Monday, 29 August 2011

Blowin in the Wind

Hurricane Irene blew through town this weekend, leaving in its angry wake downed trees and no power - PG&E say it may not be restored until Sunday, giving us a full eight days without power.

The Toronto Blue Jays have all but wrapped up a dismal homestand against Kansas City and Tampa Bay.  The Royals came to town having not won a series since June, and not having taken a series in Toronto in nine years - and the Blue Jays were lucky to take one of the games.  Tampa has thus far made the Jays look like little leaguers, winning the first three easily.  Sunday afternoon's game was an embarrassing 12-0 loss, with Rays' starter David Price combining with two relievers to whiff a Toronto team record 18 batters.

Now I know why the winds were so strong at the weekend - it had nothing to do with Irene.  It was all that fanning going on by Toronto bats.

Kelly Johnson, the newest Jay acquired from Arizona collected the Golden Sombrero, with four Ks in four ABs.

It's an odd stat, but if one combines the final week Johnson played in Arizona (a team in contention for the playoffs) with his first four games as a Jay, Johnson has not played for the winning team since August 16th, a 3-2 win in Philadelphia.

Johnson has participated in 10 straight losing efforts, and has not walked on the field to shake hands in a victory in two weeks.

Yeah - that trade is working out brilliantly.

Thursday, 25 August 2011

Mike Flanagan, RIP

Read today of the passing of former left-hand pitcher Mike Flanagan, a guy who got as much out of a batting practice fastball as anyone.

Flanagan was 60 years old, and best remembered as the guy who won the 1979 Cy Young award; he went 23-9 for the Baltimore Orioles team that lost to the disco-themed "We Are Family" Pittsburgh Pirates.

Just thinking about those two items (that Pittsburgh AND Baltimore made the World Series, and that disco was sufficiently main stream that it was featured in a non-ironic way) makes me feel old.

My best recollection of Flanagan was his remarkable performance, as a fading former star, in the penultimate game of the ultimately doomed Toronto season of 1987.  Flanagan faced off on the final Saturday of that season against Jack Morris and the Detroit Tigers at Tiger Stadium.  The teams entered the game tied for first, but heading in opposite directions.

At 36, Flanagan pitched 11 innings, giving up one earned run; the Tigers ended up winning in the 12th on a double-play ball off the bat of Alan Trammell that rolled under the glove of Jays' rookie shortstop Manny Lee (Lee was playing in place of All Star Tony Fernandez, who had had his elbow broken the week before, in a game also against the Tigers).

Toronto went on the lose the final game of the season, and the pennant, the next day, in a 1-0 game - interestingly, pitched by another very soft-tossing lefty: Frank Tanana.  The loss capped an epic collapse - Toronto lost its final seven games of the season, squandering what had been a five game lead with seven to play.

Interestingly, and I was unawares of this fact - Flanagan had been a teammate of Julius Erving on the UMass basketball team.  He quipped in an interview that, after guarding "Dr J" in practice, he realised he ought to pay more attention to his pitching mechanics.

Flanagan was a quick wit, apparently, in addition to being a class act.


Monday, 22 August 2011

Is "Crazy" Rick Perry Pinky or the Brain?

Although it's only August of the year before the 2012 presidential elections, the air is, as they say, heating up.  I fear from the rhetoric it's going to be a particularly nasty campaign, which given the way 2010 went, is saying a lot.

The governor of Texas, the unctuous Rick Perry, has apparently tossed his ten-gallon hat into the ring, and I have to say, I am shocked by the reaction of the Democratic party noise machine to the announcement.

Perry is behind at least a couple of other candidates in the GoP (most notably, the ideologically pliant Mitt Romney), so it's odd that the mouthpieces are focusing on him; more to the point, not so much that they are focusing on Perry, but how they are focusing.

In reading political blogs, editorials in mainstream newspapers, and listening to broadcast and cable news, the apparent meme that is going to be deployed against Rick Perry is not that he's done a bad job in Texas, or that his performance is somehow disqualifying, or that he lacks experience.  Or even, for that matter, that the current president deserves to be re-elected because he's done such a bang-up job.

No; what has been said, over and over again, is that Perry is not wrong in his thinking, but that he is "crazy."

Several friends and peers on social media have picked this up and run with it.  One friend actually wrote that Rick Perry is "bat shit crazy."

"Bat shit crazy?"  That's not something I've ever seen in the DSM-IV manual, a book that I use in my job in neuroscience research frequently.

What exactly has Rick Perry done to provoke this diagnosis?  Well, among other things, he proposes to repeal the 16th and 17th amendments.  The former, of course, empowered the federal government to levy income taxes; the latter took the election of senators from the hands of state legislatures and provided for direct elections by the people. In the words of the writer, Perry is crazy because he wants to "bake his personal opinions and bias into the Constitution."

Now, setting aside the absolute and frank irony that "baking his opinions" into the constitution here is in fact overturning amendments that themselves were the result of a previous person's "baking his opinions" into the Constitution, I don't see how a person, seeing an obvious problem, proposing to follow the laws set out by the framers to alter the Constitution as it was meant to be amended is "crazy."

Perry may be wrong; but it apparently is no longer enough to argue that the opposition is simply wrong.  They are insane.  They are wild-eyed, bigoted lunatics sort of like cartoon characters Pinky and the Brain.

Governor Rick Perry, Wild and Crazy Guy

This particular line is being used not just on Rick Perry, but other Republicans (Michelle Bachmann recently appeared on the cover of Newsweek magazine in a particular example of extreme yellow journalism, in a photo plainly chosen to fit the theme that she, like Perry, is simply as mad as a March hare.)

I expect we're going to be treated to this for the next 15 months - the GoP candidates and their solutions are not wrong per se, but just too nutty to even consider.  We're going to hear over and over how they are "anti-science" (whatever that means), irrational, crazy, raving lunatics.  We'll hear about how they are climate-change "deniers" (a very carefully chosen and market-researched term to parallel the lunatic fringe who deny the Holocaust).  That they believe in "intelligent design," and reject "evolution," which is a truly bizarre attack, given that a President's belief in the origin of the species seems to me to have nothing to do with the powers he or she has as the chief executive.

To those who have studied history, it is worthwhile to recollect that, during the Soviet era, "enemies of the state" were often put away based upon phony charges of insanity.  Rather than sending political dissidents off to prison, they were "diagnosed" as crazy (not sure how you translate "bat shit crazy" into Russian) and put into mental hospitals.

You see - if you "denied" that the status quo wisdom being offered by The Party was the right course, well, that was ipso facto evidence that you must be out of your tree.

I reckon in the 2012, the Democrats will rely on this line not because they are communists (itself a laughable attack one hears from the right), but because they frankly have nothing else to say.

President Obama can hardly run for re-election based on how well he has handled the country.  He cannot point to Texas, which according to an analysis of the data here show the state to have stood apart from the employment collapse of the rest of the country and argue how that disqualifies Governor Perry.  He could try to argue that the governor doesn't really affect job creation, but then the whole argument propping up his tax and spend agenda of never-ending stimulus collapses.

So what's left then is to smear Perry with a lot of emotional, if dubious, attacks of the sort we are now seeing.

Friday, 19 August 2011

Swing and a Miss

The Philadelphia Phillies seem well on their way to another NL East title, largely due to an incredible pitching staff.  (Roy Halladay, Cliff Lee, Cole Hamels, Roy Oswalt).  Their number four starter in his career averages a 16-9 record, with a 3.21 ERA.

That is damned impressive.  One could debate whether there has been a better staff in the past to years (Atlanta, 1995? Maddux, Smoltz, Glavine, Avery.  The 1971 Orioles boasted four twenty-game winners, though not sure Pat Dobson is the equal of Oswalt.)

What I find most interesting though, is the Phils' set-up man and lefty specialist, Antonio Bastardo.  Aside from the obvious intrigue of his unfortunate sur-name, Bastardo has quietly racked up some unbelievable stats this year.

To wit: in his 50 appearances, covering 46 innings, Bastardo has allowed 18 hits.

That's not a mis-print.  18 hits in 46 innings.

That figure works out to 3.5 hits per nine innings.  The league is hitting .118 this season against him.

To put it into context, Nolan Ryan, the owner of six career no-hitters, in his best season (1972) allowed 166 hits in 284 innings, a rate of 5.26.  Ryan allowed fifty per cent more hits per nine innings.  Oh, and he also tossed in 157 bases on balls, so Ryan - in a great season - allowed 323 baserunners in his 284 innings.

Bastardo has walked 16, so he has allowed 34 baserunners in 48 innings.

Tom Henke was another guy who could come in and simply blow hitters away.  In his best season (1987), The Terminator gave up 62 hits in 94 innings, or 5.94 per nine innings.  Henke walked 25, so his runners per nine innings was better than Ryan's (87 runners in 94 innings), but again, not close to the numbers Bastardo has put up.

And Henke, as a relief pitcher for a team that collapsed, in an epic fashion, received MVP support for his efforts.

It's a relatively small sample size, of course, but the almost complete failure of National League hitters to hit Bastardo is truly remarkable; it's sufficiently low that I wonder, has there ever been a guy who put up seasonal figures like that, tossing a minimum number of innings.

Wednesday, 17 August 2011

Paul Meier, RIP

Chances are pretty good you've never heard of Paul Meier.  But if you've taken an FDA-approved medication, or purchased life insurance, your life has been affected in a profound way by his work.

This weekend, read the announcement of the passing Dr Meier, who was one of the true giants of mathematical statistics.  In my opinion, his work with Edward L Kaplan (put the two names together, and perhaps if you've trained in stats or clinical research, you may be closer to recognition) has had more impact on clinical research than any other statistician, and perhaps more than any clinician of any other scientific discipline.

In 1958, Drs Kaplan and Meier submitted to the Journal of the American Statistical Association a manuscript titled "Nonparametric estimation from incomplete observations," in which a method for estimating life expectancy and mortality from data including missing or censored observations was outlined.

It's safe to say that there is almost no pharamacological research programme today that does not involve Kaplan-Meier curves.  From cancer survival to outcomes of heart surgery, this single paper is pretty close to fundamental in clinical trial design.

That same year, Dr Meier also authored a paper called "Clinical evaluation of new drugs," which was published in the journal Annual Review of Medicine, in which he argued that randomised controlled trials (RCTs) were essential in establishing the safety and efficacy of new medicines.

It's hard to fathom nowadays that there actually was an argument for assigning to random placebo and treatment arms patients to assess the effectiveness of a potential treatment, but it was quite controversial at the time.

Modern medical research is based upon the RCT, and countless lives have been saved/improved as a result.


Wednesday, 10 August 2011

Skin in the Game

In the recent roiling of the nation over the ludicrous deficits we face, I came across the following commentary by John Derbyshire at National Review.
The notion that we should all have some “skin in the game” by paying federal income taxes strikes me as profoundly un-conservative, and to be resisted. We have “skin in the game” by virtue of being U.S. citizens. The nation’s misfortunes are our misfortunes. I have never heard that being American requires payment of an annual fee, like a golf club membership.
Mr Derbyshire's post is, as usual, provocative.  He's got a mathematical background, so I am reminded of one of the controversies of the 20th century in mathematics - the so-called "axiom of choice."  To make a long story somewhat less boring, arguments in mathematics are more or less soluble once one accepts a set of axioms from which to begin.

Here, the problem inherent is that Mr Derbyshire assumes as an axiom that the income tax need not exist.  In fact, the income tax is, I would think, a permanent element of our society.  If we could do away with the income tax, I think his argument makes sense.

But given that the income tax exists, and will continue to exist, his argument I think collapses.  A system where 50% plus one of the population do not pay any visible income tax,  where a sizeable chunk get government "services," and where we swim in waters where the message of tax-funded assistance is "compassionate" is ambient - well, such a system is fundamentally ultimately unsustainable.

In economic terms, the perceived demand for something without a perceptible cost is unbounded.  Unlimited.  The comments of the Georgia governor on his state's ratification of the 16th Amendment are instructive:
When asked why his state legislature had ratified, he replied that it was a matter of no importance to Georgians, since nobody in the state made enough to qualify for the income tax.
Thus the real question barking around the edges of Mr Derbyshire's column are, "What limit is there to the tax rates on the minority of citizens who pay them for ever more government freebies?  What do I care if someone else has to pay 35, or 50, or even 90 per cent of his income in taxes if some "essential" programme is at stake."

It's really the root of the divide and rule messages we hear constantly from Mr Obama and his enablers at MSNBC and the New York Times that he ought to let the tax breaks "for the rich" expire to help reduce the deficit, when their own data show that the relative share of the deficit that tax cuts for the $250,000+/$250,000- segments represent are $700BB and $3,100BB.

Those numbers were printed in the Sunday Times this past week in an editorial.  The "middle class" share of the hated "Bush Tax cuts" is more than 80%

It's not about "deficit reduction" at all.  It's about pure power politics.  Period.

Mr Derbyshire is right philosophically that citizenship should not be measured by whether one has economic "skin in the game."  But unfortunately, reality intrudes, and thus precisely that is necessary to keep the nation sustainable.