Sunday, June 28, 2015

AFL Power Rankings: Round 13 2015

The difference in points is so tight in the middle of the rankings that North Melbourne drops a couple of spots even though it did not play this week. The Kangaroos’ slight fall in points is mainly a result of one of their recent opponents, Sydney, not being rated as highly this week after its loss at home to Richmond. Meanwhile Collingwood moves up a few spots after a good performance in Perth against Fremantle, giving the Magpies the highest total gain of any team this season. The five teams ranked from sixth to tenth – Port Adelaide, Collingwood, North Melbourne, Geelong, and Adelaide – are separated by less than two ranking points, or less than a tenth of a point per game over the course of a season.

Richmond consolidates fifth position with the highest gain of any team over the past five weeks, playing into my fear that fifth will be the new ninth for the Tigers. That is, in the same way that Richmond just missed out on the final eight several times over the past twenty years I fear that it will start a run of just missing out on the top four, as it already did in 2013. Honestly though, given that the Tigers started off the season 2-4 - coupled with them not playing many finals in the past thirty years - I would still be pretty pleased if they could just make the bottom four of the top eight for a third straight year.

Tuesday, June 23, 2015

The Greatest VFL/AFL Dynasty

Recently I mused on this blog about where the current Geelong team ranked among the great VFL/AFL dynasties. This was in part inspired by a recent Fivethirtyeight article about the greatest of the NBA dynasties, which in the author’s view was Tim Duncan’s Spurs. This choice was based on the Spurs remaining well above average for 17 years … and counting.

In my earlier blog post I said that if the strength of a dynasty is determined by how long and how far a team is above a particular benchmark then I could think of at least four ‘dynasties’ in VFL/AFL history that may be considered the competition’s greatest. However, when I went back and looked at the great eras in more detail, one of those eras, in my view, stood well above the rest.

First, my two ‘runner-up dynasties’:
·         Melbourne 1954-1964: The Demons won 75 per cent of their matches, won six premierships, contested eight Grand Finals, and won seven minor premierships.
·         Hawthorn 1982-1994: The Hawks won 72 per cent of their matches, won five premierships, contested eight Grand Finals, and won three minor premierships.
As good as these eras were though I don’t think they compare with the Collingwood team of 1925-1939. The Magpies won about 75 per cent of their matches over a fifteen-year period. They won six premierships, five minor premierships, and contested an amazing 11 Grand Finals. Their winning percentage was boosted a bit by the addition of three new teams in 1925 that were poor for much of that time, but it is still a great achievement to get to the pointy end of the season that many times. A lot of football followers know about the famous four premierships in a row from 1927 to 1930. Fewer may remember that Collingwood also won the 1935 and 1936 flags, and were runners-up from 1937 to 1939.

Even more astonishingly the Magpies did not have a losing season from the VFL’s inception in 1897 up until 1940! The legendary Jock McHale coached them for all six of those flags in the 1920s and 1930s, plus another in 1919, and was at the helm for nearly four decades. Adding to their dynastic credentials is that four of their best players were two sets of brothers, the Colliers (Albert and Harry), and the Coventrys (Gordon and Syd). Now that’s a dynasty. The current Geelong team needs to be contending right up to 2020 for it to match an era like that.

Sunday, June 21, 2015

AFL Power Rankings: Round 12 2015

Just as I was talking about Geelong’s dynasty, the Cats go and lose to Melbourne at home, which is a bit of a blow to both their finals chances and their ranking. Perhaps the Cats contracted a similar jinx to what Greater Western Sydney did after I started highlighting their improvement a few weeks back. Meanwhile North Melbourne moves up four spots to sixth after its big win over the Giants, which despite GWS taking a backward step in the past few weeks, still means a lot more than it used to. Finally Port Adelaide does not fall further this week in terms of ranking spots, but it is not looking great for the Power, who have lost to both Carlton and Brisbane in the past five weeks.

Saturday, June 20, 2015

Reflecting on the Career of Chris Judd

This month Carlton player, and former West Coast player, Chris Judd retired from AFL after sustaining a serious injury. For me though the version of Chris Judd I will most remember finished up about eight years ago. That was the younger version, still with hair, that played with the West Coast Eagles from 2002 to 2007. From his first year Judd was an explosive midfielder that seemed like he was a good few inches taller than the opponents he was sprinting away from.

He won a Brownlow Medal in 2004, captained the Eagles in their premiership win in 2005, and was the consensus best player in the game in 2006. Then Gary Ablett Jr. took over at the best player from 2007 up until last year, and Judd was never really on top again, despite another Brownlow win in 2010. Injuries started to hit Judd before he left the Eagles at the end of 2007. While he certainly was valuable for the Blues in his time there, he was too hobbled to be seen as invincible.

But the 2004-2007 version of Chris Judd was one of the best players I have ever seen, and would be worthy of a spot in an all-time AFL team (even if I have said before I would probably leave him out). I rate him below Ablett and slightly below Michael Voss, but ahead of Nathan Buckley and James Hird. Pretty much everyone liked and admired that version of Judd. It was harder for Victorians at least to like him once he joined the Blues, who despite their recent lack of success are still one of the more disliked teams.

And which team won that Judd/Josh Kennedy-No. 3 draft pick trade? At the time I said I expected the Eagles had gotten the better deal, given that Kennedy’s progress to that time suggested he would be a valuable forward for years to come. Turns out I was about right on Judd playing another eight years, although he played a few less games in that time than I expected. I was also pretty much right about the value of Kennedy and the No. 3 draft pick, which ended up being Chris Masten. Still, even if the Eagles did win the trade I doubt too many Carlton officials wish they could have a do-over on it.

Thursday, June 18, 2015

State of Origin Crowds at the MCG

Last night, I attended the New South Wales v Queensland State of Origin match at the Melbourne Cricket Ground. Over 90,000 people were there - a new State of Origin record. It was a pretty good match as well, with NSW winning 26-18 to level the series, although it would have been more interesting if Queensland star Greg Inglis' try in the second half had not been disallowed.

What I wanted to write about was the experience of the crowd, which on reflection seemed to me somewhat uncommon, for these reasons:

- State of Origin matches are usually played in either NSW or Queensland, and so the crowd is usually heavily weighted one way or the other. It is only at the Melbourne matches that the support is roughly even. This 'bi-partisan' support made it more like an Australian Football League finals match, except...
-The supporters were divided into distinct 'blue' and 'maroon' zones. AFL matches have their zones, but not as clearly marked as this was. I guess at AFL matches it's not uncommon to go to a big match with a relative or friend who barracks for the opposite team, so you can't be too vicious towards a person you are travelling home with. That was probably less the case here, which brings me to my next point ...
-The two supporter bases really do dislike each other. I don't think I've seen AFL supporter bases, as tribal as they are, be that acrimonious towards each other. Nor cricket supporters, which are typically the only sports I see big matches for at the MCG.

What is equivalent? Events like the FA Cup, and the Super Bowl probably have similar crowds and roughly equal support, but my impression is that they have many attendees who are not heavily invested in the result either way. I suppose there were many Victorians there last night who weren't too worried, though support amongst Victorians did seem to lean towards Queensland, but it certainly didn't feel like an exhibition match. It was certainly different to the mostly one-way support I experience at Melbourne Storm matches. At the risk of sounding like I'm spouting a cliché, there actually is really nothing quite like an Origin match... 

Sunday, June 14, 2015

AFL Power Rankings: Round 11 2015

Pundits have been proclaiming the end of the ‘Cat Empire’ since at least 2010, and after it got well done by Hawthorn in the first round I thought this year may be the end of Geelong’s time amongst the top half of teams. Maybe it still will be but for now Geelong sits fifth on the rankings, after a bunch of decent performances in recent weeks, including a win against Port Adelaide away, and wins against Essendon and Carlton that were big enough to bring heightened media scrutiny upon the performances of both those clubs.

The Cats are still a fair way from the top four according to these rankings, and on that basis one may say that their dynasty has reached its end. But according to at least one definition of ‘dynasty’, it is probably still going. Fivethirtyeight recently rated the best National Basketball Association dynasties, and defined the strength of a dynasty as how far and how long a team remained above average.

It would be interesting to see which has been the most successful VFL/AFL dynasty on that basis. My guess would be that it would be one of either the 1920s/30s Collingwood, 1950s/60s Melbourne, or 1980s/90s Hawthorn sides, or the current Cats era. Unfortunately I don’t have a long-term ratings system to assess this (although somewhere like the Footy Maths Institute does – how about it, Footy Maths?) I could rate it based on win-loss records and percentages though. Since once I get an idea like this I am usually interested to see the outcome I may well post something on this in the next few weeks.


Monday, June 8, 2015

AFL Power Rankings: Round 10 2015

Ah, the final mid-season AFL round of full matches … that is, the final round before many SuperCoach teams are thrown into chaos, and it takes a frustratingly long time to update my rankings spread sheet because every third team is not playing.

I particular enjoyed this final mid-season AFL round, as my Tigers continued their good form, becoming the ‘hottest’ team of the past few weeks. Richmond is now in the top six of the rankings, whereas about five rounds ago I would have thought it more likely it would be in the bottom six. The Tigers have played so well interstate against Fremantle this week and Port Adelaide a few weeks ago that perhaps rather than adding 12 points to their net margin when they play interstate I should subtract 12 points instead.

Sunday, June 7, 2015

At The End of Everything, A Reflection On The Avengers’ Incursion Storyline

Comics writer Jonathan Hickman likes to think big. On his arrival on the ‘Avengers’ title he announced that he had a three-year plan for the book. In his first issue he expanded the membership of the main team to a whopping 18 characters. And his ‘big story’ for the title can’t really have been any bigger, dealing with nothing less than the destruction of thousands of parallel Earths and essentially the entire Marvel multiverse.

This ‘big story’ could be called the ‘Incursion Storyline’, or perhaps ‘Incursion Saga’ given saga is the more popular term for comic book epics. What is an incursion? I’m still not entirely sure, but rest assured it is A Bad Thing – doesn’t it sound like A Bad Thing?  Helpfully this site explained to me that specifically it is two universes dying as a result of their two Earths colliding together. This threat has mostly reared its head in Hickman’s ‘New Avengers’ book, but it has touched his other ‘Avengers’ book as well, along with two Marvel company-wide crossovers.

How successful has it been? To my mind Hickman’s ‘Avengers’ title started off very well, re-instating the Avengers as a global force to be reckoned with after previous writer Brian Michael Bendis had reduced them to a bunch of people in costumes hanging out in a room. (This is Bendis’ strength by the way, but it did make it seem like less of an ‘Avengers’ book.) From there, as I’ve said before, Hickman’s run faltered a bit after that, getting lost a bit in studies of his new team members, which would be fine if they were more interesting characters. (Captain Universe is impressive, Smasher is OK, Hyperion is a bore.) The title has picked up a bit since it started to fold into what was going on in the ‘New Avengers’ title – the story with Captain America jumping forward to future eras was particularly good – meaning that Hickman’s run should, in the end, leave a somewhat satisfying impression on readers.

‘New Avengers’, for all its multiverse-threatening drama, has seemed a smaller-scale title, focusing on the half dozen or so characters that make up Marvel’s Illuminati. Its hook has been that it has dealt with brilliant, somewhat detached minds making life-and-death decisions about which universes to save, and which they have had to let go, or even actively destroy to save others. Indeed, of the thirty-odd issues of the title that is pretty much all I can remember about it, that it is destruction after destruction of Earth, and moral quandary after moral quandary. But it has treated characters like Namor and the Black Panther as the regal figures they are rather than just another couple of Avengers gathered in the background. It has also included the Black Swan, one of the better characters to be introduced in the Avengers titles in recent years. 

The Marvel event ‘Infinity’ also spun out of Jonathan Hickman’s grand Avengers plan. ‘Infinity’ to me was well-written, but it was also a bit ‘soulless’, a charge levelled by one reviewer at Hickman’s writing in general. ‘New Avengers’ is a little soulless, though given the dispassionate natures of the characters involved, that is part of the point. But Hickman has shown in other series like his ‘The Manhattan Projects’ and ‘East of West’ that he can add in some emotive moments (think of the parting of Yuri and Laika in the former series) even among the abhorrent figures he portrays. There wasn’t exactly a ‘death of Supergirl’ moment though.

Which brings us to ‘Secret Wars’ – the end of the ‘Incursion Storyline’, if not the Marvel Universe as we know it. After a somewhat dull first issue, the subsequent issues, set on Doctor Doom’s new ‘Battleworld’ have been rather enjoyable, even if they represent just another Marvel alternative reality ‘characters-in-different-roles’ storyline. At least after three years of what has seemed like slow progress at times the Incursion threat will reach its final resolution. On the whole the 'Incursion Storyline' has been a thoughtful, well-written, well-plotted story; I just wish I could remember more of it.

Saturday, June 6, 2015

Book Reviews: When To Rob A Bank – Steven Levitt and Stephen Dubner, Misbehaving – Richard Thaler

‘When To Rob A Bank’ is not, as some may have hoped, the fourth book of new ‘Freakonomics’ material from the writing team of economist Steven Levitt and journalist Stephen Dubner, but a collection of posts from their ‘Freakonomics’ blog. The good news is that, unless you’ve been following almost every post they’ve done, you’ll still find something new here. Levitt and Dubner’s subjects are as esoteric as ever: amongst other things Levitt argues why it is not in Pepsi’s interest to steal Coke’s formula, while Dubner rages war (perhaps quite rightly) on the penny. Some questions are left unanswered: Levitt can’t quite work out the reasons for a chicken shop’s rather unusual, and seemingly partly irrational, pricing strategy. Situations like that were slightly frustrating to me after the earlier ‘Freakonomics’ books, which ultimately always offered a (sometimes surprising) solution to their mysteries. Perhaps some of these mysteries were solved in the comments to the blog posts; alas for some these are completely absent from this collection.

Levitt and Dubner are always entertaining, but Richard Thaler’s recent ‘Misbehaving’ may be the better economics book. It doubles as both Thaler’s professional biography and a history of the emergence of the field of behavioural economics. Like Billy Beane in ‘Moneyball’ Thaler has encountered a fair amount of opposition along the way from those committed to the ‘old’ way of doing things – in this case, the economic ‘rationalists’ – which adds a trace of intriguing conflict to his story.

Daniel Kahneman’s ‘Thinking, Fast And Slow’ and Thaler’s own ‘Nudge’ (with Cass Sunstein) have already covered many of the concepts included in this book – in short, humans take short-cuts, particularly when decisions are difficult and made infrequently. But whereas Kahneman’s was a psychology book, and ‘Nudge’ was more a policy-oriented book, ‘Misbehaving’ is very much an economics and finance book. Since I’ve studied both economics and finance this type of focus was right up my alley, but I wonder how it will play to the less-economically inclined casual reader. (Even I skipped over the chapter on superannuation funds.) Hopefully though anyone with even a passing interest in economics will stick with this book, as it lays out what is likely to be the new mainstream for the discipline over the next twenty or thirty years.

The Wooden Finger Five – June 2015

5. Just Like Blood – Sharon Van Etten

‘Just Like Blood’ comes not from an upcoming album from Sharon Van Etten, but her ‘I Don’t Want To Let You Down’ EP, as the second track. This and the title track are both of the same level of quality as the best tracks on her last two LPs. Sharon Van Etten is one of those artists that I feel like if she didn’t exist we would have to invent her. Every generation needs a Sharon Van Etten. Mine was probably Cat Power, or before that Fiona Apple or Tori Amos. Maybe Aimee Mann too but I was never really into her. Anyway the point is you can always rely on Sharon Van Etten to produce some good, solid tunes.

4. Caught – Florence & The Machine

Any musings Florence had about changing her sound for her third album must have been quickly dismissed. Advance releases ‘What Kind Of Man’, ‘Delilah’, and ‘Ship To Wreck’ are as bombastic as anything on ‘Ceremonials’. Once again though possibly my favourite track is one that is kind of hidden among the roof-raisers: like ‘Breaking Down’ on ‘Ceremonials’ and ‘Hurricane Drunk’ on ‘Lungs’ the one that I am fond of is a nice song called ‘Caught’, which is a bit dialled down from the songs around it. Florence’s ‘ooh-ah-ooh-ah-ooooh’ would work well sitting in a small club in a hotel around 11pm, aperitif in hand, which is probably some way down from her ambitions, but is the mark of a good singer nonetheless.

3. Reapers – Muse

Muse must know how ridiculous they are, right? Like the prog-rock gods of the ‘70s I am sure I can hear moments in their music when they are parodying themselves, and making sounds that no rock band completely concerned with cool would ever make. The chorus of ‘Reapers’ is an example of this, as is the interlude. They are also two of the best parts of Muse’s new album, which is an hour-long concept album about drone warfare, naturally.

2. Hotel California – Swim Deep

When can we say that a tribute song measures up to the song it is referencing? Having heard the Eagles’ original ‘Hotel California’ about forty squillion times Swim Deep’s tribute (‘I was drunk, singing ‘Hotel California’) feels considerably fresher to me than that worn-out classic.  Amazingly it is ‘just’ a B-side, but of my first dabbles into the music of Swim Deep this is the song that has stayed swirling around my head.

1. Regret – Everything Everything

New Order worked out thirty years ago that nothing fuels an indie-pop song like the subject of regret.  Now Everything Everything have worked out how to make the kids mope and dance with their question/chorus of ‘Did you imagine it/In a different way?’ That tilt into the chorus is so dreamy that it covers up that I actually find the repeated chant throughout the verses of ‘Regret! Regret!’ semi-annoying. This is almost as good as their ‘Duet’ song.

Tuesday, June 2, 2015

Australia’s Annual Wage Review 2015: Low Wages In A Low Inflation Economy

For 2015 the Fair Work Commission has decided to increase Australia’s minimum wages by 2.5 per cent. This is the lowest annual increase in minimum wages since no increase was given in 2009. The Australian Council of Trade Unions’ Secretary, Dave Oliver, said that the decision would widen the gap between the minimum wage and average wages.

It does at first glance look like a low increase. In justifying the level of the increase the Fair Work Commission note that the most significant developments since 2014 have been the reduction in inflation and low aggregate wages growth. Consumer price inflation over the year to the March quarter 2015 has been 1.3 per cent. Underlying consumer price inflation – which better measures the ‘trend’ increase in prices – is somewhat higher, at a bit below 2½ per cent. Even so the 2.5 per cent increase in minimum wages looks enough to cover, on average, the increases in prices faced by low-paid workers.

Nor do the ACTU’s fears about minimum wages lagging further behind average wages seem to hold. The Wage Price Index increased by a very low 2.3 per cent over the year to the March quarter 2015, while the more volatile average weekly (ordinary time) earnings for full-time employees measure increased by 2.8 per cent over 2014. An increase of 2.5 per cent, while slightly lower than the latter measure, is not that far off, and allowed the Commission to give a ‘round’ increase of $16 per week to the standard minimum wage.

Given that minimum wages are only adjusted once a year, there is some uncertainty about whether the Commission should consider changes in prices and wages over the past year or over the next year. Oliver’s point may be stronger if inflation and wage growth are forecast to be higher in 2015-16. According to the most recent Budget papers though, the Australian Treasury forecasts inflation and the increase in the Wage Price Index to be 2½ per cent in 2015-16. Hence, looking forward does not substantially strengthen the ACTU argument. The Fair Work Commission itself prefers actual data to forecasts [para. 9 of the Decision].

Low inflation and wage growth aside, an argument could be made for a higher increase in wages for low-paid employees if their incomes and living standards were lagging behind the rest of society, and/or they were experiencing particularly acute financial stress. None of those things look to be particularly the case [paras. 404-417]. Therefore, while at first glance the Commission’s increase this year looks to be somewhat miserly, on closer inspection it seems broadly consistent with what is going on in the rest of a rather weak Australian economy.

Monday, June 1, 2015

AFL Power Rankings: Round 9 2015

The rankings show the same segmentation of teams as last week, with four very good teams, a bunch of teams in the middle, and five very bad teams. Most of the movement this week was at the middle and bottom.

The middle part looks pretty interesting. Admittedly few will likely be too invested in terms of where the middle teams eventually end up on the rankings here.  However the closeness of the teams in the middle suggests that there may be a close race for the bottom two or three spots in the final eight. Over the past few weeks the ‘middle class’ has produced a few thrilling games, including Richmond v Collingwood, Essendon v North Melbourne, Richmond v Essendon, and Collingwood v North Melbourne. If this recent trend continues Essendon v Geelong this week could be another close-run affair.

The bottom part is kind of interesting as well, in a slightly morbid way. The two bottom teams as of this week are the two Queensland teams; Brisbane re-takes the last spot after its loss at home to fellow cellar-dweller St. Kilda, while Gold Coast sits in the second last spot. The swing in form towards the non-Victorian teams in recent weeks has certainly not spread to the Sunshine State.