In 1999 you couldn’t throw double-tall non-fat extra-hot latte without hitting a journalist who, instead of reporting actual news, was writing a column about the limitless potential of the World Wide Web. Now, three years later, we get articles in the New York Times on the abruptly en vogue subject of Is The Internet Boring? It’s enough to make a guy lose his faith in the whole ball of wax. Or it would be, if said guy didn’t occasionally stumble across terrific stuff like this.

The Sad Truth is That I Like Pink

All this time I thought Pink was singing “I’m coming out so you better get this party started.” Coming out. Today, listening to the song on the radio, I abruptly realized that she’s actually saying “I’m coming up…”

What a fool I’ve been.


Hello, I’m a well-known sports celebrity, here to tell you about an astounding new drug called Zamtrex. Well, I can’t really “tell you about” it in the strictest sense of the term due to some pesky FDA regulations which prohibit me from mentioning what conditions Zamtrex treats, if, in fact, it treats any conditions whatsoever, which is also something I can’t tell you. But I will say that Zamtrex was developed by top scientists in while lab coats, and that clinical trials have shown that people taking both Zamtrex and an effective stroke-treatment drug show a significant decrease in incidences of strokes.

So at your next checkup, ask your doctor if Zamtrex is right for you. It is, trust me, but you know how doctors are: they like to be asked this stuff. If your doctor says he doesn’t know what you’re talking about, well, you just ask him again. Keep on asking him. After all, he doesn’t need to know what Zamtrex is, he just needs to write you a prescription for it. So don’t let up until he agrees to let you have a trial six-pack.

Zamtrex: Quite Possibly Improving Lives.

Pucker Up, Chief

CNN Homepage

Washington Post Homepage

MSNBC Homepage

You know world events are spinning out of control when all the major newspapers feature the Bush Tough-Talk Pucker on their front page.

NCAA & Math

Much hullabaloo is being made of the fact that, by and large, sports writers did an abysmal job of predicting the NCAA Tournament outcome. In particular, folks are pointing out that virtually none of these jokes nailed who would be in the Final Four and who would walk away with the trophy (or belt, or medal, or year’s supply of beef jerky, or whatever it is they give the winners).

Well, I don’t know nuthin’ about no basketball, but I do know a tiny bit about probability — enough to spot the fallacy in this line of reasoning. The argument, in a nutshell, goes a little something like this: “Of 100 sports writers, only 5 accurately predicted who would win the Tournament; therefore 95% of sports writers are poor are predicting who will win the Tournament.” Makes perfect sense, right? But the problem with this criticism is that it’s just another case of Monday morning quarterbacking. Remember, the sports writers were announcing who they thought was likely to win, not who was certain to win — that’s what prediction is all about, nailing the probabilities. And there were quite a few upsets this year, such as Duke getting the heave-ho early on. So it’s entirely possible the the sports writers were correct in predicting who would likely win, it’s just that fate took an unexpected turn.

Confused? Here, let me toss in an analogy, free of charge. Say you have a bunch of mathematicians and a coin. Throw in a fifth of vodka and you got yourself a party right there. You tell them that you are going to flip the coin ten times, and ask them to predict how many times “heads” will turn up. Each and every one of them is going to say “five”. Now, you flip the coin ten times and, by some quirk of fate, you gets tails ten times in a row. Aha! Those mathematicians were full of hooey, right? No, of course not — they were dead on in predicting what was likely to happen. It just … didn’t.

Saying “nearly all the sports writers were wrong” actually weakens the argument that they’re lousy predictors. After all, if they were all 100% accurate at figuring out the probabilities they would all make the same predictions, and at the end of the Tournament they would either all be right
or all be wrong (just as each and everyone of the mathematicians was wrong in the above example). In this case, most sports writers made similar guesses as to how things would turn out. The fact that reality didn’t conform to conventional sports writer wisdom doesn’t necessarily mean they were incorrect (although it doesn’t rule it out either).

You see? You don’t? Well, that’s okay — when it comes to probabilities there’s also, like, a three outta five chance that I don’t have the slightest idea what I’m talking about. At any rate, one thing is certain: I just gave myself a headache thinking about this.

Update! The great thing about the Internet — and by “great” I mean “terrifying” — is that if you don’t have the slightest idea what you’re talking about, and you decide to announce this fact via the World Wide Web, you will be put back in your place instantaneously! O Brave New World.

Moments after I made the above post, Bryan Curtis, author of the cited Slate article, dropped me a line:

You know much more about math than I do, but allow me to add more information on the unique brain structure of sportswriters. The very un-mathematical idea behind this experiment was to see how well sportswriters could predict the NCAA Tournament. And, since I had little faith they could do it well, reassure the amateur bracketeers out there that the “experts” were just as confused and ill-prepared as they were.

If I read your analogy about who would “likely win” correctly, then the sportswriters’ job should have been easy. The NCAA seeds all 64 of its teams and they could have just picked the higher seed in each game–at least, until they reached the Final Four and had to choose between four No. 1 seeds. But they didn’t. Overwhelming majorities of writers picked underdogs in certain games. For example, they picked No. 11 Pennsylvania to beat No. 6 California. Pennsylvania–at least in the minds of the seeding committee and Las Vegas bookmakers–wasn’t more likely to win. But the writers picked them anyway. So it seems to me that the writers weren’t just playing the averages–though they largely did that, advancing three out of four No. 1 seeds to the Final Four. They were trying, as we all do, to fill out the perfect bracket–which, every year, means picking the right upsets in the right games.

Plus, we don’t need sportswriters to tell us what’s likely to happen; we can determine that simply by glancing at the seeds or the betting line.

I’m reasonably sure that there is a mathematical theorem that renders everything I’ve just written completely false.

Bryan, I strongly doubt that I “know much more about math” that you, but you certainly know more about sports than I. For instance, I haven’t the slightest idea how they get those seed numbers. You mean they are cooked up by people who are really REALLY calculating the probabilities? Well hell — that puts a Ford-Expedition-sized hole in my argument now don’t it?

All I know about NCAA basketball is that I gave some guy $3 a few weeks ago and, the other day, he gave it and a whole bevy of other three-dollar bills to someone else who had more stars on their March Madness Pool Sheet that I. And if I can’t have my three bucks then, by God, at least I’ll have this dubious mathematical argument as to why my utter failure to rake in the big bucks in no way proves that I wasn’t 100% correct in my predictions.


The park through which my wife and I run is infested with migrant bands of hippies, which rove aimlessly about, occasionally stopping to play Frisbee or jam on the bongos. As a graduate of Evergreen State College, I can spot a hippie at 300 yards, and did so tonight as we jogged down the lower path. This particular guy was unusual in one respect: he was by himself. Hippies tend to be a gregarious breed, and spotting one sitting alone on a bench is not a common sight. But in all other ways he was typical: he was clad in a Rastafarian cap and hemp-intensive clothing, he had dreadlocks and a faux-Guatemalan satchel.

As we approached, I saw him looking around warily, and then rooting around in his bag. He finally pulled out some small, plastic-and-metal object — I couldn’t really see what it was because he was blocking the sight of it with his body. He fiddled around with the object for a moment, all while casting furtive glances over his shoulder, and then brought it to his mouth as he turned his back to the path to hide what he was doing.

But we could still hear him. As we ran by he said “Hey, it’s Joel. Can you hear me? I’m on my cell phone.”


Here’s an interactive fiction game that is so brief that you can play in on your coffee break. No foolin’. It’s called 9:05 and it’s quite clever. I’ll write more about interactive fiction later this week.

Movies: Panic Room

[Movies: Panic Room] In my defense, let me state upfront that I was lobbying for Monster’s Ball. But one member of our party stated her unwavering oppositions to all things Halle Berry, so we had to find something else. Finally we settled on Panic Room as a movie which, while not necessarily something we were all eager to see, was at least something that none of us refused to see.

Now, this was a switch for me. Up until that day I had been refusing to see Panic Room because it had run afoul of my Movie Trailer Ubiquity Rule (“If the total amount of time I have spent involuntarily watching a movie’s trailers equals or exceeds the running time said film, it shall be removed from my Must See In Theaters list.”) But then I had the misfortune to stumble across the Panic Room page at Rotten Tomatoes where I discovered two things that changed my mind. First, the film was directed by David Fincher, he of Fight Club and Seven. Secondly, it was actually getting favorable reviews: the consensus seemed to be that the excellent direction more than made up a mediocre script.

So we saw it. And the critics were right on the first count: the direction was great. But this script was so mediocre that Hitchcock himself would have had a tough time regaining the lost ground. As I’m certain you’ve gleaned from the trailers (now showing every 14 minutes on a tv station near you), the premise of the movie is that Jodie Foster moves into a new New York Apartment / Mansion, and discovers that it contains a “Panic Room”: a sanctuary with reinforced steel walls, it’s own phone line and a dozen security cameras that can be entered and sealed in case of a “home invasion”. And so, of course, on the first night in her new abode three men break into her home, so she scurries into the panic Room, along with her daughter. The problem — and the crux of the film — the three burglars know what they want, and they know where it’s located: inside the room that Foster now occupies.

What follows is like a Road Runner cartoon, with the criminals in the role of Wild E. Coyote: they cook up a scheme to capture Foster, and then she (meep meep!) foils them. Annnnnnd repeat. This could have been exciting, but the pace of the film is entirely too languid, and the paper-thin premise is spread out over two-hours. Worse, the plot is rife logical inconsistencies. Ordinarily I don’t mind plot holes in a thriller — hey, I can willingly suspect my disbelief with the best of them — but Panic Room moves so slowly that it doesn’t give you anything better to do than sit in your chair and think “hey wait a minute: why didn’t she just use her cell phone in the first place?”

It’s not terrible and plenty of folks will enjoy it — the cinematograhy is nice, and the audience is treated to a plenitude of overhead shots of Jodi Foster in a tight tank-top — but when it comes to “thrillers” I prefer a bit more sass in my sasperilla, thank you. You know, the kind of movies that actually thrill.

April Fool’s Day

April Fool’s Day.