Tuesday, February 28, 2006

Eatin' My Corn

Ok, so I am and always have been a sucker for hot country singers, and Shannon Brown is no exception. Her new album "Corn Fed" (of all things) is pretty decent once you get by the jesus/simple country values talk. Although, I do think "Can I get a witness" is one of the best songs she has. It's a bit too much country as opposed to folk for me, but I made it the whole way through the album, and that's saying something for me. "Good ole' Days" is also an interesting country/funk/disco combination, worth at least one listen.

One thing I found fascinating was her tour schedule. Normally people tend to play at places that I would consider going to. She's singing the National Anthem at a rodeo this weekend, and then later in the summer, she's playing at a "Family Camp Ground". Guess I won't be seeing her anytime soon.

Google Maps are Cool

The lovely Mrs. H. sent me an email with a ton of links to sites that do stuff with google maps. They are so cool. Here's a sampling (with her commentary):


----------You're going to love this:

----------This is cool, too:

----------And I bet you'd love this:

----------So fun!!

---------How interesting:

----------Birth places of presidents & first ladies:


----------I don't totally get this, but you'll find it interesting:



----------Weird but very funny:


----------Who knew?


Couple New Links

I added a couple things to the links on the right. First of all, I have an accquaintance who writes for capitalweather.com and I've been really enjoying thier site for the past couple days. They do a good job reporting, you can find significantly more info than at the weather channel, and they're pretty honest about what they do. Now, only if they could continue to make it warmer.

Also, I added DC Foodies which is a blog about, well, food in DC. I don't know the guy who writes it, but he does a great job, and I enjoy reading it.

That's it.

Friday, February 24, 2006

Physics Exams

I was reading this post at Cosmic Variance about a E-M test that one of the authors gave recently. The test seems interesting, and I think he did a good job trying to match it to his students' abilities and time constraints (certainly caring at all about that is a step above many physics professors).

What I found more interesting, though was the discussion in the comments about open/closed book tests. There are certain conventional wisdoms that exist in the physics world about these types of tests. For example:

-Open book tests are generally a bit harder, because the professor knows you have a book.
-Closed book tests prepare you well for graduate school, because you really have to know the material.
-Closed book tests ignore the reality of life after school, when no book is closed.
-Closed book tests make the student focus more on thinking about the problem as opposed to searching through the book for an answer.

Certainly, there are more, and it really gets complicated when you weave in the take-home vs. in-class dichotomy as well.

We all carry this stuff around, because I bet things like this have been the conventional wisdom for at least 100+ years in physics (or at least since teaching classes has become more important than individula mentorship/apprenticeship in entering the field). However, we're physicsts/astronomers, not psychometricians. I wonder how much is real, and how much isn't. We take into the course and tests certain beliefs as teachers and "defenders of the sanctity of the field" (and there's nothing wrong with that), but someone who is a disinterested observer may see something very different. I also imagine that since more and more physics/astronomy students (even graduate students) are no longer ending up as physicists or astronomers, the outcomes one would look for after system of testing are significantly more varied than they were 30 years ago. I think that, although it would be incredibly hard to do, investigating the teaching practices and their outcomes in student achievement and success, in upper level science courses would be quite an interesting project.

Mmmmmm Chili

It was National Chili Day(Scroll Down) last night at Hard Times Cafe. Even though I'm nominally vegetarian, I can't resist the Texas chili at Hard Times, especially when it's free. Typically, I have the chilli on top of Fritos, but last night I had chilli mac. It was pretty good, but I would have rather had it in a bowl as opposed to on a plate -- too hard to eat. I think the Fritos are a better option anyway, because they suck up the grease better than the spaghetti.

At some point, I'll have to get around to entering my chili in a competition. As much as I like the Hard Times chili, I think mine is a ton better. Really, I make mine more like a stew. It has a lot more tomoatos, cheese, and other special ingredients, and is just generally thicker. Some people, I guess, wouldn't call it chili, but I do, and I like it.

Thursday, February 23, 2006

19 Bazillion Birds Outside my Window

I guess spring is upon us soon. I'm happy about that. I know the cat running around outside in the parking lot looking up at all the birds is happy about it too.

I haven't been writing much lately, even though there is so much going on, like the Olympics. Although track is my favorite olympic sport, I think the winter games are so much better. One, there's alot more competition. The Americans, across the board, aren't simply far and away better than everyone else. Sure, there's particular events in the summer games that Americans aren't good at, but if you pick out a random sport in the summer, you're going to see an American medalist. I don't believe that's true in the winter, or at least it doesn't seem like it (Maybe I should spend some time looking at the statistics of that too.) And also, the games are just so much more exotic. Downhill and luging aren't something that I could just walk out my backdoor and do. I haven't ever snowboarded on a halfpipe, so it just seems that much more amazing when I see the olympians do it. I just really love it. I wish they went on for a couple more weeks.

BTW, Chad Hedrick needed to shut his trap this past week. Shani Davis beat him twice, end of story. It's not Shani's fault that Chad didn't win 5 gold medals. That's only Chad's fault. He needs to stop playing the victim here.

To tell you the truth, the only victim of the olympics were the people who had to suffer through the ice dancing commentary. I have to say that I enjoyed ice dancing this year more than ever before, but Dick Button needs to shut up even more than Chad Hedrick. All they did the whole time was complain about how bad people were doing. I understand that it's good to point out for the viewers at home how the judges will be making their decisions, but can you be a bit more negative? Also, going on and on about how the Israeli team wasn't dancing to Bolero as well as Torville and Dean was just sickening. Ok, T&D competed some 22 years ago. The skaters might not even been born then, and probably about 5% of the audience know who they are. Certainly T&D weren't skating in this olympics, so just shut up about it.

I'll now return to my documentation.

Friday, February 10, 2006

My follow-up Steelers Post

Before the Super Bowl, I posted this about the suprisingly consistant ability of the Steelers to get into the playoffs. I said some things in that post that I later wanted to check on, and I wanted to correct the fact that I left the Bills out of my initial graph. So, again. . .

The first image shows the playoff histories of all teams in the NFL since my birth. Notice that the Steelers, Cowbows, and 49ers are farthest to the left and have the most amount of playoff appearances. At the very far right is the Texans who have yet to be in the playoffs. Realistically, the Panthers, Jaguars, Ravens, and Texans should not be considered in this "study" since they have only been in the league for a few years, and one wouldn't expect them to have the same total playoff appearances as other, older teams. This means that the Cardinals are the epitome of ineptitude during the course of my lifetime. (FYI, I combined the old Browns with the new Browns rather than with the Ravens, simply because it made my counting easier, and to make the graph contain the whole league. By doing this, I put a 5 year gap into the Browns history, but I don't really think it's that big of a deal, and hell, I'm not getting paid for this.) In addition, the inclusion of the Seahawks and Buccaneers might be a bit biased, since they entered the league in my birthyear, and one wouldn't expect them to make the playoffs in their first couple years. However, it's been 30 years now, so I think it comes close to all washing out (again, see the comment of me not getting paid for this).

From looking at the first graph, one can see that the average number of playoff appearances is about 10 - 11 years. If you actually calculate it, you come up with a number of 10.3 (+- 5) where you include the Texans, Ravens, Jaguars, and Panthers are included, and a number of 10.9 (+- 4) where they are not. The median is 10.5 and 11 respectively. Those averages match very well with the probability of making the playoffs in the NFL. Here's a brief history of playoff selection during the past 30 years:

1976-1977 - 4 playoff teams / conf., 14 teams / conf.
1978-1989 - 5 playoff teams / conf., 14 teams / conf.
1990-1994 - 6 playoff teams / conf., 14 teams / conf.
1995-1998 - 6 playoff teams / conf., 15 teams / conf.
1999-2002 - 6 playoff teams / conf., 15.5* teams / conf.
2003-2005 - 6 playoff teams / conf., 16 teams / conf.

*The Browns were the 16th team in the AFC during this time.

If you do a weighted average of that, you find that the dumb luck probability of a team entering the playoffs if all games were decided by a coin toss would be 0.37. Multiply that number by 30 years, and you find that the most likely amount of years a team would be in the playoffs is 11.2.

One thing that I wanted to check was whether you could do a dumb luck random flip determination of whether teams could get into the playoffs. For example, currently in each conference there are 4 divisions. The teams with the best record in each of these divisions automatically make the playoffs. Then the next two teams (Wild Cards) with the highest records are selected, bringing the total to 6. But, what if there is a 7th team that has a better record than one of the division winners, but does not make the playoffs because it did not have the best record in its own division, and did not have a better record than the two Wild Cards. This team would be in the top 6, but not make the playoffs, seemingly throughing the probabilities a bit off. This could happen, but does it happen alot?

I looked back into the old standings, and found two times that it certainly did happen, the 1979 NFC and the 1985 AFC. (I believe it was the Vikings and the Browns that were the division winners to get in. Further, the '85 Browns were the only team to ever make the playoffs with a 8-8 record.). There were a further 6 occurances where the lowest division winning team was tied with the 7th best team in their conference. Without going back into old game records it's impossible to know who would win these tie breakers, and I didn't feel like doing that. So, without any good reason, I'll assume that in three of these situations had the 7th team actually finish with a better record than a division winner. That brings our total of 5 times where the best 6 teams didn't go to the playoffs out of a total of 60 (2 conferences x 30 years) playoff draws, or 8% of the time. Since it's under 10% and I'm an astronomer who likes to deal with order of magnitude calculations, I'm going to ignore this effect, and assume that the probability of entering the playoffs is the probability of being one of the best 6 teams in a team's conference.

Now, after all that, the question that I was really interesting in answering is whether the Steelers being in the playoffs so many times a function of dumb luck (i.e. if you flip a coin enough times eventually, you'll get 50 heads in a row) or some real effect. There was some research done on this about basketball player's (and some other sports) hot streaks. It turns out that the
streaks don't really exist, and it's more human perception putting added emphasis on low probability events. I read somewhere (I think Gould) that the only streak that holds up to this type of analysis and is truly statistically unlikely is Dimaggio's consecutive game hitting streak. So, are the Steelers doing something right, or is it dumb luck?

The second graph is a histogram of the number of teams who have made the playoffs a given number of times. You can easily see the peaks at 8 and 11 indicating that we do have some sort of Guassian, or really in this case a Poisson distribution since entry to the playoffs is a discrete thing. So, I ran a Poisson distribution centered at 11, and that is in the third picture (I normalized the model Poisson distribution to have it's highest value be 4, for easy comparison).

There is a long low end tail (where the teams haven't made the playoffs much) in the real data. Alot of this is due to the inclusion of the Ravens, Texans, Jaguars, and Panthers. If you remove these teams results (at 0, both at 3, and one at 4), the bottom of the histogram matches the Poisson model well.

It is on the upper end, however, that we see something odd. By simple dumb luck, there should not be so many teams in the playoffs 16, 17, and 18 times. The Poisson model says that we should have maybe one or 2 out that far, not 10. This region is out past the 1.5-2 sigma range of the Poisson distribution, so we really shouldn't see a signal so strong. I believe that if these were stars, we'd be claiming detection.

Of course the sample is small. There are only 28 teams with a 30 year history, and really the time scale is low. Thirty years isn't alot. But, it seems to me that several of these teams in the high end of the distribution are doing something that is enhancing their probability of making the playoffs. It's not dumb luck that's got them there this many time. (One could also say same thing about some of the teams in the bottom of the distribution.) I'm planning on running a simulation of some random seasons to see what kind of distribution I come up with, and how that affects the distribution. But for now, it seems that for all of the talk about parity in the NFL, it is isn't there yet, and that several teams have found a way to be good and stay good.

I'm looking forward to doing this again in a few years.

It's come to this. . .

My morning affirmations:

I am going to have an enjoyable day at work.

I am going to be myself today.

I am going to leave work today feeling satisfied in who I am and what I accomplished.

(I guess all of this may be made easier by the fact that I'm leaving early today. WooHoo!)

Thursday, February 09, 2006

A couple posts that I found very interesting

These are a set by Arthur Silber. They really caused me to re-think some of my views on foreign policy. (Which I'm reminded by a conversation I overheard in the hallway, should not be set by scientists)

Part I on Iran

Part II on Iran

Part III on Iran

Part IV on Iran


Part V on Iran which I am about to read now in an attempt to ease my boredom.

This Day is Dragging

I wonder if it's possible to be a bit more bored today? I mean I can only actually entertain themselves by reading about physics, math, and programming so many hours of the day.

At least I'm taking off early tomorrow.

Wednesday, February 08, 2006

A Republican Criminal (Shock!)

While I was writing about the Steelers, I came across this article from the PG. It turns out that Rep. Habay decided that his relection was important enough to pay his staff state money to work on his campaign. The judge disagreed, and now he'll be doing 6-12 months.

He comes up for trial on witness intimidation and making false anthrax claims later this month.

And while I'm at it, I found this article about the state GOP
offering to pay his legal fees
if he switched to the Democratic party. I guess that didn't work out so well.

And of course, like all good law-breaking Republicans,
he was honored by W at the Whitehouse
for cutting taxes. He says that he's always trying to save his constituents money.

It's a real shame then, that he used the money he saved Pennsylvanians on their taxes to illegally pay his staf.

You know, it's been said many times before, but how is it that the Republicans can be the party of "morals", when they're the ones who are always being indicted, arrested, and convicted?

Guess I need more kool-aid, stat!

Super Steelers

I'm a bit slow in writing this, seeing how I am a Steeler fan and all, but now is my time to gloat. What a great game.

Ok, so it wasn't the greatest game ever, but the Steelers won the Super Bowl, and that makes it the greatest game I have ever witnessed. I never really believed that this would happen. They won when I was three. They lost when I was 19. But I didn't know if they'd ever make it back again. How amazing is that.

I didn't enjoy this game as much as I did the playoffs. I don't think they played anywhere near the same level that they did against Cincinnati, Indy, and Denver. The team that won those three games was one of the best that's played in a long time. Th team that won the Super Bowl was a better than average one that needed to be a bit lucky to get by. Sort of like New England the past few years. Still, they deserved the game. People have been complaining about the officiating, and it may not have been the best in the world, but the calls that were made were right by the letter of the rules. Frankly, Seattle only has themselves to blame for this one. They missed two field goals, and we're more confused than a highschool team at the end of the first half. If it had been 7-6 at half, the entire complexion of the game would have changed. But it wasn't. The Steelers won. Get over it.

The Bus is cool. He's Mrs. H.'s favorite player, so it's a shame that he's retiring now that she's just gotten into football. Probably Troy Paulomalu will be her next favorite, because he's easy to pick out on the field. And, he's pretty nice too.

Here's a set of pictures of Steeler fans for you to enjoy. I do enjoy being from that city.

(photo credit: Post Gazette - Lake Fong)

February. . . the Month of Hills

At least that's what the old track coach used to say, before he would take us out and run us until we cried. In honor of that, I put in some wee hills again today. 3 miles and 5 x 75m hills. The DJ in my head was playing "Doo Wop (That thing)" by Lauryn Hill. It was a nice grove to move along to.

Thursday, February 02, 2006

What I Can Do with too Much Time on My Hands

Since I only have a couple days left until the Super Bowl, I've been doing alot of thinking about my own history as a Steeler fan.

I'm a bit too young to remember the glory days. I don't remember watching any of the Super Bowl wins during the 70's. My first memory of football actually comes from the '81 season. So, my formative football years were spent watching the Steelers decline and bottom out during the 80's. Despite a fun playoff game where we beat Huston during the '89 season, there wasn't much light until the 90's.

-One aside- I firmly believe that Bill Cowher's early success with the steelers (say '92 - '95) was largely a result of good drafting by Chuck Noll. Had Knoll not been too old to want to coach any more, he probably would have taken the team back to the playoffs those years. Cowher's success now is his own making, and I give him credit, but I'd say at least 15 wins during those first three years weren't his. Had Noll not built a good team and had them on the verge, Cowher might have been run out of town pretty quickly. But I digress --

So, from my perspective, it always seemed that the Steelers were pretty bad during the 80's, and that over the course of history, other teams were much better - remember that the Steelers first sucessful period isn't in my direct memory. Certainly, over the duration of all football history, the Steelers are pretty bad. From their founding in 1930something until 1972, the Steelers had played in like one minor playoff game, and I believe didn't have a winning season. But, the other day while I was thinking hard in the shower, I started to wonder who the best team was during my lifetime.

I decided to make my metric the number of seasons in the playoffs, since the NFL has always done a good job of having a limited (but not overly limited...hi baseball) playoff system compared to other leagues. Over the course of my life, an average of 38% of NFL teams have made the playoffs (compared to the over 50% in the NHL). As opposed to winning Super Bowls, which either takes a great deal of talent or alot of luck, being in the playoffs is a reliable estimate of solid goodness.

My initial thought was that the 49ers or the Cowboys would be the best teams, given how many superbowls they won during my formative years, and potentially the Raiders just because they just always seem to find a way into the playoffs. I was right, but you'll notice (in the figure) that the team furthest on the left there in a tie with the Cowboys and 49ers is my Steelers. Who knew? I guess the 80's didn't really count for much after all.

I think I can chalk this up to selective memory. The Steelers had three really bad seasons (85, 86, and 87), which must have felt long and hard to me, surrounded by a couple mediocre seasons where they sneaked into the playoffs ('84 and '89). Then they didn't stick in the playoffs until '92 - '97, after I was in HS and college, meaning that their image as a bunch of losers was well burned into my head.

In reality, the Steelers made the playoffs 18 out of my 30 experienced football seasons. That's a pretty good 60% of the time. A very naive gaussian distribution indicates that a team playing in the AFC central would have made the playoffs about 40% of the time. So the Steelers really have beat the odds.

Additionally, I'm surprised by the 5th and 6th place teams in this calcualtion. The Oilers/Titans have actually been very good, even though they've only played (and lost) one Superbowl. The Vikins as well have been good for a long time. Remember that being in the playoffs 15 or 16 times during my lifetime is doing much more than putting a few good players together. 15 years is something like 3 times the average carreer of a player. In order to put a team in the playoffs that many times you have to consistantly acquire good players and give them good schemes. More power to the Oilers and Vikings.

So, what's the long and short of it?

The Steelers are winning one for the thumb on Sunday!

Here we go Steelers, Here we Go.

Lost My Mind Yesterday

Not in a bad way, I just forgot to post my running-ness.

4 something miles, at a reasonably moderate pace. Nothing extra.

I have to say that I hate running at this time of year. It's so hard to predict what the temperature is going to be. It wasn't overly cold yesterday, I just knew it wasn't warm. But just as I was going to go out at lunch, I realized that I forgot my long sleeve shirt. I was considering not going, but I had my wind pants, and I figured I'd be alright. It was a bit windy, so I was cold at the beginning, but by half-way, I was regretting not just wearing shorts. But I know that I would have been too cold to even think about starting had I done that. I can't wait for summer.

No excercize today, since I had to be around for a few guys fixing our computers. So not only did I not run, I had to sit and watch other people type. Completely sucky.