ubiquitous, so random and often so out of proportion that the public has become inured to it. As a result, Trump’s long string of outrageous statements stopped mattering. People stopped caring.
  • One question may be why the public ignored a very legitimate complaint about Trump — his terrible behavior with women. A big part of the problem was that the Democrats were, quite possibly, in the worst position to make a big deal out of it. The party that spent decades overlooking Ted Kennedy’s behavior and Chris Dodd’s behavior and Bill Clinton’s behavior, the party that saw Joe Biden’s tendency to get handsy with women as endearing had absolutely no leg to stand on with Republicans and independents. Trump bringing Bill Clinton’s accusers to the fore — derided as a stunt — actually worked. Because it reminded many voters that the Democrats rarely give a damn when their own politicians do everything Trump was accused of. Until you start calling out your own political allies, sexual harassment and abuse by politicians will be tolerated. That was as true this year as it was in 1998.
  • Just a random prediction here: Hillary Clinton will not be “locked up”. Ever. Almost all of the investigations into her behavior will be dropped. There’s no point in it now for Trump.
  • Finally, we should never let politics rule our lives. It has an important place. But regardless of which particular power-hungry idiot is sitting in the Oval Office, we must do what we always do: go to work, raise our kids, teach our students, try to get a little exercise, be kind to each other. We are better than our leaders and more powerful. They rule based on our good will. And if Trump (or anyone else) starts acting the tyrant, we must all fight against him. We must especially fight against him if that tyranny is indeed directed against Muslims or Latinos or whatever other group Trump has decided is the Enemy. If there is one silver lining to this awful election, it is this: maybe, going forward, we can remember our scared power to tell the government to get stuffed, to tell leaders to get bent, to stand up against the power of the state. And maybe we’ll give it a little less power to be abused in the first place.
  • Now is not the time to despair, whether you are a liberal or a conservative. And if you’re a Trump supporter, now is not the time for complacency. Now is the time for all of us to bend our shoulders to the wheel and push harder then ever. A lot of power was just given to Donald Trump. And only the combined and unrelenting pressure from all of us will keep him from abusing it.

    On Polls

    November 5th, 2016

    Election season is upon us which means that poll-watching season is upon us. Back in 2012, I wrote a long post about the analysis of the polls. Specifically, I focused on the 2000 election in which Bush led the polls going in, Real Clear Politics projected a Bush landslide and … it ended in a massive recount and a popular-electoral split. I identified the factors that I thought contributed to this:

    In the end, I think it was all of the above: they overestimated Nader’s support, the polls shifted late and RCP had a bit of a bias. But I also think RCP was simply ahead of its time. In 2000, we simply did not have the relentless national and state level polls we have now. And we did not have the kind of information that can tease out the subtle biases and nuances that Nate Silver can.

    Of course, I wrote that on the eve of the 2012 election, where Obama significantly outperformed his polls, easily winning an election that, up until the last minute, looked close.

    The election is now three days away which means that everyone is obsessed with polls. But this year, a split has developed. Sam Wang is projecting a 98% chance of a Clinton win with Clinton pulling in about 312 electoral votes. HuffPo projects a 99% chance of Clinton winning the popular vote. Nate Silver, however, is his usual conservative self, currently giving Clinton only a 64% chance of winning. So who should we side with?

    To me, it’s obvious. I would definitely take Silver on this.

    Put aside everything you know about the candidates, the election and the polls. If someone offered you a 50-to-1 or a 100-to-1 bet on any major party candidate winning the election, would you take it? I certainly would. I would have bet $10 on Mondale in 1984 if it was a potential $1000 payoff. And he lost by 20 points.

    It seems a huge stretch to give 98 or 99% odds to Clinton, considering:

  • Clinton has never touched 50% in the poll aggregates.
  • There are still large numbers of undecideds and third party supporters who will doubtless vote for one of the two candidates (and Trump’s recent surge has come from fleeing Johnson voters).
  • We have fewer live interview polls now than we did in 2012.
  • As Nate Silver noted, the average difference between final polls and the election has been about two points.
  • Basically, I think Wang and HuffPo are not accounting enough for the possibility that the polls are significantly off. In the last 40 years, we’ve had one Presidential election (1980) where the polls were off by a whopping seven points. That’s enough for Trump to win easily (or for Clinton to win in a landslide).

    Moreover, Wang’s and HuffPo’s results seem in contradiction to each other. If Clinton really did have a 98% chance of winning, wouldn’t you think she’d get more than 312 electoral votes? That’s the kind of certainty I would expect with a pending landslide of 400 or 500 electoral votes. A 42-electoral vote margin of errors is *really* small. All you would need is for the polling to be wrong in two big states for Trump to eek out a win (note: there are more than two big battleground states).

    This brings me to another point. Pollsters and Democrats have been talking about Clinton’s “firewall” of supposedly safe states that guarantee a win in the electoral college. But that firewall is a fantasy. When Clinton dipped in the polls in September, suddenly numerous blue states like Pennsylvania and Michigan were in play. And, in fact, Silver projects a bigger chance that Trump wins in an electoral-popular split than Clinton because many of his states are safer. The talk about a “firewall” is the result of people becoming drunk on state-level polling. We have 50 states in this country. Statistically, at least one should buck a 98% polling certainty. There are only twenty states that Real Clear Politics rates as “leans” or “tossup”. Statistically, at least a couple of those should buck the polling.

    Here’s another way of thinking about it. There have been 56 elections in American history. If Clinton really were a 98% or 99% favorite, a Trump would be the biggest upset in American electoral history. I find that claim to be absurd. Bigger than Dewey and Truman? Bigger than Polk’s election? Bigger than Kennedy’s? Bigger than Reagan turning a close race into a blowout?

    I should point out that having long tails of probability also means there is a greater chance of a Clinton landslide. That’s possible, I guess. But, admitting to my priors here, I find a Trump upset more likely than a Clinton landslide. Clinton is deeply unpopular with large parts of the country. She’s not popular with young people. Here in State College, Clinton signs and stickers are few and far between. This was not the case in 2008 and 2012, both of which were won handily by Obama. I really don’t see a Clinton landslide materializing, although I’ll cop to it if I’m wrong about that.

    Prediction is hard, especially about the future. I think a basic humility requires us to be open to the idea that we could be badly wrong. And 1-2% is way too small a value to assign to that. I think Clinton has the edge right now. But I would put her odds at more like 2-1 or 4-1. And I will not be shocked if Trump pulls this out.

    Because it may be a cliche. But there’s only poll that counts: the one taken on Tuesday.

    Update: One of my Twitter correspondents makes a good case that the variations in the polls are less reflective of changes in candidate support than in supporter enthusiasm. In the end, the election will come down to turnout — i.e., how likely the “likely” part of “likely voters” is.

    Quick Review: Stranger Things

    September 30th, 2016

    So I’d been resisting the temptation to watch Netflix’s smash hit of the summer, Stranger Things, since everyone I knew was watching it. But I was going to cave eventually. And with a lot of code to run and a lack of interest in this year’s movies, I finally caved. If you want to know whether I liked it or not … I’ll just tell you that I binge-watched it in two days.

    The series is very good. I’m curious to see how it will watch a second time without a binge, but I found it to be moving, tense and thrilling.

    The series has become most famous for its 80’s nostalgia and I will admit that this aspect of the series is done very well. It’s not just that it has oblique references to 80’s pop culture; it’s that it feels like the 80’s. The music, the title sequence, the color palette, the set decoration, the homages to films like E.T. and Alien. Sans the CGI, this could easily have been something made by Spielberg or Cameron (after you watch it, you can check out this video which goes through some of the more direct 80’s homages).

    But 80’s nostalgia will only get you so far, as Hollywood is finding out right now. What really makes the series good is that it’s just … good. It lays its foundations down in strong characters who are well-written and well-acted. Ryder and Harbour are particularly good but all the actors do well. It has a decent and intriguing plot*. And it shrouds this all in metric tons of atmosphere. I give it a strong recommendation, even to people who are not necessarily fans of sci-fi or horror. I was hooked by middle of the first episode.

    This year has been awful for movies. Almost every big blockbuster has been a disappointment. But television — particularly shows produced by the “other studios” like HBO and Netflix — has been getting steadily better and better. And Stranger Things is definitely one of those good shows. I’m looking forward to Season 2.

    (*The plot bothered me because for the last few weeks I’ve been sketching out a similar plot for a new story. The story — working title Oddish — takes place in a college town not a million miles different from State College. It focuses on residents of the town who find things happening that are not scary or alarming (at least at first) but just odd. I don’t want to give away too much since it may never be written or may go in a different direction. But any writer will understand why I was both elated and saddened to see that Stranger Things shares a lot of elements with Oddish.

    Oh well. Maybe I’ll turn my attention back to Dreams in the Long Dark.)