Monday, December 28, 2015

A Better College Football Playoff system

Last year, college football fans finally get something they've long wanted - a college playoff, and while it should prevent some problems, such as Auburn's fate in 2004, it won't solve all the problems that have come up under the BCS and it certainly won't end controversy.

Under the current playoff system, four teams are selected by a committee to play in a three-game playoff. The main difference between the playoff and the BCS is that it will involve twice as many teams, which is why I used to say the BCS was a two-team, one-game playoff. But many of the BCS controversies will still be possible in the new playoff.

There will still likely be undefeated teams who don't get to play for the championship. After all, there were 5 undefeated teams at the end of the 2004 season. And even when there are fewer than that, it's not unreasonable to think that an undefeated American Athletic school might miss out to let a 1-loss SEC champion in. College football remains the only sport where this is possible.

There will still be controversies over which 1-loss teams get in and which do not. There are likely to be times that teams lose their last game, but still get in; or that teams who don't win their conference, get into the playoffs, while their conference champs do not.

One way to fix this is to create a basketball-style "December Madness" playoff involving all of the conference champions and some number of at-large teams. While March Madness works for basketball, college football is different. What makes college football so special, IMO, is that every game all season matters. One loss, to a good team, can knock you out of it.

In trying to balance the historical importance of the regular season (it wasn't so long ago that the "post-season" didn't even count) with the need to create a real and fair playoff system, I long ago came up with the following proposal.

The general idea is to steal from the way that golf tournaments fill their slots, with everyone who accomplishes some indisputable metric getting in. As such, there is no set number of teams to get into the playoffs, all the team who qualify get in, except there has to be at least four teams (back-testing several years shows no time in the last 20 when less then four teams qualify). While this makes scheduling more complicated, it solves the problem caused by a set number, namely that you often wind up distinguishing between teams who are basically equal - such as the way Baylor was left out last year.

Think of it as being more like a teacher. They don't (normally) give out a certain number of A's, but rather everyone who earns an A gets an A.

The full rules are below, but simplified it works like this: Go undefeated and you're in. Lose a game and win your conference and you're in. Otherwise, pray.

If this had been used for the last two years, the playoffs would have looked like this (using the BCS Poll to rank and assuming higher seed wins in cases where the teams didn't actually play):


Quarterfinals (Dec 23)
#5 Louisville at #4 Utah
#6 Boise State at #3 Auburn

#4 Utah vs #1 USC at the Rose Bowl
#3 Auburn vs #2 Oklahoma at the Orange Bowl


#2 Oklahoma vs #1 USC at The Super Dome


Quarterfinal (Dec 24)
#5 Baylor at #4 Ohio State

#4 Ohio State vs #1 Alabama at the Sugar Bowl
#3 Florida State vs #2 Oregon at the Rose Bowl


#4 Ohio State vs #2 Oregon at AT&T Stadium

And then this year, the playoffs would look very similar to how they look now, but would include 12-1 Houston


Quarterfinal (Dec 24)
#5 Houston at #4 Oklahoma

#4 Oklahoma at #1 Clemson at the Orange Bowl
#3 Michigan State at #2 Alabama at the Cotton Bowl

This would usually result in more games, and more Cinderella teams with less controversy. The only issue now is that #18 Houston "jumped" more than a dozen teams to get in. But those teams did not win their conference or they last more than 1 game. If strength of schedule becomes an issue, as teams try to game the system, then the only solution would be hand over some of the scheduling to an overview body (such as the NCAA) to create more balanced schedules.


Section 1: The following teams qualify for the playoffs.

1. Teams that are undefeated
2. Teams that have only one loss and win their conference championship outright
3. Teams that have only one loss and win a share of their conference championship if
     a. The team or teams they share with lost more than one game or
     b. The team or teams they share with have a worse record if all overtime games are eliminated or
     c. The team or teams they share with lost only one game, cannot be distinguished by (b) above and lost in a head-to-head match or
     d. (a)-(c) can not distinguish a team, but the team wins a conference-determined tie-breaker
4. An independent team with only one loss if no independent team qualified under rule 1
5. If less than four teams qualify under rules 1 through 4 then use the qualifiers below, in order, until at least four teams qualify, once 4 teams qualify move on to Section 2
a. All one loss conference co-champions
b. All team with one loss, if the loss came in overtime
c. Teams that have two losses and win their conference championship outright, if one loss came in overtime
d. Teams that have two losses and win a share of their conference championship, if one loss came in overtime
e. An independent team with two losses if no independent team has qualified yet and one loss came in overtime
f. All teams with one loss
g. Conference champions ranked by records, until four teams are qualified

Section 2: Seeding Teams and Playoffs

1. A committee of experts will seed qualifying teams.
2. If more than 8 teams qualify, first round games will be played at least 2 weeks before the New Year's Day game to eliminate extra teams
3. If more than four teams qualify, quarterfinal games will be played at least one week before New Year's Day to eliminate extra teams
4. The four teams remaining after seeding or other games will meet in two neutral-site New Year's Day games.
5. If the number of qualifying teams is not a factor of 2, then top teams will receive byes as necessary.
6. First round and quarterfinal games will be played at the home field of the higher seeded team.
7. The two winners of the New Year's Day games will play in a neutral site championship game.

Monday, November 30, 2015

It doesn't really matter who's winning now

If you like politics, then it's fun/interesting to watch the horse race in the Republican primary (the Democratic primary lacks the same drama and has played out as predicted so far). But, if recent history is any guide, I wouldn't give the current polls a lot of value if you're trying to figure out who the 2016 nominee is going to be.

Looking at the last four contested primaries, the eventual nominee hadn't moved to the top of the national polls until January or February.

In 2004, eventual Democratic nominee John Kerry was behind in the polls until late January, 2004 - several days after the Iowa primary.
In fact, at this point in the year, and after this point in relation to the Iowa caucus, Kerry was in 4th place.

In 2008 the polling was similar on the Republican side. Two months before the Iowa caucus, McCain was in third place, and with less than a month to go, he would drop to 5th. Here again, he wouldn't become the front runner until a week after Iowa, and 3 days after New Hampshire.

The 2008 Democratic primary polling looked somewhat similar to the way it looks this year, with Hillary Clinton sitting comfortably ahead of the field, but then at around this point (two months prior to the Iowa caucus) Obama began to move up steadily in the polls. He didn't become the front runner in National polls until mid February, nearly 6 weeks after Iowa.

And of course, much has been made about the difficulty Romney had in 2012 consolidating the support of Republicans. After leading for much of the early part of the campaign, Romney lost the lead 5 times between June 2011 and March 2012 to 4 different opponents. He did lock down a lead in the national polling until the last day of  February, nearly two months after Iowa.

The 1992 Democratic primary was also late to develop. Back in 1992, Clinton didn't finally take the lead until early March (a few weeks after Iowa), and the person he was behind prior to that wasn't even in the race.

Of course, this is all in contrast to 2000 a year with no incumbent candidate and a year when both eventual nominees were front runners before they entered the race, and remained front runners to the end. Which is how the Democratic nomination is looking this year.

Similarly, in 1996 Dole led the Republican primary polling from early November, when he regained the lead from Colin Powell after Powell announced he would not run, until the end.
Will Trump or Clinton in 2015 be more like Dole, Bush or Gore in 1996 and 2000, or more like Giuliani and Clinton in 2008? At this point the only thing we can say is that the polling up to now doesn't really mean much.

Wednesday, November 11, 2015

We really could all die

Clearing out the old blog post ideas here. Back in 2013 (I know, I know) Ezra Klein had a story on global pandemics that oddly didn't mention the worst disease to come along in modern times, by which I mean AIDS. It's odd, because HIV in many ways contradicts one of the key ideas in the article.
Diseases face a choice between spreading easily and being severe. If a disease is too hard on its host, killing quickly, it can’t spread. If it’s too easy on its host, it doesn’t much matter if it spreads. 
But HIV spreads pretty easily and is (or at least was until the "cocktail" for treatment was developed) as severe as can be imagined. If you were designing a disease to wipe out a large portion of the population, HIV would provide a pretty good model for two key reasons.

The first is that victims don't actually die of HIV. They die from something else because their immune system is so weakened that an opportunistic infection (like thrush and Kaposi's sarcoma) can spread and eventually cause death. This enabled HIV to hide for several decades as patients were assumed to have died from the other infections. Even after HIV made it to the United States, it took a decade to detect it.

The second reason is that it has a long incubation period. Klein was right that a disease that kills too quickly can't spread, but one that kills nearly 100% of the time can still spread - as long as it does so slowly. And the median incubation period for HIV is 10 years. The saving grace, if you wish to call it that, of HIV was that it was an STD, which significantly slowed down the rate at which it could be spread.

But imagine if HIV was a vector-spread disease like malaria, or could be transmitted via droplet spread or what if it had been airborne. In other words, if HIV had a Basic Reproductive Number that was closer to that of measles or whooping cough it would have spread very far and infected many many people before we even knew there was a new disease on the loose. And it took us nearly 15 years from HIV identification to effective treatment, during which time the disease continued to spread.

Another thing to consider is a disease that alters the hosts behavior like toxoplasmosis does. The life cycle of Toxoplasma gondii, the parasite that causes toxoplasmosis, requires the disease to be passed between rodents and cats. Rodents infected with the disease will have their behavior modified so that they are less fearful of cats and so that they behave in ways that are unsafe, thereby increasing the chances that they will be eaten by a cat and continue the cycle. Even humans infected by the disease have been shown to be involved in a higher rate of car crashes and other risk-taking related deaths, indicating that their behavior has been changed as well.

Imagine an HIV that changes peoples behavior, making them engage in more sex and/or riskier sex. Such behavior could increase the transmission rate considerably over what was observed. Or imagine a flu-like disease that makes someone become more gregarious and outgoing during their peak contagious period, allowing them to come into contact with more people and spreading the disease more quickly.

It is unlikely, but a disease really could cause a world-wide pandemic that threatens human civilization. What would such a disease look like? It would be a disease, like HIV, with a long incubation period and low survivability rate, and one that masks it impact and is hard to understand, but with a higher transmission rate more like the measles. Such a disease could very well create a movie-like disease-based pandemic that would infect and kill 5% or 10% or 20% of the world's population. And how large an infection would it take to strain the civilization that we have now? Probably lower than 20%. Like I said, it's unlikely, but then so was HIV.

The scary thought is not that something like the AIDS crisis could happen again, but that perhaps, as bad as it was, we got lucky.

Friday, April 17, 2015

You could be living next door to one of the Oklahoma City bombing conspirators, and have no way of knowing.

(This was supposed to publish some time ago. Whoops)

It's the 20th anniversary of the Oklahoma City Bombing. For me it was one of those "I remember exactly where I was at the time" moments. I was driving to the dentist in Austin to have X-rays taken as part of my Peace Corps enrollment process. Later that week I found out that an acquaintance of mine had a cousin who was one of the victims and for some reason it became much more tangible to me at that moment, and I remember that it was then that I got emotional about it and feeling odd that my response was triggered by such a convoluted connection.

It's always been odd to me that, in light of the white supremacist motivation of the perpetrators, that we never talked about white supremacists in the same way we do "radical Islamic terrorists" despite the frequency of domestic terrorist plans and acts by white supremacists.

Anyway, there were three main conspirators in the case of which two are in custody or dead. Timothy McVeigh, of course, who was the mastermind of the whole thing. He was executed for his crimes on June 11, 2001. Terry Nichols who helped acquire the bomb materials, hide the get away car and provided other material support. He's in prison in Colorado serving 161 consecutive life sentences (just a little more than 160 to go!)

The third accomplice was Michael Fortier. He knew of the plan and helped scout the building and his wife laminated McVeigh's fake ID. Fortier agreed to testify against the others and was convicted with a reduced sentence. He was released from prison in 2006, and placed in the witness protection program. Which means he could be living literally anywhere.

Thursday, April 16, 2015

The "Interstellar" Paradox is only a paradox if we believe Dr. Brand. And we shouldn't.

Warning: Spoilers to the movie Interstellar below.

I finally watched "Interstellar" and thought it was fantastic, even if there are some parts that don't make sense.  [Why did they have to send people to these planets, when they had such amazing robots? If some data (thumbs up, thumbs down) could be transmitted through the wormhole why can't they send more? Why does no Plan C seem to exist (more on this later)? etc...] But the biggest hole in the story is the central paradox. Namely, if humanity is going to die without the wormhole created by Future Humans, than how did Future Humans build the wormhole? [Update 1/18/2016 - Since writing this, someone has pointed out that perhaps humans don't survive. Instead robots with AI survive, and they continue to search for a way to save humanity, which is why they need Cooper to connect with Murph, because as robots they can't. Anyway, I really like this idea because it's more believable, but this obviously changes a lot below]

I think that I've worked out one possible, if absolutely incredible, way for that happen, and it starts with this: humanity doesn't need the wormhole to survive (Update: or at least for AI Robots to survive)

Dr. Branch tells us that humanity is doomed without Plan A (getting everyone off  Earth with an equation-powered spacecraft) or Plan B (Populating new planet with frozen embryos) working, but he later proves to be an unreliable source, he isn't likely to be privy to every plan by every nation and its a prediction about which he could just be wrong. In fact he has to be. If humanity can't survive without the wormhole, then there is no wormhole, so humanity must survive without it.

Below I attempt to work through the minimum number of timelines to get to what we see in the movie. One thing about influencing the past that I've assumed: each time that Future Humans influence the past, a new timeline is created from the point that they influenced and the current timeline ceases to exist (making any other influences impossible from that timeline). In that way a little information moves from one timeline to the next, but a lot of information is lost forever.

Timeline 1: No influence from the future.

Here we have the blight, the wars, the impending doom on Earth, but no wormhole, no Cooper crash, no ghost and no watch message. It's hard to say what happens, but clearly humanity won't just roll over and die. There are two survival techniques here. The first was hinted at in the movie - build an enclosed biosphere and try to survive on Earth despite the problems. We'll call that Plan C. The other is to build spaceships and send people out in the hopes of someday finding a habitable planet - a slowly moving biosphere. We'll call that Plan D. It's possible that both would be attempted. What's important is to accept that at least one of them worked. Humanity survived and evolved into 5-dimension Future Humans. Hooray!!

Considering all that happens afterward, and how much harder Plan D would be, it's easier to believe that Plan C works

Despite surviving and thriving even, Future Humans 1 don't like the outcome. Perhaps the dark times were very long and very miserable and Future Humans 1 would like to alleviate that suffering. Or perhaps they are now facing a new threat that's so dangerous that even they can't overcome it - but they calculate that if they had not wasted thousands of years drifting through space/living in a hole that they would have been more able to do so.

So they want to change the past, to shorten the dark ages and/or to save Future Humans from this unknown threat. Regardless of why, they decide to create the wormhole (perhaps at an exact point that Plan D survivors reached before they made it to Edmond's planet?) back in the past and wipe out their timeline.

Timeline 2: Wormhole

Now things become much more similar to the bulk of the movie. The wormhole appears and NASA sends people into it to save humanity. But in this timeline Cooper never crashes, there is no ghost and no watch message. This would mean that all the farm scenes don't happen, but we can assume that Cooper would pilot the same mission he does in the movie and that perhaps things continue as we saw in the film. Then either Plan B or Plan C succeeds, but Future Humans 2, still want to try and change the past. Again, I think it's cleaner if Plan C is what works (since it probably worked before) but it doesn't have to be C.

If they're  Plan C descendants, they still want to short circuit the dark ages just as Future Humans 1 did and so they want to make Plan A or B work. [if they're Plan B descendants, then perhaps they're motivated by the urge to save humans on Earth.]

Regardless, they try to communicate with humans to help and there are a lot of failed communication attempts (each one resulting in a new, very slightly changed timeline, so this is really Timeline 2 to Timeline N). These failed communication attempts are the other gravitational anomalies that NASA talks about with Cooper when he first arrives at NORAD. None of these failed attempts significantly changes the events on the timeline until they try to communicate with Cooper and cause the crash from his dream at the beginning of the movie and wipe out their timeline from the crash on.

Timeline 3: Failed Communication/ Crash over the Straights

This is where things start to get hairy. The plot remains much the same as the movie, except that Cooper almost surely stays on the farm. There is no ghost and no co-ordinates so Cooper never goes to NORAD or rejoins NASA. The mission with TARS, Amelia Brand and others has a different unknown pilot (although it is possible that Cooper is recruited anyway, but that requires a big leap and the next steps make less sense if so). Perhaps Mann is successful in his plan to force them to take him to Edmond's planet. Perhaps not. It's all kind of irrelevant, what matters is that either Plan B or Plan C succeeds, but Future Humans 3,  still want to try and change the past - and that the change they want is to get Cooper back into the mission.

Future Humans 3 can probably figure out that humans on another timeline built the wormhole, and that they tried, unsuccessfully, to communicate with humans causing Cooper's crash. And they also know about Plan A and why it's doomed - Brand and Murph need data from inside the black hole.

As is suggested in the film, love plays some sort of roll in the communication from within the Tesseract and so Future Humans 3 (again, perhaps after numerous loops and attempts with other combinations. This is a loop that has to happen but it need not be the 3rd one. This is really Timeline N+1 to N+n) decide they need Cooper so that he can communicate with his daughter who they know is working on the math (which only works if they're Plan C descendants). They hatch a plan to get him.

Future Humans 3 figure that Cooper needs the time with Murph on the farm so that the bond between them can grow. And that if there is no crash and he's focused on flying for NASA that may not happen. So, they choose a time after the crash to get him back on track. THEY are the ones who initially intervene with the binary message of dust on the floor, choosing a moment that gives Cooper enough time on the farm to build the necessary bond, but leaves enough time before the mission for NASA to feel comfortable sending him. This wipes out their timeline from the dust storm on.

Timeline 4: Dust message and Tesseract

Finally we're getting to a timeline that looks almost identical to the one in the film. We have blight, wormhole, crash, binary dust message to Cooper, Cooper goes to NORAD and then flies mission exactly as we see it and falls into the black hole with Amelia going on to Edmond's planet.

What we don't have are all the ghost manifestations, the "STAY" message or the watch.

But Cooper falls into the black hole and time for him slows down, considerably. Humanity survives and evolves into 5-dimensional beings who eventually figure out that  humans on another timeline built the wormhole, and that they tried, unsuccessfully, to communicate with humans causing Cooper's crash, and that they sent him a message to get him back into the mission. And they also know about Plan A and why it's doomed - Brand and Murph need data from inside the black hole.

Finally,  they realize that Cooper and TARS are still alive and still falling into the black hole. Time for Cooper and TARS has slowed down so much that humanity is able to evolve into 5 dimensional beings before they're killed/destroyed. But of course to them it seems only like seconds.

So Future Humans 4 build the Tesseract as a way for Cooper to transmit the data gleaned from within the blackhole back to Murph. While in the tesseract, Cooper behaves exactly as we see. He knocks books off the shelves, sends the "STAY" message, creates the co-ordinates dust message (incorrectly believing that he had done that before) and transmits the data to the watch. This is why the dust message is the only one in binary - because Cooper is replicating what Future Humans 3 did, not initiating his own communication. This may take several loops, with him wiping out his timeline and then repeating behavior over and over until he does all of these things. But when he sends the watch data, then he's done.

Timeline 5: Plan A - The movie

Now everything is in place. We have blight, wormhole, crash, ghost, binary dust message to Cooper, Cooper goes to NORAD, Murph gets the "STAY" message and Cooper flies mission exactly as we see it and falls into the black hole with Amelia going on to Edmond's planet.

Once done,  Future Humans 5 - who are now definitely not descendants of Plan C - put together all of the pieces of what has happened, find Cooper and TARS in the wormhole, build the Tesseract for them, pull them out of the black hole and back through the wormhole to be found by space station Cooper, with no more interference in the past necessary.

It's convoluted and unlikely, but it works.