Monday, July 30, 2012

The two-athlete rule is the way sports work

So, if you've been following the olympics at all, you've no doubt been exposed to the outrage at the fact that Jordyn Wieber won't be competing for the United States in the all-around gymnastics final. If you haven't been following that closely, here's the recap.

Yesterday featured the qualification round in women's gymnastics. One point of this round is to determine which 24 athletes will compete in the all-around final. Basically, it is the 24 with the highest scores, but there is a cap of two athletes per country. The US gymnasts Gabrielle Douglas, Alexandra Raisman, and Jordyn Wieber finished second, third, and fourth. Because of the two-person cap, only Douglas and Raisman will be competing in the final. Obviously, given the rules, it was clear in advance that only two of the three could make it to the finals. What was surprising was the fact that the one left out wound up being Wieber, who was the 2011 world champion.

The (American) announcers at the venue started voicing their outrage at the two-gymnast rule, saying how ridiculous it was for the fourth-place finisher not to place in the top twenty-four, etc., etc.  This was followed by Bob Costas sitting down with Béla Károlyi to voice their outrage, with Costas scoffing at the ridiculousness of having a sport where you let anyone besides the best compete in the finals. Slate calls the rule "indefensible."

Maybe I'm in the minority here, but it seems to me that this is pretty much how the olympics works. It also happens to be the way that most American sports work. The fact that we have divisions in baseball, basketball, football, etc. leads to exactly this sort of situation. In fact, prior to the introduction of the wildcard, this sort of thing happened all the time, where the two best baseball teams in the league would happen to be in the same division, so only one got to go to the playoffs. In fact, the outrage over this type of situation is exactly what prompted the creation of the wildcard in baseball (well, that and the desire for more playoff revenues). Now, I don't know whether Bob Costas would be just as outraged as when, say, the best team in the NL Central is worse than the third-place team in the NL East, but I can't say that I've ever heard him calling for the elimination of the division structure.

I think there are a couple of things going on here. First, the olympics represents two different, but related, competitions. Obviously, it is a competition among the best athletes in the world. At the same time, it is a competition among nations. If you want to have the best athletes in the world duke it out quotas or limits based on nationality, fine. What you have then, I believe, is something more like the world championships, which happen every year (I think), and are cared about by precisely no one outside of the gymnastics community. People care about the olympics in no small part because you have various nations sending their best, and pitting them against each other. Yes, the two-athlete cap in the gymnastics all-around final seems harsh, but I think it is inextricably tied up with the whole idea of what the olympics is.

The other thing is the tension between the desire to see the "best" athletes rewarded, and the sense that, in order to make a competition special, you require athletes to perform on a certain day. Clearly, much of the handwringing here is about the fact that Jordyn Wieber was supposed to be the best American. Presumably you can argue that, in a time-averaged sense, she is. But what are we supposed to do? We could say that Wieber is clearly really good, and deserves to be in the final. But, then, there's really no point in having the competition. Why not just rank the athletes based on their track record and hand out the medals?

Basically, what fans (and TV executives) want is a nail-biting competition with huge stakes. Well, the way you do that is you collect some of the best competitors together, and then make them perform under pressure. You set up some rules to determine who is in and who is out, then you reset everything to zero and make the best prove it. If there is no chance for the favorite to fail, you really don't have a sport.

The privileging of geographic diversity might be particularly salient in the olympics, but it is a critical feature of most professional sports, the world cup, and pretty much all of the sporting events that anyone cares about. You could argue that the World Series in baseball would be a more honest championship if it were simply a competition between the two teams with the best regular-season records. Maybe it would, but it would lose much of the charm and appeal of being the showdown between the American League and National League champions. Also, a huge number of games in the regular season would no longer matter.

There's a sort of zero-sum game whenever you set up any sort of championship. The only way to increase the number of meaningful competitions is to increase the stochasticity in the system. If you're going to have the qualification round at all in olympic gymnastics, you've got to have the two-person-per-country cap in place, or something like it. Yes, there are people arguing it should be three, as it was prior to 2004, but this actually more exciting and dramatic.

So, yes, this situation sucks for Jordyn Wieber, and for the fans who care a lot about the American medal count. But the bigger picture is this: the fact that it is possible for the reigning world champion to come in fourth and not make the 24-person finals is exactly what makes the olympics worth watching.

Sunday, July 29, 2012

Awesome horse-head user photos

So, if you need some relief from the olympics, check out the user-submitted photos of this horse-head mask on Amazon. There are more than 400 of these, and they're all this awesome. (Link)

via Farhad Manjoo.

Thursday, July 26, 2012

How to pronounce "Muller's Ratchet"

So, how would you pronounce the name "Muller"? According to the standard pronunciation rules of American English, it should sound like a word that means "one who mulls," with the "u" pronounced like the "u" in mullet. Curiously, however, when evolutionary biologists talk about "Muller's ratchet," more often than not they will pronounce the name so that it rhymes with "Bueller," as in "Hermann Mueller's Day Off."

[Aside: Muller's ratchet refers to a model in which deleterious mutations arise in a population, but there are no beneficial mutations. An individual's fitness is a decreasing function of the number of deleterious mutations they possess. These deleterious mutations are held in check by purifying selection, such that there is a steady-state distribution of the population into fitness classes. The "ratchet" part refers to the fact that, in a finite population, stochastic fluctuations will eventually lead to the loss of the highest fitness class. The whole distribution then shifts down. This progresses in a ratchet-like fashion, and the fitness of the whole population declines over time. The take-home point is that purifying selection alone is not sufficient to preserve adaptation indefinitely. You also need some number of beneficial mutations to maintain fitness in the long run. Recombination can reconstitute higher fitness classes, reversing the ratchet in the short term, but still leaves the system susceptible to the stochastic fixation of deleterious mutations.]

If you ask one of these evolutionary biologists why they pronounce "Muller" like "Mueller," they will often point you towards the umlaut on the u (or, somewhat equivalently, the e following the u). The thing is, there is no umalut, nor is there an e. Sometimes they will point to the fact that Muller was German, and that therefore, you know, it should sound more German. Except for the fact that Muller was not German. He was born in New York City. His parents were also born in the United States.

Now, according to Wikipedia:
H. J. Muller and science fiction writer Ursula Le Guin were second cousins; his father (Hermann J. Muller Sr.) and her father's mother (Johanna Muller Kroeber) were siblings, the children of Nicholas Müller who immigrated to the United States in 1848.
That's sort of cool about Ursula Le Guin. It also suggests that Muller's grandfather was, in fact, named "Müller," which would not really be pronounced the way that people say "Mewler," but that would at least be the more standard Americanization of the name. What it looks like is that Muller's grandfather changed his name (either by choice, or by orthographical fiat, as was often the case at Ellis Island). It would not surprise me if he pronounced it in the German fashion, but that the name became fully Anglicized over the course of the next couple of generations.

Of course, with names, I figure the rule is that the correct pronunciation is always how the person themselves pronounces (or, in this case, pronounced) it. On that point, all I can do is point to a seminar by Matt Meselson that I once attended. At the end of his talk, someone from the audience asked a question about "mewler's ratchet." Before answering, Meselson made the point that he had known Muller, and the Muller had pronounced it "Muller." I have attempted to contact Muller's surviving daughter for more direct confirmation, but have not heard anything back yet. If and when I do, I'll post an update.

In the meantime, here's a little mnemonic I've whipped up for you
There was once a professor named Muller
whose breakfast could not have been duller.
As his fitness crept down
with a ratcheting sound,
he said, "Man, I could go for a cruller!"
NB: I have also found no evidence that Muller ever lived in Nantucket.

Monday, July 23, 2012

Google Mall Reviews

So, this will not come as a shock to those of you who know me, or who have seen me dressed, but I only go shopping for clothes about once a year. This weekend was one of those rare occasions, which meant that I had to look up our local mall on Google (Willowbrook, as featured on How I Met Your Mother).

What I did not expect was to come across a little treasure trove of user reviews. I can't say why, exactly, but I find the idea of user reviews of a mall charming.

Sic, throughout:
This is like the best mall in the whole state of new jersey,i realy go up there for the ride is like an ahour and fourty something min. But i enjoy the view & i only shop or visit the apple store, like for instence i been waiting for a friend of mine's to make up his freaking mind to go i been waiting for a weak or more on him, i can't wait no longer i have to go up there so they can update my ipad2 . But yes sir! The best mall is willow brook mall!!!
I feel suffocated by the largescale consumerism and the mind boggling highway structure that surround this mall. 
Willowbrook Mall is suppose to be ghetto. LOL Also, this mall back in the day used to be good now it pretty much died out. The new hottest (GHETTO)mall in jersey LOL is Garden State Mall.
For comparison, here are a couple of reviews of Garden State Plaza (aka Garden State Mall), which, you may have heard, is the new hottest (GHETTO)mall in jersey LOL.
It's the best mall in New jersey it has the biggest Johnny Rocket's and the best Quiksilver and also Timberland is the best store to get your work boots
I rather be at the westchester mall y go to another state shop go truth bullshit of traffic and give them my money when I could spend'it in my owne state ny f.u
 and, for the final word on this most hottest (GHETTO) LOL of malls:
Liked: Hot chicks
Disliked: Service 

Thursday, July 5, 2012

Copper nanotubes and acronym hilarity

So, I just learned about this paper via the Twitter. It's a short piece in the journal Chemical Communications entitled "Electrochemical synthesis of metal and semimetal nanotube–nanowire
heterojunctions and their electronic transport properties." Nothing to see here, right? Well, the repeated references to copper nanotubes lead to fifty uses of the acronym "CuNT" in the three-page paper.

The paper is by a group of researchers in China, and I can't quite decide if the lesson here is to run your acronyms past colleagues who are native speakers of various other languages, or if the lesson is to absolutely never do that, lest you should deprive the world of gems like this.

If you're sufficiently juvenile that you're still laughing about the copper nanotubes, the School of Chemistry at the University of Bristol has multiple web pages dedicated to molecules with names like "arsole," "cummingtonite," and "moronic acid." Check it out.

via Colin Stewart via Ed Yong.

Tuesday, July 3, 2012

They don't make aristocrats like they used to

So, today's Telegraph includes the obituary of Count Robert de la Rochefoucauld, who died at the age of 88. The whole thing is worth reading, and I look forward to the movie version where he is played by Jason Bourne.

After France was invaded by Germany during World War II, Rochefoucauld joined the British Special Operations Executive (SOE), which engaged in various acts of espionage and sabotage during the war. Here are a few highlights from the obituary.

On joining the SOE:
After meeting de Gaulle to ask his permission to join British forces (“Do it,” came the reply. “Even allied to the Devil, it’s for La France.”) La Rochefoucauld began his training early in 1943 at RAF Ringway, near Manchester, where he learned to parachute and use small arms and explosives, as well as how to kill a man with the flat of his hand. 
On one of the two times he escaped execution:
En route to his execution in Auxerre, La Rochefoucauld made a break, leaping from the back of the truck carrying him to his doom, and dodging the bullets fired by his two guards. Sprinting through the empty streets, he found himself in front of the Gestapo’s headquarters, where a chauffeur was pacing near a limousine bearing the swastika flag. Spotting the key in the ignition, La Rochefoucauld jumped in and roared off, following the Route Nationale past the prison he had left an hour earlier.
He smashed through a roadblock before dumping the car and circling back towards Auxerre on foot under cover of night. He sheltered with an epicier. From Auxerre, friends in the Resistance helped him on to a train for Paris, where he evaded German soldiers hunting him by curling up underneath the sink in the lavatory. 
On the other time:
Cycling to Bordeaux to meet a contact who was to arrange his return to England, however, he ran into a roadblock, taken prisoner, and imprisoned at the 16th-century Fort du Hâ. His explanations that he had been out after dark on a romantic assignation were not believed and, in his cell, La Rochefoucauld considered swallowing the cyanide pill concealed in the heel of his shoe.
Instead he faked an epileptic fit and, when the guard opened the door to his cell, hit him over the head with a table leg before breaking his neck. (“Thank Goodness for that pitilessly efficient training,” he noted). After putting on the German’s uniform, La Rochefoucauld walked into the guardroom and shot the two other German jailers. He then simply walked out of the fort, through the deserted town, and to the address of an underground contact.
And loads and loads more. Read it.

via Kottke.