Monday, March 2, 2015

The 15 Best Pearl Jam Songs

Pearl Jam ‘best of’ lists are typically weighted towards the front-end of the career. Certainly when I saw them at the Big Day Out last year the crowd reacted more strongly to their early stuff. To some extent this is a bit unfair on their later work, which is generally quite respectable. On the other hand if it wasn’t for ‘Ten’ and ‘Vs’ selling millions, would only a few people have cared about those later albums?

On re-listening to Pearl Jam’s work I gained a greater appreciation for two of their mid-‘90s albums that did not necessarily get the warmest reaction when they were first released – ‘Vitalogy’ and ‘No Code’. I remember these being considered by critics and fans as slightly disappointing after the mega-success of ‘Ten’ and ‘Vs’, and being less inclined when I was younger to question the prevailing opinion I only ever owned and really listened to those first two albums. ‘Vitalogy’ was considered too weird, and ‘No Code’ not anthemic enough. ‘Vitalogy’ now though stands to me revealed as probably the best Pearl Jam album, while ‘No Code’ stacks up well against their most famous work.

Having listened again to their catalogue, these would be my 15 favourites:   

1.      Corduroy – now held in a lot higher regard than being just the eighth track on ‘Vitalogy’
2.      Rearviewmirror – ‘Vs’ was the first CD I ever got, and I played this over and over
3.      Last Exit – fantastic opening to ‘Vitalogy’
4.      Black – ‘Black’, ‘Alive’, and ‘Jeremy’ have lost some lustre from repeated listens, but I can’t drop ‘Black’ lower than this
5.      Smile
6.      Alive
7.      I Got Id – oh yeah, I had forgotten about this one, as it is not on any of their albums proper; actually until a day ago I still thought it was called ‘Merkin Ball’
8.      Elderly Woman Behind The Counter In A Small Town – the track buried near the end of ‘Vs’ that everyone collectively decided that they really liked
9.      Given To Fly
10.  Jeremy
11.  Oceans
12.  Go
13.  Betterman – oh I guess it is in the best 15
14.  Yellow Ledbetter
15.  Light Years
86. Last Kiss
Other lists of the best Pearl Jam songs:

Triple M
Crave Online

Sunday, March 1, 2015

Star Wars Comics by Marvel (Are Those The Nerdiest Words Ever Uttered?)

The ‘Star Wars’ mythology primarily relies on six movies, with a lot of backstory in between, such as the long-running animated series ‘The Clone Wars’. Marvel’s latest go at a ‘Star Wars’ comic book series – the first being in the 1970s – mines the period not long after ‘A New Hope’ for its stories. Do we really need another comic book series filling in the space between films? Fans have said yes – buying up a million copies of ‘Star Wars’ #1, making it the highest selling comic book for twenty years.

In any case, since Disney bought both Lucasfilm and Marvel Comics, new ‘Star Wars’ comics published by Marvel were a likely outcome. Actually, ‘Star Wars’ comics have never really gone away, with Dark Horse Comics having published comics that expanded on the Star Wars universe for over twenty years. Dark Horse’s continuity is, however, wiped out by Marvel’s latest offerings, giving Marvel the freedom to rewrite the stories between movies.

With writer Jason Aaron and artist John Cassaday on the series Marvel’s ‘Star Wars’ is a bit slicker than a non-comics fan may expect. It is more akin to what one may expect the new J.J. Abrams films to be like rather than the somewhat dopey prequel movie episodes. It is not mind-blowing storytelling, but it is solid. The plot so far involves our main heroes – Luke, Han, Leia, and crew – infiltrating an empire base, only for Darth Vader to show up. Those who missed the camaraderie of the original characters should be happy to see their return here, but hairstyles aside the series does not feel like a retread of stories that have long since been told.

The other ‘Star Wars’-related book that Marvel has released so far is ‘Darth Vader’. The creative team on this series, as one may expect, is not quite as strong as the main title, but it is still quite readable. In it we get to see a bit more regarding the workings of the Empire other than Vader killing off another general. The main danger for the book which could eventually count against it is whether the story tries too many times to establish that Darth Vader is a heartless bastard. A new Princess Leia book comes out in March, and together the three titles should help build the anticipation for fans ahead of the new movie to be released late this year.

Saturday, February 28, 2015

The Finger Points Outwards - No. 100

I had a couple of ideas as to what to do to mark the 100th Finger Points Outwards post. One idea was to do links to the 100 articles on the internet that over the years I had most enjoyed reading. I could only get to about 30 though. Another idea was to do links to 100 things in life I enjoy the most, but then I realised that it was not going to be particularly revelatory to many readers if I had a link to things like The Simpsons.

So what to do? Well, the Cricket World Cup is on in Australia at the moment, and cricket has hundreds. So perhaps it’s a bit of a lame way to mark the 100th post, but here are my top five most memorable Australian Cricket World Cup moments:

Pakistan take four cheap wickets against Australia in their opening match in 2003, and then Andrew Symonds rescues the Aussies by blasting his first one day century. The Australians would not lose a game.

Ricky Ponting smashes 140 not out in the 2003 World Cup Final against India.

Adam Gilchrist smashes 147 in the 2007 World Cup Final against Sri Lanka. I was gutted when Australia lost the 1996 final to Arjuna Ranatunga’s Sri Lankan team. Ranatunga had long gone by 2007, but it was good to celebrate Australia’s third World Cup in a row by getting revenge on the Lankans.

Australia looked headed for a defeat in the 1999 World Cup Semi-Final against South Africa until Shane Warne bowled this delivery.

And then there is this memorable finish to the greatest cricket match ever played.

Greatest cricket moment ever!

Wednesday, February 25, 2015

The Value of Russell Westbrook’s Numbers

Statistics for the 2014-15 NBA season current as of 25 February 2015.

ESPN made an argument this week that the statistics during this NBA season of Oklahoma City guard Russell Westbrook stack up well to other consensus Most Valuable Player candidates. The two players considered the frontrunners for the NBA MVP award this season are Golden State’s Stephen Curry and Houston’s James Harden. Westbrook has more rebounds per game than both of those players, about the same amount of assists per game as Curry and more than Harden, and more points per game than Curry and only slightly less than Harden.

He also has a higher Player Efficiency Rating than both Curry and Harden. A player’s PER takes into account the good things he does – score, grab rebounds, get assists, block, and steal – and penalises him for the bad things he does – miss shots, turn the ball over, and commit fouls. As Dave Berri has pointed out though a player only has to hit less than a third of his shots to get a net benefit from the shots he takes (which basically any NBA player can do), meaning a player can increase his rating simply by taking more shots.

Russell Westbrook has, over his career, been about an average scorer in terms of efficiency. This year he has been better than that, scoring 1.29 points per possession, though Curry (1.39) and Harden (1.50) have still been somewhat better.  Hence, I think if you adjusted PER to take more account of their respective shooting efficiencies, Curry and Harden are slightly ahead. Curry and Harden both lead Westbrook at this stage in terms of Win Shares per 48 minutes, Wins Produced per 48 minutes, and Real Plus-Minus. Westbrook is having a great season – probably his best to date – but I don’t think he’s the MVP.

Wednesday, February 18, 2015

Revisiting Home Ground Advantages in the AFL

How much is home ground advantage in the AFL worth?

In my AFL Power Rankings I adjust the final margin of a match by home ground advantage before allocating ranking points to teams. For example, when Sydney beat Fremantle by 24 points in their qualifying final last year, I subtracted 12 points from the margin based on Sydney having a two-goal home ground advantage (before then adjusting the margin for the strength of the opposition).

I have also used these home ground advantage (HGA) adjustments over the past few years to rank the difficulty of each AFL team’s fixture.

In August last year on this blog, in a response to a question I posed about North Melbourne’s HGA in Tasmania, some comments were made by Manikato888 regarding HGA in the AFL. Since then we have been chatting back and forth about what may be good HGA adjustments to use. Manikato888 was kind enough to share with me the work he had done on which adjustments seemed to work best in predicting the results of matches.

These conversations have led to me revisiting the HGA adjustments that I use. I haven’t changed them completely to match the adjustments that Manikato888 uses, in part because where the differences were very small I wanted to maintain consistency wherever possible with what I had used in the past. But I have made changes in cases where both logic and empirics suggested a slight change may be warranted.

For example, I had different adjustments for the Swans and GWS against Victorian teams, with the Swans having a six point HGA against Victoria teams in Sydney, while the HGA for GWS was 12 points. Since they are both from the same state it made sense to me to equalise their HGAs, even if we do not have a lot of data to judge the HGAs of GWS yet.

Another change I made was to reduce by a goal Geelong’s HGA in Geelong against other Victorian teams. This makes it no more than Sydney’s HGA against Victorian teams which made sense to me given Geelong is a hell of a lot closer to Melbourne than Sydney is. For games between Geelong and Victorian teams in Melbourne I am keeping the HGA as neutral – i.e. zero. I considered giving the Melbourne teams a goal HGA, but decided against it given that the Cats play a fair amount of home games against Victorian teams in Melbourne.

I have also reduced by a goal Hawthorn’s HGA in Tasmania against non-Victorian teams. I previously had this as the same HGA – that is, two goals – as if they played in Melbourne. Based on empirics, a case could have been made for reducing this further to zero, but given the Hawks have played a few games in Tasmania per year for some time now I wanted to maintain some HGA.

The table below summarises these changes:

Home Ground Advantage
QLD v non QLD
12 pts
SA v non SA
WA v non WA
NSW v non NSW and non VIC
VIC v non VIC
Swans v VIC & VIC v Swans
Cats v other VIC in Geelong
Hawks v non VIC in Tasmania
Everything else

Keep in mind with all this HGA adjustments are relatively unimportant in terms of determining the rankings. Generally, over the course of a season, and even over the course of a few weeks, the HGA adjustments for a team will net out to zero or close to it. Also, the most weight that any particular game carries in the rankings (which is the most recent game) is less than nine per cent. Hence, a HGA adjustment of 12 points in a particular game would only affect a team’s ranking by at most one ranking point.
Given that they have a small effect I am only going to adjust the HGAs going forward rather than going back and changing my historical rankings. For the most part these changes will be imperceptible … but they’ll make me feel a little better about my rankings (I think).

Sunday, February 15, 2015

The Makeover of Allison Reynolds

I watched John Hughes’ ‘The Breakfast Club’ (1985) all the way through for the first time this week. For those who have seen it all the way through, you will know that near the end Allison Reynolds – played by Ally Sheedy – who to date has been the somewhat shaggy recluse, is given a ‘makeover’ by Molly Ringwald’s more princess-like character. She changes her jacket for a frilly dress, takes her hair out of her eyes, and puts a pretty bow in it, going from this to this:

Some fans of the film are apparently less than thrilled by this scene. (This article pretty much sums up the views that I read.) The first reason is that Allison looked far more interesting and unique before the makeover and her look fitted well with her personality. I agree with this. The second thing people seem to take issue with though is that the jock Andrew Clark – played by Emilio Estevez – only falls for her after she looks like a conventional beauty.

I didn’t see things that way when I saw the scene. When Andrew sees the ‘new’ Allison, this is what he says:

Andrew: ‘Nothing’s wrong, it’s just … you’re just so different!’ … You can see your face!’
Allison: Is that good or bad?
Andrew: It’s good.

From that I took that Andrew didn’t necessarily think one look was that much better than the other – they were just different, and each had its particular charms, with the charms of the ‘princess’ look being that you could see Allison’s face. And as for the comments that Andrew only fell for Allison when she donned a pretty dress … maybe I misread, but he seemed pretty into her before that scene. So yeah, I liked Allison’s look more before the makeover, but I have no real problem with the scene. I suspect people also feel strongly about Allison’s pre-makeover look because it makes a better costume for those ‘80s parties.  

Monday, February 9, 2015

Some Thoughts On Australia’s Workplace Relations Framework Inquiry

This year the Productivity Commission, on request from the Commonwealth Government, will undertake an inquiry into Australia’s workplace relations framework. Australia’s industrial relations system has already undergone a fair bit of “reform” in recent years – WorkChoices in 2005, the Fair Work Act in 2009, not to mention the changes that occurred in the 1980s and ‘90s. Some of these changes could be argued to have been ideologically motivated, and I suspect some of the next set of changes will seem to be ideologically motivated as well. Nevertheless, I am somewhat interested in the idea of economists taking a good long look at Australia’s WR framework, particularly in areas that have not been much exposed to that sort of thinking. Keeping in mind where I am coming from, the questions the PC has asked in its recently released Issues Papers look to me to be for the most part the right ones, and generally cover at least to some extent the many sides of workplace relations debates.

One area where I will be particularly interested in what the PC concludes is the provision of a safety net. The PC has indicated that they are going to examine where the balance should lie between wage regulation and the tax and the transfer system in addressing concerns about income distribution (Issues Paper 2, p.7). I think it unlikely that the PC will recommend abolishing minimum wages completely, but from the outside I think there is not an insignificant chance that they may recommend some combination of a (possibly lower) minimum wage, and an in-work benefit such as an earned income tax credit. One of the arguments for relying on an earned income tax credit as opposed to minimum wages to help address income inequality is that they impose less of a cost on employers, hence improving employment outcomes. Another argument is that they target low-income households more effectively, whereas some minimum wage workers are from high-income households, such as secondary income earners. Like most things in workplace relations though, the evidence for this is very much contested. One could also say that, historically, a minimum wage is as much about getting a ‘fair’ income from working as it is a mechanism for addressing inequality.

More likely to be subject to greater scrutiny I think are penalty rates and junior rates of pay. The PC cites an argument (Issues Paper 2, p. 14) that higher penalty rates of pay for weekends are inappropriate for some sectors where Australia has shifted towards a ‘24/7’ timetable. Again, abolishing penalty rates for certain sectors seems to me a relatively unlikely recommendation, but the PC may recommend revisiting some of the magnitudes of the rates. Ditto with junior rates – that is the wage rates paid to juniors, which are less than adult minimum wages – these could be re-assessed depending upon any findings that the PC has regarding the relative productivity of adult and junior employees.

I mentioned in a previous post that it would not surprise me if the inquiry recommended dropping individual flexibility arrangements.  These are meant to (at least in theory) allow employers and employees to vary the collective working conditions of an employer’s workforce for an employee’s individual circumstances. However, the evidence shows that they are not widely used, with employers preferring to use informal documents to grant an employee flexible working arrangements.

Unfair dismissals could be another interesting area. I may well be wrong, but I am not sure that the economic effects of unfair dismissal arrangements in Australia have ever been analysed in detail. The PC has asked submissions to address what the effects of these arrangements are on firm costs, productivity, recruitment processes, employment, and employment structures (Issues Paper 4, p. 3). Workplace relations participants have a lot of assumptions about the effects of unfair dismissals – it will be interesting to see which ones hold up to close scrutiny.

Anything else? Oh yes there will be the usual PC aim of reducing ‘red tape’. In fairness though there is a lot of complexity in the workplace relations system, and it is probably one of those areas that could do with a bit less ‘fat’ in its laws and regulations.

The PC’s draft report is due out mid-year, with the final report to government due on 30 November. Depending on what arises out of those I may have some more to say on the inquiry then.