Sunday, January 19, 2014

Debatable Points of View

Let me ask a straightforward question with a little setup:

  • I work on the eighth floor of a building. 
  • There is a lower level below street level, and the levels from the lowest are called: Lower Level, Lobby (this is the street level), 2nd-floor, 3rd-floor, etc. up to the 8th-floor.
  • The stairwell in the building is a standard reversing pair with a landing in the middle (i.e., there are ten stairs and then a landing at which point one must do a 180-degree turn when walking up to then go up ten more stairs to reach the next floor).
  • There is extra distance between the lobby level and the 2nd level such that in the stairwell there is a complete additional set of stairs (as if there is a story between them) one must climb when traversing between these levels.
  • My question: If I begin on the lower level and walk up the stairs to my floor (the eighth floor), what is the halfway point?

Based on the first and second pieces of information, you'd calculate eight flights of stairs from the bottom up and answer "at the fourth floor". This corresponds to point A on the illustration.
If you believe that the distance matters more than the ordinal numbering, then you'd answer "at the middle landing between the third and fourth floors". This corresponds to point B on the illustration. 
If you're thinking like an economist, you'd realize that as I walk up the stairs I grow more tired. The first stair is much easier than the last. In that case you would be wise to answer something like "two-thirds or three-fourths of the way to the top". This might correspond to a point like C on the illustration.

I'm not saying any of these are the right answer, and clearly a case could be made for any. But it underscores how reasoning through an answer is as important as the answer itself--even in a seemingly straightforward, "simple math" question like this. 

So if you're standing at the Lower Level with me and I challenge you to a race "to the halfway point to my floor", you may want some clarification on the finish line. Just don't ask me where the stairs go. They go up.

Wednesday, January 15, 2014

What's On My DVR--listed in a very particular order.

Here is a list of comedic TV shows I am currently recording/watching listed from best to worst with commentary where I feel compelled to offer it:

  1. New Girl - This show is excellent. I laugh out loud at this more than just about all the others combined. I think this show is more in the tradition of Seinfeld, the penultimate sitcom, than anything else on TV. That shouldn't necessarily be the goal for every sitcom, but that is largely because most shows cannot play in that realm. This show is definitely sponge worthy.
  2. Modern Family - The ability of this show to have such a great cast of characters who have such amazing chemistry together is why it is an easy pick at the Emmy's every year. Because one should consider such things, I am 2 parts Jay Pritchett, 1.5 parts Phil Dunphy, and .5 parts of each Mitchell Pritchett and Cam Tucker.
  3. (tie) Parks and Recreation/The Big Bang Theory - Both of these compete well in the Modern Family style of great chemistry among characters. If I had to break the tie, it would be tough. There is a little Sheldon in all of us; he just dares to fully express what we are all thinking. There hasn't been a stronger secondary character than Ron Swanson in decades. He is the Norm of this generation. Parks & Rec would have to get my nod to break the tie simply because it doesn't have a laugh track--I don't need to be told when to laugh . . . ironically, I am channeling Sheldon Cooper in that response. 
  4. [stupid Blogger makes me do this to keep the numbering consistent]
  5. Comedians In Cars Getting Coffee - Seinfeld himself couldn't out Seinfeld New Girl, but he comes close with this show. It only loosely fits in the category with these, but blurring the lines of traditional TV is what great TV has always been made of. It is Internet only, so I'm sure to get disapproving looks from Big TV. The hell with it; this one is awesome. My preferred method of viewing: with the wife, drinking bourbon, smoking cigars, in the backyard, after dark.
  6. Community - I'm worried about this one. A few seasons back this would have been competing for the top slots. That said, it will have to burn me good to turn my back on it (see HIMYM below). If I know Jeff Winger, he'll have this one back challenging for that tied-up three spot by season's end.
  7. Louie - About to start its fourth season in May, this one is edgy and on FX for a reason. And all that is what makes it great. This is an adult's sitcom. Grow up and watch it. It is great. Once it is in season, I may very well be reminded that it should be rated higher on this list. 
  8. Family Guy - As opposed to the next show but parallel with the prior show, this one is boundary breaking. If they weren't animated characters, the very serious people wouldn't put up with such insolence. This show makes me cringe occasionally, but it makes me laugh much more often. 
  9. The Middle - This is a very solid show. I'm sure it rings a bit hollow for those who aren't parents; although, I see my own parents in the characters quite a bit. As a parent, it is ridiculously on the mark. It is also fairly wholesome--add a laugh track, and this show could be right out of 1990. The fact the writers can pull this off while being consistently funny is impressive. 
  10. The Simpsons - This show is still funny, but it is not laugh out loud funny any more. It is still important. Many shows on this list are. Modern Family is disarming those opposed to same-sex marriage. Comedians In Cars Getting Coffee, Louie, and Family Guy is telling it like it is. The Simpsons has been doing all that and more for 25 seasons. I'm seeing this one to the end. It has earned it and continues to deserve it.
  11. How I Met Your Mother - This show has jumped the shark. No doubt about it. Do not start it unless you're going back to the beginning, in which case it is probably worth your time. It was amazing once. It is humorous still but tedious now. The flashbacks within the flashback was brilliant and well executed. The magic's gone. The veil has been pierced. We know too much and care too little. I think they let it slip when they made Barney a real person--put him on the straight and narrow. The problem is they sent him there and then brought him back and then sent him again, which is where he needs to go eventually with Robin. But there has been a little too much misdirection. This is true of Ted and the quest to meet the mother as well. We've been too close one too many times. I feel like I have whiplash. The twists and turns were great and made the show, but at some point I just want off the rollercoaster. 
In the non-comedy category I am almost caught up with the epic Boardwalk Empire. I can't say enough about how good this drama is. I've been reading Daniel Okrent's Last Call coincidentally during this time. The TV show's ability to capture the history and the drama of the era is remarkable. While I didn't see it from the beginning but may go back and start, I have been watching Mad Men recently. If they gave awards for really good dramas, it would probably win a lot . . . oh, wait.

Shows I plan on starting from the beginning:

  • Downton Abbey - actually I have seen the first two episodes
  • Breaking Bad
  • The Americans
  • The Goldbergs - actually I might only pick it up where it lies

Tuesday, January 14, 2014

Highly linkable

One of the great contradictions of America is that as we aspire to be a truly free and civilized country we continue to have such totalitarian edicts carried out in barbaric ways.

Jeff Jarvis makes some great points here arguing that the primary issue with the NSA is not privacy but government overreach and oversight--knowledge is not the problem. 

Maybe if they followed common core, we could get those horrible private schools to do better.

Bryan Caplan puts forth a powerful parable questioning why there isn't tremendous support for open borders. In response to those raising concerns from survey data and a recent paper that increased immigration might be threatening to libertarians, Hansj√∂rg Walther basically says, "I do not think it means what you think it means."

I've said it before, and I'll say it again: The three most powerful, promising, and productive ways we could advance mankind would be to get the state out of running the education business, end the prohibition and war on drugs, and open the borders to people and things. 

Wednesday, January 8, 2014

Ranking College Football Programs

If nothing else, sports enthusiasm is great for generating passionate debate about esoteric topics and hypothetical arguments. Within this realm lies the ever popular, hair-splitting activity of determining who is the greatest of all time. And college football is perhaps the most well attended of these masters of the universe feuds--for there can be only one.

You don't have to search for long to find many lists each with there own methodology. Here is one. Here is another. Here yet another. These all came from a quick Google search and all happen to have the Sooners at the top, but you probably can find lists with different results. 

Thinking about this topic myself but trying not to take too seriously any particular method of ranking (including my own), I have developed a ranking that is different from any I've ever come across. However, I believe it is more elegant and more defensible. My method uses historical average margin of victory to determine who's better, who's best. 

The reason this method may have a lot of credence is margin of victory (MoV) is a powerful determinant in predicting college football outcomes. In fact a simple MoV model adjusted for field neutrality can explain about 63% of the outcome in a typical FBS college football game. Keep in mind that this is not just predicting who will win but also by how much.*

So what did I do? Using the amazing data source from James Howell's page along with some supplemental data from the NCAA and College Football Stats, I compiled all the scores from all the college football games involving a Division I-A school for the past 43 years. Why start in 1970? Because that is when I started . . . but there is some foundation as that is around the beginning of the modern era of college football. Around that time saw the evolution of dynamic offensive strategies, the rise and proliferation of black athletes, the end of one platoon football (1966), and the beginnings of a more intrusive NCAA in the name of competitiveness. 

The results:

Since 1970, Nebraska is the clear leader. 

I include it through the top 26 since some would want to exclude Boise State from the rankings due to limited games played in the top level of college football.

Since 1998 (the BCS era):

Check out the workbook for yourself tweaking the constraints as you see fit. You can change the time period examined, the minimum number of games played to be included in the rankings, and the statistic you wish to sort by. 

*The out of sample prediction accuracy falls off some and the magnitude of the variance of outcomes matters such that the ability for such a model to beat Vegas (>~53% necessary prediction accuracy against the spread) is low (actual prediction accuracy ATS of between 51%-58%). 

Saturday, January 4, 2014

WWCF: Self-Flying Plane or Self-Driving Car

Which will come first?

Self-flying aircraft commonly used over American airspace
Self-driving cars commonly used on American roads

This post is inspired from conversations with a colleague. We agree that these innovations are coming and that it will probably be in stages. I believe our ultimate predictions are in alignment as well.

The technology will likely be out in front of the legislation as is commonly the case, and the legislation will probably be waiting on public and special interest opinion as it commonly my contention. Yet encouraging signs have been seen. The FAA has approved test sites for aerial drones (a step toward but still shy of the subject here since today's drones are piloted albeit remotely). Similarly, Nevada, Florida, California, and to some extent Michigan have approved autonomous car testing on their public roadways. 

As for advancement coming in stages, my thinking is that regarding both public opinion and legislation there are fewer hurdles for package transportation than there are for human transportation. The first stage will be the delivery of cargo via self-guided vehicle. This might mean one method paves the way for the others and the other three follow suit together (e.g., a self-flying plane delivers packages for FedEx and then sometime after that self-flying planes for commercial passengers comes about just as self-driving delivery cars and personal cars/taxis are made available). 

That last example lends itself to my ultimate prediction on WWCF. Large-scale cargo shipments via plane have perhaps the most to gain with the least to risk in the self-guided future to come. Among the advantages are the economies of scale offered (routes no longer limited to pilot availability and scale in both vehicle and network), the limited natural enemies (taxi unions and personal-injury lawyers are more formidable than are the pilots potentially displaced), and the concentration of benefits (a few package delivery firms). 

I think self-flying planes will be with us to some significant extent within a decade and cars will follow ten years after that. The planes will carry cargo only for the first five years. 

So I predict we will soon be saying, "Look! Up in the sky. It's a bird! It's a plane! Yup, that's exactly what it is. A plane that self flies like a bird."

Update: I am reminded by the colleague mentioned above that there is another facet of self-flying planes that might in fact precede cargo delivery. That would be crop dusting. Search and rescue would be another use. The low risk of danger to bystanders might help these types of uses be the first mover.

Friday, December 27, 2013

Highly linkable

What happens when you combine hundreds of images of a sunset into one image? Magic.

Here and here are a couple of takes on photos of the year.

I want to go to there.

It is actually logical, but reprehensible, that part and parcel of the NCAA's enforcement includes limiting universities' abilities to provide additional tutoring.

Here is Landsburg's latest puzzle. It seems simple enough. Once you've attempted, go to the solution--I got it wrong and stumbled initially to see how the solution was true.

The free market is this era's Galileo.

The world needs radicals like the late, great Nelson Mandela. In fact it needs them to be even more radical.

So you're telling me they help write the rules that they will later be forced to follow? Like I said at Cafe Hayek, which deserves a hat tip for the link: "So many people delude themselves into believing that regulation is some benevolent construct created from pure knowledge, guided by thoughtful reason, immune to bad intentions, and protected from unintended consequences. If only the sausage factory were so."

Cass Sunstein says we need Moneyball-like metrics for non-profits. I agree and would take it further. We pay them to solve problems. Not to fail by trying to hit an arbitrary size of administrative expense.

A degree in English does not necessarily mean you can speak the language of business or economics. And here are two more from John Cochrane on why there is hope for healthcare after Obamacare completely fails.

Finally, 2013 saw yet another great economist pass on to that higher utility curve in the sky. Walter Oi is remembered quite well here by Steven Landsburg.

Saturday, December 21, 2013

Put Me In Coach

I beat up on coaches a lot. More in conversation than in this blog in fact. I've done my share of armchair, from the bleachers, and Monday morning quarterbacking. Allow me to defend coaching a little and relate some economic concepts to the coaching profession.  I want to focus on college football coaches and to use Oklahoma's Bob Stoops in 2013 as a specific example, but this applies in large part to coaches at all levels and in all sports.

Flat out, coaches have a tough job. Yes, many are very, VERY well paid to do this job. Of course, many more are not. The job is tough because it is high-profile performance judged by a vast sea of people who have much less information and skills and who tend to approach the issue from an emotional standpoint. (Not me, of course; when I am yelling at my TV, it is because of my passion for reason and logical decision making.)

A coach has to balance between running an on-going training program while producing output that meets consumers' high demands. The training program is comprised of the gamut from relative beginners to high-value-producing experts (I'd call them professionals, but this isn't that blog post)--all of them thrown into the same "classroom".

Let me use the 2013 OU football team as an example of how coaches face issues involving asymmetric information, decision-making under uncertainty, skewed risk-reward payoffs, and management of public and intra-firm relations.

Throughout Bob Stoops' very successful 14 seasons as Oklahoma's head football coach he has either had a high-profile, all-star quarterback or an inexperienced newcomer who struggled not just when compared to his high-profile predecessor but also in absolute terms. 2013 was of the latter variety.

As Stoops sought to replace the 4-year record holder Landry Jones, he was evaluating the options with many backseat onlookers. The obvious choice to many was Blake Bell, the two-year backup. But in late August Stoops awarded the 2013 starting job to freshman Trevor Knight. When Knight stumbled some in early games, the natives including me grew restless for Bell to be given a shot. A combination of a bad first half and a slight injury gave the natives what they wanted in the West Virginia game, and Bell performed well. But then a few games into his starting role, Bell too fell into a malaise. The offense stumbled contributing greatly to OU's losses to Texas and Baylor. A little in and out substitution between Knight and Bell over a couple of games ended with Knight regaining the starting job for the Kansas State game (a victory) only to exit the role at half-time against OSU due to injury. Bell came in and played well if not better than Knight. Oh, and the formerly third-string sophomore Kendall Thompson was inserted before Bell replaced him in the OSU game.

To say this wasn't according to script is an understatement. But the script isn't actually written by fan dreams. It is an emergent process governed by both luck and coaching decisions. The coaching decisions are governed by a couple of underappreciated forces--uncertainty and asymmetric information. Coaches know a lot, and I mean A LOT, more than the rest of us. They see these players in practice and in games and in replayed videos of both. They interact with them. They also have a game plan and a complex strategy of plays to accomplish that plan. We don't know the plays, the formations, the game plan theories, or how well or poorly the players fit into them all. Add to that the complexity that combinations of players will imply different outcomes. Oh, and players are living lives all this time meaning they simply aren't the same in Spring of sophomore year as they are in December of senior year. Oh, and coaches are humans with biases and informational blind spots. They are operating in a cloud of uncertainty. We are in a fog orders of magnitude more dense than coaches are due to the asymmetric information.

And yet we judge them and will call for their heads if too many of their decisions turn out "wrong". Was Knight the right choice for Stoops to make in August? In September it seemed like the answer was no. In October and November it seemed more and more like the answer was probably yes. In one half of one game in December (n = .5 for statisticians out there) the best we could say was, "Looks like it was a toss up either way". It took us as onlookers an entire season to finally say what we should have been saying all along. To wit, "The coaches probably are making the best choice available, and that choice is still a guess".

"Coaches are paid the big bucks to make those calls and get them right!" you say. Well, yes and no. What is "get them right"? Right as judged by critics--media, fans, detractors, players, administrators, donors, parents, etc. Coaches have many masters. Effectively managing the intra-firm (i.e., players, assistant coaches, administrators, donors, some fans) relations along with the public (i.e., media, some fans, detractors, other team's coaches) relations implies they have interests that may conflict with simply maximizing the probability of long-term winning. Their risk-reward payoff matrix is skewed to a degree that is hard to appreciate. Balancing this well is an art.

Reflecting on the Sooners' 2013 season has humbled me and caused me to appreciate the coach's job(s). I don't think it is just because I view the season as a success with hindsight knowledge (it would be judged a failure from an ex ante point of view). Trying to put aside how a last-minute comeback victory over Oklahoma State makes me feel, I think I would feel that Stoops did a great job in 2013 win or lose that game.