Sunday, March 16, 2008

Daniel Plainview and the Dangers of Capitalism

Last night, I saw Paul Thomas Anderson’s most recent film, There Will Be Blood. (Warning: spoilers ahead!) As anyone who has seen the film can attest to, the main character, Daniel Plainview (portrayed by Daniel Day-Lewis) is a mean old bastard indeed. To recap his misdeeds: first, he drastically underpays a dirt-poor, God-fearing family for the right to drill their land for oil. Then he abandons his adopted son not once but twice, the first time as a child when his deafness becomes a burden and the second time as an adult when he announces his intention to form his own (rival) company. Third, he kills his best friend and supposed half-brother when he realizes that man is an impostor and may be after his money. And finally, in the promised bloody climax, he reveals to his arch-nemesis Eli Sunday that he has sucked all of the surroundings lands dry of oil as well, before clubbing the young preacher to death with a bowling pin.

If Daniel is the personification of capitalism, then the whole system appears to be rotten to the core, allowing greedy, unscrupulous men like Plainview to pillage the land and potential wealth of needy communities. But I got the impression that Anderson’s message was not quite as black and white as all that. For one thing, Eli Sunday hardly seems like an innocent himself; he too appears to crave power, except that he does so by manipulating people’s faith (a rather old-world way of gaining influence as opposed to Daniel’s new-world methods). Eli appears to fail because, as Daniel implies, he does not understand the logic of capitalism in the way his brother Paul did. Eli wanted the financial clout that Daniel enjoyed, whereas Paul knew that very few could gain such power and was happy with directing Daniel to the oil fields for a much smaller sum.

So does that mean that capitalism is simply divided up into the miserable and the less miserable? I think that Daniel’s son, H.W., offers a glimpse of redemption. During his early years, H.W. is Daniel’s ‘business partner’, and he develops a love for their work that lasts into adulthood. H.W. is aware of Daniel’s shortcomings – too competitive, unforgiving, morally questionable - and is determined to break free of them. After draining Little Boston of oil, Daniel retreats to his mansion, but H.W. marries one of the local girls, Eli’s sister Mary Sunday. H.W. seems as if he could work under any system, Daniel and Eli do not.

In the end then, I think There Will Be Blood is a portrayal of the disadvantages of capitalism rather than a renunciation of it. Which is not to say that it is resigned to things being the way they are. But those who try to re-make the world in their image often end up very much alone.

Tuesday, March 11, 2008

The Best Player in the AFL

Nothing earth-shattering here - I just wanted to see what result you would get.

On the Basketball Reference blog, it was suggested that the player who should be considered the best in the NBA at any point in time is the one who has earned the most (MVP) voting support over a period of years. Basically, a player's value is measured by:

0.4 * votes in season t +
0.3 * votes in season t-1 +
0.2 * votes in season t-2 +
0.1 * votes in season t-3

So if we apply that formula to Brownlow Medal voting, here are the best players over the past decade:

1997 Robert Harvey (St.Kilda)
1998 Robert Harvey (St.Kilda)
1999 Robert Harvey (St.Kilda)
2000 Nathan Buckley (Collingwood)
2001 Nathan Buckley (Collingwood)
2002 Andrew McLeod (Adelaide)
2003 Andrew McLeod (Adelaide)
2004 Mark Ricciuto (Adelaide)
2005 Chris Judd (West Coast)
2006 Chris Judd (West Coast)
2007 Daniel Kerr (West Coast)

Seems like a reasonable list to me. Moving to this system would prevent the Shane Woewodins of the league from walking away with the best and fairest award, but somehow I don't think it will catch on...

Monday, March 10, 2008

Who Are The Bandwagoners?

Part of the rivalry between AFL clubs is accusing other teams’ supporters of 'jumping on the bandwagon’ – that is, implying that they have a greater than average tendency to turn up/’come out of the woodwork’ when their team is winning more games. But for which teams is this accusation justified? To find out, I collected season-by-season numbers on a team’s winning percentage and average attendance (during the home-and-away season only), and estimated the following relationship:

Percentage deviation of team’s average attendance per game in season from trend average attendance*
= α
+ β x team’s winning percentage in season
+ γ x percentage deviation of league’s average attendance per game in season from trend average attendance**

*All trend measures are a 13-term Henderson moving average.
**Endogeneity?... Meh.

So the stronger the positive relationship between a team’s winning percentage and its percentage deviation in average attendance per game from trend average attendance, the more fair-weathered a club’s supporters are. I’ve only estimated this relationship from 1982 onwards (when South Melbourne became Sydney), as I didn’t want to hold today’s supporters to account for the fickleness of their long-dead predecessors.

And here are the results:

Estimate of β*

Sydney – 0.393
Collingwood – 0.356
Melbourne – 0.298
Western Bulldogs – 0.284
St. Kilda – 0.264
Kangaroos – 0.239
Richmond – 0.219
Geelong – 0.171
West Coast – 0.165
Carlton – 0.125
Fremantle – 0.110
Adelaide – 0.095
Essendon – 0.090
Brisbane – 0.084
Hawthorn – 0.030
*Port Adelaide is excluded as it has not played enough seasons.

Three points to note:

1) The non-Victorian teams are less likely to have ‘bandwagon jumpers’. Although Sydney is at the top of the table, a lot of that result is driven by the mid-1980s – take that period away and they fall to around the middle. The most likely explanation is that the smaller capacity of the non-Victorian grounds puts a constraint on how many ‘bandwagon jumpers’ there can be.

2) Collingwood is second! I’ve called Collingwood supporters a lot of things in my time, but I didn’t think they were fickle. I expected them to be down near the bottom with other well-supported clubs like Carlton and Essendon. (Although it could be argued that a successful Collingwood brings out more supporters from other teams.)

3) A recent history of success appears to be inversely related to ‘bandwagonism’. The bottom seven clubs have won 20 of the past 26 premierships, while the top five have won only two. (As further evidence of this claim, note that there was a lot more fickleness from Hawthorn supporters once their golden era in the ‘80s was over.)

Oh well, at the least, now we all have another reason to bag Collingwood.

Tuesday, March 4, 2008

The Finger Points Outwards - No.10

Will Clinton or Obama win in Ohio and Texas? Well, based on their voting records, it will make very little difference.

Which is the Best Ever Test Cricket Team? I found the answer mildly surprising.

Saturday, March 1, 2008

The End of The Sopranos

I think I’ve finally figured this one out.

To recap: in the final scene of the final episode, Tony Soprano is meeting up with his family (his blood family, that is) in a diner. However, Tony is still mindful that the New York mafia has put a target on his head, and is cautiously watching the other people around him. In the last few seconds, we see Tony’s daughter Meadow running towards the diner, hear the door open, see Tony look up, and then… nothing. Just a few seconds of darkness and silence and then the credits roll.

Many theories have been put forward as to what the black screen means: some say that it means that Tony gets whacked, some say it doesn’t, and some say we can’t be sure. But amidst all the things that have been said and written on the subject, there are a couple of comments that stand out to me.

In The Sopranos: The Complete Book, series creator David Chase makes the following comments about this scene:

‘There have been indications of what the end is like. Remember when Jerry Torciano was killed? Silvio was not aware that the gun had been fired until after Jerry was on his way down to the floor. That’s the way things happen: It’s already going on by the time you notice it.’

Wow! David Chase seems to be saying that the blank screen really does mean that Tony gets clipped. But not so fast. Chase continues:

‘I’m not saying anything. And I’m not trying to be coy. It’s just that I think that to explain it would diminish it.’

In his commentary for the second last episode, Arthur Nascarella (who played Carlo Gervasi) sheds some further light on Chase’s thought processes:

‘[After the cast read the script] Jimmy Gandolfini looked at David Chase and asked ‘Why did you end it that way?’ … And David Chase said to him: ‘I didn’t want to show that crime paid, and I didn’t want to show that crime didn’t pay’.

That seems to make it a fifty-fifty bet. But after thinking about it some more I reckon that’s what David Chase’s comments imply as well. Since The Sopranos is Tony’s story, the natural presumption is that if we don’t see him die, he must live on. What I think Chase is trying to do by emphasizing that Tony wouldn’t see death coming is balance the scales and point out that we can’t know either way. So I’m going to go with the ‘we can’t be sure’ brigade on this one. Personally though, I like to think that Tony survived.