Monthly Archives: September 2009

How bad are the Orioles, really?

A comment on the last post apologized for going off-topic by mentioning the Orioles’ recent slide; but that’s what I was going to write about tonight, anyway.

A couple of weeks ago I was going to write a post complaining about how people kept describing the Orioles as “trying to avoid a 100-loss season”; at the time, they were 60-85 and seemed well on their way to beating their history of bad Septembers, having already won more games than they did in the dismal September of 2008.  I didn’t get around to writing that post; and twelve straight losses later, a hundred losses seems more likely than not.  But I feel good about this team, even better than I did last August.  Hereunder find the argument that the Orioles are not really that bad.

  • First of all, the Orioles are plain unlucky, playing 5 games worse than their Pythagorean record of 65-92.  They might be the worst team in the league, but it’s not clear they’re much worse than Cleveland or Kansas City.  Unfortunately, they’re nowhere close to catching the Blue Jays or the Rays, let alone the Yankees or Red Sox.  Which brings us to:
  • The unbalanced schedule.  The Orioles are 20-47 against the AL East, the toughest division in baseball.  Against the rest of the league they’re 40-50.  Put the Orioles in the Central, with 18 games each against the Indians and Royals, and I think they’re 15 games behind the Tigers instead of 40 behind the Yankees.
  • Every team has injuries, but the 2009 Orioles are surely missing more key parts than anybody.  Our two most effective starters, Koji Uehara and Brad Bergesen, missed most of the season.  Brian Matusz and Chris Tillman, two young pitchers who came up midseason and made effective starts, are done for the year, as is Kam Mickolio, the only guy who’s pitched well out of the bullpen since we traded George Sherrill.  Two-thirds of the outfield, Nolan Reimold and Adam Jones, have been gone for more than a month, and one of their replacements, Felix Pie, is hurt too.  The guys on the field right now are the third choices of a third-rate team.  It’s not shocking they can’t beat the Red Sox.
  • Dave Trembley is probably going to get fired for the Orioles’ bad performance.  And for the first time I can remember, I actually do think the manager deserves some blame.  He loves to use lots of relievers, carefully selecting for platoon advantage or just because he thinks one inning, even an eight-pitch inning, is enough.  But with a bullpen like this one, stocked with guys who could be good or terrible on any night, I think a different strategy is called for.  The strategy is “If a reliever is getting people out you leave him in until he stops getting people out.”
  • Players on the Orioles who are very likely to produce more in 2010 than in 2009:  Matt Wieters, Nolan Reimold, Adam Jones, Nick Markakis, Felix Pie, Brian Matusz, Chris Tillman, Koji Uehara, Brad Bergesen.  That’s most of a team right there.  And kind of a good team.

But not as good a team as the 2010 Yankees or the 2010 Red Sox.  And that’s the one thing that’s hard about being an Orioles fan — and, I imagine, about being a Tampa Bay or Toronto fan.  The best-case scenario is the 2008 Rays — absolutely everything goes right and you make it into the playoffs and after a couple of short series you win a pennant.  And then the next year you’re 10 games back and stuck in third place again.  I can see the Orioles winning a pennant in the current system.  But I can’t see them (or Toronto, or Tampa Bay) building a team that can contend long-term under current conditions.

Prove me wrong, Orioles!

Update: Good discussion of the Orioles’ future at baseballthinkfactory.


Things I don’t know how to do, IV: signal apology from inside a car

The other day, in the middle of making a left turn from a four-way stop, I realized I’d jumped out ahead of the woman who had the right of way.  Aiming to signal an apology, I touched my index finger to my head (“I’m aware I did that”) and then to my heart (“and I feel bad about it.”)

Why did I do that?  Is there even the slightest chance this gesture was interpreted correctly by the other driver?  More generally, why don’t we have a consensus gestural shorthand for “I’m sorry about the improper traffic maneuver I just executed?”  Or do we have one, and I just don’t know it?

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Strategic Vision done in by the digits?

Nate Silver at 538 looks at the trailing digits of about 5000 poll results from secretive polling outfit Strategic Vision, finds a badly non-uniform distribution, and says this strongly suggests that SV is making up numbers.  I’m a fan of Nate’s stuff, both sabermetric and electoral, but I’m not so sure he’s right on this.

Nate’s argument is similar to that of Beber and Scacco’s article on the fraudulence of Iran’s election returns.  Humans are bad at picking “random” numbers; so the last digits of human-chosen (i.e. fake) numbers will look less uniform than truly random digits would.

There are at least three ways Nate’s case is weaker than Beber and Scacco’s.

  1. In the Iranian numbers, there were too many numbers ending in 7 and too few ending in 0, consistent with the empirical finding that people trying to generate random numbers tend to disfavor “round” numbers like those ending in 0 and 5.  The digits from Strategic Vision have a lot of 7s, but even more 8s, and the 0s and 5s are approximately where they should be.
  2. It’s not so clear to me that the “right” distribution for these digits is uniform.  Lots of 7s and 8s, few 1s; maybe that’s because in close polls with a small proportion of undecideds, you’ll see a lot of 48-47 results and not so many 51-41s.  I don’t really know what the expected distribution of the digits is — but the fact that I don’t know is a big clothespin between my nose and any assertion of a fishy smell.
  3. And of course my prior for “major US polling firm invents data out of whole cloth” is way lower than my prior for the Iranian federal government doing the same thing.  Strategic Vision could run up exactly the same numbers that Beber and Scacco found, and you’d still be correct to trust them more than the Iran election bureau.  Unless your priors are very different from mine.

So I wouldn’t say, as Nate does, that the numbers compiled at 538  “suggest, perhaps strongly, the possibility of fraud.”

Update (27 Sep): More from Nate on the Strategic Vision digits.  Here he directly compares the digits from Strategic Vision to digits gathered by the same protocol from Quinnipiac.  To my eye, they certainly look different.  I think this strengthens his case.  If he ran the same procedure for five other national pollsters, and the other five all looked like Quinnipiac, I think we’d be in the position of saying “There is good evidence that there’s a methodological difference between SV and other pollsters which has an effect on the distribution of terminal digits.”  But it’s a long way from there to “The methodological difference is that SV makes stuff up.”

On the other hand, Nate remarks that the deviation of the Quinnipiac digits from uniformity is consistent with Benford’s Law.  This is a terrible thing to remark.  Benford’s law applies to the leading digit, not the last one.   The fact that Nate would even bring it up in this context makes me feel a little shaky about the rest of his computations.

Also, there’s a good post about this on Pollster by Mark Blumenthal, whose priors about polling firms are far more reliable than mine.

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Show report: Micachu, Chairlift

Looking at Pitchfork’s 500 best songs of 2000-2009 made me realize that, while I listen to a lot of new records, I don’t listen to very many new records by new bands.  So I’m trying to stop in on some of the many free Union Terrace shows by presumable up-and-comers.  Last night I saw Micachu, a young Englishwoman who plays a kind of insistent, dissonant, stop-and-start pop on a modified 3/4-size guitar, and who sneers like Elvis when she sings.  I admired this without really liking it.  Headlining was Chairlift, from Brooklyn via U Colorado.  I liked that the lead singer dresses like a hippie while the guitarist dresses like a late-Soviet arena rocker (see also: Grammar.)  But all in all it seemed there was a lot of atmospheric keyboard, a lot of echo on the drums, a lot of frowny rock face from the singer, and not a lot of songs.  I didn’t stay for the big hit, “Bruises.”

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Thursday is your last chance to see Anvil! The Story of Anvil in Madison

While we’re talking about watching rock music and getting choked up, I ought to mention that Anvil!  The Story of Anvil is finishing its limited engagement at Sundance 608 on Thursday, September 24.  It’s a movie about perseverance; more precisely, how to tell the difference between perseverance and stupid, life-ruining stubbornness, and how to stay just on the right side of the line.  Also about heavy metal.  But you don’t have to care about heavy metal.  This might be the best movie of the year.

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I’ll Be Your Mirror, by sixty 10-year-olds

The chorus of Staten Island’s PS22 performs a kind of astonishing version of “I’ll Be Your Mirror.”

Some songs you just want to hear performed by people so young that the lyrics make sense to them.  Not just make sense but are experienced as startling truths encountered for the first time, and embraced.  In this connection, see:  the PS22 performances of Alphaville’s “Forever Young,” and “Don’t Stop Believing.”  The latter, no lie, choked me up.

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“Every curve is a Teichmuller curve,” or “Why SL_2(Z) has the congruence subgroup property.”

Teichmüller curve in M_g, the moduli space of genus-g curves, is an algebraic curve V in M_g such that the inclusion V -> M_g induces an isometry between the constant-curvature metric on V and the restriction of the Teichmüller metric on M_g.

Alternatively:  the cotangent bundle of M_g, considered as a real manifold, admits a natural action of SL_2(R); the orbits are all copies of SL_2(R) / SO(2), or the upper half-plane.  Most of the time, when you project that hyperbolic plane H down to M_g, you get a dense orbit that wanders all over M_g.  But every once in a while, the fibers of the map H -> M_g are a lattice in H, and the image is actually an algebraic curve; that, again, is a Teichmüller curve.

Teichmüller curves are the subject of lots of recent research; for now, let me just say that they are interestingly canonical curves inside M_g.  Matt Bainbridge proved strong results about their intersection numbers in Hilbert modular surfaces.  McMullen classified Teichmuller curves in M_2, giving a very nice algebraic description of the 1-parameter families of genus-2 curves parametrized by Teichmüller curves.  (As far as I know, there’s no such description in higher genus.)  In a recent note, McMullen proved that they are all defined over number fields.

This leads one to ask:  which curves defined over algebraic number fields are Teichmüller curves?  This is the subject of a paper Ben McReynolds and I just posted to the arXiv, “Every curve is a Teichmüller curve.”  The title should be read birationally; what we prove is that every curve X over an algebraic number field is birational (over C) to a Teichmüller curve in some M_g.  (In the posted version, we prove the slightly weaker statement that X is birational to a Teichmüller curve in M_{g,n}), but we’ve since tweaked the argument to get the closed-surface version.)

So why does SL_2(Z) have the congruence subgroup property?  Especially given that it, y’know, doesn’t?

Here’s what I mean.  Let Gamma_{g,n} be the mapping class group of a genus-g surface with n punctures.  Then Gamma_{g,n} acts as a group of outer automorphisms of the fundamental group pi_{g,n} of the surface; and from this, you get an action of Gamma_{g,n} on the finite set


where G is a finite group and ~ is conjugacy.

By a congruence subgroup of Gamma_{g,n} let’s mean a stabilizer in this action.  Why this definition?  Well, when g = 1, n = 0, and G = Z/NZ, the stabilizer is just the standard congruence subgroup Gamma_0(N).  And you can easily check that the class of congruence subgroups of Gamma_{1,0} is cofinal with the usual class of congruence subgroups in SL_2(Z).

Now Gamma_{1,1} is also isomorphic to SL_2(Z), but the notion of “congruence subgroup of SL_2(Z)” afforded by this isomorphism is much more general than the usual one.  So much so that one gets the following, which is really the main point of my paper with Ben:

Every finite-index subgroup of Gamma_{1,1} containing the center and contained in Gamma(2) is a congruence subgroup.

It turns out that the finite covers of the moduli space M_{1,1} corresponding to such finite-index subgroups are always Teichmüller curves; since, by Belyi’s theorem, every curve over a number field can be so expressed, we get the desired result.

The italicized assertion above can be thought of as a very strong kind of “congruence subgroup property.”  Of course, CSP usually refers to the property that every finite-index subgroup contains a principal congruence subgroup.  That finite-index subgroups Gamma_{1,1} (and even Gamma_{1,n}) always contain congruence subgroups as defined above is a theorem of Asada, and it’s conjectured to be true for all g,n.  But the statement that every finite-index subgroup of a mapping class group is a congruence subgroup on the nose is substantially stronger, and I imagine it’s true only for (1,1) and the closely related case (0,4), which was proved, in somewhat different language, in the paper “Every curve is a Hurwitz space,” by Diaz, Donagi, and Harbater.  Our argument is very much inspired by theirs — it was to emphasize this debt that we gave our paper more or less the same title.

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Someone mentioned the George R.R. Martin short story “Sandkings” on MetaFilter.  I read this as a kid and it scared the hell out of me.  To my surprise, I still think it’s kind of great.  And my thirty-year-old memory of the last sentence was word-for-word correct.

I read this in the August 1979 issue of OMNI, a subscription my parents bought me because it sounded educational.  In fact what I got out of it was nightmares about sandkings and the understanding that you could sharpen a razor blade by leaving it under a pyramid overnight.

The other really frightening story I remember from OMNI was “Fat Farm,” which according to Wikipedia was by Orson Scott Card and appeared in the January 1980 issue. Remember when Orson Scott Card was good?  Looking at the first page of this story on Google Books, it seems he wasn’t as good as George R.R. Martin was, back when I was eight years old and easy to frighten.

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Jim Carroll is dead

I don’t have many firm ideological beliefs about novels, but here’s one:  you can’t write a good novel by good luck.  No matter what your life story is, no matter what a raconteur you are, it takes years of practice, intense attention to boring detail work, and thorough rewriting if you want to produce anything worthwhile on the page.

Also good luck, of course.

You can’t have a good hearty ideological belief without a counterexample, and mine is The Basketball Diaries, a beautiful memoir/novel which was more or less a greatest hits collection from Jim Carroll’s diary, ages 13-16.  I like the way it shouldn’t be as good as it is.

I used to buy used copies whenever I’d run across them and give them to people.  I gave one to a girlfriend in college.  (For college friends, the one whose name rhymes with “I need a DJ on Ramadan.”)  She gestured in the direction of her bookshelf, where there was already a copy, and said “Men always give me that book.”

I’m pretty sure she didn’t mean that to be as crushing as it was.

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Show report: Gomers/Dandys/Breeders

I’ve gotten a bit backed up on rock show reports:  here are a few capsules.

The Gomers. Rock Star Gomeroke:  simple idea, brilliantly executed.  Local band knows more or less every song ever.  You go up on stage at the High Noon, tell them your song (specifying, if you want to, the key, tempo, that you want to sing “Beat It” polka-style, whatever) and then you sing like a loon, backed up by the pros.  Every Tuesday night at 9, every other Friday at 5.  It costs 5 bucks.  For the nervous types, of whom I am one:  performers vary widely in on-key-ness and stage moxie.  And thanks to the lights you can’t actually see the people watching you.  Up-tempo and big goes over better than delicate and nuanced.  I’ve been twice:  I sang “Pretty in Pink,” the week John Hughes died, and “Just What I Needed” last week.  The latter is available on video for my Facebook friends.

Cover bands don’t have enough status.  We accept as a given that the great plays and symphonies are part of our cultural inheritance, and that groups of performers should perform them for us — that the works being presented and interpreted again and again, in different places and forms, is part of what keeps them alive.  Why don’t we have troupes of rock musicians performing Led Zeppelin IV in its entirety, every Monday night for a month?  Wouldn’t this be more enjoyable, and teach us more about rock, than nine out of ten sort-of-original rock shows that actually take place?  I think the Gomers are great and I think the city of Madison should give them a grant to form a repertory company.  On the other hand, they seem to be doing fine for themselves dressing up as zombies and playing Beatles covers.

The Dandy Warhols. All I knew about this band was “they recorded the theme song for Veronica Mars” before I watched the surprisingly gripping documentary DIG! about their half-comedy, half-depressing-waste-of-time feud with the Brian Jonestown Massacre.  (Watch DIG! free on Hulu.)  Their show at the Majestic was free, sponsored by Jack Daniels, who I guess are trying to up their cool factor by affiliating with a band whose last US chart appearance was in 2000.  All their songs sort of sound like other people’s songs — at various times I felt they were about to launch in to “Pictures of Matchstick Men,” or “Lithium,” or “White Wedding,” or, on multiple occasions, “Sister Ray.”  You get the feeling that the band’s method is to start playing a cover and then keep damaging it until it’s their own song.

And this formula is 100% successful, just because these people are professionals and know what sounds good.  As frontman Courtney Taylor-Taylor wonderfully remarks in the movie, “I sneeze and hits come out.”

The Breeders. I was disturbed — no, really, disturbed! — when I realized I was familiar with only 42 of Pitchfork’s top 500 songs of the decade.  I like to think I keep up.  But what’s in fact meant by this is that I follow the current output of lots of bands who’ve been recording since the 1990s:  the Mountain Goats, the Magnetic Fields, Belle & Sebastian, and the Breeders.

And the Breeders might as well be a new band — they record so seldom that each new release sounds like a debut.   Here’s the great “Overglazed,” from their most recent album, which doesn’t sound a thing like old Breeders, or really like anybody:

Their set at the Majestic was heavy on old stuff, to the delight of the crowd.  Who knew so many people remembered “Iris,” or “Divine Hammer?”  The latter sounded terrific, drummed much more frantically than on record.  Kim and Kelley Deal both seemed, well, tickled to be on stage playing with their new bandmates.  You get the feeling they’ll be doing this until they’re 70, sloughing off and replacing the rhythm section every decade or so.  I’ll keep seeing them as long as they keep playing.

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