vivere est cogitare

Tag: money

to err is human

Photo by Flickr user chasingfun/Mark Trammell

Every fall, the 120 teams in the NCAA Football Bowl Subdivision (FBS) play 12 or so weeks of college football. At the end of this regular season, the Bowl Championship Series (BCS) releases its final rankings; the teams ranked 1 and 2 are awarded the privilege of competing for the BCS National Championship.

And that’s it.1

The other bowl games select their participants in rather arbitrary fashion, whether by historical conference affiliations (most famously the venerable Rose Bowl Game, which historically pits a team from the West/PCC/AAWU/Pac-8/10/12 against one from the East/Big Nine/Ten), by selecting the best teams available (the bowls have an arcane but ostensibly logical selection hierarchy), or simply by ignoring all traditional rankings and picking the most financially lucrative matchup for the bowl game itself.

The nature of the championship (a single game between teams ranked 1 and 2 by the BCS) is rather frustrating because in almost all forms of competition the custom is typically to determine the champion by an elimination tournament. The college football model seems not only arbitrary, but unjustifiably so; often more than two teams (maybe many more) can make a reasonable case for being in the championship game. Consequently, the BCS receives considerable and (in my opinion) completely deserved criticism.

What baffles me the most, however, is the disdain for the use of computer models by the BCS. If anything, they are (or ought to be)2 the best part of the entire college football circus.

In brief, the BCS gives equal weight to the Harris Interactive Poll (a media poll), the USA Today Coaches Poll, and the average of the middle four of six computer models in determining the BCS rankings. The computer models thus account for one third (1/3) of the result.

It is extremely difficult for humans to make dispassionate analyses. We struggle to identify the sources of our own biases, we subconsciously process information selectively, and we make mistakes. Computers do none of these things. They perform no more or less than the tasks with which they are entrusted, barring technical errors (which are exceedingly uncommon). Moreover, the decisive element of the “computer rankings” of the BCS is not the computers themselves (modern computers being more or less fungible), it is the mathematical formulae by which the rankings are computed. The entire endeavor can only be criticized on the basis of the soundness of said formulae.

And therein lies my primary objection to the way the BCS implements computer rankings, an objection that can hardly be expressed more eloquently or scathingly than Bill James already did in an article in 2009. What the BCS has right now is not a good representation of what mathematical and statistical modeling has to offer for college football, so to criticize it on the basis of its performance is akin to criticizing automobile safety on the basis of a 2007 Brilliance BS6 crash test. The computer models are hampered neither by any flaw inherent to the concept of computer rankings, nor by a lack of football knowledge on the part of their creators. Their shortcomings are symptomatic of an institutional sluggishness on the part of college football, wherein age-old truisms supersede contradictory evidence.

That most of the six computer models employed by the BCS are run by individuals who like the current system is not insignificant. Some of the justifications for the considerable role of human polls in the BCS ranking are downright silly. This gem appeared in a Daily Fix (a Wall Street Journal sports blog) post about the BCS computer models:

[Jeff Anderson, co-creator of the Anderson & Hester computer ranking] argues that human voters are better equipped to judge scores, and distinguish between a 24-14 game where the losing team scores two touchdowns in garbage time and a 24-14 team where the losing team trailed by three late but threw an interception returned for a touchdown while attempting to mount a game-winning drive. “If margin of victory is going to be included in any part of the rankings, it should be included only in the subjective part,” Anderson says. Others point out that in many other sports, playoff seedings are determined solely by won-loss record, and the computer rankings account for the unique nature of college football by accounting for strength of schedule.

“It’s a matter of sportsmanship,” [Bill Hancock, executive director of the BCS] says. ”You don’t want a team to run up the score on their opponents, merely so they can move up in the computer rankings.” [1]

So instead of giving the computer models the freedom to employ the soundest methods, the BCS bars them from considering the margin of victory, ostensibly to encourage sportsmanship. Yet it gives two thirds of the vote to humans, who will vote not only on the basis of margin of victory, but really on the basis of whatever the hell they feel like. How is that any more fair? And Jeff Anderson, are you sure computers can’t tell the difference between garbage time and a late win?

I would argue that most people vastly overestimate the value of human polls and desperately underestimate the extent of human biases, particularly their own. If you perceive a computational model to be biased, I can assure you it is not (unless it’s Richard Billingsley’s, but that’s for another time). You are biased.

From 2001 to 2004, the BCS gradually eliminated the the use of margin of victory in its computer models. It also doubled the weight of human polls (from 1/3 to 2/3) in 2004, largely in response to the controversy of a split championship between the BCS and the AP poll. The message sent by the BCS (and much of the media, and pretty much everyone else who supported the change) was that the computer models exist only to corroborate and legitimize the human polls. When the computer models diverge meaningfully from human polls or the hopelessly vague and utterly uninformative “eyeball test,” they are made the scapegoat and forced to fall in line.

Throughout this process, we’ve met the most resistance from the computer people,” [Grant Teaff, executive director of American Football Coaches Association] said. “But that’s their deal. They talk about numbers and figures, and we talk about our responsibility to the game and responsibility to coaches and players emotionally. And besides, the polls that are done by the coaches and the writers will probably still make margin of victory a factor still anyhow. [2]

Responsibility to the game and coaches and players emotionally? What does that even mean? This quotation says everything you need to know about the BCS. Yes, the polls will indeed probably still make margin of victory, and the relative strength of the conferences in 1997, and in which time zone the games were played, and how the outcome will impact the coach’s own national championship game, and whether the team’s conference is spelled SEC, and on which team a writer’s son is a third-string kicker, a factor. And they will do it arbitrarily, without telling you. And if the computers don’t match the completely transparent and fair gold standard set by the polls, it’s because they were programmed by some scrawny, glasses-wearing, pocket-protecting brainiac at MIT who doesn’t know anything about what it’s like to coach or play football. Right?

[1] Drehs, Wayne. “BCS figures new formula makes for a better title game.”, July 12, 2001. Accessed December 8, 2011.
[2] Bialik, Carl. “College Football’s Top Six Computers.” Wall Street Journal Blogs, December 8, 2011. Accessed December 8, 2011.

1Okay, well, other polls (notably the Associated Press, a fascinating tale in its own right) rank teams outside of the BCS, and it is possible for the final AP champion to differ from the BCS champion, but the latter arguably carries more weight de facto.
2If all of the computer models employed were methodologically sound, I would not qualify this statement; sadly this is not currently the case, for all the reasons outlined above.

we call them npcs

The continued occupation of Iraq costs this nation at least $16m every hour.

Dayer AG et al. Recruiting new neurons from the subventricular zone to the rat postnatal cortex: an organotypic slice culture model. Eur J Neurosci (2008) vol. 27 pp. 1051-1060

The above is a cool article because it suggests that adult neurogenesis has the potential for clinical application. Not that it hasn’t been suggested elsewhere, but this is one of the more promising approaches.

Curtis et al. Human neuroblasts migrate to the olfactory bulb via a lateral ventricular extension. Science (2007) vol. 315 (5816) pp. 1243-9

It’s kind of surprising that it was only demonstrated in 2007 that humans have an RMS (i.e. we generate new olfactory neurons). Adult neurogenesis in both the SVZ (destined for the olfactory bulb) and the SGZ (destined for the dentate gyrus of the hippocampus), though especially the latter, has been linked in numerous studies to memory and learning.

va, tosca

Two weeks ago I saw Seattle Opera’s production of Tosca. It is quite an amazing opera, and this production was marvelous, if not especially distinct. Greer Grimsley made an amazing Scarpia, and I definitely want that cloak from the Te Deum scene (of which no pictures can be found on the internet, sadly).

The United States House of Representatives has managed to maintain a strong stand against the lies and fear-mongering of the Republican party and the Bush Administration on the issue of retroactive immunity for telecommunications corporations. Of this I am glad, though often it seems as though not enough is being done. In this and many issues, it is exceedingly clear that ignorance plagues Americans. The case against retroactive immunity is so blatantly compelling that no informed citizen with a functional brain should support immunity; yet somehow it does not draw sufficiently widespread and scathing criticism as to kill the idea entirely.

The right of the people…against unreasonable searches and seizures, shall not be violated, and no Warrants shall issue, but upon probable cause…

The Electronic Frontier Foundation is wonderful.

I’m glad the Democrats in the House of Representatives refused to pass Bush’s bullshit wiretapping bill. Unlike the Senate. Though Obama, Murray and Cantwell all voted to strike the retroactive immunity provision (o/), the motion to do so failed.

It’s almost surprising that the White House and even those Republicans in Congress would be so stubborn about something that is so blatantly ludicrous. But politicking prevails, and the rights and interests of the American people are swept under the rug in favor of corporate interests and government power. These pieces highlight how completely full of shit this bill – and especially the Republicans’ insistence on passing it – really is.

Once again, the unrelenting idiocy/evilness of the right-wing politicians delivers what would be top-notch entertainment – if we weren’t living in it. Even more depressing is that there are people who agree with them.

Sometimes the batshit-crazy right-wingers invoke the ever-popular argument that the “Liberals” are not thankful for these rights that our soldiers are so valiantly “defending.” The truth is, we are thankful enough for these precious rights that we bother to use them. Only someone without a functioning brain could conclude that the only appropriate way to express gratitude for our rights is to give them all up.

denaturing, annealing and extending

I’ve been trying to get around to a new post but I just haven’t had the time.

There’s an interesting thread on xkcd discussing the relative merits of welfare, which I found to be a pretty good read. A really fundamental assumption that is always made when talking about whether welfare is good, will work, etc. is the assumption that people will behave as you think they will. This is not always as simple as one might be inclined to believe.

Mythbusters recently ran an episode focusing on the internet’s beloved airplane on a conveyor belt question. Having read a few very long threads on this question, I have come to the conclusion that there are two kinds of people who, having been presented with the reasons why the plane definitely does take off, still believe that the plane does not take off:

1. Stupid people.
2. People who have misunderstood the problem.

The first kind are often beyond remedy. Some simply lack a fundamental understanding of physics; those can be taught. However the second kind are evidence that this particular question is vulnerable to confusion or lack of specificity/clarity. Often, constraints are assumed despite not being stated explicitly (that the plane must be stationary relative to the ground is one such assumption; it is never stated in any version of this problem that this must be the case – many simply fail to consider the problem carefully and leap to this assumption). Other times, the question is simply stated poorly (saying that the conveyor belt matches the speed of the wheels is a recipe for disaster, unless you subscribe to a universe which allows infinite speed and acceleration).

Edit: I will also leave a space for the people who understand the problem and simply state that it is possible to construct a system in which the plane does not take off; however the result of such an arrangement does not represent any reasonably designed airplane and thus such a case need not be considered. Essentially it must have incredibly high friction at the bearings where the axle meets the wheel. Disregarding momentarily the ludicrousness of the problem itself, it only makes sense to consider airplanes designed reasonably – one likewise would not consider, for instance, an airplane without engines or wings, etc.

Also, BioRad is the best.

Lately EVE has been getting more attention from my computer. The politics and history thereof in this game are really interesting. Film at ‘leven.

atlas farted

The staggering amounts of money thrown around by corporations are simply beyond comprehension. Can you even conceive of $1 billion? Estimating the world’s population to be very roughly 6.6 billion (source: U.S. Census Bureau estimate), and the number of billionaires in the world to be 946 (source: Forbes), it is safe to say that 99.999986% of the world’s living persons have no sense of what it means to have $1 billion USD. Alternatively, we can say that 0.0000143% of the world’s population has at least $1 billion in assets.

Regardless of the exact value, the basic idea is clear: very few people have a lot of money. Yet corporations deal every day in sums that simply boggle the mind.

Exxon Mobil broke its own record by posting a $40.6 billion net income in the last fiscal year. This is the largest profit ever posted by any company. Ever. The last sentence of the second paragraph of the New York Times article is truly extraordinary (not in a good way).

The company’s sales, more than $404 billion, exceeded the gross domestic product of 120 countries.

This is utterly ridiculous. An alternative comparison: Microsoft today made some pretty big news by offering to acquire Yahoo! for $44.6 billion. The company that runs the second most popular search engine on the internet (after the juggernaut that is Google) is valued at only 10% more than the annual profit of an oil company.

I am not a fan of the basic concept behind World of Warcraft – make tons of money on an MMO that is super easy to play and really little more than a glorified RPG that happens to have some online functionality. But you can’t argue that Blizzard didn’t succeed in the “make tons of money” department.

As an aside, at the risk of sounding like a certain internet personality, why don’t people leave Britney Spears the fuck alone. Some people really have nothing better to do than be obsessed with someone’s very personal, very real psychological problems.