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.

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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:

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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:

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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.

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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.

    The Double Revisisted

    December 31st, 2015

    Dammit. It’s almost the end of December and I haven’t put up a post this month. I have — I kid you not — 37 posts in various draft forms. So I’ll be trying to kick a bunch out.

    A few years ago, I suggested that baseball borrow “the double” from English football as a way of bringing back some meaning to the long regular season. In this scheme, the league champion would be the team that won the most games. A team that won both the most games in its league and the World Series would be recognized as having won a “double” just like winning the League and FA Cups in English Football. Here is an updated list of the teams that would have been national champions under this system. Bold lettering is a team that won the double.

    1994 – New York (70), Montreal (74)
    1995 – Cleveland (100), Atlanta (90)
    1996 – Cleveland (99), Atlanta (96)
    1997 – Baltimore (98), Atlanta (101)
    1998 – New York (114), Atlanta (106)
    1999 – New York (98), Atlanta (99)
    2000 – Chicago (95), San Francisco (97)
    2001 – Seattle (116), St. Louis/Houston (93)
    2002 – New York/Oakland (103), Atlanta (101)
    2003 – New York (101), Atlanta (101)
    2004 – New York (101), St. Louis (105)
    2005 – Chicago (99), St. Louis (100)
    2006 – New York (97), New York (97)
    2007 – Boston (96), Colorado/Arizona (90)
    2008 – Anaheim (100), Chicago (97)
    2009 – New York (103), Los Angeles (95)
    2010 – Tampa Bay (96), Philadelphia (97)
    2011 – New York (97), Philadelphia (102)
    2012 – New York (95), Washington (98)
    2013 – Boston (97), St. Louis (97)
    2014 – Anaheim (98), Washington (96)
    2015 – Kansas City (95), St. Louis (100)

    Again, I think recognizing the national champions this way gives a much clearer view of which teams are dominating baseball. Since I wrote that post, Washington and St. Louis have dominated the National League while the American League has been in flux with Kansas City emerging as a double team this year.

    A Long Way Down

    November 30th, 2015

    When I was a graduate student at UVa, George Welsh was the head coach of the football team. Welsh had taken one of the worst football programs in the ACC and turned it into a good one. In his 19 years at the helm, UVa had 15 winning seasons, made 12 bowl games and won the ACC twice (including the dramatic 1995 victory over Florida State). They continually had great players like the Barber twins, Thomas Jones, Aaron Brooks, Patrick Kerney and Anthony Poindexter. And they did it while maintaining a reasonable commitment to education.

    But there was a vocal faction of fans who were unhappy with this. Welsh, they said, was over-rated. He couldn’t beat Florida State consistently. He won “only” two ACC titles. He couldn’t get them into the national title picture. He couldn’t beat Virginia Tech enough. Thankfully, they were a small faction, despite their dominating presence on local talk radio. And even more thankfully, the University ignored them. But eventually Welsh retired and the anti-Welsh brigade sighed with relief.

    The University went out and hired Al Groh. And UVA started to stink. In 9 years, Groh only had five winning seasons. He lost to Virginia Tech every year but one. He couldn’t beat Florida State. So they ditched him for Mike London, who has managed one winning season in six and and couldn’t beat anyone. And he just resigned.

    We see this over and over again. And not just in college football. It’s Braves fans bitching about Bobby Cox only to see the team struggle once he leaves. It’s NFL teams like the Redskins and Browns going through coach after coach. It’s Bills fans grousing because Levy lost four superbowls, then watching the team struggle after he retires.

    The problem here is that people often think that, when a team is this close to winning something big — a conference title, a championship — that they are a coaching change away from grabbing it. But they are wrong. It’s because of the coach that they are that far away. People used to joke that you had to be a great team to lose four Super Bowls, but it was true. A team that is almost but not quite good enough is still one of the best in the country. And when you’re at that kind of elite level of performance, there is a lot more room to fall than there is to rise. Changes to your team are way more likely to make things worse, not better. This is doubly true in college football, where you have over a hundred teams vying for glory and it’s very easy for an elite program to fall back into the horde of mediocre ones.

    I bring this up because the University of Georgia just fired Mark Richt. In 15 seasons, Richt had won 75% of his games, seven division titles and two conference titles. He never won fewer than eight games, never failed to make Bowl and never finished lower than third in one of the most competitive conference in the nation. As recently as 2012, he brought Georgia to within a few yards of a third conference title and a shot at a national title. The last three years were disappointing, but were heavily affected by injuries to star players like Nick Chubb, Todd Gurley and Aaron Murray. But finishing the season 9-3 and second in the SEC East is no mean feat.

    Still, the media clamored for his head. The fans clamored for his head. And this week, the University gave it to them.

    This will not help. The Bulldogs are almost certain, no matter who they hire, to go into a decline. To be one of the top 25 football teams in the country, you have to be really good. Very few coaches are that good. A coach who “can’t take you to the next level” is still among the top 5% of college football coaches. What are the odds that you will get a better coach if you change? Probably a bit less than 5%. And the odds that you’ll get someone who can give you Alabama-like dominance? Less than 1%.

    What are the chances that a coach of Richt’s quality will eventually luck into a championship? Probably a lot better than the chances that Georgia will luck into a coach who can “take them to the next level.”

    Georgia has an advantage in prestige and recruiting, of course. But a lot of programs have those advantages and some to an even greater extent. A coach who can take you to division titles in half his seasons is a valuable commodity. Georgia just threw that away. And they’re going to deserve the inevitable slide.

    Movie Review: The Martian

    October 20th, 2015

    I rarely get to see movies in theaters anymore, thanks to a combination of work and two young children. But I am occasionally able to make an exception and the rave reviews for The Martian quickly moved it to the top of the “If I get a chance” list. A three hour break between the arrival of my plane and the arrival of my student’s plane gave me the chance to sneak out and catch it.

    I’ll just assume you know the basic plot and tuck in.

    The Martian is probably not the best film of the year but it is very good. The plot is clear, well-explained and, refreshing, doesn’t hinge on idiots doing idiotic things or Evil Bureaucrats stopping the good guys. Everyone in the movie is smart and, in principal, on the same page. There are some conflicts but they are over how precisely to rescue Watney, rather than whether to rescue him. And the disagreements are portrayed fairly and intelligently. This is exactly how I would expect things to go down if this happened in real life.

    Weir made tremendous efforts to make his book as realistic as possible and it shows. Almost everything they do in the movie is reasonable and realistic. I’m used to, during a sci-fi movie, that NASA part of brain going “yeah, right!” That didn’t happen once. Afterward, there were a few nits I could pick. And I think the last 15 minutes dragged a bit with “oh, here’s another thing”. But overall, the plot is solid.

    The movie’s characters are well-defined and the acting is uniformly solid. One thing that has been noticed is that the movie eschews the usual approach of making everyone an old white man. I’m no SJW, obviously, but it was nice to see a movie reflect what things are really like at NASA and what things are likely to like in the future: tons of smart people, from all backgrounds, who are competent and hard-working. It’s so well done, I didn’t even notice until someone pointed it out to me.

    The humor is frequent but low-key, mostly dark humor revolving around Watney’s attempts to keep himself alive. It uses a video diary device to develop Watney’s character, drive the narrative and explain, in very clear terms, the often sophisticated technological concepts.

    And the movie just looks gorgeous. Mars is portrayed in stunning detail. All the spacecraft look beautiful. Ridley Scott knows what to do with a camera.

    I’ve praised it a lot, but my current rating is 8 out of 10. It does drag a little bit at times and, as I said, the ending has a little too much of “and another thing” going. But I could see myself raising that to 9 in the future.

    As I’ve noted many times, we have moved into a mini golden age of good sci-fi. If you look at the best sci-fi movies of the last ten years, you find things like Interstellar, Her, District 9, Moon, Gravity, Ex Machina, Looper, Predestination. These are good movies, yes. But they’re also serious about having good science, being reasonably realistic, presenting sophisticated concepts and having smart characters instead of dumb ones.

    It’s a good time.

    Ehrlich-Simon Round Two

    October 3rd, 2015

    In 1980, doom-monger and perennial wrong person Paul Ehrlich made a wager with Julian Simon. Simon bet that the price of any commodities Ehrlich cared to nominate would go down over the next ten years due to increasing productivity. Ehrlich bet that they would go up because of the global pandemics and starvation that were supposed to happen but never did. At the end of the ten years, Ehrlich had to write Simon a check of $576.07.

    Since the day the wager was concluded, Ehrlich and his fellow doom-sayers have been trying to weasel out of the result. You can see this on the Wikipedia page on the wager:

    The prices of all five metals increased between 1950 and 1975, but Ehrlich believes three of the five went down during the 1980s because of the price of oil doubling in 1979, and because of a world-wide recession in the early 1980s.

    Ehrlich might have a point if the entire motivation for the bet weren’t his prediction of a global catastrophe by the end of the 80’s.

    Ehrlich would likely have won if the bet had been for a different ten-year period. Asset manager Jeremy Grantham wrote that if the Simon–Ehrlich wager had been for a longer period (from 1980 to 2011), then Simon would have lost on four of the five metals. He also noted that if the wager had been expanded to “all of the most important commodities,” instead of just five metals, over that longer period of 1980 to 2011, then Simon would have lost “by a lot.”

    This doesn’t mean much. In 2011, we were in the middle of a precious metal crunch that sent prices skyrocketing. Since then, prices have tumbled. All five metals are down since 2011 and all but chromium are down around 50%. I can’t find good historical records, but copper, at least, is cheaper than it was in 1989, in inflation-adjusted terms. I’m also not clear by what Grantham means by “all of the most important commodities”. Oil is about the same as it was in 1980 in inflation adjusted terms. Wheat is cheaper.

    Moreover, even if the commodities prices were higher, it’s still because Ehrlich was wrong. Ehrlich was predicting prices would go higher because we would run out of things. But when prices did go higher, they did because of increased global demand. They went higher because of the post-Cold War economic growth and development that has, so far, lifted two billion people out of poverty. This is growth that Ehrlich insisted (and still insists) was impossible.

    (To be honest, I’m not sure why the Grantham quote is even on Wikipedia. Grantham is an investor, not an economist, and this quote was an off-hand remark in a quarterly newsletter about sound investment strategies, not a detailed analysis. The quote is so obscure and oblique to the larger issues that its inclusion crosses me as a desperate effort to defend Ehrlich’s honor.)

    What really amuses me about the Ehrlich-Simon bet, however, was that he proposed a second wager. The second wager was not like the first. It was far more specific, far narrower and far more tailored to things that were not really in dispute. Simon rejected the second wager for the following reasons:

    Let me characterize their offer as follows. I predict, and this is for real, that the average performances in the next Olympics will be better than those in the last Olympics. On average, the performances have gotten better, Olympics to Olympics, for a variety of reasons. What Ehrlich and others says is that they don’t want to bet on athletic performances, they want to bet on the conditions of the track, or the weather, or the officials, or any other such indirect measure.

    Exactly. The two-and-a-half decades since the second wager have been the best in human history. We have had fewer wars than at any period. Fewer murders. Less disease. Less starvation. More wealth. Ehrlich’s second wager didn’t care about any of that. It was about details like global temperature and arable land and wild fish catches, not the big picture of human prosperity. Below, I will go through the specifics of the second wager and you will see, over and over again, how narrow Ehrlich’s points were. In many cases, he would have “won” on issues where he really lost — correctly predicting trivial details of a trend that contradicted everything he was saying.

    In fact, even if Simon had taken up Ehrlich on his useless hideously biased bet, Ehrlich might have lost the bet anyway, depending on the criteria they agreed on. Let’s go through the bet Eherlich proposed, point by point:

  • The three years 2002–2004 will on average be warmer than 1992–1994. This would have been a win for Ehrlich, exaggerated by the Mt. Pinatubo cooling in 1993. So, 1-0 Ehrlich.
  • There will be more carbon dioxide in the atmosphere in 2004 than in 1994. Ehrlich wins again, 2-0. Neither of these was really in dispute, however.
  • There will be more nitrous oxide in the atmosphere in 2004 than 1994. Ehrlich wins again, 3-0. Again, this wasn’t really in dispute. Note, however, that this is basically three bets about the same thing: global warming. It would be as if Simon counted Tungsten three times in the original bet.
  • The concentration of ozone in the lower atmosphere (the troposphere) will be greater than in 1994. This took a lot of digging and I am happy to be corrected if I’m reading the literature wrong. But from what I can tell, tropospheric ozone has actually decreased or leveled off since 1994. At the very least, this pollutant has gotten under much firmer control. So, 3-1 Ehrlich.
  • Emissions of the air pollutant sulfur dioxide in Asia will be significantly greater in 2004 than in 1994. This is what I mean about how narrowly tailored the second wager was. Global SO2 emissions are down. In North America and Europe, they fell off a cliff. Only in Asia, did they go up. In fact, it’s really only in China. If it weren’t for China, global SO2 emissions would have been down by 20% over the span of the bet. It’s hard to call this a win for Ehrlich. 3-2.
  • There will be less fertile cropland per person in 2004 than in 1994. and There will be less agricultural soil per person in 2004 than 1994. Ehrlich really wanted to stack the deck in his favor, didn’t he? We’ll give him both of these as wins, but they really aren’t. There’s a reason we’re using less land for growing crops and it’s not because of environmental catastrophe. Its because …
  • There will be on average less rice and wheat grown per person in 2002–2004 than in 1992–1994. Boom. Not only is there not less rice and wheat per person being grown, there’s a hell of a lot more being grown. Thanks to improved farming methods and genetic engineering, today’s crops are hardier and more productive than ever. The reason Ehrlich “won” on the last two is because we don’t need as much land to feed people. So we’re at 5-3, but it’s a very cheap five for Ehrlich. So far, the only thing he was right on was that global warming would get worse.
  • In developing nations there will be less firewood available per person in 2004 than in 1994. I’m going to play Ehrlich’s game here. The key word here is “available”. From what I can tell, per capita firewood consumption is down in developing countries. But that’s not because of a crushing environmental crisis. It’s because fossil fuel consumption is way up. There’s plenty of firewood available. There’s a lot less need for it. This is once again Ehrlich focusing on trivia — how much firewood is available — rather than the big picture. Lots of firewood being burned is a bad thing. It means forests being gutted. It means indoor pollution. It means poverty. Fossil fuels aren’t exactly a panacea, obviously. But they’re way better than firewood. The people of the developing world are going to need natural gas if they’re ever going to get to solar power. 5-4.
  • The remaining area of virgin tropical moist forests will be significantly smaller in 2004 than in 1994. Once again, a very narrow criterion. I can’t find a source that is that specific. Tropical rainforest destruction has leveled off recently, thanks to prosperity. But I have little doubt Ehrlich would have won this. 6-4.
  • The oceanic fishery harvest per person will continue its downward trend and thus in 2004 will be smaller than in 1994. Again, note how harrow the criterion is. The amount of fish per person is actually up. But that’s because of a huge surge in farm fishing. Ehrlich only counts wild fish, which has not decreased, but is less on a per capita basis. How do we call that? I wouldn’t give him SO2, so I’ll give him wild fish. 7-4.
  • There will be fewer plant and animal species still extant in 2004 than in 1994. Sure. 8-4
  • More people will die of AIDS in 2004 than in 1994. Ehrlich would have won this one. But it’s a narrow win. AIDS deaths peaked in 2005. Since then, they have fallen by a third. 9-4
  • Between 1994 and 2004, sperm cell counts of human males will continue to decline and reproductive disorders will continue to increase. Nope. People aren’t even sure the original research is correct. At the very least, the picture is mixed. Reproductive disorders are probably increasing but that’s because of people waiting longer to have children because of … wait for it … increasing prosperity. 9-5.
  • The gap in wealth between the richest 10% of humanity and the poorest 10% will be greater in 2004 than in 1994. Nope. There’s concern about wealth inequality in developed countries. But, on global scale, wealth inequality has been in a decades-long decline. 9-6.
  • So … with Ehrlich counting global warming three times … with Ehrlich tailoring the questions incredibly narrowly … with Ehrlich betting twice on global farmland … Ehrlich wins the bet. But it’s a hollow victory. Ehrlich wins on nine of the bets, but only two or three of the larger issues. Had Simon taken him up on it and tweaked a few questions — going to global SO2 emissions or global fishing catches or one measure for global warming — Ehrlich would have lost and lost badly.

    That’s the point here. If you put aside the details, the second wager amounted to Ehrlich betting that the disaster that failed to happen in the 80’s would happen in the 90’s. He was wrong. Again. And if you “extended the bet” the way his defenders do for the initial bet, he was even wronger.

    And yet … he’s still a hero to the environmental movement. It just goes to show you that there’s no path to fame easier than being wrong with authority.

    Jupiter Ascending Review

    September 26th, 2015

    The Wachowski’s have had an … interesting career. They had a dynamite blockbuster in The Matrix, a movie which is still enjoyable a decade and a half later (wait, seriously? OK, then). But they’ve followed it up with unimpressive results. The first Matrix sequel did well, mainly because of the name, but got mediocre reviews. I enjoyed parts of it, but it was a bit long-winded. The third was lambasted and deservedly so. I haven’t watched it since my first viewing in the theater and don’t really feel a pressing need to see it again.

    Speed Racer has its defenders but is generally poorly regarded. I have not seen it. Cloud Atlas did not do well even though, in my opinion, it was an excellent movie (my opinion has improved since that review with a second and third viewing).

    Which brings us to Jupiter Ascending, one of this year’s biggest flops. Jupiter was flogged by critics and it’s not hard to see why. It spends enormous amounts of time on exposition. The dialogue is frequently poor. The plot is complex and confusing and turns on two nearly identical threads. And it ends on a weird note, with Spoiler Warning Jupiter returning to her grungy job while massive crimes against humanity continue across the Galaxy.

    However, despite all this and despite the negative reviews, I did actually find a lot to enjoy about the movie. The visuals are simply gorgeous. It’s not just that the effects are great, it’s that they are used well. This feels like a real fleshed out universe. The actors do their best with the material (with the exception of Redmayne). The ideas driving the plot are original and the plot unfolds like a poor man’s Dune, with plenty of intricate politics and personal strife. There’s a really nice sequence where Jupiter goes through the Galactic bureaucracy that gives you a feel for how ancient and complex the Universe is.

    In fact, the universe Jupiter creates is so interesting, I find myself agreeing with what James Berardinelli says in his review:

    One of the key aspects of any science fiction or fantasy saga is world (or universe) building. This process refers to the creation and development of the reality in which the story transpires. More than mere background, it informs plot development, character motivation, and nearly everything that transpires during the course of the narrative. Jupiter Ascending, the latest eye-popping stepchild of the Wachowskis, excels at universe building. The problem is that the backstory is too large to contain what appears on screen during the course of a 127-minute motion picture. Put another way, Jupiter Ascending feels like a truncated, Cliffs Notes version of something that might have worked a lot better as a mini-series. Two hours is too short for this tale and the end result suffers greatly because of that restriction.

    The more I’ve thought about this, the more I think James is onto something. Jupiter Ascending is an OK movie. But I think it would have made a great TV series. In a TV series, the narrative would have had time to sprawl. The characters could develop more naturally. The complex politics would have room to ebb and flow instead of being introduced with the subtlety of a bazooka and resolved with a repetitive series of last-minute rescues. Jupiter could have been introduced to the Galactic civilization gradually, with the layers peeling away bit by bit rather than being ripped off every 15 minutes.

    Most importantly, a TV series would have solved the huge problem with the ending. There’s no way to talk about this without spoilers so don’t read this until after you’ve watched the movie or if you have no plans to.

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