Wednesday, January 28, 2015

Why you often shouldn't go for it on 4th down

It doesn’t matter the distance; kicking has been on a steady upward climb. If we look back even further, we can see indicators that kicking has been on a similar trajectory for the entire history of the league. ...

If you’re reading this site, there’s a good chance you scream at your television a lot when coaches sheepishly kick or punt instead of going for it on fourth down. This is particularly true in the “dead zone” between roughly the 25- and 40-yard lines, where punts accomplish little and field goals are supposedly too long to be good gambles. ...

As of 10 years ago — around when these should-we-go-for-it models rose to prominence — we were still right. But a lot has changed in 10 years. Field-goal kicking is now good enough that many previous calculations are outdated. ...

There’s no one universally agreed-upon system for when you should go for it on fourth down. But a very popular one is The New York Times’ 4th Down Bot...

Comparing those to my model, it looks to me like the bot’s kickers are approximately 2004-quality. (I asked Burke about this, and he agrees that the bot is probably at least a few years behind, and says that its kicking assumptions are based on a fitted model of the most recent eight years of kicking data.) ...

The following table compares “Go or No” charts from the 4th Down Bot as it stands right now, versus how it would look with projected 2015 kickers:
Having better kickers makes a big difference, as you can see from the blue sea on the left versus the red sea on the right. ...

While the updated version still concluded that coaches were too conservative (particularly on fourth-and-short), it found that coaches were (very slightly) making more correct decisions than the 4th Down Bot.
--Benjamin Morris, FiveThirtyEight, on updating our football analytic intuitions

Monday, January 26, 2015

Why you shouldn't become a professional cartoonist

[Tom] Toro has since moved into his own apartment, and he continues to submit a dozen or so cartoons to the New Yorker weekly. In the past year and a half, the magazine has bought 16 of his 1,600 submissions. "It's a kind of life of rejection," Toro deadpans. "It's a bittersweet game of odds, and you have to overwhelm them."

Among the bittersweet realities of Toro's cartooning success is that the pay is mediocre. The New Yorker abandoned its staff cartoonists several years ago and now offers its stable of 30 or so regular ones a fee of $675 per cartoon, with old-timers such as Roz Chast and George Booth probably earning more.
--Tamara Straus, SFGate, on overwhelming supply meeting tepid demand. FYI, 16 * 675 / 1.5 = $7,200 per year

Every cartoonist I know has a second career doing something else, or is married to a lawyer. How I make ends meet is I work part-time customer service jobs, and if that’s not enough I shamelessly mooch off my parents. I’m almost thirty-two years old. Welcome to the paradise of the modern artist. ...

This is pretty much the plateau. There’s no better venue than The New Yorker. It’s the acme of cartooning.

609 rejections later...

Tom Toro didn't always dream of becoming a cartoonist at The New Yorker. Sure, he drew cartoons in college, but he didn't see that as a career path. Instead, he went to film school at NYU.

Then he came to the sudden realization that he was in the wrong field — and he had no idea what he was going to do.

"Up to my neck in debt, directionless, feeling lost in the huge city," Tom Toro says. "I went into a pretty dark depression. I ended up dropping out of film school. I floundered around for a little while, and I finally just had to come back home." ...

"I had sort of been a golden child," he says. "I was valedictorian in my high school class, I went to Yale, I got into NYU right out of undergrad, and all of a sudden, I'm back at home. " ...

One afternoon, Toro went to a used book sale in his hometown. He opened a cardboard box and found an old stack of magazines. ...

They were stacks of old New Yorkers.

"There they were, these cartoons in among the articles," he says. "I don't know. Something just clicked. And I started drawing again."

Toro decided to submit some of his work to the magazine. ...

Shortly after, he received a reply in the mail: It was his first rejection note.

"It's like two of the most elegantly phrased sentences," he says. "The New Yorker found the way to most courteously and most briefly reject people. It's just beautiful. You feel so honored to receive it and yet it's a brushoff." ...

A year and a half later, Toro had a pile of rejection letters. But instead of feeling discouraged, he says, it only fueled his determination. ...

And then, one day, he wandered into his mom's office to check his email.

"Went in there, logged in, and there sitting at the top of my inbox was an email from [Bob Mankoff's] assistant," Toro says.

The subject line read, "Cartoon Sold."

It was the 610th drawing Toro had submitted to The New Yorker.

Tom Toro's first accepted cartoon, published the week of his 28th birthday
--NPR on the power of persistence

Saturday, January 24, 2015

Belief in Google's omniscience

One of the more common questions for Google about a penis is “How big is my penis?” That men turn to Google, rather than a ruler, with this question is, in my opinion, a quintessential expression of our digital era.
--Seth Stephens-Davidowitz, NYT, on asking the Google genie

Friday, January 23, 2015

SkyMall depended on boredom for its business

The SkyMall catalog, a dog-eared best friend to bored and lonely fliers for 25 years, has filed for bankruptcy.

The seatback mainstay may have suffered a steep decline as airlines began loosening the rules that allow fliers to use electronics, according to court documents.
--Penelope Patsuris and Katie Lobosco, CNN Money, on a partial answer to why anybody would buy that useless stuff. HT: JF

Tuesday, January 20, 2015

Why New York state politicians are so corrupt

Wilson’s (1966) seminal contribution argued that state-level politics was particularly prone to corruption because state capitals are often far from the major metropolitan centers, and thus face a lower level of scrutiny by citizens and by the media...

Our first contribution is to establish a basic stylized fact that is very much in line with this “accountability view”: isolated US state capital cities are associated with higher levels of corruption. A simple depiction of that can be seen in Figure 1, where our baseline measure of corruption is plotted against our baseline measure of the isolation of a state’s capital city. ...

When it comes to the media, we show that newspapers give more coverage to state politics when their readership is more concentrated around the state capital city. This is matched by individual-level patterns: individuals who live farther from the state capital are less informed and display less interest in state politics, but not in politics in general.

When it comes to elections, we find that voter turnout in state elections is greater in counties that are closer to the state capital. In addition, we also show that isolated capital cities are associated with a greater role for money in state-level elections, as measured by campaign contributions, and that, in states with a relatively isolated capital, firms and individuals who are closer to it contribute disproportionately more. ...

Finally, we provide some evidence on whether this pattern of low accountability affects the ultimate provision of public goods: states with isolated capital cities also seem to spend relatively less, and get worse outcomes, on things like education, public welfare, and health care.
--Filipe Campante and Quoc-Anh Do, American Economic Review, on the case for moving state capitals closer to population centers

Monday, January 19, 2015

The importance of proper capitalization

Loan candidates who fill out online forms in proper case – the first letter of your first and last names capitalized and other letters lower case, for example – tend to be more reliable payers. Those who use all lower-case letters are slightly less reliable, and all capital-letter typists the worst.

Tuesday, January 13, 2015

Americans' cash-carrying habits

Quick, how much cash is in your wallet? If you’re like the average American, barely enough for a couple of movie tickets: The median consumer carries just $22.

A handful of people roll bigger. Roughly one in five people carry more than $100. One in twenty carry a pickpocket’s dream—$100 bills—according to a new study by Claire Greene and Scott Schuh of the Federal Reserve Bank of Boston. ...

The amount of cash in circulation keeps rising. There’s $1.2 trillion in cash outside banks, up 20 percent since 2011. Use of credit and debit cards is growing, too, but they’re mostly taking over where checks left off. Cash is still used for 40 percent of all purchases, and from 2003 to 2012 the amount of cash pulled from ATMs rose 32 percent faster than inflation. ...
In fact, people who carry around lots of cash aren't that different from anyone else, with one important distinction: They make more money. Consumers who make more than $75,000 are about 50 percent more likely to be carrying around $100 than those who make less than $35,000. That might not seem surprising—more money in the paycheck means more in the wallet—but it undercuts the idea that wads of cash are mainly for poor people who don’t have access to banks or credit cards. In fact, holders of more than $100 were more likely to have a credit card, though they tended to pay it off every month. They were also more likely to be older than 55 and have more than a high school education. Beyond those, the study concluded, “other demographic factors are not statistically significant.”

Most people use cash only to buy small things, and people with lots of cash are no exception. When spending their $100 bills, they’re usually asking a clerk to make change. The Boston Fed study tracked daily spending and found that 78 percent of $100 bills were used on purchases of less than $100. One-third of the time, they were using a $100 bill to buy less than $20 of stuff.
--Ben Steverman, Bloomberg Businessweek, on how far away we are from a cashless economy. HT: EP

And the classic clip on the use of $100 bills:

Academic rigor and athletes in the Ivy League

There is a distinct irony in dozens of students, including a large number of athletes, cheating in a course on sports ethics.

That's the situation at Dartmouth College, where 64 students were accused of cheating in a course called "Sports, Ethics, and Religion." ...

Dartmouth religion professor Randall Balmer has said he initially designed the course to help student-athletes who may have trouble keeping up with the workload at the Ivy League college. Close to 70% of the 272 students enrolled in "Sports, Ethics, and Religion" last semester were Dartmouth varsity athletes, The Dartmouth reports, including more than half of the football, men's hockey, and men's basketball teams.
--Peter Jacobs, Business Insider, on not quite a fake UNC class

“The Structure of Networks,” widely known by undergraduates to be one of Yale’s most popular and least rigorous courses, has been capped and will now include a final exam this semester.

Last spring, more than 500 students took the course, which currently has a workload rating of 1.6/5.0 on CourseTable. ...

“Last year, at least 80 percent of the class received an A,” [professor Ronald Coifman] said. ...

Varsity hockey player Henry Hart ’18 said many athletes take “Structure of Networks” because of its reputation on campus.

“I’m in an all-athlete group chat from a fall economics course, and it blew up about ‘Structure of Networks,’ which is supposed to be a good fit for athletes because of its low rigor,” he said. “It seems like it is a class that doesn’t require a lot of work and lets you focus on other things.”
--David Shimer, Yale Daily News, on not quite a fake UNC class 2

Harvard would not say how many students had been disciplined for cheating on a take-home final exam given last May in a government class, but the university’s statements indicated that the number forced out was around 70. The class had 279 students, and Harvard administrators said last summer that “nearly half” were suspected of cheating and would have their cases reviewed by the Administrative Board. On Friday, a Harvard dean, Michael D. Smith, wrote in a letter to faculty members and students that, of those cases, “somewhat more than half” had resulted in a student’s being required to withdraw. ...

It was a heavy blow to sports programs, because the class drew a large number of varsity athletes, some of them on the basketball team.
--Richard Perez-Peña, NYT, on an athlete-heavy Harvard class

Trevor Nash, a Harvard sophomore from the Atlanta area, said the initial reaction on campus was shock that as many as 125 students in a 279-person class with a reputation for favorable grading and a light workload — Government 1310: Introduction to Congress — were being investigated for cheating on a take-home final exam last semester. ...

The news could reignite a contentious decades-old debate about athletes and academic integrity in the Ivy League. Eleven years ago, the publication of the book “The Game of Life: College Sports and Educational Values,” by the former Princeton president William Bowen and James Shulman of the Mellon Foundation, used a vast database on the academic credentials, grades and majors of 90,000 students from 30 elite universities and colleges to depict an athletic culture that significantly influenced campus ethos.

Among the book’s messages was that today’s athletes at elite institutions enter college less academically prepared and with decidedly different goals and values than their classmates.
--Bill Pennington, NYT, on systematic evidence

Sunday, January 11, 2015

How to make yourself fall in love with anyone

More than 20 years ago, the psychologist Arthur Aron succeeded in making two strangers fall in love in his laboratory. Last summer, I applied his technique in my own life, which is how I found myself standing on a bridge at midnight, staring into a man’s eyes for exactly four minutes. ...

I explained the study to my university acquaintance. A heterosexual man and woman enter the lab through separate doors. They sit face to face and answer a series of increasingly personal questions. Then they stare silently into each other’s eyes for four minutes. The most tantalizing detail: Six months later, two participants were married. They invited the entire lab to the ceremony.

“Let’s try it,” he said. ...

I Googled Dr. Aron’s questions; there are 36. We spent the next two hours passing my iPhone across the table, alternately posing each question.

They began innocuously: “Would you like to be famous? In what way?” And “When did you last sing to yourself? To someone else?”

But they quickly became probing. ...

With us, because the level of vulnerability increased gradually, I didn’t notice we had entered intimate territory until we were already there, a process that can typically take weeks or months. ...

We all have a narrative of ourselves that we offer up to strangers and acquaintances, but Dr. Aron’s questions make it impossible to rely on that narrative. Ours was the kind of accelerated intimacy I remembered from summer camp, staying up all night with a new friend, exchanging the details of our short lives. At 13, away from home for the first time, it felt natural to get to know someone quickly. But rarely does adult life present us with such circumstances.

The moments I found most uncomfortable were not when I had to make confessions about myself, but had to venture opinions about my partner. For example: “Alternate sharing something you consider a positive characteristic of your partner, a total of five items” (Question 22), and “Tell your partner what you like about them; be very honest this time saying things you might not say to someone you’ve just met” (Question 28).

It’s astounding, really, to hear what someone admires in you. I don’t know why we don’t go around thoughtfully complimenting one another all the time. ...

We finished at midnight, taking far longer than the 90 minutes for the original study. Looking around the bar, I felt as if I had just woken up. “That wasn’t so bad,” I said. “Definitely less uncomfortable than the staring into each other’s eyes part would be.”

He hesitated and asked. “Do you think we should do that, too?”

“Here?” I looked around the bar. It seemed too weird, too public.

“We could stand on the bridge,” he said, turning toward the window. ...

You’re probably wondering if he and I fell in love. ...
--Mandy Len Catron, NYT, on the power of relational vulnerability. Read the whole thing to find out how it ended. The 36 questions are here.

Thursday, January 8, 2015

How basketball is played in the age of analytics

When Daryl Morey [general manager of the Houston Rockets], the mad scientist of analytics, landed Harden in the trade of the decade, he not only got the superstar he coveted, he also acquired the perfect instrument for his basketball laboratory. ...

By now, everyone knows that the Rockets’ offensive philosophy is built around 3s and paint shots; they avoid the midrange the same way Gwyneth Paltrow avoids Quiznos. As this chart shows, they invest heavily around the hoop and behind the 3-point line.

For Houston, even a below-average 3-pointer or paint shot is a better investment than a good shot in Kobe and Byron Scott’s hairy midrange neighborhood. As a result, the team scores a minuscule 6.2 percent of its points in the midrange, and is happy to sacrifice efficiency in its favorite spaces in favor of volume. While Bryant and Scott turn a blind eye toward the newfangled ways of the NBA, Morey and Harden bask in their glow.

A cursory glance at Houston’s shot chart seems to suggest that the Rockets are an inefficient jump-shooting team. That’s technically true, but it’s misleading. Being slightly “inefficient” within an extremely efficient area, it turns out, is better than being efficient inside an inefficient area. Thanks to their lopsided shot distribution, the Rockets remain among the NBA’s top 10 most efficient jump-shooting outfits. ...

The NBA has legislated this brave new hoops world into existence — promoting the worth of the 3-point shot and free throws over other forms of scoring.

For those of us who grew up watching Bird, Magic, and Jordan, there’s an increasing dissonance between what we perceive to be dominant basketball and what actually is dominant basketball. Sometimes the two are aligned, but they seem to be increasingly divergent — and perhaps the most tragic analytical realization is that the league’s rapidly growing 3-point economy has inherently downgraded some of the sport’s most aesthetically beautiful skill sets. You can’t be Bernard King or Alex English, bobbing and weaving into space on the elbow or along the baseline, anymore. Hell, it’s hard to even be LaMarcus Aldridge or Al Jefferson. The Chris Boshes and Serge Ibakas of the world, once forever camped out in the post, now stray beyond the arc. That unassuming curved line has forever changed the NBA. For every graying Garnett, Duncan, or Kobe, lugging their 2-point jumpers toward the exit, there’s an upstart Harden or Love hanging out behind the 3-point line.
--Kirk Goldsberry, Grantland, on the future of basketball

Wednesday, January 7, 2015

The science of why women cry more than men

We can intuit that men cry less often than women owing to social conditioning; crying doesn’t really fit in with our image of stereotypical manhood, after all, and that’s no doubt a partial explanation of why men are more likely to hold in their tears. But men may also be biologically built to shed fewer tears, [clinical psychologist Ad] Vingerhoets and other experts suggest.

Back to the tear ducts, for example. “There are several studies over the years that have shown that men have larger tear ducts in their eyes, so that it is less likely for the tears to well up to the point of spilling over the eyelid onto the cheek,” said Dr. Geoffrey Goodfellow, an associate professor at the Illinois College of Optometry in Chicago. There’s also this paper from the 1960s, in which a physician from the University of Michigan reports how he used male and female skulls to measure the length and depth of tear ducts, finding that women’s were shorter and shallower.

Hormones also may provide an explanation, too, including testosterone, which, Vingerhoets believes, inhibits crying. Male prostate cancer patients, for example, tend to become more emotional when treated with medications that lower their testosterone levels. But this isn’t just about testosterone: Back in the 1980s, biochemist William H. Frey and his team analyzed the chemical makeup of emotional tears and compared them to tears caused by irritants. They found, among other things, that emotional tears tend to contain prolactin, a hormone produced by the pituitary gland that is associated with emotion. Vingerhoets passed on a 2012 paper from a team of Nigerian scientists that he said may help connect this to the gender difference in crying.

From the paper:
[A]dult women have serum prolactin levels almost sixty percent above the average male. This difference may help to explain why women as a whole cry more frequently … . Before puberty, the serum prolactin levels are the same in both sexes, and studies have found that the crying level of boys and girls is much more similar before puberty.
--Melissa Dahl, New York, on the biology of crying

Thursday, January 1, 2015

How to overcome unspeakable emotional trauma

Regarding Louie Zamperini, protagonist of the book and movie Unbroken:

So many elements of Louie's saga were enthralling, but one in particular hooked me. He told of having experienced almost unimaginable abuse at the hands of his [Japanese WWII] captors, yet spoke without self-pity or bitterness. In fact, he was cheerful, speaking with perfect equanimity. When he finished his story, I had one question: How can you tell of being victimized by such monstrous men, yet not express rage? His response was simple: Because I forgave them.

It was this, more than anything, that hooked me. How could this man forgive the unforgivable? In setting out to write Louie's biography, I set out to find the answer.
--Laura Hillenbrand, author of Unbroken