Here I am back at my original blog to post the results of a study comparing the mortality rates of two sports leagues, the National Basketball Association (NBA) and the National Hockey League (NHL). This will be part report and part lesson in statistics.
Those of you not already asleep are welcome to follow the rest of this.
Motivation: Earlier this week, the Facebook group alt.obituaries posted the death notices of two hockey players, both under 70 at the time of their deaths. This made me wonder if hockey might be bad for one's long term health, so I decided to compare it to basketball. The sports are not comparable in terms of play, but they do have very similar lengths of seasons.
Designing the data sets: I decided in the interest of nice round numbers to look at the rosters of all the teams in the 1975-76 season of the NBA and NHL, which is forty years ago. I did this because of the ages of the deceased this week, Tom Lysiak and Rick MacLeish who died at 63 and 66 respectively. I figured they would both have been playing in that season and I was correct.
Data source and methodology: I went to the websites Hockey-Reference.com and Basketball-Reference.com, both part of the Sports-Reference.com family of websites. While I cannot prove the 100% reliability of these sources, every player in both sports that I knew had died in the past year was listed as deceased, so I am going to assume this website is as reliable a source as I am likely to find.
While this source is reliable, it is not 100% complete. My original idea was to include players from the two rival leagues, the American Basketball Association and the World Hockey Association, both of which fielded teams in 1975-76, but I could not find the data for those teams.
The question, stated as a Null Hypothesis and an Alternate Hypothesis: Is there a difference between the mortality rates of the NHL and the NBA? In a statistical test like this, the Null Hypothesis H0 always has to state that nothing special is happening, which in this case would be that there is no significant difference. The Alternate Hypothesis HAis that there is something special happening, that there is a difference and it is significant. Because of the two hockey deaths this week, I assumed hockey - the clearly more violent of the two sports - might be worse than basketball, but two deaths is not enough information to make an assumption, so we will make the test two-tailed, which means we would be surprised either by significantly greater mortality in the NHL versus the NBA or vice versa. We need to set a confidence level for what we will consider significant.The standard for publishing papers in nearly every field is 95% confidence, which means we need p-values less than .05.
Data set sizes: There are more men on a hockey roster than on a basketball roster and injuries are more common, so the NHL list for that season is longer than the NBA list. In the NHL, n = 461while in the NBA, n = 228.
Significant statistic #1: The average age in the NHL that season was younger than the average age in the NBA. The numbers for the birth years were as follows, rounded to two places after the decimal.
NHL: average birth year: 1949.43, standard deviation of the set: 4.33 NBA: average birth year: 1948.73, standard deviation of the set: 3.64
This has to do with the fact most NBA players come out of college while most NHL players come up through the ranks of junior hockey. The difference was only 0.7 years, or about 250 days, but because of the size of the sets and the low standard deviations in both sets, the two tailed p-value was .0265 and so the data is statistically significant, while in terms of mortality rates, 250 days difference in age is negligible in effect, especially for two sets of men averaging less than 70 years old. It should be noted that I only took down the year of birth, not the date, so rounding to two places after the decimal should be different if the measurement system was more precise.
Significant statistic #2: The percentage of now dead players from the NBA 1975-76 is 15.8% while the NHL roster from the same year has only 9.3% deceased. The p-value for this difference is .0092. When publishing papers, lower p-values are better, so this difference is more impressive than the difference of less than a year in age between the rosters. Moreover, because the data of dead/alive is categorical, the size of our two data sets is on the modest end of acceptable, while when comparing numerical data, the data sets are rather large.
Guessing at the source of the difference: Obviously, the more violent nature of hockey does not make it a "deadlier" sport in the long run. The best guess I have for the cause of the significant difference is race and nationality.
African Americans are extremely well represented in basketball, especially in comparison to the population of the United States. The NHL in 1975-76 was still largely a white and mostly Canadian league. (The upstart WHA had a lot of European players. Once the leagues merger, the league became less and less Canadian over time, with a large influx of Eastern European talent after the collapse of the Soviet Union.) The difference in mortality very likely has more to do with comparing the overall mortality rates of black Americans to white Canadians.
Where to go next: The data set makes it hard to compare these cohorts to the general population. When I did a baseball vs. football comparison years ago, I hunted down players born in certain years, which meant I could use the excellent database of the Social Security system to compare the mortality rates against what was the expected mortality for men precisely that age. I don't have a good idea on how to collect a set of about 400 Canadian men who would have been between 20 and 35 in 1976 and a similar set of about 200 American men. If we could find such sets, we could have an idea of whether playing these sports is hazardous to your long term health. The earlier study I did said both baseball and football players are slightly healthier than the population as a whole.
I'm sure my readers have had the experience of re-reading a book or watching a TV show or movie decades later to find that it is not what you had remembered. This weekend, which fittingly includes Valentine's Day, I re-watched the 1967 version of The St. Valentine's Day Massacre, and I am happy to relate that oir my money, it still holds up.
I didn't see it when it played in the theatres, but watched it several times on cable back in the day, probably on Turner Classic Movies or some similar channel in the 1980s or 1990s. I had wanted to watch it again, but couldn't find it on Netflix or my local public library. I found it on Amazon Prime instead, and watched it on Friday night.
The movie was directed by Roger Corman, who has two claims to fame in Hollywood history. His primary legacy is producing a remarkable number of films, most of them cheap, many of them awful, but after that, he is remembered fondly for the actors and filmmakers who got their first chances in the movies he financed.
This was not a cheap film. The top of the cast list had Jason Robards and George Segal, both of them had already starred in well-received movies and the third bill, Ralph Meeker, was a well-known character actor. It's a 1960s movie, so anyone who watched TV in the 1960s and 1970s will see plenty of familiar faces, including Joseph Campanella, Charles Dierkop, Harold J. Stone and a few of Corman's favorites, most notably Dick Miller and two future stars, Bruce Dern and Jack Nicholson.
Many reviews I've read note that The Godfather is made only five years later. I don't think it's a fair comparison. Francis Ford Coppola - who got his start working with Roger Corman - was doing everything he could to make his name with big budget, hoping for a blockbuster first and a masterpiece second, while Corman was just trying to make an entertaining film. Both succeeded, though Coppola was obviously aiming higher.
Another difference is that The Godfather romanticizes gangsters, showing Vito Coroleone as a man of honor who wouldn't sell drugs. There is no honor in the hoods presented Corman's film. The society that tolerated them and the politicians and cops they corrupted are presented in a bad light as well. This was a fair comment on the time.
I would say the movie owes more to the TV show The Untouchables. Both presented their material in a semi-documentary style with voiceover narration. Instead of using Walter Winchell, the narration in The St. Valentine's Day Massacre is by Paul Frees, a voiceover actor on a par with the great Mel Blanc. In early scenes, Frees introduces characters, gives their birthdates and criminal records if any, sometimes their death dates as well. In the middle of the film, we don't hear from Frees, but near the end, several scenes are introduced "At (such and such) a.m. on the last day of his life, (such and such character) was (doing such-and-such mundane thing)." I have to admit, those little touches are some of my favorite bits of writing in the screenplay, which is credited to Howard Browne, who wrote and edited a lot of sci-fi and crime stories. After the murders, Frees returns to introduce scenes in an epilogue style, telling the final fates of Capone, who masterminded the attack, and Bugs Moran, who was the target who avoided being killed. (Sorry if these are spoilers, but the real events did happen 84 years ago, so maybe you should know them by now. Just sayin'.)
Most of the performance are understated, with the exception of Robards as Capone, a character who probably should be played over the top according to most of the stories about him, and Segal as the Moran thug Peter Gusenberg, who eats a sandwich with all the disgusting verve the method actors of the day were (in)famous for. The other over-actor was Nicholson, who got an uncredited role with only one line, which he hams up horribly. The story goes that he was up for a better role but Bruce Dern got it instead. Corman may have felt bad for him and let him show off a little. Nicholson is still a few years away from his first big break in Easy Rider.
I do not claim this is a classic of American cinema, but it is well made piece of entertainment, tightly paced at 100 minutes long and all the touches that helped define the 1960s, including a justifiably nerve rattling score by Lionel Newman. I give the movie a strong recommendation and if you like gangster films even a little bit, you owe it to yourself to see Roger Corman's The St. Valentine's Day Massacre.
I don't blog here very often anymore. I have the math blog, which I update sporadically, and the science fiction blog, which I update every day, like a good little obsessive compulsive. (Truthfully, I don't think I'm OCD. I'm way too lazy to be OCD.)
The page visit numbers for the sci-fi blog are doing very well. The increase looks steady, possibly linear, but it's actually a little faster than linear, more like quadratic. What that means to non-poindexters is that getting 1,000 page views is happening much faster than it did at the beginning of the year. Fresh out of the gate, only a few folks knowing me from previous blogs, it took about two weeks for 1,000 page views. This month on average, 1,000 page views takes about three days, which is faster than last month, which in turn was faster than the month before. Super fast growth is exponential. This growth is slower than that, but I'm still happy.
In terms of page views, Lotsa 'Splainin' 2 Do didn't grow anywhere near this fast and It's News 2 Them grew much quicker. All those stats make sense. With Lotsa 'Splainin', I was just some guy writing whatever I wanted. With the gossip blog, I had lots of pictures of celebrities and I'm sure many people came by just to look at them. This is also a draw of the sci-fi blog as well, and it makes some sense that Sandra Bullock, Brangelina and the Kardashians are going to draw more viewers than Isaac Asimov, Burgess Meredith and Neil Gaiman, though in a more thoughtful world, those numbers would be reversed. (It should be noted that the sci-fi blog has more than its fair share of pictures of attractive actresses, due to my Pretty Girl = Picture Slot rule, which is regularly if not obsessively enforced.)
It's heartening to see this particular statistic, but I don't completely trust it. Without question, some of the viewers of any webpage on existence are robots. How many are real people and how many are algorithms is completely unknown to me.
Another measure is the number of commenters. This blog had a lot of regular commenters and I made several face-to-face friends through this blog, including sfmike, Namaste Nancy, DistributorCap, dguzman and Tengrain, to name just a few. This blog even had a regular troll. I wasn't keen on him, naturally, and he loved arguing much more than I ever did. Doing a little research on him, I realized he had his own blog, but very few people visited. I think he came here hoping to have his views more widely distributed. With as cozy as my audience is, it's more than a little pathetic that someone would think of my blog as The Big Leagues.
The numbers for the gossip blog dwarf anything else I've done online. I've kept it available instead of killing it after I decided to stop updating, and now there have been nearly 2.5 million page views. But for the two years I ran the blog, I had one regular commenter, Karen Zipdrive, for whom I was grateful. I haven't met her face to face, but we still keep in touch by e-mail and the occasional phone call.
The sci-fi blog has a nice troop of regulars. First among equals is certainly Zombie Rotten McDonald, who is handy with a quip and very informative about architecture. (I had no idea the field was so undead tolerant.) I have a few face-to-face pals who also write, but I am also blessed with people I haven't met like Lockwood, Mr. Prosser, Ken Houghton and Clem, just to mention a few.
Which brings me to comments. When things get big on the Internet, the comment sections can get just awful. People I read on Twitter with huge followings like Wil Wheaton and Felicia Day are always writing "DON'T READ THE COMMENTS!" and some websites like YouTube are famous for how bad things can get at a moment's notice.
My general experience with comment pages has been good. With all my blogs, my posts to YouTube, my Facebook and Twitter accounts and comments on different websites, I have amassed a total of one hard to get rid of troll, and even he finally left. There have been other people who have acted like jerks, but compared to the people who have been funny or informative or generous (and often all three) the amount of grief has been minimal.
Since it's the one I'm putting the most effort into, I'd like the sci-fi blog to get more popular. I'd like it to get "big", whatever that means. But if it means a massive increase in the overall number and percentage of jerks, maybe I'm better off with my little hobby just staying a hobby.
Hello, regular readers, if I may use the term loosely. I'm keeping up my sci-fi blog every day and doing what I can on the math blog, but I have been neglecting my original blog rather badly. Apologies.
I write today about something that is neither about science fiction or math, but the news that multiple baseball players have been caught using performance enhancing drugs. Most people writing about it are either heading towards the fainting couch or want the cat o' nine tails re-instated.
I have a different take. I'm not surprised and I am finding it harder and harder to care.
Of the sports writers I've read, only Bob Kravitz of the Indianapolis Star shares my lack of surprise, though he wants the cat out of the bag. (That's the original meaning of the saying. When the whip was removed, punishment would begin. Thanks, Patrick O'Brian, for making this clear.)
Kravitz also thinks that nearly everyone who was caught this time was Hispanic because they have more to gain.Sorry, Mr. Kravitz, I call racist bullshit on that. Everyone was Hispanic this time because the lab that was busted was in Miami.
Kravitz wants the punishment to be true zero tolerance. Caught once, banned for life. Again, I disagree.
Kravitz gives credit to an alternative newspaper in Miami for breaking this story, pumping up his own line of work.
That's three places where I break ranks with Kravitz. The story broke because of a disgruntled employee. That is was published in a newspaper before the cops or Major League Baseball investigated is a minor point from where I'm sitting.
Here's my view.
1. Only world class athletes have a chance to make money that can set them up for life. Triple A baseball is barely a middle class wage and it disappears when the athlete is still a young man by any reasonable measure. Baseball is a rarity in that people are loyal to watching a product that isn't the very best but still performed by professionals. (Basketball and football have made it a tradition that colleges are their minor leagues. In hockey, there are junior and minor leagues somewhat akin to baseball.)
2. There is not a single sport I can name where the anti-doping measures aren't an obvious joke. The best athletes don't get caught by failing a test. They get caught because someone rats them out. We love our procedural dramas and as a mathematician, I'm glad to see nerds get to be heroes in the mainstream media, but the system of snitches on The Wire is much more true to life than the perky goth girl genius on NCIS.
3. Athletes may make money that puts them in the top 1%, but they don't get to write the laws they live under. To my mind, the ability to write the laws you have to obey is the true measure of power in our disgustingly corrupt plutocracy that still calls itself a republic. The guys who crashed the world economy in 2008 aren't in jail because they broke no laws. Their methods of theft and bad gambling were and still are 100% kosher. Athletes, on the other hand, have to obey rules made by other people, just like the rest of us slobs in the lower 99.8%.
4. Athletes may not be the brightest bulbs on the Christmas tree, but they live with risk to a much greater extent than most of us. That experience makes their risk-taking more like an evolutionary advantage. A lot of would be athletes sound like Al Bundy from Married... With Children. They shone bright in high school or college or maybe the minor leagues and then... poof! Sometimes it's an injury, but more often it's The Peter Principle at work. And when it gets to the top level, the trait that often makes the difference is the ability to play with pain. They risk their future health to play one more game, one more season. If a drug that they know from experience can't be detected can give them a real advantage, why should they say no? I know it's standard operating procedure to hate Barry Bonds, and I hate him myself. He's a reprehensible human being, even before he took PEDs. But his enormous ego could not stand seeing lesser talents like Mark McGwire and Sammy Sosa put on Mount Olympus and his remarkable achievements ignored because he couldn't hit more than fifty home runs in a season without steroids. (This puts him in company with Hank Aaron, who never hit fifty but hit more than forty with shocking regularity.) Once he took PEDs, you got to see what it means to be the greatest talent of a generation. At the plate, he hasn't had an equal in a very long time, possibly never.
5. But what about the children? No question can make me more disgusted faster than this one. Maybe it's because I don't have kids myself, but I didn't learn morality from Willie Mays or Jim Plunkett, I just liked watching them play. My male role models were my dad and my older brother, and I learned from them as both good examples and bad examples from time to time. I really don't like to cheat. It annoys me when I see others do it and as a teacher, I see it way too often. But I also don't want to become obsessed with catching cheats. I make it as clear as I can that I know what they are doing and give them one clear warning. Unless I see it becoming pandemic, and in a few classes that has happened, I'm becoming less and less of a hard ass as time goes on.
6. One change to the rules could change my attitude completely. If owners, general managers and coaches could be suspended, heavily fined or banned for life for turning a blind eye to the obvious corruption in their organizations, then I wouldn't mind players getting tough punishment.
Until then, I'd like the fans and sportswriters who are shocked, SHOCKED! to find that players are breaking poorly enforced rules to gain a real competitive advantage to shut the fuck up.
Using a new earworm to get rid of yesterday's earworm.
Sometimes the magic works and sometimes it doesn't.
Yesterday, I discussed several ways I have been collecting data this century, sometimes just with the intention of understanding a situation I thought was under-reported like the prices of gold, silver and crude oil. There were also data collection methods where I hoped to make a prediction at the end, most notably the 2008 and 2012 elections where my prognostications were closer to perfect than Nate Silver's were. I also looked at other people's predictions, most notably the supermarket checkout stand predictions of deaths, pregnancies, divorces and marriages. They pretty much sucked.
Now I have two new blogs. The first, This Day In Science Fiction has a daily review the predictions made in science fiction and other sources that have dates attached.
Some of the predictions are very good but many are not. I'm interested in dates that have already passed or are just a few years from now, and some writers like Arthur C. Clarke and Robert A. Heinlein are great sources for predictions that were within their lifetimes or just a few years later, though not all of them were accurate. (Following my rule for just a few years away, The Jetsons are supposed to live in 2062 and first contact in Star Trek is 2063. Neither of them meet my criteria.)
Heinlein has so many predictions both in fiction and in predictive essays that I have two pictures of him. When he's right I use the Sensible Bob picture. This picture is the Ridiculous Bob.
It gets used a lot.
Another set of predictors are the futurists from the Victorian era. They tend to believe the future will be a socialist utopia of equal opportunity and freedom from want. My personal favorite is John Elfreth Watkins, a fellow who worked for the railroads and was asked in 1900 to make a set of predictions about life in the year 2000. These were published in that famous source of speculative fiction The Ladies' Home Journal.
You might think he would just stick to the women's issues of the day, but he made predictions about transportation, communications, education, agriculture, entertainment, warfare, you name it. He's not perfect, but he does a much better job than the sci-fi writers do generally and he's spotting them fifty or sixty years.
More than that, I love that his well groomed facial hair has no trace of irony. A handsome fella, no doubt about it.
And then there's my second blog, Math Year 2013.A lot of my posts are just about math, but I decided in the off seasons between elections to gather climate data to see if I could make heads or tails of it. The Berkeley Earth Surface Temperature project produced the world's most complete set of temperature data starting a few years back that is being updated regularly. The data set is huge, but the enormous text files are tailor made for a computer program written in C to parse. I wrote several programs and started to look at the weather season by season in different regions of the world.
I chose a season and a region that shows obvious warming. Not every season in every region is this convincing. But overall, take any serious statistical measurement that doesn't involve cherry picking and the numbers say the planet is warming, in some regions like the Sahara at an alarming rate.
Past performance is not an indicator of future trends. I don't do my stuff to predict climate. My model isn't sophisticated enough by a long shot. More than that, as a mathematician I have my doubts abut many statistical methods.
Here's my view of prediction. I'm not a genius and Nate Silver's not a genius. If you are honest and diligent - and both of us are - it's easy to get almost everything right with your last snapshot of the race on the morning of Election Day. The median of the recent polls (my method) does extremely well and the average of recent polls mixed in with some trendspotting (Silver's method) does very well also. If we disagree, my method has a better track record so far.
On the other hand, something like predicting every winner in a sixteen team knock-out tournament is very hard. Here, for example, are the opening round pairings for last year's Stanley Cup playoffs. The numbers next to the team names give the seedings. The #1 seed had the best record in their conference and gets the advantage of playing the #8 seed, the team with the worst record that still made the playoffs. #2 plays #7, #3 plays #6 and #4 plays #5. Doing well in the regular season gives you an allegedly easier path to make it to the Finals.
Sometimes the magic works and sometimes it doesn't.
Last year, the final was between the #8 seeded Los Angeles Kings in the West and the #6 seeded New Jersey Devils in the East. For both teams, every victory they achieved during the Stanley Cup was against a team that had a better overall record in the regular season. The Kings won the Cup, winning 16 games and losing only 4 over a two month span.
In general, seeded tournaments are very random indeed, some more than others.
Nate Silver and I did very well with a data set that was remarkably devoid of wacky randomness. We weren't geniuses, we were just lucky to get such an easy assignment. With no false modesty, my system did a little better than his did, 83 correct picks and one abstention vs. 81 correct, 2 incorrect and 1 abstention.
When systems get very random, like March Madness or the Stanley Cup or picking all the Oscar winners, a strong system or a superior knowledge base can still get smacked around by dumb-ass luck.
As I wrote at the beginning of the last post, I am obsessively fascinated by predictions and on the whole, I do not trust predictions as far as I can throw them. Nate Silver's book The Signal and the Noise assumes we are just a few easy steps away from significant improvements in the field of prediction. As an older man, someone who has played more poker and more backgammon than he has, my best advice is to not celebrate early. We still have a very long way to go and no certain proof things have to get better.
Some of my readers, having read the title of this post, now have a eight-beat synthesizer hook playing on a loop in their brains. It starts with
BOMP BOMP doo doo dee dee dada de
I apologize for this but it couldn't be helped. I could say instead that I am in a love-hate relationship, but that is exactly the kind of over-used cliche my writing hero George Orwell warns against.
I am in a long-term relationship with seriously unhealthy aspects. I am obsessively fascinated by predictions and on the whole, I do not trust predictions as far as I can throw them.
What relationship doesn't have its ups and downs?
Longtime readers will know I have made predictions of the outcomes of the elections in 2008 and 2012 with some success. The last of my snapshots in 2008 had Obama leading comfortably 353 to 174, with 11 electoral votes in the toss-up category. The final result was Obama 365, McCain 173. The toss-up state was Indiana, which Obama won narrowly 49.9% to 48.8%, about 30,000 votes out of 3,000,000. The one extra I missed was that Omaha went for Obama while the rest of the state went for McCain. Back then, I didn't have access to the data to do the district by district predictions in Nebraska and Maine.
I did well predicting that election at the end and I did well in the general election of 2012. The best known predictor now is Nate Silver. I beat him in both 2008 and 2012. In his book The Signal and the Noise, he believes predictions are getting better and wants to determine why some do well and others don't.
My view right now is that good predictions are not because of particularly clever prognosticators but instead because of not very random data.
Besides the very accurate predictions both Silver and I made in the general election, we also tried to predict the GOP primaries in late 2011 and early 2012. Our records in these contests were much worse, even though one of the central tenets of statistics says the margin of error of a percentage near zero should be much less than the margin of error of a percentage near 50%.
My hypothesis for this less valuable data is that the GOP electorate was in a serious state of flux during the primaries. A ridiculous number of people were shown to be the front runners according to national polls and results of state primaries and caucuses. When Donald Trump made completely implausible noises about joining the race in the summer of 2011, his name shot to the top of the polls. Other people who topped the polls included Rick Perry, Herman Cain, Newt Gingrich, Rick Santorum and finally Mitt Romney. It should also be noted that Michele Bachmann won a straw poll and Ron Paul won caucuses.
Conservative media, most notably Rush Limbaugh, did not love Mitt Romney, and the GOP voters took quite a while to decide he was the one they wanted. Once he was chosen, he never had a lead over Obama. The GOP base hates Obama with a white hot hate, but it did not translate into love for their candidate that build a winning campaign.
Trying to figure out the electorate is just one of the topics on which I have collected massive amounts of data this century. Back when Bush was president, I collected data about casualties in Iraq and Afghanistan and filled spreadsheets with the price fluctuations of silver and gold and crude oil, trying to detect trends and correlations. I didn't make predictions based on these things, but I used them as an antidote to news gathering organizations that said everything was peachy keen because their important contacts in Washington said everything was peachy keen.
A few years back, I decided to start a blog keep track of the headlines of the supermarket checkout magazines. My original idea was to keep track of the things predicted that could be verified or falsified, like predictions of deaths, pregnancies, marriages or divorces. Soon enough, mission creep set in and I was putting up posts about every headline. Soon enough that meant keeping track of every belch from a Kardashian or fart from a Teen Mom. Diminishing returns set in.
I did keep special track of the people they predicted would die. Their track record was awful. They have had some famous successes. The National Enquirer said Michael Jackson had six months to live and within six months he was dead. They had similar good calls with Gary Coleman and Peter Falk. But they also suck a lot. Among the people who should already be dead by now are Bill Clinton, Queen Elizabeth, Loretta Lynn, Rush Limbaugh and Michael Douglas.
I put a picture of Anne Francis here because when I used forty names of people they predicted to die in a deadpool, I only got two hits in 2011, Ms. Francis and Elizabeth Taylor. They were finally right about Miss Taylor, but they had her on death's door off and on since before Butterfield Eight was released.
The latest fancies in my obsession with predictions can be seen in my blog This Day In Science Fiction and my work with climate data on my other new blog Math Year 2013. I will discuss the few successes and many failures I have found there tomorrow.
I've written this blog for a few years now. I rarely think about whether there's a Greatest Hits list in here somewhere, but I am fond of one piece I originally published on Christmas Eve 2009.
No, there's no holiday theme to it. It's about death in the literal sense and metaphorically about the death of objective reality and its popular replacement with selective reality, easily found on the Internet if you know where to look. This theme has been recurring in several of my recent research projects, so I re-publish this work, hoping a few new readers might see it and those who read it before might enjoy it again.
Murder and Mortality: The Skeptical View
If you get your information from the dull and corrupt mainstream media, you cannot help but think that the vast majority of the scientific community accept the quaint ancient hypothesis that all humans are mortal. You may be completely unaware of the honest skeptical opposition to this hoary canard held by many respected researchers in the field. As a skeptic on this point, I have not made up my mind, but I have seen the sloppy work done to support the staid conventional wisdom with the flimsiest of data and woefully weak logic skills. I have never talked to even one of the orthodox true believers, the “death junkies” as they are known in the skeptical community, who has yet to show a logical argument that proves without question that I will someday die. Their arguments invariably include some weak attempt at an induction proof that would be laughed out of any sophomore mathematics class.
Are you aware, for example, that in the all the United States, there is not one state where the death rate from all causes in a single year reaches one percent of the population? And yet, even with this clearly tepid data, all the “death groupies” claim that this proves everyone will eventually die.
Stuff and nonsense!
But the worst of these people, the greediest and least believable of these “death vultures” are those who would claim that Anthropogenic Life Termination (ALT), which they label with the scare term “murder”, is a major societal problem that we should spend millions of our tax dollars trying to prevent. They are always ready to spend your hard earned dollars, either by discouraging this incredibly rare event in a public already unlikely to commit these alleged acts or punishing the people the “death pimps” accuse of these so-called crimes.
I’ve already opened your eyes to the true rarity of death, but what if I were to tell you that in the vast majority of the United States, not only is death a less than 1% a year event for the general population, but ALT accounts for less than 1% of the already tiny 1% of deaths? Yes, the alleged “murder epidemic” is actually barely a ALT. hiccup if the real numbers are being discussed, not impacting the lives of even one in ten thousand people annually, and possibly less when you realize who is charged with keeping those numbers.
Why, you may ask, are these numbers so horribly masked? It’s the work of the “death community organizers”, an unholy alliance of layabout, thumb-sucking bureaucrats in the local law enforcement agencies and district attorney offices, aided and abetted by the Federal Bureau of (Mis) Investigation and in league with the powerful trial lawyers’ guilds and prison guard unions. Why, you ask, do they conspire? All of these people, many of them supposedly in adversarial relationships with one another, would all have to find honest livings if the public ever decided that ALT was a minor nuisance, if not actually a massive hoax. Add to this toxic mélange an easily duped and sensationalism loving media and an honest discussion of the true facts becomes as unlikely as a hurricane in Hampshire.
Clearly, the worst of the worst of the “death mafia” are those who rail about the alleged ALT cases that involve firearms, as though firearms have anything to do with the act, if such acts can even statistically be proven to occur! Guns were created for sport and manly bonding, handy tools designed to humanely reduce the population of disease carrying vermin such as deer and quail. But try telling that to the “death by gun wackos”.
The skeptical community is convinced that actual ALT cases have taken place in the historical record. After all, we are skeptics, not ostriches with our heads in the sand. In the Bible, it clearly states that Cain slew Abel, or Cain ALTed Abel, as we say in the skeptical community. When ALT can decrease the world population by 25%, even we skeptics agree that is something that must be dealt with. We are not unreasonable people! But perhaps the “death by gun Nazis” fail to realize that the gun hadn’t been invented yet! How do they explain that? One of their precious murders, verified in the Word of the Lord, but not committed with a gun of any kind! Obviously, they are mute on the subject.
I realize this is a lot of important information to process. Like Plato’s prisoners in the cave, you may believe the shadow world you have lived in before this moment more real that the true reality to which you have just been exposed. Oh, bitter fate that I live to give sight to the often ungrateful blind! But some of you may see the light, and spread that light to others until it envelops the world.
Go! See! Spread! Envelop! The word of truth so commands you! Remember to embrace the skeptical viewpoint at all times!
Except, of course, when I tell you something. Then you are just being a difficult asshole.
The public has spoken and though the competition was daunting, only F. Murray Abraham showed up on more that 50% of the ballots cast, edging out Nicolas Cage, Cuba Gooding Jr. and Eric Roberts.
Their career paths are different. Cage shows up in "major motion pictures" for the most part, and for the most part they are really bad. Gooding has pretty good taste in dramas but horrible taste in comedies, though that may be unavoidable these days given how many comedies are so low brow. Roberts didn't win an Oscar like the rest of these guys and does a remarkable amount of work, a lot of it on TV, occasionally with a minor role in a big budget film like The Dark Knight.
Of this group, only F. Murray Abraham starred in Blood Monkey. This is one of many roles that gave him an edge the other actors couldn't match.
Did you know one of his early roles was as the apple in the Fruit of the Loom commercials? Clearly, he understood the concept of "hey, it's a paycheck" long before he won an Oscar for Amadeus.
One can only hope he will make a film with Halle Berry in the near future and I can be sure to miss it.
Okay, regular readers will recognize the format from earlier this month. A list of actors is over on the sidebar, good actors with stinky careers.
What is the criterion for voting? Well, it's completely subjective, but think of it this way. You have two actors, X and Y. If you loved X's best work more than you loved Y's best work AND you think X's worst work is both worse and more plentiful than Y's worst work, then X beats Y and you shouldn't give Y your vote. If you have some actor Z who you think is better than X but hasn't fallen as far, maybe you should give both of them your vote.
Rule #1 No Old School! I was thinking about the category and someone brought up some actors from an earlier era. This person did not mention Vincent Price by name, but it's hard not to think of him. Good work in fine films and then... his later career.
I discussed this with several people and it was unanimous.
We love Vincent Price. We would never want to show Vincent Price the least amount of disrespect. We even loved him when he was overacting in cheese.
So out of respect to the legendary Vincent Price, we have a list of actors who are all alive, who have been in good projects and done good work, but their careers leave something to be desired.
In alphabetical order, F Murray Abraham bats first. From Amadeus to Shark Swarm and BloodMonkey.
No, I am not making those titles up.
I readily admit that I didn't think of him first. That honor goes to friend of the blog Mike Strickland.
I also did not originally have Nicolas Cage on the list. It was my sister Karla who mentioned him first. His best stuff is wonderful.
His worst stuff is awful and plentiful.
My friend Art recommended Vin Diesel.
I can hear your question. Wait, Vin Diesel was in something good?
Saving Private Ryan. Find Me Guilty. Boiler Room.
And then... well.
Here's the guy that first sprang to my mind. Cuba Gooding Jr. Seriously, the phrase "new Cuba Gooding Jr. comedy" is as off-putting as "direct to DVD". But his best stuff is really good.
People sent in a bunch of suggestions, and these suggestions made me think of Eric Roberts.
Remember when Julia Roberts broke into the business and people referred to her as Eric's cute kid sister?
Eric did some very good work early on, including a strong action film called Runaway Train and he looked like he might hit it big after Star 80. He won awards from respected film critic societies.
Then, his career happened.
Last on the list: Will Smith. He was so good in Ali and he was a lot of fun in the first Men In Black. I liked The Legend of Bagger Vance, though I may not be in the majority. But then there's Wild Wild West and the later MIB stuff, Independence Day.
In any case, these are your six choices. I apologize to all the folks who nominated people who didn't make the cut. I used The First Rule Of Blogging - a.k.a. You're Not The Boss Of Me - to make the list, but it was nothing personal.
Make your choices. The poll will be open until next Friday. You can vote for multiple actors. (I know I will.)
Okay. Fresh off Halle Berry's win making her the go-to gorgeous actress who has done good work and a whole lot of stink, we now start the nominating process for the guys.
I'll admit sexist bias here, but "pretty" isn't a big part of the qualification process here. What I'm looking for is actors who have done good work - winning some major award is nice but not necessary - and have also appeared in many, many stinkers.
Just to be clear: Casper Van Diem, Dolph Lundgren, Adam Sandler. They don't count because they don't have any good work to speak of.
So here we go with our starting line-up, the guys I'll call The Big Three. All of them Oscar winners, all their careers filled with the dubious.
F. Murray Abraham Won Oscar in: Amadeus But then he showed up in: so many films on the SyFy Channel I think even he has lost track.
Cuba Gooding Jr. Won Oscar in: Jerry Maguire I also loved him in: Boyz N The Hood, A Few Good Men, Outbreak But then he showed up in: Daddy Day Camp, Boat Trip, Rat Race, Snow Dogs, Norbit, ...
Nicolas Cage Won Oscar in: Leaving Las Vegas I also loved him in: Raising Arizona, Red Rock West But then he showed up in: Vampire's Kiss, Ghost Rider, Knowing, The Sorceror's Apprentice, ...
Okay, these three guys are into the semi-finals, no problem. Do you have anyone else that you think deserves to join them. One stinky film in a good career is not enough, so Samuel L. Jackson showing up for Snakes On A Plane won't put him on the list.
Nominations close Thursday night. Put your suggestion in the comments. The poll will start on Friday.
Okay. I came up with this category of attractive actresses with stinky careers with one name in mind.
Is Halle Berry the "I win" card?
A majority of correspondents said yes and she was the only name on a majority of ballots.
When you think pretty actresses with stinky careers, think Halle Berry.
Tomorrow, a new poll, this time for the guys. The prettiness doesn't factor in quite as much - and as you will see, I'm not just saying this because I'm a heterosexual male - but the idea that they have been in quality films with excellent performances mixed in with a WHOLE LOT of the stinky stinky. The "quality films with excellent performances" removes many people from contention - and yes, Adam Sandler, I'm talking about you - but the list is long, the competition fierce and there may not be an undisputed CHAMPEEN.
Not every reader of this blog is going to have a moment of instant recognition looking at this picture. Even less will immediately recognize the name Allan B. Calhamer. The picture is from a game called Diplomacy and Calhamer is the author of the game, first self-published in 1959, then picked up by Games Research and later by Avalon-Hill, now owned by Hasbro.
A quick and by no means complete explanation of the game. Seven players vie for domination of Europe on a map that represents the great powers before the First World War. The turquoise pieces in front are the French, black is Germany, green Italy, red Austria-Hungary, yellow Turkey and white Russia. (Not visible: England is represented by dark blue). The two different shapes represent armies and navies. Like Risk, the units move around the board, occupying spaces on the map. Unlike Risk, there are no dice. All the players write down their moves and once read out, the actions are resolved simultaneously. If two units want to move into the same place, the one with the greatest support from adjacent units will succeed.
You can't win the game or even survive without allies. Will the French and English join together to thwart German expansion westward? Or will the German make an ally of one its Western neighbors at the expense of the other? Each country has its advantages and disadvantages, but two elements are found in every game of Diplomacy ever played: alliances and back stabs.
The game never became a gigantic hit like Monopoly or Risk. I doubt it sold as well as Stratego. Its fans may not be legion, but they are steadfast. The most famous adherents are John F. Kennedy and Henry Kissinger. Calhamer went to Harvard and studied law, but he made his living as a mailman and raised a family near Chicago. Unlike some other famous American game designers of his generation, Sid Sackson and Alex Randolph, Calhamer never published another game.
Knowing my interest in obituaries, my friend Jodi wrote to me this morning reporting that Calhamer died late last month. Jodi loves Diplomacy and plays often. For me, the strategy is fun but the backstabbing hurts a little too much. Until I read the obit, I knew nothing about Calhamer's life. The idea that the author of one of the masterpieces of 20th Century games put bread on the table as a mailman is both sad and admirable. It reminds me of the great American chess players of the era before Bobby Fischer hit it big who made their livings selling insurance or working in an office. Wallace Stevens, the modernist American poet who won the Pulitzer in 1955, the year he died, worked as an executive in an insurance company.
And so, here is to Calhamer, whose greatest work was not the ticket to fortune or fame, but instead the undying admiration of a small group of people, themselves often dismissed as geeks or nerds. If you have ever played Diplomacy, whether you loved it or hated it, if you thought about the design, you realized very quickly that it would be impossible to improve on it.
This is because Allan B. Calhamer, mailman, was a genius and Diplomacy was his masterpiece.
Best wishes to the family and friends of Allan B. Calhamer, from a fan.
Okay, so it's time for a poll. The category is pretty actresses who have good performances to look back at and some serious cheese that is hard to ignore. I want to thank the folks who helped with the nomination process. I trimmed back a few because IT'S MY BLOG and YOU AREN'T THE BOSS OF ME!
Wait, that's actually only one reason. Hmm.
In any case, here are the nominees in alphabetical order.
I liked her in: Office Space, The Iron Giant
But she was also in:Just Go With It, The Bounty Hunter, etc.
Some people liked Friends. I didn't. Still, she fits both the requirements and so she's on the list.
I liked her in: X-Men
But she was also in:Catwoman, Gothika, etc.
I won't lie, she's the reason I put this list together.
Sarah Michelle Gellar
I LOVED her in: Buffy the Vampire Slayer
But she was also in:Scooby-Doo, Southland Tales, etc.
Easily my favorite actress on the list, but the writing may have a tiny amount to do with it.
I liked her in: Billy Bathgate, The Hours
But she was also in: Australia, Bewitched, etc.
She definitely will give Halle Berry a run for her money.
I liked her in: Dazed and Confused, The Fifth Element
But she was also in: Resident Evilparts 1 through n
I liked her in: Out of Sight
But she was also in: Gigli, Enough, Maid In Manhattan
I liked her in: Arrested Development, The Legend of Bagger Vance
But she was also in: Aeon Flux, The Road, Sweet November
There are many strong options here, so you are allowed to vote for as many candidates as you want. The poll will be open for a week, so make your voice heard.
Vote early, vote often. I support your right to vote in Internet polls, even though it is obviously an entitlement you clearly don't deserve.
Has she been in anything good? Well, I liked Dazed and Confused and The Fifth Element.
The rest of her career? Ouch.
My nephew Josh put some thought into his response. Too much thought? It's not my place to judge.
But he did add FIVE actresses to the list, and he limited himself to women with the first name Jennifer.
Jennifer Garner. Yeah, she's earned a spot. I kinda love her and I think Ben Affleck did a massive upgrade when he decided to marry her, but there's been problems, not least of which is the movie where she and Affleck met, Daredevil.
Jennifer Lopez. I loved her in Out of Sight, but there has been much stinky cheese after that.
I could kick myself for missing her the first time around.
Jennifer Love-Hewitt. Not a career to which I've paid much attention, but she has the requested qualifications.
Jennifer Aniston. Okay, I actually did kick myself for not putting her on the list. Not hard, but literally.
She was such a favorite on my tabloid blog, she should have come to mind immediately.
And going a little farther back, my nephew Josh reminds us of the vanishing act that was the career of Jennifer Grey. As my nephew Josh put it "Find some post Dirty Dancing relevancy, I dare you!"
"Nobody puts Baby in a corner"? "Nobody puts Jennifer in a good movie" is more like it.
The field is getting seriously filled up. My sister Karla has made some male nominations, which I think deserve another poll after this.
If you have a bright idea, put it in the comments or send me an e-mail. I may have to limit the list just because Blogger software can be fussy, but I'd love to hear more ideas.
Gorgeous actresses! Ugly careers! It's up to you, America! (And also my readers from other lands. Didn't mean to come across all jingoistic there.)
Watching the Oscars, I had an idea that really isn't about math or sci-fi, so that means I come here to write about it.
The topic is pretty actresses with truly awful careers.
First, let's set some ground rules.
1. Actresses with the name near the title in big budget films. There are boatloads of pretty women in Hollywood and there have been since the days of Mabel Norman. I don't want to pick on some lovely starlet like Yvette Vickers who spent her career in zero budget sci-fi flicks or the very attractive actresses whose career highlights play on Cinemax in the lonely wee hours, if you catch my drift.
In other words: No Shannon Tweed, no Shannon Whirry, none of their busty and usually nekkid ilk.
2. My first four choices are still working. Examples from earlier eras are allowed. The woman who started me thinking about this is still working and even owns an Oscar, as do two other women on my fledgling list. There may be other actresses from earlier times who had a great start and a weak finish, I just haven't thought of them yet.
Without further ado, the starting four of Lovely Actresses With Stinky Careers list, soon to be a reader's poll coming to you on this very blog.
I won't lie, Halle Berry is the reason I made this list in the first place. She has a new movie coming out that looks really stinky, and it's not the first piece of stinky cheese she has starred in.
It says a lot about a person's career when she makes Catwoman and it is not hands down the worst movie she ever made.
Swordfish. Gothika. Movie 43.
The list does not end there, sad to say.
Still, when she wore a cleavage enhancing gown on the Oscars last night, I appreciated it in a dignified but dirty old man kind of way.
Friend of the blog Karen Zipdrive nominated Charlize Theron. Like Halle Berry, Ms. Theron has an Oscar and she was very funny on Arrested Development.
Still. Aeon Flux. Sweet November. Astro Boy. Snow White and the Huntsman.
Did I mention Aeon Flux? Yes, I think I did. Still, it bears repeating.
I chose an earlier picture of Nicole Kidman because she's looking a little stretched and worn now. Like our two earlier nominees, she has an Oscar.
She did not win it for Bewitched, The Stepford Wives, Eyes Wide Shut, Australia or Batman Forever.
Our fourth nominee has no Oscar, but she is my favorite on the list by a very wide margin. Sarah Michelle Gellar had the title role in the TV series Buffy the Vampire Slayer and she was great. But on the big screen...
Hmm. Not so much.
Scooby-Doo. Scream 2. Southland Tales. Harvard Man. The Grudge.
Some of these movies had sequels. That does not mean they were good.
So there is my starting list. I will give folks until Thursday to make other nominations and I will start the poll on Friday. I'll also let people chime in on Facebook and Twitter.
The author Richard G. Stern died last month. There were several glowing obituaries, including the one in The New York Times. One of his students at the University of Chicago was Philip Roth, who credited Stern with the encouragement to turn his New Jersey upbringing into literature, starting with Goodbye, Columbus. Stern had many admirers whose work is much better known than his, including Roth, Saul Bellow, Norman Mailer and Flannery O'Connor.
I had never read him, but since I never read Patrick O'Brian until I read his obit back last century, I decided my lack of knowledge was no excuse and I picked up one of his novels.
Other Men's Daughters is the story of a middle-aged biology professor who gets involved with a student at Harvard, though he meets her in his capacity as a doctor. it was published in 1973. Looking at Stern's obit, we see he is survived by his wife who got her degrees in 1972 and 1975 and four children from his first marriage. Stern's hero Robert Merriwether also has four children in his first marriage. Clearly, some of the impetus for the novel comes from real life, though names, places, occupations and who knows what else were changed.
I got the novel out of the library. According to a card in a sleeve in its front cover, I was the first person to check it out since 1978. It was in hard cover and had this cover photograph. Going to Google to find an online copy of this, I found several other cover illustrations for the book, ranging from something that looks like a bad romance novel to a cropped photo you would expect wrapped around a Jim Thompson book, one with at least two or three criminal acts driving the plot.
Sometimes novelists remain obscure because publishers are clods.
In any case, I liked Other Men's Daughters. Drawing on my experience as a child of a divorce from the
early seventies, there is a lot of honesty and real feeling in the book. He is a strong researcher and does have an ear for humor when he wants to use it.
I don't expect I will now become hooked like I am on books featuring Aubrey and Maturin. For all his strengths as a writer, Stern did not produce a character as funny as Preserved Killick or compelling as Barrett Bonden, two minor but vital characters in Patrick O'Brian's world I love so dearly to visit.
I recommend reading Stern if you have not done so already. Though his obituary gave his middle initial, the books I have found of his do not. His lack of popularity is a mystery, not unlike the obscurity of a rock band like Big Star, Any Trouble or Mott the Hoople.
Sorry, that sounds like the comment of an aging hipster. Old habits are hard to break.
So I was talking to my sister Karla this evening and I asked the almost rhetorical question "Do you know who is hosting the Oscars this year?"
"Seth MacFarlane?" she answered, her voice trailing up at the end.
Now let me be clear. The question mark at the end of the sentence was not because she didn't know and was hedging her bet. Karla and I are as Gentile as Gentile can be, but her voice going up at the end was one of the Jewish versions of the question mark.
The one that means "What have we done that has displeased G-d so that this plague has been brought down upon us?"
I don't like Seth MacFarlane. I have never liked Family Guy and even though some people say Ted was better, I haven't seen it yet. I will stipulate that he is not the plague that is Adam Sandler. Many critics are now wise to the fact that Sandler tried to do better work but realized his worst crap is the stuff that sells and his movies are getting progressively worse, testing to see exactly where the bottom is that his fans will no longer watch.
MacFarlane is better than that, but I find his pop culture references obvious and unfunny, and the rest of his comedy not even worth criticizing.
Okay, so let's look at the history of Oscar hosts. How important are they?
When I was a wee lad, the host was always Bob Hope. I might not have loved Bob Hope, but I bought into the idea that the Oscars celebrated the best in Hollywood.
In the late 1970s, the standard Oscar host became Johnny Carson. By that time, I neither loved nor hated Carson, but I still kind of bought into the idea that the Oscars gave the awards to the best movies, even though that idea was sorely abused by the idea that Rocky really was a better piece of cinema than All the President's Men, Network and Taxi Driver.
In the long run, the host doesn't matter that much. My favorite host got the job one year and wasn't asked back.
Jon Stewart is my favorite for this one act of kindness. The picture Once won the Best Song award for Falling Slowly, written by the stars of the movie, Glen Hansard and Markéta Irglová. Hansard was first to speak, and when Irglová got to the mic, the band started playing the "get the fuck off the stage, you are boring us" music and she walked off.
Jon Stewart was backstage, and when the show came back from commercial, he invited her out and she finished her speech.
Honestly, that is the biggest class act I ever saw at the Oscars.
I don't have a TV, so I have to visit friends to watch the Oscars nowadays. I probably will pass this year. I have seen the movies that are most hyped, Argo and Lincoln, and I liked them both. But I have reached the point where I have ceased to care what movies win and what movies lose. More than that, the hiring of MacFarlane feels like an engraved disinvitation.
Dear Mr. Hubbard,
We regret to inform you that you are now 57 years old and no longer of much interest to the advertisers of our broadcast. Because you are old, we expect you will watch anyway, not unlike the pathetic people still watching Miss America. But regardless of what decision you make, we really don't give a fuck one way or the other if you tune in or not.
And if you decide to blog about your feelings... yeah, well, good luck with that, too.
Eat shit and die, The producers of the 85th Academy Awards
My latest math hobby is looking at climate data to see if I can make heads or tails of it. There's a lot of data so I can't sort through it by hand. That means writing computer programs. I'm not getting paid for this, so this is just programming for fun.
Programming for fun... is fun.
If you are a certain sort of person.
I am that certain sort.
Part of the fun is being your own boss. I'm the only one who gets to say when the job is done and the only one who says I have to scrap an idea and go back to the drawing board.
Or am I?
I got a new idea on how to present the data which will show trends in a way that cannot be cherry picked. If you are reading my math blog, you already know I am very adamantly against cherry-picking.
Once I got the idea, it seemed so simple and clear that programming it should happen in a flash, just as fast as I could say the sentence that explains the method.
Hmmm... not so much.
I had to stop in the middle of this "easy" programming task, because it turns out not to be quite so easy.
The ghost of Edsger Dijkstra haunted me.
Dijkstra, the handsome and professorial looking fellow in the picture above, was an important figure in the field of computer science in the early days. While there is a well-known algorithm that bears his name, his major contribution is to the teaching of the subject with an emphasis on rigor and careful planning before a program is written.
died at the age of 72 in 2002. When asked by an interviewer what he
would like to be remembered for, he replied: "If some day, someone is
writing a computer program and is thinking about how to do a quick and
sloppy job, and for a moment that person considers 'What would Dijkstra make of this?', then decides to design the program carefully, that will be immortality enough for me."
Well, professor, as of 3:00 this afternoon you are immortal for yet another year. You're welcome.
Sorry I'm not blogging much here anymore. I'm leaving this blog open as a historical resource and I'll write occasionally about topics that don't quite fit on the two new blogs. Today, I'm flogging the new blogs, both of which have new material my regular readers might enjoy.
Today, This Day in Science Fiction has yet another example of a French postcard from 1900 (no, not that kind) showing people in the year 2000 acting like dicks.
Not to give too much away, but I was given a great tip for a post that I'll be writing on Sunday, the definitive Ground Zero for generations of nuclear war anxiety, a little history I was completely unaware of until this week.
I'll keep you posted.
Then there's the math blog. For the past few months, I've been working on a project to see if I could make heads or tails out of climate data. I have my system in at least a beta version and I started the intro to the explanation yesterday. I'll be posting links here to the entire series, which should last several weeks.
So watch this space, as the old ad slogan goes. There will be at least a post a day for a while, most of them teasers with links to the new blogs, not unlike this post.