Short Story: Perfect Justice

Almost two years ago, I wrote a post about the idea of “Rationalia”, a country run on scientific principles. I put forward various argument about why this was a terrible idea: that science would be politicized, that science is a moving target and that morals matter in constructing a society as much as facts do.

When I wrote it, I mentioned a short story connected with it. They story was written but I didn’t like it. It was choppy, blunt and crude. Eventually, I rewrote it an epistolary, which I hope you will find enjoyable. It is now here or on the link to pages to your right. If you want to avoid spoilers, go ahead and read it then come back.

What stimulated the publication was this article at Reason, which looked at the idea of a society run by algorithms. I am very skeptical of this idea, since algorithms are not magics spells; they reflect the thoughts and beliefs and biases of their programmers. So a society run by algorithms is still a society run by humans. Just more so.

But in reading through that analysis, I found out that the story I’d written had already been done. The novel Gnomon is apparently based on the idea of a society creating a “perfect” police force guided by an overwhelming surveillance state and the problems that flow from it.

For a while, I was just going to toss the story in the rubbish bin. But I hate throwing things away and there is one aspect of the story I really wanted to get out: an attack on the idea of Rationalia, an attack on the idea — very popular on the Left in particular — that we should enact various polices because social science tells us they will work. And the idea that such a technocracy is a desirable goal.

I am extremely dubious of these ideas because social science is in the throes of a replication crisis where many of its results have proven to be garbage. And we have a great deal of real-world experience in seeing policies informed by social science go badly awry: a Great Inflation caused by theories that said inflation could end unemployment; an obesity epidemic worsened by claims that fat was our biggest concern; hiring decisions made by an implicit bias test that has turned out to be worthless.

Harkaway’s well-received novel — which I have not read but now added to my “hopefully I can read this one day” list — apparently goes into the human aspects of such a “perfect” police state. My take is a bit different. What informed this story was two aspects of such a “perfect” justice system:

1. Our country has a zillion laws, many of which are contradictory, and the average citizen can not help but break numerous laws as they go through life.

2. Any attempt to “rationalize” our laws in the name of science would almost certainly produce an even worse situation, with laws based on junk science or laws that flapped and fluttered with every little breeze that blew.

In short, I don’t think a society like the one that Harkaway describes would function at all, even if it were “perfect” and insulated from human failings. My story is based on my hypothesis that such “perfect” state would almost instantly go up in a fiery blaze of contradictions. So it’s less 1984 I’m going for, and more Brazil.

Blindly turning to science — least of all social science — to solve our problems is a surrender of self-determination. It is little different from blindly turning to the divine right of kings. Science is important and can inform our debates. But we always be aware of its limitations and tendency toward error. This story looks at what would happen to a society that threw such blind faith into algorithms, computers and social science.

Review: Bad Blood

I just finished John Carreyrou’s new book “Bad Blood”, about the rise and fall of Theranos. Theranos, for those of you who haven’t kept up, was a Silicon Valley startup founded by Stanford dropout Elizabeth Holmes. It exploded onto the scene with claims that it could do hundreds of blood tests from a single drop of blood, eliminating the need for painful blood draws. For a time, they were the next Big Thing, signing contracts with Walgreen’s and Safeway, being valued at $9 billion and claiming they would upend the medical industry.

And it was all a lie. Holmes had a vision — a simple finger stick allowing diagnosis of all kinds of things. But what she lacked was the expertise, the patience or the ethics to make it happen. As Carreyrou explains, there are reasons we do tests based on blood draws — the need for volume, the difference between venous and capillary blood. To do what Theranos was claiming, it would not have been enough to use existing technology in new ways. They would have had to develop entirely new methods. But that would have taken decades of hard work and still may have failed. Holmes (and her business and personal partner Ramesh “Sunny” Balwani) didn’t have the patience for that. They tried to simply package existing tech into a smaller space. And when that didn’t work, they resorted to fraud, resulting in completely unreliable test results. They then used legal threats and bullying to try to silence anyone who questioned what they were doing. But it all ended when Carreyrou and the Wall Street Journal laid bare their deceit, helped by courageous whistleblowers. And then the federal agencies came down on them. Theranos is now, effectively, a dead shell and Holmes and Balwani are facing criminal charges.

The book is appalling and utterly gripping. I finished the last 100 pages in one sitting. The book skips a bit in time and Carreyrou’s writing is a bit rough in some places, probably a result of getting the book out so quickly. But that’s an extremely minor quibble. It’s not only a good story, it’s an important one. There are several things I gleaned from the book.

  • It is impossible to overstate how vile Theranos’ deceit was. Blood tests are one of our most critical diagnostic tools and inaccurate blood tests are not just a waste of money; they’re dangerous. The book details people who thought they were in serious medical trouble because of inaccurate tests produced by Theranos. It also indicates people didn’t get treated for serious problems because Theranos failed to diagnose them. Medication levels are often set based on blood tests and setting those levels too high or low can maim or kill. When Theranos fell, they had administered over a million bogus diagnostic tests. How many people would have died had they been allowed to keep going? Right before the fall, they were claiming to have a test for Ebola. Imagine falsely giving someone the all-clear on that.
  • The Theranos saga is a good illustration of why I’m a small-l libertarian and often call myself a “libertarian/conservative”. The WSJ’s expose was a critical part of Theranos’ fall. But what really ended their fraud was the regulatory agencies — the FDA and CMS — waking from their slumber and coming down on them like a house of bricks. Right before their fall, Theranos had gotten Arizona to pass a law allowing patients to get diagnostic tests without a doctor’s order. Had it not been for the regulatory agency crackdown, this would have led to thousands or maybe millions of additional health scares or undiagnosed health problems. Libertarians sometimes invoke “market forces” as though market forces are a magic spell. But this is one area where “market forces” weren’t enough. Patients are not experts and Theranos has immense legal and financial firepower to try to both silence critics and to flood the internet with positive reviews of its company. You need someone with equal firepower to oppose them. Regulatory agencies are far from perfect and frequently go too far. But they are an example of why government is a necessary evil.
  • That’s not to let the agencies off the hook. Theranos was able to deploy their non-existent technology through laughable deceit and convoluted legal arguments. Complaints were made to CMS and the FDA but they weren’t acted on until the WSJ expose’.
  • The story is yet another reason why President Trump is wrong on “libel laws” (actually, Supreme Court precedent). The WSJ did the responsible thing and contacted Theranos about the story (although Theranos already knew because they were spying on ex-employees). And Theranos’ response was vicious legal threats and pressure through one of the most high-power law firms in the country. In some countries, the WSJ could have been successfully silenced. Thank God for our libel laws.
  • It’s also, while we’re on the subject, an illustration of why Trump’s attacks on the media are so disturbing. Theranos was embedding itself with the political class, some of whom when to bat for them when the fraud was exposed. How would things have unfolded if they’d had a politician — of any stripe — proclaiming the WSJ to be fake news?
  • There’s a school of though in America that being a good boss entails bullying your employees and firing lots of people. This school reached its apotheosis in Holmes and Balwani. The book is a great illustration of why this approach is a disaster. But it also shows why that approach can work for con artists like Holmes. Many people saw through the lies. Theranos was able to marginalize or silence them for a long time.
  • One issue my wife kept focusing on — Holmes was not a biologist and had no expertise in the subject field (her one year at Stanford was studying chemical engineering). Almost no one on the Theranos board had expertise in the field. It was stocked with political power players.
  • I can’t say enough about the courage of the Theranos whistle-blowers. The story focuses a lot on Tyler Shultz, the grandson of George Shultz and one of Carreyrou’s principle sources. Once Theranos figured out he was talking, they brought unthinkable pressure to bear on him. They spied on him, they made legal threats, they tried to get his grandfather to force him to sign an agreement to stop talking. Ultimately, his family spent a fortune on legal fees defending him. But he didn’t crack. He refused to sign over his honor. Erika Cheung didn’t crack. Rochelle Gibbons didn’t crack. Neither did many who were sources for Carreyrou or filed complaints, all of whom were threatened by a powerful Silicon Valley company and its ruthless legal team. These people are heroes. What they did literally saved lives. They should be getting medals for that.

Anyway, I highly recommend the book. This is a story worth reading. And a story worth learning from.

Review: Infinity War

As is often the case with my long-form movie reviews, I’m posting this months after the fact. Why? Well, some laziness. But also a desire to not get caught up in the hype and excitement. And perhaps no movie in 2018 came with as much hype and excitement as Infinity War, the blockbuster to end all blockbusters. So this review is less about “should I see it or not?” and more a collection of thoughts provoked by the film.

So after watching it again on DVD, I’m ready to write about it. Spoiler warning applies.

Just as a movie, Infinity War is very good, an easy 8 in my rating system, maybe a 9. It is epic in scope, has strong characters and dialogue and is packed with outstanding action set pieces. The directing is excellent, focusing on the characters but not losing track of the action. Silvestri’s score is powerful. While one might easily make complaints about the plot, few would argue that that the movie isn’t at least well-made.

Watching it a second time, what strikes me most is the pacing. Infinity War is long, bloated and stuffed with characters, dialogue and action. Watching it should feel like eating a big Italian meal. But the movie flies, moving swiftly through its dizzying array of settings and scenarios until it reaches the awful climax on the fields oF Wakanda.

But reviewing Infinity War as if it were just an ordinary film is a fool’s errand. It’s not just a film. It is a two-part series finale to a 20-episode 10-year saga. This is less like Return of the Jedi than it is like Returnof the King on steroids — a massive sprawling finale whose coherence and power relies heavily on what has come before. It should come apart at the seams from the sheer weight. But it doesn’t.

The key that holds this clinking, clattering cacophony of collagenous cogs and camshafts together is a thread that has gone throughout the series: a top-notch cast. The amount of acting talent in this movie, when you pause to think about it, is unbelievable. Downey, Ruffalo, Cumberbatch, Cooper and Cheadle are all Academy Award nominees (indeed, the number of Award nominated actors who have appeared throughout the series is impressive). Boseman, Bettany, Hidddleston and Johannson also come with A-list credentials. Evans, Pratt, Saldana and and Hemsworth may not be “great” actors, but they have star gravitas and have delivered outstanding performances in these roles.

Infinity War is where all the outstanding casting pays its greatest dividend. There are so many characters to balance that most only get a few lines. But because we have spent years with these actors building up the roles and because they can bring power to a single line of dialogue, it works. Our knowledge of the characters and the relationship we’ve built with them fills in the gaps. We don’t need fifteen lines for Scarlet Witch to explain why potentially killing Vision is such a dilemma; we know.

The trust that the movie has in its cast frees it to make the boldest and most successful gamble: centering its emotional and dramatic weight on Josh Brolin’s Thanos. Brolin — yet another Academy Award nominee — simply excels in the role. Thanos could easily have been a cackling monster. The silliness of his motivation could have blown the movie apart. But he underplays it perfectly, allowing the menace and evil of Thanos to insinuate itself more gradually, allowing the viewer to see that Thanos is not a villain in his own eyes … which makes him even worse.

So where does Infinity War 2 go? Well, like everyone else, I’m going to assume that a lot of what Thanos has done will be undone and we will get a satisfying, if perhaps bittersweet ending. The question isn’t whether, it’s how. One clue comes from Dr. Strange, who said he saw only one way to defeat Thanos and then surrendered the stone when he didn’t really have to. So it’s obvious that Thanos winning, at least at first, was necessary for Thanos to eventually lose. It’s also been noted that at least five of the original Avengers survive (Hawkeye does not appear). Six Avengers, six stones? Maybe.

But one thing I noticed in my first viewing and was even stronger on second was this: almost every stone Thanos acquires comes a result of turning people’s love and compassion against them. Consider:

  • The Space Stone is acquired by Thanos threatening to kill Thor, forcing Loki to choose between his brother and the stone. He chooses Thor.
  • After acquiring the Reality Stone, Thanos forces Quill to choose between Gamora and the Soul stone. Quill chooses to protect the stone but his hesitation enables Thanos. Later, Quill’s rage over Gamora’s death snatches defeat from the jaws of victory.
  • The Soul Stone is acquired when Thanos tortures Nebula to force Gamora to reveal its location. She chooses her sister over the stone. Then Thanos chooses the stone over Gamora.
  • The Time Stone is acquired when Strange gives it up in exchange for Tony’s life. Again, he chooses a person — a man he doesn’t even particularly like — over the stone.
  • The only reason the Mind Stone is still available is because Wanda was unwilling to kill Vision until it was too late. And they drew her into the battle in the first place by attacking her friends.

This theme runs through the movie: the way Thanos relentlessly pursues his goal and the way others value human life, friendship and love over ruthlessly stopping him. Thanos thinks of himself as a great being because he sacrifices others; the heroes are great because they sacrifice themselves. I am convinced this will play a big role in the ultimate resolution. What price our characters pay for that — I fear we will see all of the original Avenger perish in victory — remains to be seen.

The bigger meta question though is this: where does Marvel go from here? Infinity War is the apotheosis of 20 films spanning a decade. It has built to this gaudy over-the-top crescendo like a Wagner Opera. So what now? How do you top this? What can they possibly do now that won’t feel anti-climatic?

I have no idea. But it will be interesting to find out.

New Vision

I guess I should be grateful that I got to age 46 before needing glasses. I have probably needed them for some time. In my late 20’s, I began to notice that the world didn’t have quite the same resolution that it used to. But it wasn’t too bad. And I staved off doing anything about it for as long as I could. But once my near vision became a problem, I could no longer delay the inevitable.

It’s funny talking about what it’s like to get glasses because most people I know have worn glasses since they were young. There was a point in my life when I kind of wanted them for reasons that escape me (my daughter, interestingly, suddenly wanted glasses at about the same age). But switching to them after four decades of unassisted vision is … an interesting experience. My proprioception is a bit off since they distort the outside of my vision. My phone doesn’t look flat when I wear them (although I don’t usually use them in that context because they blur the phone unless I look right down my nose). People in my peripheral vision look unusually thin. I almost feel like I’m looking into a pair of virtual reality goggles. I expect I’ll get used to that in time (I currently only wear them when driving or when reading while tired).

What’s really interesting, however, is that I can feel the glasses changing the way I see or more accurately, changing the way my brain works with my eyes. Wearing them has made me aware that I actually wasn’t “seeing” a lot of things before. My brain was taking pixelated information and interpolating it, guessing at what was there. I was aware that I was doing this when reading — not seeing the words clearly but being able to guess what they were. But now I realize this was happening all the time. That if I saw a sign on the highway that said “Speed Limit 55” I wan’t actually seeing it. I was seeing a rough “Speed Limit 55” shape and my brain was doing the rest of the work for my eyes.

With the glasses, however, I am actually seeing those things. The speed limit sign is clear. However, it’s again disorienting because the entire world is suddenly back in high resolution. There is way more information for my eyes to process. And that’s what I mean when I say I can feel my brain learning to see again; I actually get mild headaches from wearing them because the brain is a bit overwhelmed.

Again, this is something I’ll get used to. But I’ve always been fascinated by how the brain works and how it processes information. Changing the way my brain takes in roughly 90% of its information has been a crash course in that.

Lost Gems: Real Genius

I was thinking of the immortal words of Socrates, who said, “… I drank what?”

The summer of 1985 saw the peak of the 80’s teen comedy craze. The entire decade, at least for my generation, was dominated by teen comedies. It wasn’t just the John Hughes cannon, it was everything. 1985 alone saw Back to the Future (one of two Michael J. Fox comedies that year), The Sure Thing, Better off Dead, The Goonies, two John Hughes films, Fright Night, Just One of the Guys, etc, etc., etc. As a results of this, a few movies that got lumped into the category of “teen movies” were neglected. In any other year, they might have been hits. But it was hard to be noticed in such a crowded field.

Real Genius, a college comedy directed by Martha Coolidge, was probably the biggest victim of that crowded market. Released in August of 1985, a few days after Weird Science, it kind of got overshadowed by the Hughes film. And that’s a pity because while I would not describe the films as “great”, it is quite good, endlessly quotable and one of my favorite guilty pleasures.

This? This is ice. This is what happens to water when it gets too cold. This? This is Kent. This is what happens to people when they get too sexually frustrated.

The plot, it goeth thusly: a genius high school student is recruited to attend a prestigious university by a professor trying to develop a powerful laser for the military (although his students don’t know this). He is roomed with Chris Knight, a prior wunderkind who is close to finishing his degree. Hijinks ensue and, at some point, a house is destroyed with popcorn.

The film is very solidly made. Coolidge, who also did the under-rated Valley Girl, keeps things moving and lets her actors act. Val Kilmer had already shown a flare for comedy in Top Secret and is in top form here. Michelle Meyrink, one of my favorite supporting actresses of the 80’s, heads a rock solid supporting cast. The film has a decent plot, manages to work in some suspense and really doesn’t have a weak link (although the thread involving Nugil is a bit weak).

But what really makes the film is the characters. One of the few to recognize how good the film was was Roger Ebert:

“Real Genius” allows every one of its characters the freedom to be complicated and quirky and individual. That’s especially true of Jordan (Michelle Meyrink), a hyperactive woman student who talks all the time and never sleeps and knits things without even thinking about it, and follows Mitch into the john because she’s so busy explaining something that she doesn’t even notice what he’s doing. I recognize students like this from my own undergraduate days. One of the most familiar types on campus (and one of the rarest in the movies) is the self-styled eccentric, who develops a complex of weird personality traits as a way of clearing space and defining himself.

I was in high school when I saw the film but, when I went on to college (and especially grad school) I met people who … well, they weren’t quite as exaggerated as Jordan … but they did have their quirks and their brilliance and their own stories. While Jordan does serve as a bit of a love interest for Mitch, she’s her own character, has some of the best lines and has a lot in common with some of the brilliant women I’ve met in my life.

And it is the characters who contribute to the film’s true glory: the dialogue. I could literally quote the movie all day long. Here is one I use a lot:

Jerry, if you think that by threatening me you can get me to be your slave… Well, that’s where you’re right. But – and I am only saying this because I care – there are a lot of decaffeinated brands on the market today that are just as tasty as the real thing.

Those of you who follow me on Twitter will know that I use that phrasing quite often (usually ending in, “… not sure where I was going with this.”)

As I said, Real Genius is not a great film. But it is a criminally underrated one. It should be just as iconic as The Breakfast Club or Back to the Future but just had the misfortune to be released at the wrong time. When I mentioned it on Twitter, several followers responded with their favorite quotes. So that gives me a little hope that this hidden gem is not doomed to be forgotten.

Update: After posting this, I had a conversation with my brother, who also likes this movie. One of things he pointed out: none of the characters is stupid or acts stupidly. No one is disgusting, stupid or mean jut to be “funny”. The heroes conflict with Kent, but in the end they pull him from the house and have a good laugh over it. Even Jerry, the film’s main “villain”, is a realized character with some of the best lines.

This is something Real Genius shares with John Hughes’ films, which also have a heart and an affection for the characters. It’s kind of rare that a Hughes film has a bad guy and even the worst — say Vernon From The Breakfast Club — are treated like real people.

That’s something that’s often missing from comedy today. And one of the big reasons we have so few good ones anymore.

Buck Buck Nicole

I still remember the day she was born. Or some of it, at least. We were rousted out of bed in the middle of the night and loaded into the car. I vaguely remember walking up the stairs in my grandparents house; sleepy but knowing something big was happening. A couple of days later, we met her for the first time.

It’s not easy growing up with two older brothers, especially two as obnoxious as we were. But she took everything in stride, so eager to be part of everything. My brother and I invented an entire mythology where she was an alien from another planet and we even labeled an old carpet cleaner as the “Becca buster” machine. Honestly, we were awful. But she was always good, always looking out for us, always willing to shrug off whatever we’d dished out and join the latest escapade.

There’s another world out there where things turned out differently. She was smart and creative, once rewriting one of my stories into a better one. She was compassionate, providing outstanding shadowing to an autistic child for a long time. She once went to Paris on a work-study and told me about clinging to a tree to avoid being stampeded by a happy mob after France won the world cup. In this other world, she’s a successful lawyer, not rich or famous, but the kind of basic modest-pay legal work that keeps the entire system from collapsing. She has two kids of her own and looks after her mom. Two things those two worlds have in common: she is a doting aunt to her niece and nephew; and she continues to share with me a love of Doctor Who and Blake’s 7.

But she was in a horrible car accident where she was almost killed. The long-term back injury, exacerbated by a fall down the stairs, would haunt her for the rest of her life. The pain made her turn to medication and an electronic pain relief system worked briefly, during which she got a certificate to go into nursing support. But the electronic system failed and her insurance had lapsed, so it made life miserable for her. Then came the pseudotumor and various other things and her life for years had been a mess of medications, weight fluctuations and seizures. A bout of pneumonia a few years back almost finished her. She still managed to find happiness in the occasional trip or the latest episode of Doctor Who or sometimes just in a phone call. It had seemed that she was getting better lately, losing weight and taking control of the rebuilding of her flooded apartment. But on an awful Monday morning a little over a month ago, her heart stopped. She had said she had died three times before, only to be revived. This time, she couldn’t be.

The title comes from a story. When we were kids, we used to spend summers in Wisconsin, visiting my grandmother. One of our favorite events was the Wisconsin State Fair. During one of those visits, my sister got lost. We were looking all over for her when the announcer came on and said they had found a lost girl named “Buck-Buck Nicole”. That was Becca, crying and trying to say, “Rebecca Nicole”. She did love her middle name. Although, for a long time, the name she would take for herself was “Elizabeth Pandas Pretties”. It was odd because my mother had wanted to name her Elizabeth but my dad wanted Rebecca.

Wisconsin is also the site of one of my other favorite stories. Rebecca used to spend her afternoon on the patio of the farmhouse, doing these little one-girl plays that she would make up as she went. My grandmother, who was weak from heart disease, like to sit in the kitchen overlooking the patio and listen to these plays. Rebecca could go all day, with multiple characters. She had such an imagination.

A long time ago, I read an article by Mike Royko written after his friend John Belushi died at 33. He said he’d long known that life wasn’t fair, but it shouldn’t cheat that much.

Classical Music and Hockey

So a couple of week ago, the Nashville Predators advanced in the NHL playoffs. Among the congratulations they got was one from the city’s symphony orchestra.

And it took me back a bit …

The year was 1991 and I was finishing out my freshman year at Carleton. Carleton hosted many cultural events and speakers. And almost every year I was there, they would have a concert from the St. Paul Chamber Orchestra. This was a big deal, especially to a classical music lover like myself. The St. Paul Chamber Chamber was and is a world-class symphony; I had several of their performances on CD. This was a chance to see them for free!* That night they did Hayden’s 83rd Symphony (“The Hen”) and Dvorak’s Serenade for Strings and I fell in love with both pieces.

(*”Free” = after paying 30 grand in tuition.)

What I really remember, however, was their conductor, Hugh Wolff. Wolff was young and dynamic and conducted with verve, passion and flourish. My only prior experience with a major symphony had been the Atlanta Symphony Orchestra, which had the more staid pace that one usually associates with classical music. But Wolff — and his players — seemed like they were actually having a good time.

Anyway, there was something else going on at the time. The Minnesota North Stars were deep into the Stanley Cup playoffs and fighting Edmonton for their first ever appearance in the finals. The state was in the grips of a hockey fever (one that would extend into the baseball season when the Twins would go worst to first and beat my beloved Braves in the Greatest World Series Ever). That night, they were playing Edmonton and the series was tied at 1-1. After performing Haydn, Wolff went off, then came back. He picked up his baton, held it poised, then turned to the audience:

“First period, Stars 2, Oilers 0”

There were laughs and cheers. And then he brought the baton down and the orchestra launched into their next gorgeous performance. The Stars would beat Edmonton, but then fall to the Penguins in the finals. Two years later, they would move to Dallas. But it’s a fond memory of my time in college and a good reminder that a taste for classical music can come with a sense of fun and humor.

The Big Ten Resurgence

I’ve been remiss in updating by bowl points system this year. I was probably just so devastated by the Bulldog’s loss. In any case, here we go:

A few years ago, I invented my own Bowl Championship Points system in response to the Bowl Championship Cup. You can read all about it here, including my now hilarious prediction that the 2013 national title game would be a close matchup. The basic idea is that the Championship Cup was silly, as evidenced by ESPN abandoning it. It decides which conference “won” the bowl season by straight win percentage with three or more bowls. So it is almost always won by a mid-major conference that wins three or four bowls. The Mountain West has claimed five of them, usually on the back of a 4-2 or 3-1 record.

My system awards points to conferences that play in a lot of bowls and a lot of BCS bowls. As such, it is possible for a mid-major to win, but they have to have a great year. The Mountain West won in 2010-2011, when they won four bowls including a BCS game. But it will usually go to a major conference.

Here are the winners of the Bowl Championship Points system for the time I’ve been keeping it.

1998-1999: Big Ten (12 points, 5-0, 2 BCS wins)
1999-2000: Big Ten (10 points, 5-2, 2 BCS wins)
2000-2001: Big East (8 points, 4-1, 1 BCS win)
2001-2002: SEC (9 points, 5-3, 2 BCS wins)
2002-2003: Big Ten (9 points, 5-2, 1 BCS win)
2003-2004: ACC/SEC (9 points each)
2004-2005: Big 12 (6 points, 4-3, 1 BCS win)
2005-2006: Big 12 (8 points, 5-3, 1 BCS win)
2006-2007: Big East/SEC (11 points each)
2007-2008: SEC (14 points, 7-2, 2 BCS wins)
2008-2009: SEC/Pac 12 (11 points each)
2009-2010: SEC (10 points, 6-4, 2 BCS wins)
2010-2011: Mountain West (8 points, 4-1, 1 BCS win)
2011-2012: Big 12 (11 points, 6-2, 1 BCS Win)
2012-2013: SEC (10 points, 6-3, 1 BCS win)
2013-2014: SEC (11 points, 7-3, 0 BCS wins)
2014-2015: Big 10/Pac 12 (10 points)
2015-2016: SEC (19 points, 9-2, 3 CFP wins)
2016-2017: ACC (18 points, 9-3, 3 CFP wins)

You can contrast that against the Bowl Cup, which has been awarded five times to the Mountain West Conference and three times to Conference USA based on their performance in such venues as the Zaxby’s Heart of Dallas Bowl. I’m happy when the mid-majors do well, but winning three or four second tier bowls just isn’t the same as winning six bowls, two CFP bowls and a national title.

I also keep track of “doubles”, when a conference wins both the Bowl Challenge Cup and my system. That’s been done by the Big 10 (1998, 1999, 2002), the ACC (2003, 2016), the Big 12 (2005), the Big East (2006), the Pac 10 (2008), the Mountain West (2010) and the SEC (2013, 2015).

For years, I’ve been saying that the SEC’s dominance was waning, based on the points system, from its 2008 peak. And to the extent that the SEC did dominate, it was a result of being one of the only conferences that played defense, not “SEC speed”. History has born me out. The Big 10 and Pac 12 split the title in 2014. After a dominating 2015 performance by the SEC, the ACC dominated 2016.

Despite the all-SEC title game, the SEC did not have a good year this year. They were 5-6 and, even with three CFP wins and a title, they tied for second places with the the Big 12 and the Sun Belt. No, the big winner was the Big Ten, who went 7-1, won three CFP bowls but were shut out of the title game because the committee went with Alabama. While Alabama went on to win the title, I still think taking them over Ohio State was a mistake just as I thought take Ohio State over Penn State the previous year was a mistake. By my reckoning, Alabama owes Penn State a playoff berth.

Anyway, here are the all-time rankings. The SEC is still the best conference over the long haul, always placing among the best while other conferences wax and wane. But the last few years have seen a lot more parity, bringing the ACC and Big 10 back to the crowd of the other major conferences.

SEC: 107-73, 24 BCS/CFP wins, 165 points, 10.5 titles
Pac 12: 63-65, 16 BCS/CFP wins, 77 points, 1.5 titles*
American: 58-49, 11 BCS/CFP wins, 78 points, 1 title**
Big 12: 66-70, 11 BCS/CFP wins, 73 points, 2 titles
Big 10: 70-82, 21 BCS/CFP wins, 79 points, 2 titles
ACC: 75-83, 10 BCS/CFP wins, 77 points, 3 titles
Mountain West: 49-41, 4 BCS/CFP wins, 61 points
Conference USA: 51-55, 47 points
WAC (defunct): 23-29, 2 BCS/CFP wins, 19 points
MAC: 28-49, 7 points
Sun Belt: 22-21, 23 points
Independents: 16-18, 14 points

(*Screw the NCAA. I’m counting USC as a champion.)
(**This counts previous games from the Big East and Miami’s title.)

Product and Purchase Review: Apple Watch 2

Really, all I wanted was a fitness tracker. I’ve been trying to get in shape for a long time and it seemed that a tracker would be a good way to help with that. Although many people don’t increase their exercise with trackers, I know me. Getting to that calorie goal on a regular basis would become an obsession (as indeed it has).

I had not really considered the Apple Watch since it seemed an overhyped product. And watches and I … do not have a good history. As as kid, I was rather infamous for breaking the many watches my mom bought me over the years. As an adult, people occasionally bought me a really nice watch and I would wear it for a while but eventually find it galling and stop (usually when a dead battery gave me an excuse). But Apple Watch 2 was one of the only water-resistant activity trackers on the market so … with some help from my dad, I took the plunge.

I’ve waited four months to write a report on it because it’s easy to get swept up in techno-joy when you get a new gadget. I have frequently found products reviews in places like Consumer Reports to be near useless because they only try out a product. There’s a difference between trying out a product and owning it for months or years. Over time, the drawbacks and flaws become more visible, the product shows you how reliable or unreliable it is and the verdict becomes much clearer.

And after four months, I … surprisingly … kind of like the thing. I’m still not sure I would have purchased it at full price but it does a great job of tracking my activity, motivating me to do more. I downloaded a sleep-tracking app, which is nice to have. It’s semi-useful for texting — the “scribble” function is awkward but speech-to-text works just as well/poorly as the iPhone. It is, however, a bit annoying to get a buzz on my wrist every time my brother goes off on a rant. The phone function is useful when someone calls me while my phone is in the other room. But the drawback is that it’s All-Speaker-Phone All-the-Time so it becomes useless for confidential conversations. It would be nice if you could pass calls back to the phone. But overall, as an extension of my phone … it’s not bad. I would definitely recommend it for someone, like me, who always needs to be tied to his phone.

Now I noted in the title that this is both a product review and a purchase review. I wanted to say a few words about how I ended up with the watch. We researched online and then went into Best Buy, which was having a sale on them. And when the staff there saw what I was shopping for, they immediately approached me. They answered all my questions and talked about other options. One of them even allowed me to try on his Apple Watch and see how it worked. And ultimately, I bought it from Best Buy. Not just because of the price but because of their approach — that they had people eager and willing to help me out.

I think that brick and mortar stores will continue to hemorrhage space for a while. We’re seeing entire shopping malls shut down. But they will not go away entirely. And my experience buying the watch is a big reason why. Brick-and-mortar stores bring you the one thing that online shopping can not bring you: people. And with some products, people can make a big difference in your purchasing choice.

I’ve been predicting for a while that the Sears chain is going to die. The reason is that they appear to be responding to the decline in customers by pulling back on their people. Our local Sears, at least, is like a ghost town. You have to practically stalk and hogtie an associate to get any help. Frankly, if I wanted to shop in a vacant building, Amazon can do that for me. After being a loyal customer of theirs for years, I’ve now switched to other stores which are either online or have enough staff that I can get help when I need it. Because sometimes it’s good to have a human being to ask questions of.

Eclipse 2017

I just got back from Clarksville, Georgia, where I watched the total solar eclipse. I had flown down to Atlanta both to visit family and to see the eclipse. My brother and I had a vague plan that we would rendezvous at his house north of Atlanta and then see how far we could drive. Clarksville, within the path of totality, was where we stopped. There were a few hundred people gathered in the center of town to watch.

Despite being an astronomer, I had never seen a total solar eclipse before. I lived in Atlanta during the 1979 eclipse, but our teachers wouldn’t let us go outside. We watched it on TV. I was an undergraduate at Carleton during the 1994 annular eclipse. I didn’t see much of it, however, because I was working one of the telescopes, showing people Venus, which was visible during the eclipse. So I went into this as cold as my 10-year-old daughter.

(Funny story about the ’94 eclipse. One of the visitors during the eclipse was a girl I had a gigantic crush-from-a-distance on. She smiled at me and we exchanged a few words. But nothing more came of it since I was still shy as all hell. Talking to my crush during an eclipse under the light of Venus was a lovely moment. And nothing coming of it made it a perfect encapsulation of my love life at the time.)

It was surprising how bright the sun remained despite increasing lunar coverage. But as the totality approached, an odd twilight settled over the town. I began to noticed the shadows and odd crescent shape in dappled light. We watched through our glasses as the sun got smaller and smaller. It got slowly darker and darker. And then, to a cheer from the watching crowd, it was gone.

Words can not describe the next 100 seconds. I felt like I was on another world or maybe at the pole as summer ends or begins. It got so dark that the street lights came on. We could now see a circle of light around the Sun and the glowing solar corona. The entire 360-degree horizon turned a sunset red. We snapped a few pictures; my brother took some video. And, after what seemed a very short 100 seconds, the Sun peeked out again from behind the moon. The glasses went back on, the light rose and, not long after, we began the long drive home.

It was a magical event; one of the few things that lived up to the hype. I was so impressed by it that I’ve already decided to travel to Texas for the 2024 eclipse. I’ve been in astronomy for 25 years and I’ve seen a lot of cool stuff. But this was the most amazing thing I’d ever seen.

Pokemon GO Redux

Last summer, I wrote about our experience with Pokemon GO. We’ve kept it up for the last year and it’s provided a lot of fun moments for me and Abby. There’ve been those rare occasions when we spotted and caught a rare creature. We had a lot of fun in Australia using my father-in-law’s phone as a hot spot to chase down the Australian regional Pokemon (and Generation 2 was released at that time, which made for a blast). But the game was starting to become a bit of a grind as we’d captured almost everything and both gotten past level 30, where the game levels off.

Recently, Niantic made some major revisions to the game. The changes to the gym system — where you can place Pokemons to fight those of other players — still needs a lot of tweaking. But the other change — the inception of raids where a massively powerful Pokemon appears in a neighborhood gym and can only be fought by players joining together — is a home run. It may now be the best aspect of the game.

The first day, we found a raid going on in a local park. We went to the park and, within minutes, a dozen other players had arrived and we fought with them to break down an exceedingly powerful creature. Later on, we went onto campus and joined a raid with a few biochemistry graduate students. We’ve been doing raids almost every day — sometimes just the two of us and sometimes with big teams of players who emerge from the woodwork. It’s just fun to cooperate with other players and see a dozen or more varied creatures attacking a massive one.

Today, though, we had the most fun experience. We spotted a nearby raid and came over. When we got there, there were two little boys trying to take down a Lapras — an exceedingly powerful creature. This particular monster can not be taken down by two players, no matter how good they are. You need at least five, preferably more. So we joined in and one other person happened by and, together, we finished the Lapras off just within the three-minute time limit. The boys were delighted and their dad was glowing.

Making another family’s day is a unique experience for a video game. And I hope that other games follow in those footsteps.

Why Rationalia Wouldn’t Work

I have a short story coming up soon. The spark that lit the story and this post was this tweet from Neil deGrasse Tyson:

This tweet set off an intense internet debate on the merits of such a country. Many people — mostly of a Lefty persuasion — embraced the idea. Many people — mostly of a Righty persuasion — wrote a number of good and readable critiques of this idea, going over some ideas I’ll discuss later.

Tyson later expanded on this idea, basically arguing, even if Tyson doesn’t realize it, for a negative view of governing: that policy should be implemented only after the massive weight of evidence shows that it would advance the cause being supported. But even with this caveat, there are three principle problems with Rationalia.

Continue reading Why Rationalia Wouldn’t Work

Writing, Writing, Writing

So a few updates on where I am with fiction writing, since it’s been over a year since The Water Lily Pond dropped.

  • The Water Lily Pond is available for free download just for today. It’s gotten a couple of very kind reviews and has had a couple of hundred downloads. That’s about as well as I could expect, all things considered. I have been toying with creating a paperback, which Kindle now has easy tools for. However, putting it onto dead tree is a bit intimidating. I would like to make one more pass through the book. And I’d like to get more comments as I suspect a lot of people would have issues with the liberties I’ve taken in describing New York and the art scene therein.
  • In terms of novels, there are two I’m tinkering with. Penumbra is a novel I wrote most of a decade ago and then abandoned when it became clear it was a shadowy reflection of The Moon is a Harsh Mistress. But I’m not terribly worried about its commercial prospects, so I will probably resume it and either publish it cheap through KDP or serialize it here. Most of my novel time has gone into Umbra, its sequel. But that too has been sidetracked now that a similar story is showing up in the highly successful The Expanse.
  • Much of my recent effort is on Oddish, a seven-part series of short novellas that tie together. Part One (Ben Olson’s Restless Leg) is mostly written, Part Two (Rachel Thorson’s Late Period) is partially written. But I will not put it out on this site until all seven parts are written. In the middle of working on it Stranger Things came out, which has some overlapping themes. But it’s still on the front burner.
  • I have four short stories in the can. The first — Highest Noon — I liked enough that I plan to submit it to a science fiction magazine. I have little hope but you can’t get shot for trying. It will show up here if it is rejected. The second — Perfect Justice — needs a lot of work to not stink. But it and a companion post on “Rationalia” will show up soon. The third is a three part story — Dreams in the Long Dark, Co-Orbital, and Table Manners. It is done and I like the first part. It will show up on this site once it has been cleaned up. The final one — Lost by Translation — may or may not show up. I’m kind of mixed on how I feel about it. At the very least, it needs heavy revision.
  • I know this sounds like excuse-making but, honestly, I’ve written more in the last year than I have in any previous year. That’s almost 40,000 words written in a year when I have been very busy with work and family and probably wrote a couple of hundred thousand about the election. So the purpose of this post is to just let you know: you’ll see the results soon.

    Update: After writing that, I had some second thoughts on Perfect Justice. The story is the first I’ve written in epistolary form. But … this being the internet … I’m thinking of getting creative in its presentation. Hyperlinks and readthroughs might make it a little more fun for the reader.

    Stay tuned.

    Astronomy, Sports, Mathematical Malpractice, Whatever Else Pops Into My Head