Friday, September 15, 2006

Correlation and Causality

They just don't seem to get it. Just because events A and B occur together does not mean that A causes B. This Yahoo story claims that alcohol use helps boost income. And what do they cite as evidence? The fact that alcohol drinkers earn more than teetotalers.

Did it ever occur to them that the causality -- if any -- could run in the reverse direction? Or that there is no direct causality at all but merely common drivers like education, opportunity and social strata and norms?

What would be interesting is if they were to study the set of heavy drinkers and segment them. How much would poor undergrads and celebrity has-beens distort the picture? I wonder.

(The story is based on a published paper in a journal. I don't know if the paper has stronger evidence but somehow I doubt it when the words "libertarian thinktank" and "contradicted....Harvard School of Public Health" show up in the article.)

Update: The paper (pdf link) does a better job than I gave it credit for, controlling for age and religion among other things. But its methodology would still appear to be flawed. It seems to think that the result is implied if social drinkers earn more than people who drink alone!

Wednesday, August 16, 2006

Ranking Colleges

It's apparently that time of the year when U.S. News and World Report releases its annual ranking of U.S. colleges. There is little doubt that the rankings are very dubious, although that hasn't stopped them from deeply influencing the choice of universities for a great many students (besides strongly influencing the marketing material churned out by a good number of these universities).

Some people appear to generalize from this state of affairs to claim that ranking universities meaningfully is fundamentally impossible. David Leonhardt in the New York Times rightly debunks this view with counter-arguments that point out the utility of ranking in other equivalent spheres (e.g., students are graded all the time based on test results that may have little to do with their abilities).

One effect to keep in mind in all this, however, is the non-linear nature of the bias induced by rankings, and the socially sub-optimal consequences that may ensue.

Here is how this works: A key determinant of student performance is the level of performance of his/her peers. Many of the benefits of studying at a top school emerge from the presence of other smart students at the same school -- be it due to a higher level of competition, the cultivation of "higher quality" social networks, or the non-linear improvements from collaboration. Therefore, the definition of a "good" school is partially recursive: A "good" school is one that attracts "good" students; "good" students are those that go to "good" schools.

In such a recursive system, bad rankings can significantly distort the assignment of students to schools. Imagine the rankings rate an "innately bad" school higher than an "innately good" one. Now, innately "good" students are going to drift towards the higher-rated school, causing an increase in the overall quality of the "innately bad" school and a decrease in the overall quality of the "innately good" school. This effect feeds back into providing an even better ranking for the "innately bad" school the next year. Which means that even more "good" students will gravitate towards it the next year! And so on...

Monday, July 10, 2006

Is Wikipedia criticism justified?

(Via Slashdot) Frank Ahrens of the Washington Post adds to the growing criticism of Wikipedia for its lack of accuracy at all times. The case in point this time around is the death of Kenneth Lay, and the ensuing sequence of often erroneous updates to Wikipedia's Lay entry. The chronicle of events described by Ahrens paints a very interesting picture:

10am, July 5, 2006: News organizations report Lay's death due to an apparent heart attack.
10:06am: First Wikipedia update on Lay. Wrongly claims his death was "an apparent suicide".
10:08am: Updated to say cause of death was "an apparent heart attack or suicide".
10:08am: Updated again to say cause of death is "yet to be determined".
10:11am: Comment added to imply that guilt from the Enron scandal caused the suicide.
10:12am: Cause of death correctly identified as being due to massive coronary, as reported by Lay's pastor.
10:39am: More speculation as to the cause of the heart attack, but clearly identified as such.
Afternoon: Stable entry with correct facts.

Ahrens looks upon this series of events as a negative -- proof of the inherent untrustworthiness of Wikipedia -- and even goes so far as to call it "an active deception, a powerful piece of agitprop...".

This attitute would appear to get the whole story backwards for two reasons:
  • First, the story here is not that anyone can deface Wikipedia with blatant untruths. (After all, that is an obvious consequence of global editability.) The story is the rapidity with which correct information percolates into the system and falsehood is eliminated! It amazes me that the information on Lay was updated within twelve minutes of his death and that it was fact-checked and corrected within a few hours. What other knowledge repository has this kind of latency to correct information?

  • Second, Wikipedia should be treated as what it truly is, not as what we'd like it to be in an idealized universe. What Wikipedia is, is an unimaginably broad repository of community-edited documents that is generally accurate on most matters. What it is not is the final word on a subject that bears the reputation of well-known editors or publishers behind it. Sure it would be nice if Wikipedia could also have the latter characteristics but it does not; if a reader assumes that it does, the fault likes with the reader, not with Wikipedia.
I do see interesting efforts under way to lend Wikipedia more of the reliability associated with editorial oversight and make it even more useful than it is today. Articles within Wikipedia undergo different levels of peer and editorial reviews and make their way into an upper echelon "core" that is tagged as such.

It would certainly help if more of an effort was made to clearly label each article with the level of peer review it has undergone, and the amount of stability that it has achieved. One can even conceive of simple automated evaluations based on the recency and frequency of updates to provide the reader with better guidance on the likely accuracy of an article.

Friday, May 05, 2006

Airplane Boarding Woes

I was taking the flight formerly known as Flight 93 from Newark to San Francisco last week, when I had the opportunity to encounter an extreme example of the silliness that passes for boarding policy. Here is the chain reaction of events as I saw them unfold:
  1. Gate invites passengers in "Seating Area 1" -- corresponding to the Economy Plus seats in the front of the aircraft -- to board.
  2. Small set of Seating Area 1 passengers with many, huge carry-on bags rush to be first to board (having stood in line for multiple minutes to obtain the privilege).
  3. Some passengers not in Seating Area 1 but with lots of baggage also squeeze through in the melee.
  4. The less antsy Seating Area 1 passengers trail the above and enter the aircraft, only to find that the rack space above their seats is already taken.
  5. Undeterred, these passengers march further down until they do find an open space for the carry-on bag.
  6. As they wend their way forward to their seats, they encounter a stream of passengers attempting to get to their seats in the rear of the aircraft.
  7. New batch of passengers find their own rack space occupied by the luggage of the people described in (4), forcing them to adopt the strategy described in (5).
  8. Having learnt from the mistakes of (6), these passengers are nice enough to close a rack once they realize it is full, in the hope of saving those arriving later from having to make the effort to find out.
  9. The next batch of passengers arrive and the results are surprisingly similar to (6), only worse as the subtleties of buffer space makes the congestion worse.
  10. This batch encounters closed racks above their seats and, since this makes little sense to them, proceed to open them and try squeezing their bags in. Needless to say, they have little success.
  11. Repeat, ad infinitum.
  12. Throw in the occasional late-arriving poor soul with a seat up front. He makes his way all the way to the rear of the aircraft in the hope of finding an open space, fails to find one and works his way forward frustrated. The manoeuvre lasts 15 minutes.
  13. Plane leaves the gate 20 minutes after scheduled departure.

Here is the question that crossed my mind then, as they had many times before with lesser vehemence: Why wouldn't you start boarding the plane from rear to front instead of the other way round? Choices:
  1. No, that's too easy. We don't want a scheme where passengers actually don't get in each other's way.
  2. No, we need to perpetuate the illusion that boarding first is a privilege. How will we have long meaningless queues to board otherwise?
    • Never mind that the plane won't take off until the last passenger is aboard.
    • Or that stretching your legs in the airport lounge is much superior to cramping them in an airplane seat for any longer than necessary.
    • Or that arriving late at the airport would be a much better privilege.
    • Is there an example of any other event which creates queues, even though seating is reserved and the event won't begin until everyone makes their way in? I don't know one.
  3. No, if passengers board from rear to front that means there is no chain reaction when we run out of overhead rack space. What's the fun in that?
On a more serious note, one potential flaw with the rear-to-front scheme is that people with seats in front get the worst deal in terms of likely space available for their baggage. It's not necessarily a bad deal since they receive shorter entry/exit times in the bargain. Of course, it's always easy to fix even that negative by just reserving the overhead space to go with the corresponding seats/seating class.

Tuesday, April 25, 2006

Do women tennis players deserve equal pay?

Over the last few years, few prize-money announcements at Grand Slam tennis tournaments have gone by without a number of tennis "feminists" raising a hue and cry about women players being paid less than men. The occasion this time: Wimbledon's announcement that it would continue to preserve its asymmetric pay structure.

Of course, the difference in pay is so marginal as to be little more than symbolic, which probably (and rightfully) causes further aggravation to the feminist movement. After all, how can the Wimbledon officials possibly justify paying the ladies' champion exactly 4.5% less than the men's?

The traditional argument against equal pay for women usually involves an allusion to two things:
  1. That men play 5 sets whilst women play 3 and, therefore, that men deserve more money.
  2. That the "depth" of the men's game is much higher than the women's and, therefore, that men work harder than women to win and deserve more money in consequence.
Neither of these two arguments makes any sense at all. (The only argument worse than (1) was when Martina Navratilova offered to play 5 sets in exchange for equal pay!) The reason: players are paid for the entertainment they deliver (and the secondary market therefrom, e.g., television spots), not for their labor! These aren't workers on minimum wage, they are performers. Making a pay-for-play argument is as silly as arguing that Roger Federer should make less money than Lleyton Hewitt because Federer keeps winning in straight sets while Hewitt always struggles through five-setters.

So, does this mean women do deserve equal pay after all? A tricky question, because it is hard to estimate the fraction of the tournament's market value that derives solely from the men and solely from the women. Instead, I used a different metric: Compare the prize money of all tournaments on the WTA tour excluding the Grand Slams, to the tournaments on the ATP tour. The advantage of making this comparison is that it's easy to get "pure" data on the value of women's (respectively, men's) tennis alone, since a WTA (resp., ATP) tour tournament needs to market itself, sell tickets and find sponsors without the aid of men's (resp., women's) tennis.

A quick analysis of the 2006 WTA and ATP tour, culled from their web sites, provides the following statistics:

WTA tour: 61 Tournaments; Avg. Prize Money = $650,000; Total Prize Money= $39.6 million

ATP tour: 64 Tournaments; Avg. Prize Money = $929,000; Total Prize Money= $59.5 million

The winner, in a TKO by a factor of almost 1.5: The ATP tour.

Conclusion: Until the WTA tour can get its act together and match the ATP tour's prize money, the argument for equal pay at Grand Slams is dubious.

Friday, April 07, 2006

The Tax Paradox

As I started doing my taxes late yesterday, I stumbled upon an interesting paradox involving human emotional reaction. If one is given a choice between living in the following two alternative worlds:
(a) one in which they do their taxes on April 14 every year and find that they are owed a nice big tax refund; and
(b) one in which they receive a slightly larger paycheck every fortnight, but find on April 14 that they owe the government a little money.

Why do people prefer (a) to (b), given that world (b) offers them more money (thanks to the loss of interest income on owed tax refunds)? I suspect it's because people prefer the high of one big, pleasant surprise to the even-keeled happiness of a fatter paycheck.

Wednesday, April 05, 2006

The Population of Europe

Back with a quick link after a long hiatus. Rather interesting discussion over at The Reality-Based Community on the state of European population growth, or the lack of it.

Tuesday, March 14, 2006

Bonds and the Steroids Scandal

Scoop Jackson makes a very important point that appears to have been lost on most major sportswriters: the real culprit in the steroids scandal is Major League Baseball.

Sunday, March 05, 2006

The Year's Best Movies

My Top 10 list for the year 2005.
  1. Crash: Powerful parable about racism. Quite the antithesis to "Good Night, and Good Luck" in its ability to create brilliant scenes of overwhelming realism out of a manifestly artificial and overtly manipulative plot.
  2. The Three Burials of Melquiades Estrada: This poetic and moving pseudo-Western plays like mellowed-down Peckinpah. I'll let Jim Emerson sing its praises.
  3. Sin City: A visual marvel by a master of pastiche.
  4. Munich: Spielberg continues to dabble with greatness while mixing in the occasional stinker like War of the Worlds.
  5. Tristram Shandy: A Cock and Bull Story: Delightful British comedy that I saw last week. Equal parts Truffaut and Charlie Kaufman, with a number of filmic and literary allusions thrown in.
  6. Syriana: The best George Clooney film of the year.
  7. Brokeback Mountain: Good but overrated. Review here.
  8. Batman Begins: Worthy continuation to the franchise created by Tim Burton.
  9. The Constant Gardener: One of the smartest, best-made movies of the year.
  10. Match Point: Woody Allen's best movie in ages. Wickedly ironic and displays Allen's usual brand of nihilism.
Other notables: Cinderella Man, In Her Shoes, Wallace & Gromit: The Curse of the Were-Rabbit.

The following movies might well have made my Top 10 had I gotten around to seeing them. In alphabetical order:

Capote, Cache, Grizzly Man, A History of Violence, Hustle & Flow, Junebug, King Kong, Murderball, The New World, The Squid & The Whale.

Saturday, March 04, 2006

Good Night, and Good Luck, Revisited

Back in December, I criticized Good Night, and Good Luck for embellishing its story by straying from the facts, citing a Slate article by Jack Shafer for evidence. But my pal Mor has a rather different take on matters. What Mor seems to be objecting to are two elements of Shafer's article:
  1. One of the more dramatic incidents in the movie revolves around McCarthy's attack on Annie Lee Moss, a Pentagon clerk whom he accuses of being a communist spy. The attack backfires spectacularly and is the beginning of the end for McCarthy. Shafer points out that the movie chooses to ignore the fact that Moss did indeed belong to the communist party, although she denied it under oath at the committee hearings.

  2. Shafer criticizes Murrow's actions in sympathetically portraying the case of Lt. Milo Radulovich, an officer in the Air Force who was thrown out because his family members were "suspected" security risks. Shafer makes his "argument" by quoting a Miami Herald critic who said, "Will we be comfortable these days with an Air Force officer with a security clearance whose father belongs to al Qaeda?"
Mor objects to (2) by pointing out that Shafer's "argument"/analogy is deeply flawed -- because Lt. Radulovich's family is only rumored to be a security risk, with no accusations proven in a court of law. I could not agree more. I'd add another objection to Shafer even bringing up the topic: any criticism of Murrow's actions is completely irrelevant to Shafer's analysis of the movie, so long as the movie faithfully represents what Murrow did in real life (which it did in this case).

With respect to (1), Mor feels that the movie -- being more of a parable about the state of the world today -- has a right to hide the truth in order to reinforce its message that everyone is entitled to a fair trial. I must disagree strongly, primarily on moral but also on artistic grounds.

First, I'd respect the film a lot more and would have found it more powerful had it revealed the fact of Moss' membership in the communist party. By portraying her as completely innocent, the film reduces itself to propaganda instead of making a principled statement. Funnily enough, the perfect analogy here has to do with anti-capital-punishment movies and Tim Robbins, another famous liberal. The George Clooney version would make the prisoner be a victim of wrongful conviction, just like in the hilarious movie-within-a-movie in Robert Altman's The Player (starring Tim Robbins). The truly principled movie would have the prisoner be an apparently unredeemable murderer, like in the Tim Robbins-directed Dead Man Walking.

But my objection to Clooney's work -- and all its embellishments of the truth -- runs much deeper. I believe the movie cheats the viewer unfairly to obtain his emotional investment. The film clearly wants its viewer to believe in the truth of the events transpiring on screen; everything is shot in stark documentary-style black & white, there are real documentary clips of Sen. McCarthy, the characters portrayed on screen are historical, and no disclaimers are provided up front about the story being a work of fiction (at least, none that I recall). So, the viewer's experience of the film is deeply colored by his belief in its veracity. Given this situation, there is absolutely no way that the filmmakers can hide behind any excuses for being creative with the truth. If they were more interested in making a parable than a real docudrama, one would expect them to make that extremely clear up front. Not doing so is as unacceptable as an author promoting a work of fiction as a "non-fiction" book to increase the emotional impact of his story. We all know what Oprah thinks of that.

Saturday, February 11, 2006

Brokeback Mountain

After weeks of planning, I finally managed to catch a show of Brokeback Mountain last night. The verdict: Pretty good, but overhyped.

(For those of you who prefer sci-fi, and even for those of you who don't, check out this free alternative: Brokeback to the Future.)

Ang Lee has always had a knack for unpredictability when it comes to his films' subjects. He has glided effortlessly from Jane Austen (Sense & Sensibility) to Chinese martial arts (Crouching Tiger) to super-hero movies (Hulk), all of them distinguished by strong characterization, smart screenplays and a sense of being ''weightier'' than they had any right to be. Brokeback Mountain continues the tradition, an almost-traditional romance with one twist -- the lovers happen to be a pair of cowboys, neither of whom is much into speaking. (Nor, for that matter, is anyone else in the movie -- with one memorable exception.)

There is much about the film to appreciate -- the delicate, unhurried manner in which it reveals the depth of its characters, little moments of drama full of keen observation, and a screenplay that trusts its audience to read between the lines. But for all its virtues, the film doesn't rise to the realms of greatness. For one, it is painfully slow. Deliberate artistic choice or not, the film felt interminably long -- with little of note happening most of the time -- despite a storyline that spanned nearly twenty years and a runtime of right around two hours. I could also not help but think that the gender of its protagonists had too important a role to play in making the film feel better than it really is. I wonder how it'd have been received had it been about a straight couple instead.

Sunday, February 05, 2006

Super Bowl Pick

Seattle (+4.5) over Pittsburgh

Pittsburgh has proved to be my bete noire this post-season with my only two missed calls both being on games in which I picked them to lose. I have decided to go down swinging, picking against them one final time. Why?
  • I've already clinched a winning record for the post-season. So, I might as well bet on the long odds and go down swinging. At least, I'd be consistent.
  • Seattle is underestimated because of the fact that they've only beaten mediocre teams so far. If Seattle goes ahead early, the Steelers will be in deep trouble.
  • Troy Polamalu is only listed as "probable".
  • Even the Patriots didn't win the Super Bowl by big margins. 4.5 points is a large spread.

Thursday, February 02, 2006

Where is the iPod camera?

Lost amidst all the hype surrounding each one of Apple's iPod-related moves is a question no one seems to have bothered asking: Why isn't Apple building a combo iPod-Digital Camera?

On the face of it, such a product would appear to be an absolutely perfect fit. The iPod already has a large, bright LCD screen for framing photos, a gigantic hard drive that can store your entire photo collection, built-in software to do slideshows, etc., a battery that is much more powerful than four AAs, and is a highly mobile device that people carry around with them all the time. Anyone else think that these would also be the specs for the ideal digital camera?

I think Apple has missed a trick for once.

Tuesday, January 24, 2006

Why Windows on a Mac?

Slashdot reports on a bounty for successfully booting Windows XP on an Intel iMac. One wonders exactly why such a hack would be of the least interest. Certainly not because one wants a Windows PC and finds that buying hardware from Apple is cheaper than a Dell purchase. In fact, given the hardware margins on the Intel iMac, Apple would probably be laughing all the way to the bank if this hack were actually used by people.

Wouldn't it be far more interesting to try and hack a Dell/Walmart PC to run Mac OS? That would at least save people a few hundred dollars. (And if the goal was to create a dual Windows/Mac boot, such a hack would probably help too.) On the other hand, Apple probably devoted a lot more attention to making it difficult to pull this off.

Sunday, January 22, 2006

Football: Quick Picks

Denver (-3.5) over Pittsburgh:

I just don't see Pittsburgh -- which holds the dubious distinction of being the only team to lose a playoff game at home to New England in the Tom Brady era -- putting together three consecutive good games. They managed to beat Indy despite their best efforts to choke it away; I think they will succeed in choking this time around. Denver's offense also ought to be much better than Indy's proved to be last week.

Seattle (-3.5) over Carolina:

(1) Bill Simmons picks Carolina.
(2) DeShaun Foster is out. When means that Jake Delhomme is going to throw Carolina out of the game.
(3) Seattle is a strong home team.
(4) Carolina can't win three in a row.

Last Week's Picks: I went 3-1 thanks to Indy's screw-up (which I'd like to think was because of the rust that I had predicted parenthetically in my evaluation of the game).

Wednesday, January 18, 2006

On Chucking in Cricket

Prem Panicker protests against the new chucking law that bans players for a year when they are caught chucking, instead of merely requiring umpires to no-ball the specific deliveries that are chucked.

I'm afraid I'd have to disagree on that score. What's missing from the equation is the issue of how difficult it is to accurately estimate whether a specific ball is chucked or not (which has finally been defined somewhat objectively as elbow flexion greater than 15 degrees). It's simply impossible with the naked eye.

What's the solution then? Look at the video after the game and evaluate the footage to make the determination. The problem then is that the bowler gains an unfair advantage during that game. Bowlers could then chuck with impunity in critical junctures and get away with it scot-free.

In consequence, there would have to be sufficiently large disincentives that prevent the bowler from attempting to use such a strategy. Banning him for a couple of years fits the bill perfectly as a good disincentive. Hence, the rule we have in place today.

Such an incentive system is hardly uncommon. For example, a ticketless traveler on public transport, when caught, has to pay a fine tens of times higher than the ticket price. Again, the reason is to ensure that the "expected cost of cheating" -- the product of the price when caught, multiplied by the probability of being caught -- is high. When the probability of being caught is low, we need to boost the penalty you pay! (Of course, we might wonder why the probability is low in the first place. The answer is that we can reduce enforcement costs this way! In fact, we can spend less and less money enforcing the law by proportionately increasing the fines more and more until we run into the problem of people not being rich enough to pay up!)

Saturday, January 14, 2006

For the record...

Given how predictable NFL playoff games have become, I figured I should take a leaf out of Bill Simmons's book (his picks here) and make my picks against the Vegas line. (For those who don't know what it means, a margin of victory is predicted by the oddsmakers for every game and you get to bet on whether the margin will be larger or smaller. So, if I do better than 50-50 on my bets, I get to make money!)

Seahawks (-9.5) over Redskins:

The end of the road for the offensively-challenged Washington squad. Seattle is going to trample all over them, winning by at least two touchdowns.

Broncos (-3) over Patriots:

This is a close call, given Denver's history of playoff collapses and the Patriots' impeccable record, but I'm siding with the home team. Denver's unstoppable running game is going to dictate play and leave New England's already depleted secondary even more vulnerable to the play-action pass.

Colts (-9.5) over Steelers:

This one is more a pick against the masses than anything else. Everyone has been overpraising Pittsburgh the past few weeks and overconcerned about Indy's finish. (Aside: What's the deal with resting players for the playoffs anyway? My theory is that it causes much more harm than good, taking players out of the winning rhythm that they had worked so hard to build up over the first 15 weeks of the season. How often have we seen the hot wild-card team ride its streak deep into the playoffs? If Indy gets off to a slow start, I would be vindicated.) So, I'll make the safe assumption that the line is a little too generous to Pittsburgh and go with Indy.

Panthers (+3) over Bears:

I'm picking the Panthers to cover. Why?

(1) Carolina played their worst game of the season the last time they were down in Chicago and I just don't see them playing that badly twice in a row. Even though they played well last week and usually blow hot-and-cold with breathtaking periodicity.

(2) What are the odds on Chicago scoring more than 13? A 3-point spread against such an anemic offense seems like a lot.

(3) Bill Simmons has gotten every pick involving Carolina wrong for the last 3 months, and he's picking against them this week.

Sunday, January 08, 2006

Starvation on City Streets

No, not of the gastronomic variety. I mean the Computer Science version.

I was driving south on the three-lane Paradise Road in Las Vegas yesterday when I encountered a curious phenomenon: the right (and right-turn) lane was extremely slow and barely crawled along while the traffic on the left two lanes was perfectly smooth. My initial hypothesis was that the intersecting road (Convention Center Drive) must be clogged badly, which in turn must have caused right-turn traffic to back up on Paradise Road. But that hypothesis was soon given the lie when I noticed cross-traffic zipping by whenever it had a green light!

And then it hit me. The fault, I realized, lies not in cross-traffic but in pedestrians! I remembered that a green light for a right turn is coincident with a green light for pedestrians wishing to cross straight on as well. And pedestrians have right of way. So, what happens when you have an immense amount of foot traffic looking to cross at all times, as was the case yesterday with CES in town? Traffic going straight on was fine, as were left turns (which had dedicated signals) but the right turns were completely trumped by the pedestrians. (What of a right turn on red, you wonder. That option was comprehensively ruled out by the volume of cross-traffic from the other two directions.)

Unfortunately my powers of deduction did not help me extricate my car from the jam, trapped as I was in the right lane with traffic whizzing by my left far too fast for me to venture a lane change. And so, it took on the order of 15 minutes to travel 25 yards for a turn.

Moral of the story: We need dedicated right-turn lights!

NFL Picks Update

So, I was wrong on Cincinnati beating Pittsburgh. But at least I can hide behind the injury to Carson Palmer. I'm picking Indy over Pittsburgh in the next round. I'm also going to make Denver the favorite over New England. Their run-heavy, play-action offense matches up very well against New England and, despite the presence of Tom Brady, New England's offense was nothing to write home about in the wild-card game.

On the NFC side, I did have both the Panthers and Redskins winning (I note, however, that I'd failed to update my predictions since Tampa Bay and Carolina swapped places). Next Round: Carolina over Chicago by a whisker and Seattle over Washington by ten.

Sunday, December 25, 2005

Weekend Sports Update


Right when I thought I had the AFC playoff picture down pat, the Bengals threw a spanner in the works by deciding to lose to the Bills and squander a first-round bye in the process. I'm sticking with the Bengals to make it to the AFC championship game, upending both the Steelers and the Broncos, but I might change my mind if they lose badly yet again next week.

My NFC picks are looking fairly solid with the exception of Carolina, which will probably end up switching places with Tampa Bay after dropping a home game to the Cowboys. But I'll blame the umps for that one -- an unwarranted "roughing the kicker" penalty was the culprit. (What's the deal with "roughing the kicker" rules anyway? If the kicker is so scared of being mauled, he should just try kicking from further behind the line of scrimmage!)


After their manhandling of the Spurs today, the Detroit Pistons should be getting pretty reasonable odds on a 70-win season. Given the state of the rest of the conference, they might even have an outside chance to make it all the way to the NBA finals without dropping a playoff game.

Miami and their long-in-the-tooth coach Pat Riley are in pretty deep trouble. After the humiliation of Friday's home loss to Vince Carter and the nets, one would have expected the "angry" and motivated Shaquille O'Neal, going up against the hated Lakers on national TV, to lead the Heat to a blow-out win. Instead we saw the thin and cold-shooting Lakers, with Kobe Bryant having a terrible second half and with practically no contribution from their bench, nearly pull off a win, denied only by a few unlucky breaks towards the end. Worryingly for Miami, Shaq looked old and immobile as he strugged to score against -- don't laugh -- Kwame Brown. If Shaq's decline is as permanent as it seems to be, this year might be Miami's best shot at winning it all. And if they fall short of the NBA finals, Riley would bear the blame both for assembling a roster that failed to match last year's performance as well as for forcing out a coach who is arguably better than him at this point in their careers.


Sourav Ganguly makes a comeback into the Indian team. It's going to be fun to watch the selection of the playing eleven for the test matches. Given the lunacy gripping Indian cricket circles, I wouldn't be shocked if he ended up as an opener, or if Pathan is drafted in to open. The former option would spell Ganguly's doom -- imagine him facing Shoaib Akhtar with the new ball -- while the latter would be a bad idea for the team as a whole.