Five by Five Books #7: “The Mabinogion Tetralogy” (1936 to 1974) by Evangeline Walton

(Note: This is one of an occasional and ongoing series of reviews of my favorite novels, structured by covering five facets of my reading experiences, each in five sentences).

What’s it about? The Mabinogion Tetralogy is a modern re-telling of a twelfth century collection of complex Welsh heroic tales called Pedair Cainc y Mabinogi (“The Four Branches of the Mabinogi”), which are often considered to be the earliest known prose literature of Britain. Each of Evangeline Walton’s four books correlates with one of the Branches of the Mabinogi, telling the inter-connected stories of Prince Pwyll of Dyfed (Prince of Annwn), Llŷr’s daughter Branwen (Children of Llyr), Llŷr’s son Manawyddan (The Song of Rhiannon) and Math, son of Mathonwy (The Island of the Mighty). Pryderi, son of Pwyll and Rhiannon is the sole character to appear in all four books, which are primarily set in the Kingdoms of Dyfed and Gwynedd, post-Roman states established in early Fifth Century Wales. The stories include fantastic and mythological elements, though they are deeply rooted in a specific historical time and place, feature exceptionally well-realized, very human (read: flawed) characters, and address a sophisticated series of issues related to gender roles and relations, science vs magic, modernity vs tradition, and inter-cultural conflict between antagonistic belief systems. The complex web of dynastic loyalties and betrayals is evocative of the more widely known Arthurian legend, especially in the ways that seemingly simple romantic entanglements can have profound ramifications well beyond the intimate spaces in which they occur.

Who wrote it? Evangeline Walton was the pen name of Evangeline Wilna Ensley, born in 1907 in Indiana and raised by highly-educated, liberal Quaker parents, whose progressive views infuse Walton’s works, especially with regard to her portrayals of female characters. The vast majority of her work was written between the 1920s and the 1950s, though little of it saw publication at the time of its conception. Walton’s first novel was the unfortunately-titled (by her publisher) The Virgin and the Swine, which disappeared without a commercial trace upon its release — only to be rediscovered three decades later, retitled The Island of the Mighty, and issued in 1970 as part of the Ballantine Adult Fantasy Series. The other three long-languishing volumes of what ultimately became The Mabinogion Tetralogy finally made it to market between 1971 and 1974 under the Ballantine imprint, and then the collection was re-published in 2002 as a single volume in its proper narrative order. As her work gained popularity late in her life, another intriguing facet of Walton’s youth emerged into public view: she had been treated for bronchial infections as a child with large doses of silver nitrate, which caused her skin to turn blue — making her quite the magical figure at science fiction and fantasy conventions. 

When and where did I read it? I first read The Mabinogion Tetralogy in 1978 to 1979 while living at Mitchel Field on New York’s Long Island. I loved the Ballantine Adult Fantasy Series (even though I wasn’t an adult yet), having already read Lord of the Rings and The Gormenghast Trilogy on that influential literary imprint, which played a direct role in the successful commercialization of post-Tolkien swords and sorcery literature. (It’s hard to imagine Game of Thrones existing today without a generation of creative types having been awed by those Ballantine Books and their successors). The physical copies of the books I read were borrowed from my friend Jim Pitt, and I suspect that he pilfered them from his parents, since they did contain some frank sexual content that likely would have kept them off of the junior high school library where we usually found our books. I’ve re-read The Mabinogion Tetralogy twice since then (most recently during my early years living back in New York, circa 1993), and I was pleased to discover recently that the full set is now available on Kindle — so I can more readily pester other people into reading it and talking about it with me.

Why do I like it? One of my favorite books in elementary school was Norse Gods and Giants by Ingri and Edgar Parin d’Aulaire, a beautifully written and illustrated re-telling of 30 Scandinavian myths that somehow made its fantastic characters seem very real and grounded in ways that resonated deeply with me. I jumped from that beautiful book to C.S. Lewis’ Chronicles of Narnia and J.R.R. Tolkien’s The Lord of the Rings in fairly short order, and loved them both — but it was not until I read The Mabinogion Tetralogy (in the original four-book Ballantine editions) that I experienced the same sense of real-world earthiness that Norse Gods and Giants evoked, where characters engaged in fantastic battles or dramatic love affairs or behind-the-scenes skullduggery in ways that I imagined real people would, even if the settings for their adventures were other-worldly. (I would cite T.H. White’s The Once and Future King and Mervyn Peake’s The Gormenghast Trilogy — both of which I read for the first time soon after The Mabinogion Tetralogy — as equally resonant on that plane with me). I also liked (and still like) the fact that there were lots of strong women in The Mabinogion Tetralogy, and that the book addresses the nature of male-female relationships at some very granular levels, especially with regard to the biological and sociological rights and responsibilities associated with paternity, and proof thereof, in a pre-scientific culture. Of course, the sexy bits that came with all of those strong and assertive women were certainly more agreeable (and understandable) to a teenage boy than were, say, Aragorn pining away for the insipid and largely absent Arwen in The Lord of the Rings, but even without that adolescent hyper-hormonal response, the depictions of (again) those very real, earthy, grounded power dynamics between men and women during times of social and cultural flux remain profound.

A five sentence sample text (From Book One, Prince of Annwn): The Welsh say “She is casting rain,” not “it is raining,” and in Pwyll’s day men still knew why. Rain and sun, crops and the wombs of beasts and women, all were ruled by the old mysterious Goddess from whose own womb all things had come in the beginning. The wild places were Hers, and the wild things were Her children. Men of the New Tribes, Pwyll’s proud golden warrior-kind, left Her worship to women, and made offerings only to their Man-Gods, who brought them battle and loot. But now Pwyll began to wonder if those hunters were right who said that all who went into the woods to slay Her horned and furry children should first make offerings to Her, and promise not to kill too many.


#1: Engine Summer by John Crowley (1979)

#2: Skin by Kathe Koja (1993)

#3: Nova by Samuel R. Delany (1968)

#4: Titus Groan/Gormenghast by Mervyn Peake (1946/1950)

#5: The Islanders by Christopher Priest (2011)

#6: The Flounder by Günter Grass (1977)

#7: The Mabinogion Tetralogy by Evangeline Walton (1936 to 1974)

Click on the cover of the original Ballantine edition of

Click on the cover image from the original Ballantine edition of “Prince of Annwn” to order your own copy of the complete Tetralogy.

Twittering Killed the Blogosphere Star

(With apologies to The Buggles).

When compact discs first appeared on the market, I resisted them for many years, despite their advocates’ claims regarding their superior sonic quality and durability. My reluctance to adopt this new technology was not based on lack on interest in its purported benefits, but rather because I was the proud owner of some 2,000 vinyl albums — and I knew that once I made the leap to a more effortless platform for music listening, I would never return to the collection of clumsier, fragile, two-sided platters in which I’d invested so much time and money.

Of course, I finally succumbed to the allure of CDs and eventually sold off most of my vinyl, long before hipsters made pops and scratches cool again. And then iPods came along, and I also resisted their allure for a couple of years, while anxiously staring at the now massive piles of compact discs I’d accumulated over the prior two decades — many of them containing music that I’d already purchased in now unplayable (by me) vinyl or cassette editions.

No surprise, then, that the same cycle repeated itself again, and I now find myself with a catalog of some 12,000 songs stored on my computer (with external backup, of course), while my compact discs gather dust and take up shelf space. Once again, I find myself purchasing certain songs and albums for the third, fourth, or maybe fifth time, doing my fair share to support the artists I admire. (I should note that I never bought into the whole Napster-spawned “music should be free” paradigm; that always felt like theft to me, even if “everyone” else was doing it). I guess that’s progress, sort of, though each step forward comes with a wistful, lingering sense of loss for that which came before.

In contrast to my reluctance to embrace new musical technology for fear of devaluing my prior investments or losing access to my catalogs, for most of the past quarter century, I’ve been been very quick to homestead or adopt the new communications platforms offered by the world wide web. I’ve not generally felt any sense of loss or regret as I moved from ASCII bulletin boards to Compuserve’s Rocknet Forum to the Xnet2 Liste to my own website (you are here) to a blog (you are also here) to any number of social media platforms and virtual communities, some of them passing fancies, some of them long-standing online homes. Each step forward was generally a better one, or at least a lateral move, and if I lost something in transition, it was usually something I was glad to leave behind.

Until now, that is, thanks to Twitter. I resisted the ubiquitous micro-blogging application when it first came along, not because I worried about it impacting my other online platforms, but because I frankly didn’t see the use or benefit to typing in 140-character blocks of text on a phone. I can barely say “hello” that briefly — because I am a writer, sir, not a sparrow! Still, philosophical grumpiness aside, I eventually established a Twitter account, largely for work purposes, and occasionally tweeted the odd bon mot to the small cadre of folks who followed me, while continuing to chug away on my blog and other online outlets. It seemed but a mild diversion.

But then last year I finally grew tired of the soul-sapping force of social media communities like Facebook and dropped all of those platforms, and I found myself foraging Twitter more often for the sorts of political and cultural piffle and tripe that I used to harvest in Zuckerland and environs. And then I started responding to the things I found there, forcing my natural verbosity into the tiny chunks of text that the Twitter Gods allowed me to share, even embracing such terrible writing habits as substituting “&” for “and,” or not spelling out numbers lower than twelve (12), or compressing ellipses from the proper “. . .” to the less-space consuming (but incorrect) “…”.

It didn’t seem to be a problem at first for me, since I still kept a long list of “things to blog about” on my office white board, and generally wrote regular long-form articles, followed by tweets to promote them. Useful synergies, as it were. Until the fateful day when I posted a tweet about something — I don’t remember exactly what it was — and I decided that my one little block of text was all I needed to say about that topic, and I erased a line from my blog white board. And then another intended blog post was boiled down to 140 characters and erased. And then another. And then another.

And all of a sudden, I find that I’m not really much a blogger anymore, am I? While I used to launch three or four long and thoughtful posts a week into the blogosphere for my readers’ bemusement, I now just toss a dozen or so tweets into the air up there, where they spin briefly, and then vanish, never to be seen again — unlike the vast archive of blog posts here dating back to the earliest days of the internet, all of them easily searched, accessed and referenced when needed, by myself and others.

I have a sense that this is not a good thing, though I know that I am just as unlikely to go back to regular long form blogging now as I am to go back to listening to vinyl albums, hipsters be damned. And safe in that knowledge, for now, I am content to tweet regularly, write here on the blog occasionally, and listen to songs with no sleeves, stored on a computer, carried about on a pod — until such time as the Gods of Technology move their hands across the waters again, and I have to buy King Crimson’s Larks Tongue In Aspic for the eighth time, and learn to compose 30-character Queeflets by blinking my eyes rapidly in front of my KinphablaPad Nanodroid.

Oh, brave new world, that has such sparrows in it!

Tweet! Tweet tweet, I say! Tweet!

My Top 200 Albums of All Time

I’ve been keeping a list of my favorite albums since the early ’70s, when I was a grade school Steppenwolf fan. My tastes have evolved dramatically over the years (though I still like Steppenwolf), so I review and update the list periodically, dropping things that haven’t aged well, and adding new things that excite me. For many years, I kept a “Top 100 List,” but as I’ve gotten older, I’ve felt entitled to expand the roster beyond the century mark, since I’ve listened to a whole lot more music now than I had when I was a kid. I also used to exclude “Greatest Hits” and other compilation albums, but I’ve gotten less uptight about that, too, since for some artists, their best work may have appeared on singles that only saw long-form release in the form of “Best Of” collections. So as winter finally turns to spring in Iowa, it seems an opportune time to post the updated roster of my favorite albums of all time, in alphabetical order by artist. What do you think?

AC/DC: Back in Black
AC/DC: Black Ice
AC/DC: Rock or Bust
Alice Donut: 10 Glorious Animals
Allison, Mose: Swingin’ Machine
Anderson, Ian: Homo Erraticus

Bartos, Karl: Off the Record
Bauhaus: The Sky’s Gone Out
Beef: Stink, Stank, Stunk
Beef: Champagne of Bands
Beefheart, Captain and the Magic Band: Safe As Milk
Beefheart, Captain and the Magic Band: The Spotlight Kid
Beefheart, Captain and the Magic Band: Trout Mask Replica
Birthday Party: Junkyard
Black Flag: Damaged
Blackloud: Octave Drops
Bogmen: Life Begins at 40 Million
Bonzo Dog Band: Keynsham
Bonzo Dog Band: The Doughnut in Granny’s Greenhouse
Bowie, David: “Heroes”
Bowie, David: Low
Bowie, David: Lodger
Bowie, David: The Next Day
Burning Spear: Marcus Garvey
Butthole Surfers: Hairway to Steven
Butthole Surfers: Locust Abortion Technician

Cave, Nick and the Bad Seeds: Henry’s Dream
Cave, Nick and the Bad Seeds: Dig!!! Lazarus Dig!!!
Che Guevara T-Shirt: Everyone That’s Dead Was Obviously Wrong
Check Engine: Check Engine
Christian Death: Catastrophe Ballet
Clash: Combat Rock
Clay People: The Clay People
Clutch: Elephant Riders
Clutch: Robot Hive/Exodus
Coil: Love’s Secret Domain
Coil: The Ape of Naples
Coil: The Remote Viewer
Collider: WCYF
Cramps: Bad Music for Bad People
Culture: Two Sevens Clash
Cypress Hill: Cypress Hill

Dälek: Absence
Dälek: Abandoned Language
Dälek: Gutter Tactics
Davis, Jed: Small Sacrifices Must Be Made
Death Grips: Ex-Military
Death Grips: Government Plates
Devo: Q: Are We Not Men? A: We Are Devo
Devo: Something for Everybody
Dogbowl: Flan
Doyle: Abominator
Dunnery, Francis: Tall Blonde Helicopter

Eagles: Desperado
Earth, Wind and Fire: All n’ All
EDO: Wrinkles
Einsturzende Neubauten: Halber Mensch
Einsturzende Neubauten: Haus der Luge
Emerson, Lake and Palmer: Tarkus
Emerson, Lake and Palmer: Trilogy
Eno, Brian: Here Come the Warm Jets
Eno, Brian: Taking Tiger Mountain (By Strategy)

Fall: The Real New Fall LP . . . Formerly Country on the Click
Fall: Hex Enduction Hour
Family: Bandstand
Family: Fearless
Fear: The Record
Fela: Original Sufferhead
First Aid Kit: Stay Gold
Fleetwood Mac: Rumours
Fleetwood Mac: Future Games
Fripp, Robert: Exposure
Funkadelic: Maggotbrain

Gabriel, Peter: Peter Gabriel (III/Melt)
Gang of Four: Entertainment!
Gay Tastee: Songs for the Sodomites
Genesis: Duke
Genesis: Abacab
Genesis: The Lamb Lies Down on Broadway
Genesis: Wind and Wuthering
Goat: World Music
Good Rats: Birth Comes to Us All
Good Rats: Tasty
Gorky’s Zygotic Mynci: Introducing
Grand Mal: Binge/Purge
Grateful Dead: American Beauty

Hall, Daryl: Sacred Songs
Hanslick Rebellion: The Rebellion is Here
Harvey, P.J.: Dry
Hawkwind: Doremi Fasol Latido
Hedningarna: Karelia Visa
Hendrix, Jimi Experience: Are You Experienced?
Hitchcock, Robyn and the Egyptians: Element of Light
Human Sexual Response: Fig. 14
Human Sexual Response: In a Roman Mood
Husker Du: Zen Arcade

Jarre, Jean-Michel: Equinoxe
Jethro Tull: Songs From the Wood
Jethro Tull: The Broadsword and the Beast
Jethro Tull: Heavy Horses
Jethro Tull: Thick as a Brick
Joy Division: Unknown Pleasures
Joy Division: Closer

Kamikaze Hearts: Oneida Road
Kamikaze Hearts: Seven More Wonders of the World
Kaukonen, Jorma: Quah
Keineg, Katell: Jet
Killdozer: Twelve Point Buck
King Crimson: Starless and Bible Black
King Crimson: Discipline
Korn: Issues
Korn: The Paradigm Shift

Laurels: L

Melvins: (A) Senile Animal
Miam Monster Miam: Cum At the Liquid Fancy Fair
Michael Nyman: A Zed and Two Noughts (Original Soundtrack)
Mindless Self Indulgence: Tight
Minutemen: Double Nickels on the Dime
Miri: Okkar
Mos Def: The Ecstatic

Napalm Death: Time Waits For No Slave
Napalm Death: Utilitarian
Napalm Death: Apex Predator — Easy Meat
New Order: Movement
New Order: Power, Corruption and Lies

Pere Ubu: The Modern Dance
Phair, Liz: Exile in Guyville
Pink Floyd: The Dark Side of the Moon
Pink Floyd: The Wall
Planningtorock: W
Prieboy, Andy: The Questionable Profits of Pure Novelty
Prieboy, Andy: Upon My Wicked Son
Public Enemy: Fear of a Black Planet
Public Enemy: Apocalypse ’91: The Enemy Strikes Black

Red Hot Chili Peppers: The Uplift Mofo Party Plan
R.E.M.: Life’s Rich Pageant
Renaldo and the Loaf: Songs for Swinging Larvae
Replacements: Let It Be
Residents: Animal Lover
Residents: Demons Dance Alone
Robbins, Marty: Gunfighter Ballads and Trail Songs
Rolling Stones: Exile on Main St.
Rolling Stones: Hot Rocks 1964-1971
Roxy Music: For Your Pleasure
Roxy Music: Country Life
Rundgren, Todd: Healing
Rush: Signals

Scraping Foetus Off the Wheel: Nail
Sepultura: Roots
Sex Pistols: Never Mind the Bollocks, Here’s the Sex Pistols
Shriekback: Oil and Gold
Shriekback: Tench
Simon and Garfunkel: Sounds of Silence
Six Feet Under: Warpath
Small Axe: A Shot to the Body
Small Axe: A Blow to the Head
Smiths: Hatful of Hollow
Smiths: Louder Than Bombs
Snog: Last of the Great Romantics
Sonin, K.: The Definition of Stupidity is Doing the Same Thing 34 Times and Expecting Different Results
Special A.K.A.: In the Studio
Steely Dan: Aja
Steely Dan: The Royal Scam
Steppenwolf: Gold
Subduing Mara: Glossolalia
System of a Down: Toxicity
Swans: Filth

Talk Talk: Spirit of Eden
Talking Heads: Fear of Music
Television Personalities: Closer to God
This Heat: Deceit
Tragic Mulatto: Italians Fall Down and Look Up Your Dress
Tsukerman, Slava et. al.: Liquid Sky (Original Soundtrack)

Various Artists: If You Can’t Please Yourself, You Can’t Please Your Soul
Various Artists: Frank (Original Soundtrack)
Velvet Underground: The Velvet Underground and Nico

Wailer, Bunny: Blackheart Man
Wait: Dear Soul
Wall of Voodoo: Happy Planet
Wall of Voodoo: Seven Days in Sammystown
Wasted: We Are Already in Hell
Weasels: Uranus or Bust
Weasels: AARP Go the Weasels
Ween: Quebec
Ween: The Mollusk
Who: Who’s Next
Who: Meaty, Beaty, Big and Bouncy
Wings: Band on the Run
Wings: Venus and Mars
Wire: The Ideal Copy
Wire: Change Becomes Us

XTC: Black Sea
XTC: English Settlement

Yes: Drama
Yes: Close to the Edge
Yes: Relayer
Young, Neil and Crazy Horse: re-ac-tor

Zappa, Frank and the Mothers of Invention: One Size Fits All
Zappa, Frank: Joe’s Garage, Parts I, II and III
Zevon, Warren: Life’ll Kill Ya


It’s time for the annual spring posting of a favorite piece of writing, which I like both for its content, and for its form. I hope I am not overly optimistic in sharing these sentiments today, since it’s not too late for a rebound freeze . . .

Unbundled, unbound and resuscitated,
as the hated freeze leaves us, we perambulate,
embracing first thaw, a date we’ve long contemplated
through the faded, dark months while we’ve lain in wait.
Savage winters force us to truly appreciate
thaws (early or late): these reprieves are consummated
by elated pasty wraiths watching snow dissipate,
our great warming joy pure, clear and concentrated.

2015 Hoops Pick ‘Em

Per the marked-up version of the prior post, I went 51-17 in picking the 68 teams in this year’s NCAA Basketball Tournament — before any of the conference tournaments had begun. Not my best year, but not my worst either. I’m most gratified to be correct in picking Albany to win the America East Conference Tournament, since that was one of the most thrilling games I’ve ever seen, and also one of the best stories in sports this year.

With Selection Sunday behind us, it’s now time for the fun of my annual pick ’em tournament, wherein you are given the opportunity to humble me and my perceived deep knowledge of college hoops by defeating me in head to head competition — even if you base your picks on uniform colors or coolest mascots. After many years of hosting my pool on Yahoo, I am moving it to ESPN this year, per paragraph one of this post.

You will need to set up an ESPN Log-In Account to play, but that’s no more onerous than any other site registration. Once you have that, you can use the information at the bottom of this post to join my private group, make your picks, and then be rewarded with a full year’s opportunity to gloat, should you actually beat me in the contest. Which happens more often than not, since I remain the King of Over Thinking when it comes to these sorts of things.

Tuesday’s Play In Games do not count against the final score, so you can wait until after they’re over to make your picks, if you think their outcomes will be material to your success. You must have all of your picks (make sure you pick the champion and the tiebreaker, since I’ve seen people lose by missing those blocks in the past) done before the first tip-off on Thursday, at which point the brackets will be locked, and the fun will begin.

Here’s the log-in information for the group. Good luck, and happy picking!

Join Group Link: Click Here

Group Name: Overthinkers Anonymous

Group Password: chunkybumble

Bracketology (The Hard Way) 2015

“Bracketology” (the “science” of predicting the NCAA Division I Men’s Basketball Tournament) has become a big business on the web. There are loads of free sites offering opinions on which teams will get into the tournament, what their seeds will be, and in which regions they will be placed. There are also boodles of pay sites out there, where you can give your hard-earned cash to other “experts” who will handicap the field for you.

I’m not sure what the benefit of this approach might be, since (to the best of my knowledge) there’s not a big gambling pool out there before Selection Sunday. But someone must be buying (for reasons mysterious), because if they weren’t, then these dudes (and they are all dudes) would not be selling. Go figure.

When they market their services, most of the free and paid sites will offer stats like “Picked 67 of 68 teams last year!” The thing is, though, that they base those claims on their final set of picks, made in the hour between the end of the last conference tournament and the announcement of the first pairing in the big tournament. At this point, they know 31 of the 68 teams, since conference winners get automatic bids. They also know who stepped up in post-season play, and who flaked out — and this is of particular importance for the smaller conferences who do not get at-large bids.

This seems, to me, like easy pickings. And being a masochist, I prefer to do things the hard way, by publicly making my predictions of the field before any of the conference tournaments get going. That happens tomorrow, so I offer my annual picks for the 68 teams in this year’s NCAA Men’s Basketball Tournament below, sorted by conference (with number of teams in each conference in parentheses).

I will update the list as teams earn automatic byes, or get knocked out, and then do a final tally on Selection Sunday. I doubt I will get 67 of 68, but what’s the fun in picking automatic bids after the fact? Note that once the field is set, I will also host my annual pick ’em tourney (though I need to find a new home for it, since I’m boycotting Yahoo), so you can watch me over-think that phase of the process too.

America East (1): Albany
American (4): Tulsa, Southern Methodist, Temple, Cincinnati
Atlantic 10 (4): Dayton, Davidson, Rhode Island, Virginia Commonwealth
ACC (6): Virginia, Duke, Notre Dame, Louisville, North Carolina, North Carolina State
Atlantic Sun (1): Florida Gulf Coast North Florida
Big 12 (6): Kansas, Oklahoma, Baylor, West Virginia, Iowa State, Oklahoma State, Texas
Big East (6): Villanova, Butler, Providence, Georgetown, St. John’s, Xavier
Big Sky (1): Eastern Washington
Big South (1): Coastal Carolina
Big Ten (6): Wisconsin, Maryland, Ohio State, Michigan State, Iowa, Indiana, Purdue
Big West (1): University of California-Davis University of California Irvine
Colonial (1): William and Mary Northeastern
Conference USA (1): Louisiana Tech Alabama-Birmingham
Horizon (1): Valparaiso
Ivy (1): Harvard
Metro Atlantic (1): Iona Manhattan
Mid-American (1): Central Michigan Buffalo
Mideastern Athletic (1): North Carolina Central Hampton
Missouri Valley (2): Wichita State, Northern Iowa
Mountain West (3): Boise State, San Diego State, Colorado State, Wyoming
Northeast (1): St. Francis (New York) Robert Morris
Ohio Valley (1): Murray State Belmont
Pac-12 (3): Arizona, Utah, Oregon, UCLA
Patriot (1): Bucknell Lafayette
Southeastern (5): Kentucky, Arkansas, Texas A&M, Georgia, Mississippi, Louisiana State
Southern (1): Chattanooga Wofford
Southland (1): Stephen F. Austin
Southwestern Athletic (1): Texas Southern
Summit (1): South Dakota State, North Dakota State
Sun Belt (1): Georgia State
West Coast (2): Gonzaga, Brigham Young
Western Athletic (1): New Mexico State

Oscar By The Numbers: Time To Tweak the Model?

On Oscar nomination day this year, I confidently predicted in this post that The Imitation Game would capture Best Picture honors this year, based on a mathematical model I developed some years ago, and which is described more fully in the link.

I was obviously wrong: Birdman took the title instead, as many pundits predicted it would. So is it time for me to scrap my own model?

I don’t think so. Let’s review what the model predicted in the first hours after the nominees were announced, before all the ensuing media kerfuffle. Here’s the key quoted segment from the original article, with the numbers:

So what happens when you load this year’s Best Picture nominees into the database and crunch the numbers? You get these results:

  • The Imitation Game: 59.7%
  • Birdman: 57.2%
  • The Grand Budapest Hotel: 52.3%
  • Boyhood: 41.3%
  • American Sniper: 34.9%
  • Whiplash: 33.5%
  • The Theory of Everything: 29.9%
  • Selma: 0.9%

That’s a pretty tight contest between the top three films, and I’m somewhat pleased and gratified to see that Boyhood is not among the leaders, even though as I type this people are gushing about it as the shoo-in favorite after its Golden Globes performance.

The model did identify Birdman as a tight second place finisher, so that was not too far off the mark. The model also predicted that Boyhood did not really have a chance at the big prize — at a point in time when “everyone” had already earmarked it as the year’s favorite. I’m pleased with that result, too.

From a bettor’s standpoint, “Best Picture” is obviously a win or lose, all or nothing prospect, and so in that way, the model failed. But it didn’t fail by much, with only a 1.5% prescriptive difference between my pick and the actually winner, and the presumed favorite (at the time) accurately relegated to also-ran status. So I don’t think that it’s ready for the scrap heap quite yet.

I do, however, think I need to figure out a way to factor in one significant change in the nominating and award process that occurred after I developed the model: the new opportunity for the number of Best Picture nominations to be greater than the number of all of the other categories. This must have an impact on the way that the historical five-to-five correlations map onto recent and current years, though I have to figure out exactly what that impact might be, and how to capture it.

But I think that’s a minor tweak, at most, and not a full revamp. So watch this space on Oscar Nominating Day 2016, when I’ll be back to boldly call it again — and hopefully won’t lose another squeaker!


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