Friday, 25 September 2009

Luck Be a Lady

One of the most common aphorisms you hear in a given week is that this or that is "a toss of a coin." Usually, the implication is one of the randomness or vagaries of life. Coin tossing permeates the culture in song, book, and film. Two recent very popular movies ("The Dark Knight" and "No Country for Old Men") feature villains who make life and death choices using a coin - of course, Harvey "Two Face" uses a coin which has two heads, removing any actual chance, but the point is made.

My own academic training is in maths and applied statistics, and it's actually very helpful to reduce almost all questions around probability to variations of the coin toss.

But "randomness" does not imply "luck," and I personally don't believe in luck. A coin will land heads or tails based on a number of physical properties, some subtle (how much air resistance) and some not (when you grab it out of the air), but the process itself is deterministic once the coin is thrown into the air. Similarly, for cards, the shuffle, cut, and deal set in motion a series of events that is not at all based on luck. We think of luck perhaps as whether the gambler chooses heads or tails, takes a hit to 15, etc., and in these perhaps there is an element of luck.

I got to thinking about luck last night as I listened to the Toronto Blue Jays lose yet another late-inning, one-run game. The team has lost more than its share of such games this year (this, plus the lack of budget and hence talent has contributed to yet another dismal finish far out of contention), and I was curious to see just how badly it has done.

The results are remarkable.

In one-run games - games that more often than not are decided by tiny, tiny differences (a ball inches fair or foul here, a single swing of the bat that misses the sweet spot by fractions of an inch there) have an exaggerated effect on the outcome - Toronto is 18-27, the poorest record in the American League. (The California Angels, 27-18, have the best). In extra-inning games, the Blue Jays are 5-12, easily the worst in the Major Leagues.

The question is, is this luck, or something else?

In baseball, Bill James some years ago created what he called the Pythagorean Theorem, which, like the famous eponymous theorem of geometry, estimates a team's winning percentage as the ratio of the square of its runs scored to the sum of its runs scored and runs allowed squared. Put simply, if you score exactly the same number of runs as you allow, over the course of a season, you will win approximately half of the games you play.

What's useful as an exercise here is that teams that win a lot of close games, but lose a majority of the games that are blow outs will post a winning percentage much better than the one estimated by the Pythagorean Theorem. A team that loses a lot of close games, but wins the majority of the blow outs will do relatively poorly.

To convince yourself, consider Team A, which in a series of 10 games, wins 8 games 2-1, and in the other 2 games loses 4-0 in each. This team scores 16 runs, and allows 16. The theorem predicts it should win 5 and lose 5. Given that it won 8, it has won an excess of 3 games.

The idea here is that games that are close tend to be more influenced by random events (the one ball inches foul) than games that are not close. Good teams will win more blow-out games as a percentage than bad teams will. Of course, the good teams will also win a majority of the close games as well, but they tend to win a much higher percentage of the lop-sided ones. If the Yankees were to play the Baltimore Orioles, it's far more likely that the Yankees will win 10-0 than Baltimore. Not in a given game, mind you, but over a long series, the better team will almost always predominate.

This in mind, I looked at how Toronto (and the rest of the AL) had done for the past 5 years, plus this one.

This year, the Jays have scored more runs than they have allowed (a slight difference, but there you have it). They currently are 15 games UNDER .500. The Pythagorean Theorem predicts that they ought to have won 9 more games than they have. That is a serious under-performance.

But is it "luck?"

For the years 2004-2008, Toronto has won fewer games than the theorem predicts IN EVERY SINGLE SEASON. Put another way, they have tossed a coin and gotten five consecutive tails. This year almost certainly will be number six in a row. The "odds" of six straight heads are 1/64, or less than two per cent.

Cumulatively, the team was won 31 fewer games than the runs scored/allowed formula predicts.

Both of these figures are the worst in the American League (the Cleveland Indians are next, having been shorted 26 wins). Oddly enough, the California Angels (this year's best performer in one-run contests) have exceeded predictions in all five years, and this year will certainly make six, unless they lose a couple of games 20-0.

This is not "luck," for a team to be worse, every single year, than it ought to be. The players are different; the opposing rosters are different. Only the GM and management are the same.

I think the evidence is clear, and the prosecution rests. It's time for the management in Toronto to go, from top to bottom.

Friday, 11 September 2009

More on the Cold-Blooded Murder of English

Read a headline this morning; "Warren Buffet: 'Rich Need to Pay More" sent to me by a somewhat liberal friend.

This little fiction was advance further by various and sundry Democrats (e.g., Claire McCaskill [D-MO]), whose job it is, I suppose to conjure up tortured arguments to separate you from your money. Ms McCaskill said "[Mr Buffet] said rich people are not paying enough taxes."

Now, what in fact Mr Buffet said was that the taxes on dividend (and perhaps, other investment income) should be put in line with the tax rates on ordinary income, as a matter of fairness. He used as an example that he pays only 15 per cent on his income, which is largely from investments in, inter alia, Berkshire Hathaway funds, whilst his employees who are wage earners pay at a 25 per cent rate. Now, setting aside that in fact, few people in the lower income brackets (less than 50,000 per year) actually pay the 25 per cent marginal rate, once deductions and the like are taken, it's startling to see how this little proposition (that investment income ought to be treated the same as wage income) is transmogrified into a "the rich need to pay more" argument.

One can agree or disagree about the fairness of taxing income streams differently, and in this, I am in agreement with Mr Buffet, but it's intellectually dishonest to equate these two points. I expect hand-waving from the kleptocratic Democrats in the government. But for news agencies to be so duplicitous is quite alarming.

If the Democrats and Mr Buffet want to debate setting income tax rates of different income streams to parity, that's fine. If dividend income is to be taxed more steeply, then that is going to be done irrespective of the income level of the payor. But that's rather a different thing from saying, essentially, that we ought to raise the top marginal rates, which is the reductio ad absurdum of the "rich do not pay enough" proposition.

Given the shell game that Mr Obama and the Dems are currently trying, I suggest people pay very, very close attention to what they say, and how their words are reported.

Thursday, 10 September 2009

Green Day, the English Language, and US Debate

Among other somewhat eccentricities, I'm a fan of the band Green Day. Sort of clashes with my instinctive, right-wing politics and only-feel-comfortable-in-a-suit-at-work personality, but there you have it.

Some years ago, they had a song called "The Grouch," which has catchy riffs and amusing lyrics. Among them, the singers bemoan "Oh my God, I'm turning outlike my dad."

Truer words never were spoken.

My father, who has been gone now for 15 years, used to be somewhat a curmudgeon with respect to the King's English, and most particularly, its grammatical rules. And by "somewhat," I mean that if you dared confuse, e.g., the subjunctive, you would be met with a pained, dismissive stare.

I was thinking of this whilst looking over what passes for a debate about health care reform: the raucous town-hall meetings. The petulance of Nancy Pelosi. President Obama trying to rescue his top domestic policy with a pretty purple speech last night. In all the sturm und drang, the first casualty has been the English language.

What, pray tell, would Professor Higgins, who would have had Eliza Doolittle "taken out and hung (sic)?"

No one seems to know what words mean anymore.

The NYTimes, who have become little more than a lap-dog to the Obama administration, chastise opponents of the President's plan for calling Mr Obama a 'socialist,' saying that there is little resemblance between his plans and the authoritarian raj of the Soviets. Oh, how the mighty have fallen (William Safire is an alum). Surely, they know that socialism is an economic system, and the totalitarian regime of the old Soviets was a governing system. And that ignores the fact that much of our current health care system - Medicare, for example, IS socialist both de facto and de jure.

We have the spectacle of the failed former VP candidate talking about "death panels" when she speaks of the rather mundane task of deciding how scarce resources will be allocated. Whether you know it or not, your insurer, whether private or public, makes decisions every year about what treatments it will re-imburse and what treatments it will not, using cost effectiveness models. Surely, as a Republican, Mrs. Palin understands that the allocation of finite resources to attempt to cover infinite demand is the very definition of economics.

And finally, we have the President of the US and too many others talking about getting "insurance" to cover "pre-existing conditions." Now, the term "pre-existing conditions" is itself so Orwellian as to conjure up an image of a boot stomping on a human face forever, but that's only half the whopper here.

In point of fact, you cannot buy "insurance" to cover a condition you already have. Insurance is a bet that you make, against yourself, that something is going to happen. You make your wager in the form of a premium, and if, by God by grace, you get sick, THEN you collect. The premium is a fraction of what the cost of treatment will be, and you are able to do this because you are pooling your risk. If 100 people pay the premium, perhaps one will "win" the bet.

Buying "insurance" for an illness you have is about the same thing as walking into a casino, sitting at the roulette table, watching the ball land in red 26, and then asking to be allowed to put a bet down on red 26.

That isn't insurance; that is welfare.

All in all, our "leaders" (hmmm, am I guilty, too?) are betting on the fact that the average man on the street is simply too dim to catch the abuse.

A bet that, to paraphrase Mencken, is a sure thing.