Thaw

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!

Kort Mengeling

1. My longest internet loyalty has unquestionably been to Yahoo, which I have been regularly browsing for 20+ years. My first online experiences (other than pre-Internet work communications through ARPANet and other early precursors) were through the moderated portals at CompuServe in 1993, but when I ventured forth on my own into the wild and wooly early World Wide Web in 1994, Yahoo was my portal of choice. My first personal e-mail address was “gnhn@yahoo.com,” and that’s still my Yahoo ID for fantasy sports and other such log-in required activities. I also viewed the Yahoo Sports Portal as the greatest evolution in the genre since the early days of the USA Today Sports Page, and it has been my go-to site for basketball scores, hockey standings, football stats and other jock-related nerd stuff since the mid-1990s. But this is all over now: in recent years, I’ve grown increasingly sick of having to wade through endless meaningless articles and photos and click bait pieces about Kardashians and Miley Cyrus and the like, but the clincher for me has been Yahoo’s more recent (and disturbing) practice of putting fake science news into the mix of idiocy, which I cannot abide. I’ve used LeechBlock to put all Yahoo domains on 24/7/365 shutdown on all my computers, and have sought alternatives for the things I really need and want to see. The last time I did this was for a major commercial site was for the Weather Channel’s awful portal, which also combines pop culture nonsense, bad science and click bait with a dangerous proclivity for generating weather-related hysteria — and that decision led me to regularly use the far superior, “just the facts, ma’am” National Weather Service site at weather.gov. I look forward to finding similar new and high-quality portals for sports, entertainment, political and science news in the months ahead, as I am no longer distracted by Yahoo’s rampant idiocy. Farewell, old friend. You betrayed us all for money.

2. The weather has been generally hideous out here in the heartland of late, but just before we went to Florida, I did get the chance to take a long drive out to Iowa’s northwest corner. As has been my practice for the three-plus years we’ve lived in Iowa, I always look for new ways to get to old places, as I continue trying to experience and see the state at the most granular level possible. And as also been my practice, I notate the roads I’ve driven on the increasingly battered paper map that I purchased when I first crossed the Mississippi River at the Quad Cities with two angry cats in November 2011. Here’s what it looks like these days. I’m pretty sure that 99% of native Iowans haven’t driven as much of the State as I have at this point.

Vroom! Vroom! (Click to Enlarge).

Vroom! Vroom! (Click to Enlarge).

3. And, of course, it’s really not an Iowa road trip unless there are dirt roads involved, so I enjoyed roaring down this one just east of Beebeetown for a half hour or so, generating towering plumes of dust in my wake. It’s hard to believe how different this and so many similar Iowa scenes look in summertime when the crops are tall and green, or in autumn when tall brown husks define the horizon as far as the eye can see, or in spring, when tilling reveals the rich, dark soil that lies beneath these quiescent winter fields. I’m ready for the dead season to end.

Winter driving, east of Beebeetown, Iowa.

Winter driving, east of Beebeetown, Iowa.

4. Speaking of quiescent winter states, I recently made one final set of updates and put Indie Moines into permanent sleep mode, thusly: Keep Calm and Listen to Napalm Death.

5. And which Napalm Death should you listen to first? Why, their extraordinary new album, Apex Predator — Easy Meat. I think it’s one of the best albums ever, with the usual grindcore elements being leavened by the increasingly frequent and effective use of massed vocals, slower tempos, and early Swans-like sludge. The title and opening track of the album is one of the most harrowing songs in their catalog in this regard, a roaring, clanking dirge about the emotional and social perils of human debasement. “Heirarchies,” “Cesspits” and “Dear Slum Landlord” stand as equal highlights, with the blastbeats anchoring some really innovative modern metal arrangements. I think it’s one of their best albums ever — but, of course, I probably would, because I count Napalm Death as my favorite band, and hardcore fans aren’t usually self-aware enough to be disappointed by their faves. So I’m pleased to see that the response to album has pretty much been one of universal praise in the print and digital musical communities as well. I’ll be driving down to Lawrence, Kansas next week to see them live, though I was sorry to see that stalwart guitarist-singer-songwriter Mitch Harris is taking time away from the band for family reasons, so I will miss seeing and hearing him. I hope whatever life is throwing at him is resolvable, and that he returns to the fold soon. Both singer Mark “Barney” Harris and bassist Shane Embury took sabbaticals in years past and returned stronger than ever, so maybe that’s what will happen here. Fingers crossed.

On Returning

Marcia and I returned home yesterday after two weeks spent in Fort Lauderdale. We rented a great house there, so we could cook at home for most meals, and also have extra rooms for visitors. Katelin, my mother, and two of Marcia’s sisters joined us there at various times throughout our vacation. Marcia was actually working for a good chunk of our time away, so I did a lot of day trips (Miami, Cape Canaveral, the Everglades), and she and I walked a lot and had a some wonderful meals together. Click the image of me making my Space Nerd Pilgrimage to Kennedy Space Center below for the full photo gallery, if you’re so inclined. We will resume our regular pace of piffle and tripe here on the blog soon, after I dig out from being away for so long!

Me and the business end of a Saturn V rocket.

Me and the business end of a Saturn V rocket.

Oscar By The Numbers 2015: And the Academy Award for Best Picture Goes To . . .

Note: It’s Oscar Nomination Day, which means I have updated my 80+ year movie database and crunched the numbers to predict the Best Picture Winner, scientifically. If you have been reading my annual analysis on Oscar Nomination Day for a few years, you can probably skip the first few explanatory paragraphs and go straight to the 2015 pick and analysis. I’ve put subheads below to help you find that section.

Background and Method

People have long tried to handicap the Best Picture Academy Award based on a variety of factors, most commonly performance in other award shows leading up to the Big Pageant. Being a stats and numbers geek, it occurred to me that a far better approach to handicapping the top prize would be to consider the internal relationships within the Academy, essentially evaluating what they nominate against what they award. Toward this end, several years ago, I built a quantitative database of all Academy Award nominations back to the beginning in 1928, and then mathematically evaluated the correlations between Best Picture victory and other nominations.

What does that mean in English? Start here: it’s pretty much a given that you need a Best Director nomination to win Best Picture, since only four films in history (Driving Miss Daisy and Argo are the sole anomalies in modern times) have ever won the top prize without their Directors also being nominated. So the correlation between Best Director nomination and Best Picture victory is extremely strong.

But what other nominations have the strongest intra-Academy correlations to Best Picture success? When you crunch the data set, you come up with some interesting, often counter-intuitive conclusions. Here are a small number of them:

  • Actor nominations are dramatically more valuable than actress nominations.
  • Cinematography is also more valuable than actress nominations.
  • Film editing is, by far, the most valuable of the minor/technical awards.
  • Adapted screenplays are twice as valuable as original screenplays.
  • A nominated score helps a little, a nominated song hurts a lot.

In essence, Best Picture nominees that receive certain combinations of other nominations become almost shoo-ins to win, so it’s not just about who gets the most nominations, but instead about who gets the right ones. I developed a mathematical model that consolidates all of these factors to produce a single rating of “Best Picture-likelihood” on a scale of 0 to 100%. The nominees don’t compete against each (e.g. the totals in a given year add up to more than 100%), but rather compete one-on-one against an idealized, 100.0% Oscar Best Picture Bait Movie. Under my rubric, the five most-obvious, predictable Best Picture winners ever, based on their own year’s slates of nominations, were:

  • From Here to Eternity (1953): 96.1% predicted best picture value.
  • All About Eve (1950): 93.2%
  • On The Waterfront (1954): 90.6%
  • Gone With the Wind (1939): 86.0%
  • The Godfather (1972): 85.8%

2015 Predictions and Analysis

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. But I’ve heard that before, and been proven correct when rug-cutting time came. My model does not care about the Golden Globes. Nor do I, for that matter. I do, however, like all three of those front-runners, a lot, so it’s good to have a contest where I’m not actively rooting against a front runner, which is more often the case.

In addition to being a tight contest, this year’s top three race is also a contest between movies that would have been obliterated had they gone head-to-head against some of the historically spectacular films noted above. Compare From Here to Eternity‘s 96.1% chance of winning against The Imitation Game‘s 59.7% for evidence of their relative stature in the eyes of their generations’ Oscar voters. If The Imitation Games does win (and I am confident that it will), it will stand as the 49th most obvious Best Picture winner, sitting alongside the likes of Forrest Gump (1994), A Man for All Seasons (1966), Emile Zola (1937), and Platoon (1986). That feels about right: solid entertainment, but nothing that’s going to cause seismic changes in Hollywood history for a generation.

At the bottom end of this year’s nominations, I’m actually flabbergasted at the complete lack of supporting nominations behind Selma‘s big picture nod: the only other nomination it received was for Best Song, and that’s a category that actually hurts Best Picture chances. If Selma somehow inexplicably wins the big prize, only Wings (1928) and Grand Hotel (1932) would trail it in my model as the least deserving, least expected winners — and that’s in large part because a lot of the categories in which films are judged in my model today did not exist in the early Oscar slates.

Given Foxcatcher‘s strong showing in directing, acting, screenwriting and technical categories, it’s truly mind-boggling how it missed a Best Picture nomination while Selma earned one. While tongues are waggling today most strenuously about The Lego Movie‘s truly idiotic exclusion from the Best Animated Feature category, Foxcatcher‘s failure to garner a Best Picture nomination is actually statistically more shocking. On a personal front, I was disappointed to see Frank and Snowpiercer completely ignored by Uncle Oscar, though I wasn’t really surprised by that snub.

So with that as a long preamble: Bring on the 2015 Awards, and best of luck to The Imitation Game, which I predict will squeeze by Birdman and The Grand Budapest Hotel and capture the Academy Award for Best Motion Picture. Are you going to jump off the Boyhood bandwagon and get behind The Imitation Game now, or wait and let me say “I told you so” on February 22?

The choice is yours, though the numbers have spoken . . .

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