Monday, April 25, 2016

AFL Power Rankings: Round 5 2016

Hawthorn just escaped with a win again – their third win by three points on the trot. These rankings are built on the assumption that net margin is what matters, not whether you win or lose. This is based on evidence that the best teams in sports have big wins; teams that are regularly just sneaking home are riding their luck.
Back in 2012 Hawthorn stood at 4 wins and 3 losses after seven matches, and were ninth on the ladder. But these rankings had them first, because they had been beating opponents by a lot when they won, and two out of their three losses had been narrow defeats against good teams. The Hawks were on pace for 46 ranking points – the mark of a very good club – based on their form in their first seven matches, which is pretty close to where they ended up, with 17 wins to boot.
Over the first five rounds of 2016 the Hawks are on pace for just 17 ranking points. That will probably get you into the finals, and may even get you into the top four if there are few standout clubs, but it is well below the Hawks’ high level of performance over the past few years. Their only great, ‘peak-Hawthorn’ performance for the year to date has been their comfortable win against last year’s runners-up West Coast. Hawthorn have also narrowly beaten other good clubs in Footscray and Adelaide, although the latter win does not look as good once home ground advantage is taken into account. But they were well beaten by Geelong, and barely got home against St. Kilda. Which is why they are the subject of tweets like these.
Injuries, such as Jarryd Roughead’s, are having some effect, and even the best teams have dips in form. But the Hawks are also old now. It may be that they are entering the inevitable decline that faces every successful club. Which may mean that I will finally get to see someone else win at the Grand Final this year.
According to the rankings Hawthorn, West Coast, Adelaide – who I didn’t pick to make the finals – and Sydney, are all very close as the league’s top four clubs (sorry Dogs and Roos). But the Crows and the Swans are playing quite a bit better than the Hawks and the Eagles at the moment, with last year’s Grand Finalists remaining at the top in large part due to last season’s form. Adelaide, in particular, have only had two very narrow losses in Melbourne to the Hawks and the Roos. Shades of the 2012 Hawks? Let’s see how they’re travelling in a few weeks time.

Sunday, April 24, 2016

The Wooden Finger Five – April 2016

5.The Life of Pablo: album – Kanye West
Kanye West’s ‘The Life of Pablo’ – which I’ve only recently heard because it has just appeared on Spotify – is a little problematic to me. First let me say pretty much any Kanye album is, for me, more interesting than a lot of the music out there. But there seems to be too many times where he talks about having sex with other women, which apart from probably not being the best thing for his wife to hear, often comes across as unsavoury. Worst example that comes to mind, which is on ‘Famous’: ‘I feel like me and Taylor might still have sex’. I’m sure Taylor Swift would love hearing that.
I suppose West did the same thing on ‘My Beautiful Dark Twisted Fantasy’ and I loved it, but back then his holding up his ‘assholeness’ for inspection was newer and done with more creativity and humour. But anyway, as I said, it’s still Kanye and it’s still worth a listen. The production is always good at least.
Has it really been eight years since the Last Shadow Puppets released their first album? Lead Puppets Alex Turner and Miles Kane were only 21 when it was released. Since then I’ve gotten married, got promoted, bought a house, left my job, found another job, left that job too, found another job, had a kid, enjoyed a Miles Kane single, and saw that the Last Shadow Puppets had returned. And they seem pretty much the same. Except that ‘Bad Habits’ is probably the snotty flipside to the luscious ‘60s sound they had on their first album, which may be why it stands out for me.
I didn’t include this track on ‘the Five’ a month or so back when it was first released, but it’s grown on me since then. It’s a pretty standard Yeasayer single, but that’s generally a good thing – poppy, colourful, futuristic, and with every instrument plus the kitchen sink in it.
One line can’t help but stand out: ‘She only needs my help pleasuring herself beneath the rue leaves’. If that is really as straightforward as it sounds it’s the type of direct, lewd reference that I wouldn’t have expected Yeasayer to make. Which probably means that it isn’t saying what I think. Unless Yeasayer are counting on me to think that. I don’t know, I can rarely work out what they’re saying
M83 seems devoted to recapturing the snippets of radio that our generation sleepily heard in the 1980s – the ‘hypnagogic’ as Simon Reynolds called it – which spirited us away to another, higher place: think ‘Together in Electric Dreams’ here. ‘Kim & Jessie’ did it well. ‘Midnight City’ did it best. ‘Solitude’ is good at it as well. That lovely, high-voiced chorus of ‘No-o-o-o-o-oh’ appeals to the tired little five-year-old in me.
1.The Hope Six Demolition Project: album – PJ Harvey
Reactions to ‘The Hope Six Demolition Project’, PJ Harvey’s latest album and venture, have been generally favourable, though sometimes in a qualified way. Unlike the universally acclaimed ‘Let England Shake’, its musical and thematic predecessor, it’s not totally clear what the purpose of the album is. It seems to be observing shitty situations from around the world, but the album’s critics have noted that Harvey’s approach can sometimes come off as thoughtless and exploitative. For example, the opening track ‘The Community of Hope’ calls a poor, D.C. neighbourhood’s school ‘a shithole’, and its drugged-out citizens ‘zombies’. I don’t think Harvey is being as uncharitable as some have suggested, but compared to the considerate, well-crafted lyrics of ‘Let England Shake’ they do seem a little flawed at least.
‘The Community of Hope’ though is actually one of my favourite tracks on the album, and that is because musically it’s great. Even better is the next track ‘The Ministry of Defense’, in which Harvey’s all-male backing chorus from ‘Let England … ’ return to echo her revulsion. And ‘The Wheel’ I raved about here a couple of months back. ‘Let England Shake’ is probably the better achievement, but I think I actually like this album more because of the way it rocks along. Which once again shows that the most important thing to me is not what a song says, but that it has a good tune.

Sunday, April 17, 2016

AFL Power Rankings: Round 4 2016

While sitting at a Grand Final, back when I was much younger, I made a bet with my uncle that the hapless Brisbane Bears would not make the finals for their first 30 years. My uncle wisely took the other side of the bet. I was thinking back to Hawthorn and North Melbourne, and how they each took 25-30 years to make the finals after they entered the league.
That Grand Final was the 1994 Grand Final, and the Brisbane Bears made the finals next year. (Although just barely …) Luckily, my uncle never made me pay up.
The Gold Coast Suns are in their sixth season, and Greater Western Sydney are in their fifth. On early season form both look like some chance to make their first finals series. In reality, long droughts such as Hawthorn’s and North Melbourne’s are the exception rather than the rule. Footscray took 14 seasons. Richmond took 12 seasons, if you ignore the four-team competition in 1916. Fremantle took nine seasons. Port Adelaide only took five seasons to make the finals. Adelaide took three seasons, and West Coast took two. (And none of those latter teams finished seventh or eighth when they first got in; that is, it wasn’t really the expanded number of finals places that got them across the line.)
Gold Coast and Greater Western Sydney will probably make the finals soon, if not this year, then within the next few. It is, no matter how bad your team is, difficult to reach Hawthorn’s initial level of ineptitude. (Remember when Hawthorn were inept? Of course you don’t.)
For the first time since Round 3 last season we have a change in the number one ranking this week. West Coast take the top spot after their big win against Richmond, while Hawthorn barely beat St. Kilda. With Adelaide and Sydney not far behind, the rankings suggest we could be in for a close premiership race this season. At the least, between these four clubs, we could be in for some good matches next week.

Friday, April 15, 2016

The Finger Points Outwards - No. 122

HOCKEY: Animal Collective’s Geologist writes for on the New York Rangers-New York Islanders rivalry. [Sports Illustrated]
BASKETBALL: Kobe Bryant’s retirement, if done through ‘Game of Thrones’. [Bleacher Report]
COMIC BOOKS: A soppy comic on the little things that make up a relationship. [Upworthy]
ECONOMICS/MINIMUM WAGES: A mall divided: what happens when there are different minimum wages for different sides of a mall? [Planet Money]
ECONOMICS/SOCIAL POLICY: Should there be a guaranteed basic income, and what is the evidence for whether it works? [Freakonomics]

Wednesday, April 13, 2016

The ’95-96 Chicago Bulls v the Golden State Warriors

For me it’s the Bulls. Which is hard for me to say because I never liked the Bulls, and I love this year’s Warriors team.
When we’re talking about a Bulls team that won 72 out of 82 regular season games, and a Warriors team that will win either 72 or 73 games, we’re talking about teams of roughly the same level of ability and achievement. Despite what former Bulls’ Scottie Pippen and Horace Grant say, either team could win a hypothetical seven-game series.
The Bulls have the slightly higher point differential; +12 more points per game than their opposition, compared to the Warriors’ +11. The Bulls’ point differential is more impressive when you factor in that less points per game were scored in 1995-96.
But what underlies that differential? I don’t buy the argument that the Bulls were better simply because they had Michael Jordan. Stephen Curry this year has been pretty much as good as Jordan ever was. His shooting is considerably better than Jordan was in his ’95-96 season, with a true shooting percentage of .67, compared to .58 for Jordan. His rebounds per game are slightly lower, but his assists per game are higher. Jordan’s defense is generally considered as better; he did win Defensive Player of the Year once, whereas Curry has never generally been considered as a candidate for that award. In sum, Curry shot better and Jordan probably made his opponents shoot worse, but overall Curry’s 2015-16 season could be considered about as good as Jordan’s 1995-96 season.
Where the Bulls have the edge for me is Scottie Pippen and Dennis Rodman. The Warriors’ Draymond Green is a fantastic all-around player, but Pippen I think surpasses him because his shooting efficiency was better. And there was never a better rebounder in the NBA than Dennis Rodman. Curry's fellow guard Klay Thompson is a great shooter, but Rodman’s value is to me significantly more. Which again hurts to say because I never liked Rodman on the Bulls.
The Warriors do have more depth. Outside of Curry, Green, and Thompson, the Warriors have several productive players in Andre Iguodala, Andrew Bogut, Shaun Livingston, Festus Ezeli, Brandon Rush, and Harrison Barnes depending on which metric you use. For the Bulls, outside of Jordan, Pippen, and Rodman there was Toni Kukoc, Ron Harper, and Steve Kerr, and that was about it.
But that higher point differential, and the Pippen-Rodman combination, still tips it towards the Bulls for me. I do love the current Warriors though, and I hope they break the Bulls’ record tomorrow night. Jordan still has enough records anyway.

Tuesday, April 12, 2016

‘A Journalist Comes To Wakanda’: Black Panther #1

Black Panther’ #1 sees the long-awaited comics debut of writer Ta-Nehisi Coates. Coates regularly writes for ‘The Atlantic’, has worked as a journalist for several publications, and won the National Book Award for Nonfiction for his most recent book, ‘Between The World And Me’. That book, which expresses Coates’ anger at the past and present treatment of black people in the US, is my only exposure to date of his writing.
Given the heavy theme of race in that book, and the Black Panther’s skin colour and fictional history, had half an expectation that Coates’ first issue of ‘Black Panther’ would be in a similar vein. The Panther was the first black superhero in comics, which has made him a sort of figurehead for dealing with issues of race, as he was during his early ‘Avengers’ appearances. Of course, that aside, there is no real reason why Coates’ ‘Black Panther’ should recall the themes of ‘Between The World And Me’: if nothing else that was a book that was distinctly about the experience of African-Americans, whereas the Black Panther character is African, not American at all.
Instead ‘Black Panther’ #1 does feel more African than American, both in setting and politically, dealing with the Panther’s business of trying to rule his country while rebel groups look to overthrow him. T’Challa has been the subject of these types of stories before, dating back to Don McGregor’s ‘Panther’s Rage’ epic in the 1970s. But Coates’ story has some more modern elements. For example, while a relatively progressive writer like McGregor may have been able to include a group like the Dora Milaje, who are the Panther’s all-female bodyguards, in a ‘70s Marvel comic, it is hard to imagine that he would have gotten away with developing a close and intimate relationship between two of its members. (Christopher Priest, who created the Dora Milaje in the late-‘90s, may have had more of a chance.)

But in other ways the setting is not quite like Africa either. The Panther’s fictional land of Wakanda, as we are told on the introduction page, is the (Marvel) world’s most technologically advanced nation. Its citizens walk the streets holding advanced gadgets, and presumably enjoy a pretty high standard of living, which seems hardly reflective of the poorest continent on Earth.
Reviews of this book have generally been quite positive. Coates and artist Brian Stelfreeze both note in their text pieces at the end that it is Coates’ first comic ever. Writers from other mediums, such as Kevin Smith, Joss Whedon, and J. Michael Straczynski, have in the past, been fairly successful with little comics writing experience, showing that some people can succeed in the medium just by being a good writer overall. Coates’ transition though is even a bit different to that, in that I don’t think he even has much experience as a fiction or genre writer. But he is according to his text piece a comics reader, and therefore is probably, like those other authors, pretty familiar with how comics work. Anyway, it’s not like his ‘rawness’ in the comics field shows at all, at least not for me, so it doesn’t seem like it will be a barrier.
I was listening to the guys on the iFanboy Pick of the Week podcast, and they were a bit more reserved in their praise, although they said that they would definitely keep reading. Their main problem was that it felt like you were thrown into the middle of a story, and it was hard to work out who the characters were, even for readers familiar with the Panther character. They suggested this could be a bit confusing and daunting for readers, particularly the new readers that Marvel hopes to attract.
It will be interesting to see what kind of audience this book gets. The comics world often hopes that bringing in well-known writers from other mediums will mean that their usual audiences come with them. I suspect that there won’t actually be a huge flood of ‘The Atlantic’ readers picking up ‘Black Panther’ (although I’m not sure that there even is a huge flood of ‘Atlantic’ readers). But at the least it feels like a distinct offering in a field where often the major titles seem largely indistinguishable. I’m pretty sure I’ll follow all 11 issues of Coates’ run. Quality of story aside, it’s the type of expansion in scope that I want to see Marvel do more of, and hopefully it’s enough of a success to encourage them to keep looking beyond NYC’s borders.

Sunday, April 10, 2016

AFL Power Rankings: Round 3 2016

My Dad’s club the Bulldogs have not won a premiership in his lifetime. They are the only AFL club outside of Gold Coast and GWS not to make a Grand Final in my lifetime. But they don’t come to mind as having been particularly bad during the time I’ve been following football. Is their lack of premierships indicative of having been generally bad throughout their history, or more indicative of their not just being able to win the big finals?
First, historically they have been relatively bad compared with other clubs. The Bulldogs have won 45 per cent of their matches throughout their time in the VFL/AFL which, of the clubs that have been around more than ten years, is only better than North Melbourne and St. Kilda. (They’ve won closer to 50 per cent in the time I’ve been following football, which is likely why I feel they haven’t been too bad.) Still North Melbourne have won four premierships, several more than Footscray’s one. Melbourne have won 45 per cent of their matches too, and have managed to win 12 premierships. So there must be something to the Dogs not being able to win the big finals as well.
As you may have already known or guessed, unlike Melbourne, the Bulldogs have never really had any great sides. They’ve never won more than three-quarters of their matches in any season, which is the equivalent on having won no more than 16 matches in a 22-round season (which they did in 1985 and 1992). Melbourne have won more than three-quarters of their matches 12 times, including six times from 1955 to 1964. Brisbane, though they’ve never won the minor premiership, have done it twice. The Bulldogs have had some very good sides; they’ve just rarely been great.
The current Dogs side, by the rankings, also looks to be very good rather than great. But over their past ten matches, particularly over their past three, they have been great. Essentially they have been the equivalent of Hawthorn, which was neatly reflected by their coming close to beating the league’s best side on the weekend. Maybe then this is their best chance yet of finally bringing my Dad the premiership he’s kind of kept an eye out for.

Sunday, April 3, 2016

AFL Power Rankings: Round 2 2016

FootyMaths alerted me this week to a new thread on Reddit which collates the various AFL Power Rankings there are around the net. It includes my rankings, along with those of FootyMaths, Matter of Stats, Fox Sports, The Roar, Sportsfan, Footy Prophet, Squiggle, ASAP, and /u/ Statisticc. (I won’t include all the hyperlinks here – you can click on the Reddit page and follow through to the individual ranking systems from there.)
The comments were relatively fair, in that there weren’t too many of the ‘these rankings are stupid, so-and-so obviously knows nothing about football’ variety. One thing that I did note though was that there seemed to be a general feeling among commenters that early-season results, such as Geelong beating Hawthorn, should have a higher weight.
Is this the right view to take? I’ve dealt with this topic before as early season results seem to make a lie of my and other rankings. There are reasons to think that clubs do change more in ability between seasons than within seasons. Players get half a year older, their abilities have more time to improve or deteriorate, and there are important changes in playing lists. You wouldn’t dream of, for example, having a National Basketball Association rankings system that did not account for events like LeBron James moving back to Cleveland.
It occurred to me that I could test this by comparing how much my rankings changed at the start of the season with the middle of the season. I didn’t compare this against the end of the season in case some clubs partially throw in the towel once their finals hopes are gone. If a new year does bring big changes, then my thinking is that my rankings should have larger changes at the start of the season as they scurry to adapt to the new season’s order. More specifically I looked at the changes in ranking points across clubs from Rounds 1-6 for each year (from 2011) compared with changes from Rounds 8-14 (because of byes, these seven rounds typically cover only six matches for each club).
Are there bigger changes at the start of the season? Not really (this actually surprised me a little). I won’t put all my results here – the more mathematically-minded among you can probably go back and basically verify this for yourselves if you want – but the variation in changes don’t appear to be any larger on average at season’s start. Maybe this changes if you look at a longer period than five years, but at least it’s not clear to me yet that I should be attaching any special significance to the first few rounds’ results.
Big changes happen within seasons too. For example, last season Fremantle fell away in the second half of the season. If a new season had started in say, July, then perhaps more may have been made of the Dockers’ drop, instead of this only being focussed on now the new season has started. Fremantle’s fall really started in mid-2015, but fewer people noticed because it was the middle of the season and they were still sitting on top of the 2015 ladder. Another example, in the opposite direction, is Sydney picking up steam in the middle of 2014.
There is another way of looking at this question though, which may be more pleasing to those who hold that you should attach a lower weight to last season’s results. That is, I did find some evidence that there is a stronger relationship between changes in rankings points at different points within the same season than between seasons. For example, West Coast and the Bulldogs started well in 2015, and their ranking points kept on improving throughout the season as it became clearer and clearer that they were big improvers last year.
Anyway, getting back to the rankings themselves, this week the big developments are Adelaide moving into the top four after thrashing Port, and Carlton returning to the bottom after getting thrashed by Sydney – Essendon actually winning a match also had something to do with that. The big improver two rounds in is the Gold Coast Suns, who have picked up ten ranking points so far, while Fremantle have lost around the same number of points. Not that you should be placing too much weight on these early season results. (Or should you … ?)