Wednesday, October 1, 2014

The Bulldogs’ Unlikely NRL Grand Final Berth

This week the Bulldogs will play in the National Rugby League Grand Final, despite finishing the regular season in seventh spot. It has been seemingly an unlikely finals run, particularly when compared to the Australian Football League, where no team outside the final four has made a Grand Final since 2000.

Was the Bulldogs’ seventh-place finish misleading? In my AFL Power Rankings system I try to give a ‘truer’ indication of where teams are at by ranking teams according to how much they have won or lost by, adjusting for strength of opposition and home ground advantage, and giving higher weight to more recent games. If I had constructed an NRL Power Rankings for this season, would the Bulldogs have been a top four team?

Probably not. The Bulldogs’ point difference over the regular season was just +7, only the tenth best point difference in the league. How did they perform in recent matches? In their final five matches of the regular season their net margin was -17 in total, or -3 per match, and their opponents were relatively weak with an average net margin of -7 per match. So any NRL rankings system I constructed would have had them ranked around mid-table at best.

I expect the favourites in the AFL win more often than in the NRL; the statistics I found, albeit taken over 2007 to 2011, indicate that AFL favourites win about two-thirds of the time, while the winning percentage of NRL favourites is a few percentage points less. So Grand Final berths by ‘lesser’ finals teams should not be that much more likely in the NRL, although the Bulldogs did start as favourites over the better-performed Sea Eagles and Panthers. Hence, I don’t think there was much to suggest that the Bulldogs were a good chance to make the Grand Final. And I don’t think there is much to suggest that they will beat the Rabbitohs on the weekend, but hey, there is still a one in three chance …

Saturday, September 27, 2014

AFL Power Rankings: Post-Finals 2014


With its win in the Grand Final, Hawthorn ends the 2014 season as the #1 ranked team … just. Though the margin was significant in the premiership decider the Hawks and the Swans were pretty close throughout the year and between them held the top spot for all but one week. This is the third year in a row the Hawks have ended up as the ‘best’ team; despite their loss in the 2012 Grand Final they were rated as the best team in that year as well.

However, in terms of improving their standing, the Port Adelaide Power were the ‘winners’ out of the final nine games of the season. A big win against Richmond, a win away against Fremantle, and a narrow loss against Hawthorn meant they ended up as a clear third in the post-finals rankings.


The Swans, Dockers, Roos, Cats, and Tigers all lost ground following their performances in September. The Dockers dropped the most spots (from third to fifth), but the Roos – despite making a preliminary final – lost the most ranking points after their big loss to the Swans.


I have adjusted the rankings points so that they now sum to zero, while maintaining each of the teams’ relativities. Previously, as the net average margins of the top teams fell during the finals this meant that on balance the sum of the teams’ ranking points was negative, which always slightly bothered me.

That is it for this year – as always the AFL Power Rankings will return next season.     


Tuesday, September 23, 2014

The AFL’s Brownlow Medal: The Problems of 3-2-1

Over the past day I have seen a lot of comments basically saying that the voting system for the Brownlow Medal is not a good way of picking the ‘best’ player in the AFL (yes, I know it is technically ‘best and fairest’ in the AFL … ) The voting system has bothered me a little bit over the years, but it was only tonight that I tried to think through exactly what its problems were.

In the Brownlow Medal voting system, umpires award three votes to the best player for the match, two votes for the second best player, and one vote for the third best player. By contrast, in many leagues around the world, the voting for the ‘best’ or ‘most valuable’ player often takes place through an end-of-season vote in which players receive votes for their performances over the season as a whole. Compared to this system, there are a few main problems that the Brownlow Medal system has in determining in the best player for the season.  These problems exist independently of who is doing the voting, whether it be umpires, coaches, players, or the media.

The first problem is that only three players are awarded with votes for each match. Hence, no distinctions are made between any players from the fourth best player through to the forty fourth best player. An end-of-season vote, on the other hand, would in theory make these distinctions.

The second problem is that three players have to be awarded votes for each match. The saying that it is easier to get votes on bad teams has sounded to me like a cliché, particularly since voting has shifted towards winning teams in recent years. But putting these voting biases aside it is actually true, even if its effect is often exaggerated. For a player of given ability playing against a given opposition, the player’s chances of getting votes will be better the worse his teammates are, given that three players have to get votes. Again, this should not theoretically be true in the end-of-season vote model.

The third problem is that players can only receive three votes, two votes, one vote, or no votes. Therefore, regardless of how much better the best player was than the second best player he will only receive one more vote (and the best player in each match, regardless of how good they were, will receive the same number of votes).

There are two potential advantages of the Brownlow Medal voting system, but they have to do with how the voting is done, rather than the 3-2-1 voting system. The first is that, by doing the voting immediately following the match, it increases the chance that the voting is a fairer reflection of how the player actually performed at the match, rather than being affected by imperfect recollections. The second is that the voting is done by people who were actually at the match. In an end-of-season vote it is often the case that voters will not have seen all of a player’s performances.

Putting all these points together a better system would be this, although it would be obviously time-consuming and unlikely to happen. Each week ‘knowledgeable observers’ (whoever they might be) could watch each match, and rate every player. This would keep the advantages of immediacy, and having voters who have actually watched the matches, while avoiding the flaws of the 3-2-1 system. On the other hand, having the AFL boss read out forty four votes for each match probably would not make for riveting television.

Wednesday, September 17, 2014

Esquire (UK)

My favourite magazine, which I have read more or less regularly for the past five years, is the UK version of Esquire. I know it is originally a US magazine, but it is the British version I saw first on the newsstand as I was waiting for a flight and got sucked in by. Also I tend to like British magazines better – see NME, Q, FourFourTwo, the British version of GQ, and The Cricketer.

There are basically three elements that keep me reading the magazine. One is their ‘Culture’ section. I have gotten quite a few good recommendations for books, albums, films, and TV shows from this section. Part of its appeal I think is that Esquire assumes that you have a full-time job, and therefore cannot go around listening to every obscure indie band, or watching every limited release arthouse film. They basically give a few good picks, tell you what you need to know about them, and then move on.

A second element I like is the interviews. Yes, some can be a little fawning over their subjects, but the best ones get their subjects to open up about their careers, their everyday lives, their habits, and their flaws. My all-time favourite Esquire interview was in the first issue I bought (see picture above) with the comedian Steve Coogan, whose past decade at the time seemed like it had been a bit haphazard, with drinking and affairs. It suggested to me that one’s thirties might not be as straightforward and all-together as I imagined growing up.

And the third element I like is the design. Both the logo and the generous use of white look very classy to me, and is probably part of why I like Esquire more than the flashier GQ (also it is cheaper and lighter). The typeface also gives the magazine a nice kind of retro, England in the ‘60s or ‘70s feel. I do miss though the changing strip of colour they used to have down the left hand side of the cover though.

And the sartorial focus? It has probably got me thinking slightly more about my clothes, but I am never really going to be one of those men spending thousands of dollars on a blazer, or planning out my bespoke suit. Or buy an expensive watch. Never mind – even with a few style tips I will take it over FHM. 

Monday, September 15, 2014

The Wooden Finger Five - September 2014

No. 5 The Miracle (of Joey Ramone) – U2

When iTunes and U2 conspired this past week for the Irish band’s new album to be automatically included in the library of every iTunes user, many people complained about the album being foisted upon them against their wills, and the difficulties of deleting it.  As for me, I actually wanted to listen to it, and initially couldn’t find the thing. A friend helpfully pointed out that it was in the ‘not in your library’ part of my ‘purchased’ folder. Following that advice I downloaded it, dragged it over to the iPod icon, and then pressed play only to find … none of the files worked on my iPod. I tried, Bono, I really tried.

No. 4 Knock Knock Knock – Spoon

I recently read Grantland’s ‘The American Band Championship Belt’ article, in which Spoon was named the fourth best American band of the 2004-07 period. That was when I realised I really hadn’t heard that much of Spoon. I then went back and listened to their entire catalogue over a day or so, and I was really impressed. In particular I like 2007’s excellent release ‘Ga Ga Ga Ga Ga’, which is a good ‘old time’ rock album. (Actually I think one of their weakest albums might be the one that gained them the most notice, and might be why I never really got into them – 2002’s ‘Kill The Moonlight’.) Anyway, their 2014 album ‘They Want My Soul’ is also very good, with the slightly noxious, can’t-be-arsed track ‘Knock Knock Knock’ being my favourite.

No. 3 Brill Bruisers – The New Pornographers
No. 2 Champions of Red Wine – The New Pornographers

I only discovered the New Pornographers’ classic ‘Letter From An Occupant’ a couple of years ago, which brought me up to the band’s work as of … oh, the year 2000. Which means I am still have fourteen years on their work to catch up on. But I have listened to their latest release ‘Brill Bruisers’ and there is not really a dud song on it. The real heavy-hitters are the first two tracks though, with the title track opening things off with a massive sound that seemingly uses every instrument in the book. Better still though is the more muted, Neko Case-led ‘Champions of Red Wine’, which would indeed be perfect music to drink red wine on your patio to.

No. 1 Cthulu – EMA

Listening to Spoon was great, but they have been in my background for years; my real discovery over the past month was the music of the ambiguously pronounced EMA. I really have trouble describing why her music is so good, in trying to do so to someone I came up with the rather lame ‘[long pause], um, jagged pop …?’ Her second album (I thought it was her first, which means I now have another whole EMA album to go listen to), ‘Past Life Martyred Saints’, has at least five semi-classics on it, in particular ‘Milkman’, ‘Anteroom’, and closer ‘Red Star’. The new album, ‘The Future’s Void’, might only have two, one which is the punkish ‘So Blonde’, but the other is the epic ‘Cthulu’, which is some good old gothic, industrial shit. Here is what you get when you search in Google Images for Cthulhu – I don’t know if that’s exactly what EMA meant to evoke, but it seems pretty apt to me.  

Sunday, September 14, 2014

Quickie Book Review: ‘Capital In The Twenty-First Century’

Thomas Piketty’s ‘Capital In The Twenty-First Century’ is long, too long really, as I reckon he could have made his argument in half to two-thirds of the pages. But is it worth reading? Probably more so if you are an economist, which is not to sound exclusionary, but just to note that you are more likely to be interested in the detail of Piketty’s ideas if they pertain to your chosen vocation. For others by all means give it a go, especially if you are interested in the politics of inequality, but don’t feel bad about skipping large chunks or reading one of the several one-page summaries instead.

What did I think of Piketty’s ‘thesis’ in the end? I think he argued it about as well as one could argue it. Essentially, Piketty shows that, since the rate of return on capital has almost always exceeded the rate of economic growth, then those wealthy individuals who own the capital get further and further ahead. The exception was the period from the 1930s to the 1970s, in part because a lot of wealth was destroyed by the two world wars.

To counter this tendency Piketty proposes a progressive global tax on wealth. His arguments do flow reasonably well into this prescription, although to make the leap you do have to hold that rising inequality is something to be combatted. And this may just be a function of how quickly I read the last few chapters, but his wealth tax suggestion then seemed to flow too easily into his 80 per cent top marginal tax rate suggestion, which had a bit too much of the Beatles’ ‘one for you, nineteen for me’ for me. Still, perhaps if you look at the maths more closely, it makes more sense as a policy prescription.

In summary then, the historical and data analyses look sound, though they are a bit boring to trudge through, while the policy recommendations are intriguing but not quite as convincing. Of course if Piketty’s predictions about the future turn out to be on the mark, then you may feel obliged to read this a decade or two down the track anyway.

Saturday, September 13, 2014

Beatles and Comic Books: 'The Fifth Beatle'

Last year as a present my wife gave me a book entitled ‘Beatles and Comic Books’, quite rightly reasoning that it combined two of my favourite things. While the book only contained snippets of the appearances of the Fab Four in four colour print I doubt that any of those appearances were as good as ‘The Fifth Beatle’. Writer Vivek J. Tiwary has a sincere affection for the Beatles’ late manager Brian Epstein, which combined with Andrew Robinson’s gorgeous art, makes this a wonderful tribute to and study of the ‘English music entrepreneur’. As Tiwary himself admits in the afterword, it does take some artistic licence with events (although supposedly some of the weirder incidents are absolutely true); the aim was though to capture the essence of ‘Eppy’.

If it does, then what it shows is a sad and loving, ambitious and fiercely loyal, figure. Even to Beatleophiles, Epstein feels like he has not been as clearly depicted in histories of the group as, say, producer George Martin. Of course this is in part due to his unfortunate death only a few years after his boys did indeed become ‘bigger than Elvis’. And music snobs like me will point out that, unlike Martin, he essentially contributed nothing to the music, and that his main job was to make sure the Beatles got safely in their cars from hotel to arena. But as Tivary points out, he was an important figure in terms of music management, both building and maintaining the greatest pop music phenomenon the world has seen. That takes some talent in itself, helped by passion and belief that one is creating something positive. And Epstein’s life turns out to be fascinating in itself; his homosexuality is well-known, the conflict he faced between running his family’s record store or giving it up for the four mop tops may be less so.

Tiwary and Robinson also manage to make the book feel ‘Beatles-ish’, in a similar way that the Rock Band game and the ‘Love’ Cirque du Soleil show (both of which I loved) were. By this I mean something cheeky, exuberant, English, and a little bit psychedelic, although sort of like a cleaner, sharper, twenty-first century version of 1960s psychedelica. ‘The Fifth Beatle’ also touches on some darker subject matter than a game or circus ever will, though in a strange way, because of Epstein’s partly repressive character, it is also kind of off-panel or in the background; for example John Lennon’s absence in the final scenes.

After finishing the book I read that a film adaptation is now in development. Hopefully it works; I am imagining something like Tom Hanks’ ‘That Thing You Do’ crossed with the Coen Brothers’ ‘Inside Llewellyn Davis’. In the meantime if you are a fan of the Fab Four I think the chances are pretty good you will like this book.