Monthly Archives: September 2011

In which it seems elementary school is much as I remember it

CJ grabs his left thumb in his right fist and tugs his thumb straight down.

“What are you doing?”

“A kid on the bus told me this is sign language for poop.”

The best part is, the kid was right.

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Roger Brown and the Chicago Imagists at Madison MOCA

The Madison Museum of Contemporary Art has a superb exhibit of Chicago Imagism up through January 15, 2012.  I saw the Roger Brown exhibition at the Hirshhorn in DC when I was in high school, and his paintings have stuck in my mind ever since.  He’s sort of a cross between De Chirico and a Sunday newspaper comic.  And there’s some kind of Zenoistic “stillness within motion” thing going on.  He paints a lot of disasters and a lot of skyscrapers, and sometimes disasters involving skyscrapers (as in “Sudden Avalanche” at left, or “World’s Tallest Disaster,” at right (which, by the way, is the cover image of Cate Marvin’s great poetry book of the same title.) Even the skyscrapers which don’t have disasters happening to them carry a certain sense of foreboding.

Many of the paintings in this show were gifts from the family of UW bacteriologist Bill McClain.  McClain credits the Imagists with inspiring him to have good ideas about biochemistry.  One more reason to go see this show!

CJ really liked it.  We have a new thing we do at art museums — I tell him he should look at a painting and say to himself, “What question does this make me want to ask?”  When he saw Brown’s “Skyscraper with Pyramid” (pictured in the linked profile of McClain) he asked why one of the people in the skyscraper was in color when all the rest were in silhouette.  Good question!

Anyway, great show, you can see everything in a half hour (though many of the paintings are worth spending longer on) and it’s free.  We’re lucky to have this museum in Madison and I encourage people to take advantage of it!

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Were the Orioles the most improved team in baseball?

No!  Despite my generally positive outlook when I posted this question back in February, and despite the wholly satisfactory last three weeks of the season, the Orioles did not win 77 games, as the CAIRO system projected, let alone go .500, as some of the more optimistic projections had it.  They won 69, just three more than last year.  What happened to a team that looked much better on paper than the 2010 squad?

It’s pretty simple, actually.  The 2011 Orioles were a bad team, but they were bad in a really different way than the 2010 Orioles.  I thought the changes in the lineup looked really promising; and I was right!  This year’s Orioles scored almost 100 more runs, in a low-offense year.  Last year they scored the second-fewest runs in the league; this year they were in the middle of the pack.

What went south, of course, was the pitching.  The 2010 Orioles didn’t have good pitching; they allowed the second-most runs in the league.  This year’s team allowed 80 runs more than that, worst in the AL by a large margin.  Why didn’t I see this coming?  I suppose because the Orioles got a ton of innings last year pitched by guys 25 or younger.  Not great innings — in many case slightly below-average innings — but adequate, major-league-level innings.  Young pitchers at that level usually get a little better year by year.  But ours got worse.  Bergesen got worse.  Arrieta got worse.  Matusz, the most highly rated of them all, got a lot worse.  In fact, Matusz and Tillman were bad enough to be sent down, which meant that we were giving starts to guys like Jo-Jo Reyes, another young pitcher who was mediocre before, and got worse.  I don’t know if it’s bad luck or if there’s something terribly wrong with the development process for pitchers.

Tom Scocca suggest that crappy defense is to blame when every single pitcher seems to get a little worse.  That fits with the sense I got from listening to the games, but it’s hard to know how big the effect was.  The Orioles’ BABiP against was .305; pretty high, but not enough, I think, to explain by itself why we allowed a half-run more per game.



Should science journalists check copy with their sources?

I have often heard mathematicians complain — most recently, last night — about their work being mangled when it gets covered in the press.  Why don’t science journalists check with their sources to make sure that the science is presented accurately?

There’s a great discussion of this issue at PLOSBlogs, featuring many well-known science writers and highly-placed editors in the comments.  It’s a tough issue.  On one side, journalists are quite likely to make mistakes about technical subjects (not only science) even if they’re very diligent when conducting the interview.  On the other hand, journalists are not public relations officers, and I tend to agree that it’s important to preserve that distinction, even when there are some costs.

As for me, I would never show copy to a source prior to publication.  Then again, because I mostly write about math, I think people cut me a lot of slack — if I oversimplify somebody’s work, they know that I know that I’m oversimplifying, and respect that I’m bowing to journalistic necessity.

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Arg max

Does everybody except me know the notation “arg max?”  I learned it in an applied math talk today.  I had never seen this before.  It means “the value at which the maximum is achieved” — e.g.

arg max (-x^2 + x - 1) = 1/2.



98% sounds like it means “almost all” but it doesn’t always

From The Economist:

Michael Spence, another Nobel prize-winning economist, in a recent article in Foreign Affairs agrees that technology is hitting jobs in America and other rich countries, but argues that globalisation is the more potent factor. Some 98% of the 27m net new jobs created in America between 1990 and 2008 were in the non-tradable sector of the economy, which remains relatively untouched by globalisation, and especially in government and health care—the first of which, at least, seems unlikely to generate many new jobs in the foreseeable future.

You should never say “98% of X” in a context where “150% of X” or “-40% of X” would make sense.  Let’s say I run a coffeeshop.  My core coffee business just missed breaking even this month, losing $500.  On the other hand, the CD rack I put up made $750 in profit, and so did my pastry case, so I came out $1000 ahead for the month.

So CDs accounted for 75% of my profit.  Pastry also accounted for 75% of my profit.

See why this is weird?

(Imagine if I’d lost 500 more bucks on coffee — then I’d be making infinity percent of my profit on CDs alone!)

See also:  the Wisconsin GOP’s June press release asserting that Wisconsin had accounted for 50% of the country’s job growth in June.  Great!  Until you realize that California accounted for almost 200% of the country’s job growth…..


Happy Jim Traber Day

Twenty-seven years ago today, Jim Traber made his major-league debut for the Orioles.  And he sang the national anthem before the game!  Heroic.

When I think about Jim Traber I think about the three weeks in 1986 when he looked like the next great Oriole slugger.  He came up in the middle of July, age 24 with 10 previous games on his major-league resume, and hit .373 with 8 home runs in his first 20 games.  He seemed unstoppable.  At the time I had no understanding of the concept of “sample size.”  I remember being in Seattle, where my parents had a conference, and buying a Post-Intelligencer so I could see the previous day’s box score and find out what Jim Traber had done.  I sat under the Space Needle reading about Jim Traber and then I went to see the Laurie Anderson concert movie Home of the Brave.  The Post-Intelligencer doesn’t exist anymore.  Neither do Orioles sluggers.  Box scores and Laurie Anderson are still around, but seem less relevant all the time.

“I think it’s a pain cry.”

“Que es mas macho?  Pineapple o knife?”

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Meaningful September baseball in Baltimore

I’m truly excited that the remaining American League playoff races are going to come down to “Who has to play the resurgent Orioles the least?”


New York City passes on B-cycle

I had no idea this blog was so powerful, but a few days after I posted my somewhat critical take on Trek’s bike-share program, New York picked the other guys to run theirs.

Also, I meant to link to Letter From Here on B-Cycle.


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Explain to me why I should use Madison’s new bike-sharing program

I like bikes.  I like cities that support bikes.  But I don’t think I like Madison’s new B-cycle program.  Before the program started, my understanding was that for a small fee, I could check out a bike at a station and drop it off at another station.  Pretty useful if I needed to get quickly from place to place in town and didn’t have my bike with me.  But no — in order to get on a bike at all, I have to purchase a “24 hour pass,” which costs ten bucks.  But a 24-hour-pass doesn’t mean unlimited use of the bike for 24 hours — it just gives you the right to use the bike for half-hour trips.  Any more than that — say, if you want to take the bike to a store, buy something, and return the bike, rather than just going station-to-station — and you’re on the hook for more money: $2 for the second half-hour, $5 for each half-hour after that.  Who’s the market for paying $12 to run an errand by bike?

I can only think of two contexts in which this makes sense.  If I were a tourist, I would certainly pay the $10 and do free rides from place to place in order to get around Madison quickly and without worrying about parking.  As a local, I suppose if I thought I were likely to use the service a lot, I could pay $65 for an annual membership.  But I suspect the per-use cost would end up being very high.

Bike advocates who get good use from these programs — explain to me what they’re for!

Update:  Just to clarify for some commenters below — this program is private, operated by Trek, not (as far as I understand) subsidized by the city.  Trek has B-cycle systems running in about a dozen cities, and in most of them the daily rate is $5 or $6 (though in San Antonio it’s also $10.)  In Chicago there’s no daily pass at all, just a $5 minimum for a short ride.  B-cycle is one of two finalists to run bike-sharing in New York; I wonder what they’re proposing to charge?  In DC, which has a $5 minimum (different company), the service is apparently doing well; its 109 bikes made over 64,000 trips in March 2011.  Of course, DC’s combination of masses of carless tourists and mediocre public transportation is hard to match elsewhere.  But there are also 8,800 annual members, presumably locals; I wonder how many Madison has?

Re-update:  Actually, it looks like these programs do involve some municipal money in most cities.  Trek’s original proposal was that Madison would contribute $100K per year.  Mayor Soglin’s counteroffer was “How about nothing?  Is nothing good for you?”

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