The Daily Parker

Politics, Weather, Photography, and the Dog

Is Moneyball killing a game show?

Washington Post columnist Charles Lane sees a disturbing connection between Jeopardy! champion's streak on the show and the data-driven approach that has made baseball less interesting:

People seem not to care that Holzhauer’s streak reflects the same grim, data-driven approach to competition that has spoiled (among other sports) baseball, where it has given us the “shift,” “wins above replacement,” “swing trajectories” and other statistically valid but unholy innovations.

Like the number crunchers who now rule the national pastime, Holzhauer substitutes cold, calculating odds maximization for spontaneous play. His idea is to select, and respond correctly to, harder, big-dollar clues on the show’s 30-square gameboard first. Then, flush with cash, he searches the finite set of hiding places for the “Daily Double” clue, which permits players to set their own prize for a correct response — and makes a huge bet. Responding correctly, Holzhauer often builds an insurmountable lead before the show is half over.

Dazed and demoralized opponents offer weakening resistance as his winnings snowball. And, with experience gained from each new appearance on the show, Holzhauer’s personal algorithms improve and his advantage grows.

In short, this professional gambler from Las Vegas does not so much play the game as beat the system. What’s entertaining about that? And beyond a certain point, what’s admirable?

Of course, Holzhauer’s strategy could not work without his freaky-good knowledge of trivia, just as baseball’s shift requires a pitcher skilled at inducing batters to hit into it. The old rules, though, would have contained his talent within humane channels. As it is, he’s set a precedent for the further professionalization of “Jeopardy!,” a trend which began 15 years ago with 74-time winner Ken Jennings.

If you enjoy watching nine batters in a row strike out until the 10th hits a homer, you’re going to love post-Holzhauer “Jeopardy!”

Also interesting is the timing: Charles van Doren died April 9th. He won the equivalent of $1.2m in 1957 by cheating on a game show.

2018: Hitting reset

In the last half 2018, I made a number of changes in my life that I had put off for years. I moved, got a new car, repaired my dog, and made a couple of changes in my personal life to clear a solid path for next year. What that will bring overall, I have no idea.

Every year at this time I post some statistics for comparison with previous years. In 2018:

  • Travel was way, way down; in fact, I traveled less in 2018 than in any year since 1998, with the longest gap between trips (221 days) in my entire life. Overall, I took the fewest trips (7) on the fewest flights (11) to the fewest other countries (1) and states (7) than in any year since 1995. I did beat 2017's total flight miles (44,680 km this year against 31,042 km last year), but only because of three trips to London. (Side note: the Republican party shut down the US government during two of those trips.)
  • I posted 518 times on The Daily Parker, up 62 from last year and 59 from 2016, and the best showing since 2013 (537). The A-to-Z challenge helped.
  • Parker only got 133 hours of walks, significantly less than last year, principally because of his leg injury. Not to mention he's 12½, slowing down, and wants a nap, dammit.
  • Fitbit steps didn't change much: 5,262,521 for the year, up 2% from last year. It was, however, my best year for steps since getting my first Fitbit in 2014. It also had my biggest stepping day ever.
  • Reading went up just a tiny bit, from 17 to 24. One of my friends read over 100; I'm not going to be there until I take a year off from work. (I predict that will happen in the 2040s.)

The only resolution I have for 2019 is to bring all of these numbers up, but only slightly.

What are the odds of this?

North suburban New Trier High School—one of the richest public schools in the world—has a world-record 44 sets of twins (and one set of triplets) in the 10th grade class alone. I'm going to ask Deeply Trivial to help figure out, what is the probability this happened entirely by chance?

Kathy Routliffe has the story for Pioneer Press:

Their numbers are noteworthy, given that the class has slightly more than 1,000 students, according to New Trier officials. The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention put the rate of U.S. twins at 33.5 per 1,000 births in 2015, making New Trier's sophomore class statistically impressive.

Even more so is the fact that some sophomore twins chose not to take part in the project, and that other New Trier classes also boast twins, Winnetka campus principal Denise Dubravec said Wednesday.

Most, 22 sets of twins, and the triplets, come from Wilmette. Many were part of Ryan and Luke [Novosel]'s first record-setting effort: They got their fifth grade class at Wilmette's Highcrest Middle School certified for the same record back in 2013, with 24 sets.

Guinness officials certified the numbers last May, although they didn't send word to Ryan and Luke until January, Fendley said. When they did, Ryan and Luke learned their class set two records, one for the most number of twins, and one for the highest numbers of multiples, thanks to the triplets.

Seriously, there has to be a non-random cause here. Fertility treatments, maybe?

(Incidentally, a number of my close family members and some friends attended NTHS, and I grew up in a neighboring district.)

The end of the year as we know it (and I feel fine)

This time, I'm getting this in early, and posting it automatically just before midnight. So the numbers might be a tiny bit off.

2017 saw almost no significant changes over 2016, except in Fitbit numbers:

  • I again only visited one foreign country (again the UK) and 8 states (Michigan, New York, Missouri, Louisiana, Virginia, D.C., Maryland, Texas, and California). I again took only 15 flights. That came out to 31,042 km in the air, one of my lowest showings ever, and the fewest flight miles since 1999. In fact, I didn't fly anywhere for almost the first seven months of 2017. So sad.
  • Including this post, I wrote 456 entries for The Daily Parker, down only 3 from last year. For the second year running, it's the fewest since 2010.
  • Parker got 202 hours of walks, just shy of last year's 211 hours. That's not so bad, but we can do better next year (if the old dog is up to it).
  • Pending today's final step count, I got 5,106,522 steps this year, up a whopping 413,095 over 2016—a difference greater than the number I've gotten in any of the past 4 months. So, basically, my step count in 2017 was almost a month's steps better than in 2016 or 2015. No wonder I wore out a pair of shoes between May and November.
  • I also gained 600 grams in 2017. Pfft.
  • 2017 may be my most disappointing year for reading in a long time. I only started 17 books, and only finished 13. I've just been really busy. That said, the circumstances that encouraged me to finish 47 books in 2007 and 52 in 2008 aren't any I'd like to repeat. (Now, if I could just find a way to read a book a week without interfering with all my other activities...)

Here's 2016 in review. It was similar.

Statistical sins: smoking v. e-cigratettes

Deeply Trivial finds evidence for why there is little evidence about the safety of e-cigarettes:

[T]he statistical sin here isn't really something the researchers have done (or didn't do). It's an impossibility created by confounds. How does one recruit people who have only smoked e-cigarettes or who at least have very little experience with regular cigarettes? What's happening here is really an issue of contamination - a threat to validity that occurs when the treatment of one group works its way into another group. Specifically, it's a threat to internal validity - the degree to which our study can show that our independent variable causes our dependent variable. In smoking research, internal validity is already lowered, because we can't randomly assign our independent variable. We can't assign certain people to smoke; that would be unethical. Years and years of correlational research into smoking has provided enough evidence that we now say "smoking causes cancer." But technically, we would need randomized controlled trials to say that definitively. 

That's not to say I don't believe there is a causal link between smoking and negative health outcomes like cancer. But that the low level of internal validity has provided fuel for people with an agenda to push (i.e., people who have ties to the tobacco industry or who otherwise financially benefit from smoking). Are we going to see the same debate play out regarding e-cigarettes? Will we have to wait just as long for enough evidence to accrue before we can say something definitive about e-cigarettes?

For my part, their safety or lack of to the smoker makes little difference to me. I just don't like people blowing their exhaust fumes into my environment.

Conventional wisdom vs. evidence

Nate Silver has compared pundit analyses of poll data to actual voting results and determined that the pundits get things consistently wrong and in the wrong direction:

This French election was part of a pattern that I began to notice two years ago in elections in the U.S. and elsewhere in the world. Take the 2012 U.S. presidential election as an example. Most of the mainstream media concluded that the race was too close to call, despite a modest but fairly robust Electoral College lead for then-President Barack Obama. But on Election Day, it was Obama who beat his polls and not Mitt Romney.2

Forecasters are overconfident more often than they might realize — and there’s a lot to be said for media outlets erring on the side of caution until a vote has taken place. But France was the wrong hill for anything-can-happen-because-Trump! punditry to die upon. Whereas Clinton led Trump by just 3 to 4 percentage points in national polls (and by less than that in the average swing state), and “Remain” led “Leave” by only a point or so, Le Pen had consistently trailed Macron by 20 to 25 points.

Despite their vastly different polling, however, Trump, Brexit and Le Pen had all been given a 10 to 20 percent chance by betting markets — a good proxy for the conventional wisdom — on the eve of their respective elections. Experts and bettors were irrationally confident about a Clinton victory and a “Remain” victory — and irrationally worried about a Macron loss. In each case, the polls erred in the opposite direction of what the markets expected.

Pollsters have a difficult and essential job, but they’re under a lot of pressure from media outlets that don’t understand all that much about polling or statistics and who often judge the polls’ performance incorrectly.5 They’re also under scrutiny from voters, pundits and political parties looking for reassurance about their preferred candidates. Social media can encourage conformity and groupthink and reinforce everyone’s prior beliefs, leading them to believe there’s a surfeit of evidence for a flimsy conclusion. Under these conditions, it’s easy for polls to be contaminated by the conventional wisdom instead of being a check on elites’ views — and to be the worse for it.

Can't wait to see the polls on the 2018 U.S. elections.

Things I'll be reading this afternoon

Some articles:

And now, Parker needs a walk.

2016 in numbers

Welcome to another of my annual traditions: the stats dump.

In 2016:

  • Traveling was way, way down over previous years. I only visited one foreign country (the UK) and took only 15 flights all year. That amounted to only 42,588 km, not enough to re-qualify for Platinum status for the first time since 2008.
  • The Daily Parker had only 459 posts, down from 2015's 493, and the lowest since 2010. I was really, really busy this year. Posting suffered.
  • Parker got 211 hours of walks, up 62 from 2015. So he did not suffer as much as the blog.
  • Speaking of walks, I got 4,693,427 steps in 2016, beating 2015 by 29,266 steps—or 0.062%. That puts my 2016 daily average at 12,823.5, compared with 2015's 12,786.7. So, really, 37 steps a day. I think I can do better in 2017; we'll see. I still have yet to crack 50,000 steps in a day. Roll on spring.
  • I'm still not reading as much as I used to. I started 23 books in 2016 (up from 2015's 21) but finished 15. If you're keeping count, yes, I dropped some books I started, and still have a book from 2015 to finish. Again, I hope to do better in 2017.

So here we go. Another year. This one could kill us all. Certainly we're all going to be a lot poorer. But maybe I'll read more books, take more steps, and walk Parker more hours.

(See 2015 and 2014 for comparison.)

Fun with statistics

Multiple news outlets reported today on preliminary Census Bureau numbers for the last year showing Chicago lost more population than any other city in the U.S.:

Census Bureau figures released today show the five collar counties gaining 5,084 residents, not enough to offset the 10,488 decline in Cook County during the period. The population of DuPage and Lake counties decreased slightly. That left Cook County with 5.2 million residents and the six-county region with 8.4 million.

Let's make fun of that, shall we? Chicago lost a little more than 0.2% of its population, which is like my high school losing two people. Or New York losing 30,000. In other words, it's a pretty small number, and it follows 8 years of growth.

Also, given the exponents involved, the 10,488-person decline in population doesn't even move the needle on the total number when expressed in millions. Yes, it left Cook County with 5.2 million residents, but the county started with 5.2 million residents, so...yeah.

Now if we'd lost 50,000, I'd want a news story about that. But I think I might already know.

Statistics: 2015

Here are some numbers illustrating 2015 (cf. 2014 also):

  • I took only 14 trips and flew only 25 segments, visiting 7 states and 4 countries*.
  • Of those, 11 flight segments took off or landed outside the US, which is the highest proportion of international-to-domestic flights in any single year. Those years in which I've flown more international segments were also heavy-travel years in general. For example, in 2001, my heaviest travel year ever, I flew 15 international segments—my record—out of 63 total—also my record.
  • I flew 67,187 km, barely re-qualifying (with bonus points) for American Airlines elite status.
  • The Daily Parker had 493 posts, the lowest since 2010. The daily mean dropped to 1.35, continuing a slight downward trend since 2013.
  • Chargeable hours no longer made any difference as I no longer work as a consultant. However, I did log 148.82 hours walking Parker, 10 more than in 2014.
  • Reading suffered a bit. I started 21 books but only finished 15. On the other hand, I went to more operas in 2015 than any year previously, and also ate at more Michelin-starred restaurants than in the preceding 45 years combined.
  • 2015 was the first full year for which I have complete Fitbit statistics. During the year, I walked 4.67 million steps, averaging 12,787 per day; slept 2,287 hours, averaging 6.3 per night; and had a net loss of 1.2 kg. (Though at one point in 2015 I had lost 4.1 kg, and am now hoping that the slight bump in November and December was simply holiday food.)

In 2016, I expect more travel, more Daily Parker posts, about the same number of books, and the same number of live performances.

* Germany, Poland, the UK, and Italy; DC, Virginia, New York, Wisconsin, Indiana, Arizona, California, and Texas.