Tuesday, November 25, 2014

Hockey On The Radio (In 2014)

A few months ago I resolved to pay more attention to more of the world’s major sports leagues, specifically the major European football leagues, and the major American sport leagues. While this was helped by my upping my data allowance, it is restricted by my not having pay-TV, and also that for most of the weekdays I would not be around to watch the TV anyway.

One sport that does conveniently fit into my life though is hockey. American sports are on at a time that I can listen to them on radio during the day here in Australia, and while my radio app does not pick up American football or basketball games, it has access to a plethora of hockey broadcasts. Typically I only tune in for games between the more ‘iconic’ teams – from the US: Pittsburgh and Philadelphia, the NY teams, LA and Anaheim, Boston, Detroit, and Chicago, and from Canada: Montreal, Edmonton, Vancouver, and Toronto. But with hockey games played every day throughout the season, there is usually one game a day that I will tune in for at least a period.

In an age where most of the sports coverage we have access to is visual – either TV or internet – listening to the radio feels like an interesting throwback. For me, it reminds me of listening to Australian rules football in the 1980s and 1990s; nowadays I barely listen to Australian football, as I can easily get my fill just from TV broadcasts. Hence listening to a game on, say, the Edmonton or Pittsburgh network, and hearing the ads for local stores, somewhat feels like an alternate childhood in which I grew up in one of those cities listening to the clack of the puck and the swishing of skates on ice. (For the record I can’t skate.) For NY Islanders games I listen to the Hofstra University radio coverage, which leads me to imagine being a college kid in a dorm, listening to the hockey as I study and then drift off to sleep. I get a similar feeling listening to English Premier League matches on radio, as if those matches rather than Australian Football League matches are the ones that me and my town have been looking forward to all week, although the less favourable time zone differences between here and England means I experience that less often.

I’m not sure I get the same invented nostalgia from TV coverage – you don’t get the local ads and it is clearer from TV that the game is taking place in a foreign city. And as I said radio sports coverage reminds me specifically of a time in my life where waiting for the weekend’s matches was a bigger deal. Listening to the hockey makes me think that growing up Canadian would have been OK.

‘He shoots … HE SCORES!’  

Sunday, November 16, 2014

The Best of Everything in 2014

Best Book: ‘Flash Boys’ – Michael Lewis. The opening chapters about fiber optic cable were not all that compelling, but after that the ‘us against them’ story had me hooked. Sergey Aleynikov, the Russian computer programmer with his remarkably zen attitude to shit going down, was my personal ‘hero’ in the book.
Best Album: ‘Lost In The Dream’ – The War On Drugs. In his book ‘Retromania’, Simon Reynolds talked about ‘hypnagogic pop’ – music with eighties sounds that referred back to the music that today’s musicians listened to when they were toddlers falling asleep. The War On Drugs’ wonderful third album is kind of like that; it’s like the music I listened to as I drifted to sleep in the back of my parents car: Springsteen, Don Henley, etc. A ‘cool’ album built from ‘uncool’ sounds.

Best Song: ‘Come To’ – Bombay Bicycle Club.  I wonder if anyone else will pick this as song of the year; I had to check if it was even a single (it was actually the fourth from the album). Bombay Bicycle Club’s latest album was their best yet, mixing in Indian influences without seeming forced, and ‘Come To’ for me was pure bliss to listen to. ‘Bamboo’ by Deers is a close second.
Best TV Show: ‘The Walking Dead’. If you had asked me which would be my favourite show at the start of the year I would have said ‘Game of Thrones’ or ‘Mad Men’, and would have put long odds on ‘The Walking Dead’, which I barely paid attention to as I was watching the third season. But the fourth season was fantastic, as the series cut out the padding, and almost every episode felt distinct from the others.
Best Film: 12 Years A Slave. Absolutely devastating movie, and a worthy Best Picture winner at the Oscars. ‘Boyhood’ was really good as well.
Best Comic: ‘Saga’ – Brian K. Vaughan and Fiona Staples. For the third year running this gets my nod even if it was not quite at the same level as it was in its first two years. Very close was Bryan Lee O’Malley’s ‘Seconds’, which will appeal to fans of his wildly successful ‘Scott Pilgrim’ series.

Best Sporting Event: The football World Cup – particularly the group stages. I have only watched a few World Cups, but this was the definitely the best one I had seen, and kept me bleary-eyed and addicted to coffee for several weeks.

Best Sportsperson: James Rodriguez. Yes, Lionel Messi was named the player of the World Cup, and he is still the best footballer in the world. But Colombia’s James Rodriguez was every bit as good in the World Cup, and he provided the tournament’s finest moment against Uruguay.

Best Website: Fivethirtyeight. It’s a group of writers using advanced but intuitive analytics to answer questions about sports and economics (and other stuff as well). It’s like it was designed for me! … well, me and thousands of other nerds … 

Best Post: The Ten Worst Cars To Have Sex In. Possibly I love this post more than I should.

Best Beer:  Bacchus Sex, Drugs & Rocky Road. Yes, rocky road flavoured beer. I had a really good peppercorn steak-flavoured beer that day as well.

Best Twitter Feed: Tim Harford. The Undercover Economist author always seems to receive links to something interesting. Bastard.

Saturday, November 8, 2014

The Wooden Finger Five - November 2014

No. 5 No Way – Young Fathers

Who the - ? Young Fathers’ first album ‘Dead’ recently won the Mercury Prize for ‘best’ British or Irish album of the year; apparently it was time to reward hip-hop acts from Scotland. I thought it less deserving than Bombay Bicycle Club, but hell, it was more deserving than Royal Blood. For some reason I like the album tracks where the title is repeatedly chanted in the back-up vocals, such as ‘Mmmh Mmmh’ (it delivers what it promises), and opener ‘No Way’. Overall I found Young Fathers’ music to be OK, and if they do point towards the future of music it’s not in a bad spot, but I think I am still a bit more inclined to your classic rock structures.

No. 4 Satan Speeds Up – King Gizzard & The Lizard Wizard

For example, like King Gizzard & The Lizard Wizard, who as their name suggests have based their entire sound around late-‘60s/early-‘70s psychedelic rock. They also seem to want to follow a late-‘60s/early-‘70s album release schedule, with five albums in the past three years. I imagine ‘Satan Speeds Up’ as the soundtrack to some Haight-Ashbury cartoon featuring a giant, long-legged red devil wandering across a dark landscape, scaring hippies out of their wits. There’s some Jethro Tull-like flute thrown into the mix for good measure. Plus, King Gizzard’s album cover is so striking that I even selected it as an image for this post over the next group’s, who would barely ever get bumped when it comes to selecting favourite album cover images.

No. 3 Lovely Rita – The Flaming Lips, featuring Tegan & Sara, and Stardeath, and White Dwarves

Psychedelic I said? The idea of the Flaming Lips covering the Beatles’ era-defining ‘Sgt. Pepper’s Lonely Hearts Club Band’ is like …
Miley Cyrus’ appearance on ‘A Day In The Life’ has gained the most notice, and while she does a decent job on my one-time favourite track, I prefer Tegan & Sara breathing some life into Paul McCartney’s ‘Lovely Rita’ meter maid ditty. It seems more like what the track might have been like if it had originally been written in 2014, whereas some of the other efforts on the album seem more like The Flaming Lips trying to pull apart and inject some more ‘crazy’ into the Beatles’ tunes. I wonder though is the gender reversal in singing about scoring with a female parking inspector intentional, or did the Lips not even really think about it? (Maybe I’m the only person who’s even given this more than a passing thought…)
The Guardian did a pretty good article on the Beijing indie music scene recently, and it got me to checking out some of the bands mentioned in the article. Most are worth a listen, but the shining light for me is ‘perhaps China’s best indie band’ Carsick Cars. Each of their first three albums is full of good fun rock. But listening to them has reinforced that lyrics barely matter for me as long as the tune is good; the band usually don’t sing in English, particularly in their early stuff, and even when they do I can barely understand them. And even if I could understand the lyrics they don’t seem like they would be revelatory – one of their most popular songs ‘Zhongnanhai’ seems to be about nothing more than smoking a brand of cigarette. Regardless, there are heaps of good tracks on their latest album ‘3’ – ‘Wild Grass’ and especially ‘She Will Wait’ are favourites – really, I could have filled this whole post only with songs from Carsick Cars and the next band, but if I had to recommend one I would pick ‘Reaching The Light’… just.
When talking about And You Will Know Us By The Trail Of Dead’s classic album ‘Source Tags and Codes’ earlier this year I said that every track was listenable, and no track stood out. That description pretty much applies to their latest album, ‘IX’ as well – in fact, it pretty much applies to their entire back catalogue more so than any band I can think of. There are rock solid tunes all of the way through this album – how do I pick a favourite? ‘The Dragonfly Queen’ is reminiscent of Alex Turner and the Arctic Monkeys, but also sounds better than almost anything that band has ever written. ‘Bus Lines’ is the classic bar song that will probably never actually catch on in bars, albeit classic bar songs do not tend to have the wall of noise that Trail of Dead attach (as they generally do) to the end of this track. The track that sticks in my head most though and the one I tend to play first up is actually the single ‘A Million Random Digits’ so I will go with that. The whole album is worth a listen however; it’s surprisingly almost as good as ‘Source Tags and Codes’ was.     

The Finger Points Outwards - No. 93

FILM: How Oscar Winners like ‘Crash’ and ‘The King’s Speech' doom the chances of other movies.

RESEARCH: The 100 most cited academic papers ever.

TRAVEL/STATISTICS: The best times to fly to avoid airport delays, in one chart.

ECONOMICS/PSYCHOLOGY: The sunk cost fallacy – why people just can’t quit.

FILM: An interesting profile of 'Interstellar' director Christopher Nolan.

Friday, October 31, 2014

The Fairness of the AFL Fixture

In yesterday’s post I rated the difficulty of each AFL team’s draw in 2015. Each year there is a fair bit of variation in the difficulty of the draw between teams; for example, in 2015 I consider the club with the easiest draw, West Coast, to have a goal a game advantage over the club with the hardest draw, Port Adelaide.

Over at the FootyMaths Institute it has been proposed that a fairer 2015 fixture would have each team play opponents of roughly the same level throughout the year. To achieve this it has been suggested splitting the teams into three conferences of roughly equal strength as follows, with each team playing the teams in their own conference twice and every other team once.

Conference 1: Teams ranked 1, 6, 7, 12, 13, 18.
Conference 2: 2, 5, 8, 11, 14, 17.
Conference 3: 3, 4, 9, 10, 15, 16.

That seems about as fair as you can get to me. (Ladder positions can be misleading of course, but I doubt the AFL is going to do a fixture based on a Power Rankings system!) A comment I made was that the conferences need only be notional; that is, teams could be split into conferences for the purposes of the fixture, but the ladder is calculated according to the same method as it always was.

Yesterday I wondered how far the actual AFL fixture deviated from this ‘fair’ system. To compare the two, let’s see how each team’s draw would be rated under the FootyMaths system. I am going to assume that the FootyMaths fixture would result in no net home ground advantage to any team over the course of the year. This probably will not strictly hold because of things like Geelong playing in Geelong against Melbourne clubs, but unless you get savaged like St. Kilda did for 2015, net home ground advantage is generally the least important component of a club’s fixture.

Here are the results:

Effect of not playing own team
Effect of teams played twice
Port Adelaide
North Melbourne
West Coast
Gold Coast
Western Bulldogs
St. Kilda

What the - ? This seems to be more uneven than the current AFL fixture! Note that the easiness of each’s team fixture is essentially determined by their ranking. Lower-ranked teams are now hit by a double whammy: not only are they the only team that do not get to play themselves when each team plays each other once, they are also the only team in their ‘conference’ that do not get to play themselves twice either.
We seem to have hit on something crucial here about what constitutes a ‘fair’ fixture. On one hand you could argue that the AFL should compensate for lower-ranked teams not being able to play themselves and give them easier teams to play to make up for it (although they seem to have overcompensated on this point). On the other hand you could argue that a ‘fair’ system should abstract from this effect.
Note here that a ‘fair’ fixture could result in teams having draws of varying difficulty. Perhaps Sydney and Hawthorn might have the easiest draws under the FootyMaths system because they do not have to play themselves, but this does not necessarily mean that the fixture is not ‘fair’.
What happens if we take out the effect of not having to play your own team? (I have also taken out the net home ground advantage from the AFL fixture as well.)
FMI fixture
AFL fixture
Gold Coast
North Melbourne
St. Kilda
Port Adelaide
Western Bulldogs
West Coast
Standard deviation

Now that seems better. Basically the difference between the hardest ‘conference’ and the easiest one is less than a point a game. For the AFL fixture the difference between the hardest draw and the easiest one is about two goals a game.
Personally I like the FootyMaths proposal; it seems to me about as fair as you can get with each team playing 22 matches. It might be even better than having a 17 round season.