Wednesday, March 31, 2010

The Secrets To Winning Your Football Tipping Competition

Against my better judgment, I entered a football tipping competition this year. I say against my better judgment, because over the years I have come to realise that my performance, for better or worse, will be mainly determined by luck. Luck, you say? Allow me to explain …

First, let’s imagine that you know very little about football. In this case, a simple strategy for choosing winners would be just to pick the favourite with the bookmakers. This strategy is likely to get you a pretty good score, and probably isn’t too far off what a lot of other people will do. Now, if everyone in your competition chooses this strategy you will all end up no better or worse than anyone else. Of course that doesn’t happen, but it gives us a useful benchmark for explaining how and why people get different results.

One reason is that people may be loyal to their team. Doing this is likely to hamper your results, in some cases severely. The worst case scenario is your team is not expected to win any game, and this expectation turns out to be correct. In this case, all other things being equal, in a 22-game season you will end up 22 points behind your rivals. Obviously, the shortfall will lessen the more games your team wins; however, this strategy can really hurt your chances even if you follow a successful team. For example, if your team wins 15 games, you will still be wrong for the other seven – so other tipsters need to also be wrong about your team 7 times for you to remain on par with them. Conversely, having an irrational hatred for a team that ensures you never or rarely pick them will also hurt your chances. Other strategies that are likely to be harmful are picking teams based on colours or names, since you are making no use whatsoever of the information about a team’s actual likelihood of winning. You may indeed get lucky, but the odds are against you.

Let’s put aside for now all the people that pick teams based on loyalty, colours, or anything else that’s not based on a team’s actual likelihood of winning. That just leaves what we will call the informed, rational tipsters. Now, you don’t have to be a football nerd to fall into this category, you just need to have a rough idea of the ability of each team and actually make your tips based on this. Indeed, it is crucial to the argument that it is relatively easy for a person to fall into this category – if they didn’t the ‘nerds’ would be much more likely to win. Many tipsters will have a good idea of who the favourite is; for example, you could just follow the bookmakers’ favourites as suggested above. But the ‘favourite’ need not strictly be the bookmaker’s favourite, even without that information many tipsters would have a good idea which team other tipsters are more likely to pick.

Now obviously, of the informed, rational tipsters, not everyone can outperform the rest of the group. Half of them will be average or above, and half of them will be average or below. What determines whether you outperform the average or not? I believe it’s essentially random chance. What this means is that it is unlikely that you can systematically do better than the average informed, rational tipster. As evidence of this, consider how often people who do really well one year do remarkably average or worse the next. Now this doesn’t preclude people from doing well for three, or five, or even ten years on end. But no matter how much they like to think otherwise, for many of them it will just be because they got really lucky.

Nor does it preclude some people continuously doing well for reasons other than luck. One way to be continuously above average would be to recognise biases in other tipsters’ perceptions. For example, if the informed, rational tipsters tend to overrate a particular team – perhaps because that team is popular – then if you recognise that bias you will improve your chances of being above average. A similar way of outperforming the average would be to devise some sort of system that allows you to rate teams’ chances of winning more accurately than the consensus. This could be through, for example, some statistical model, but I doubt that many people use those. Or you could have better information about teams than the other informed tipsters (but what would that be?), or you could process the available information about teams in a more effective way. While I’m sure that many people would like to think they fall into one of these categories, again I doubt that they do. (I include myself here – maybe, just maybe, I could have a slightly better idea about football than your average informed, rational tipster, but not enough to make a significant difference.)

I’m not saying that everything is down to random chance, for you at least need to know enough about football to make a rough assessment of each team’s actual likelihood of winning. Similarly, I’m not saying that a person who has completely no idea about a team’s chance of winning can not do well, but their odds of doing so are far lower than those who do actually make their tips based on an informed and rational assessment of each team’s actual likelihood of winning. And I’m not saying that people can not do well for years in a row, or that if they do it can not be because they are somehow more skilled at tipping. What I’m saying is that skill is less important than commonly thought, and that luck is the more likely explanation for their success.

So what does mean for football tipping? Well, if you’re just in it for the sake of it, probably not much at all. But if you’re taking your ability to tip correctly as some measure of your intellect, then eventually - maybe not now, maybe not next year, but eventually - you’re probably going to end up somewhat disappointed.

Wednesday, March 24, 2010

Graphic Novels That You Would Like If You Weren't Too Chicken To Read Them - 'The Authority' and 'Planetary'

“We were the fucking Beatles,” said writer Warren Ellis of his twelve-issue run on ‘The Authority’ with penciller Bryan Hitch, inker Paul Neary and colourist Laura Depuy. Like most Beatles comparisons there is some hyperbole to Ellis’ remark, but ‘The Authority’ was certainly a shot in the arm – or should that be a kick to the pelvis – to superhero comics when it first appeared in ’99. (It would become known as one of the definitive ‘post-superhero’ series – a pretty cool term that seems to have disappeared from the present-day lexicon.)

While the creators were not the first to use what was known as the ‘widescreen’ style of comic book storytelling, they became the most identified with it, particularly the art team of Hitch and Neary. Essentially, each story was spread out like the creators were making a big-budget movie, with wide panels and plenty of ‘splash’ pages showing cities being blown up, bad guys being ripped apart, and even, in their last story, God’s brain being electrocuted.

The team – led by Jenny Sparks, the spirit of the 20th century – were also insanely powerful. Apollo and the Midnighter were essentially Superman and Batman with less scruples, Jack Hawksmoor could order entire cities to fight for him, the Engineer could use her liquid machinery to make big-ass weapons, and the Doctor, Earth’s shaman, could do pretty much anything he wanted. Needless to say, they weren’t exactly the nicest superhero team going around, but they did have principles, which prevented the title becoming simply an outlet for blood lust. And, you know, watching the Midnighter fly the Authority’s ship straight into the bad guy’s headquarters is pretty fun.

Although the Ellis/Hitch books were some mighty fine storytelling, the issues that followed, written by Mark Millar and drawn by Frank Quitely were, in my opinion, even better. Defenders of the Ellis/Hitch run have claimed (give or take a bit of paraphrasing) that the Millar/Quitely issues were too nasty, too obvious, too reliant upon shock rather than awe to suck readers in. Ellis’ Authority were known to ruminate upon their hyper-aggressive methods (‘How many people you think we killed?’ one member asks at the end of one of their typically brutal battles), Millar’s Authority positively revelled in them.

Personally though, I prefer the Millar/Quitely issues because they seem to me to have more depth – I prefer two issues of ideas crammed into one rather than one issue of ideas spread over four. A typical Ellis/Hitch sequence has Apollo and the Engineer pat themselves on the back for four pages for travelling to the moon. In roughly the same space Millar/Quitely move from inappropriate jokes about sharing toilet facilities with refugees to media debates about the Authority’s deposing third-world dictators to speculative remarks concerning reincarnation. Or to put it another way, Ellis wanted you to sit back and take notice of how good the story was, Millar just got on with it.

Ellis’ approach of reminding readers just how awe-inspiring everything is was carried over to his other popular series from the turn of the millennium, ‘Planetary’ (drawn by John Cassaday). Where ‘Planetary’ makes up for it is in the variety of its subjects and storytelling techniques. The rather ingenious idea behind the series is to follow a team of super-powered archaeologists as they dig through the refuse of pulp and popular culture from the past century. Hence, we have stories about an island of giant monster corpses in Japan, a murdered cop in Hong Kong that returns as a spirit of vengeance and an alien ship that has been stranded on Earth since the time of the dinosaurs.

Another strong point of the series is its main cast – the Drummer may be, as one of his teammates calls him, ‘a pet living fart’, but the other members, Jakita Wagner and Elijah Snow, are two of the coolest characters in modern comics. Jakita is savvy and super-strong, and has joined the team for the purpose of saving herself from boredom, which as motivations go, shows remarkable honesty. Elijah, meanwhile, is roughly 100 years old, and has built up intimate connections with some of the century’s most important (fictional) figures, including Sherlock Holmes. They can be pretty nasty as well – Elijah doesn’t mind resorting to the odd kick in the unmentionables to beat a foe – but compared to the Authority there is more of a sense of adventure with this team, as opposed to a sense of doing whatever it takes to get the job done.

Indeed, resolutions are hard to come by in ‘Planetary’, stories end anti-climatically, their completion seemingly determined more by page count than anything else, and very few questions are answered until at least the twelfth issue. But perhaps it’s also these qualities that mean, of the two series, ‘Planetary’ will be the one that remains most relevant in the years to come.

Wednesday, March 17, 2010

How Productive Was Andrew Gaze?

Win Score is a metric developed by economist Dave Berri (and co-authors) to evaluate how productive NBA basketball players are. Essentially, players are rated highly if they make good use of their team’s possessions by scoring efficiently, and/or gain a lot of possessions through rebounds and steals, and are rated lowly if they waste their team’s possessions by scoring inefficiently and/or lose possessions through turnovers. Hence, players that score a lot do not necessarily rate highly on this metric if they take a lot of shots to score their points. The formula is as follows:

Points + Rebounds + Steals + ½Assists + ½Blocked Shots – Field Goal Attempts – Turnovers – ½Free Throw Attempts – ½Personal Fouls

Despite my previous reservations, I think it is probably the best metric (apart from Berri’s own Wins Produced) available for assessing basketball players. For example, using Win Score Mr Berri predicted that, because Kevin Garnett is even more valuable than commonly thought, Boston had a very good chance of winning the championship when they acquired him (which they did). More regrettably, Berri predicted that my (and his) beloved Detroit Pistons were set to take a tumble when they traded the very productive Chauncey Billups for the high-scoring but relatively unproductive Allen Iverson (which they did). Iverson is a good example of a player who does not rate highly on this metric because he misses a lot of shots and commits a lot of turnovers.

Australian basketball fans will be well acquainted with Andrew Gaze, and the fact that he scored a truckload of points (over 30 points per game in fact). But in over 20 years of basketball Gaze won only two championships. Could Gaze then be similar to Iverson in that he scored a lot of points, but that he didn’t really help his team to win (although, to be fair, Iverson hasn’t won any championships)? To answer this, I plugged his career statistics into the Win Score Formula:

18938 + 3102 + 1078 + ½*3533 + ½*222 – 12549 – 2536 – ½*4796 – ½*2046 = 6489.5

Win Score Per Game = 10.57

How good is that? Let’s compare that with Iverson, who according to Win Score is fairly average:

24368 + 3394 + 1983 + ½*5624 + ½*164 – 19906 – 3262 – ½*8168 – ½*1777 = 4498.5

Win Score Per Game = 4.92

Gaze therefore was about twice as productive as Iverson, which is primarily due to his far better shooting efficiency and higher rebounding rate. Now let’s compare Gaze’s results with Michael Jordan’s, who was a very productive player:

32292 + 6672 + 2514 + ½*5633 + ½*893 – 24537 – 2924 – ½*8772 – ½*2783 = 11502.5

Win Score Per Game = 10.73

Those results look pretty similar to Gaze’s. Gaze was better in terms of shooting efficiency and assists, while Jordan was better at rebounds, steals and blocks, and not committing turnovers. I suspect Gaze played more minutes per game than Jordan, but overall, you’d have to say he was a productive player.

Of course, Jordan dominated the NBA while Gaze hardly played there, but these results suggest that to say Gaze was the Jordan of the Australian league is not that far-fetched. This suggests that the reason why Gaze didn’t win as often as Jordan has something to do with his teammates not being as productive as Jordan’s. While I haven’t crunched the numbers, from a quick glance at the Melbourne Tigers career stats I’d say that Lanard Copeland was a main offender. A story for another time perhaps (but probably not here)…

Wednesday, March 10, 2010

Stuff White Australians Like

Recently I have been reading the book version of ‘Stuff White People Like’ (which I was reminded that I could read for free online, but screw it, I’m a white person). While the book is as wonderfully ironic as any white person could hope for, it is a shame to us Australian readers that many of the references apply to US (or, on occasion, Canadian or European) cultural elements. Which got me to thinking: if the book had been written in Australia, what would be some of the other stuff that would be on the list?

For those who haven’t read the book or the blog, you must keep in mind the distinction between the right kind of white person and the wrong kind of white person. Although most of Australia’s population is indeed white, many of these people fall into the latter category (a.k.a. ‘bogans’). The distinction will become clearer as you read through the list.

While, in the spirit of both the book and the blog, I would have liked to have also provided commentary, there are only so many hours at work I can waste. Alright, here goes:

Stuff White Australians Like

-ABC Radio
-ABC TV, particularly The 7.30 Report, Four Corners, Foreign Correspondent, and At The Movies with Margaret and David
-Good News Week
-The Age and The Sydney Morning Herald
-The Australian, except for the political articles and the editorials
-Julia Gillard
-Greg Combet
-Maxine McKew
-Peter Garrett before he joined the ALP
-The republican movement (that is, the movement for Australia to become a republic, not to be confused with the US Republican movement)
-The Aboriginal flag
-Test Cricket
-Rugby union
-Being a member of the Melbourne or Sydney Cricket Club
-Office football tipping
-The Sydney Swans
-Degraves St, Melbourne
-Brunswick St, Melbourne
-Smith St, Melbourne
-Lygon St, Melbourne
-Sydney Rd, Melbourne
-Acland St, Melbourne
-All of Melbourne’s inner suburbs
-The eastern suburbs of Sydney
-The National Gallery and National Portrait Gallery in Canberra
-Old Parliament House
-The Australian National University
-The Tasmanian wilderness
-The Hunter Valley
-The Barossa Valley
-The South Island of New Zealand
-Going to the beach after work
-Ben Harper
-Ben Folds Five
-The John Butler Trio
-The Dirty Three
-Nick Cave
-The Triffids
-Eddy Current Suppression Ring
-The Triple J Hottest 100
-Rage (on ABC naturally)
-Memories of Dylan Lewis on Recovery
-Flight of the Conchords, particularly the parts where they make fun of Australians
-The Secret Life of Us/Love My Way
-Marieke Hardy
-Myf Warhurst
-John Saffron
-The Melbourne International Comedy Festival
-Peter Carey
-Tim Winton
-Booker Prize winners
-David Williamson
-Geoffrey Rush
-Cate Blanchett
-Toni Collette
-Living/working/studying in London/New York
-Holidaying in south-east Asia (i.e. Thailand, Vietnam, Laos, Malaysia, Cambodia)
-Travelling around Europe (bonus white person points for Eastern Europe)
-Matilda Bay beers
-Making fun of bogans

Wednesday, March 3, 2010

The 100 Greatest Novels Ever

What are the 100 greatest novels ever written? (That’s novels, not plays or poems… sorry Milton and Shakespeare…) Following the criteria from the 100 greatest albums list, here are the rules:

1) Don’t think about it too much. If something feels like it belongs, it probably does. And if something feels out of place, it probably is. You can argue all day about the relative merits of CS Lewis’ ‘The Lion, The Witch, and the Wardrobe’ and Philip Pullman’s ‘The Golden Compass’, but in the end only one of those feels like it belongs on the list.

2) It is not necessary for me to have read a novel, or even to intend reading it, for it to be included. I would rather be smashed in the head by ‘Clarissa’ than read it – it doesn’t matter, it still belongs here.

3) On a related note, whether I liked the novel or not is also irrelevant. It pains me physically to leave off awesome books like William Gibson’s ‘Neuromancer’ and Martin Amis’ ‘Money’ at the expense of snore-fests like ‘Women in Love’ and ‘Great Expectations’, but that’s the way it has to be.

4) A little bit of research is required. You might think that something like George Eliot’s ‘The Mill on the Floss’, because it’s always billed as a ‘classic’, is generally considered amongst the greatest ever novels, but take a quick glance at a few ‘best-of’ lists and you will soon realise it is not. And who knew Richard Wright’s ‘Native Son’ was so famous?

With those rules in mind, here is the final list:

Things Fall Apart – Chinua Achebe
Little Women – Louisa May Alcott
Emma – Jane Austen
Pride and Prejudice – Jane Austen
Go Tell it on the Mountain – William Baldwin
Old Goriot – Honore de Balzac
Herzog – Saul Bellow
Jane Eyre – Charlotte Bronte
Wuthering Heights – Emily Bronte
The Pilgrim’s Progress – John Bunyan
The Outsider – Albert Camus
Alice’s Adventures in Wonderland – Lewis Carroll
Don Quixote – Miguel de Cervantes
The Big Sleep – Raymond Chandler
The Woman In White – Wilkie Collins
The Last of the Mohicans – James Fenimore Cooper
Heart of Darkness – Joseph Conrad
Nostromo – Joseph Conrad
Robinson Crusoe – Daniel Defoe
David Copperfield – Charles Dickens
Great Expectations – Charles Dickens
The Brothers Karamazov – Fyodor Dostoyevsky
Crime and Punishment – Fyodor Dostoyevsky
The Idiot – Fyodor Dostoyevsky
An American Tragedy – Theodore Dreiser
The Count of Monte Cristo – Alexandre Dumas
Middlemarch – George Eliot
Invisible Man – Ralph Ellison
Absalom, Absalom! – William Faulkner
As I Lay Dying – William Faulkner
The Sound and the Fury – William Faulkner
Tom Jones – Henry Fielding
The Great Gatsby – F. Scott Fitzgerald
The Good Soldier – Ford Madox Ford
A Passage to India – EM Forster
Madame Bovary – Gustave Flaubert
Lord of the Flies – William Golding
The Wind in the Willows – Kenneth Grahame
The Tin Drum – Gunter Grass
I, Claudius – Robert Graves
Tess of the D’Urbervilles – Thomas Hardy
The Scarlet Letter – Nathaniel Hawthorne
Catch-22 – Joseph Heller
A Farewell to Arms – Ernest Hemingway
The Old Man and the Sea – Ernest Hemingway
The Sun Also Rises – Ernest Hemingway
Les Miserables – Victor Hugo
Brave New World – Aldous Huxley
A Prayer for Owen Meany – John Irving
Portrait of a Lady – Henry James
Three Men in a Boat – Jerome K. Jerome
A Portrait of the Artist as a Young Man – James Joyce
Ulysses – James Joyce
The Trial – Franz Kafka
On the Road – Jack Kerouac
One Flew Over the Cuckoo’s Nest – Ken Kesey
Dangerous Liaisons – Pierre Choderos de Laclos
Sons and Lovers – DH Lawrence
Women in Love – DH Lawrence
To Kill a Mockingbird – Harper Lee
The Golden Notebook – Doris Lessing
The Lion, the Witch and the Wardrobe – CS Lewis
The Call of the Wild – Jack London
Under the Volcano – Malcolm Lowry
The Magic Mountain – Thomas Mann
Love in the Time of Cholera – Gabriel Garcia Marquez
One Hundred Years of Solitude – Gabriel Garcia Marquez
Rebecca – Daphne du Maurier
Moby Dick – Herman Melville
Gone With the Wind – Margaret Mitchell
Beloved – Toni Morrison
The Tale of Genji – Shikibu Murasaki
Lolita – Vladimir Nabokov
Animal Farm – George Orwell
Nineteen Eighty-Four – George Orwell
U.S.A. Trilogy – John Dos Passos
Remembrance of Things Past – Marcel Proust
Gravity’s Rainbow – Thomas Pynchon
Clarissa – Samuel Richardson
Midnight’s Children – Salman Rushdie
The Catcher In The Rye – JD Salinger
Frankenstein – Mary Shelley
The Grapes of Wrath – John Steinbeck
The Red and the Black – Stendhal
The Life and Opinions of Tristram Shandy, Gentleman – Laurence Sterne
Treasure Island – Robert Louis Stevenson
Gulliver’s Travels – Jonathan Swift
Vanity Fair – William Makepeace Thackeray
The Lord of the Rings – JRR Tolkien
Anna Karenina – Leo Tolstoy
War and Peace – Leo Tolstoy
The Adventures of Huckleberry Finn - Mark Twain
Slaughterhouse 5 – Kurt Vonnegut
Brideshead Revisited – Evelyn Waugh
The Age of Innocence – Edith Wharton
Charlotte’s Web – EB White
The Picture of Dorian Gray – Oscar Wilde
Mrs Dalloway – Virginia Woolf
To the Lighthouse – Virginia Woolf
Native Son – Richard Wright