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.)

    Pokemon Go

    August 20th, 2016

    Until a month ago, I had never played Pokemon in any way, shape or form. It was a little after my time. I knew of it and could maybe identify one or two of the creatures from simple cultural osmosis. But the nostalgia value the franchise had for me was basically nil.

    So I am somewhat surprised to find that I’ve become a pretty consistent player of this summer’s answer to the Macarena: Pokemon Go. In early July, everyone was talking about it so I decided to give it a whirl. I had just given up on two games I’d been playing for a couple of years, so needed something to fill the boredom*. And Abby was into Pokemon anyway because her best friend is into it, so it seemed like a reasonable lark. And so here I am, a month later, with about 70 of the silly creatures in my phone, past level 20 and going for daily “pokewalks” or “pokerides” with my daughter.

    That, to me, is the key to Pokemon‘s success: the social aspect. The game itself is kind of fun. It’s nice to walk around collecting little monsters. The gym aspect, where you fight other pokemons, is OK, if a bit a clunky. There’s a little thrill in finding pokestops and collecting items. The game is well designed to be addictive. But in the end, that’s all swamped by the social aspect: playing with my daughter and occasionally running into other players.

    It’s just fun to walk around with Abby playing the game, occasionally catching a monster or attacking a gym together, but mainly hanging out and talking. We’ve gone walking all over our area and discovered new paths. We’ve hung out on campus. I’ve ridden a bike for the first time in thirty years. And even when we aren’t playing together, there’s a thrill in showing her what I caught today. Hell, even my wife now approves of the game (although she’s a bit dubious about us occasionally running out of the house to find a rare Pokemon in our area).

    (It’s also occasionally allowed me to share some of my obsessions with Abby. Recently, during a tough fight at a Pokemon gym, I shouted, “I WILL kill him!” which led to a discussion of Dune, another of my little fixations.)

    On Facebook, I gave my initial review that the game was OK, but playing it with my daughter was awesome. I stand by that. I expect the popularity to fade a bit as the novelty does. In fact, it already feels like I’m seeing fewer people out playing it (although now that the students are back in town, that should change). But the game has significantly expanded the scope of gaming, becoming the first really popular app where interacting with the real world is part of the game. I suspect more will follow. Some will suck. Some will be good. But it’s a good future to be tumbling into.

    (*The game I quit was Boom Beach, which is made by the Clash of Clans folks and quite similar. It’s fun but I’d built everything and was to the point where simply maintaing my rank — at one point, I was one of the top 250 players in the US, which is even less impressive than it sounds — would have consumed hours of my time every day. I simply didn’t see the point of running that kind of treadmill indefinitely, so I let it go.)

    2050, Part II

    June 3rd, 2016

    In Part 1, I looked at the predictions Robert A. Heinlein made in 1950 for what would happen over the course of the 20th century. Back in 2000, I wrote out my own predictions for the first half of the 21st century. I thought, 16 years in, I’d take a look at how I was doing.

    Overall, it’s not so bad. but the unifying theme is that I wasn’t bold enough. Nothing I predicted was as interesting as what Heinlein predicted. So while I did “better” in terms of batting average, I did way worse in terms of slugging. My predictions are right, to steal a phrase from P.J. O’Rourke, in the same sense that a fortune cookie saying, “You will soon be finished with dinner” is right.

    Read the rest of this entry »

    Why Mourn?

    April 23rd, 2016

    The year has been a terrible one for celebrity deaths: Alan Rickman, David Bowie, Merle Haggard, now Prince. The last one hit particularly hard with me. Prince was the music of my difficult and lonely teenage years. I admired him. I loved his music. I thought and think he was a musical genius on par with the historic greats. And it’s been cathartic and touching to see the tributes springing up all over the world and know that I wasn’t alone in thinking that; that millions of people did get how great he was.

    Every time the world mourns a celebrity, however, people ask why we do so. After all, it’s not like we knew them personally. Why shed tears — even metaphorical ones — over a stranger?

    This tweet explains it better in 140 characters than I will in many more words.

    In one of Stephen King’s non-fiction books, he describes writing as an act of telepathy. When you write a piece of fiction, you are using words to put what’s in your head into the reader’s head. If I write, “There was a room with table” you get an image in your head. And, if I’m a good writer, you get something close to the image I had in my head when I wrote those words.

    This act of telepathy applies to more than just writers. Artists, musicians, actors … all of them perform acts of telepathy. It’s a bit more subtle since they work in a visual or auditory medium. But it’s the same principle: trying to evoke images or feelings or ideas through an act of telepathy.

    We let artists into our head. We have, indirectly, a very intimate relationship with them. People will talk of books or songs or movies that spoke to them. And that’s true in a very literal sense. And if an artist is particularly brilliant, they will sometimes reveal things about us we didn’t know or put us in touch with feelings or ideas we were unfamiliar with. And we share this intimacy with everyone else who has felt spoken to.

    So no I don’t think there’s anything wrong with mourning an artist or an actor who has died. Because sometimes we really are very close to them in a way that truly matters.

    Long Form Review: The Force Awakens

    April 10th, 2016

    So it’s been four months. I’m finally going to post my long-form review of Stars Wars: The Force Awakens. I wrote a lot of this back in December but didn’t post it because … well, because I didn’t trust it. I was so excited to have a new Star Wars movie, least of all a good one, that I needed to take some time for my impressions to set. I just bought in on blu-ray and watched it again with Abby. And my impression is largely unchanged.

    It’s a good movie. It’s a very good movie. It’s not quite as good as Star Wars or The Empire Strikes Back, which I rate as rare 10’s on IMDB. But it’s better than Return of the Jedi and Revenge of the Sith, which I rate as 8’s or 9’s, depending on my mood. Right now, I have it rated an 8, but it’s a strong 8 and could become a 9 in the future, depending on how Episodes VIII and IX shake out.

    Spoiler warning for the movie that everyone saw four month ago:

    Read the rest of this entry »

    Oscar Update

    February 25th, 2016

    A few years ago, I wrote a series of posts going through the Oscars year-by-year to compare the Best Picture selectees to the films preferred by either IMDB users or the consensus of history as the best picture of the year.

    Part I went from 1928 to 1952 and covered the very shaky early years of the Academy.

    Part II covered 1952 to 1978, from the days when the Academy went out of their way to snub Hitchcock to the 1970’s, when they did a very good job.

    Part III covered 1978 to 2012, which has been a shaky period for the Academy as they struggle to adapt to the broader palette of films that has opened up. Occasionally, they make a good choice, but then they scuttle back to safe fare like The King’s Speech.

    Part IV summed up and ranked the worst Oscar picks in history. I concluded that the Academy had done an OK job, mostly, but was slowly becoming irrelevant.

    That was a fun series of posts to write and even now, I like to go through it occasionally. A few updates are in order though:

    In the post, I stopped tapping films as “Consensus Picks” in 2001, saying that not enough time had passed. It’s been three years, so I’ll bring that up to 2005.

    Year: 2002
    Academy Pick: Chicago
    IMDB Rating: 7.2 (41 out of 132, minimum 25000 votes)
    IMDB pick as Best Picture: The Two Towers
    Consensus Best Picture: City of God
    Comment: You can check the original post for my comments on Lord of the Rings. City of God continues to be held in high esteem, deservedly so. Chicago, however, keeps sinking. I rated this as one of their worst picks, even given IMDB’s bias against musicals.

    Year: 2003
    Academy Pick: Return of the King
    IMDB Rating: 8.9 (1st of 111, minimum 25000 votes)
    IMDB pick as Best Picture: Return of the King
    Consensus Best Picture: Return of the King
    Comment: A number of good pictures are creeping up in the IMDB ratings but I think most people would conclude that LOTR was the best movie of 2003.

    Year: 2004
    Academy Pick: Million Dollar Baby
    IMDB Rating: 8.1 (7 of 143, minimum 25000 votes)
    IMDB pick as Best Picture: Eternal Sunshine of the Spotless Mind
    Consensus Best Picture: Still unclear. Sunshine might be it. But I suspect The Incredibles will be history’s favorite.

    Year: 2005
    Academy Pick: Crash
    IMDB Rating: 7.9 (18 of 143 for 2004, minimum 25000 votes)
    IMDB pick as Best Picture: Batman Begins
    Consensus Best Picture: Still unclear.
    Comment: I thought maybe I’d exclude this year as being too recent, but … 2006 has Pan’s Labyrinth and 2008 has The Dark Knight. So I’m coming to think it was weak year.Crash remains well-regarded by IMDB but its reputation is terrible.

    Not much has changed for the other years. The Departed, Like Stars on Earth, the Dark Knight, Inglorious Basterds, Inception, The Intouchables and The Dark Knight Rises still rule their respective years.

    For the years since, with the threshold raised to 50k votes:

    Year: 2013
    Academy Pick: 12 Years A Slave
    IMDB Rating: 8.1 (3 of 127, minimum 50000 votes)
    IMDB pick as Best Picture: The Wolf of Wall Street

    Year: 2014
    Academy Pick: Birdman
    IMDB Rating: 7.8 (17 of 96, minimum 50000 votes)
    IMDB pick as Best Picture: Interstellar
    Comment: There’s a lot of fanboyism in recent IMDB ratings, so I might discount Interstellar, a movie I really like, and pick Whiplash, which is the #2 IMDB-rated film and might have been my pick for the best movie of the year. I know it’s only been a year, but Birdman’s ranking is terrible for a recent Best Picture. I liked it but I think it was a poor pick. Hollywood loves movies about Hollywood and acting. Three of the recent Best Pictures were about Hollywood. But give it five years and I think Birdman will start showing up on lists of bad Academy picks. Still, it could have been worse. They could have gone with The Imitation Game.

    Year: 2015
    Academy Pick: TBA. Right now, The Revenant is the favorite.
    IMDB Rating: 8.2 (4 of 58, minimum 50000 votes)
    IMDB pick as Best Picture: Baahubali: The Beginning. But that’s Bollywood again. The top-rated American IMDB film is The Force Awakens, but that’s fanboyism. Inside Out is #3. We’ll go with that for now.

    So has anything changed in the last three years? I don’t think so. The Academy has still shown that are vulnerable to Oscar bait. They are nominating more action movies like Mad Max but they clearly aren’t going to be giving out the top prize for those movies. They’ve made at least one pick — Birdman — that may soon join the ranks of poor Oscar picks. And they continue to ignore alternative fare like Straight Outta Compton or Ex Machina.

    So … if you like award ceremonies or you like the horse race or you like glamor, by all means watch the Academy Awards this weekend. But don’t watch it because you want to know what the best movie was. There are so many more resources available now, of which IMDB is just one.

    The Water Lily Pond

    February 3rd, 2016

    So … I’ve written a novel.

    Here’s the too-long-didn’t read version of the post: You can check out an excerpt here. You can buy the book here. I’ve published it with Kindle Direct Publishing, the world’s easiest vanity press. This means it can be read on any platform — Kindle, iOS, Android, Mac or PC. And at the time I post this, the book will be on sale for the next four days for the low low price of … absolutely free.

    I think it’s good. And I hope you will too. If you like it, please tell everyone!

    Now for the long version:

    Read the rest of this entry »

    2050, Part I

    January 16th, 2016

    One of my favorite parts of Robert A. Heinlein’s Expanded Universe is when he revisits the predictions he made in 1950 for the second half of the 20th century. He updated his predictions in 1965 and then again in 1980. I once wrote an article looking back at his predictions (Heinlein died in 1988 and never got to see how well he did) but it disappeared into the Spam Event Horizon. I’m going to write that post again before moving onto Part II, where I will revisit similar predictions I made in 2000. I’m obviously no Heinlein, as you’ll see. My predictions were stunningly mundane. But it was a fun exercise.

    Read the rest of this entry »

    Looking Ahead for the HOF

    January 5th, 2016

    So Hall of Fame ballots will be announced tomorrow. It’s going to be an interesting year. The Hall apparently purged a lot of writers from the voter rolls, hoping to create a more active and engaged electorate. This may change the dynamics of the voting; it may not.

    Right now, the public votes are being compiled here. There aren’t a huge number of surprises but I think we are seeing what I predicted last year: a gradual reduction of the huge glut we had a couple of years ago as candidates are elected or drop off the ballot. The thinning of the herd is opening up opportunities for players who’ve been lingering around for a while.

    They way I expect to break down is:

  • Elected: Mike Piazza and Ken Griffey, Jr. If it weren’t for the stupidity of a few writers, Griffey would be unanimous: a great and insanely popular player whose place in Cooperstown was being prepared 20 years ago, when even the internet was young. Mike Piazza just missed last year, partly because of unfounded rumors of PED use and partly because some writers don’t appreciate what a great player he was.
  • Just Misses: This will be the really interesting category. Given how the field has cleared, I think we are going to see a number of candidates who’ve been lingering in the 20’s to 50’s take big steps forward. I don’t think any of them will be elected this year, but I think they will put themselves in position to be. As a matter of history, only two candidates — Jack Morris and Gil Hodges — have ever polled more than 48% without getting elected. Some needed the veterans committee and the current committee keeps twisting itself pretzels trying to elect Hodges. It looks like Bagwell, Martinez, Mussina, Raines, Schilling and Trammel may all leap 20 points or more in the balloting. All are worthy of election but time is running out for Raines and will run out for Trammel. I expect Raines and Bagwell to get very close, however, and possibly go in next year. This is Trevor Hoffman’s debut year and while I don’t expect him to get elected, I do expect him to get close, with a long debate over whether closers belong in the Hall (see discussion below).
  • The Walking Dead: There are always candidates who just linger on the ballots, never really gaining the momentum they need to get in but not dropping below 5% either. Bonds and Clemens are on this list for stupid reasons about which I’ve pawed the ground many times. But Kent, McGriff, McGwire, Sheffield, Smith, Sosa and Walker are also in this category. Billy Wagner may join them.
  • Dropouts: Almost all the new guys are on this list. It’s possible Edmonds or Garciaparra could get a one-year reprieve.
  • So: Griffey and Piazza in. Bagwell and Raines get close. Martinez, Mussina, Hoffman and Schilling take big steps toward eventual election. With a fairly uncrowded 2017 ballot (Rodriguez probably gets in immediately; Guerrero gets close, Ramirez goes into PED purgatory), Bagwell and Raines probably go in next year, with the others creeping a bit closer.

    As I noted last year, the HOF balloting has moved toward some resolution of the so-called Steroid Era, with multiple players getting in, Palmeiro disappearing and Clemens/Bonds stuck in purgatory. I don’t think the issue is dead. We will have to revisit Bonds and Clemens at some point. But I think we’ve moved on for the moment to the point where the enraging idiocy of 2013 is unlikely to repeat itself.

    The big debate I expect to emerge now is whether closers should be elected to the Hall and specifically whether Trevor Hoffman or Billy Wagner belong in the Hall. Joe Posnanski makes the case against but … this is a rare time where I disagree with him. Yes, it’s true that a lot of failed starters have been converted into effective closers and no closer has gone back to being a starter unless his name is John Smoltz. While I think a closer’s innings are more valuable than a starter’s, I don’t think they are three or four times more valuable. But here’s the thing: (a) not every failed starter can become an effective closer; (b) very very few closers can be as good for as long as Hoffman or Rivera.

    Let’s expand on that last point. Jonathan Papelbon has been a very good closer for a decade. He’s still over 250 saves behind Hoffman and is very unlikely to get anywhere close to him. Francisco Rodriguez became one of the best closers in the game at age 23 and saved 62 games once. He’s over 200 saves behind Hoffman. Joe Nathan has been a great closer. He’s 200 saves behind.

    It seems to be we are starting to develop a separation that I will call the Wagner line. We are seeing a whole bunch of Billy Wagners emerge — guys with 400 or so saves and amazing rate stats. We can’t start putting those guys in the Hall because it will mean inducting a couple of closers a decade. But beyond the Wagner line you see the very rare guys like Rivera or Hoffman who have 500-600 saves. The latter, to me, should be in the Hall of Fame. I can understand why someone would say none of them do. But you can’t pretend that there isn’t at least some separation between the two elite guys and the next half dozen lingering around the Wagner Line.

    I’ve actually thought about this issue quite a bit because I like to play computer baseball. In particular, I like Out of the Park baseball, which has long careers, minor leagues, an amazing statistical model and a Hall of Fame. One problem I’ve encountered after 60 simulated seasons is a raft of potential Hall of Fame closers. The computer has produced maybe a dozen guys with 400 saves and amazing rate stats, similar to what we’re seeing emerge from baseball right now in the persons of Papelbon and Rodriguez and others. I’ve probably put too many relievers in my fictional Hall of Fame, but the only way I’ve been able to avoid inducting a dozen is to limit it to guys with long careers who were also the best closers. And, like the real Hall of Fame, I do have a few, “Shit, I shouldn’t have elected him” guys from the early days.

    I expect a similar paradigm to emerge over the next decade or two — maybe set at the Wagner Line, maybe elsewhere. Because we can’t elect everyone who managed to put 300 saves. But we can elect the best of the best.

    That’s what the Hall if all about, right?

    The Return of the SEC

    January 3rd, 2016

    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)

    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).

    For years, I’ve been saying 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.

    This year has seen the SEC come back in a major way. With an 8-2 record and two CFP wins, they have already won both the Bowl Challenge Cup and my system. They are guaranteed to break the record and, if Alabama wins the title, they will shatter the previous record of 14 points with 19 (granted, with more games). They were one good pass away from A&M winning their game. Only one SEC team — Florida — had a bad game.

    The Pac 12 will come in second with nine points, an impressive performance for a team that was locked out of the playoff but saw Stanford absolutely dominate the Rose Bowl. The Big Ten is currently third with six points, showing that their status as a doormat is dead and buried. It was a wild bowl season for them — Iowa, Northwestern and Michigan State were crushed while Ohio State and Michigan dominated. But the ACC will take over third place if Clemson upsets Alabama, once again having a modest overall performance rescued by having the best single team in the country.

    One could argue that this has been a weird year — all the CFP games so far have been blowouts and the two best conferences never faced each other. But it’s hard to argue with the SEC hasn’t dominated the year and, indeed, dominated the system. Over the 17 years I’ve been tracking, they’ve simply been better than anyone else and it’s not close.

    SEC: 95-60, 19 BCS/CFP wins, 149 points, 9 titles
    Pac 12: 59-54, 15 BCS/CFP wins, 79 points, 1 title*
    American: 52-41, 10 BCS/CFP wins, 73 points, 1 title**
    Big 12: 66-70, 11 BCS/CFP wins, 73 points, 2 titles
    Big 10: 60-74, 17 BCS/CFP wins, 63 points, 1 title
    ACC: 62-73, 7 BCS/CFP wins, 58 points, 2 titles
    Mountain West: 42-35, 4 BCS/CFP wins, 53 points
    Conference USA: 43-47, 39 points
    WAC (defunct): 23-29, 2 BCS/CFP wins, 19 points
    MAC: 27-39, 15 points
    Sun Belt: 14-18, 10 points
    Independents: 12-18, 6 points

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

    Long Form Review: Predestination

    December 31st, 2015

    Another clearing the decks post. This is a hint of a big Heinlein post to come. I hope..

    Heinlein adaptations have been somewhat thin on the ground. I don’t know if this an aversion to his perceived right wing beliefs or what. But if you look at the movies based on Heinlein’s prolific work, it boils down to:

  • Destination Moon: an OK hard sci-fi film that Heinlein was directly involved with. Decent but not exceptional. More educational than anything else. I’d give it a 6 or 7/10.
  • Project Moon Base: Disowned by Heinlein. Very poorly regarded.
  • The Brain Eaters: A bad movie basically stolen from “The Puppet Masters”. I have not seen it.
  • The Puppet Masters: Suffered from ditching the nudity aspects of the original story, which would have given it an edge since, by the time this story reached the silver screen, almost all of its elements had been stolen by other lesser films. It’s decent though and has some genuinely creepy moments. 7/10
  • Starship Troopers: I really a need a long-form review of this one. It’s OK. But its determination make Heinlein’s world seem fascist, the removal of the mech suits and its dependence on stars with lots of looks and few acting chops (and entirely white) made for a mediocre film. Heinlein would have been fine with the mixed gender military. That wouldn’t have flown in 1959. 6 or 7/10.
  • That’s pretty much it. There’s a supposed coming adaptation of The Moon is Harsh Mistress — one of my favorite Heinlein novels. But for some reason, Heinlein’s extremely filmable works have been largely ignored.

    Well, until last year, when we got Predestination, an adaptation of Heinlein’s mind-bending time travel short, All You Zombies.

    Predestination is basically everything a Heinlein fan could ask for. It takes the plot of the story more or less verbatim, with an added loop that doesn’t add much but doesn’t hurt the movie either. The directing is solid and the look of the film perfectly aligned with Heinlein’s mid-century sensibilities. And the acting of the small cast is excellent. Hawke is the headline grabber. And he’s good. But the real star is Sarah Snook, who is just dynamite in an extremely-challenging role. She simply makes the movie, switching without apparent effort through the various iterations of Jane.

    This is the first adaptation of a Heinlein work that I would say makes the grade. It got very little attention but it was easily one of the better films of 2014. I highly recommend it, especially for fans of sci-fi or Heinlein. But, really, you’ll like it if you just like good movies.

    8/10.