Monthly Archives: September 2012

Nate Silver is the Kurt Cobain of statistics

Or so I argue in today’s Boston Globe, where I review Silver’s excellent new book.  I considered trying to wedge a “The Signal and The Noise” / “The Colour and the Shape” joke in there too, but it was too labored.

Concluding graf:

Prediction is a fundamentally human activity. Just as a novel is no less an expression of human feeling for being composed on a laptop, the forecasts Silver studies — at least the good ones — are expressions of human thought and belief, no matter how many theorems and algorithms forecasters bring to their aid. The math serves as a check on our human biases, and our insight serves as a check on the computer’s bugs and blind spots. In Silver’s world, math can’t replace or supersede us. Quite the contrary: It is math that allows us to become our wiser selves.

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Me and Adam Phillips, Friday 29 Sep, 11:30am

I have often been told I needed to sit down and have a conversation with a psychoanalyst, and now I’m doing it — in public!  Adam Phillips and I will be at Hillel Friday morning to talk about the challenges of writing about technical material for a general audience.  Feel free to suggest questions for Phillips in the comments.


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Song of the night: “All The Time,” by the Cloud Nothings

Heard this in Barriques today and have been repeating it since, perfect soundtrack for a too-late night writing notes for grad algebra.  Apparently Cloud Nothings is, or at least was, a one-man band from Cleveland.  It sounds very much like he set out to cover the Lemonheads’ “Bit Part” but then realized there was more he could do with the chords he was playing.



Evolving standards of decency

Samuel Livermore, Representative of New Hampshire, argued in Congress that the phrasing of the Eighth Amendment was much too vague:

The clause seems to express a great deal of humanity, on which account I have no objection to it; but as it seems to have no meaning in it, I do not think it necessary.  What is meant by the term excessive bail?  Who are to be the judges?  What is understood by excessive fines?  It lies with the court to determine.  No cruel and unusual punishment is to be inflicted; it is sometimes necessary to hang a man, villains often deserve whipping, and perhaps having their ears cut off; but are we in future to be prevented from inflicting these punishments because they are cruel?

The whole debate is amazing reading.  The words of the Constitution and the Bill of Rights are almost scripturally familiar to us now; but it’s important always to have in mind that the document was cobbled together by committee, and that the precise intent, function, and implication of those words were as underdetermined and contingent in 1789 as they are now.  The Constitution is not scripture, and surely it’s healthy to put ourselves from time to time in the presence of people who were allowed to ask not only what the Constitution says but what it ought to say.

(Which is not to say that I think the Constitution should have specifically licensed judicial auriculectomy.)



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Somewhere a dog barked

From Rosecrans Baldwin in Slate:

As a reader of novels and not much else, I keep a running list of authorial whims. Male writers of the Roth/Updike generation, for example, love the word cunt. Also, where novelists once adorned their prose with offhand French bon mots, Spanish now appears. Here’s another: Novelists can’t resist including a dog barking in the distance. I’ve seen it happen across the spectrum—Jackie Collins, William Faulkner, and Chuck Palahniuk: “There was no more rain, just an eerie stillness, a deathly silence. Somewhere a dog barked mournfully.” (American Star) “She did not answer for a time. The fireflies drifted; somewhere a dog barked, mellow sad, faraway.” (Light in August) “This is such a fine neighborhood. I jump the fence to the next backyard and land on my head in somebody’s rose bush. Somewhere a dog’s barking.” (Choke)

I checked The Grasshopper King, and nope:  no barking dogs.  There’s a ceramic dog, and one dog who howls (but who appears moments later, and is named) and finally, near the end, a talking dog.  Me 1, cliche 0.

In other Slate literary coverage, Dan Kois reviews Ben H. Winter’s novel The Last Policemana detective story set in a future where Earth is six months away from certain destruction by asteroid collision.  When I was in college I took Spike Lee’s screenwriting course, and my screenplay was roughly on the same theme. It was a meteor heading for the earth, not an asteroid, and the atmosphere was supposed to be roughly that of After Hours or Into the Night.  It was called Planet Earth.  Lee’s total commentary on the screenplay, written on page 3, was “Some parts I laughed, some parts I didn’t,” and he gave me an A-.

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John Doyle on handwaving and universal laws

John Doyle gave this year’s J. Barkley Rosser Lecture at the Wisconsin Institute for Discovery; his talk was dedicated to the proposition that tradeoffs between flexibility and robustness in control systems with significant delays are in the end going to be bound by universal laws, just as the operation of a classical Turing machine is bound by laws coming from information theory and complexity theory.  (A simple such one:  a machine that has the potential to produce N different outputs is going to have a worst-case run time of at least log N steps.)

Doyle believes the robustness-flexibility tradeoff should be fundamental to our way of thinking of both biological and technological devices.  He gave the following very illustrative example, which is so simple that you can play along as you read my blog.

Hold your hand in front of your face and wave your hand vigorously back and forth.  It looks blurry, right?

Now hold your hand still and shake your head equally vigorously.  No blurring!

Which is strange, because the optical problem is in some sense exactly the same.  But the mechanism is different, and so the delay time is different.  When your hand moves, you’re using the same general-function apparatus you use to track moving objects more generally.  It’s a pretty good apparatus!  But because it’s so flexible, working well for all kinds of optical challenges, it is slow, and like any system with a long delay, input that oscillates pretty fast — like your waving hand — can cross it up.

When your head moves, it’s a different story:  we have a vestibulo-ocular reflex which moves our eyes in sync with our head to fix the images on our retina in place.  This doesn’t pass through cognition at all — it’s a direct neural connection from the vestibular sensors in the inner ear to the muscles that control eye movement.  This system isn’t flexible or adaptable at all.  It does just one thing — but it does it fast.

(All this material derived from my notes on Doyle’s talk, which went pretty fast:  all mistakes are mine.)

Here are the slides from Doyle’s talk.  (TooManySlides.pdf is the best filename ever!)

Here’s a paper from Science that Doyle said would be especially useful for mathematicians who want to see how the tradeoffs in question can be precisely formalize.  (Authors:  Chandra, Buzi, Doyle.)

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Tea, 4-2!

(This post by explicit request of a senior arithmetic geometer who wanted more Orioles material.)

Orioles backup catcher Taylor Teagarden is hitting .152.  Taylor Teagarden has recorded only seven base hits this season.  And three of Taylor Teagarden’s seven base hits have been extra-inning game-winning RBIs.  Others call them extra innings — we call them tea time.

Last night — sorry, I mean early this morning — might have been Teagarden’s most important gwerbie yet.  The Orioles, absolutely baffled by rookie starter Erasmo Ramirez, were down 2-0 in the ninth, their chance of winning per Fangraphs down to 5.8%.  To keep up our comparison of baseball odds and political odds, that’s the same chance Nate Silver is giving Mitt Romney to win Minnesota.  In other words, slim.

But the unnervingly good rookie gave way to the regular closer, Chris Davis singled in two runs, and the Orioles sent it to extras.  A lot of extras.  Teagarden’s RBI single came in the top of the 18th, a little before 3 in the morning Wisconsin time.  Reynolds knocked in an insurance run and the Orioles end up winning 4-2 to move percentage points behind the NYY for the divisional lead.  It was the longest game the Orioles have played this year, and their 14th straight extra-inning win, the second-longest such streak in the history of baseball.  (The otherwise unheralded 1949 Cleveland Indians hold the record.)

  • I have always been told that it’s good luck when a bird craps on your head, and perhaps this is so, because eventual winner Tommy Hunter pitched his whole outing with an avian dollop on his cap last night.
  • Steve Johnson pitched 3 scoreless innings with 1 hit and 4 K.  His ERA stands at 2.13. What does a guy have to do to get a spot start on this team?
  • And it just got yet more crowded; thanks to the depleted bullpen from last night’s game, the Orioles have called up 19-year-old superprospect Dylan Bundy.  Sounds like he’ll be used in relief, maybe even as early as today — in which case, happy Bundyday!
  • Dave Cameron claims that, for some teams, the best strategy in a one-game playoff is to skip the starter, instead deploying your best relievers for two or three innings each.  He’s writing about the Braves, but could this be a good move for the Orioles?  Two innings each from Steve Johnson, Pedro Strop, Darren O’Day, and Luis Ayala, with Jim Johnson closing it out, sounds like a pretty good starter to me.


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Some of my best friends are cross-dressing kingmakers

Steve Burt profiled in the New York Times Magazine.

I thought the profile was a little too heavy on other people talking about Steve and too light on Steve talking about Steve, so here’s Steve’s long and in part autobiographical essay about Game Theory (the band, not the branch of math) which is subtitled, I’m guessing by Steve himself, “An awkward essay about a deeply ambivalent band with a very unpromising name, including notes on nerd camp, fear of sex, Northern California area codes, and autobiographical digressions, with a book review near the end.”  If you want to read something more directly about poetry, here’s Steve’s essay “Close Calls With Nonsense” from The Believer, which lays out, to the extent that it can be laid out, the state of American poetry as it looks from one vantage.


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Obama 5, Romney 3 in the 7th

Lots of people are following Nate Silver’s election tracking over at 538, especially his top-line estimate of the probability that Barack Obama will be re-elected in November.  Silver has that number at 79.7% today.  Sounds like good news for Obama.  But it’s hard to get a gut feeling for what that number means.  Yeah, it means Obama has a 4 in 5 chance of winning — but since the election isn’t going to happen 5 times, that proportion doesn’t quite engage the intuition.

Here’s one trick I thought of, which ought to work for baseball fans.  The Win Probability Inquirer over at Hardball Times will estimate the probability of a baseball team winning a game under any specified set of conditions.  Visiting team down by 4 in the 2nd, but has runners on 2nd and 3rd with nobody out?  They’ve got a 26% chance of winning.  Next batter strikes out?  Their chances go down to 22%.

So when do you have a 79.7% of winning?  If we consider the Obama-Romney race to have started in April or May, when Romney wrapped up the nomination, we’re about 2/3 of the way through — so let’s the 7th inning.  If the visiting team is ahead by 2 runs going into the 7th, they’ve got an 82% chance of winning.  That’s pretty close.  If you feel the need to tweak the knobs, say the first two batters of the inning fail to reach; with two outs in the top of the 7th, bases empty and a 2-run lead, the visitors win 79.26% of the time, just a half-percent off from Silver’s estimate.

So:  Obama 5, Romney 3, top of the 7th.  How certain do you feel that Obama wins?

Update:  (request from the comments)  Silver currently has Obama with an 85.% chance of winning.  That’s like:  home team up 5-3, visitors batting in the top of the 8th, runner on first with one out.


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