Thursday, 12 January 2012

Academic silly season

My optimism at the lack of Sudoku discussions at recent Joint Meetings -- see below, and hey, one post a year is better than none, right? -- was destroyed by the recent Boston meeting, where an entire session was dedicated to the numbers game. Worse, the only news story I saw come out of the conference came from that session.

This week, my girlfriend has been at the American Astronomical Society meeting in Austin, TX, and the only story I saw come out of that was this, on the BBC, giving the "exact colour" (a dubious claim, since the work is statistical) of the Milky Way:
new spring snow, which has a fine grain size, about an hour after dawn or an hour before sunset...

It made me wonder if these are both examples of an academic silly season, akin to the summer silly season in August. Something to fill in the post-Christmas lull before the Euro takes a nosedive or soldiers in Afghanistan commit some atrocity. Oh, too late. (Earlier today this was the only story ahead of the Milky Way one on BBC News.) There have certainly been several other conferences recently that might have produced stories that passed me by. I will be on the lookout!

Tuesday, 4 January 2011

Sudoku and Kakuro

On a recent plane ride I did one of The Guardian's Kakuro puzzles designated hard (in skills required it is similar to Sudoku, but the grid is no longer square, and the digits in rows and columns must add up to given totals). I was quite proud of myself for finishing, having found (in my estimation) several highly complicated arguments in order to fill in certain squares; I don't mention this just to boast. It led me to realise the futility of including yesterday's solutions to both Kakuro and Sudoku: it is trivial to check whether one's solution is correct without assistance, and seeing a solution gives no hint to a stuck reader beyond allowing her to peek at a square. (I once saw a lady on a plane do this, apparently not caring that the number she chose might be no help in cracking the backbone of the puzzle or -- worse? -- might render a tricky puzzle trivial.)

Like in good mathematics, I would prefer to have a simple solution than one that lets me show off (i.e. demonstrates my capacity to hold a large number of pieces of information in my head at once). Thus my aforementioned pride was tempered by frustration at (a) not being able to share my brilliance and (b) not knowing whether I had stupidly missed a simple alternative argument at one of the key stages.

The undergraduate math society at Bucknell held a Sudoku social event last year. I didn't attend, but I gather they had races to compete Sudoku puzzles. Where, I wonder, is the social aspect in that? (There was pizza, of course. There is always pizza.) Perhaps a social activity would have been to put up a puzzle on a projector at a key point and discuss possible strategies/observations, but that sounds horribly tedious and perhaps counterproductive. As an exercise in encouraging young mathematics students to be social and to collaborate, the whole event seemed terribly ill-conceived (and the speed/competitive element only made it worse).

There was a brief vogue for studying the mathematics of Sudoku (perhaps driven by the ongoing vogue demands for undergraduate research?) including attempts to codify strategies to solve them. I never saw anything interesting in that study (though each to their own...) and am pleased to see only one talk at this week's Joint Meetings mentions Sudoku, at least in its title. Why devote so much effort to something that a computer can be programmed to solve in milliseconds -- and which, as a former grad school colleague who refused to touch them pointed out, could easily be designed to have a unique solution yet be practically impossible to solve?

I much prefer crosswords, which are social (one can discuss clues and explain solutions), and so much more varied, forcing one to delve (albeit shallowly) into lists of Monarchs, wars, the oeuvres of great authors, and so forth. On which point, from my favourite crossword editor, the last word: anecdotal evidence that Sudoku rots your brain.

Wednesday, 16 September 2009

Salary cap or socialism

This post from's Frank Deford prompts me to consider the pros of a salary cap in baseball. After all, I like socialism! Shouldn't I support a move to promote competitive balance and fairer salaries for the lower echelons of pro players? I don't think so.

First off, I am in favour of revenue sharing, and I think the current system works fairly well. The cheapest teams (perennially the Marlins, and this year likely also the Padres) spend less on player salaries than they receive from the collective pot. If they are diverting this money to other operational needs it reflects badly on those organisations and their inability to maintain a viable fan base, not on the system that is trying to maintain them. Deford references the fact that in-market TV revenues are not shared, which is true, but I think there have to be limits to sharing. The Red Sox' NESN and Yankees' YES are innovative capitalist ventures that one doubts would exist if TV revenues were split 30 ways from the central MLB fund. (Note that this evokes the argument that socialism inhibits innovation. To defend socialism I would claim it allows plenty of scope for individualism, while the socialist system interferes as necessary to defend the interests of the people. Yes, I said it: baseball is not a matter of life and death. Sh!)

On to a salary cap, which I was surprised to find Deford does not mention at all, upon re-reading the article. Surely that is the most glaring difference between the organisational structures of the NFL and MLB? Even the Red Sox' co-owners John Henry and Larry Luchino have advocated for it, and they have the 2nd-3rd highest payroll in baseball. I don't often disagree with my team's management (and I'm grateful to them for that!) but here I must.

Here's one problem: the competitive balance is impaired more by the incompetence of bad teams and their unwillingness to spend on development and salaries than it is by the ability of a few teams to pay excessively for free agent talent. After all, most years the Red Sox, Yankees, Mets and Cubs have the highest payrolls, and it's true they typically compete every year, but these teams have not won the World Series 7 of the past 9 years since the start of the decline of the Yankees' '90's dynasty. 5 of the 9 none of those four have reached the World Series, being displaced by such behemoths as the Diamondbacks ('01), Marlins ('03), Rockies ('07) and Rays ('08).

Here's another: baseball has a great (though declining) tradition of players who remain with one team for their careers. Given the vast disparity in talent between college and major leagues (contrasted to other sports), one often sees long-term rebuilding efforts where veterans are traded and youngsters are developed in their place. These would reach their big paydays roughly concurrently, and I'd hate to see a situation where a home-grown player a team could otherwise afford and would like to keep were forced out, such as happens in the NFL (e.g. Matt Cassell) and NBA (I'm guessing). Consider the potential Red Sox' line-up three years from now: Youkilis, Pedroia, Ellsbury, Anderson, Lowrie, Lester, Buchholz, Papelbon, Bard, Bowden are all great talents out of the Red Sox farm system. Still others have been traded for Martinez, Bay and Beckett, many of whom (Masterson, Hanley Ramirez, Hagadone) would command good salaries if they had not been traded. These all add up ... to over the cap?

Before a cap is discussed, other reforms should be instituted and their effect realised. A minimum salary somewhere near the amount teams earn through revenue sharing should be enforced, to avoid embarrassments such as the Marlins some years and the Pirates 17 years and counting. Furthermore a hard slot system should be introduced as part of the next CBA (collective bargaining agreement) in 2011. Both these will allow (or force) teams to both field a quality team and develop the best available talent in their farm systems. If these are enough to placate the fans of small market teams then talk of a cap should die away. If not, then I'll reconsider. But not for a few years.

Wednesday, 26 August 2009


Early this evening I went to a memorial service for a freshman student from one of my classes last year who had died suddenly over the Summer. Overall I found the experience touching and positive, but it put me in a reflective mood and I find it impossible to concentrate on the game. (Though, to be honest, the Red Sox' mediocre performance recently has contributed to this indifference.)

Near the end of the service I remembered our last encounter, an amusing end to a Calc 2 final that was especially pleasant for me (a couple of beers, a winning online poker game, and a covert encounter). I had put a freebie question (draw an animal) on the test and he exclaimed after handing in his paper that he had forgotten entirely to do it; I reassured him that I'd give him the points anyway: perhaps it was a polar bear. I couldn't help but smile at the memory, and smiling felt right. I smiled right through Amazing Grace, which even in my best of moods usually elicits a tear or several.

It was wretched to see the grief on several faces who were friends of his from our class and elsewhere, but I realised that for many of them this could be their first experience of a friend dying so young. I remembered Joe, a friend of mine from Oxford. He had a poise and a maturity and an ability to touch others that I suspect only comes with a heightened sense of one's own mortality. He died of leukemia in the Summer after our second year. We weren't even close (relative to many of his other friends) but I still think of him and remember how good he was to me. He was my first such experience. Having lost so many friends since then -- mostly through natural attrition, though occasionally more unexpectedly such as through death or a relationship turned sour -- I feel better able to assimilate further losses and to concentrate on the positive aspects, the times that I have shared with people. Of course I was lucky today, in some way: I had completed the natural cycle of encounters one has with a passing student, which perhaps made it easier for me to focus on the positive, but I hope his friends can come to their own comforting realisations in time.

I have often wondered who would be my Best Man, if I should ever get married. Beyond questions of competence, the main feature I think I would want is someone who, when asked, would answer "Wow, really?!" as opposed to, simply, "Really?!". I saw today that my former student Branko would have had a plethora of "Wow, really?!"s to choose between, and it was obvious how he had earned that affection and popularity. Most people don't have the capability to achieve that, and I for one would be happy to have touched one (perhaps two) people in the way that he did.

Tuesday, 4 August 2009

Crashing a plane

A few days ago, I had my first ever lucid dream. I have mostly come to terms with the fact that I might die horribly some day, whether in a plane crash or elsewhere, and flying no longer bothers me... mostly. The recent Air France disaster flying out of Brazil must have been on my mind this night, because I dreamt I was in a plane and the pilot kept swerving leftwards and rightwards in turbulence, seemingly slowing down but never quite succumbing to the fate of AF 447. So I woke up.

Then I thought: "I want to do this." I was barely awake so fell asleep quite quickly, and to my surprise I resumed in my aisle seat (??D) near the back of the plane. We jerked to the right right once more, and I decided "Screw this, we're going down." And down we went. Engines stalled. Several seconds of plunging followed, dark and quite unpleasant, before I awoke in a bit of a sweat, cursing my curiosity.

That dream occupies my thoughts as I watch the Red Sox at Tampa Bay, currently 1-0 in the second. I might look into the method of lucid dreaming and try to put it to more pleasant use.

One disadvantage of being in Britain is that most games start at midnight or later [related note: yay no more West Coast trips for the Red Sox this year!], so even if I am up I only get to catch the early innings on my way to bed. I shall be glad to return to the US on Thursday and avoid having such tired, miserable thoughts as the above get in the way of enjoying the games. Assuming the plane makes it!

Monday, 3 August 2009

The arrival of Victor Martinez

Glad to see Victor Martinez assured himself a warm welcome when he first starts at Fenway next week. His was the acquisition I had hoped for this trade deadline, thinking he could be the eventual replacement for Varitek, but then I read suggestions that he cannot catch full-time any more (MLBTR commenters, not worthy of a specific link). I have found no explanation of this and would welcome comments. It hadn't occurred to me that his arrival could lead to Tek's ($5m) option for next year being bought out (for $3m) until it was suggested -- which surely implies Martinez can catch plenty of games. Sentimentality commits me to hope that Tek does stay with the team for one more year, and Epstein's admirable tendency to build redundancy into the squad suggests that will happen.

Seeing Kottaras being placed on the DL alongside Wakefield reminded me of the ancient Egyptian practice of burying slaves with their masters, even if they were still alive -- though this is thankfully a temporary variant. Given the rules, it seems the out-of-options Kottaras chose the only way to keep himself in the Red Sox organisation. Good for him.