Tuesday, 17 December 2013

"C'est Le Retour du Roi" (Return of the King?)

The King is Back in Paris
After 16 years, the King has been restored in Paris.  No; not the Bourbons.  THE King.  The Burger King. In a headline story this morning in one of our local papers, it is being reported that the fast food chain has opened a new restaurant in the Gare Saint-Lazere Monday.  Burger King closed all of its French outlets in 1997 due to poor sales, but has in the past couple of years, returned in places such as the airport in Marseille, and most recently, an "aire" (rest stop) on the autoroute near Reims.

Well, the King has now come back to the capital.

Data provided by the local franchiser indicate that there has been an "explosion" or burger sales, with the average French person consuming 14 fast-food burgers in 2012.  No word on whether that "explosion" has been followed by others...

It must be tough being Burger King, however.  The article explains that the top offering for BK is its "le fameux 'Whopper'" - described as l'equivalent du Big Mac.

Defined, literally, by the competition.

The somewhat creepy "King" has been updated for the more sophisticated, Romantic French palate.  A sample of the made-over King is shown below.

The Burger King, Adapted to French Sensibilities
No word yet from authorities on whether it's merely a coincidence that the return of Burger King matched the recently revealed scandal of improper horse meat being introduced into the French food chain.

Details are still evolving.

Bowls, Bowls Everywhere

We've reached (and passed) the Ides of December.  Christmas is just a bit more than a week away, and right upon its heels, the new year.  That can only mean, of course, that the college football "bowl season" is upon us.

I'm not any sort of football fan, and did not really watch any of the games when I lived in the US, so I reckon that there is close to zero probability that I will watch any of them now that I live in France.  Nevertheless, looking this morning at ESPN's web site, I was amazed by just how many of these bowls there are.

For example, there is now a "Pinstripe Bowl," to be played of course, in the front lobby of one of New York's white shoe law firms.  No; that's not true.  I think it is played in Yankee Stadium.  The game features Rutgers (a team that had a 6-6 record in a mediocre conference) and Notre Dame.  Not sure how the Irish fell to this level.

There is a "San Diego Credit Union" bowl - I guess it survived the subprime crash, unfortunately. Two traditional powers - Utah State and Northern Illinois - face off in that one.  An attempt by the Franklin-American Mortgage Bowl to cut it into tranches and sell as AAA+ debt instruments failed, apparently.  Maybe because the Heart of Dallas Bowl Presented by PlainsCapital Bank funding was not approved?

Two perfectly named bowls - the "Northrup-Grumman Military Bowl" and the "Bell Helicopter Armed Forces Bowl" - will occur at year's end.  Real truth in packaging.  I wonder if there will be a trunk sale in the parking lots, featuring nervous, sweaty guys wearing Ray-Bans selling "merchandise" out of the back of nondescript, Ford econoline vans?

My personal favourite, though, is the "Fight Hunger Bowl," which is to be played in San Francisco.  I suggest that there exist natural synergies here - why not merge the Fight Hunger Bowl with the Beef O'Brady's Bowl?  Perhaps the whole thing could be supplemented by the "Famous Idaho Potato Bowl?"

And of course, waiting in the wings are the Chic Fil A Bowl, the Buffalo Wild Wings Bowl (my wife would love that one), the Outback Bowl, and the Tostitos Fiesta Bowl.

Monday, 16 December 2013

The Crystal Ship

Odd news story of the day - a councilor here in Paris has sent a recommendation up to the city council to nominate a street in ville de lumière after the late Doors front-man, Jim Morrison.  Morrison's life ended famously in Paris's Marais district nearly a half-century ago.

Jerome Dubus, representing the gentrifying 17th Arrondisement proclaimed "c’est étonnant...qu’aucun lieu dans la capitale ne porte encore le nom Morrison, étant donné son lien particulier avec Paris" (astonished that there is no place in Paris carrying Morrison's name, which has such a particular tie with the city.)

Strangest of all, Dubus is a member of the UMP, the conservative party of France.  One does not typically associate Jim Morrison, or the Doors, or rock music, for that matter, with the political right.  In 2012, his party nominated him to be the national party lead for economic growth and freedoms.

I guess the Doors did sell a lot of records.

The socialist mayor of Paris Bertrand Delanoe responded that the the idea is a good one, via his cultural spokesman Bruno Julliard.  Some of his socialist peers are less enthused, sniffing that streets and other public places take a long time, and perhaps Morrison's name would be better associated with a building - a music conservatory, perhaps.

So a battle may be shaping up, where the conservative party is pushing to name a street after Jim Morrison, against a left-wing opposition.  Morrison's father was an Admiral in the US Navy, of course.  Hmm.

Morrison died in July 1971, and is buried in the famous cimetière du Père-Lachaise.   

Friday, 13 December 2013

Les Villes en Equation: The World According to Zipf

Read a short article this morning in the RER on the way to work (aside: yesterday there was a rail strike here in France, affecting hundreds of thousands if travellers.  The timing could hardly be worse, as residents here in Ile de France are being asked to take measures to curb emissions in an effort to reduce a string of days of pollution deemed "Très élevé"; the strike forced many to take to their cars) which touched upon several of my own peculiar curiosities.  Mathematics, language, and geography.

There is a not terribly widely known model paradigm known as Zipf's law, named for a mid-20th century linguist, in which elements of a finite or countably infinite set  can be rank-ordered, with the frequencies inversely proportional to the item's rank.

Put simply, the first item in the list will appear with a frequency that is twice that of the second; the third most common will appear approximately 1/3 as frequently, etc.

In mathematical terms, this is written as:

f(k;s,N)=\frac{1/k^s}{\sum_{n=1}^N (1/n^s)}.

where N is the total number of elements in the set; k is the rank of the item in the set (1...N), and s is the power parameter for the series.

George Zipf, for whom the distribution (and law) is named observed that, empirically in language, the most frequently used word will appear approximately twice as often as the second, three times as frequently as the third, etc.  Zipf applied his thinking to the famous Brown corpus of English from a study of American texts conducted by Brown University, and discovered that the most common word in the texts ('the') appeared about 70,000 times in American literature surveyed.  The second most common ("of") appeared about 36,000 times; the third ("and") was used in 28,000 cases.  1.00, 0.51, 0.40.  Not a perfect fit, but close.

In the article, it is pointed out that, ranking the most populous US cities (New York, Los Angeles, Chicago, Houston, Philadelphia) one sees an approximately Zipf-ian distribution.

The populations (1, 2, 3, 4, 5) are

8.4MM, 3.9MM, 2.7MM, 2.2MM, 1.5MM

The ratios:

1.00, 0.46, 0.32, 0.25, 0.18

Very close to 1, 1/2, 1/3, 1/4, and 1/5.

Since Zipf also studied the patterns of use of Chinese, I thought it might be interesting to examine if Zipf's law applies in that giant country.

According to the CIA Fact Book, the most populous cities in China are Shanghai, Beijing, Tianjin, Guangzhou, and Shenzhen.

Populations:  22MM, 19MM, 11MM, 11MM, 10MM.

The distribution here seems to fail, with three observations.  First, Chinese census data define 'cities' somewhat differently, tracking "built-up areas," "urban areas," etc., so comparisons may be a bit off.  Second, whilst I knew that China had some big cities (the country is more than a billion and a half people), these are massive cities.  New York would be about eighth.  China has cities that would be the third largest state in the US.  Third, I am shocked to see Shenzhen as the fifth largest city in China.  I visited Shenzhen in 1989, and there was not much there besides a few glass apartments that catered to business travelers who came and went from Hongkong, just across the Shumchun river.  It has added I would suspect nine million residents in 25 years.

All in all, not Moore's law, but still quite something.

Thursday, 12 December 2013

Le "Selfie" de la Discorde

La chef du gouvernement danois propose à Barack Obama et à David Cameron, qui vient de les rejoindre, de poser ensemble sur une même photo. Le président américain l'aide à maintenir son téléphone portable.
Hey - Don't Forget to Tag Me
Revenu à sa place, Barack Obama échange quelques plaisanteries avec la premier ministre danoise. Le visage sombre de Michelle Obama sur cette photo a suscité de nombreux commentaires de la presse people. ««Elle n'était ni figée, ni contrariée, assure un photographe de l'AFP qui assistait à la scène. Cet air sérieux n'est que le pur fruit du hasard».
Don't Make Me Separate You Two

The tech age is truly a thing of beauty.  Smart phones.  The internet (thanks Al Gore).  The 24-hours news cycle.   All of this is no doubt a boon to guys like Jay Leno - if not to say Jon Stewart.

Still, who could resist the recent furore over the "selfie" snapped by US President Barack Obama.

The president was in Soweto in South Africa to attend the homage to the late South African President and anti-apartheid warrior Nelson Mandela.

President Obama has come under somewhat mild fire for his less than reverent behaviour, including not a small amount of speculation as to the fallout it may have had on his wife Michelle.  Michelle has at times been described in less than flattering terms in the soft press, including a book released about this same time last year.  A sort of political Upstairs Downstairs in which the First Lady was portrayed as somewhat controlling, petty, and jealous.

Here in France, the whole thing is being described in the press as "Le Selfie de la Discorde."  One need not be a French scholar to reckon out the meaning.  In one article, the president's insouciant behaviour is compared to "le regard renfrogné de sa femme." (The sullen look of his wife).  

To me, the most interesting thing of the whole affair is the French adoption of the term "selfie."  Unlike English, French nouns are masculin or féminin. Anyone who struggled through school-boy French remembers the tribulations of sorting the two.  Who hasn't written an essay, pausing to recall if it's les liaisons dangereux  or les liaisons dangereuses?

For certain neologisms, like "selfie," there actually is an Académie française, established centuries ago by Cardinal Richelieu, whose job it is to rule whether the new word is to be (m) or (f).  

In this case, "le selfie" is the ruling.  

Not sure how "twerk" has come down, though.  

Wednesday, 11 December 2013

Microsoft: A Rose by any Other Name

Ah, yes.  What would modern life be without Microsoft and its wonderful products?  Nothing says innovation, or smooth transition, or well-conceived features like the software behemoth of suburban Seattle.

Well, not quite.

Stories of glitch-filled "upgrades" are by now legend.  In my opinion, the "Windows" operating platform probably reached its peak 15 years or so ago with Win NT.  It was somewhat Spartan, with limited time-saving "short-cuts" or cute, useless features such as an animated dog to help you find topics.

But it was relatively bug-free and, for its time, fast.  By contrast, MS Word had its high-water mark round about 1989.

I'm convinced that with each release, Microsoft's products become a little bit worse in every way.  Features we liked are removed.  Options that we could fine-tune are now gone, replaced by "Wizards" that don't quite do what we really need.  Menu-driven actions are replaced with impenetrable icons that one must be an Egyptologist to reckon out.

Yesterday, my company more or less pushed me to "upgrade" my office computer to Windows 2010 (I know; it's three-years obsolescent technology if labelling is to be believed.)  I had resisted previous changes, but this time, the warning was somewhat stern.

So, I held my nose, clicked all the various "I read and acknowledge" ass-covering tick boxes, and followed the instructions.

Guess what happened next?

The GUI is, as predicted, unrecognisable, and of course, terrible.  MS, God bless them, wiped several programmes I like (Google Chrome - gone and replaced by the hideous "Internet Explorer.")  It's fairly easy to undo this dubious mischief.

But then, this AM, I opened my Outlook mail, and.... my entire archive of read mail...gone.  Approximately five years of correspondences, idiotically erased.  A bit of research quickly detected the cause.  When migrating read mail from the server to my local computer (a necessary task, as server space is restricted), the mails (and attachments) are placed into a .PST file for storage.

The geniuses at Microsoft - for no apparent reason - have with the newer release changed the hierarchy.  Previously, the user .PST file was stored in the C:\Documents and Settings\USERID folder.

With the new release, this critical file is now placed in a folder called C:\Users\USERID\App Data folder.

The critical problem is the root directory - one is C:\Documents and Settings, and one is C:\Users.

When the new version of Windows installed itself, it simply removed the prior structure root and branch.  Thus, all user-specified data for Outlook is gone.  Sig file.  Mail archive.  Contacts.


For no reason whatsoever.


I now face the task of trying to recover from this criminal stupidity.

Thanks, guys.

Monday, 9 December 2013

Les Casques Bleus et Verts

Les présidents français et malien, François Hollande et Ibrahim Boubacar Keïta, le 1er octobre 2013 à l'Elysée (AFP, Eric Feferberg)
Francois Hollande Meets with Mali's
President Ibrahim Boubacar Keita

As the French government debate and wring their hands about what to do in sub-Saharan Africa - the appalling killing in the Central African Republic, the civil war in Mali, the destabilisation of the Ivory Coast - the cynic in me got to see the foolishness of the UN in full bloom.

As fate would have it, this weekend leaders of the various countries of the region came to France for the august-named "Sommet de l'Eysée pour La Paix et  la Sécurité en Afrique" (Summit for Peace and Security in Africa) to discuss peace, development, climate issues (!!!), and the like.  The timing coincided with plans to deal with the emerging human horrors.

I live in Paris on the same block as both the Palais de l'Elysée and the ultra-luxe Hotel le Bristol.  For good measure, the UK, US, and Japanese embassies sit a bit further down the street, and just beyond, Hermes and Cartier boutiques.  Le Bristol hosted several potentates and presidents of these nations.

As I was heading off Saturday to pick up our Christmas tree, a motorcade of vehicles was idling outside the hotel, surrounded by police in vans, cars, and on motorcycles.  Each of the various large, black sedans had a sticker indicating whom it awaited.  Among the nations, Tchad (Chad), Cote d'Ivoire (Ivory Coast), and Togo.  Not fewer than three vehicles for each idled in the street.

Aside from the obvious irony about a summit dealing with 'climate change' being facilitated with a motor pool of heavy, polluting cars which sat for at least twenty or thirty minutes idling, waiting to drive the attendees not 500 metres down the street (the walk from Le Bristol to the Palais de l'Elysée is not more than five minutes), I was struck by just the surreal, grotesque dissonance before me.

A room at the Hotel le Bristol is not less than $1000 per night.  Rooms can easily top $5000 per night.

Each of these nations - Togo, Ivory Coast, and Chad - commanded multiple rooms, I suspect.

The per capita, PPP-adjusted GDP per capita of the three nations is $1900, $1000, and $1600 respectively.

So, each of these individuals spent the equivalent of an entire year's wealth for one of his population for a single night's accommodation.

In a nut-shell, this is my largest complaint about the current state of "diplomacy."  It's manifestly ridiculous - perhaps offensive - that allegedly democratic institutions (the president of Mali pictured above was ostensibly elected to power in his nation) lavish truly wasteful luxury on their leaders in such a manner.  In the US, as the government has repeatedly teetered at the brink of bankruptcy, it's now become famous the travels of the president for his personal vacations as well as for "official" business.

The French revolution was in no small part precipitated because the common man desires leaders, not rulers.  We are citizens and not subjects.

Les Casques Bleus

Living in a foreign land (in this case, France) can provide one a glimpse into the way others see the world and the events occurring in it.  For example, over the summer, as the US President painted himself into a corner in an ill-advised stance on red lines and Syria, it was to say the least ironic as the one ally Mr Obama found among the Western powers was the erstwhile socialist president of France, Francois Hollande.  The French people were somewhat less enthusiastic about the affair - there was a series of "manifestations" and rebukes to M Hollande, and ultimately, when a back-door was discovered, the two were able to escape any serious damage - either real or political.  At least for the time being.

Fast forward to December, and the events that are unfolding in the Central African Republic.  Apparently, much like Rwanda a couple of decades ago, militias are committing atrocities - killing civilians, chopping off limbs, emptying villages.

The French government has decided to send 1600 or so soldiers to the region - these are countries that in the past were French-controlled, so there is a bit of guilt mixed with some nostalgia, I suppose - to help to end the violence.  The opposition is lining up, with questions about "n'est-elle plus qu'une simple compagnie de CRS de l'Oncle Sam?" (is this more than a simple clean up job for Uncle Sam?) and implications that the whole thing is a "blanc-seing de l'ONU" (UN whitewashing)

For once, it's someone besides the US playing world cop.

Tuesday, 16 July 2013

The Grade Cards Are in: Blue Jays' Mid-Year Grades

Tonight is the Major League Baseball All-Star game, the traditional marker of the half-way point of the season.  Of course, it's not really the midpoint of the season (162 games - Toronto at 45-49 - have played 94 games, a bit more than half of their schedule), but what do you expect from a league where pitching stats are presented such that 6 and 2/3 innings are abbreviated as 6.2?

Details, details.

Anyhow, at the semester break, thought I'd rate the performance of the team.

For context, the 2013 season began with enormous expectation and hope - a hope that frankly had not had much basis for nearly 20 years.  The Jays have not made the playoffs since their second World Series title in 1993.  No; that's not fair.  They had not contended for the playoffs since then.  Following that golden season, the team was acquired by InterBev, a massive, Belgian brewing conglomerate who promptly dumped a lot of salary, including future HoF Robbie Alomar.  Things have not been quite the same since.

Well, in this off-season, the team made a number of high-profile deals, landing the reigning NL Cy Young winner (R.A. Dickey), most of the talent of the Florida Marlins, and the (statistical) batting champ from the NL, Melky Cabrera.  Given that the AL East is uncharacteristically weak this year - the Yankees are old and bedeviled by injury, the Red Sox were coming off a terrible year and made no moves that indicated that they would improve significantly - there was real optimism.

It hasn't worked out quite that way.

With that in mind, on to the Report Card.

Offence:  B-/C+

The Blue Jays do one thing very well; they hit home runs.  With Edwin Encarnacion, Jose Bautista, and J.P. Arencibia, the team is second in the AL with 115 homers, tied with Seattle (!!) and trailing only Baltimore.  They play in a very HR-friendly stadium, but have actually hit 58 long-balls at home (46 games) versus 57 on the road (48 games), so it's not quite right to say that the result is due to park effects.

That hasn't really translated into a terrific performance.  Despite the number of homers, the team is eighth of fifteen in the most important stat, runs scored.  This is largely due to the fact that the team is poor at getting on base.  As they found out most recently in Baltimore (where Earl Weaver, as manager, put to words the best strategy for winning, pitching, defence, and the three-run homerun), those long balls bring a much smaller impact when there is no one on base.

The Blue Jays sit 10th in the league in OBP (.316).  Worse still, Blue Jays leadoff men are 11th in that category.  They just are not reaching base enough.

Adam Lind has had a surprising resurgence.  Jose Bautista continues to both get on base and hit homers, despite a relatively poor batting average.  Edwin Encarnacion also has been very effective, leading the team in HR, RBI, and OPS.

These figures are offset by some truly terrible performances.

Emilio Bonifacio (Bonafiasco) has been amongst the worst regulars in the league, his .207 batting average just north of the Mendoza Line. His OBP of .248 is terrible.  J.P. Arencibia has been almost as bad, a .256 OBP.  His performance has been somewhat mitigated by the fact that he can hit the ball out of the park (his 16 HR lead AL catchers).  Looking beyond the top line, however, it gets ugly.  With runners on, Arencibia is hitting .207; with runners in scoring position, a ghastly .156.  J.P. has struck out 98 times in 308 ABs, against only 13 walks.  His backups have been worse.


The bench/spot starters (Rajai Davis, Munenori Kawasaki, Mark De Rosa) - about all that can be said of them is, "At least they are not Mike McCoy."

Missing from the equation is Brett Lawrie, who has missed significant time due to injuries.  When on the field, he's been very poor. In 147 ABs, Lawrie has hit .204 with a poor .621 OPS - comparable to what John McDonald might post.  His play last year and this has been so poor, it calls into question his value as a quality regular.  Lawrie's been hurt, to be fair, but his inability to stay healthy hardly militates for the long-term value of his career.

Starting Pitching:  F

In a word, Blue Jays's starters have been awful.  In the somewhat new stat "Quality Starts" (essentially, completing six innings without allowing too many runs), Blue Jays' starters are second to last in the American League. In 38 of 94 games (about 40%), the starter has logged such a start; only the Minnesota Twins (34) are worse.  Roughly speaking, Toronto starters are less than a 50-50 bet to pitch more than five innings.  About half the time, they don't complete even five innings.

That is a SHOCKING statistic - in almost half of their starts, Toronto pitchers do not even go enough innings to qualify for a win, even if they somehow managed to hold the opposition to fewer runs than their own team scores.

That is terrible, and puts a huge strain on the relief corps (more later).

The rotation is racked up a 5.07 ERA, again, better only than the Minnesota Twins. They are allowing a .274 batting average (the league average is .259), and have allowed 78 home runs.  Over 515 innings, that amounts to almost 1.5 per game.

R.A. Dickey, the staff ace, has been, to put it kindly, mediocre. At 8-10, he's already exceeded his 2012 loss total (in 2012, Dickey was 20-6).  He's posted a 4.69 ERA, which is above the league average (4.08).

The rest - with the exception of Esmil Rogers, who in an emergency role has been OK, are even worse.  Josh Johnson - one of the big acquisitions from Florida, has been flat-out awful, 1-5, 5.16.  Probably not what he was hoping for in his contract season.  Mark Buehrle (5-6, 4.89) has been hit hard.  Brandon Morrow started poorly and then hit the DL.

If one wants to point to the main reason for this year's disappointing result, one need look no further than the starters.

Bullpen: A-

The relief pitchers - with a few notable exceptions - have been outstanding.  Toronto leads the AL in ERA from the pen (2.90).  Toronto relievers have held opposition batters to a .224 batting average, second only to Tampa Bay.

Because of the horrible starting pitching, they've accumulated 334 innings thus far, in 93 games.  Yes; Toronto starters have ONE complete game.  The bullpen is averaging 3.5 innings per game.

Brett Cecil has been outstanding, as have Steve Delabar and Aaron Loup, all in long relief/setup roles.  Casey Janssen, as the closer, has been very good, with 18 saves.  Not surprisingly, the bullpen has 21 wins, tops in the American League.

It remains to be seen how long they can continue, given the huge workload.

Defence: F

Toronto fielding has been awful; it's been sufficiently poor that the glove work may be a significant contributor to the woes of the starters.  The Blue Jays have allowed 42 unearned runs; only the woeful Houston Astros have been worse (48).  The league average is 29.

Given that the team has allowed a total of 440 runs, that means that almost 10 per cent of all runs allowed are unearned.  The Blue Jays are giving away nearly a half a run per game.

The most basic fielding stat - fielding percentage - puts Toronto 12th in the league, better only than the White Sox, Angels, and Astros.

It's tough to win with that sort of fielding.  Toss in the mediocre to poor pitching, and you have a team that is now four games under .500 despite an 11-game win streak.

Management: D

To be fair, the management cannot pitch or play the field, and hence it's impossible to make a silk purse from a sow's ear.  But John Gibbons, in his second tour of duty, has not even made a faux leather purse from said ear.  The batting orders lead one to scratch one's head (for example, Jose Bautista, one of the top sluggers, has been ensconced in the number two slot.)  Gibbons has at times used Kawasaki (.617 OPS) and Josh Thole (.338) at DH.  He continues to write Bonifacio's name on the lineup card - a guy who has been terrible at the plate and worse in the field.  Bizarre pinch hitting choices are made, and pitching changes sometimes seem random - leaving in a reliever one batter too long, and then subsequently making the opposite mistake.

Though it's not really explicitly a management item, the team's fundamentals have been awful as well - running into outs (for example, down by three runs late and getting thrown out stretching a double into a triple), striking out with runners on third and less than two out, throwing to the wrong base.  Mental mistakes and poor fundamentals reflect a less than stellar leadership.

Overall: D-

The team, despite high expectations, has actually been worse in 2013 than it was at this point in 2012.  It's very hard to see how the second half is likely to improve, given the demands placed on the bullpen, and to be frank, looking across the roster and asking "who is likely to play better in the second half", let alone significantly better.

All in all, another dismal performance in what is now a long and expanding history of failure.

Friday, 5 July 2013

New Day, Same Old....Story

Yesterday, spent our last Independence Day in the States for the next few years (we are moving to Paris in a few weeks).  Nice day; sunny.  Warm.  A little golf.  A little swimming.  A lot of barbecue.  Fun and sun with the family.

A traditional Fourth of July, sans fireworks.  For some strange reason, our town never actually celebrates Independence Day on Independence Day - the fireworks were scheduled for 27th June, and were washed out by a thunderstorm.

One thing that never changes, year after year, is the dismal performance of the Blue Jays, who not only lost again yesterday, but thoroughly embarrassed themselves with a terrible, terrible effort.  The starting pitcher (Esmil Rogers) got tagged for seven earned runs in five innings (11 hits allowed and a couple of walks for good measure).  This followed two previous games where the starters allowed eight and six runs in two and five innings, respectively.  For good measure, Colby Rasmus dropped a fly ball, Jose Reyes booted another, and the team collected a total of six weak singles.

Adds up to a shameful 11-1 loss (they avoided the 11-0 whitewash with a ninth inning scratch run on an infield single, stolen base, and seeing-eye hit).

Shameful, if this bunch of clowns had any professional pride or integrity, which is very much in doubt.  They show up; muddle around on the field.  Make errors. Lose.  And collect their pay.

Lather; rinse; repeat.

One week ago, the Jays had managed to complete an 11-game win streak, to bring the team to a mediocre, .500 record.  That's gone, as they have sunk further into last place, now at 41-44.  ESPN simulations estimate their chances at making the playoffs at 8 per cent.  They are 11 games out of first.

Looks like the 20th straight season of not only not making the playoffs, but even better, not even really being in contention.  Since Toronto's World Series win in 1993, they have not finished within 10 games of the playoffs for 19 seasons in a row.  Looks like 2013 is a solid bet to extend that to 20.

This is almost Pittsburgh Pirates territory, except that the Bucs this year are playing as well as any team in the league, and seem a lock to reach the postseason for the first time since 1992.

As if that weren't bad enough, this is after an off-season trading for a couple of former All Stars (Mark Buehrle, Jose Reyes) and last year's NL Cy Young winner (R.A. Dickey).

2012 was a disappointing season, marked by the loss of the entire starting rotation, and MVP candidate Jose Bautista.

This year, Bautista has been healthy, the erstwhile Adam Lind has found his stroke again, and the roster bolstered.

Last year, on the 5th of July, the injury-depleted Toronto Blue Jays were 42-41, 8 games behind first-place New York.

This year, with the enhanced roster, they are 41-44, 11 games back.

And that includes an 11-game win streak, the longest in club history.

I don't know if it's the manager's stupidity (he actually used a guy with an OPS of below .600 to DH two nights ago), the lack of heart by the team, whose idea of "fundamentals" seems to start and end with putting the right account numbers on their paystubs.

Horrible, really.

I wonder why anyone in Toronto bothers to go to the SkyDome to watch this trash.  I really am not even sure why I still watch the games.

Tuesday, 2 July 2013

Oh Captain, My Captain

File this very strange and disconcerting 'news' in the bizarro folder.  Captain Crunch (officially, Cap'n Horatio Magellan Crunch - am not making that up; it's posted on the Quaker web site) has been deceiving his 'crew' for more than 50 years.
The Cap'n - or so We've
Been Led to Believe
An intrepid investigator has discovered that the "Captain" is in fact, a mere commander.  According to Navy protocol, a full-captain should have FOUR stripes on his sleeve.  Indeed; the jumped-up commander of the SS Guppy (again, not making this up) has only three.

Is nothing sacred any more?
Cap'n Crunch, Exposed, Heads for Some Rough Seas

As an aside, Matt, a good friend from college, pointed out the resemblance between Cap'n Crunch and the French painter Paul Gauguin, and took to calling the cereal box commander "Captain Gauguin."  A self-portrait is included below; you be the judge

As another aside, the "Cap'n" was created by Jay Ward, most famous for creating the cartoon characters Rocky and Bullwinkle back in the 1960s.  So this whole saga taking place on the "Sea of Milk" (once again, not making this up) gives a whole new meaning for the phrase, "Now for something you'll really like."

The Cap'n, of course, is not taking this lying down.  A statement has been released attesting to the many years of faithful service at the helm of the Guppy, and points out some other "facts" that the 'gotcha' researchers have missed:
I stand before you today to answer the ridiculous accusations leveled against me by certain Swift-boating talk-show host rivals that I, Cap'n Crunch, am not a real cap'n! 
You may have noticed a few other things about me. I have four fingers. My first mate's a dog. My eyebrows are attached to my hat, for crunch sake!

The final salvo, "It's the crunch, not the clothes, that make the man."

Hear, hear.

Friday, 31 May 2013

I Saw a Ship a Sailing

A Child's View of a Sailing Ship

I saw a ship a sailing
Sailing on the sea
And it was all laden
with pretty things for thee 

When our son was a toddler, his favourite book was an illustrated book of Mother Goose rhymes; among them was the tale of a Packet, captained by a duck. The fantastical ship in the story is "laden with pretty things."  We read the book through together so many times that it became dog-eared and the binding eventually came apart.  Even as a three-year-old, he could repeat the rhymes just by looking at the pictures.

I was thinking about this little rhyme this morning when I read the postings of an old college friend who last night went in for neurosurgery to remove a tumour from his brain.  Ben, a classmate of mine, had been on the baseball team with me at Dartmouth as well as a singer in the Dartmouth Aires, a quite competitive a cappella singing group.  Ben apparently had a seizure and was admitted to hospital, where the tumour was found.

Like Ben, I am 43 years old - not at terrible risk for mortality, but certainly entering the age where it is becoming obvious that we need to pay attention to our health if we are not already.  Personally, I took up running 20 years ago following my first wake-up call - the death of my own father from cancer.  

There is a less-than famous quote to the effect that in life, the only ship that is guaranteed to come in is a black one.  Rich and poor; famous and obscure; powerful and powerless - we all await the same fate.  

Before your ship comes, take the time to enjoy the people in your lives.  Play with your kids.  Talk with your spouse.  If there are family members with whom you are currently fighting - or worse, have fallen out of touch with - pick up the phone or knock on their doors.  Personally, I've not always lived up to my own advice; too much time at work or treating my personal relationships too casually.  We think we have all the time in the world.  In truth, the black ship is already on the seas somewhere.

As of this moment, I don't know the outcome of Ben's surgery.  He's a big, otherwise healthy guy.  He is in the care of some of the best doctors in the world.  And he's a really good guy who deserves the best outcome, so I have faith that he will come through with flying colours.  I believe that the ship coming in in this case will be the one with sails made of silk and masts made of gold.

Ben has performed in the past at Fenway Park, singing the national anthem before a game of his beloved Red Sox.  I think I and many others are looking forward to his next performance there in the very near future.

Wednesday, 15 May 2013

Fight Fiercely Harvard

Fight fiercely, Harvard!
Fight, fight, fight!
Impress them with our prowess, do.
Oh, fellows, do not let the Crimson down;,
Be of stout heart, and true.
Fight for Harvard's glorious name!
Won't it be peachy if we
Win the game? Oh goody!
Let's try not to injure them,
But fight! Fight! Fight!

In these pages, I've written about the mathematician and ersatz musical satirist Tom Lehrer ("The New Math," "Wehrner von Braun.")

Thought of Lehrer today as I read about the recent kerfuffle created by (former) Heritage Foundation scholar and Harvard PhD Jason Richwine.  Richwine was the author of a recent analysis that, among other things, roiled the ongoing immigration "reform" debate by costing out illegal immigration.  His analysis, which balanced tax receipts generated by the contributions of illegal immigrants versus the costs of social services that they add to our national ledgers, found that the proposed plan being considered today would, over the next 50 years, bring a net cost to the US government (read: the US taxpayers) of $6.3 trillion.

This of course stands in stark contrast to the rhetoric we are being sold about how reform will be a net benefit.

Of course, the debate about immigration should be much broader than a cold, dollars and cents calculation, but to ignore this reality is something done at great peril by a nation that already struggles to pay its bills.

The report, well, it just won't do, and so off went various advocacy and special interest groups to undermine it however they could, and it did not take them long to discover that Richwine had written a most politically unacceptable dissertation at Harvard, where he earned his doctorate.

Richwine's PhD thesis, it seems, was on IQ and immigration policy; the 316 page paper describes empiric differences in IQ testing between various immigrant groups, their second and third generation offspring, and the impact his has on economic and social policy.  The whole thing can be seen here.  It's long and highly mathematical, and thus not really for the statistically faint of heart.

The reaction has been, well, curious.

Richwine was promptly defenestrated from Heritage in an act of true intellectual cowardice.

Worse, the reaction at Harvard - perhaps the premier research university in this country if not the world - has been downright shameful.  Students have been in high dudgeon, questioning just how such a heretic could have been awarded a PhD, asking that the thesis committee (a solid, reputable trio of scholars) be exposed, and in fact, that steps be taken so that "this does not happen again."

I've read some of Richwine's thesis, and trolled through the stats in the Heritage report.  From a mathematical and empirical perspective, my judgment is that his mechanics are on quite solid ground.  One can quibble, of course, about the variables included, and more "controversially," the exogeneities (those variables that affect the outcome that the model by definition, cannot measure).  But Richwine's work is serious scholarship.

That's beside the point to those who demand that Richwine be placed onto a scale with a duck, lest he be a witch.

One thing curiously missing from any of the complaints I've read is any attempt to disprove the numbers Richwine presents.  And this from a group who have bleated incessantly for the past 13 years about "science."  The point seems to be that Richwine is wrong because, well, the conclusion is just not acceptable.  The math and the science be damned.

Liberal blogger Andrew Sullivan nicely summarises the hysteria in Cambridge thusly:

But what the Harvard students are saying is worse than creating a straw man. They are saying that even if it is true that there are resilient differences in IQ in broad racial groupings, such things should not be studied at Harvard because their “end result can only be furthering discrimination.” You can’t have a more explicit attack on intellectual freedom than that. They even seem to want the PhD to be withdrawn. ...
That’s my view in a nutshell. What on earth are these “liberals” so terrified of, if not the truth? ... 
But please don’t say truly stupid things like race has no biological element to it or that there is no data on racial differences in IQ (even though those differences are mild compared with overwhelming similarity). Denying empirical reality is not a good thing in any circumstance. In a university context, it is an embrace of illiberalism at its most pernicious and seductive: because its motives are good.

I don't know for a fact that there are inherent differences in ability between various ethnic groups.  Richwine could be wrong in that there are meta factors  his model mismeasures, and that ethnic origins are a proxy for the real causes of the disparities.

What is empirically undeniable is that IQ tests have shown an almost uniform difference for 50 plus years.  The "science" for these differences is at least as solidly established as climate change.  And as with climate change, pretending what is empirically obvious - in Sullivan's words, "denying empirical reality" - will not make that reality disappear.

That students at Harvard University react with such intellectual cowardice - 'EEK! A WITCH!" - does not speak highly of our top students.

Getting back to Lehrer, it seems that, when it comes to today's students in Cambridge, fighting fiercely is a thing of the past, at least so far as intellectual freedom.

If I were a Harvard student or graduate, this would fill me with a deep shame today.

Friday, 10 May 2013

5000 And Counting

This week, this humble blog celebrated its 5000th page view.  Well, 'celebrate' is a bit strong.  Still.  Viewed 5000 times; that's 10,000 eyes.  From more than a dozen countries.

Here's the current map.

Graph of most popular countries among blog viewers
Viewing Footprint Shows a Strong Norther Bias

In the past week, eyeballs from the US, Canada, the UK, Ireland, France, Germany, Russia, China, Ukraine (!), and Moldova (!!) have visited.  

I'm not sure who in Moldova blundered here - no comment was left.  Could be a robot, or someone phishing.  Thus far, I've not received any breathless requests from descendants of the deposed Romanoff family, promising riches if I send a cheque for a couple of hundred bucks.

Anyhow, viewers have also come from Mexico, Australia, Brazil, South Africa, and Vietnam.  Thus far, no princes from Nigeria.

Some fun facts:
  • This is the 114th post.  About 45 views per post
  • One post in particular - about Margaret Thatcher, was the most viewed - nearly 200 hits
  • Posts have covered topics as varied as California licence plate schemes, baseball free agency and market efficiency, Oprah Winfrey's weight, taxes, and statistical perorations.  Oh, and some politics here and there.  
  • I've now posted at least once in each of the past 5 years (2009, 2010, 2011, 2012, and now 2103).
  • Some predictions have been pretty accurate (comment on my running history in 2009 predicted I would hit 12,000 total miles run in November 2010, which I did).  
  • Some predictions have been way off (discussion of Dontrelle Willis's future)
Oh, and through it all, the Toronto Blue Jays still stink, the Stanley Cup still eludes return to Canada, and there still will be rain on that plain down in Spain...

Thursday, 9 May 2013

The "Hot Hand" - Reality or Fantasy

I don't follow the NBA really at all, but I am interested in other sports (baseball in particular) and mathematics.  Thus, I found a recent NY Times article on the phenomenon of "hot hands" in sports quite interesting.

The author, following the opening game of the Chicago Bulls - Miami Heat playoff series, commented on a recent paper analysing the question of whether such streaks exist or are just an imputed pattern amidst random outcomes.  In that game, Chicago's Nate Robinson, basically a 29-year old journeyman of no particular note, poured in 27 points (more than twice his career and seasonal averages) to lead the Bulls to a surprise win over Miami.  The Heat are heavy favourites to win this series and the title.

Underlying the article is a recent analysis done by Yaari Gur and Shmuel Eisenmann, two computational biologists at Yale University.  The two analysed data from both the NBA (free throws) and the Pro Bowlers' Association in an effort to determine whether there are any data to support the belief.

The research followed up to a 1985 paper done by Amos Tversky, a professor of statistics at Stanford, that looked at the same question, based on field goal and free throw sequences.  (NB: I knew Professor Tversky casually during my time as a graduate student at Stanford).  I read the paper 20 years ago as part of my own research into defining randomness via what is called Kolmogoroff-Chaitin Complexity.  Put as simply as I can, K-C theory looks at the level of difficulty, measured by length, needed to define a long string of data.  The longer the description, the more complex the string, and hence the more "random" it is.

In an example, consider a 10000-character string of "X".  In computer code, this can easily be described as the ASCII code for X (88) followed by the hex code for 10000 (2710).  Thus, a 10000 character string compresses to 882710, a very, very short and thus non-random string.

Tversky looked at sequences of makes and misses, and in particular, runs of each, and the likelihood, presuming that each shot is an independent event.  According to Professor Tversky's paper, mathematically, these runs are indistinguishable from random variation.

The newer research of Professor Gur approaches the problem from a slightly different angle.  Rather than looking at strings, he looked at free throw pairs/triples (in the NBA, players can be awarded three free throws if fouled on a three-point shot), and conditional probabilities of making the second/third free throw following the outcome of the first/second shot.

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Conditional Probability Plot of Free Throws from Gur, 2009
The analysis compares P(1|0) (probability that second shot is made, given that the first is a miss) vs. P(1|1) (probability that second shot is made, given that the first is made).  The results are based upon a variation of what is called a Polya Urn, named for George Polya.  Balls are drawn from an urn containing B black balls and W white balls.

The research of the second paper concludes that there is a slight (7-12%) increase of the likelihood following a make.  Thus, a 70% free-throw shooter improves to about a 72% shooter if he has made the first. It's a very small difference.

Sports is a physical and mental endeavour, as Yogi Berra attested ("90% of this game is half mental"), so this result has face validity.  Any golfer also knows that a key to a good round is to find a good swing and then just repeat it.  As a golfer of middling ability, my own anecdotal evidence is that I can have a round where my swing just "feels" right, and I can duplicate the same pattern on most of the holes.  The opposite also is true.

The same phenomenon also is perhaps demonstrated in that a free throw shooter 'feels it,' when a good stroke yields a make, and a poor shot results in a rim-shaking brick.  A missed free throw is likely, psychologically, to result in the shooter attempting to make slight adjustments.  Thus, it seems that what is really being seen is not so much a hot streak, but the avoidance of cold ones - poor shots.

Does this apply to teams?  That seems less likely to me.  Neither Tversky nor Gur looked at winning streaks for teams or "runs" (periods of time in a game where one team seems to make all of its shots and scores a large number of un-answered points).

A back-of-the-envelope analysis was done by the baseball writer Bill James back in 1986, where he looked a the probabilities that a team who lost the first game of a playoff series came back to win the second.  Adjusting for winning percentages, home/road advantage, and other variables, James concluded that the team who LOST the first game had a slightly elevated probability of winning the second, which stands astride the common wisdom about "hot streaks."  James's conjecture was that the team who lost the game was more likely to examine the events of the game and make adjustments - changing the lineup, for example - than the team who won the first game.

This lesson was lost on the NY Times author, who took the results of Gur and optimistically predicted that the Bulls, the hot hand, would walk over the Heat.  Granted that Ms. Reynolds cops to being a Bulls' fan and thus not objective, she appears to be reading into the data something not there.

Empirically, her optimism was not borne out, as Miami came back to blow out Chicago in Game 2, 115-78.

Wednesday, 8 May 2013

J. Wellington Wimpy, Economist

"I will l gladly pay you Tuesday for a hamburger today."

The famous pitch, now eight decades old, from perennial mooch Wimpy of Popeye fame. (Side Note: Wimpy apparently was based upon an admixture of two men - one called Wellington J. Reyonolds, an instructor of the cartoonist E C Segar at the Chicago Art Institute, and the other "Windy Bill" Schuchert, the manager of an opera house where Segar had worked).

Now, recalling the character of Wimpy - not too fond of work, with a voracious appetite, and an uncanny ability to hit up others for the money to obtain his favourite food - I was amused to read on this Finance site of a creation of the Economist magazine: the "Big Mac Index."

The basic idea is that the price of a Big Mac, a fairly common good that is subject to the various laws of economics - supply and demand, inferior/superior goods, income substitution theory, revealed preferences and the like, can be indexed and used for various microeconomic analyses.

In the article, the author argues that the government are using some sleight of hand in manipulating the consumer price index (CPI) as part of a grander scheme to puff up the economy despite the appearance to all those NOT employed by the US Treasury that our economy is recovering.

Peter Schiff, an economist at a firm called Euro Pacific Capital and the author of the recent book The Real Crash, is to say the least, a sceptic of claims from Washington:
According to government measures, inflation in the U.S. is all but non-existent. The officially endorsed Consumer Price Index (CPI) claims a mere 1.5% rise in prices over the 12 months ending last March. Food and energy, which are excluded from core inflation, rose 1.5% and fell 1.6% in the same release.  
Citing The Economist's Big Mac index, Schiff says real inflation has been understated since the government started adjusting the way inflation was measured in the early 2000s. Since 2002 the Big Mac has risen in price at nearly three times the rate of overall inflation.
According to Mr Schiff, this represents "more anecdotal evidence that what we get from the government when it comes to inflation is not information but propaganda."

Anyone paying even the least attention to the news by now is aware of the mania around "the sequester" and the "grand bargain" being played at by the US congress and the president.  The main baton mis dans les roues is the indexing of entitlements (e.g., Social Security) to the CPI.  The president and the Democrats are of course strongly opposed to any revisions in the way that these benefits are calculated.  It represents something of a conundrum in my view for the president.  On the one hand, we're told that running ever larger deficits is OK because inflation is currently under control - and the CPI is used for this calculation.  On the other, constraining benefits to the so-called "chained CPI" would result in a slower rate of growth of said benefits, which would in effect represent a significant cut in purchasing power for retirees and other beneficiaries as inflation erodes the value of the dollar.

Mr Schiff points out that the price of a Big Mac (in the US) closely paralleled the CPI from 1986 until 2002, and then diverged.  Since 1986, the CPI has increased about 110%, whilst the BMI has grown significantly faster (173%), with virtually all of the increase since 2002.  This is right around the time of the greatest inflection in the housing "bubble," with a brief period in the 2008-2010 implosion.  Following the election of Mr Obama, the BMI really took off.

The Historical Big Mac Index
Of course, these data don't really prove anything, but it is an interesting window into empirical impacts of fiscal policy.  We're told that the flooding of our economy with easy money has not resulted in significant inflation, and in fact, much of the current, common wisdom of Keynesian economists like Paul Krugman is that - far from being concerned about deficits - we should be continuing to print money and stimulate.

The evidence is far from dispositive, but needless to say, if we were to switch to a barter economy with Big Macs as a means of exchange, inflation would be obvious to all, including Professor Krugman.

The Economist, largely a not-at-all-silly source of news, concocted the Big Mac Index in 1986 in a somewhat tongue-in-cheek measure, somewhat like the old Pax McDonica - the artefact that no two countries who each have a McDonald's restaurant have ever gone to war - of economics.

At their site Economist.com, there is a fascinating, interactive set of graphs by which people can use the price of a Big Mac for various analyses.  My favourite is its use as a measure of fiscal and currency manipulation.  For example China is currently the bête noire of the currency world.

In this simple analysis, the current price of a Big Mac in various countries is compared to the price of same in the US - its index price.  This is adjusted for purchase price parity - a measure of how much a comparable basked of products costs, adjusted for per capita GDP.

This is used as the means of empirical currency evaluation.  In essence, if a Big Mac costs $1 in the US, and RMB8 in China, then the exchange rate should be roughly 8:1.  This presumes purchase price parity, which of course is inexact; restaurant spending is somewhat positional- part of the cost includes the societal "value" one gains by being seen doing something.  The positional value of a Chevy Impala is pretty low; the relational value of an Audi, comparably higher.  Believe it or not, in China, eating in a McDonald's was seen in the past as a symbol of affluence - the consumer could afford a "modern, western" lifestyle of a sort.

The official exchange rate is then compared, and the currency either 'overvalued' or 'undervalued.'

Below is the most recent display of currency manipulation as adjudicated by the Big Mac Index.

Current State of Currency Policies
Countries who are coloured in RED are those where the currency is undervalued (i.e., is empirically worth more than the official exchange rate yields), whilst those in BLUE are overvalued.  The US, as the index, is green.

China, unsurprisingly, is one of the top places where the currency is undervalued.  A Big Mac currently goes for RMB16.00.  Using the official, current exchange rate of $1=RMB6.14, the PPP-adjusted price of a Big Mac in China is equal to $2.61 in the US.  The actual current index price of a Big Mac in the US is $4.30.  Hence, the RMB, using this rate, is undervalued by 40% ( {$4.30 - $2.61} / $4.30}).

What this means is, in a nut-shell, that if the exchange rate of the RMB to the US dollar were indexed to the cost of a Big Mac, one dollar would buy 3.22 RMB, as opposed to the 6.13 it actually does.  There is, thus, some empirical evidence that China is undervaluing its currency, at least according to the eminent economist Ronald McDonald.

Tuesday, 7 May 2013

Could it Be? Yes it Could.

The Cicada, after its Emergence (Before)

File:Cicada skin.jpg
The Famous Shell of the Cicada (After)

Something's coming; something good.

If I can wait.

Tony - the male lead from the play West Side Story appears early in the first act, singing his song of anticipation.  Of course, the something that is coming is a mixed blessing - he meets Maria at the dance, falls for her, plans to run away.

It all ends somewhat badly for Tony.

Thought of this when I read today that at any moment, those of us on the east coast will experience the re-emergence of the cicadas, after 17 years underground.  These little insects bide their time for 17 years, and then, on cue, when the ground temperature reaches 64 degrees, burrow up seeking mates.

The last appearance of this group was in 1996.

For the course of a week or so, the trees will be alive with the chattering calls of male cicadas, hoping to attract their own femmes fatales for what are truly les liaisons dangereuses.  Most will be eaten by birds, frogs, or other creatures before they can fulfil their destinies.  For the lucky few, upon finding their mates, will die soon thereafter.

Entymologists have several explanations for the reason of the periodicity.  Some believe it is due to an evolutionary mechanism to foil would-be predators.  Others believe the timing is to ensure that broods (there are different "waves" of cicadas) do not compete with one another.

I find it remarkable that these little creatures seem so perfectly designed, so patient.  Waiting for all those years for a couple of days in the sun.

All for love.

Friday, 3 May 2013

Les Grandes Personnes Ne Comprennent Jamais Rien Toutes Seules

Qu'est-ce que c'est ça?

After the passage of quite a few weeks - months, actually - finally got the word that my job assignment has cleared all of the internal hurdles.  So this summer, we will be heading off for three years in Paris, France,  At the announcement in our internal team meeting yesterday, my superior thanked me for my patience and described the process as akin to a root canal.  I remarked that it was more like giving birth, in that the process delivered a tangible result at the end after much strain, and at seven months, would have been only a slightly premature baby.

My sister-in-law, knowing somewhat ahead of time, of the news, sent our seven year old a copy of Antoine de Saint Exupéry's classic Le Petit Prince.  It's a fun story, and interestingly, one of the very first French-language books I read, about 30 or so years ago.  The story opens with the author describing his early days and the frustrations a small child feels in negotiating the adult world.

In the opening chapter, St Exupéry details how, upon reading in a book the story of a snake swallowing its meal whole, and then over the course of six months, sleeping as it digests its unfortunate prey, makes his first drawing.  Proud of his work, he shows it to the adults in his life.

J'ai alors beaucoup réfléchi sur les aventures de la jungle et, à mon tour, j'ai réussi, avec un crayon de couleur, à tracer mon premier dessin. Mon dessin numéro 1. Il était comme ça. J'ai montré mon chef d'œuvre aux grandes personnes et je leur ai demandé si mon dessin leur faisait peur. Elles m'ont répondu: "Pourquoi un chapeau ferait-il peur?"
In English (excuse my decades-old French skills)
I thought for a long time about adventures in the jungle, and then, using a coloured pencil, I made my first drawing; drawing number one.  It looked like this.  I showed my masterpiece to the adults, and asked them if my drawing frightened them.  They all responded, "Why would a hat scare me?"
St Exupéry reflected thusly, that grown ups never understand anything by themselves, and that they always need children to explain, which is difficult, tiring.  Later, he extends this thought with the reflexion that we all were young once, but very few of us remember what it was like.  

In one of my favourite quotes from the book:
Toutes les grandes personnes ont d'abord été des enfants. Mais peu d'entre elles s'en souviennent.
I'm now reading Le Petit Prince to my son, and it's interesting to hear his reactions to it.  He doesn't speak more than a few words of French, so I do my best to translate for him, and he seems to like the story.  

As we prepare for our experience in Paris, with the excitement of a new job (for me), and a new country and culture (for all of us), it will be interesting to keep this in mind.  Alastair, a small child for which much of the world is still relatively new, will have reactions to the experiences than we will.

In the story, the "hat" that big people see is, in fact, an elephant entombed within a boa constrictor.

C'est un éléphant qui se trouvé
dans un serpent boa
I hope I can keep in mind that some of what he sees will be a hat, and some will be an elephant inside a snake.

Wednesday, 1 May 2013

Why Don't You Just Try 'Acting'

There's a famous (though not sure if not apocryphal) story that surrounds the 1970's movie "Marathon Man."  Dustin Hoffman plays a grad student who discovers that a Nazi war criminal, played by Sir Laurence Olivier, is smuggling diamonds in New York.  As the story goes, Dustin Hoffman - a notorious 'method' actor - in order to enhance the perceived "realness" of a scene in which he had been awake all night running, reported to the set having actually stayed awake the night before.

Noticing how bedraggled Hoffman was, Olivier commented, "Dustin, why don't you just try acting?"

I thought of this comment upon reading this recent column of Maureen Dowd of the New York Times.  Dowd is, in my opinion, the worst columnist in this nation's newspaper of record whose name does not include "Gail" and "Collins."  As an aside - is anyone in the country more upset that Mitt Romney did not get elected than Collins?  What is she going to write about now that the "Mitt Romney put his dog on the roof of his car" trope is past its sell-by date?

In Dowd's column, she takes to task President Obama for his petulance in response to a question at the press conference marking the first 100 days of his second term.  The president was asked as to why he cannot get his agenda through the congress.  Mr Obama, in what is becoming a bit of a pattern, peevishly shot back, "If you put it that way, maybe I should just pack up and go home."  Maybe the president is looking to his adolescent children for style and substance tips.

Dowd (to give credit where it's due) points out that the president, despite his protestations, does have as part of his job the task of trying to motivate a restive, diffident congress.  The blame congress excuse is starting to wear thin.

But where Maureen Dowd falls down is in her Simple Simon suggestion that, because President Obama played Daniel Day-Lewis playing him playing Lincoln at the White House Correspondence dinner (really; Holy Victor Victoria), Mr Obama should "channel" Lincoln himself.
How can the president star in a White House Correspondents’ Association dinner satirical film pretending to be Daniel Day-Lewis playing Barack Obama in Steven Spielberg’s movie “Obama,” and not have absorbed the lessons of “Lincoln”?
What seems to escape Dowd is that Daniel Day-Lewis is an actor. He's a multiple Oscar winner, to be sure, but pretending to be Abraham Lincoln is not quite the same thing as being Abraham Lincoln.  Hell; it's not even really studying Lincoln in any more than a shallow, superficial way.

That Dowd thinks that acting in a three-minute spoof of an actor pretending to be the president should promote any sort of insight into President Obama reveals a shocking shallowness in a person who gets column space in the leading newspaper in the USA a couple of times a week.

I would say Dowd should be ashamed, but that would require a level of self-awareness that her writing reveals is itself absent.

Tuesday, 30 April 2013

Good Morning, Worm, Your Honour

Judges at the Hong Kong High Court,
Bewigged and in Red Regalia

Hong Kong, the former British Crown Colony, continues to cling to at least some of the old ways.  Of course, the tiny quasi city-state reverted to Chinese rule in 1997 after more than 150 years under the British, but apparently, some old habits die hard.

In the High Court, as is the case in many former (and current) British territories, judges and barristers (lawyers who have been admitted to the bar, and are permitted to argue in the Court) wear white, horse-hair wigs.  

Many Americans (and no doubt, others as well) find the tradition to be somewhat bizarre.  But the wigs apparently confer a certain status, and one that lower-tiered attorneys would like access to.  

In the English legal system, there are the aforementioned barristers, and a second type of lawyer called a solicitor: a person who is engaged directly with the clients and argues only in the lower courts.  By tradition, solicitors in Hong Kong are not permitted to wear wigs in the court, a privilege that is reserved to barristers and judges.

Well.... time marches on.  In the UK itself, solicitors these days are permitted to wear wigs when acting in circumstances where they (the wigs) would be worn by people admitted to the bar.  

According to this article in the Wall Street Journal, Hong Kong's solicitors would like to join their English compatriots under the white Thunderdomes.  

Their recent request has been denied.

According to the article, the reason that the solicitors want access (and barristers want to deny it) to the wigs is one of prestige, if not gravitas.

According to a spokesman for the solicitors called Dieter Yih (unfortunately, no photo), 
We're worried that in jury trials there might be a perception that someone wearing a wig is better...The wig makes you look more serious. It looks more professional.

Barristers are, of course, having none of it. Lawyer Jackie Lai sums his feelings up thusly
When I wear my wig, I know something big is going to happen.  It makes me feel like I have more responsibility. I think I exude more energy than without it. It's magical.
Solicitors should not wear wigs. If we have two professions, we have to represent their demarcation by something obvious, like a wig,  People like the wig. Some may say it's ridiculous, but others see it as an icon of a people who—under the wig—are thinking in a logical, authoritative way. 
It's hard to argue that.  I know when I see a grown man in a white, powdered wig, I, too, know that something "magical" is about to happen.

Of course, maybe plain-spoken Thomas Jefferson might have a different view, should he be alive today.  On the headpieces, Jefferson opined
For heaven's sake, discard the monstrous wig which makes the English judges look like rats.
Uneasy, apparently, lies the head on which the wig rests. 

Monday, 29 April 2013

Hail, Stanford, Hail

Stanford University seal 2003.svg
Where the rolling foothills rise
Up towards mountains higher,
Where at eve the Coast Range lies, 
In the sunset fire
The opening lyrics of the Stanford alma mater are, unsurprisingly, focused on the geography and natural gifts of the campus situated on the San Francisco peninsula, about 40 miles to the south of the city by the bay. (Note bene: Stanford, despite a common misconception, is not located in the city of Palo Alto - in fact, the school pre-dates the city by three years, is entirely beyond the borders of the city - which I discovered once when trying to enter Foothills Park, a 'private' park that Palo Alto jealously guards lest any undesirables from Mountain View decide to try to sneak in - and in fact, has its own post office and ZIP code, segregated from PA).

When the school was founded in 1891, it was almost quite literally off on the edge of the world, on a horse farm owned by the former Governor of California (Leland Stanford), with practically nothing more than the trees which later gave Palo Alto its name, the foothills in the song, and a couple of meandering creeks in its midst.

Thought of that as I came across this piece, published in the Stanford Review.

Stanford, like many other schools that range from Ivy League universities, Ivy wanabes (e.g., Rice), and Pac-10 party schools (Oregon, U Arizona), has a "confessions" WIKI page, where students can post, anonymously, on various topics.

The Review recently did a back-of the-envelope analysis of what is on the collective minds (pun, partially intended) of the students on The Farm, in comparison to some of their peers.

Stanford students apparently are not terribly concerned about partying (Stanford students talk less about partying than any other schools in the group not having the letters B, Y, and U in them.)  That list is topped by Oregon (who knew?), UCSB, and UVA.  As an aside, Oregon students, seem quite interested in the arts of Bacchus, leading all others in discussions of partying, drinking, and recreational drug use.

Stanford - I suspect largely due to the prominence of its graduate schools - has something of a reputation for nerdiness.  Both Larry Page AND Sergei Brin are alums of the grad programmes in CS, and the University (according to Wikipedia) boasts 30 billionaires as alums. So it's not surprising that partying is not a popular pastime.  Or at least, not something students talk about, even anonymously.

What may strike readers as odd is the relatively low frequency with which classes and schoolwork are discussed - again, Stanford students are towards the bottom of the list.

To my mind's eye, what is the most striking - and to me as a former student, 'aha' - item in the survey is that MONEY is a very, very frequent topic of conversation, as is loneliness.

When I was a graduate student at Stanford (more than 20 years ago; the words "start" and "up" had not yet entered the lexicon as a complex noun), the undergrads in my lecture session were incredibly grade-focused.  Few students I lectured (and graded) would be considered "eggheads" or intellectual grinds.  Many, on the other hand, were quite interested in what they needed to master to score well on the exams, and on more than one occasion, would come to my office hours to try to finagle an extra point or two on their homework or exams.

Now, Stanford at that time had a policy by which students were allowed to drop a course, with no penalty, right up until the hour the final examination sat.  Additionally, letter-grades were assigned as A, B, C, or D.  Students receiving an "F" simply had a "no credit" attached to their records, with no penalty in terms of GPA.  A student failing a course could take the F, have it not count against his record, and simply re-take the course.

In fact, I had a student write on his final paper, "If you are not going to give me an A, please fail me."


Stanford is incredibly competitive as an institution, and is also incredibly expensive.  The students at the time were aware of the value of their golden tickets (if anything, this has gotten even worse), and were, additionally, aware of what came next - in 1992, that meant Yale Law School or Harvard Med - and their grades thus meant more or less everything.

Apparently, nowadays, the top students are equally mercenary, if the data are to be believed.

And I guess that is also why, in addition to money and income driving the conversations, there is a sense of isolation and loneliness.  Hours spent cramming for an exam, where the kid next to you is a competitor, tends to produce such a mindset.

Combine that with the sort of edge of the world, foothills and sunset fires emotions captured in the alma mater, and "die luft der freiheit weht" takes on a bit of a different tone.

Wednesday, 24 April 2013

Three Weeks In

Blue Jays are now about three weeks into the 2013 season, with 22 games under their collective belts.  The season started with high expectations - a blockbuster, multi-team trade that brought Mark Buehrle, Jose Reyes, and Josh Johnson in from Miami, and another big trade that send prospect Travis D'Arnaud to the Mets for reigning Cy Young pitcher R.A. Dickey.

The Yankees, aging to begin with, started the campaign with a host of injuries and looked vulnerable, and the Red Sox are rebuilding, so there was hope that this year, Toronto might finally, finally contend after two decades of futility.

Hasn't exactly worked out.

Dickey has had some control issues (not shocking for a knuckle ball pitcher), Brandon Morrow has looked less than spectacular - is he maybe the next Melido Perez?  The defenders have been awful.

Put it all together (second worst batting average in the American League, spotty pitching), and the team is 9-13 to start.  That includes an extra-innings win today in Baltimore, courtesy of a bases loaded walk to Maicer Izturis, who was hitting all of a buck sixty nine.

The game ended the Orioles' 17-game extra innings win streak, which is apparently the longest such streak in 54 years.

The Blue Jays have played now in seven series, winning one (against Kansas City), losing five, and splitting a four-gamer versus the White Sox.

They're actually lucky to be 9-13, if one looks over the wreckage of April.

In the 22 games thus far played, Toronto's opponents have scored first in 16 of the games.  Historically, the team scoring first wins about two-thirds of the games.  On that number, Toronto would project to be about a game or two worse than they stand.

Even better, in the 22 games, the Blue Jays have trailed at one point or another in all but three.  Only three times have they scored first AND not at some point relinquished the lead.

Put another way, in 19 of 22 games, the Jays have found themselves behind.

More, the Blue Jays have allowed 30 runs more than they have scored.  The SABREmetric "Pythagorean" rule (ratio of square of runs scored to sum of squares of runs scored and runs allowed) projects the Jays to be a game worse at 8-14.

They are simply going to have to do a lot better than this.

Tuesday, 23 April 2013

Baseball Sees "Diversity" Issue. Is Nothing Safe?

I read on ESPN today that Major League Baseball has commissioned a panel to study "how to increase diversity" in its players.  In the same month that the new movie "42" about Jackie Robinson debuted, Commissioner Bud Selig has discovered that professional baseball lacks "diversity," at least so far as the number of black players is concerned.
"As a social institution, Major League Baseball has an enormous social responsibility to provide equal opportunities for all people, both on and off the field," Selig said in a statement.

According to the data from MLB, about 9% of the players are identified as "African-American."  That compares to a figure of 19% in 1995 (though figures from 20 years ago included black players from Latin America; a fact that Selig et at ignore in stating that the rates have fallen by half).

This figure strikes me as low - part of that is perception, no doubt.  When I watch professional baseball, I don't really try to parse the races of the players, but I would certainly consider, say, Big Papi (David Ortiz) to be "black," though he counts as "Latino" in the MLB survey, as he comes from the Dominican Republic.

As whole, when the demographics of the US are parsed - blacks not of Hispanic origin separated from blacks, Hispanic - black people make up 12 per cent of the total.  Thus, the MLB figure of 9% is low, but not shockingly so.

(For the record, the makeup of MLB according to Selig is about 61% "white," 27% "Latino," and 9% "African-American."  No mention is made of Asian or "other" races).

One thing I find particularly galling about this "story," aside from the ugly, unnecessary injection of race and politics into sport, is how ridiculous and biased the methodology and language are.  Does baseball really lack "diversity," when the distribution is pretty damned close to the makeup of the country?  It's certainly far, far closer to the real distribution than, say, the NBA, which is overwhelmingly black.  The most recent data indicate that among professional basketball players, 83% are black.  Of the 17% ostensibly "white" players, I wonder how many are actually, in the parlance of Bud Selig, "European Americans?"  A significant number of players are from Europe, even if we include Steve Nash - a Canadian - among white Americans.

Statistically speaking, the probability of coming up with an 83-17-0 (Black-White-Hispanic) sample from a population of 63-12-21-9 (White, Black, Hispanic, Other) is orders of magnitude less likely than what is seen in baseball?

Is anyone calling for an investigation into the lack of 'diversity' in the NBA?  Such a suggestion would be considered laughable.

Part of the perception, I think, that baseball lacks diversity is not because the number of black players is low compared to the population, but rather, because the number of black players in MLB is low compared to the number of black players in the NBA.

This is, indeed, low.  But is this really the standard one should use?  What presumptions about such a yardstick are presumed and not said?

Second, does anyone really, honestly believe that professional baseball is not offering equal opportunities for black players?  That there are institutional roadblocks to keep black players out?

Professional sport is incredibly competitive; the difference between the best player in the league and a marginal one, along the total distribution of abilities, is miniscule.  Teams look for the tiniest advantage in an attempt to win.

An entire genre of strategy, books, and films - "Moneyball" - has arisen with clever ways to gain a small advantage.

I wrote some time ago about the phenomenon of Jeremy Lin; Lin created a sensation in the NBA when he briefly stepped in to a void created by an injury.  Lin has faded back into obscurity - as a Harvard grad, he was an unlikely star.

The bottom line is that MLB should just let us fans watch the games and stop badgering us with diversity nonsense.

As Jackie Robinson attested, can we just watch the best players play and leave it at that?