The Bowl Championship, Reloaded

January 6th, 2013

A few years ago, I invented a Bowl Championship Points System. The basic idea was response to the Bowl Championship Cup, which was awarded, for a while, to the conference that did the best in the bowl season. But because it was given out for winning percentage with a minimum of three games, it almost always went to the conference that played in … three games. If a conference went 2-1 or 3-0, they would “win” the cup over a conference that went 6-2 and won two BCS games. This crossed me as absurd and a result of not understanding the effects of small numbers on percentages.

In my system, each conference gets two points for a bowl win, an extra point for a BCS bowl win and loses a point for a bowl loss. So it rewards conferences that are both in a lot of bowls and do well in them. Yes, it favors the major conferences. But it should favor them as they usually have far more depth than the mid-majors. The system is fair, I think, because it mostly favors the top conferences but a mid-major can win if they have a really great season. And, in fact, one has and another might this year.

I’ll just quote my old article on past results since the inception of the BCS in 1998 and contrast my system to the bowl championship formulation. (And no, I am not going to correct for the Stalinist revisionism of vacating wins from either Penn State or USC).

  • 1998-1999: Both systems favor the Big 10, which went 5-0 with two BCS wins.
  • 1999-2000: Both systems favor the Big 10, which went 5-2 with two BCS wins.
  • 2000-1: The Mountain West had the best record at 3-0, but my system favors the Big East’s 4-1 record with a BCS win.
  • 2001-2: The Big East took the BC Cup based on a 4-1 record. My system would have given it to the SEC since they were 5-3 but won two BCS games.
  • 2002-3: Both systems give the cup to the Big 10, which went 5-2 with a BCS win and national title for Ohio State. If you’re counting, that’s three wins for the Big Ten in five years. Just keep that in mind when the SEC starts winning and you claim I’m biased.
  • 2003-4: The ACC wins the BC cup based on a 5-1 record. My system puts the SEC in a tie because they went 5-2 with a BCS win. This is a perfect example of how the systems differ because the Cup favors the conference that had fewer bowl games while my system favors the conference that had more bowl games. I don’t weigh national titles in the system because of my belief that such title are arbitrary (see previous rantings). But if I used it as a tie-breaker, the SEC would win since LSU took a share of the national title.
  • 2004-5: The Cup went to the Mountain West based on a 2-1 record. I gave it to the Big 12, which 4-3 with a BCS win. That was the lowest winning score (6 points) of any winner. And simultaneously an example of why the Bowl Cup was always stupid because it went to a 2-1 conference. This was the most balanced year on the books as only the Sun Belt was more than one game away from .500.
  • 2005-6: The Cup splits between ACC and Big-12 as both had 5-3 records. My system gives it to the Big 12, which also won a BCS game and a title.
  • 2006-7: The Cup went to the Big East based on a 5-0 record. My system puts the SEC in a tie. Although they went 6-3, two of those wins were BCS wins and one was for the national title. People pretend the SEC has dominated forever only have memories going back to 2006, which is when the SEC began to dominate. The Big East’s 5-0 record was impressive and I can understand people thinking they were the best. But the SEC played in almost twice as many bowls.
  • 2007-8: Again, the Mountain West wins the cup with a 4-1 performance. My system gives it to the SEC, which went 7-2 with 2 BCS wins. Their 14 point performance is the highest out of any year in the system and their seven bowl victories the most for any year. This was actually the peak of SEC performance. The hype has trailed it.
  • 2008-9: Another year where one conference — the Pac-10 — goes 5-0. But with a 6-2 record, a BCS win and a title, the SEC earns a tie in the point system. 5-0 is awfully impressive for a major conference. The Big 10, once the mightiest conference in the land, reached its nadir with a 1-6 bowl record. They weren’t the worst conference, though. The MAC went 0-5.
  • 2009-10: The Mountain West wins its fourth cup by virtue of a 4-1 record. My system favors the SEC again, which went 6-4 with 2 BCS wins. This is another year where the sheer weight of the SEC — ten bowl teams — propels them to the win. Had TCU won the Fiesta Bowl, the Mountain West would have become the first mid-major to win the points system. This demonstrates, I think, the wisdom of the system: an exceptional performance could propel a mid-major to the title. Under the Bowl Championship system, winning enough Weedeater Bowls is enough.
  • 2010-11: In 2011, the Mountain West became the first mid-major conference to win the points system when TCU won the Rose Bowl. Of course, they later bolted to the Big 12. But with a 4-1 record, they just edge the SEC (5-5, 1 BCS) and the Big East (4-2). While we’re on the subject, the Big East has to be most resilient conference in the country. No matter how many teams flee, they still do well at bowl season, second only to the SEC in the database.
  • 2011-2012: The Cup is split between Conference USA and the MAC, with 4-1 records. My system favores the Big 12, which went 6-2 in bowls with a BCS win. However … it should be pointed that the SEC became the only conference in the system to ever play a bowl game against itself. I thought it was ridiculous at the time to face off two teams from the same conference. Of course, if the LSU and ‘Bama had been in two different bowls, they might have both lost. So I’ll stick with the Big 12.
  • It may seem like my system is biased in favor of the SEC. But I designed it when the SEC was in a down cycle and it was favoring the Big-12. The SEC does better in my system simply because they get into more bowls and win more bowls. Over the BCS years that I have now entered into the system, here are the records of each conference coming into this bowl season.

    SEC: 67-47 (16 BCS wins) = 103 points
    Big East: 43-27 (7 BCS wins) = 66 points
    Big 12: 54-53 (9 BCS wins) = 64 points
    Big 10: 45-54 (12 BCS wins) = 48 points
    Mountain West: 31-20 (3 BCS wins) = 45 points
    Pac 10/12: 37-40 (11 BCS wins) = 45 points
    ACC: 45-53 (2 BCS wins) = 39 points
    Conference USA: 29-40 (0 BCS wins) = 18 points
    MAC: 19-23 (0 BCS wins) = 15 points
    WAC: 21-29 (2 BCS wins) = 15 points
    Sun Belt: 8-11 (0 BCS wins) = 5 points
    Independents: 7-12 (0 BCS wins) = 2 point

    It’s fine to hate the SEC. I probably would had I not been raised in Georgia. But their dominance in the BCS era, particularly from 2006-2012, can not be denied. The other conferences cluster near .500 but the SEC is away ahead. This is true if you use W-L, national titles, BCS bowl wins or my system. On win percentage, the Mountain West or Big East would take the lead (but with a fraction of the bowl appearance). Those are the only two conferences that could be said to have legitimately matched the SEC in bowl performance.

    So why am I posting this now, while we still have two bowls left in 2013? Here’s why. With the old bowl championship system, Conference USA would have already have “won” the bowl season by virtue of winning the Beef O’Brady Bowl, the Hawaii Bowl, the Armed Forces Bowl and the Liberty Bowl. While I’m happy for those teams, this doesn’t really cross me as exactly dominating college football.

    As of right now, the points system has Conference USA, the much-maligned ACC and the hyped SEC in a tie at 7 points. Should ‘Bama win their third title, the SEC will take the points system with a 6-3 record and a BCS win. However, should Notre Dame win, the SEC will lose it (as they should, having already lost one BCS game) and Conference USA/ACC will split the title.

    The SEC is still the dominant conference, but they have waned a bit in recent years even as the hype has exploded. From 2006-2013, they have placed first or second every year, which sounds about right for a deep conference that has won six straight titles, gone 41-22 in bowls and won nine BCS games. But their peak was three years ago. They have come down to earth enough to be beatable as Northwestern, Clemson and Louisville have shown.

    Notre Dame has a very good chance in this game because they play defense. For all the hype lavished on the SEC’s speed, what has made it the dominant conference is being one of the few to take defense seriously. If you look at the powers — ‘Bama, Georgia, Florida, South Carolina, LSU — they all have great defenses. When SEC titans clash, you don’t get 50-45 shootouts like you do in the Big 12 or Pac 12. You usually get low-scoring slugfest. A classic SEC game features a tough running game, punishing defense and enough passing to keep things lively. This year, we’ve seen SEC teams rise and fall with their defense. Georgia has trouble with Nebraska until their defense clamped down. South Carolina won, in part, because their defense clamped down, setting up the last minute heroics. Florida failed because their defense was completely lost at sea. Even Texas A&M, for all of Manziel’s amazing performance, pulled away when their defense shut out Oklahoma in the second half.

    In previous years, we’ve seen offense juggernauts like Oklahoma, Texas and Oregon get beat because their offense hadn’t really faced a tough defense before. I remember the 2008 title game, when the TV broadcast had a clock for how fast Oklahoma’s offense moved. They stopped using it because Florida, unlike most Big 12 teams, had an actual defense and put some of their best athletes on defense and Oklahoma was forced to slow down.

    That’s why Notre Dame could win this. They have a great defense and can match Alabama stop-for-stop. It should be a low-scoring game that could turn on anything.

    This is also why I think the Big 10+ is destined to rise again. The Big 10 is the only other conference to take defense seriously. They had a bad year this year. But then again, two of their best teams were kept out of the bowls.

    Guess Who, Fat Boy?

    January 4th, 2013

    Earlier this week, the Journal of the American Medical Association came out with a huge study of obesity that concludes that the obesity hysterics are, indeed, hysterical. Their results indicate that being moderately overweight or even very mildly obese doesn’t make you more likely to die than a thin person. In fact, it may make you less likely to die, to the tune of 6%. (Severe obesity, however, did show a strong connection to higher death rates).

    Now you would think that this would be greeted with some skeptical enthusiasm. If the results are born out by further study, it would mean we do not have a massive pending public health crisis on our hands. It means that instead of using cattle prods to get moderately overweight people into the gym, we can concentrate on really obese people.

    So is the health community greeting this with relief? Not exactly:

    That’s the wrong conclusion, according to epidemiologists. They insist that, in general, excess weight is dangerous. But then they have to explain why the mortality-to-weight correlation runs the wrong way. The result is a messy, collective scramble for excuses and explanations that can make the new data fit the old ideas.

    William Saletan at Slate lists a dozen different explanations for why this study is wrong, definitely wrong, absolutely wrong, no sir. Most of these cross him (and me) as trying to rationalize away an inconvenient scientific result.

    Read the rest of this entry »

    Looking Ahead to 2013

    January 2nd, 2013

    Any year you can walk away from is a good one right? I ended 2012 with my family and career intact, so I don’t think I can complain too much. Abby had a great year with her first real birthday party and a good start to kindergarten. I landed a couple of grants and got a couple of big projects off my plate, including the image gallery for the mission.

    On the other hand, I had my gallbladder out and had a sudden awful onset of bad migraines, something I still have not quite gotten control of. My mother-in-law died. My stepmother got cancer. We spent a fortune on fertility treatments and got, for all our pains, one miscarriage and a bad MS relapse. So … yeah, not our best year.

    In sports, my Braves bowed out in ignominious fashion and the hated New York Giants stomped over the Falcons, Packers and Patriots. On the other hand, the Falcons had another good regular season, the Braves have a lot of young talent and Chipper Jones went out in grand fashion.

    Politics? Oh, God. This was one of the most frustrating disillusioning years I can remember. I looked at both parties and eventually slammed my head into the desk and voted for Gary Johnson. We had a huge amount of sound and fury. More digital ink was spilled than ever before. I blogged my guts out over at Right Thinking. And the result? Obama is still President, Congress is still split, Congress is still stupid, the deficit is still huge and the economy is still sluggish.

    But, for some strange reason, I have a good feeling about 2013. 2011 was a the year of false hope — personally, professionally and politically. 2012 was a tough grinding exhausting year. But I feel like things have put in motion that will make 2013 suck a lot less. I can’t put my finger on anything specific. That probably means I’m wrong.

    Oh, well. Without further ado, my bold predictions for 2013:

  • Alabama over Notre Dame; New England over Green Bay; Miami in the NBA, Cincinnati over the Angels
  • Movies look like a mixed bag. Bad remakes and sequels galore (Evil Dead, GI Joe 2, Hangover 3, Die Hard 5, etc.). Beautiful Creatures and Pacific Rim look hilariously bad. And I’m not optimistic about Oz, Man of Steel or The Great Gatsby even though I want to be. I’m worried Hobbit 2 will suffer from Middle Chapter Syndrome (even more than Hobbit 1 does). But maybe something will surprise us.
  • We’re going to have a debt ceiling crisis that will hurt the economy and result in almost no spending cuts of note. Nevertheless, the economy will lumber on. And, for the first time in years, the deficit will notably shrink.
  • The Supreme Court will have another interesting year, likely striking down Prop 8 but on very narrow grounds.
  • Japan and China will rattle sabers but no fighting will break out. We will probably eventually intervene in Syria. The EU will continue to lumber toward a unified state.
  • So, yeah. Even looking at that, I’m not predicting a great year. But 2012 was so lousy, 2013 is almost bound to be better.

    We must always remember that the arc of history is long and, over the last decade, has pointed toward progress. On a global level, things are improving. Steadily, haltingly, frustratingly. But improving. And maybe 2013 will be the year things start improving around here — slowly, haltingly, frustratingly. In the end, the future is what we create. And I intend to bend my shoulder a little bit more this year and push a little harder.

    Swift Unveils the Gallery

    December 31st, 2012

    Not a bad bunch of pictures, if I do say so myself.

    Post-Xmas Linkorama

    December 30th, 2012
  • Godspeed.
  • Heh heh. It turns out that some of those tests that say newborns have pot in their systems may be bullshit. Don’t you just love the War on Drugs?
  • You know, I actually think this guy gets it right. The whole “we’re miserable during the holidays” things always did cross me as a load of dingo’s kidneys. We see the stress of family and travel; ignore the absent stress of work.
  • As much as I respect the idea of building an ideal language, the idea is going precisely nowhere as Zamenhoff found out. Language is not about utilitarian efficiency. It’s about culture, history, nuance and tradition.
  • One thing I wondered while taking Sporcle’s blurred faces quiz is if the results would show a racial component: i.e., would white people be more likely to recognize the blurred features of other white people. This wouldn’t be about racism but about the way our brains process facial features.
  • Disbelief By Any Other Name

    December 29th, 2012

    I have frequently heard this argument from atheists:

    Ricky Gervais argues that “there shouldn’t be a word for atheism: it shouldn’t exist, it’s ridiculous. If people didn’t keep making up supernatural deities, I wouldn’t have to deny they exist.”

    While I understand that point of view, it crosses me as, frankly, condescending. What Gervais is trying to do is define atheism as the default human condition with theism as the anomaly. Really, when you dig into it, it’s another attempt to define atheism as normal and rational while theism is seen as some kind of mental defect. It’s relate to the idea, frequently sideswiped by Dawkins, that people are born atheists and don’t become religious until someone imposes religion upon them.

    But that “mental defect”, depending on whom you listen to, affects 90-98% of the population. Theism and supernatural beliefs have been around, as far as we can tell, since homo sapiens began to wonder where the world came from. And we don’t have to buy into some ridiculous behaviorist psychology nonsense to explain it. In my opinion, religion fits just as naturally with the way we evolved to think as the scientific method does. Human beings are born asking questions. And if we don’t have adequate information, we will invent it (you should hear my daughter’s theories about where babies come from). In science, that’s called a hypothesis. In religion, it’s called faith. In fact, I would go so far as to say that the instinct that drives scientific enquiry comes from the same fount that produces religion: a desperate aching need to explain the world around us.

    However much someone may wish it otherwise, atheism is not the default human condition; theism is. However much someone may wish it otherwise, atheists are not anywhere close to even a significant minority among the human population. And, seen in that light, “why should I call myself anything” comes across as trying to pretend that human beings are something other than what the are: semi-rational animals who don’t like an unanswered or unanswerable question.

    Robot Cars and the Law

    December 28th, 2012

    As I often say about innovation, the technical problems are nothing compared to the pinhead legal problems. Verge has a good article up sorting through some of the legal and treaty issues (yes, treaty issues) involved in automated robotic cars. It’s definitely worth your time.

    However…

    The article seems unduly pessimistic to me. These are things that can be worked out — we have entire armies of lawyers in this country who stand to make millions getting everything sorted into legal precedent. And if these things prove to be safe — and I think they will — the economic pressure to work out the legal issues will be fierce.

    The one thing that bothered me about the article was this:

    The Geneva Convention on Road Traffic (1949) requires that drivers “shall at all times be able to control their vehicles,” and provisions against reckless driving usually require “the conscious and intentional operation of a motor vehicle.” Some of that is simple semantics, but other concerns are harder to dismiss. After a crash, drivers are legally obligated to stop and help the injured — a difficult task if there’s no one in the car.

    As a result, most experts predict drivers will be legally required to have a person in the car at all times, ready to take over if the automatic system fails. If they’re right, the self-parking car may never be legal.

    Did you see the subtext? The subtext is that if I’m in a crash with an automated car, there is no one around to render assistance to me.

    Well, maybe. Bleeding out while unconscious or seriously injured would be a risk (although it’s not like pedestrians and bystanders are going to disappear). But being in a collision with a robot would have some advantages over being in one with a human:

  • One of the lessons taught in driver’s education is how to avoid accidents or, if unavoidable, minimize the damage (e.g., rear-ending someone instead of swerving into traffic or pedestrians). Robots can be made to optimize this much better than human beings.
  • A robot can not be knocked unconscious and can call for help. Even if its CPU were destroyed, it can be on a network that will recognize the dropout and call for assistance to the last known location.
  • An automated car will maintain an extremely detailed and objective record of the accident, making fault easy to determine.
  • An automated car will not get out and try to help injured passengers, true. But this isn’t always a good thing. It’s not unheard for helpful bystanders to drag people with spinal injuries into para- or quadriplegia because of an irrational fear that the car will burst into flames.
  • Developing safety and reporting methods for automated cars will massively improve the ability of driven cars to avoid accidents, minimize damage and call for help.
  • Robot cars are coming, one way or another. As powerful as the legal pinheads are, the force of progress is simply too strong.

    Me and the Ninth

    December 25th, 2012

    So, I finally got a new pair of headphones today. That in itself is a story. When I was in grad school, I bought a pair of heavy earphones that were fantastic. Long cord, covered the ears, good balance. I used the hell out of them. One day someone broke into my UT-Austin office through the ceiling and stole my monitor and my headphones. We recovered the monitor; they’d stashed it for later retrieval and I got it back after the police fingerprinted it. But the headphones were never seen again. Why they would want my old, torn-up, earwax-encrusted headphones mystifies me a bit. But, as Robert Heinlein said, thieves will steal anything that isn’t nailed down whether it’s valuable or not.

    When I get new electronics, one of my little quirks is to figure out the perfect media with which to break them in with. When I got my first DVD player, it was Saving Private Ryan. When I got my blu-ray player, it was Lord of the Rings (DVD). So what do you break a new pair of headphones in with?

    If you’re me, you break them in with the Fourth Movement of Beethoven’s 9th Symphony. And since it is Christmas, it becomes doubly apropos.

    Other writers have written more eloquently than I can about the 9th Symphony, which is simply the pinacle of musical achievement. Listened to on its own, it’s powerful, beautiful and overwhelming. But when you think about the circumstances: the most joyous uplifting music in history written by a man who was deaf and had an awful personal life … well, let me just say that I couldn’t get through typing that sentence without choking up.

    As amazing as the 9th is on audio, it’s simply stunning in person. I’ve been privileged to see it live, performed by the Atlanta Symphony Orchestra and Chorus. And I don’t think any media — digital, analog or telepathic — can convey just how special it is to watch it performed live. There’s something about seeing the hundred pieces of an orchestra and chorus working together that a recording simply can not convey.

    What’s even more amazing is the response. I’ve been to many classical concerts and classical audiences tend to be a bit reserved. For a great performance, you’ll get a standing ovation. But it’s usually just politely attentive applause. When the last note of the 9th fell, however, I heard a sound I’d never heard from a classical audience before. There was a roar as the audience lept to their feet, clapping cheering and whistling. The ASO got five ovations the night I saw them. It was like we didn’t want that glorious music to end.

    Mathematical Malpractice: Spree Killings Again

    December 17th, 2012

    This analysis, which claims that the US has more school spree killings than 36 nations combined, is getting a lot of play. It shouldn’t. It is extremely bad mathematical malpractice.

    The basic reason it is mathematical malpractice is the same reason the Mother Jones study was: it is difficult to analyze extremely rare events. When you narrow your investigation to events that happen maybe once a decade and are compiled haphazardly, you are simply going to be dominated by small number statistics and selection bias. You can therefore use those numbers to say, basically, anything you want.

    Let’s break down just how bad the numbers are being twisted here.

    1) The sample ends in 2009. That excludes the recent spate of knife attacks in Chinese schools that have left 21 dead. If you did this analysis a week ago, you would have had to drop China from the right column.

    2) The sample excludes acts of terror or war. But if Islamists shoot up a school because they don’t want girls to read, are those kids any less dead? If a drone strike misses its targets and kills a classroom, are those kids less dead? Why must we exclude the Beslan attack that left 186 kids dead?

    3) The sample excludes single homicides, which amount to 302 deaths in the United States over the time involved and God knows how many in other countries. So you are literally excluding 90% of the problem and focusing just on a tiny subset of killings.

    4) Comparing us to 36 other countries is ridiculous when some of those countries are places like Bosnia-Herzegovina (population 4 million). We have more population, period, then 30 of the countries on that list combined. Also included in that list of countries are England, Scotland and Northern Ireland, which are, technically speaking, not countries.

    5) The problem of small number statistics can be best illustrated by playing with the data a bit. If I include the knife attacks and move China into the left column, suddenly China has more violent deaths than 30 other countries. If I move Germany onto the left side, suddenly they have more spree killings than a bunch of other countries. If I define the sample in the 1990′s, suddenly Australia dominates the statistics. You simple can not draw conclusions from samples that are that sensitive to single events.

    6) Combining points 4 and 5, if you look at spree killing rates rather than the deliberate mathematical malpractice of comparing absolute numbers, the situation is very different. In 2009, the Winnenden shooting killed 15. Scaled up to the population of the United States, that would be the equivalent of 60 people dead, more than the worst year the United States has ever had. In 1996, 35 people were kill in Port Arthur, Australia. Scaled up to the US population, that would almost equal 500 dead. It is an event that is seared into the memories of Australians. My point is not that these countries are worse than we are. My point is that these are rare and horrible events and you can manipulate the numbers to prove anything you want.

    7) The biggest thing missing here is a sense of time. Is the rate of school killings going up or down? The answer, of course, is down. Check out chart one at Ezra Klein’s blog that shows that the rate of assault death has fallen by over half since 1970. Check out the NCES page I link above which shows a significant decline in on-campus homicides, from 40/year in the 90′s to 30/year in the 00′s. That decline is a hundred more kids running in the sunshine. The NCES data, based on a complete sample of over 600 incidents, is useful. This …. isn’t.

    I’m not trying to downplay the horror that unfolded on Friday. However, I don’t think any debate can proceed unless we have a good grasp of the problem we are trying to solve. Far too many children are murdered in school in this country — that was as true on Thursday as it is today. But to be useful, the debate needs to be on honest terms. Committing mathematical malpractrice by deceptively comparing the United States to 36 other countries as though there something to be learned from that is not an honest debate and is likely to produce a panicky and ill-considered response.

    The Hobbit Part I

    December 15th, 2012

    The Hobbit is not the Phantom Menace.

    I feel like I have to say that leading in, even though I liked the Star Wars prequels. But since that is the gold standard of disappointing sequels, I’ll just use it as a marker. The Hobbit will not disappoint. Casual fans may find it a bit boring in parts. Tolkien enthusiasts, however, will probably love it despite the liberties it takes with the text. Jackson has fleshed out the book with so much detail and backstory, that you can’t help but get swept up in the labor of love this clearly is.

    As I said on Twitter, the movie is good. Sometimes it is very good. But it if were a half an hour shorter, it would be awesome.

    Let me unpack that a bit. The biggest problem the movie has — in fact, I would almost say its only problem — is that it’s too long. If you’ve got me checking my watch during a Middle Earth movie and continually wondering, “OK, is this where they’re going to end it?”, you’ve got a problem with running time.

    It’s hard to pin down exactly where the movie bogs down because there is simply so much new material. New stuff has been larded in everywhere — the battle with the goblins, the chase to Rivendell, the “out of the frying pan” scene. This is not all bad: Jackson has put a much more tangible villain in the piece who works very well. And, as noted above, the backstory fleshes out the movie to be much more epic than the book.

    No, I don’t think the new material is the problem. The problem is that some scenes just drag on. People are complaining about the party at Bilbo’s house, but I didn’t find that to be much of a problem. I kind of liked it actually as it did a good job of introducing and defining the characters (Balin, in particular, does well). But the part of the prologue with Frodo just drags on. Gandalf’s introduction is almost verbatim from the book. The consultation in Rivendell really drags with Blanchett and Weaving intoning each syllable verrryy slowly. And a number of the battle scenes just go on for far too long (a growing problem in modern action films). In the end, the movie doesn’t really feel like it has an arc; it feels like a series of incidents that just … at some point … kinda ends.

    Personally, I would have ditched all the stuff with Radagast (although it does produce one extremely chilling scene). But I actually think that sharper editing could have kept everything in the movie that’s there and still cut half an hour off the running time. The result would be a great two hour movie that would leave the audience breathless.

    And that’s the rub. The reason I’ve spent most of this review complaining about the running time is because Jackson does so much in the film that’s just so right. The prologue about Erebor is excellent. Thorin’s backstory is great. The new villain is excellent and deepens the significance of Thorin’s return to Erebor. The “riddles in the dark scene” is the highlight of the film. Bilbo’s journey from timid Hobbit to hero is done better than Tolkein did. Middle Earth itself is, once again, rendered with such beautiful, loving and fiddling detail. And there are images in the film — the appearance of the necromancer, the “into the fire” scene, the eagles — that just work really really well.

    The actors are all well-chosen and do jobs ranging from good to excellent. And Jackson shows the talent he’s shown before for letting actors act.

    So, yeah, I liked it, despite its running time. I will probably see it again because, as with the second two LOTR films, my anticipation and worry impinged my enjoyment. But it’s definitely worth $8. Especially on a big 2-D 24 fps screen.

    I’ve rated it 8/10, which is provisional. The reason it’s provisional is that a) I’m a fan; b) I rarely rate films higher than 8 on initial viewing; and c) I have to see the other two films (and I really don’t want to wait two years for them). I initially rated the LOTR movies as 9′s but elevated all three to 10′s as they were one long epic rather than three films. So Hobbit I’s legacy will depend on how Hobbit II and Hobbit III go.

    Texas Linkorama

    December 12th, 2012
  • The idea of building gondolas in Austin strikes me as a really dumb. Gondols are slow and would take up lots of space for the number of passengers they transport. Texans aren’t big on mass transit to begin with (the light rail system is likely to be a flop). And what do you need a gondola for in a city that is really flat? This crosses me as a solution in search of a problem. And if it doesn’t have high ridership, it’s bad for the environment. And expensive.
  • Down with homework!
  • I always suspected that the high I got off parenting was an evolutionary thing. I find these things intriguing and fascinating. Much of what we feel in life: compassion, empathy, love, tenderness is the result of millions of years of evolution making us into creatures that look for the species rather than ourselves.
  • A really good post on the Jefferson slave thing. Also, highly recommended on the subject: Ta-Nehisi Coates. Actually, TNC is just recommended, full stop.
  • One day, parenting authorities will get it through thick skulls like that fun physical activities are good for children even when they involve a low amount of risk.
  • Ah, peak oil. These days, the biggest energy concern is that we won’t run out of fossil fuels and that global warming will be worse than feared.
  • A fascinating story from NPR about how our image of Jesus has changed with social norms.
  • While it strikes me that global helium supplies are a legitimate concern, the idea that our technical needs in 50 years will be the same as they are now crosses me as silly. Think about the chemicals that were important 50 years ago. Are we in the grips of a global lead shortage?
  • Something Like a War

    December 9th, 2012

    This website hit its tenth anniversary on December 6. I mistakenly referred to that on Twitter as my anniversary as a blogger. But I actually started blogging here in the fall of 2005. I didn’t start blogging to get famous or to get a big readership (and indeed, neither of those has happened). I mainly started blogging to rid my head of the thoughts that were cluttering it so I could think about more important stuff.

    (This hasn’t worked very well because writing things down just makes me think more. And having readers makes me write more carefully than i would if I were just writing a manifesto in a cabin.)

    Now you might wonder why, if I started blogging in 2005, the archive only goes back to 2007. So I thought I’d detail the Spam Event Horizon.

    The blog was pretty low key in the early days, just as it is now. I had a few friends who read and commented and would occasionally get a link from someone in response to an e-mail. Sullivan linked me once, RTFLC linked me a couple of times when Lee was still the only writer. But there wasn’t much going on to speak of.

    Because I was such a low-level blog, I didn’t know that the blogging software we had — I can’t remember its name right now — was terrible at protecting the blog from spam. I had to manage the problem manually by deleting comments. At first, the spam attacks were a trickle – a few a week. It was such a non-issue, I would occasionally fall behind in cleaning them, which may have precipitated the later events.

    In January of 2007, the blog suddenly started getting hit hard. First a few hits a day, then tens, then hundreds of spam comments. I shut off comments and backtracks. But we still kept getting hit by spammers who had us down as a site that was not protected. You know those documentaries about how bees find a source of food, go back to the nest and do a little dance to tell the other bees where to go? Spambots do the same thing, apparently, because we started getting thousands of hits per day. Then hundreds of thousands. The traffic trend was exponential.

    We weren’t set up for that kind of traffic. My brother, who hosts the site, was seeing all his other websites become unavailable. In the end, the only thing we could do was shut down the website completely.

    We waited a month before bringing things back. This time we went with WordPress, which has, for over five years, done an outstanding job of protecting the site. Even when I get links from more-trafficked blogs and a surge of a couple of thousand legitimate hits, the spam spikes but Askimet catches all of it. The spammers quickly figure out that We Are defended and go on to ruin someone else’s day. To date, some 22000 attacks have been thwarted.

    The one downside of our “shoot the hostage” response was that all my posts before February 2007 are lost. The MySQL database that had all my old posts was so mangled we never had time to unpack it and recover the lost posts. This is why I refer to the events of January 2007 as the “spam event horizon” as no information escaped from it. That saddens me a bit as it includes some good posts, including my transition on the death penalty.

    One of the things people don’t appreciate is that there is a constant war going on underneath the internet. Not a terror cyberwar, which does happen but is a bit overblown. No, this is more like the constant war our bodies wage against infection. Every day, our physical bodies are exposed to bacteria, viruses and fungi that would wreck merry havoc were it not for the constant vigilance of our immune system. And every day, every web site on the planet is attacked by hordes of spammers who could destroy a blog — as they destroyed mine — without the constant vigilance of programs like Askimet.

    Tuesday Linkorama

    November 28th, 2012
  • An interesting article on how child abuse panic is keeping men out of the childcare industry. My daughter had a male teacher at her school for a while. She really liked him and it was good to see her having a male role model in her life beyond me. But I also admired the man’s courage; I would not put myself in such a vulnerable position.
  • One of my favorite things to do as a grad student was to look up heavily referenced papers to see if they said what people said they said. At least a quarter of the time, they didn’t. Maggie McNeill just dug up a 30-year-old bit of Mathematical Malpractice that’s been cited incorrectly in support of innumerable bad laws.
  • A frustrating story about why we can’t watch WKRP in its original format. We really have to do something about fair use. The Republicans indicated that they might; then ran away from that position.
  • This video, of a hilarious bug in the FIFA 2012 video game, had me giggling.
  • I have to disagree with almost everything in this article claiming the alcohol industry is trying to make us drunks. It assumes alcoholism is entirely a function of government policy. And it mainly reads like a press release from the powerful forces trying to overturn the SCOTUS decision on out-of-state liquor importation, an issue of particular relevance to Pennsylvania.
  • Is airport security taking more lives than it is saving? Seems like.
  • I’ve been sitting on this story, about how doctor witheld information about a child’s medical future from the parents, for a while, trying to think of a way to approach it. Might still write a long form post. But I default to thinking people have a right to know. To presume to make that decision for them is arrogance. As our diagnostic tools get better, we need to give people the legal option: do you want know if we find anything bad? What happens if a cure is invented and this kid doesn’t know that he needs one?
  • The Girl Who Set the Dragon’s Nest on Fire

    November 23rd, 2012

    My thoughts on watching the movies of Girl with the Dragon Tattoo are too long for a tweet, so I’ll spell them out in a few hundred words.

    I read all three books of the Millenium Trilogy last year. They are quite good: Larsson was a talented writer. His characters are believable (up to a point) and he is a master at building suspense and mystery. The three books are compelling page turners and featuring a plethora of strong female characters. And Lisbeth Salander has to be one of the better literary characters to emerge in recent years.

    However, there were a number of things that bothered me about them. There is the Gary Stuish protagonist who seems not far removed from Larsson himself and spends much of the books sleeping with a series of great women. There is the stark moral color-coding, where all the antagonists are sexually abusive misogynistic dinosaurs. But what bothered me most was the way the books almost seemed to revel in their sexual depravity and trafficking hysteria. There is a strong “rescuer fantasy” undercurrent to the books that is subverted in Dragon Tattoo but keeps poking its head out in the next two books.

    The books were a giant hit and have since been turned into a Swedish television miniseries and a Big Hollywood Film. I have now watched the Hollywood version (albeit a bowdlerized version on a transatlantic fight) and the first two parts of the Swedish miniseries.

    On balance, I like the Swedish version better. I do need to see the American version in full at home to be completely sure about that, but I think my judgement is unlikely to change. The American version has definite advantages — a more filmic look, sharper direction, an even darker atmosphere. But the Swedish version is a little more complete and a little less slick, which I think are advantages.

    One striking thing about the two movies is that the American version features much more handsome actors. I think this is actually to the film’s disadvantage. The Swedish actors look more real, more worn down, more in keeping with how I envisioned them (and, uh, more Swedish). It made them easier to identify with and easier to believe. To put it bluntly, Daniel Craig is way to handsome and way too British for Mikael Bloomquist. He does a great job, no question. If I didn’t know the Swedish version existed, I’d think he was definitive. But Michael Nyqvist is just a bit more suited to the role. The same goes for the lead role: Rooney Mara is excellent; but Noomi Rapace is just a bit better.

    However, you really can’t go wrong with either one. Both are good. Both are suspenseful. Both do the book justice. Both come with my recommendation. They are both somewhere between 7/10 and 8/10, with the Swedish version a little higher. Was the remake, strictly speaking, necessary? I think it was. Because there a lot of people who simply will not watch a Swedish miniseries, no matter how good it is. The Craig film, by being slicker, more filmic and in English is more approachable and therefore allows more people to enjoy the story. I really don’t have a problem with that. The American film is utterly worthy of its Swedish predecessor.

    Important note: the Swedish movie versions are cut by about half an hour from the full television miniseries versions. Netflix now has both available for streaming and I strongly recommend the miniseries version, which fleshes out the story and includes a number of small details and subplots that, in my opinion, make for a fuller viewing experience. This review is based on the full version.

    (Really Serious Spoiler Warning: I’m about to reveal the end of the story, so please don’t read if you have not seen/read the story and want to maintain suspense.

    There is one thing that I hated about the book: that Lisbeth destroys the evidence of Martin’s crimes. The reason it bothers me is that the families of all the girls he murdered deserve closure — not to mention the cops who investigated those crimes. I realize that Lisbeth would not appreciate this, but Mikael would. This is one sense in which the Swedish TV series was better than the novel: Mikael agrees to keep the murders out of the press but he and the Vangers agree to notify the families. I found that much more satisfying than the books “we’ll destroy all the evidence if you donate money to women’s causes” social engineering resolution.)