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Author: Briggs

April 7, 2009 | 10 Comments

I don’t care about your tour of the clubhouse

Enough with the pitch count! It was 88 last pitch—and even with my limited mathematical ability I can figure out that the next must be 89. Keep quiet about on-base percentages against away-team lefties. I don’t care if you met the pitcher in the clubhouse. Stop pestering us with details and get on with the game!

Whew. I feel a little better. Now that I’ve calmed down…

Whether it’s wise or folly, I am a fan of the Detroit Tigers.

I listen to them on MLB’s Gameday audio—an exceptional bargain, by the way; only $15 a year and you can listen to any game from either team’s home radio station. The old games are archived.

If the Tigers aren’t playing, I’ll tune in to any game that is on. Usually this is the Damn Yankees or the Mets, since I live in Manhattan. But sometimes I play scout and try other teams.

I have heard the home-team announcers from almost every team, and am therefore something of a radio connoisseur. This ability has allowed me to note that a depressing trend in sportscasting is gaining momentum: Announcers who do everything but call the game.

The ratio of inane chatter to play-by-play is increasing at an alarming rate. Soon, there will be nothing left but “in-depth, hard-hitting” analysis. All sentences will begin with, “You know, Bob…”

These guys must figure that nobody needs to actually listen to the action. Not when there’s important words to be said about how the guy who is playing third base now played second in the past. Analysis is what wins broadcasting awards. Anybody can keep track of the score.

Dan Dickerson and Jim Price (sadly both tenors) who call the Tigers’ games are typical. They frequently forget they are on the radio. Somehow it slips their mind that listeners cannot see the game as they can.

Last night, I heard comments like “Look at that,” which got the response “Wow.”

Look at what? Wow what?

A new batter comes to the plate—we are not told he did, but he must have because the last one got out—and all the while the announcers are chattering and we never learn who it is.

After an anecdote about a clubhouse tour we suddenly hear, “That’s 2 and Oh, on so-and-so.” 2-0? What happened to the first pitch?

Never mind, because it’s back to a story of how the color man once saw a game somewhere. During this fascinating saga, I could just make out the crack of the bat, cheers in the stadium. Dickerson reluctantly breaks away from his partner’s gripping tale to say—long after it has happened—that so-and-so was thrown out at first.

Action in baseball can be slow, methodical. It takes an expert radioman to keep his voice interesting. I fairly long to hear Ernie Harwell again. Harwell was a master and knew when to shut up. He understood that you let the ballpark fill in the gaps. How comforting it was to hear “Beer here!” and the murmur of the crowd.

But because the job is tough, it’s no excuse to clog the silence between pitches with mundane stories about what the announcers did the day before, who they spoke with, how they feel about today’s game, blah blah blah.

Silence must terrify sportscasters. They must figure that if they’re not spewing out a stream of words that people will forget what they’re listening to and tune out.

So they start babbling, usually falling back on the safe bet, “analysis.” That’s the real meat, the serious stuff. This is where they can show off their intricate and arcane baseball knowledge.

Save it.

During the game, call it. Tell us everything that is happening. Keep quiet about everything else. If we were bored of the game and didn’t want to hear about each pitch, we’d read about it in the paper and not tune in. For God’s sake, Mr Announcer, remember you are on radio. Hard as it is to believe, we cannot see what you can see.

No more analysis during an inning. Wait until it’s over. Shut up once in a while.

In fact, shut up a lot more than once in a while.


A small clip of Harwell is here. A tribute is here.

April 6, 2009 | 13 Comments

The only two reasons for statistics

This short post is for reference. I will point back to it from time to time.

Reason 1: to say something about the past

Examples: counting seasonal numbers of wins by the Detroit Tigers, or the number of Republican state senators, or how many people you had over last Christmas.

All are raw numbers, counts, tallies, collected to say something about a historical circumstance and for no other reason.

No probability models are needed here, or they are all trivial. For example: what is the probability the Tigers won more than 90 games in 2008? It is either 0 or 1 just in case they either did win more than 90 games or they did not (they did not).

In order to say something about the past—about data we have already collected—we just need to look and count and nothing more.

Most sports statistics fits here, as do other areas of trivia. Any kind of record keeping counts.

Reason 2: to say something about things not yet seen

If you have not yet seen a thing, you are uncertain about what state that thing will take.

If you are uncertain, you quantify that uncertainty using probability. All probability statements are conditional on some evidence.

Evidence usually consists of two things: (1) historical data and a probability model that accounts for that data plus (2) the probability model said to explain the thing we have not yet seen.

(1) and (2) are frequently the same; sometimes we do not need (1); we always need (2).

For example, given just the evidence that “This is a six-sided die, and just one side is labeled a 3” then the probability of the thing “We see a 3 when the die is tossed” is 1/6. No historical data was needed to make this statement.

To quantify the probability of other unseen things, historical data is typically used. For example, the thing “The Detroit Tigers will win more than 90 games in 2009” is unknown as yet. To say what the probability of it is, we can collect historical data, assign a probability to it, and then make a quantification.

More than one probability model can be assigned to the historical data and the thing. This leads to two consequences, both crucial to remember.

(a) If the evidence that implies what probability to model to use is ambiguous, then that evidence that leads to the model you use should be made explicit; and

(b) The probability statements made by conflicting models are all correct (assuming no computational errors, of course).

If model A says the probability of a thing is x and model B says it has a probability of y, and x does not equal y, neither probability is wrong before we see the thing.

After we have seen the thing, we can compute the probability that model A or model B is correct.

All that is found in statistics books falls under this branch. Anytime a prediction, or forecast, or prognostication is made, it is this type of statistics.

To specify a probability model means specifying the value of certain parameters. In the die example, the value of the parameter was deduced. In models that use historical data, most or all parameters cannot be specified example and usually remain unknown to some extent.

Do not be fooled that most statistical procedures revolve around finding estimates to the parameters of the probability models. These estimates are not necessary and are at best proxies to what is of interest: real, tangible, observable things.

Modern statistical methods is designed to make probability statements about observable things (like the numbers of Tigers wins) in such a way that the uncertainty in the parameters is accounted for.


Suppose you have observed global mean temperatures (suppose, too, this quantity is unambiguously and suitably defined) from 1900 up through 2009. What branch of statistics can answer the following:

(i) What is the probability the temperature increased from 1900?

(ii) What is the probability that the temperature in 2009 will be larger than that in 2008?


If anything above is ambiguous, let me know and I’ll fix it. In a big hurry today.

April 3, 2009 | 11 Comments

Omni magazine: a tribute

Crap. Some kind of psychobabble how-to. Crap. Romance novel, romance novel, something in a plastic binder—and it’s sticky!, ah geez—crap, crap, crap.

Wait…what’s that one. With the psychedelic cover. Do I read that right? These two guys babbling in German, holding a Huckleberry Finn, are in my way again.

I duck behind their backpacks and make a grab. Yes! The Omni Interviews. What a great score.

It’s a collection of the best interviews the magazine did, up until about 1984. And I found it at a PTA sale in a milk crate on the West side of Manhattan (foreign country to an Eastsider like me).

Ernst Mayr is in there, Francis Crick claiming that life here was seeded from beyond. Richard Leakey, Jonas Salk, Hans Bethe (who once almost ran over me in the parking lot behind the Big Red Barn). Freeman Dyson is saved until the end, naturally.

What luck to be able to find that book—Would you buy that for a quarter?. I did, for four of them.

Omni magazine! I can hear Dion Warwick singing “I’ll Never Love This Way Again.” It’s hot, humid, and I’m sitting on the stoop of my grandparent’s house in Dearborn, Michigan. It’s 1979, August.

Omni, July 1979 cover

I’m reading a short story in this new magazine. It’s ridiculous. A guy notices that when people breath in synch, that soon they’re all going to die in synch. “Deep Breathing Exercises” is by somebody I’d never heard of: Orson Scott Card. Orson, if you can believe it.

I don’t remember how the hero of the story got his powers, but he came to a bad end when he noticed he was breathing in snych with everybody on a bus or a plane.

When I was 15, my family had already moved, from Detroit via Chicago, to tiny Gaylord, Michigan; population a good one thousand. Gaylord was Up North, and far from civilization. The town’s bookstore shared a billet with a shoe or blanket shop. Maybe it was snowshoes and cross country skies. Anyway, the book section was the size of a large bedroom.

It was a treat to drive thirty miles south to Graying, where they had just opened, to widespread acclaim, a new Holiday Inn with—it was almost not to be believed—an indoor pool and green room. People came from as far as Charlevoix to witness the spectacle.

Grayling had a book store not too far from the Holiday Inn. Tons of used science fiction. I got one of Harlan Ellison’s Dangerous Visions there. Heady stuff. One story about a cursed alien who could only find relief using a bowling ball, this aptly matching his modified biological accoutrement.

The store also had copies of Omni and I snagged them all.

We boys had heard Omni was put out by the same gentleman who published Penthouse. I had never seen one of those but knew what it was. The consensus was that since the same guy ran both magazines, some of what was in one was bound to rub off on the other.

Omni’s covers were weird enough. There were art features inside, too, but unfortunately for us, not much of the Good Stuff. But it was all new and bizarre and that’s what really mattered anyway.

I didn’t understand much in the interviews since I didn’t have any training. All the big names were there. I didn’t know they were big, but they felt big. Matters of Importance was being talked about. The future was almost here. Exciting things were about the happen.

There were skeptical UFO articles. Interferon was going to be a miracle cure. Space travel’s ins and outs were explored. What would it take to colonize the moon, Mars? Games at the end.

Maybe I was too young to notice the politics: the doom and gloom and carping about socialism that has befallen, for example, Scientific American. The problems talked about in Omni could be—would be—solved. There was hopefulness drenched on every page. Their slogan: “The meek will inherit the Earth. The rest of us will go to the stars.” I’m certain that Omni helped decide my becoming a scientist.

But what really made it for me was the fiction. There were always at least two stories, some issues had a dozen. Most of it was original, not all of it was great, but so what. Anybody could write one—even James Randi took a turn! A few classics were reprinted. I first read Kornbluth’s “The Marching Morons” there.

We read all of them and we discussed them. This was in the days before pretension hit science fiction. You didn’t have to be an expert in the minutiae of the field to enjoy talking about the stories. There was ne’er heard a, “You didn’t know this was one of Heinlein’s juveniles? I see.”

Those stories stuck with me. One about a guy with a watch that when pressed brought him two minutes into the past. A lot of harmless fun was had with the watch. Then another bad end; another faulty airplane. A freaky story about ant-like creatures who built some kind of effigy-city.

In 1983, I went into the service, had no money and rarely bought the magazine. Then I went to Okinawa in ’86 and lost touch with it completely. Omni hung on until 1995, but no magazine lasts forever.

I wish I still had my old copies. At least I found the Interviews.


The best Omni site out there is this one, by Mirko Cukich of Chicago.