Sunday, August 31, 2014

AFL Power Rankings: Round 23 2014


Greater Western Sydney easily takes home the title of the most improved AFL team in 2014, gaining almost eight goals worth of ranking points this season, equal to the current distance between Sydney and Carlton, or Geelong and St. Kilda. The Giants are essentially equal fourteenth after their win against the Bulldogs, coming from last place – and a long, long way behind every other team except Melbourne – at the start of the season.

Mention here should also be made of the West Coast Eagles, who have finished off the season well, and currently sit in sixth, which is their highest ranking position for the year. No finals this year for the Eagles, but good signs going into next year. Another team that missed September action – the Adelaide Crows – also had a good finish to the season. Non-Victorian teams now occupy five of the top six spots in the rankings, even though only three of them made the finals in the end.


No team really crashed this week, so hey, let us not focus on the negatives, and get straight into the season summary.


Below is the usual end of home and away season Power Rankings summary for 2014. Squint at (or enlarge) the graph and you can see every team’s progress this year. Meanwhile the table shows each team’s highest, lowest, average, median ranking position and standard deviation in their ranking positions over the year.

Top club – Sydney ended the H&A season as the minor premier and #1-ranked team, a position that it has held since Round 17. Hawthorn though spent almost all of the other rounds in the top spot, only broken by Fremantle in Round 2.

Bottom clubSt. Kilda ended the H&A season with the ‘wooden spoon’ and as the lowest ranked team, a position that it has held since Round 13. Despite its significant improvement GWS was the next worst, spending nine weeks at the bottom of the heap.

Most average club – This goes to Richmond, with an average, median and finishing position of ninth in 2014. I would say insert your go-to Richmond ninth ‘joke’ here, but after the Tigers qualified for the finals last night those ‘jokes’ mean nothing now! Nothing!

Most variable club – Actually it was Sydney, with a standard deviation of almost three positions. The Swans spent the first ten rounds in ranking spots between fifth and eighth, but they caught fire towards the middle of the season, and were second or higher from Round 11 onwards. Collingwood, which had a very good first half of the season, but fell hard towards the end (partly because its ranks were depleted), also had a highly variable season.

Saturday, August 30, 2014

The Finger Points Outwards - No. 88

TRAVEL: In which country are you most likely to find tourists? The answer is obvious when you think about it, but the estimated tourist concentrations of other countries are interesting too.

TELEVISION: Kids’ TV show ‘In The Night Garden’ is weird.

MUSIC: The secret life of a lead singer.

TELEVISION/CARTOONS: Family Guy meets Simpsons trailer. I’m excited.

ECONOMICS/BOOKS: Thomas Piketty’s monster ‘Capital in the Twenty First Century’ summarised here and here and (in chart form) here. I include these because I just finished the book myself and you should all be impressed. I also include this because I am thinking of writing something about the book on this blog in which you would probably find out how little I absorbed it.

Monday, August 25, 2014

BEER!![16] – BeerGraphs

As anyone who has read this blog at least semi-closely knows, these are my favourite things in the world to write and read about:

1.      Using analytics, especially to prove something is wrong
2.      AFL, especially using analytics to prove something is wrong
3.      Indie music
4.      Basketball
5.      Comic Books, particularly the Avengers
6.      Lists
7.      Beer
8.      Economics, particularly minimum wages
9.      Cricket, especially to prove something is wrong
10.  Books
11.  Movies
12.  I don’t have an opinion on anything else
BeerGraphs then is a site that combines nos. 1 and 7 on that list – and I guess no. 6 as well. The clever piece of analytics on this site is its Beers Above Replacement (BAR) rating. Since beer ratings vary widely from one style of beer to another, the ‘worth’ of a beer has been rated here relative to other beers of the same style (i.e. lagers are compared to other lagers, stouts to other stouts, etc.). There are some other tweaks to get to the final figure, but that is the basic concept.
Using BAR, the BeerGraphs site has built leaderboards both for beers and for breweries. You can filter these leaderboards for ABV, and also for region. I have had a go at these, although using them reminds me just how many different beers are out there, particularly on the US Pacific Coast. Hence, it is rare on the leaderboards that I see a beer I know, and since even the best beer shops near my place would have only a fraction of those beers, rare that I would see a beer that I could easily try. The site is probably a lot more fun to use if you live in the US, especially given the content of the articles. Regardless I do admire the concept of BAR, and might still use it sometime in the future to guide my beer drinking.

Sunday, August 24, 2014

AFL Power Rankings: Round 22 2014


Port Adelaide’s return to form on the weekend, in which it did more damage to Carlton than Neil’s bowels did to Will’s face in the new Inbetweeners flick, sees it re-enter the top four in the rankings. Port’s win also shores up the decidedly non-Victorian feel that the top of the rankings have had in 2014, particularly in the second half of the season. Indeed, the last time the non-Victorian teams were this dominant Twitter had just been launched, and the Australians were winning World Cup matches.


Carlton is the obvious team to spotlight here after it undid much of its progress in recent weeks by getting Neiled on by Port. Things have not really gone right for the Blues since they spent over $600,000 a year on a midfielder that averages 17 disposals a game. As shown in the major American sports league being able to pay big money to lure players away also means that teams need to be judicious in which players they give that money to. (To be fair to Dale Thomas though, he is far from the only reason for Carlton’s mediocre form this season.)


Adelaide moves above North Melbourne despite losing to the Kangaroos on the weekend. The Crows only lost narrowly, and even though the match was played in Tasmania I have counted it as a home match for the Roos, with the usual +12 points home ground advantage. This is consistent with how I treat Hawthorn’s Tasmanian matches against non-Victorian sides. Should the same logic apply to North Melbourne though? What do readers think?

Also of note: next week, for the penultimate rankings of 2014, I will do my usual summary of the season.

Wednesday, August 20, 2014

The Best (Female) Basketball Player In Each Position

Three years ago, some basketball experts at ESPN were asked to name the (then) best current basketball player at each position, and the best player in each position of all time. In the end, I agreed with the consensus; pretty much everyone who knows the history of NBA basketball would know who the top players have been, even if they might argue about the final five selections.

In women’s basketball though the consensus is less well-known, and so having thought for hours about an all-time men’s basketball starting five, I thought it would be interesting to put together the women’s version. Now I haven’t watched hours of women’s basketball games, and so I do not have a heap of evidence to back up my selections. But then again there are heaps of basketball fans that have not watched much footage of Wilt Chamberlain or Bill Russell or Oscar Robertson play, and they still feel fairly comfortable about doing a men’s version of this.

Positions in women’s basketball seem to be even more fluid than the men’s game, but I have tried not to cheat by picking the best five players and then fitting them into positions. So taking into account the current race for the Most Valuable Player award, last year’s MVP voting, and last year’s All-WNBA teams, these appear to be the best current players in each position.

Point guard: Lindsay Whalen
Shooting guard: Diana Taurasi
Small forward: Maya Moore
Power forward: Candace Parker
Center: Brittney Griner

For the all-time team, the selections are probably even more biased than the men’s version towards recent players, given that the WNBA has given the top players more chances to show their talents outside college and the Olympics. A good starting point here was the WNBA All-Decade Team, and then seeing if there were any players from before (or after) that could leapfrog those selections.

Point guard: Nancy Lieberman
Shooting guard: Cynthia Cooper
Small forward: Sheryl Swoopes
Power forward: Lauren Jackson
Center: Lisa Leslie

Some may see it as a bit of cheat choosing Jackson as the best power forward, but no other candidate really stands out. Besides Jackson has played enough time there, and is it really all that much different to picking Tim Duncan as the best power forward in the men’s game? There might be a bit of personal bias here, since Lauren Jackson is one of my top five or ten favourite Australian athletes ever, but I think this choice is defensible.

Women’s basketball has had quite a few great shooting guards and small forwards, including pre-WNBA stars Ann Meyers, Lynnette Woodard, and Cheryl Miller. The best choices though seem to me to be the two major cogs of the Houston Comets’ dynasty, Cynthia Cooper and Sheryl Swoopes. Both have been compared to Michael Jordan; Cooper by stats guru Dean Oliver, and Swoopes through her ‘Air Swoopes’ sneakers.

Former college star and Washington General Nancy Lieberman ('Lady Magic') is my choice for the top point guard. If the award for the best collegiate point guard is named after you, there is a good chance that you have made the position your own.

Monday, August 18, 2014

The Wooden Finger Five - August 2014

After finally catching up to almost the present last month, we go back in time again, but only a few months … This is because I have caught up with two of 2014’s best LPs so far, and saw another band that toured their new album here in Melbourne recently.

No. 5 Seasons (Waiting On You) – Future Islands

Yes, this is the entry that is essentially an excuse to comment on a gig I went to. (This review pretty much explains what it was like.) In the middle of said gig I described Future Islands’ singer – Samuel T. Herring – as a ‘vocal savant’. For me, his voice is like a tiki-drinking evangelist situated on the coast of Belize, flanked by three to five women wearing headdresses whom I could swear were providing some sort of backup vocals (they are not). And that Letterman show video of the band performing, if you have not already seen it, really is ace.

No. 4 Heavenly Father – Bon Iver

A prominent, repetitive background noise can propel a piece along, like Johnny Marr’s guitar did on ‘How Soon is Now?’; on the other hand, it can just sound like a bunch of vuvuzelas. Fortunately in the case of Bon Iver’s most recent track, the blipping and buzzing going on is more like the former than the latter. Even more fortuitously, it means that the most recent Bon Iver track I have heard is no longer the godawful ‘Beth/Rest’.

Charles Connor, a drummer for a band that toured with Little Richard once said, “If one of us saw a beautiful lady in the audience … If she had any boyfriends around, they’d figure, ’He’s a sissie. I don’t have to worry about him.’ Then once we’d get these girls alone, we’d be one hundred percent men.” Perfume Genius does not really remind me of Little Richard, but I think of that quote because one of the most effeminate track titles, videos, and haircuts from  a male artist this year also has one of the most manly ‘oomphs’ at its centre. Actually it is that ‘oomph’, along with the guitar that follows it – and maybe the choir – that makes this track for me, perhaps proving again for my wife that I am not that far removed from the ape category.
‘Oh my God New York can talk
Somewhere in all that talk is all the answers
Everybody owns the great ideas
And it feels like there’s a big one round the corner’

Which is mainly to say, as many others have before, that New York is great for inspiration. But it is such an honest, unaffected, Guy Garvey way of saying it, that it still feels like a chorus that only Elbow could come up with. This chorus is repeated so often and is so prominent that, when I first recalled this track, I wondered if these might be the only words in the song. A closer listen revealed that actually quite a lot is said, mainly yet another love letter to New York and living in it. But in all the odes I have heard to the city that never sleeps this is probably one of the few - and one of the nicest and most evocative - I have heard about when you wake up in it.

On the topic of this track I could not remember whose mixed review it was that initially put me off what may actually be Elbow’s best album, but I think it must have been the 6/10 review in NME.  Which would not be the first time that NME has given a 6/10 review to an album that the weight of other critical opinion made look miserly only a few months later.

No. 1 Burning – The War on Drugs

The best track off the War on Drugs’ greatest achievement to date has gotten quite a few comparisons to Bruce Springsteen’s ‘Dancing In The Dark’, mainly because of its yelping and synths. Actually, those aside, the feel of the song is more reminiscent to me of another 1984 song, Don Henley’s ‘The Boys of Summer’. Henley’s song brings to my mind images of the beach, ‘Burning’ brings to mind sparkles in the dark in the front yard of the beach house beside it. It is also refreshing for some of us whose youth was not at all like ‘The Breakfast Club’ to hear a modern ‘80s-tinged song that is not trying to recall memories of movies by John Hughes. The whole album is classic rock done really, really well; other favourites are ‘Under The Pressure’, ‘Red Eyes’, and ‘An Ocean Between The Waves’.

Sunday, August 17, 2014

AFL Power Rankings: Round 21 2014


Richmond has risen up the AFL ladder by winning its past seven matches, after starting the season 3-10. But how much better have the Tigers actually been? Well, their average relative net adjusted margin (net margin adjusted for home ground advantage and strength of opposition) over those first thirteen games was a mediocre -6; over those seven wins it has been +13. So the Tigers have gone back to a level approaching their 2013 form, which of course was generally pretty good. Mid-season analysis indicated that Richmond’s drop-off in form in 2014 had been due to their top players and their bottom/role players not being as effective. More recently though Trent Cotchin, Brett Deledio, and Alex Rance have all again approached their 2013 form, the latter two having had injuries earlier in the season. And while the role players are still not quite as good, the return to form of their top players combined with the addition of Anthony Miles, and emergence of Brandon Ellis have made the Tigers again a semi-formidable outfit.


Look, I have probably featured Collingwood enough in this section in 2014 – including last week, and once perhaps a bit unfairly after it had just won a match and was still not a bad side. So Melbourne has to get this spot this week, after kicking only three – yes, three! – goals at home against Greater Western Sydney. Melbourne had been vying with the Giants for the most improved team in 2014, although as I have indicated before that just means they are expected to lose by five goals a game rather than ten goals. However the Demons definitely ceded the title of most improved to its opposition with its big loss this weekend, and fell two ranking spots in the bargain.


I still have to mention the Pies though, who fell like Cypher’s victims on the Nebuchadnezzar to Brisbane on the weekend. The loss means that their average relative net adjusted margin over the past five weeks is a St. Kilda-like -42, and their ranking points have decreased by more than any other team over the year except the Saints. If this keeps happening, who else can I feature in the ‘FALLING DOWN’ section? Manchester United? The Texas Rangers? The villages south of the Wall in Westeros? With a horror run of injuries on the weekend Collingwood’s fortunes may well not turn around until the next season.

Friday, August 15, 2014

The Finger Points Outwards - No. 87

ART/BOOKS: In one way or another, we’re all anchored to the book.

MUSIC: Determining the American Band Championship Belt for every year since the Beach Boys in 1964. This is a fun article, although the rankings are a bit retrospective. For example, I lived through 2001-2002, and at that time the Strokes were definitely a bigger band than the White Stripes (that probably changed after the latter released ‘Elephant’ in 2003). And similarly the White Stripes were bigger than LCD Soundsystem in 2004. By the same logic though, I guess the Doors should be rated above the Velvet Underground in the late ‘60s.

FOOTBALL: Solving football’s penalty shoot-out problem. This is an excellent idea, and I wish FIFA would implement it.

BOOKS: How not having read Harry Potter shapes your life, at least if you are in your early 20s.

SPORTS: Sports ‘hate maps’ for each of the four major US sports. Unsurprisingly everyone hates the Yankees.

Sunday, August 10, 2014

AFL Power Rankings: Round 20 2014


Apart from Sydney and Hawthorn, there has been no hotter team than the Adelaide Crows over the past eight weeks. After this blog highlighted the Lions in the ‘RISING UP’ section and the Crows in the ‘FALLING DOWN’ section last week, the latter responded by flagellating the former by over 100 points this weekend. Only a couple of serious injuries marred the match for Adelaide. I am hoping the Crows lose their mojo by the time they take on my Tigers next week.


Nick Maxwell’s recent retirement was a reminder that it is not 2010-2011 anymore, but Collingwood’s 10-goal loss in Perth was an even bigger reminder. That loss dropped the Magpies to twelfth, easily their worst position since these rankings started being compiled in 2011. Amazingly, given where the two teams were five weeks ago, Collingwood is now even ranked below arch-rivals Carlton, but the Blues’ recent improvement, combined with the Pies’ deterioration, has led to a four goal turnaround in their relative positions.

Geelong has won 15 of their 19 games in 2014 – as many as Hawthorn and Sydney – and it sits third on the ladder, but only seventh in the rankings. One point to note here is Geelong is not that far off being fifth in the rankings. But another point is that Geelong has had less ‘very good’ or ‘good’ results – defined here as a net margin, adjusted for home ground advantage and strength and opposition, of better than +15 – in 2014 than other top teams. Hawthorn, Sydney, and Fremantle each have 13 of these results, Port Adelaide 11, North Melbourne 9, while Geelong and Adelaide only have 7 (but the Crows have great recent form). That is Geelong is getting over the line as much or more than the other top teams – and it is even on a six game winning streak – but nevertheless more of its performances have just been ‘fair’. Still apart from possibly Sydney, who beat them by over 100 points earlier this year, the Cats would probably not fear any team in the finals, and their end-of-season ladder position looks like it will be very strong indeed.

Saturday, August 9, 2014

Catches Win Cricket Matches, But Probably Not Often

There is a cliché in cricket that ‘catches win matches’, as if catching was a major factor in determining who wins. I do not believe that - and you may not as well - but here are my personal reasons for thinking that quote is misleading.

I cannot find the exact numbers anywhere (assuming they exist) but I would guess that, at the highest levels of cricket, the difference between the best catching team and the worst catching team would be on average around one dropped catch per match. Or if you want to think of it the other way in terms of catching chances taken, the best catching team probably only snaps up one more catching chance per match than the worst catching team. Sure, we have seen teams that have dropped four or more catches in a match on occasion, but that is a relatively rare event.

How much does that one missed chance cost the fielding team on average? Well, in Test matches batsmen (including specialist bowlers) make about 30 runs on average before they are dismissed. How many Test matches are decided by 30 runs or less? Not many at all. Proponents of the ‘catches win matches’ idea might point out those occasions where teams have dropped batsmen, and those batsmen have gone on to make over 100 more runs, but what are not as easily remembered are those instances where batsmen have been dropped and it has not cost very many runs at all.

The effects of dropped catches might be a little different in one-day internationals and Twenty20 matches. Margins in these matches are generally much closer than Test matches. On the other hand batsmen make less runs on average in those matches, and there are less catching chances per match, hence limiting the effect of being the worst rather than the best catching team.

After going through that reasoning I had a look around the internet to see what others had found on this question. I found this 2013 article which argued that catching helps to win matches (which I don’t disagree with), but not as much as other aspects of the game.

The study analysed over 100 one-day international matches, and gave a value to each dismissal based on how many more runs would be expected to be scored given the wickets and number of balls remaining. It found that a batsman who is one standard deviation above the average batsman contributes 8 runs above par to his team’s total. However a fielder who is one standard deviation above average restricts the other team’s total by less than 2 runs compared with the average fielder. (Fielding is used synonymously with ability to catch here, ground fielding is ignored.)

That ‘2 runs’ seems quite a bit less than the figure I came up with through my rudimentary reasoning. But if you factor in the authors’ arguments that:

a)      most catches and run-outs in ODIs occur near the end of matches where they do not have much impact, and
b)      that they split the credit for a dismissal between the bowler and the fielder, and
c)      that their result is not the difference between the best and worst case scenario,
then their numbers are probably more comparable to my reasoning. (In any case I would go with their reasoning since they have thought through the effects a lot more.)
I am still not sure I agree though with their suggestion that the role of catching might be greater in Test cricket than in ODIs. I would agree that a fielder that is one standard deviation above average would probably restrict the other team’s total by more than the 2 runs compared with the average fielder that they restrict it in ODIs. But as noted above, given the larger margins in Test cricket, this may not necessarily translate into a higher effect on the probability of winning.
So catches don’t usually win matches. All of the above though will never take away from the magic of this moment.

Tuesday, August 5, 2014

On ‘Lost For Words’ and Taking Aim At Awards

Edward St Aubyn’s ‘Lost For Words’ is a satiric novel about the judging process for the Elysian Prize, a fictitious literature award that is not that dissimilar to the Booker. In it, publishers, authors, and even judges all look to push particular books into consideration for the prize, with their reasons only sometimes having to do with literary merit. One contender is ‘wot u starin at’, an Irvine Welsh-like piece of ‘gritty social realism’. Another is ‘The Palace Cookbook’, a book of recipes that was entered by mistake, and which is seen by some as a new form of postmodern multimedia, and by others as, well … a cookbook. Shifting alliances between the prize’s judges affect the Long List, the Short List, and ultimately the winner, essentially portraying the whole of the literary award process as a bit of a farce. (And yes, the novel has ending up winning an award itself: the Wodehouse prize for comic fiction.)

For the most part I am sympathetic to this message. Arts and entertainment awards often are little more than an excuse for back-slapping, and in some cases they are in large part just a reflection of what has sold well. Prime example: the Grammys, which as the Simpsons told us, is possibly the most irrelevant of them all. For the most part though the Grammys can be written off as relatively ineffectual; this is less true for literary awards, which are very important for getting books on audiences’ radars. Winning a major award can translate into a large boost in sales (even if apparently, as a study shows, it also leads to more negative reviews).

My theory, largely unproven I guess, is that people face greater constrains when choosing books than they do when choosing, say, albums or movies. One can get through plenty of albums or movies in a year and can afford to waste their time on a few duds, whereas they have to be more confident with books that they are choosing something of quality. Plus books are less hyped and advertised, and so the short lists of awards may very well be people’s best source of information on what ‘new and notable’ books have been released that year.

The temptation is to just dismiss the results of awards, and see ‘general judgment’ as being more pure – for example, the Stooges, the Smiths, or the Pixies never had to win awards for their music to be perceived as ‘classic’. But that conclusion may be a little too comfortable; maybe –  and maybe this could in part be the message of St Aubyn’s book – even ‘general judgment’ involves some type of politicking. Regardless of whether there are black ties and a big, shiny pyramid on offer at the end, careers can have their ebbs and flows depending on the tedious office politics of the time, without the person really doing anything different. Ultimately, we are all pushing our preferences, whether it is through our book recommendations, our conversations about movies, or our Wooden Finger Fives. Which does not mean that those stupid, back-slapping awards do not deserve a good bullocking now and then …

Sunday, August 3, 2014

AFL Power Rankings: Round 19 2014


The Brisbane Lions have taken a hammering so far in 2014, which followed a tough off-season, but they have turned things around a bit over the past five weeks. A four goal away win this weekend - even against Melbourne - got them a ranking point, which came off the back of getting a few ranking points against Gold Coast last weekend. This marks the first time in over a year that the Lions have had back-to-back ‘plus’ results. It may only have moved them up to fifteenth on the rankings, but after falling below GWS five weeks back it is a definite improvement.


Adelaide has followed up having its virtues extolled here last week by losing at home by five goals to the West Coast Eagles. This puts them back in sixth on the rankings, although more crucial for their actual premiership aspirations is that it knocks them out of the eight on the premiership ladder as well.


After the top two teams no-one seems to be able to be more than just ‘good’. Just a goal and a half per game separates third placed Fremantle from eighth placed Essendon. The Dockers, who just got over the line against Carlton on the weekend, are the ‘weakest’ third placed team since Hawthorn in the early stages of 2011.