Summer Reading List

I just bought 4 books at the Borders in downtown Boston from the going-out-of-business sale, and I figured it would be interesting to write up a list of all the books I have read this summer, plus the books I still have to read.

 

Already finished: in roughly chronological order, starting I guess in June. Links go to Amazon, if possible.

1) The Black Swan: The Impact of the Highly Improbable by Nassim Nicholas Taleb. I’ll just mention for clarity that this is of no relation to the movie Black Swan about ballet.

2) A Mathematician Reads The Newspaper by John Paulos

3) Sway: The Irresistable Pull of Irrational Behavior by Ori Brafman and Rom Brafman

4) Timequake by Kurt Vonnegut

5) The Pale King by David Foster Wallace

6) Not Exactly: In Praise of Vagueness by Kees van Deemter

 

What I’m currently reading:

7) The Theory That Would Not Die: How Bayes’ Rule… by Sharon McGrayne

 

What I’ll be reading next, in approximately this order. Numbers 10-13 are the Borders going-out-of-business buys.

8 ) Fooled by Randomness by Nassim Nicholas Taleb

9) Galapagos by Kurt Vonnegut

10) Bursts: The Hidden Patterns Behind Everything We Do… by Albert-Laszlo Barabasi (there are some accents in his name that I’m too lazy to put in)

11) The Unfinished Game by Keith Devlin

12) The Numbers Game by Michael Blastland and Andrew Dilnot

13) Unknown Quantity: A Real and Imaginary History of Algebra by John Derbyshire (I’ve read this before actually, but that was as a library book, several years ago)

14,15) The Kestrel and The Beggar Queen, Westmark Trilogy books 2 and 3, by Lloyd Alexander. I’ve already read the first book, these are borrowed from a friend

16) Euclid’s Window: The Story of Geometry From Parallel Lines To Hyperspace by Leonard Mlodinow. I really enjoyed The Drunkard’s Walk by Mlodinow, may re-read that also if I have time.

 

After that, there are some statistics textbooks that I want to go through, but that’s not really the same as reading a novel or non-fiction book.

My xbox360 game history and short reviews

The following is a list of games I have played on my xbox 360, approximately in chronological order, and short reviews of what I thought of the game (okay well not short per se, but not full length reviews. I’ll try to avoid spoilers also). I’m excluding the following games that I never was fully invested in on 360 because I had prior gameplay experience and/or just used them to export or play a few songs: Rock Band 1, ACDC Track Pack, Metal Track Pack, Classic Rock Track Pack, Lego Rock Band, Green Day Rock Band, The Beatles Rock Band, Guitar Hero 2, Guitar Hero 3, Guitar Hero World Tour

Part 1 of this post will be full retail games; I’ll take a look at XboxLive Arcade games in another post soon.

Fable II: This was the first game I bought for my 360. I had played the original Fable (and expansion) on PC and greatly enjoyed it. Fable was of course (or not of course if you aren’t a gamer) created by Peter Molyneux, who also brought us Black & White, Populous, Dungeon Keeper, and The Movies (but let’s forgive him for that). I’ll say more about him and the Fable series when I get to Fable III.

Pros: Many storyline options. Easy to pick up combat system. Multiple options are generally well-balanced so that you can play the game competently no matter what you chose. Good replayability for an RPG.

Cons: Linear storyline. Very awkward multiplayer, practically useless.

Achievements: Some for standard story progress, others for very creative and sometimes silly actions. Some require playing co-op (see Cons), a couple require replaying the whole game.  A-

DLC: Two packs, $10 and $7 respectively, each including more achievements. I never bought either, but it’s a bit annoying that there are achievements only accessible if you’ve bought the DLC that don’t require the DLC to actually complete.  I

Overall Grade:  B+

Rock Band 2: The Rock Band series is my primary gaming activity. The game developers at Harmonix started the recent rhythm game trend with Guitar Hero in 2005, then following it up with Guitar Hero 2. They then relinquished the rights to the Guitar Hero brand to Activision, and partnered with EA to make a new series of games incorporating other instruments. RB2 features gameplay for Guitar, Bass, Drums, and Vocals with 84 songs on disk of varying genres and difficulty levels.

Pros: Improved graphics, tour mode, and character customization, improved online play, added gameplay features such as drum solos, hammer-on (HOPO) chords, and variable track speed. Largest on-disk setlist of any rhythm game to that point, featuring songs by Judas Priest, Pearl Jam, The Grateful Dead, System of a Down, Metallica, Red Hot Chili Peppers, Duran Duran, AC/DC, Elvis Costello… I could go on.

Cons: Instruments are expensive. I personally prefer the Guitar Hero guitars to the Rock Band models, but that’s an individual choice. There were some things that needed to get patched (HOPO chords, for one) but that was done. Continuing bug/glitch/feature limits the speed at which the game can register strumming on guitar, causing great frustration on some songs.

Achievements: Mostly for completing tasks in the Tour and Challenge modes, and playing expertly. There are a few fun achievements, but others are pretty hard to get, and require owning the relevant instrument controllers.  B

DLC: Literally, thousands of songs from all genres, costing $1 or $2 each, or in packs/albums for a discount. Late in RB2’s lifetime, the Rock Band Network was introduced, making even more songs available. This is the best thing about the Rock Band series. A+

Overall Grade:  A


The Elder Scrolls IV: Oblivion: Latest in the immersive open-world Elder Scrolls series. I had played TES III: Morrowind on the original Xbox.

Pros: Open-world RPG with hundreds of quests, equipment pieces, unique NPCs with their own schedules. Realistic time-lapse and season changes. Many race and class choices, including custom classes. Good graphics, audio. Good menus and maps. Powerful item creation and spell creation systems.

Cons: Lots of glitches. Linear main storyline (although you can completely ignore that if you want). Some sidequests are pretty indescipherable if you’re not using some sort of walkthrough or guide. The leveling and attribute system in the TES games can be a pain in the ass. Item and spell creation is powerful, but very complicated. Despite large number of choices for spells, usually there’s one option that is far superior to the others in terms of game mechanics.

Achievements:  Very boring. There’s an achievement for each stage of the main storyline, and for each step advanced in each of the guilds.  C

DLC: Knights of the Nine ($10) and Shivering Isles ($30) expansions, and various smaller features available as DLC – Wizard’s Tower, Fighter’s Stronghold, armor for your horse, etc, $1-$3 each. The expansion packs add quite a bit of content which fits well with the standard game. Shivering Isles has achievements, athough they’re just as boring as the ones from the main game.  B+

Overall Grade:  B+

Assassin’s Creed: First game in the series, from Ubisoft. Some of the gameplay and engine are clearly adapted from the Xbox Prince of Persia series, but that’s okay, those games were good. AC is a very non-traditional game that’s part platformer, part sandbox, part fighting, part stealth, and part conspiracy theory.

Pros: Very unique plot and good writing. Good voice acting. Easy to use combat system. Huge “open world” cities with stunning graphics. Also, it’s just cool to play the part of an assassin, silently killing people. No replay value.

Cons: Controls are a little wonky sometimes, especially camera angle. Some tasks can be tedious and repetitive, especially if you fail it 6 times in a row and have to try again and again. Storyline is completely linear, but the storytelling is good enough to make up for it.

Achievements: Ugh. Fucking collections. Some of the achievements are good and fun little tasks, but there are a few really tough ones about collecting flags. The “Conversationalist” achievement is another annoying one because if you don’t get it you basically need to replay the whole game. Also a bunch of standard storyline achievements.  C

DLC: None

Overall Grade:  A


Assassin’s Creed II: I actually bought the first two AC games at the same time, since they were cheap and I heard they were good. I had heard correctly. The second game picks up right where the first one left off (sorta) and makes some key adjustments.

Pros: Better camera angles, better responsiveness of controls. Totally revamped combat system that allows for many more options in terms of weapon choice and tactics. Addition of stores for fashion options, aforementioned equipment options, and non-functional art collecting. Continued great graphics and cities, great story, good voice acting (maybe great?). Lots of sidequests and things outside the main storyline to add gameplay. Very useful menu system.

Cons: Camera angles and controls still have some issues. Some tough missions require a lot of frustrating replays. Low re-play value for the game, but one full playthrough still is a good investment of time.

Achievements: Only one big collection achievement now, the feathers, and at least those are a bit easier to find (and the menus give you a breakdown by district). Some super easy storyline completion accomplishments. Otherwise, several very fun little tricks to do, encouraging you to work on the sidequests in-game.  A

DLC: Two additional “Sequences” of the main storyline are only available as DLC (no achievements). I know some people didn’t like this because it felt like the developer was making a full game, then basically charging you again to play all of it, but the game without the DLC sequences stands by itself. The DLC is not necessary to complete the game or comprehend the storyline. The DLC sequences are fantastic on their own though, adding more great content to the game. A

Overall Grade:  A


FIFA 2010:  Bought this post-World Cup when I was feeling pretty excited about soccer. I simulated several seasons in Manager mode, and played a bunch of lower-rung league games, and a few games with

Pros: It’s soccer. If you like soccer, and you like video games, you’d probably like this.

Cons: Some of the EA interactive features didn’t seem to work quite right (like putting a picture of yourself online and using that for your created player’s face). I didn’t play this game a whole lot, and as a result I kinda sucked at it, so I found the difficulty to be a bit more than maybe it should be.

Achievements: There are a surprisingly few achievements in this game; usually games have 50 achievements for 1000G, FIFA 10 has 44. Several of them are very difficult though. Essentially there are achievements for being great at each type of game (Be A Pro, Manager Mode, Tournament, Lounge, XboxLive) and also quite a few cumulative play achievements. Nothing particularly fun or interesting to get. There are also, oddly enough, two different achievements worth 0 G. Both of those I guess can serve as warnings, because to get them you have to do things that people usually don’t like in an online opponent.  C

DLC: One DLC pack, Ultimate Team ($5) and various other things you can pay for if you’d like. I had no experience with that, so the grade is I

Overall Grade:  B-

Rock Band 3: The newest chapter in the Rock Band series introduced keyboards, Pro Guitar, Pro Bass, Pro Drums, and brought vocal harmonies into the main series (they had been implemented in The Beatles Rock Band and Green Day Rock Band).

Pros: No pun intended, the Pro instrument features, and addition of the keyboard, are what really stand out for RB3. The 83-song setlist is strong, but leans a bit towards songs with keyboard parts and vocal harmonies, so as to showcase those features. Continued cross-compatibility of DLC with RB and RB2, in addition to exported songs from those games. Several minor gameplay tweaks, including new “lanes” for trills and fast strumming on guitar/bass and for fast rolls on drums. The “strum limit” issue that had been present in previous games has been eliminated, as has an uncommon issue of certain vocal parts having “broken” non-pitched phrases. Greatly improved ability to sort your song library.

Cons: Many glitches of varying severity, the majority of which have been corrected by patches since the game release. The lane mechanic doesn’t quite seem to work as intended. Instruments can still be expensive, especially the Pro ones, but at least some of them (Squier guitar, keyboard) are genuine “real” instruments that are usable outside of a video game. Changes to online band play song selection can allow any player to add or delete any number of songs from the setlist, which is quite annoying.

Achievements: Similar to RB2, there are various basic achievements for each instrument, including the expensive new Pro instruments. Also a series of achievements for the pared-down tour mode, and a few others. Some of the achievements are very difficult even if you have all of the necessary instrument controllers. B-

DLC: Still central to playing the game. RB3 shipped with several built-in achievements for DLC, which is a nice bonus. Both official DLC and community created song charts through RBN 2.0 are fully compatible with new features, and some older songs have been re-released (though with no discount).  A

Overall Grade:  A

Fable III: Ah, back to Fable. This game unfortunately came out the same day as Rock Band 3, and only a couple weeks after Assassin’s Creed: Brotherhood, and Fable was the odd game out in my free time. I did play through the entire game once, but definitely haven’t spent as much time with it as the game deserves. It seems that every Peter Molyneux game has a crescendo of publicity building up to it, with developers and Molyneux extolling fantastic features the game will have, which never quite show up as advertised. The ideal Peter Molyneux game would be fantastic; but as far as I can tell, it still exists only in his mind, as a potential game in the future, not as a playable game in the present. Every game he makes does seem to get a little bit closer to being the game that he wants to make, so credit Molyneux for that.

Pros: Keeps the same combat and magic systems as Fable II, which worked just fine. Interesting storyline, more customization options for equipment and role-playing. Multiplayer is actually playable, thankfully. Unique menu system that ties everything together. Good balance of different options. Different events in the story cause the world to change over time, which is quite interesting. Lute Hero. Lots of other really funny quests with nerdy inside jokes.

Cons: Some of the features don’t really work together logically, for example relating to marriage and families. Not terribly re-playable, but still more so than most linear story games.

Achievements: Like Fable II, this game has a lot of cool and interesting achievements. There are also the requisite automatic storyline completion achievements, some “do it right” storyline completions, some sidequests, a few tough collections, and a few multiplayer. Overall not bad, but not great.  B

DLC: There’s a DLC pack that I haven’t bought. I

Overall Grade:  B+

Assassin’s Creed Brotherhood: Not to be confused with Assassin’s Creed III, which is still supposed to be coming eventually. This is more of a massive expansion to ACII than the next chapter of the series, although it’s a little of that too. First AC game with multiplayer.

Pros: Keeps everything good from ACII, but adds even more weapon types, armors, transportation, characters, locations. Fantastic story, great graphics and voice acting. Fewer frustrating missions and more fun ones. Multiplayer is a unique experience and adds to the amount of time you can spend playing. Many great sidequests. Perfect fast-travel system. Leonardo. Updates and additions to multiplayer features.

Cons: Linear story with low replay value.

Achievements: Finally, no annoying collections. The collection achievements are made easier by the availability of in-game maps that show all the locations. Some automatic main story achievements, some slightly tougher ones, a bunch of cool things to do, and exploration sidequests. The only annoying achievements are the grind-it-out multiplayer ones. A-

DLC: One $10 pack that I have purchased but yet to play. Has achievements, one of which is hard as balls (100% synch in both the full game and DLC). I have high hopes, but currently the grade here is I

Overall Grade:  A

X-Men Origins: Wolverine: I got this game because GameStop had a sale on used games, buy 2 get 1 free, and this was the free one. Looked like it might be entertaining.

Pros: Combat. General awesomeness of activity. The story was surprisingly well-done in terms of coherence anyway. The level/attribute system was also more than I expected

Cons: It’s corny as fuck. Repetitive. As fun as it is to leap over to a guard, rip out their spine and beat the next guard with it, when that animation happens every 10 seconds it gets boring. The voice work is pretty awful too. When I said the story was surprisingly well-done, I meant that in the context of comic book storytelling, which is to say that it’s still awful. The level/attribute system was probably more than it needed to be (or at least was trying to be more)

Achievements: The usual assortment of storyline and accumulation (of kills, or particular types of kills), but also some easter egg type things, and achievements for doing silly things.  B

DLC: None

Overall Grade:  C+

Rock of the Dead: Literally, House of the Dead meets Guitar Hero. It’s a shooter on rails (that means that you don’t control your own movement, you just shoot), but instead of shooting you play notes that they show you. It’s not exactly high concept, but I like Rock Band. Featuring music by Rob Zombie.

Pros: There’s no misunderstanding what this game is. It knows that it’s corny and stupid, so the story is silly and pokes a lot of fun at both rhythm games and rail shooters. Voice acting features Neil Patrick Harris and Felicia Day, who are both great. The Rob Zombie songs are the musical highlight.

Cons: The other music is crappy covers of classical songs. The game makes fun of itself for being bad, because it is bad. It’s easy to accidentally lock onto the wrong enemy. The boss fights are either too easy (on low difficulty levels) or insanely hard (on high difficulty). It doesn’t help that the note charts scroll horizontally, while rhythm games usually have them vertically, or that there’s no way to adjust calibration.

Achievements: Nothing out of the ordinary, just achievements for completing story parts at different difficulties and for picking up the extra challenges.  C

DLC: None

Overall Grade:  C

Blood Bowl: This game is based on Warhammer, specifically on a fictional sport from that setting. Um, it was really cheap and I was curious. Blood Bowl is somewhat like turn-based rugby.

Pros: I really had high hopes. The sport itself seems like it could be interesting. There’s an experience system for players, and a nice list of upgrades that players at specific positions can get.

Cons: But the video game adaptation falls short. The rules to the sport are arcane, and I don’t mean magical. There’s no simulation or manager mode, which is a shame because the games are a drag to play.

Achievements: I got one sort of by accident. By description, they seem to be pretty much what you’d expect from a sports game, a mix of single-game and career accomplishments.  C

DLC: None

Overall Grade:  D

And those are the full retail games I have played. As I said in the beginning, I’ll do another post for the XBL Arcade games I’ve played.

Here’s a list of games that I have or will soon have, but did not review here because I haven’t really played them yet

Overlord

Guitar Hero: Warriors of Rock

Portal 2

Prototype

Scientific Research Sucks Because of Misused Statistics

The following two articles are the inspiration for this post. I highly recommend reading them, especially because I don’t want to have to recap them entirely, and because there are interesting ideas in those articles that I’m not going to touch on. I don’t actually like the New Yorker piece very much, but it’s still worth the read.

Lies, Damned Lies, and Medical Science by David H. Freedman, The Atlantic

The Truth Wears Off by Jonah Lehrer, The New Yorker

What I want to talk about is, as this post’s title states pretty clearly, a problem with scientific research, specifically how they use statistics. Let’s start then by talking about statistics.

Most scientific research centers around finding out whether something is significant. Researchers might want to know if a cancer drug improves survival rate, or if a supposed psychic can predict the future. In either case, we declare a null hypothesis and an alternate hypothesis. Generally speaking, the null hypothesis will say that nothing is going on; in the two examples I just gave, the null hypotheses will say that survival rate is unchanged, and that the psychic predictions are the same as guesses. The alternate hypothesis says the opposite, it says that survival rate is significantly improved, or that the predictions are significantly better than just guessing. Such a hypothesis only needs to be made if there is some raw evidence potentially in favor. For example, say the 1-year survival rate for this type of cancer is normally 20%, but people taking the new drug have a survival rate of 30%. That’s higher, but things like that can happen by random chance. We use statistical tests to put a precise cutoff for being significantly different.

These tests include the t-test, F-test, chi-squared test, and many others. Experimental data is fed into a formula (or in most cases now, a computer) and the result is a number called the p-value. This number is a percent, between 0 and 1 (so 0.65 means 65%, etc), which represents the chance of getting your data if the null hypothesis is true. If the p-value is very small, then the logical suggestion is that perhaps your null is not actually true. Suppose you flip a coin 20 times, and each time it lands heads. Your null hypothesis is that the coin is fair, with a 50% chance of landing heads and 50% chance of tails. The p-value for this test is 8.88178417 × 10^-16, a very very small number, so you should suspect the coin may not be fair. However, this is not proof; 8.88178417 × 10^-16 is a very small probability, but it is not 0, which means that it is barely possible for a coin to land heads 20 times in a row. Statistical testing does not constitute proof, it merely suggests which hypothesis is more likely.

The conventional cutoff for saying that a result is significant is a p-value of less than 5%, or 0.05. This is a rather arbitrary decision made by Ronald Fisher, who practically invented the process of hypothesis testing in the 1920s. However arbitrary, nearly every piece of scientific research in the modern era uses 5% as a benchmark for whether or not the result is meaningful. The note in the last paragraph about the meaning of p-value and lack of proof is important here. 5% = 0.05 = 1/20, so if you perform the coin flipping experiment many times with a fair coin, about one out of every twenty times you will erroneously conclude that the coin is imbalanced. Similarly, if you test a placebo against another placebo (so both should have the same effect), then about one out of twenty times you will conclude that one is better than the other.

Digression on Cancer Clusters – feel free to skip past this, I’d make it a sidebar if WordPress had the capability

Okay, so most people have probably at least heard the phrase “cancer cluster”; basically it means a small area with a higher than expected frequency of a certain type or types of cancer. Here is a recent MSNBC article about a child leukemia cluster in northern Ohio. This is an example of a case where public health officials can’t find any underlying issues; the air is clean, the water is clean, and of course that just makes people more worried because “this shouldn’t be happening”. This is just another way that probability can be weird. Cancer clusters are called uncommon because there is somewhere around a one in a million chance of so many people in such a small area all having the same cancer. However just like the coin flipping, having a small probability does not mean something is impossible. There are thousands of cities just in the United States; every geographic region is a potential cluster. If there are say 50,000 potential clusters, each with a 1 in 1000000 chance of having that much cancer, then there’s about a 5% chance of one of those actually being a cancer cluster. Factor in that there are many different types of cancers, and that some locations do have minute risk factors in the environment or genetics, then it’s understandable that there would be some cancer clusters without much in the way of a noticeable cause.

End Digression

This is a major problem in scientific research; as explained in the New Yorker article, there is a heavy bias in scientific research towards significant results. If I test the same drug 20 times, 19 times saying that the result was not significant and once saying that it was, then it is almost certain that the 19 insignificant results are not going to be published anywhere, but the significant one surely will. In fact, researchers are unlikely to even submit insignificant results to journals for publication. This is akin to a bunch of people all writing financial self-help books, and the only one to become a best-seller is the one written by a guy who won the lottery.

Let’s review, and add on a few other points

Problems
* Publication bias
* Research bias – few researchers even try to replicate previous studies
* Medical overtesting – most medical tests rely on the same statistical procedures and doctors underestimate the rate of false positives
* Significance chasing – researchers fudge data, intentionally and unintentionally, to make it fit the results they’re hoping to show
* Continued citation of disproved studies
* General misunderstanding of statistics – researchers overestimate the power of statistical tests

Solutions

For me to claim that any idea or set of ideas could solve the aforementioned problems would be a bit presumptuous, to say the least. However I can describe a framework within which these problems would be minimized. I propose a two-part approach: first to give statisticians regulatory oversight of research publications, and second to hold the new generation of doctors, scientists and other researchers accountable.

Obviously research journals are not a united conglomerate, and each has its own standards. The best case scenario would be for each journal to consult with one or more statisticians in scrutinizing submitted papers before publication to ensure that the proper protocols are followed and that citations are not given to discredited articles. Potential papers should not be rejected just for concluding that a result is not significant. A research journal should be established to follow meta-research, that is specifically the analysis of and attempted replication of previous published studies. Such papers could be graded and classified as to whether or not they should be cited in new papers. It’s important that papers could be classified as “not to be cited” without implying any wrongdoing on the part of the involved researchers; to go back to a previous analogy, they may have “won the lottery” in the sense of getting a very lucky (rare) result, and later papers showed that. Of course, any researcher with a large number of discredited papers may earn a reputation and thus be viewed with greater scrutiny.

Just as important in the long term is promoting better statistical understanding among future researchers. Graduate students in biology, psychology, and other fields including medical students generally have light requirements for mathematics and statistics. The GRE, MCAT and other entrance exams cover only low level algebra and extremely basic statistics, not hypothesis testing. Undergraduate curricula may include one or two semesters of statistics, or incorporate it into labs, but I’ve seen firsthand that undergrads in those fields don’t gain that knowledge so much as they briefly tolerate it. I feel that a solution could be to add a graduate school entrance exam testing only statistics. If graduate schools and medical schools were to require it, then undergrads would be forced to actually learn statistics. Ideally such an exam would test qualitative understanding of hypothesis testing and experiment design more so than formulas and calculations; computers do all of that these days anyway.

I think this post is long enough for now, so I’ll give it a rest. I’ve thought about all of this for a while so it’s good to get it written down, and I hope someone thinks it’s interesting.

The Constitution as a Bible

I just read an article on The Economist online, here, and I had a sort of tangential idea that I want to bring up.  The article is about the reverence in the Tea Party for the US Constitution, and why going back to the constitution isn’t necessarily a good idea.  It’s a valid point I think, but I’m more interested in one passage from the article

Michael Klarman of the Harvard Law School has a label for this urge to seek revealed truth in the sacred texts. He calls it “constitutional idolatry”.

Here, the constitution is essentially being compared to the bible (or any other religious text), which I think is very fitting for the Tea Party and probably quite how they see it.  I can’t find any sort of demographics of the religious tendencies of Tea Party supporters, but this Gallup poll shows that they are conservative, and conservatives are more likely to be religious.  Anecdotally, Tea Party supporters (at least many of the most vocal ones) seem to be fundamentalist or evangelical Christians who take the Bible as literal truth on issues such as opposing homosexuality.  From the point of view that there is a document (namely the Bible) written a long time ago that is a definitive guide to spirituality, it seems entirely reasonable that there should be a document that is a definitive guide to the physical world: The US Constitution.

I could elaborate, but that’s really the point that I wanted to make and I don’t want to clutter it.  I’ll note that I’m not attacking or defending this sort of thinking, or any type of Tea Party philosophy (unlike the article I was inspired by), I’m just explaining how that philosophy could come to be.  That’s a sort of thing I say often, not judging but just examining logic.

College vs Pro Sports

This post is about sports, but only in a general sense, and specifically about the entertainment value for a spectator.

My inspiration for this post is the author Chuck Klosterman (here’s his Twitter , he doesn’t seem to have a website?). If you haven’t heard of him, then my brief description would be that Chuck Klosterman is a man who writes about things. I suppose he’s best-known for writing about music, but he also has an interest in sports, and is a friend of Bill Simmons, “The Sports Guy” on ESPN.com. Anyway, one of Klosterman’s professed opinions is that college football is better than professional football, and that in general he prefers college sports to pro sports. I’m willing to agree with Klosterman for football, but I think the NBA is far more entertaining than college basketball. I want to explore the reasons why the type of sport matters in this decision.

In any sport (or game of skill, if you don’t think golf, NASCAR, etc are sports) there are two factors of difficulty: the opponent, and the environment / equipment / the rules. Every sport can be viewed as some combination of those factors. Of course, every sport has some difficulty inherent in its rules. It’s not particularly easy to hit a tennis ball over the net into the correct area, or to throw and catch a football, or to dribble a basketball or soccer ball. However, the degree of difficulty varies greatly.

Golf is entirely competing against the course, Boxing (or MMA if you prefer) is entirely competing against an opponent, and everything else falls in between. My belief is that the more a sport tends towards environmental/rules difficulty, the more important skill level is in evaluating entertainment value for a spectator. Golf TV ratings rise and fall based on the participation of Tiger Woods, because he’s the best (pre-scandal; afterward there are a lot of mitigating factors), but two low-ranked tennis players can play a fascinating match because tennis is mostly player vs player. The Isner-Mahut marathon match at this year’s Wimbledon was the most entertaining tennis I’ve seen for a while, and that was a qualifier vs the 23rd seed, not exactly elite players. The Federer-Nadal Wimbledon finals were more entertaining because of the higher skill level of the players, but the main drama in both cases was a result of the skill levels being close to each other.

What does this mean for football, and for basketball? Well I view football as a primarily team-vs-team sport. If you put a football offense on a practice field with no defense, there’s very little challenge. Holding onto the ball, throwing and catching, all of these things only have difficulty depending on the other team. If two teams are closely matched, then the game can be good even if neither team is particularly talented in absolute terms. In other words, the entertainment value of a football game can mostly be determined by the difference in skill levels of the two teams. Turnovers in football are often the marker of “sloppy” play, but they can usually be attributed to strong defense or bad luck, instead of just lack of skill by the offense. The only part of a football game that is practically all skill is placekicking.

In basketball, making a shot is far from certain even in an empty gym; the best players are very good not just at working together (and sometimes not even that) but at their specific skill, whether it be shooting, dribbling, accurate passing, or rebounding and blocking shots. If two equally matched but both untalented in absolute terms, the game may be close but fraught with missed shots, bricked free throws, bad passes, and lost dribbles. The entertainment value of a basketball game is certainly improved if the teams are equally matched, but the greater factor is the overall talent level and quality of play.

There are two other factors that I think are important: coaching, and superlative players.

Good coaching can not only make a team better, but also more entertaining to watch by eliminating frustrating mistakes. Since football has play stoppages every 30 seconds or so, the coach can give detailed instructions (the play call) to players frequently, and the level of coordination narrows down the number of available choices and so lessens the chance of a poor decision. In basketball, some coaches install sophisticated offensive or defensive systems (the Princeton offense, Triangle offense, Utah Jazz pick-and-roll offense, some zone defenses) but that’s more of a backdrop than precise play-by-play instructions. A good coach on a low-talent basketball team is less likely to make them play much better, or in a more entertaining way, compared to a similar situation in football.

The presence of “star” players who are supremely talented relative to their teammates and opponents affects basketball and football very differently. In football, the specialization and variety of roles result in an inability for one singularly talented player to consistently affect the balance of the game. If you give a decent team a really good running back, or wide receiver, or defensive back, it’s unlikely to make the team much better overall but it will increase the number of exciting “big plays” they have. This is a huge part of college football; players like Reggie Bush are exciting stars in college because they can use their athletic ability to break big plays. However, NFL defenses are also made up of elite athletes and so NFL-Reggie is a lot less exciting to watch than USC-Reggie. Basketball is of course also a team game, but with fewer players and less specialization it’s much easier for one star player to dominate a game and decrease the drama.

Of course these are all just my opinions and observations. What do you think? Are college sports or professional sports more entertaining to watch, and does it depend on the sport?

About “About Me”

(This post is sorta long, but I touch on some ideas that are important to me, so I do recommend you read all of it)

The “About” section of this site is a bit sparse, and I did that intentionally. The “About Me” section of my Facebook profile has approximately the same information. If you ask me for my favorite book, movie, or band, I’ll probably just mumble that I like a lot of things.

Part of the reason I don’t disclose favorites is just simple indecision. I’ve seen a lot of movies that I really liked, I’ve read a lot of good books, I listen to a lot of good music. It seems unfair for me to just pick one and call that my favorite. It may also depend on the mood I’m in; if I’m unhappy I think I’d be less likely to name a comedy as my favorite movie.

That’s not the reason my “About Me” section is brief. My main concern with that regard is how my disclosures will color a person’s perception of me, especially if it might be a first impression. It’s odd for me to admit that, because generally I think that I don’t worry about how other people see me. I don’t like to dress up, or shave too frequently, and every time I’ve ever had any sort of job interview (or even gone to hand in an application) I’ve argued with my dad over whether or not it’s acceptable for me to do so wearing jeans and a tshirt. I do my best not to judge people from little things like that, and I don’t want myself to be judged from those things either. If you want (or for a job, I guess need) to get to know me, I understand that my interests and the way I present myself are part of who I am but I don’t think that gives a very good picture.

Essentially I have two views: that I’m going to be judged from little things so I avoid disclosing them, and that if someone is going to judge me from such information then I’m not interested in them anyway. Naturally the latter opinion isn’t helpful in my line of work tutoring; I (quite literally) can’t afford to decline work from anyone. I can avoid being judged for my taste in music or movies by choosing not to volunteer that information (view number 1), but personal appearance and clothing can always generate some stereotype (lack of clothing even more so) so my default position is to make my preferences clear and not care what anyone thinks (view number 2).

Why exactly do I worry so much (and writing this much on a blog post just about confirms I do worry) about people judging me though? I would say I’m very confident in who I am as a person, and happy with my life choices; it’s not that I have something to hide. Rather, I don’t want to be miscast as something (or someone) I’m not. Making any sort of  judgment or assumption about a person just based on their clothing, musical taste, favorite movie, or other preferences is hardly better than judgments based on gender, ethnicity or nationality; I use the qualifier “hardly” because while the former set of characteristics are chosen, the latter are not (although nationality could be changed). All of these things make up an individual’s personality, but looking at them separate from the person is akin to taking quotes out of context.

I’ve used the word stereotype in this discussion, and I want to explain what that means. Stereotypes are generally assumed to be negative, although this is not always the case. A stereotype is when one known key characteristic is used to extrapolate other characteristics based on prior experiences or beliefs relevant to that key characteristic. This actually isn’t a bad thing at all; this process helps us orient ourselves in the world and also drives a lot of important functions. Web searches stereotype your query, Netflix stereotypes you to provide recommendations, and there are many more examples. Sometimes certain characteristics or interests are associated with positive stereotypes; if you put in your Facebook profile that you watch Mad Men, that could lead people to perceive you as being hip and smart. If you put that your favorite movies are Fight Club and Boondock Saints, that enforces a feeling that you’re just a regular college kid and helps you fit in. Conversely, you might make an intentionally low-popularity choice to give the perception that you’re unique, special, an outsider, or someone who doesn’t just follow every trend. I’ll admit that I don’t avoid being stereotyped in all instances. I’ll freely admit that I majored in Mathematics, not minding at all that there’s a stereotype that math is very hard, and so people who do math must be very smart.

What stereotypes do I avoid though? I can list several. Though I’ve said already that I can’t honestly name a “favorite” musician or movie, there are many that I like. I listen to The Beatles a lot; but might knowing that lead someone to believe that I’m old-fashioned, or that I’m some sort of hippie? I listen to Muse; there’s definitely a perception of them as being quite nerdy, liberal, and maybe a bit whiny. I listen to Fall Out Boy; they’re seen as being emo, a lot of the fans tend to be girls, and the bassist is married to Ashlee Simpson, which doesn’t help anyone’s reputation, least of all mine. I listen to many punk bands, from the Ramones and Dead Kennedys to Blink 182 and Green Day; punk can be seen as offensive, immature and disrespectful. I also listen to a lot of heavy metal and even death metal bands, like Metallica, Mastodon, Behemoth, Emperor, and Between the Buried and Me; I don’t think I need to explain the possible negative stereotypes there. It’s not just music, but movies can lead to judgments and stereotypes also. One of my favorite movies is Anchorman, but a love of Will Ferrell might make me seem immature or low-brow (as I’ll admit his comedy often is). I’m a big fan of The Lord of the Rings, both the books and the movies, but even with their popularity, admitting to that upfront all but tattoos me as a nerd.

So where does that leave me? Am I nerdy, immature, violent, disrespectful, and old-fashioned? In a word, yes. I’m a complex human being with a wide range of emotions and moods, often simultaneously. I have a diverse set of interests, likes, and dislikes, but they must be understood in the context of each other and within the rest of my life and my personality.

(Epilogue)

The particular “About Me”-style personal preference that got me thinking about this tonight was one that I haven’t mentioned yet here: religion. Technically speaking, I am an atheist. However I generally avoid using that term (“non-religious” is a more polite term that is at least implied to mean the same thing) because of the stereotypes and connotations it might carry. I am not a militant atheist who believes religion should be abolished. I do not mock religion, nor do I seek to supplant it with any sort of New Age humanist philosophy, nor do I go out of my way to trumpet the infallibility of science. However when many people hear the word “atheist”, these are the images conjured up. I usually try to be precise and correct in terminology (more on that in a later post) but I intentionally avoid using the word which most correctly describes my religious beliefs, because I prefer to avoid attaching that label to myself.

I may have a few other things to say as direct or indirect follow-ups to this post: My use of words (as mentioned above), my taste in music and movies, and self-reporting interests to shape how people perceive you.

A blog?

I do a lot of thinking; about myself, about my life, about the world, whatever is catching my attention at the moment. I tend to formulate arguments to myself, and it often seems like a waste to think about something for that long and then not have any record of it, so here we are.  I’ll post here every so often when I have an idea in my head; in all likelihood that’ll be frequent in the near future, but then I’ll sort of forget about this whole thing (hey, I’m realistic)

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