Monthly Archives: August 2012

Jonah Lehrer, Niall Ferguson, the lecture economy

They apparently had the same problem — their brand was “person who writes books” but their actual business model became “person who gives lectures for five-figure fees.”  The demands of the two roles are very different.

Ideally, a public lecture should be an advertisement inducing people to read your book and engage with your argument presented in full.  What a disaster if the book becomes an advertisement for the lecture instead.

Update:  Stuff on this theme is all over the place today:  here’s Daniel Drezner on “Intellectual Power and Responsibility in an Age of Superstars” and Justin Fox on “the rage against the thought-leader machine.”  Both pieces are great.

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My Thurston memory

My first tenure-track job interview was at Cornell.  During and after my job talk, most people were pretty quiet, but there was one guy who kept asking very penetrating and insightful questions.  And it was very confusing, because I knew all the number theorists at Cornell, and I had no idea who this guy was, or how it was that he obviously understood my talk better than anybody else in the room, possibly including me.

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Why are the Orioles performing over their Pythagorean record?

This graph from Camden Depot showing the Orioles’ distribution of runs scored and runs against got me thinking:



Weird, right?  The Orioles allow very few runs frequently, and a lot of runs frequently, but don’t allow runs in that 3-4-5 range very often.  Their distribution of runs scored shows a much more ordinary shape.

Could this be explaining the Orioles consistent ability to win games despite allowing more runs than they score?  It’s not out of the question.  Imagine a team that allowed 0 runs 40% of the time and 5 runs 60% of the time; that team would allow 3 runs a game on average.  Suppose they scored exactly 3 runs every single game.  Then they’d score exactly as much as they allowed, so their Pythagorean WP would be .500.  But in fact they’d be a .400 team.

So I checked this for the Orioles — if each game had an RS and RA drawn at random from the distribution above (I got the exact numbers from baseball-reference, actually) it turns out that you’d get a winning percentage of .479, which gives 58 or 59 wins out of their current 122 games played.  Their Pythagorean WP is .456, which predicts 55 or 56.

So the Orioles’ weirdly bimodal RA distribution is indeed helping them beat Pythagoras, but only by 3 games or so; why they’re 10 over Pythagoras right now remains a mystery, and is probably just some combination of great bullpen and great luck.

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I go in bars

We walked by a softball game with a keg at Vilas Park today.  Tanya asked me if I thought CJ knew what a keg was.  I said, of course CJ knows what a keg is, he lives in Wisconsin.  Tanya said, but how would he know?  So we asked him, hey, CJ, what’s that big silver thing by the softball game?  And he said, “That’s a big beer thing.”  And I said, how do you know?  And he said, “I know what a tap looks like!  I go in bars!”


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Paul Ryan, science, money, television

From ScienceInsider’s summary of Paul Ryan’s approach to the federal spending on science:

“Instead of using its resources to fight life-threatening diseases like HIV/AIDS and cancer, the CDC has instead spent money on needless luxury items and nongovernment functions,” Ryan said in introducing his amendment to a spending bill. CDC had spent “over $1.7 million on a ‘Hollywood liaison’ to advise TV shows like ‘E.R.’ and ‘House’ on medical information included in their programming, clearly an expense that should have been covered by the successful for-profit television shows, not by our hard-earned tax dollars. … In a time when we are facing increasing risk of bioterrorism and disease, these are hardly the best use of taxpayer dollars.”

“E.R” and “House” are surely seen by vastly more Americans than all federal science education programming put together.  Doesn’t $1.7m  sound pretty cheap for ensuring that the medical information coming through those giant megaphones is correct?  In Ryan’s world, what’s the mechanism under which TV producers would spend their own money doing this?  Their own goodwill?  Or will scientifically sloppy doctor shows inevitably be rejected by the wise aggregate consumer, so that the market does the job for free?

I also think it’s not fair to ask that every US-funded program be the best use of taxpayer dollars.  I mean, do we really want a federal government that consists entirely of my NSF grant?

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Why not again?

Twenty-three years ago, coming off a last-place, 100-loss season, the Orioles made an improbable run for the AL East.  Their season ended with a three-game series against the division-leading Blue Jays in Toronto; they went in 1 game down, which means they needed to win 2 games to force a playoff or sweep to win the division.  But they lost 2 of 3 and went home.

I’ll just say this.  The Angels are 1 1/2 games out of the wild card right now, but I think they have the strongest team of anyone still in the chase, and they’re likely to take one of the spots.  That leaves one wild card.  At the moment, Baltimore and Tampa Bay are the top two contenders.  The Orioles finish the season with a three-game set against the Rays on the road.  It could easily be the case that they start that series a game behind TB for the second wild card.

If so, let’s hope it goes better this time.

Although of course you end up becoming yourself

It’s mostly a book-length transcript of an interview David Lipsky conducted with David Foster Wallace in March 1996.  I’m about a quarter of the way through.  It’s hard going — hard meaning sad, not hard meaning difficult.  Notable things:

  • “In those essays that you like in Harper’s, there’s a certain persona created, that’s a little stupider and schmuckier than I am.”
  • Something that I think has been retroactively forgotten about DFW is that he meant his writing to be in the experimental, avant-garde American tradition; he was thinking about John Barth, and I guess about Robert Coover and Donald Barthelme too, though he hasn’t mentioned them yet in this book.  I think this has been retroactively forgotten because no one cares about that tradition anymore.  When I was an aspiring fiction writer everybody read Barthelme, but I haven’t heard him mentioned in years.

Some googling reveals that DFW did like Barthelme.  In fact, here’s a whole interesting chunk of an interview he did with Larry McCaffrey:

For most of my college career I was a hard-core syntax wienie, a philosophy major with a specialization in math and logic. I was, to put it modestly, quite good at the stuff, mostly because I spent all my free time doing it. Wienieish or not, I was actually chasing a special sort of buzz, a special moment that comes sometimes. One teacher called these moments “mathematical experiences.” What I didn’t know then was that a mathematical experience was aesthetic in nature, an epiphany in Joyce’s original sense. These moments appeared in proof-completions, or maybe algorithms. Or like a gorgeously simple solution to a problem you suddenly see after half a notebook with gnarly attempted solutions. It was really an experience of what I think Yeats called “the click of a well-made box.” Something like that. The word I always think of it as is “click.”

Anyway, I was just awfully good at technical philosophy, and it was the first thing I’d ever really been good at, and so everybody, including me, anticipated I’d make it a career. But it sort of emptied out for me somewhere around age twenty. I just got tired of it, and panicked because I was suddenly not getting any joy from the one thing I was clearly supposed to do because I was good at it and people liked me for being good at it. Not a fun time. I think I had kind of a mid-life crisis at twenty, which probably doesn’t augur real well for my longevity.

So what I did, I went back home for a term, planning to play solitaire and stare out the window, whatever you do in a crisis. And all of a sudden I found myself writing fiction. My only real experience with fun writing had been on a campus magazine with Mark Costello, the guy I later wrote “Signifying Rappers” with. But I had had experience with chasing the click, from all the time spent with proofs. At some point in my reading and writing that fall I discovered the click in literature, too. It was real lucky that just when I stopped being able to get the click from math logic I started to be able to get it from fiction. The first fictional clicks I encountered were in Donald Barthelme’s “The Balloon” and in parts of the first story I ever wrote, which has been in my trunk since I finished it. I don’t know whether I have that much natural talent going for me fiction wise, but I know I can hear the click, when there is a click.

I quote the whole thing in order to concede Wallace is in some sense disagreeing with my disagreement with James Wood.

Anyway, here’s “The Balloon.”  And here’s my favorite Barthelme story, the one whose presence in a high-school anthology made me want to be an avant-garde fiction writer, “A Shower of Gold.”



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Via Keerthi Madapusi Pera’s Google+ feed, this from the Economist:  people outside math are discovering the joy of the word “modulo.”

August math linkdump

  • Algebraists eat corn row by row, analysts eat corn circle by circle.  Yep, I eat down the rows like a typewriter.  Why?  Because it is the right way.
  • This short paper by Johan de Jong and Wei Ho addresses an interesting question I’d never thought about; does a Brauer-Severi variety over a field K contain a genus-1 curve defined over K?  They show the answer is yes in dimensions up to 4 (3 and 4 being the new cases.)  In dimension 1, this just asks about covers of Brauer-Severi curves by genus 1 curves; I remember this kind of situation coming up in Ekin Ozman’s thesis, where certain twists of modular curves end up being covers of Brauer-Severi curves.  Which Brauer-Severi varieties are split by twisted modular curves?
  • Always nice to see a coherent description of the p-adic numbers in the popular press; and George Musser delivers the goods in Scientific American, in the context of recent work in cosmology by Harlow, Shenker, Stanford, and Susskind.  Two quibbles:  first, if I understood Susskind’s talk on this stuff correctly, the point is to model things by an infinite regular tree.  The fact that when the out-degree is a prime power this happens to look like the Bruhat-Tits tree is in some sense tangential, though very useful for getting an intuitive picture of what’s going on — as long as your intuition is already p-adic, of course!  Second quibble is that Musser seems to suggest at the end that p-adic distances can’t get arbitrarily small:

On top of that, distance is always finite. There are no p-adic infinitesimals, or infinitely small distances, such as the dx and dy you see in high-school calculus. In the argot, p-adics are “non-Archimedean.” Mathematicians had to cook up a whole new type of calculus for them.

Prior to the multiverse study, non-Archimedeanness was the main reason physicists had taken the trouble to decipher those mathematics textbooks. Theorists think that the natural world, too, has no infinitely small distances; there is some minimal possible distance, the Planck scale, below which gravity is so intense that it renders the entire notion of space meaningless. Grappling with this granularity has always vexed theorists. Real numbers can be subdivided all the way down to geometric points of zero size, so they are ill-suited to describing a granular space; attempting to use them for this purpose tends to spoil the symmetries on which modern physics is based.




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More arguments about the Orioles and regression

David Schoenfield in ESPN:

However (you knew this was coming), only four teams have ever made the playoffs while getting outscored. Of course, the extra wild card changes that dimension a bit, as the necessary win total to make the postseason goes down. Here’s what I did. I looked at three of those four playoff teams and every team since 1969 that won 85 games while being outscored (leaving out the 2005 Padres, who won 82 games while getting outscored by 42 runs, but aren’t really germane to the Orioles since 82 isn’t getting them into the playoffs).

It doesn’t happen often, which is why us number crunchers constantly refer to run differential as a general sign of team strength and indicator of future results.

First of all — it’s we number crunchers.

More importantly:  yes, it’s rare for teams that get outscored to win 85 games.  But so what?  The Orioles are 9 games over .500 with 2/3 of the season already in the books.  Conditional on that, the chance of the Orioles winning 85 is not bad at all.

And it’s rare for 85-win teams that get outscored to make the playoffs.  But that’s because it’s rare for 85-win teams to make the playoffs!  If the Orioles end up with 85 wins, they probably won’t play in the postseason; but that has zilch to do with them allowing more runs than they score.

To his credit, Schoenfield ends up getting this right at the end of his piece:

Let’s say it will take 88 wins to make the playoffs; I think it will take a couple more than that, but, hey, maybe the Angels and Tigers aren’t as good as most people think and never get on a big roll. To win 88 games, the Orioles have to go 29-23 over the final 52 games. Can they go 31-21 to win 90? My argument is they can’t; Orioles fans will suggest that Miguel Gonzalez (3.80 ERA in 47 innings) and Chris Tillman (5-1, 2.38 ERA in six starts) help make the rotation respectable. Maybe so. Regardless, the Orioles will have to play better then they have; you can’t keep relying on extra-inning miracles.

You can usually count on FanGraphs for a more quantitatively savvy take, and Dave Cameron comes through:

But the odds are already stacked against the Orioles anyway. They are 60-51 despite being outscored by 47 runs, and everyone keeps expecting them to fall out of the race any day now. Instead, they just keep winning. Yes, they’ve built their record on unsustainable performances, racking up 12 straight extra inning wins and going 22-6 in one run games. The way the Orioles have put themselves in contention suggests that they’re not as good as their record suggests, and that of all the teams fighting for the wild card, they’re the one least likely to continue winning games at this pace.

But none of that should matter to the Orioles. The reality is that those 111 games are in the books, and no one is going to be stripping wins from them simply because they won more close games than we would have expected. Baltimore is tied with Oakland and Detroit for the lead in the wild card race with 51 games to go, and in that kind of small sample, the variation in expected record around a team’s true talent level is pretty large. Even if we accept that the Orioles are playing over their heads, that does not preclude them from continuing to play over their heads for the rest of the season.

It might not be the most likely outcome, but the Orioles shouldn’t give up on a playoff run simply because the results aren’t likely to turn out in their favor. Even if we thought the Orioles were a true talent .460 team, we’d still expect there to be a wide range of possible outcomes given their current situation. In general, standard deviations around a team’s true talent level are believed to be about eight to 10 wins per full season, so it’s completely normal for a 75 win team to win 65 or 85 games just due to normal variation. In smaller samples, the variations are even larger, so even if we analyze the Orioles as a true talent .460 winning percentage team, that just means that they’ll probably win between something like 39%-53% of their games in August and September. In other words, they could be good, they could be bad, or they could be anything in between. Their underlying stats suggest that the mean is shifted towards the losing side of the curve, but that doesn’t mean that the winning side doesn’t exist simply because they’ve already “gotten lucky” in terms of wins and losses. They are not more likely to underperform now simply because they’ve already overperformed in the first four months.

Lucky wins count!

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