Friday, December 7, 2007

The Wooden Finger Album: The 20 Greatest Songs in the History of the Known Universe (For Now)

In his short story ‘Wilkie Fahnstock, The Boxed Set’, Rick Moody sets out a fictional ten-cassette track list of the songs that have most influenced his protagonist’s life. These songs provide ‘the tale… of a confused, contemporary young person, a young man overlooked by the public, a person of meager accomplishment, a person of bad temperament, but a guy who nonetheless has a very large collection of compact discs!’

Ouch. At the risk of doing a Fahnstock, here are the twenty greatest songs as I see them:

Winter – Tori Amos
Little Earthquakes (1992)

I’m not sure how Tori Amos avoids breaking down every time she plays this stunner, which consists of a very moving set of wintry images based around her father. It’s the musical equivalent of a snow globe shattering to pieces, with only the memory of a fairytale world remaining behind. As great as it is, it’s probably not the song to play if you are in a deep funk.

Best part: The part in the last chorus when Tori cries ‘Cause things are going to change so fast’ like her heart has just been ripped apart.

Tomorrow Never Knows – The Beatles
Revolver (1966)

What separates this from the plethora of other psychedelic tracks? One main reason is because the Beatles were not creating new sounds for the hell of it, but were using those sounds as new instruments in the overall piece. Another is that John Lennon’s lyrics actually seem like they mean something. Supposedly John wanted a choir of five hundred or so monks backing him up on this song; it’s a great shame that logistics got in the way.

Best part: The bridge between the first and second verses, in which the Beatles (and producer George Martin) try out all their new toys.

The Golden Age – Beck
Sea Change (2002)

The opening track to Beck’s ‘break-up’ album Sea Change, The Golden Age is a beautiful, solemn piece about how one feels when they have just had their heart stomped on. Beck effectively uses a long desert road to symbolize his sense of loss and desolation. Much of the song is narrated in second person, almost as if a guardian angel version of Beck is trying to soothe his frailer other self. However, if you take the song’s title literally, perhaps he has decided that it is all for the best.

Best part: The lines ‘Let the window down/ Feel the moonlight on your skin’, which show how one can still find beauty in the world even if you are not on the best of terms with it.

‘Heroes’ – David Bowie
‘Heroes’ (1977)

This is an intense piece of work about doomed love, even if it lives off the opening guitar sound for the first three minutes. Bowie had moved to Berlin at this point, and the lines about ‘Standing by the wall/ And the guns/ Shot above our heads’ appear to be influenced by the environment at the time. Many advertisements and sports shows have tried to make this song their own, but it’s just eccentric enough to elude their grasp.

Best part: Bowie yelling, ‘I… I will be king/ And you… you will be queen/ Though nothing will drive them away/ We could be heroes just for one day’. Apparently a number of microphones had been placed at various intervals from where he stood in the studio, and they only came into full effect when he reached this volume.

Last Goodbye – Jeff Buckley
Grace (1994)

Quite poppy by Jeff Buckley’s standards, Last Goodbye still showcases his gift of being able to craft a song structure to suit a particular feeling. In this case, after Jeff has finished proclaiming in the first two verses that ‘it’s over’ the tune lifts up a notch and you realize that no relationship ever really has its end. This song came around when I was 14 years old and may have saved me from being either a head-banging rock pig or a mindless receptacle for doof-doof sounds. I continued being a wuss boy instead, but I’m OK with that…

Best part: The whole middle section, in which Jeff begins by pleading for his lover to ‘Kiss me’, and ends with the declaration that ‘I’ll only make you cry’.

Hurt – Johnny Cash
American IV: The Man Comes Around (2002)

The greatest cover version ever. In the twilight of his life, Johnny Cash re-imagines Nine Inch Nails’ angst-ridden anthem as a quiet lamentation on loss and regret. As Tom Reynolds said, ‘you can not listen to it without your heart coming out of your mouth… the drug theme is transformed into a nostalgic reflection of a life that touched so many others yet leaves the man himself questioning whether he meant anything at all. He did.’

Best part: Cash’s booming baritone proclaiming ‘If I could start again/ A million miles away’ as the piano tolls out its final notes.

Solsbury Hill – Peter Gabriel
Peter Gabriel (1977)

This song is a strong reminder that change is sometimes good for the soul, and one I often play whenever I’m feeling excited (or relieved) about a shift in environment. The imagery refers to Peter Gabriel’s departure from Genesis, but he keeps it vague and expansive enough for it to apply to anyone who is opening up a new chapter in their life. It is not a bitter song, which is probably the best way to leave things behind. He also gets points for using the words ‘pirouette’, ‘silhouettes’ and ‘etiquette’ in the same verse.

Best part: The ‘voice’ telling Peter Gabriel to ‘Grab your things, I’ve come to take you home’, with the drums providing the punctuation mark on his resolve to move on.

Hard To Beat – Hard-Fi
Stars of CCTV (2006)

Boy picks up girl, boy asks girl to dance, girl wants to take him home instead… no wonder Richard Archer thinks she is ‘hard to beat’. Frankly, this song would make your great-great grandfather want to get up and dance, down a dozen beers, and snog the most wonderful chick in the room (though probably not in that order). It has flashing guitars, a bouncing bass, ‘Daft Punk’-like keyboards, and a cool and joyous vocal track. The song my iPod was built for.

Best part: Everything. Real life can not possibly measure up to this.

Transmission – Joy Division
Transmission (1979)

A slow burner of a tune; Peter Hook’s bass is the spark, and by the end of it, the whole joint has gone up in flames. In keeping with the title, Ian Curtis delivers the lyrics as if he’s indeed transmitting them… from another planet. Listen to it at home alone with the lights off, the blinds down, and the stereo at full pelt to get the full spine-chilling effect.

Best part: Ian Curtis shouting ‘DAAAAAAAAAAAAAANCE!’ like his whole existence depends upon it.

Goddess on a Hi-Way – Mercury Rev
Deserters’ Songs (1998)

A song that I loved instantly from the time I saw the moody videoclip. Even now it reminds me of open roads, large pine trees, clear waters, and bugs on the windscreen. The rock-solid bass and drum parts combine with piano, harmonica and some funny instrument in the middle for one amazing track.

Best part: Jonathan Donahue singing wistfully yet emphatically, ‘And I know it ain’t gonna last’. Fatalism at its prettiest.

Float On – Modest Mouse
Good News For People Who Love Bad News (2004)

The mighty Float On plays like a bunch of voices and sounds bundled together for three and a half minutes that will all fall apart once the song ends. Isaac Brock’s half-strangled vocals and the ringing guitar tracks are the twin motors propelling this tune forward. Basically it’s ‘Always Look on the Bright Side of Life’ if it had been written by a group of pirates and lumberjacks.

Best part: Towards the end, when what seems like half a dozen burly drunken men are singing ‘Alright, already, we’ll all float on…’

Live Forever – Oasis
Definitely Maybe (1994)

Before Noel Gallagher lost his mojo, Oasis was the coolest band in the world. Liam’s delivery of ‘Maybe I don’t really want to know/ How your garden grows’ encapsulates the attractive, can’t-give-a-damn way they were making music at this stage. ‘Live Forever’ is the ‘Imagine’ of the ‘90s generation, except with the added advantage that you haven’t heard it 10,000 times. And Noel’s guitar solo is still a joy to hear.

Best part: Liam going a bit beyond his normal register to sing ‘You and I are gonna live forever’.

Wish You Were Here – Pink Floyd
Wish You Were Here (1975)

I haven’t actually sat down and figured out which notes and chords are the most pleasant to my ear, but I have a feeling that Wish You Were Here hits all of them. It’s a roots-tinged ode to how life does not work out as planned, but the tune and lyrics are so pretty that you actually end up feeling better about the whole mess anyway. Given the rest of Pink Floyd’s catalogue, this is a great example of how (sometimes) less is more.

Best part: The entire chorus, even if Phil Collins did rip it off years later.

Sulk – Radiohead
The Bends (1995)

For years, I considered Fake Plastic Trees to be the best Radiohead track, but Sulk has a better payoff and, unlike FPT, does not sound like a dirge for two-thirds of the way through. Thom Yorke’s standard soaring vocals are fine enough, however, the real clincher is the part just after the second chorus when the guitars suddenly take off and the resulting wall of noise is sustained well into the chorus’ third run-through. (John Cale’s violin on The Velvet Underground’s ‘Heroin’ is a worthy match, but lacks the variation of Jonny Greenwood’s – or Ed O’Brien’s, I can’t tell - atomic jackhammer.) A great song for proving that you are sensitive and masculine at the same time.

Best part: See above.

I Am The Resurrection – The Stone Roses
The Stone Roses (1989)

The best proof that Stone Roses’ guitarist John Squire is the greatest waste of musical talent the world has ever known. In the five-minute jam that ends this track, Squire unleashes an astonishing array of riffs, breaks and runs, while the rhythm section, Mani and Reni, pound away like hell. And as for Ian Brown, well, he does deliver the excellent line ‘I couldn’t ever bring myself to hate you as I like’ before fading into the background.

Best part: Hard to pick, but I’ll go with the chopping guitar chords and bashing drums in the final minute or so.

You Only Live Once – The Strokes
First Impressions of Earth (2006)

The Strokes take their usual air of resignation and place it beneath pattering drums and a swaggering guitar riff. I have little idea what Julian Casablancas in rambling on about, but I still feel that it relates to my life somehow. The second song my iPod was built for.

Best part: Julian Casablancas growling ‘Sit me down/ Shut me up’ as if he’s wanting to be pushed over and kicked in the head.

One – U2
Achtung Baby (1991)

Looking through this list, there is a fair share of songs that start off softly and gradually build to an anthemic end. Well, One is the perfect example of this phenomenon. In fact, I suspect if you graphed the intensity of the song against time elapsed it would form a perfect upward-sloping line. I would desperately love to play it at my wedding if only, you know, it wasn’t about two people who can’t stand each other.

Best part: The part in the videoclip when Bono, sitting in a darkened bar, stops moving his mouth and his voice sings ‘Love is a temple/ Love the higher law’.

History – The Verve
A Northern Soul (1995)

When Jeff Buckley wakes up in a strange woman’s apartment and wonders where his life is heading, he croons gently with his guitar in his sweet, poetic tongue. When Richard Ashcroft of the Verve does the same thing, he spouts gibberish. But put that gibberish over a bulging string section, an open guitar sound, and Noel Gallagher’s handclaps, and you could swear that you were hearing the words of the ancient sages. (‘One and one is two/ But three is company…’ – damn straight!) Even four minutes in, when the string section starts to grow bored and Richie appears to be making up lyrics, it’s still strangely compelling.

Best part: Richard’s vocals in the opening two lines, ‘I wander lonely streets/ Behind where the old Thames does flow’, which sound like they are echoing up the alleyways, over the building tops, and into the sky and sea.

Get Free – The Vines
Highly Evolved (2002)

Most songs, I find, have one or two major payoffs, but Get Free has six of them: the opening guitar riff, Craig shouting ‘I’m gonna get free’, the chanting of ‘Come here come here come here’, Craig’s screech after the first chorus, the sustained yell of ‘mind awaaaaaaaaay’, and the final insane drawl of ‘Californiiiaaaaa!!’ Some may see it as Nirvana-lite, but Kurt Cobain never packed as much madness into just over two minutes as this. Regrettably, Craig Nicholls would also lose his mojo, and the songs started sounding better in his head than they did in reality.

Best part: I’ll go with the part where the drums speed up over the opening guitar riff.

C’mon C’mon – The Von Bondies
Pawn Shoppe Heart (2004)

Jack White may have by far the better band, but Detroit rival Jason Stollsteimer of The Von Bondies beat him out on this killer track. A personal note: within a few months of taking my first regular job in Sydney, this song cut through the drudgery of work, loneliness and the rest of the Von Bondies album. The frenetic, yet spacious drum-playing lifts the vocals high up into the skies, from where they come down like lightning on the mountain-top. The only problem with the song is that it’s far too short, although I suppose that beats the alternative.

Best part: The backing vocals of ‘C’mon c’mon’, which is up there with ‘Yeah yeah’ and ‘Hey hey’ for phrases you don’t really need to hear again, but which seems perfectly appropriate here.

And that’s it for the year, folks. Having cleared my head of all my obsessions, I’m off to rethink what I’m going to do with this blog to keep (or make) it interesting. Happy holidays!

Wednesday, December 5, 2007

The Strange Allure of Star Wars: Episode III

Of all the six Star Wars movies, the one that I find myself watching over and over again is Episode III: Revenge of the Sith. As far as multi-million dollar blockbusters go, it’s a relatively unassuming film, both a link and a post script to the over-hyped Episodes I and II and the almost sacred original movies. So why then is it the episode that I keep returning to?

One reason may be that it is the most visually accomplished of the Star Wars movies. The war scenes are spectacularly dense, from the layers of battleships in the chaotic opening scenes, to the montage of world-wide conflicts in which the various Jedi meet their ends. Elsewhere, we have snapshots of a grand and beautiful, but ultimately sterile, civilization in the last throes of its ascendancy, such as the expanse of buildings beyond the Skywalkers’ balcony and the chilling, darkened theatre in which Palpatine tries to seduce Anakin to the Dark Side of the Force. And of course there is the raging, fiery landscape of the lava planet Mustafar, in which Obi-Wan and Anakin carry out their emotion-charged battle.

Second, there is the story, which is a complete reversal of all of the other movies in the series (The Empire Strikes Back being the exception). In Episode IV the Empire was in total control, and we were given flickers of hope until victory arrived in the form of the exploding Death Star. In Episode III, it is the flames of menace that are flickering, and it is a shock to see things suddenly go off the rails and our heroes end the day in abject defeat. Yet because we already know before the movie starts that the Dark Side will take control, there is a similar sense of inevitability about the Jedi’s fall as there usually is in their triumph. And defeat, like victory, hangs on a single action; in this case, whether Anakin chooses to let Mace Windu kill Palpatine or save the Chancellor, thereby letting his schemes come to fruition. From there Anakin grows into the role of villainous Sith Lord as his son Luke will one day gradually become a selfless Jedi. The story is essentially a tragedy, with Anakin’s human frailties irrevocably leading to disaster for all that he cares for. But tragedies are not common in the realm of the popcorn-guzzling blockbuster.

Finally, while Anakin is the protagonist of the piece, there are two characters that are more compelling in their reactions to the turn of events. Chancellor Palpatine (aka Darth Sidius) is unseemly but reserved throughout the first third of the film, but reveals himself in a shattering burst of power when we get to the movie’s centre. (‘Un-liiimited POWER!’ he bellows madly as he dispatches Windu.) He becomes then the embodiment of hate, with the pretense of compassion no longer required. On the flipside, we have Obi-Wan Kenobi who, despite his occasional cynical quips, remains accepting of all things, retaining his faith and fondness in Anakin even to the end. Obi-Wan hopes for the best, but he is always prepared for the worst. His response to the rise of the Dark Side is one of disappointment and sadness, but never one of fear; he will deal with whatever the universe throws at him. Obi-Wan shows that a hero is not defined by victory of defeat, which is a point that his protégé is unwilling to accept.

Not everything proceeds smoothly in Revenge of the Sith – the love scenes still make one long for the whirr of a Tie Fighter and the transformation of the boyish Anakin into the dark-suited, deep-throated Darth Vader is a bit jarring. However, it is, I think, the most atmospheric of all the Star Wars movies, and the one in which the scenes, the backdrops and the characters are the most directed towards a particular end. Does it outdo then the swagger and banter of Luke, Han, Leia and company? Maybe, maybe not, but it is the chapter that most invites contemplation about the nature of good and evil, life and death, the light and the dark.

For a review of Revenge of the Sith that I don't agree with, but is still kind of amusing to read (especially for you Jedi haters), check out this link.

Tuesday, November 27, 2007

Warnie vs Murali - Round 2

Former Sri Lankan captain, Arjuna Ranatunga has weighed into the Warnie v Murali debate with this argument:

"If you take the record, Murali has played fewer matches and Warne never had to bowl at the top-order batsmen... He always had McGrath and Gillespie to take wickets at the start. Warne would come in sometimes and clear the tail. If you look at Murali, he has to come on and take top-order wickets from the start."

OK, Ranatunga is obviously stretching the point to say that Warne never bowled at the top order, but what about his more general point that a higher percentage of Murali's wickets are specialist batsmen? Courtesy of Howstat, we see that 25.7 per cent of Murali's wickets have been top-order batsmen (1-3) and 42.6 per cent have been middle-order batsmen (4-7), compared to 23.0 per cent and 39.8 per cent for Warne.

Shane Warne's wickets by batting order

Muttiah Muralidaran's wickets by batting order

So, Ranatunga is right, but is that necessarily a good thing for Murali? The point I made in my last post on this subject was that Warnie's figures may have actually been harmed by bowling with McGrath and Gillespie, because it reduced his chances of picking up quick and easy wickets when they were there to be had. Warnie actually took a higher percentage of his wickets in the top order than, say, Stuart MacGill, who has also had to deal with the Australian fast bowlers grabbing quick wickets. Meanwhile, someone like Anil Kumble, whose bowling partners have not been as great, has figures that are more similar to Murali's.

Stuart MacGill's wickets by batting order

Anil Kumble's wickets by batting order

In other words, Murali's haul of top-order wickets may not be worth as much as Warnie's top-order wickets, because Warnie mainly took top-order wickets when they were hard to get. As I've said before, I doubt that this accounts for the whole difference between Warne's and Murali's records, but it's an argument that I think should be considered more closely.

Searching For The Boom Recruit

I was asked the other night to write something on the AFL National Draft. Since others have already looked at the average number of games that each number draft pick can be expected to play, I thought I would look at the immediate impact that each of the top 10 draft picks can be expected to have. Here is a summary of what the top 10 draft picks over the past decade have done in the season after they were drafted:


Average Games

Median Games





Brett Deledio/ Bryce Gibbs - 22




Paul Hasleby - 21




Chris Judd - 22




Matthew Pavlich - 18




Leigh Brown - 21




Steven Salopek - 9




Joel Selwood - 21




James Bartel/ Chris Tarrant - 11




Caydn Beetham/ Mark McVeigh - 9




Chris Egan - 13

Judging from these stats, Matthew Kreuzer (Carlton, No.1) and Trent Cotchin (Richmond, No.2) would be expected to be solid contributors next season. (Also, it's probably fair to say that the higher you are drafted, the lower the quality of competition there is at your club for senior places.) Picks 3 to 5 would be expected to be useful contributors, while picks 6 to 10 will probably only play a handful of games. As for the rest, while I imagine there will be your Alwyn Daveys and so forth, you can probably draw a line through most of them in 2008. But one can always hope that your team has the bolter.

Sunday, November 18, 2007

The Finger Points Outwards - No.6

I've written another article for the Avengers Forever website, called: Whatever Happened to the '90s Generation? You know, back in the early 1990s, Marvel's characters were actally used to sell comic books rather than movies. Yep, it's hard to believe.

Here's a couple of interesting articles from The Economist about the U.S. of A:

First, the great experiment of New York's public schools.

Second, what you can learn about America from Dollywood.

And finally, a review from the Economist on Pierre Bayard's book about 'how to talk about books you haven't read'.

Friday, November 9, 2007

Warnie vs Murali

Over the coming Australian summer, Sri Lankan spinner Muttiah Muralidaran is expected to overtake Australian spinner Shane Warne as the highest wicket-taker in the history of test cricket. But who has been the better bowler? Let’s take a look at their respective records:

Warne – 145 tests, 708 wickets at 25.42 runs per wicket, 57.49 balls per wicket, 2.65 runs per over, 37 times taken five wickets in an innings, 10 times taken ten wickets in a match.
Muralidaran – 114 tests, 702 wickets at 21.36 runs per wicket, 53.45 balls per wicket, 2.40 runs per over, 60 times taken five wickets in an innings, 20 times taken ten wickets in a match.

On the face of it, Murali’s figures are more impressive. However, a common charge against Murali’s record is that, unlike Warne, he has taken a lot of his wickets against Zimbabwe and Bangladesh, both of whom are relatively easy pickings for a half-decent trundler. Muralidaran has taken 163 wickets in 23 matches against Zimbabwe and Bangladesh, while Warnie has taken 17 wickets in a paltry 3 matches against the minnows. Hence, the argument goes, Warne’s career figures are more impressive than they first appear.

But are they? To answer this, let’s adjust Murali’s figures so that he has played the same amount of Tests against each nation as Warnie has. For example, Murali’s career wickets would be the sum over all opponents of the number of wickets Murali has taken against that opponent times the ratio of the number of tests Warne has played against that opponent to the number of tests Murali has played against that opponent. Murali’s adjusted figures are as follows:

Muralidaran adjusted – 144 tests*, 903 wickets at 21.86 runs per wicket, 55.50 balls per wicket, 2.36 runs per over, 75 times taken five wickets in an innings, 29 times taken ten wickets in a match.

*Warne played 1 test against the ICC World XI.

So Murali still appears to come out ahead; the only difference now being that Warne has bowled to the Sri Lankan batting line-up, while Murali has faced the mighty Australian batting line-up (which makes Murali’s figures more impressive). While Murali’s figures have been helped by playing more often against Zimbabwe and Bangladesh, he has also performed well against the nations that Warne played a lot of cricket against, including England, South Africa, New Zealand and the West Indies.

So what hope is left for Warnie-boosters? Well, leaving aside any arguments about the legality of Murali’s bowling action, the main argument would seem to be that Warne’s figures were adversely affected by being surrounded by better bowlers than Murali. It could be that when there were easy wickets to be had, Glenn McGrath and Jason Gillespie gobbled up most of them before Warne could get a go, but when the going got tough, it was left to Warne to be belted around the park before getting the breakthrough. My guess is that will not make the difference, but I’m ready to be proven otherwise. At least Warne can always say that he won more matches.

Thursday, November 8, 2007

The Finger Points Outwards - No.5

Think you know Superman? Think again.

Think you've got it made when you win the lottery? Think again.

Think video games make people more violent? Well, maybe.

Tuesday, October 23, 2007

Keep Those Novels Simple, Stupid

Today I became aware of the fact that Amazon compiles statistics on the readability, complexity and length of some of its titles. This got me to thinking: how do the books that I like compare to the rest of Western literature? As my profile shows, my top 20 favourite fiction books are as follows:

1 Ulysses - James Joyce
2 King Lear - William Shakespeare
3 Paradise Lost - John Milton
4 Nineteen Eighty-Four - George Orwell
5 Neuromancer - William Gibson
6 The Trial - Franz Kafka
7 Brave New World - Aldous Huxley
8 Money - Martin Amis
9 Catch-22 - Joseph Heller
10 Vernon God Little - DBC Pierre
11 The Man Who Was Thursday - D.K. Chesterton
12 The Great Gatsby - F. Scott Fitzgerald
13 Lolita - Vladimir Nabokov
14 One Hundred Years of Solitude - Gabriel Garcia Marquez
15 Atomised - Michel Houellebecq
16 The Catcher in the Rye - J.D. Salinger
17 Through the Looking Glass - Lewis Carroll
18 The Last Temptation of Christ - Nikos Kazantzakis
19 Waiting For Godot - Samuel Beckett
20 Cloudstreet - Tim Winton

The table below gives the median values for all of the top 20 books that I could find statistics on, and the percentage of fiction books which are below that value:


Median Value of Top 20 Books

% of Fiction Books Below Median Value


Fog Index


37% are easier

Flesch Index


37% are easier

Flesch-Kincaid Index


25% are easier


Complex Words


48% have less

Words Per Sentence


26% have less




54% have less



55% have less



58% have less

So what have we learnt? Apparently I like books that are on the readable side, and not too complex. It may be that I’m a simple guy, but I’m going to take a stab that my preferences are fairly representative of the human population. I also seem to like books that are slightly on the longer side. In fact, if you consider my three favourite books as outliers – ‘Paradise Lost’ being an epic poem, ‘King Lear’ being a play, and ‘Ulysses’ being whatever it is – then the next four highest books – ‘1984’, ‘Neuromancer’, ‘The Trial’, and ‘Brave New World’ – are all pretty typical of my preferences. (Three of those are also science-fiction books set in the Earth’s future, but that’s a subject for another post.)

Since I’ve been struggling with Thomas Pynchon’s ‘Gravity’s Rainbow’ recently, I thought it would be interesting to see how that compares. Unsurprisingly, it’s more ‘unreadable’ and more complex than most of my favourite titles, although not overly so (‘Paradise Lost’ and ‘One Hundred Years of Solitude’ have it well beat in those departments). Where the trouble seems to be is length; it’s about 4 times as long as the median value of my top 20. Maybe that’s why I’ve only managed to get a quarter of the way through it.

Monday, October 22, 2007

The Finger Points Outwards - No.4

Some interesting articles from the past couple of weeks, all of them economics-based:

Why gold-digging is a tough line of work.

Hurwicz, Maskin and Myerson shared the Nobel prize in Economics for their research into 'mechanism design'. While I'm still not sure I know exactly what that means, this article from the Economist helped me to understand it better than most.

Hillary Clinton has suggested that every newborn should be given $5000 that would accumulate interest and be available once the person turned 18. Marginal Revolution considers the economics of this proposal.

And finally, why it's better to be Santa than Scrooge.

Sunday, October 14, 2007

In Rainbows: The Event and the Album

To put it frankly: technology scares me. I haven’t got the call from Guinness yet, but I reckon that I probably have the highest CD-to-MP3 file ratio in the Western world (if I’d been born ten years earlier, it would be the highest vinyl-to-CD ratio). So when those sneaky lads in Radiohead announced they were going to release their latest offering, ‘In Rainbows’, as a download off their website, my reaction was something like a nervous tingle, followed by a shortness of breath, and capped off with the horrible sensation of a paradigm shifting out from under my feet, dropping me into the digital abyss. Where others saw opportunity, I saw minefields. And unless I wanted to wait two months for the ‘physical’ release (a feasible option, but not a palatable one), I had to join the ranks of the internet shoppers behind the monks, the yokels, and the seven year old girls.

For those who were a bit more technologically-savvy than myself, the big news surrounding the release of the new Radiohead album was not that it was available for download, but that the band were going to let buyers choose how much they would pay for it. While putting purchasers through a rigorous series of questions to work out their reservation price would have been a more interesting (and economically sensible) way of doing this, for me this added another quandary to my decision to go down the download route. After a little bit of research on record pricing, which basically consisted of me skimming over some guy’s estimated breakdown (cheers to the Google age!) of the various components of a record’s price, I decided that, after subtracting marketing, retailing and manufacturing costs, around 11 or 12 Australian dollars was about right. In the end though I paid bang on 4 pounds, or 10 Australian dollars. Considering that I was hammered when I entered this amount, Thom Yorke can possibly count himself a little unlucky that I didn’t end up paying for his kids’ educations. I had another prolonged shortness of breath as 50 megabytes of MP3 files were transferred to my desktop, but I think it worked out OK – my computer hasn’t crashed yet and my bank account still has funds. I should stop walking around like ‘a cat tied to a stick’ in another week or so.

Anyway, I should actually say something about the album itself, which is excellent. The people still waiting ten years onwards for a repeat of ‘The Bends’ or ‘OK Computer’ are, once again, going to have to keep on waiting, but everybody else should be well pleased with what they find here. The main point that strikes me about ‘In Rainbows’ is that, after spending the last few albums approximating electronica and other genres of music, Radiohead have now emerged with a style that is definitely their own. Just as they have bypassed the music industry in the release of this record, so too have they staked out a musical realm for themselves that is far removed from what anybody else is currently doing. (In fact, has anyone spotted them in the past couple of years? Have they just been living in a big basement?) Somehow, without us really noticing it, they have woven together their two musical eras. Most of the songs, as has been typical from ‘Kid A’ onwards, are built around haunting, quasi-mechanical grooves, but then somewhere vaguely halfway through they begin to build up and eventually flower into the soaring finales that sent the hairs on the back of our necks standing bolt upright throughout the pre-‘Kid A’ era. The amazing ‘Jigsaw Falling Into Place’ is the best example – it starts out with a insistent drum and guitar pattern (note that ‘real’ instruments are being used here, if that still has any meaning nowadays), and then slides into Thom doing his three-way vocal acrobatics, with more ‘angst’ in his voice than we’ve heard in years. Suddenly, Radiohead are all about the future again, and in an industry bloated by remixes and glorified karaoke singers, that has to be a good thing. Perhaps they’ll even inspire me to use on-line bookstores, you know, on the day when Zadie Smith releases her latest novel in pdf files…

Thursday, October 11, 2007

Did Carlton Get Fleeced In The Chris Judd Deal?

This week, Carlton traded picks 3 and 20 in the upcoming draft and young forward Josh Kennedy to West Coast for pick 46 and arguably the best football player in Australia, Chris Judd. So who got the better of the deal? Let’s consider the draft picks first:

This graph from shows the average number of games played by each number draft pick. Based on this graph, a No.3 draft pick would be expected to play 65-70 games (although I suspect that number has improved somewhat over the past few years), and a No.20 draft pick would be expected to play about 30 games. On average, a No.46 draft pick has played about 30 games as well, but since that number is inflated by David King’s 241 games, let’s say that around 20 games is about right. This gives West Coast a positive balance of 75-80 games so far.

So how many games would Chris Judd be expected to play? Let’s have a look at some players that are comparable in quality and position to Judd and see how many games they played in seasons after they turned 24 years old. Based on these players, we can probably expect Judd to play another 170-180 games, or about eight seasons worth of matches.

Games played in seasons after turning 24

James Hird – 165 games
Michael Voss – 161 games
Mark Ricciuto – 163 games
Nathan Buckley – 195 games

So then the question is how many games do we expect Josh Kennedy to play? A No.4 draft pick plays around 60 games on average, but that includes busts like Tim Walsh (who played 1 game before being delisted this year). Josh Kennedy has played 22 games by the age of 20, so we should look at other high draft picks that had similar starts to their career and see how many matches they ended up playing. The results might make some Carlton supporters choke on their cornflakes just a little bit:

Games played in seasons after turning 20

Jason McCartney -163 games
Nathan Chapman – 33 games
Justin Leppitsch – 202 games
Jeff White – 234 games*
Anthony Rocca – 177 games*
Shannon Grant – 222 games*
Scott Lucas – 211 games*
Michael Gardiner – 87 games*
Travis Johnstone – 118 games*
Brad Ottens – 131 games*
Trent Croad – 164 games*
Nic Fosdike – 150 games*
Josh Fraser – 114 games*
Paul Hasleby – 125 games*
Aaron Fiora – 109 games*
Matthew Pavlich -136 games*

*Denotes still playing. Only players drafted before 2000 and picked in top 4 included.

Given that almost all of the bottom half of the list could probably play at least another three seasons, it looks like Josh Kennedy has just as many games left in him as Chris Judd has, if not more. Of course it’s not the games that count, but the wins produced. Since the draft picks Carlton gave up are expected to play about 75-80 more games than the draft picks they received and Judd will probably play about another 170-180 games, we would expect that he is going to have to be about 40-50 per cent more valuable than Josh Kennedy and West Coast’s extra picks in this year’s draft to make up the difference.

Is that likely? Recall that for every game these players play, someone else doesn’t, so it depends upon how well they play relative to the average player. For example, say that if we could quantify footballing ability in monetary terms, an average player is worth $300,000. Now let’s assume Josh Kennedy and the No.3 draft pick are worth $400,000 a game, the No.20 draft pick is worth $350,000 a game, and the No.46 draft pick is worth $250,000 a game. Once you subtract each player’s worth from that of the average player, you get a net balance of $300,000 a game in West Coast’s favour. This means that, given that the West Coast players are expected to play more games, Chris Judd would have to be worth about $700-$750,000 a game for Carlton to break even. Carlton supporters probably think that’s likely… but if that groin goes again… of course, maybe I’m just bitter than he’s not playing for my team…

Monday, October 8, 2007

The Finger Points Outwards - No.3

My favourite articles that I've read over the past two weeks:

A Freakonomics Quorum on the future of the music industry. As Steven Levitt himself noted, this couldn't have been more timely given the recent Radiohead announcement.

I don't know whether to feel sorry or not for Marilyn Manson here. On one hand, the author seems to have an agenda against the hedonistic lifestyles of rock stars, and Manson is just the most convenient target. On the other hand, maybe he deserves it.

Yes boys and girls, there's no excuse for being late.

The British Psychological Society lists the most important psychological experiments that have never been done.

And here's a selection from my lovely fiance Lauren:

Be Clever - It's The New Black!

Tuesday, September 18, 2007

Melbourne - The Chris Judd Remix

So Chris Judd’s mum has written a song to celebrate her star son’s homecoming, hey? The former West Coast captain claimed that he would even contribute a ‘rap verse’, at which point the press gallery duly laughed along. But little do they know that the best footballer in the country has been hard at work penning an ode to the Eastern Coast, although since he’s a busy man, he needed a little help with the tune. For those who can't wait until the great man himself returns, here’s a sneak preview:

(To the tune of the Whitlams’ ‘Melbourne’)

Woosh, the writing’s on the wall
Cuz eats all of the garden
Kerr has an aversion to moderation
It’s more than I can bear

In love with this club
And with its fans as well
Strutting round the sunny oval
What a pity there’s things to do at home

Perth, the writing’s on the wall
Half the Eagles’ list is lying in the hospital ward
Kerr vomits on the garden, it’s a circus out there
Time to cross the Nullarbor

In love with my cup
And my Brownlow as well
Crashing through the Swannies’ midfield
What a pity there’s things to do at home

If I won three flags
I’d stay in Perth for two
I’m dreaming of a time
When Rats and I hold up the cup

I have a squillion dollar contract
More property than ever
A hot girlfriend, I wonder when those jerks will get her
My groin feels like a pear
Time to move round the corner
From Caulfield Grammar

In love with this club
And with its fans as well
Strutting round the sunny oval
What a pity there’s things to do at home

Monday, September 17, 2007

We don’t get no respect: Who gets snubbed by the All-Australian selectors? - Postscript

Last year, around the time that the AFL All-Australian team was announced, I looked at which teams have been under-represented since 1991. This year, I thought I would mark the first-time selections of footy super-stars Jonathan Brown and Daniel Kerr by looking at the best players never to be picked in the All-Australian team. Unlike my earlier post, this list is purely subjective. To be fair to players who were on their last legs in the early 1990s, I only picked players who began their careers from 1991 onwards. The top 10, in alphabetical order, are:

Mark Bickley (Adelaide)
Why he should have been picked: Apart from being a two-time premiership captain, he’s now on the selection panel and could make others suffer for his previous snubs.

Cameron Bruce (Melbourne)
Why he should have been picked: So his name can be written as ‘Cameron the Bruce’ on the team sheet.

Peter Burgoyne (Port Adelaide)
Why he should have been picked: To even things up with his brother Shaun (why do you think the Cornes boys have both been selected twice?)

Tyson Edwards (Adelaide)
Why he should have been picked: Every other gun Adelaide midfielder has been picked by now.

Ben Graham (Geelong)
Why he should have been picked: He could have been the first player to make the AFL All-Australian team and the NFL All-Pro team.

Kane Johnson (Adelaide/ Richmond)
Why he should have been picked: He was a great player once upon a time. No, really he was.

Scott Lucas (Essendon)
Why he should have been picked: With Brown and Kerr having finally been selected, he is clearly the best player never to get a guernsey.

Mal Michael (Collingwood/ Brisbane/ Essendon)
Why he should have been picked: For being traded by the Magpies and subsequently decimating their forward line in two consecutive Grand Finals.

Peter Riccardi (Geelong)
Why he should have been picked: He has played the most games of anyone since 1991 (288) without being selected. (Of course, he only would have had to step foot on Skilled Stadium to be selected this year.)

Russell Robertson (Melbourne)
Why he should have been picked: He can out-'lair'ise Alan Didak and Steve Johnson any day.

Thursday, September 13, 2007

The Greatest Album Ever

Of all the albums released in the summer of 1967, ‘none caught the strangeness of those days, or captured their combination of beauty and dread, quite like Love’s Forever Changes.’ [1] Contradictions abound across the eleven tracks of this album, both musically and lyrically. Luscious string arrangements are suddenly punctuated by insistent horns; a jingly harpsichord heralds the creeping onset of doom. Words are layered over one another, flow into each other, lead off into unexpected directions. On the opening track, ‘Alone Again Or’, what appears to be a sentiment straight from the Summer of Love, ‘I could be in love with almost anyone’, is stopped just short of a universal endorsement of the human race, while the line that follows, ‘I will be alone again tonight, my dear’, itself stops just short of reputing it. Song titles obliquely refer to the tracks they are assigned to, simultaneously illuminating and mystifying their subject matter. Instruments wander in to change a track’s direction mid-stream and then fade away, yet you can still hum the melodies to yourself hours after you’ve turned the record off.

All well and good, but what does it all mean, and just who were Love anyway? They were an ever-changing psychedelic rock combo from Los Angeles, headed by the reclusive Arthur Lee, the self-professed ‘first black hippie’. While they were reasonably well-known in L.A. they had only a couple of minor hits on the national charts, which has been attributed to Lee’s refusal to tour. ‘By Forever Changes – when I did that album, I thought I was going to die at that particular time, so those were my last words…,’ said Lee, ‘I just had a funny feeling.’ The final track on the album, ‘You Set The Scene’ contains the most explicit expression of this ‘feeling’: ‘I’ll face each day with a smile/ For the time that I’ve been given’s such a little while/ And the things that I must do consist of more than style.’ Although, in light of words like these, it’s tempting to view Forever Changes as primarily being Lee’s final testament, I think the way it really operates is to show how death and destruction pervade life, and vice versa. Water turns to blood (‘A House Is Not A Motel’); the teeming life of the Go-Stop Boulevard is filled with ‘sirens and... accidents’ (‘The Daily Planet’). Yet there is a hint of pleasant resignation in Lee’s voice when he sings about ‘Sitting on the hillside/ Watching all the people… die,’ on the semi-apocalyptic ‘The Red Telephone’. Forever Changes may be a dark album, but it is far from a dismal one.

The album didn’t fare too well on either side of the Atlantic, and it’s fair to say that if it weren’t for the swell of critical appreciation that has attached itself to it, few people would know of it today. So does that simply make it the ‘hip’ choice for the greatest album ever for assorted music snobs? In a funny sort of way: yes. Because the album never gets any radio airplay and your average punter doesn’t know about it, listening to Forever Changes is like discovering a lost treasure, and even after repeated listens this feeling remains. The aura of mystery that surrounds it would dissipate if we had heard it as often as the Beatles or the Stones. (Which is not to say that I’ve uncovered a hidden gem here: the New Musical Express placed the album at #6 on its list of the 100 greatest albums ever in ‘03.) But forget all that, pretend that I haven’t built it up, and just leave it in the back of your consciousness in case you happen to come across it in a shop one day. And then pick it up and ask yourself: why not? You only live and die once…

[1] Ben Edmonds: notes for Forever Changes CD release.

Wednesday, September 5, 2007

The Fallacy of the Anti-Priority Pick Brigade

Even casual AFL fans would be aware of the recent controversy over priority draft picks. In its original form, the priority pick rule meant that teams that won less than a certain amount of games in a season would get an extra pick in the first round of the draft. Nowadays you have to be really crappy over two years to be eligible for a priority selection. The AFL says the rule is here to stay, while opponents claim it encourages ‘tanking’ in the hopes of getting a ready-made star. In his column in The Australian on August 30, Collingwood coach Mick Malthouse wrote:

‘Andrew Demetriou has a short memory. The AFL chief executive recently declared no side receiving a priority [draft] pick had won a premiership. Actually, the Eagles won last year's flag and fell short by a point in 2005 with a side containing one of the greatest players many of us have seen. Yes, Andrew, Chris Judd was a priority pick.’

And, on August 11, Patrick Smith of the same newspaper wrote:

‘In 2001, West Coast picked up Chris Judd as a priority selection and won last year's premiership by a point. Without Judd the Eagles would not have won. He had 28 possessions and kicked a goal. In the 2005 grand final, which West Coast lost by four points, Judd had 29 possessions. He has been critical to the club's success.’

All seems pretty simple, doesn’t it? Without Chris Judd, the Eagles would not have won the 2006 premiership, so Judd’s selection is proof that having a priority pick can get you a flag. In fact, this argument is fundamentally flawed. Sure, West Coast did use their priority pick (and the third pick overall) in the 2000 AFL Draft to select Chris Judd. But even if there were no priority picks, they would have been able to pick Chris Judd anyway. Regardless of whether priority picks existed or not, West Coast would have had the third pick that year because they finished third-last. What the priority pick did enable West Coast to do was to pick third and sixth that year, whereas without the priority pick they would have had to wait until selection number 19 to pick again. So who did West Coast get with pick number 6? Anyone remember Ashley Sampi? It’s fair to say that he wasn’t quite as critical to West Coast’s premiership success.

Instead, opponents of the priority pick should turn their attention to the year before, when Fremantle had picks numbers 2 and 4, whereas if they didn’t have the priority pick they would only have had selection number 2. The Dockers used pick number 4 that year to get one Matthew Pavlich. Other helpful additions over the years that have resulted from having an extra pick include Justin Koschitzke (St.Kilda, pick number 2), Lance Franklin (Hawthorn, pick number 5), Brock McLean (Melbourne, pick number 5) and Scott Pendlebury (Collingwood, pick number 5). But none of these players have been part of a premiership team.

Now, under the new system, things are a little different this year because Carlton will have the No.1 and No.3 picks, when in the absence of a priority pick they would only have had No.2. So Carlton’s advantage is really pick No.3 and the difference in talent between picks No.1 and No.2. In any case, it may still be a few years before one of these picks carries the Blues to a flag.

Thursday, August 30, 2007

Am I Being Dudded At Supercoach or What Does Champion Data Know About Aussie Rules Anyway?

One of the constant frustrations for my AFL Herald-Sun Supercoach Team has been watching a player rack up a bucketload of possessions on the weekend only to have them score pitifully for my fantasy team come Monday morning. For those unfamiliar with the great time-waster that is AFL Supercoach, you pick a team of 22 players and they score points for you based on their effectiveness. However, the actual formula for a player’s score is a mystery; instead, you are simply told that it is based on a formula devised by a mob called Champion Data. A search of the Champion Data website reveals a few further details – effective long kicks score highly, miscued kicks score badly – but the precise formula remains a trade secret.

This raises the question of whether Champion Data are rewarding or penalizing players in a fair and accurate manner. They claim that their formula has been devised using ‘research into winning and losing factors in AFL games’. This could mean that, the higher your Champion Data score, the more likely your team’s score will be higher relative to the other team (i.e. your team’s percentage will be higher) or that the higher your score, the more likely it is that your team will win, whether it be by one point or 100 points. I’m going to assume the former explanation is true, since it seems to make more sense. But how well does it work in practice?

Not that surprisingly, it tends to work pretty well. The figure below compares the actual percentage of each AFL team over the first 21 rounds of the 2007 season to their estimated percentage using their cumulative Champion Data scores. Apart from West Coast, the results are all pretty close.

Team Percentages and Cumulative Champion Data Scores Over 2007 AFL Season

Importantly, the Champion Data scores appear to perform better at predicting a team’s success than simply looking at that team’s number of possessions. The root mean squared error using the Champion Data scores (which is basically just a method of summarizing the difference between a team’s actual percentage and its predicted percentage) is about half of that which you would get if you used the number of possessions. Incidentally, the formula for the Dream Team competition on the AFL website doesn’t do much better at predicting a team’s success than possessions do.


Root Mean Squared Error

Champion Data




AFL Dream Team


Readers of my post Win Score and the Productivity of Basketball Players will know that post also talked about a formula that did pretty well at predicting the success of a (basketball) team, but that I had reservations about how well it did at attributing this success to particular players. So how well does the Champion Data formula do in this respect? My guess is that similar types of problems apply, namely how do you account for the value of defenders who aim to prevent other players from collecting possessions rather than gathering possessions themselves, and how much credit should be given to the player who ultimately puts the score on the board? But I’m fairly satisfied that the Champion Data formula does a better job than simply looking at the raw numbers. On the other hand, if my Supercoach team loses its Grand Final this weekend, well…

Saturday, August 18, 2007

Still I Don't Know How To Get Out of Bed (AKA The Bed Song)

Note: People who have known me for a while will have seen different lyrics to this song. The reason for changing them is simple: I was 18. Those lyrics sucked. These suck less.

Another hazy morning, another half-dreamt song
We will never trust each other while something can go wrong
I can’t forget my feelings or remember what you said
Still I don’t know how to get out of bed

If the end has passed, the beginning must be near
Should I spread across the earth or build my tower here?
There’s too little that I know and too much that I’ve read
Still I don’t know how to get out of bed

Love is cool, love is fine, love is a splintered thing
Love is beyond space and time, love is adrenaline
Love is the question and the answer, but that’s all in my head
Still I don’t know how to get out of bed

Thursday, August 16, 2007

The Vines: Highly Exiled

When Sydney-siders the Vines’ debut album, ‘Highly Evolved’, was released in 2002, it shot to #3 On the UK charts and #11 On the US charts. Was this considered a notable achievement for Australian music? Some thought so, but others argued that it wasn’t really an Australian album as the band weren’t really based in Australia anymore, and the album was recorded in Los Angeles. At the Australian Recording Industry Awards for that year, the Vines picked up only one gong, losing out to George (ugh!) for best breakthrough talent, Kylie Minogue (urk!) for single of the year, and Silverchair (gag!) for best group and best rock album.

What a load of garbage! Nowadays, nothing is more Australian than getting the hell out of Australia. For any Australian under the age of 30, chances are that half the people he or she knew five years ago are on the other side of the world right now. Far from being an example of three young men turning their back on this country, ‘Highly Evolved’ is the quintessential Australian album of the new century for the very reason that it captures this tendency to pack up and ship off so brilliantly.

Not convinced? Allow me to demonstrate what I mean using a selection of lyrics from the album. Below each tidbit of Vines-speak I’ve added a translation of what Vines’ songwriter and frontman Craig Nicholls really means. Whether you’re the person who has left these shores or been left behind, you’ll recognize in Mr Nicholls’ words our national belief that the grass is always greener in the other hemisphere.

Vines-speak: Heads are down/ And all the people frown/ In the fac-to-reee (in the fac-to-ree)/ I’m so down I put my head around/ Every noose I see (Factory)

Translation: As every Vines fan knows, Craig dropped out of school in tenth grade and ended up working in McDonalds. (Of course, he then sold bundles of records, so I suppose he had the last laugh.) Anyway, bringing home that lousy Australian currency was apparently a bit dispiriting for our budding songwriter. Which leads to this conclusion…

Vines-speak: I’m gonna get freeeeeee/ I’m gonna get freeeeee/ I’m gonna get freeeeee/ Riiiide into the sun (Get Free)

Translation: Craig is outtahere! He takes along Patrick from McDonalds and some drummer and they head off overseas to make a name for themselves. It’s somewhere other than here so it must be better, right? So pick up your guitars, boys, and hit the friendly skies. Those losers back in the suburbs can eat your dust.

Vines-speak: I feel so happy/ So high-ly e-volllved … Dream-ing for something, reac-hing for somethiii-eeeeeng (Highly Evolved)

Translation: Ah yes, they can picture it now. There’s something… and, uh, well, there’s something else… and yeah, something else good… just wait until they touch down, you’ll see…

Vines-speak: I left my hooooommmmee, I left my hoooo-oooooommmmee, yeah yeah… Without my phooooonnnnee, without my phoooo-oooooonnnnee, yeah yeah (Homesick)

Translation: Proof that Craig Nicholls is different to the rest of the human race. Nobody does this.

Vines-speak: It’s 1969 in my heeeeeaaaad!/ I just wanna haaaave no plaaaace to go/ I’m living thru the sound of the deeeeeaaaaad! (1969)

Translation: Craig flew into London and the Beatles weren’t there. And it’s bloody freezing!

Vines-speak: Nothing’s gonna save you (nothing’s gonna save you)/ Nothing’s gonna save you (nothing’s gonna) out theeeerrrrrr-eeeerrrre (Homesick)

Translation: Another reference to the crappy weather in the northern hemisphere. Also Craig has realized that, due to the large amount of Aussie ex-pats in London, all the morons who beat him up at school are here as well.

Vines-speak: I have been crying in my sleep/ Cause I don’t know where I’ve been/ I just want to live to see another day/ Hey Hey Hey Hey/ Hey Hey Hey Hey/ Hey Hey Hey Hey/ Hey Hey Hey Hey/ Hey Hey Hey Hey/ Hey Hey Hey Hey/ Hey Hey Hey Hey/ Hey Hey Hey Hey (1969)

Translation: London sucks just as much as Sydney did, so Craig and company have to chant themselves to sleep. They’re coming to the realization that they chose the wrong country. So it’s time to visit that other big brother of a nation across the Atlantic. Let’s see how that works out.

Vines-speak: You know you really oughta/ Move out-ta Californyerrr (Get Free)

Translation: Not so well then. Craig’s miserable at home and he’s miserable abroad, and since time travel is an impossibility he’s going to have to find some place in this world to be. Which leads to this conclusion…

Vines-speak: I really don’t need a chaaaaaa-nge/ I really don’t need what’s miiiiiii-ne/ Out in a country yaaaa-rrrrd/ It-’ll be just fine (Country Yard)

Translation: Of course, when life in the city gets too much, you can always take a sea change into the Aussie country. Craig dreams of going the time-honoured ‘tortured genius’ route and becoming a virtual recluse. But won’t that tie him down? How can he fulfil his yearning to escape? We all know the answer…

Vines-speak: Why should I lose/ When I-‘ve got to goooo/ Maaar-y Jaaaaane/ Maaar-y Jaaaaane (Mary Jane)

Translation: In the end, there are always the drugs.

Tuesday, August 7, 2007

Win Score and the Productivity of Basketball Players

In The Wages of Wins: Taking Measure of the Many Myths in Modern Sport, authors David Berri, Martin Schmidt and Stacey Brook construct a metric for determining the productivity of each player in the National Basketball Association, known as Win Score. The Win Score formula is as follows:

Win Score = Points + Possession gained (rebounds, steals) – Possession lost (turnovers, field goal shots, ½ free throws) + ½ Offensive help (assists) + ½ Defensive help (blocks) – ½ Help opponent (fouls)[1]

They find that this metric does a pretty good job at predicting the number of games that a team will win over the course of the season. A strong point of this method is that it recognizes that the players that score the most points are not always the most productive. For example, a player who scores 30 points but makes only 25 per cent of their field goals is not a very efficient scorer, and may well have harmed their team’s chance of winning. However, the formula has come in for criticism for allegedly favouring rebounders over scorers. Under the formula, a top scorer like Allen Iverson is considered to be only an average player, while rebounding king Dennis Rodman is considered to be a superstar on par with Michael Jordan. Now I don’t subscribe to the theory that scoring should be seen as an inherently harder skill to master. As far as I am concerned, a player can be productive through being either a dead-eye shooter, a monster on the boards or a pin-point passer. My main concern is that the Win Score doesn’t weigh up these attributes equally. To see why, imagine a simplified version of basketball in which two players, A and B, take turns shooting from a designated spot on the court. After each shot, two other players, C and D, go up for the rebound. If C rebounds the ball, A takes the next shot, and if D rebounds the ball, B takes the next shot. If A makes a shot, B takes the next shot, and vice versa. Let’s say the statistics at the end of the game are as below:

Player A: 0 for 6, 0 points
Player B: 2 for 3, 4 points
Player C: 4 rebounds
Player D: 3 rebounds
Team E (Players A and C): 0 points
Team F (Players B and D): 4 points
Team F wins.

Now under Win Score, Player C would be the most productive player (4 points), followed by Player D (3 points), Player B (1 point) and Player A (-6 points). However, I would argue that Player B is clearly the most productive player. The reason that Team F has won is because Player B was much more effective at shooting than Player A. If A and B had shot with the same accuracy:

Player A: 2 for 6, 4 points
Player B: 1 for 3: 2 points
Player C: 4 rebounds
Player D: 2 rebounds
Team E: 4 points
Team F: 2 points
Team E wins

In this case, Player C is the most productive player, and Player D is the least productive. This is because, with A and B being equally effective at scoring, C’s extra rebounds are responsible for getting Team E over the line. (Under Win Score Player C would still be the most productive, but Player D would be more productive than Players A and B.)

Or to put it another way, if each team performs each skill equally well, nobody should win or lose. The difference between winning and losing is determined by differences in skill levels.

Now of course in a real game of basketball all players are able to both score and rebound, but the key point still remains that a player’s ability to perform a skill should be measured relative to everybody else’s ability to perform that skill. But with Win Score a player’s ability to rebound is overvalued relative to a player’s ability to score. Berri and company do calculate a Position-Adjusted Win Score, which could arguably take account of this fact, but that limits a player in a particular position to a particular role when in reality they may have another role in which they help their team (e.g. a point guard may be an efficient shooter rather than an efficient passer). Another argument is that Win Score does account for a player’s ability to score relative to other players’ abilities simply because it includes both points scored and field goals missed. However, that assumes each player takes their shots from a designated spot and with the same amount of defensive pressure. Allen Iverson might have made 40 per cent of his shots and Dennis Rodman might have made 55 per cent of his shots, but Iverson may still be a more efficient scorer because if Rodman had the same role as Iverson and was facing the same defensive pressure he might have only made 20 per cent of his shots. Or to put it another way, if Rodman had been a shooter of average skill he might have made 70 per cent of the shots that he had, and he hurt his team by only shooting at 55 per cent. Win Score does not account for this possibility.

Another problem is that Win Score gives full credit to the rebounder for gaining a possession and attributes full blame to the shooter for losing a possession. The latter is probably not so much of a problem because if a shooter should not always receive full blame for losing a possession (for instance, if the rest of his team is standing around twiddling their thumbs and he’s playing one-on-five) he probably should not always receive full credit for scoring the basket either (for instance, if the power forward sets a bone-shattering screen on the defender). But again this is going to overvalue players who happen to be very good at rebounding at the expense of the players who are very good at other skills.

It is difficult to see how any metric could address either of these problems. The first is hard to solve because we do not know the counterfactual while the second is hard to solve because it relies on intangibles. The Win Score metric is on the right track to working out the key factors between winning and losing. The tricky part is deciding who is truly responsible.[2]

[1] This method for writing out the formula was actually used in a power point presentation by Joe Price and Justin Wolfers.
[2] By my reckoning, the final point margin is determined entirely by a team’s ability relative to the other team to create scoring opportunities and the team’s ability relative to the other team to capitalize on scoring opportunities. The first term would incorporate rebounds, steals and turnovers, while the second term would incorporate shooting percentages and assists. To work out a player’s productivity you would have to work out that player’s contribution to each of those two terms. Er, good luck.

Saturday, July 21, 2007

The Harry Potter Diary

Page 1 – Welcome to my running diary of the final book in the Harry Potter ‘septology’ – the ominously titled ‘Harry Potter and the Deathly Hallows’. I thought of marking my progress by the clock, but have decided, in the interests of preventing people from knowing how slowly I read, to use the page count instead.

So here we are, and the question that every reader is asking is: which major characters are headed to the great Quidditch field in the sky? I’m going to assume that Harry, Ron and Hermione are all untouchable; Hagrid looks to be a possibility (five books too late for Robbie Coltrane’s liking); McGonagall seems unlikely given Dumbledore’s recent ‘death’; Neville is a possibility; Snape and Malfoy are definite possibilities, particularly if JK goes the Anakin Skywalker route; all the other Weasleys, except maybe Ginny, seem to be fair game; Lupin, Moody and Tonks are probably too minor for their deaths to cause much of a stir; ditto for Luna Lovegood. All things considered, I’m going to go for Snape and Mr.Weasley. And Lord Voldemort…? I think he’s toast.

(Another point I should add: it took me forty-five minutes to queue up and receive a copy. I was put into this huge, snake-like line that wound its way through every nook and cranny of the second floor of Borders. And I discovered something: there are a lot of boring books in the world. There really are.)

Page 7 – JK opens with some ominous quotations about death as ‘the grinding scream’ but also as ‘but crossing the world, as friends do the seas’. I’d say the first quotation is meant to describe Voldemort, the second our dearly departed Dumbledore. Nice touch.

Page 11 – Is Snape throwing the Dark Lord off Harry’s trail with his talk about Confundus charms? I wonder who Voldermort’s prisoner is? Hope it’s not poor Neville.

Page 17 – Nope, not Neville; it’s a teacher from Hogwarts. Voldemort seems to be testing Snape’s loyalty here.

Page 24 – Harry’s just read an article filling in the details of Dumbledore’s life. At the end of the last book I didn’t really believe that Dumbledore was dead, but I’ve since been assured that it’s so. However, I reckon he’s still going to have a major presence in this volume, a la Obi-Wan Kenobi. ‘Use the Fawkes, Harry… the Fawkes…,’

Page 47 – The first example of a standard JK device that’s served her well over the course of the series: give the chapter an intriguing title – i.e. ‘The Seven Potters’ - and then use an interesting magic trick to push the story forward, in this case, turning Harry’s friends into doppelgangers of himself to put the Death Eaters off the track. Throw in a few jokes, and the kiddies are hooked.

Page 52 – No! The Death Eaters killed Hedwig! JK, you filthy murderer! I wonder how the kiddies who got the free owls from Borders are feeling now…

Page 69 – And now Mad-Eye Moody’s gone (along with George Weasley’s ear). JK, you blood-hungry slaughterer! Jeez, seventy pages in and already we’re three characters down. (At this rate, the bodycount will be up to two dozen by the book’s end.) Is there an R-rating sticker hidden under the barcode here?

Page 83 – Good to see that, even sans Hogwarts, the Potter/Weasley/Granger detective team will still be in full swing.

Page 99 – ‘then she was kissing him as she had never kissed him before, and Harry was kissing her back, and it was blissful oblivion, better than Firewhisky; she was the only real thing in the world…’ Harry and Ginny have never seemed quite right to me; a bit too schmoopie and cutesy-pie perhaps. In fact, no girl has ever really seemed right for Harry; to me, he’s more of a lone wolf, the boy who carries a burden nobody else can share. Maybe Harry and Ginny have been hooked up to emphasise this point.

Page 101 – What’s up with Lupin?

Page 119 – Note to whoever makes the film of this book: make Hermione’s dress for the wedding lilac-coloured, or I’ll be hearing about it from my lovely fiancé for the next five years. You may not think it’s important, but believe me, it is. Please, just do me this favour.

Page 122 – It’s all a bit too happy at the moment with Bill and Fleur’s wedding. If this keeps up, I may have to turn on the Collingwood versus Essendon match to remind myself of what true evil is.

Page 133 – ‘The Ministry has fallen. Scrimgeour is dead.’ JK, you callous wordsmith! (I realize that’s not much of an insult, but I can’t really muster up that much indignation about Scrimgeour.)

Page 158 – Mundungus Fletcher stole a Horcrux, hey? Curiouser and curiouser… While the fantastical elements of Harry have often been cited as the series’ main appeal, I think equal credit should be given to JK’s ability to sustain a mystery. She’s very good at concocting twists and turns and at letting out just the right amount of information at just the right time. There’s been more wand-waving action from ‘Order of the Phoenix’ onwards, but mysteries and puzzles still remain key components of Harry’s success.

Page 176 – Ah, so that’s it… Lupin and Tonks are having a kid, and Lupin’s doing a Rabbit Bergstrom on them. I wonder if it will be an ‘inside’ or an ‘outside’ baby?

Page 180 – Rita Skeeter is sullying Dumbledore’s name again, claiming that his family imprisoned his sister for being a ‘Squib’. Er, I don’t think so. But there’s obviously a few skeletons left in the good Professor’s closet.

Ooh, here’s Mundungus…

Page 182 – Mundungus just dropped the F-word. I swear that 18-plus sticker must have fallen off somewhere. And bad news, the toad-woman is back, and she’s got a Horcrux.

Page 186 – SNAPE CONFIRMED AS HOGWARTS HEADMASTER. Haha, suffer Snape, you missed out on Defence Against the Dark Arts again.

Page 195 – I can’t be certain, but I think our heroes are addicted to Polyjuice Potion. Blood, swearing, and drug references - Harry really is corrupting the world’s youth.

Page 206 – Eewww. The toad-woman has the late Moody’s mad-eye stuck on her office door. The Ministry of Magic is taking a distinctly more Orwellian turn with every page.

Page 227 – Harry’s got the Horcrux and has hung it around his neck. If he starts stroking it and calling it ‘my precious’ I think we’re in trouble.

Page 236 – Now they’re taking turns to wear the Horcrux as they journey along. Clever move. Frodo Baggins could’ve learnt a lot from these kids.

Page 254 – Well, something’s up with Ron. He’s dropped the F-bomb, implied that Harry is a egotist (young Ron’s always had a bit of an inferiority complex), reduced Hermione to tears, and stormed back home. I’d forgotten that Harry, Ron and Hermione are always good for a spat. Now it’s just Harry and Hermione in the tent. Time for some more of that ‘blissful oblivion’, ‘ey ‘arry?

Page 263 – Whoa-! Don’t look now, but Harry and Hermione are on the Polyjuice Potion again.

Page 268 – There’s one mystery solved, namely when Harry’s adventures take place. The gravestones of Harry’s parents say they died in 1981, which would mean that the series takes place during the mid to late 1990s. I bet you all knew that already, didn’t you?

(The news is showing all the Potter fans lining up to grab a copy of the book as soon as possible. Some people even camped outside bookstores overnight. What were they thinking? And why did I line up for almost an hour this morning? I could’ve gone in at 11 o’clock and walked right up to the counter. It’s lucky that no-one reads books anymore.)

Page 285 – Harry’s wand has been split in two. JK, you heartless destroyer!

Page 295 – Is Dumbledore the paragon of virtue that Harry thought he was? Hard to believe Rita’s claims that Dumbledore wanted to rule Muggles ‘for the greater good’. It’s also hard to believe that Dumbledore would leave this much to chance. I suspect that, as always, the fun will be in the explanation.

Page 303 – Ron’s back! Huzzah! (Er, why did he ever leave?)

Page 308 – Ben Cousins is back! Boooo!

It looks as if Ron may have finally conquered his fears about being a ‘second banana’. An aside: where does Ron rank in the ‘second banana’ hall of fame? I’d put him above Sam Gamgee (not as subservient), Doctor Watson (not as outclassed) and Robin (not as useless), but below Sancho Panza (not as wise), Agent 99 (not as pretty) and Waylon Smithers (not as amusing). A good comparison would be former Chicago Bull Scottie Pippen – always in the superstar’s shadow, but that superstar wouldn’t have been as great without him.

Page 328 – Merlin’s pants! So that’s what that triangular symbol is… the Deathly Hallows!

Page 348 – Three objects in the Hallows – an unbeatable wand, a resurrection stone, and an invisibility cloak - three heroes who are each looking to wield one of those objects. It would have been tempting to make this final chapter all about Harry versus Voldemort, but JK has really focused upon the Harry/Ron/Hermione triumvirate instead. Not that we should be too surprised I guess, after all, they’ve solved every other case as a team. However, I’m still thinking that, in the end, it will be up to Harry to win the day.

By the way, with all this finding of Horcruxes and collecting of Hallows, I feel like I’m in a role playing game.

Page 356 – Tonks’ father is dead. Did JK create such a large cast of characters just so she could decimate them later?

Page 360 – Oh, Harry, what have you done? You’ve said You-Know-Who’s name…

Page 373 – Harry and friends are in the hands of the enemy, who all seem spooked senseless about the Dark Lord themselves. Say what you want about Voldemort, but you can’t say he doesn’t know how to keep his troops in line.

Page 381 – In a rather gruesome scene, Wormtail has just strangled himself. JK, you brutal executioner!

Page 384 – Dobby the house-elf is back. I have a feeling that in her current mood JK will do away with him too.

Page 385 – Yep, she did. JK, you pitiless assassin! You know, in this case, it seems like JK brought Dobby back just so she could put a knife through his chest. Sure, he helped Harry escape the Malfoys, but another plot device could have easily done the trick. What happened to the author who turned time around to save Buckbeak?

Page 405 – Dumbledore had the unbeatable wand, and Voldemort has raided his tomb to get it. Sounds bad, but I reckon that if a corpse could smile, that of the former Head of Hogwarts would be doing so at the moment.

Page 416 – Lupin and Tonks now have a kid. They’d better be careful: everything small and lovable must go! (Where’s Crookshanks?)

Page 429 – It’s looking rather simple to break into Gringotts, the goblin bank. All you need is to be jacked up on Polyjuice and a few choice spells.

Page 435 – Finally we get to the scene depicted on the cover: Harry, Ron and Hermione being set upon by a rising tide of treasure. Another aside: which is the best Harry cover? (I’m only counting the covers to the kids’ versions here.) The cover to book three, with Harry riding the Hippogriff, is the one that comes most readily to mind, although like most of the covers, it’s still a little too cartoon-like for my tastes. (Yeah, yeah, I know, it’s a children’s book.) By that measure, the covers to books four and seven come out on top, with seven being my pick because it’s in trendy black and it has a bit more action in it. Hey, I just noticed the goblin hiding behind Harry’s shoulder. Extra points for that as well.

Page 445 – The final Horcrux is at Hogwarts. It’s all set for a Luke Skywalker/Darth Vader/Emperor Palpatine-type showdown. If Snape does turn out to be evil, I’m as big a fool as Obi-Wan Kedumbledore.

Page 451 – Our heroes’ mysterious benefactor has been revealed: it’s Aberforth Dumbledore. I’ll take this as the final sign that Albus is not returning.

Page 459 – Neville’s back! How did we get through three-quarters of the book without him? Lucky for him he’s shot up lately so he no longer falls into the ‘small and lovable’ category. Not that this will stop JK, I suspect…

Page 475 – And here’s McGonagall – the gang’s all here…

Page 482 – Snape’s just learned to never mess with McGonagall. But he’ll be back.

Page 489 – Welcome to ‘The Battle of Hogwarts’. On this side we have Harry, Ron, Hermione, the Weasleys, Hagrid, McGonagall, Lupin, Kingsley, and assorted Hogwarts teachers and students. On the other side, we have Lord Voldemort and uh… whoever he hasn’t killed yet. That angel of death, JK Rowling, is hovering overhead. Expect blood, mayhem, courage, valour and Harry to go all Frodo Baggins on us as Voldemort tries to infiltrate his mind. We’ve been waiting two and a half thousand pages for this. Bring it on…

(I’m sitting on the train headed to the football as I’m writing this, with Wolfmother blaring on my headphones, because a) it seems appropriate; and b) it prevents some smart-alec from telling me the ending. If they do, well, a 600-page hardcover to the nose won’t be pleasant, will it?)

Page 507 – Gee, Malfoy was always a wuss, but he’s become ever more fearful as the series has gone on. Crabbe is definitely the leader of the Slytherin trio now.

Page 510 – Crabbe has been killed. JK, you… er, screw it, it’s Crabbe.

Page 512 – Fred is dead! Not Fred! JK, you malicious slayer! And since another person has died, it must be the end of a chapter. You know, at the rate people are being knocked off, I’m starting to feel quite worried for Harry…

Page 520 – Hagrid has disappeared, but I’m going to refrain from calling JK any more names because I’m not certain that Hagrid is gone for good. Although being carried off by giant spiders while carrying a pink umbrella would be a funny way for Hagrid to go.

Page 522 – We’ve been getting a medley of Hogwarts landmarks in these past few chapters – the Room of Requirement, the Chamber of Secrets, the Shrieking Shack, the Whomping Willow… ah, the memories…

Page 525 – Fast running out of victims, JK has resurrected Harry’s parents just so she can kill them off again. OK, that one didn’t really happen.

Page 528 – Snape has just had his Anakin Skywalker moment, with Voldemort killing him off so that he can use the Elder Wand. Some may think this is Snape’s just deserts, but I think we’re about to find out otherwise.

Page 531 – Lupin and Tonks are dead. Yep, it’s a clean sweep of the friends of Harry’s dad. A pity, because I always thought Lupin and Sirius were two of the better Harry characters. JK is foaming at the mouth right about now.

Page 534 – We’re near the end, so it looks like it’s time for a classic Harry Potter ‘final explanation’. It’s hard to pick a favourite one of these; Quirrell in Philosopher’s Stone, Riddle in Chamber of Secrets, Lupin and Sirius in Azkaban… they’ve all been good.
In this case we’re looking back at the life and times of Severus Snape.

Page 548 – Hey hey, as I expected, Dumbledore’s death was part of a plan between him and Snape. Of course, I also thought Dumbledore wasn’t really dead, so I can’t pat myself on the back too hard.

Page 551 – What?! Harry has to – die?!

JK, you miserable, wretched, horrible, despicable, vile, shameful, dire, contemptible, appalling, loathsome, terrible, ghastly…

If this happens I’ll never read another Harry book again!

Page 556 – Colin Creevey is no more. ‘He was tiny in death’. Poor little guy never had a chance.

Page 561 – Here come the ghosts of victims past to help our hero along. I must confess that I thought the most moving moment in all of Harry Potter folklore was when Harry saw his parents in the Mirror of Erised. I thought it summed up both the advantages and the limits of Harry’s world quite nicely.

Page 564 – Hagrid’s alive, but who cares because now it’s Harry versus Voldermort!

Uh… Harry…

Page 566 – Whew! Harry’s not dead. And here comes his teacher to do his Obi Wan Kedumbledore routine.

Page 576 – The answers are simple: Dumbledore stuffed up. You know, now that I think about it, his plans really did suck, but that long white beard always fooled you into thinking he knew what he was doing. I think this is meant to be a part of Harry’s development though.

Page 584 – Harry, pretending to be dead, is carried back by Voldemort to the waiting throngs at Hogwarts. Anyone who skipped straight to the ending would be having a heart attack as they read this. Serves them right.

Page 589 – ‘NOT MY DAUGHTER, YOU BITCH!’ shouts Mrs Weasley. Come on, you have to laugh at that. I hope they put it in the movie.

Page 592 – Now here we are – the final duel between Harry and Voldemort.

Page 594 – I think Harry has you outsmarted here, Voldemort.

Page 595 – ‘I am the true master of the Elder Wand,’ says Harry. Not long now…

Page 596 – Bang! Voldemort’s dead! The crowd erupts!

I’m sorry I ever doubted you, JK. But why should I be surprised? This is ‘The Boy Who Lived’.

Page 600 – Harry wins the day, scores one billion points for Gryffindor. He decides to relinquish the Elder Wand. ‘That wand’s more trouble than it’s worth,’ says Harry, ‘I’ve had enough trouble for a lifetime.’ Amen to that.

Page 607 – And we finish off with a scene set nineteen years later in which Harry and Ginny see their kids off to Hogwarts. It’s OK, but I would’ve found the ending on page 600 just as nice. I guess I’m not that sentimental.

And that’s it folks. I’ll finish off with some final reflections on the series. I guess I really think of it as two series – one pre-Goblet and one post-Goblet. The pre-Goblet stories were fairly simple, self-contained tales, each of them centered on the English school life and its eccentricities, with a bit of fantasy thrown into the mix. A mixture of C.S. Lewis and Roald Dahl would be a reasonable description for the early Harry books – just when you thought you had Harry’s world sussed out then the students would break out into the ludicrous Hogwarts theme song or something of the sort. The post-Goblet Harry books still had that sense of humour, but they were meant to be taken a bit more seriously as Harry matured and the threat of Voldemort grew. These later books, clocking in at twice the page count of the first three volumes, were more expansive, more impressive in their scope, but also more meandering, losing some of the tightness of the early plots. By the final two books, we’ve clearly veered into the territory of epic young adult fantasy. JK Rowling’s efforts to break out of the constraints of the 300-page children’s novel and grow with her audience are admirable, but in hindsight I think the series really did peak with ‘Chamber of Secrets’ and ‘Prisoner of Azkaban’.

One thing that is undeniable is that the Harry Potter series has made a lot of people very happy. Even today as I was reading my book outside the Melbourne Cricket Ground with my headphones on full blast people wanted to talk me about how the book was going. The success of Harry may be, as Nassim Nicholas Taleb called it, ‘a black swan’ (i.e. a rare, high-impact event that no-one would have predicted), but that success could never have been sustained without the books being enjoyable to both kids and adults alike. If I ever have kids, I’ll make sure that Mum has a set of Harry Potter books for them to read. And I won’t let them watch the movies until they do.

Sunday, July 1, 2007

The Finger Points Outwards - No.2

Is this the greatest game ever? (Well, it might get old after the first ten minutes or so, but I'd take it over Deal or No Deal any day.)

Japanese Tetris

While I'm sure everyone will love the first site, this one may be a bit more of an acquired taste. It apparently started out as a tongue-in-cheek website, but then some people started using it seriously. I would be disqualified from joining due to my webbed toes and nose hair.

Darwin Dating

Thursday, June 14, 2007

Ravenhair (Why Did You Smile?)

Did I put you off your guard
When I went and closed my eyes?
Your sweet head dropped
And your early-train thoughts
Flew away, out the window

Wednesday, June 13, 2007

The Finger Points Outwards - No.1

In the wake of my 'seemingly-not-so-exhaustive-after-all' history on Marvel Comics' The Avengers, I was asked to contribute an article to the excellent website Avengers Forever. (I did publicize my Avengers history in the forum of this website... this blog isn't yet well-known enough for me to get random requests.) You can view the article here.

For those people who are Avengers fans, I recommend looking around the rest of the website for other Avengers-related goodies, including reviews, interviews, articles, wallpapers, and so on. (I concede that the odds of an Avengers fan finding the website through this blog rather than the reverse are tiny to say the least.) For those people who still think I'm talking about the Ralph Fiennes-Uma Thurman movie, this article may appeal to you more than the one I posted here - it's shorter and more personal - the type of article that you might expect would appear on my blog (go figure).

Anyway, since most of the articles I've written over the past year have been either comic book or football related maybe it's time I got a suggestion box. Anyone want a running diary of my upcoming trip to Adelaide? 'What Lurks In O'Connell Street' - it practically writes itself.