Welcome! (I guess...)

For those of you who by some extremely unlikely set of circumstances happened to stumble upon this page, I apologize to you. For those of you who intentionally came to this page - yikes! As the title of the weblog indicates, these are my Ramblings About Whatever. There is a chance that I will ramble about just about anything (as I am in this introduction), but only a select few topics will actually make this site. Enjoy! (I guess...)

Tuesday, July 3, 2012

The Runoff that Wasn't

If you were paying any attention at all to the recently concluded United States Track and Field Olympic Trials, it seems impossible that you would not be aware of the controversy concerning the women's 100-meter event.  As a short recap of what happened, on June 23, 2012, the finals in the event were contested with Carmelita Jeter winning in 10.92, Tianna Madison finishing second in 10.96, and initially Jeneba Tarmoh being declared the third place in a tightly contested finish with Allyson Felix.  Both Tarmoh and Felix were given times of 11.07 seconds, but when the times were expanded to the thousandths of a second position, Tarmoh was given a time of 11.067 seconds to Felix's 11.068.  As stated, Tarmoh was initially declared the third place finisher, but upon further review, the race was declared a dead heat, which meant that somehow the tie would need to be broken since only a maximum of three runners can represent any single nation in the event at the Olympics.  Both Tarmoh and Felix were entered in the 200-meter event as well, and so the Bob Kersee, the man who coaches both athletes, asked that any tiebreaker wait until the conclusion of that second event.  Felix went on to win the 200-meter, with Tarmoh finishing outside the top three, and in the meantime, USA Track and Field decided that the tie would be broken either by a runoff or a coin toss.  In order for the coin toss to decide the issue, both athletes would have had to agree.  On Sunday evening, July 1, 2012, it was initially announced that a runoff would take place the following evening, but as early as later that evening, word started to spread that Tarmoh was considering pulling out of the event and surrendering the spot to Felix.  And then by late morning to the early afternoon of July 2, 2012, Tarmoh did officially pull out of the event and Felix is now set to represent the United States in the 100-meters as the third place finisher.

The paragraph above contains the basic details of what happened, but if you had been following the Trials, you know that there is more to the story.  I want to first address the complaints, or better yet whining as I see it, that have come from some who have paid attention to this story about how USA Track and Field has handled this situation.  One of these biggest whin...err, complainers is Sports Illustrated's Tim Layden, who in one of the articles he wrote about this story had this to say:
USATF spokeswoman Jill Geer informed media that the race was a dead heat, and that there were no procedures in place to settle it. More than 24 hours later, Geer again stood up in front of the same media and announced this procedure which, comically, includes coin toss protocols. It has been an embarrassment for the organization and the sport, and closure is scarcely nearer at this moment than on Saturday evening.

Read more: http://sportsillustrated.cnn.com/2012/olympics/2012/writers/tim_layden/06/26/track-field-photo-finish-felix-tarmoh/index.html#ixzz1zZpz5jCF
And then later, in an article that Layden wrote after the runoff was scrapped, Layden had this to say:
Yet even the hint of ongoing controversy further stains USATF, which has done little right since the finish of the race.
*The overrule: According to Jennings, in a 20-year career as a photo finish judge, he had been overruled just once, and that was in a cross-country race. Never had one of his judgments been questioned in a track race, where torso interpolation is common. Podkaminer's fear of appeal undercut the most qualified expert in the booth.
*The lack of procedure: Astoundingly, USATF had no tiebreaking procedure in place, an embarrassing circumstance that the organization's chief PR officer was forced to relate in a surreal press conference after the 100 on June 23, setting the tone for the week that followed.
*Lack of presence: Both USATF President Hightower and CEO Max Siegel, who was appointed in April, enacted a stunning display of non-leadership throughout the week of the dead heat controversy, failing to take control of the story, if not the actual situation. Instead, coach Kersee became the most visible figure, making late night calls to reporters, politicking for more rest for his athletes. (Kersee's most strident argument was that any runoff wait until after the 200.)
All of this seemed salvageable on Sunday, when the runoff was announced. There was palpable excitement in the track community and beyond. Tweets announced "Must-see TV!" and other similar exhortations. But in truth, the runoff began to unravel almost immediately after it was announced, its cancellation a mere formality by Monday morning. Instead of competition at Hayward Field, there was only construction, heavy work that represents the slow dismantling of a sport.

Read more: http://sportsillustrated.cnn.com/2012/olympics/2012/writers/tim_layden/07/02/jeneba-tarmoh-allyson-felix-100-meter-runoff/index.html#ixzz1zZtqSfTe
I have quite a number of problems with Layden's (and there is really no other way I can assess this) hyperventilating.  The first issue I will address is this supposed lack of a procedure in place to decide such matters.  Track and field (and the USATF) has long has tiebreaker rules in place and they are really quite simple. I'll explain them for this particular situation.  Since Tarmoh and Felix finished very close to one another, they first looked at the number of seconds each runner had taken to get down the track as the tiebreaker.  Oh wait, they both finished in roughly eleven (11) seconds as judged by the clock, well then let's go to the second tiebreaker, the tenths of a second.  Well, both runners appeared to cross the line about one tenth (0.1) of a second beyond the eleven seconds they had run.  Okay then, let's go to the next tiebreaker, hundredths of a second.  (And for the record, after two tiebreakers, both now stand at 11.1 seconds.)  Well, when we look at the hundredths of a second position, we find that we have to make an adjustment to the tenths of a second position because neither runner did actually run a full tenth of a second beyond eleven seconds, but it does appear that both runners ran seven hundredths of a second (0.07) beyond eleven seconds.  Okay then, we must go to the fourth tiebreaker, thousandths of a second.  (And so after three tiebreakers, both runners are still tied, now at 11.07 seconds.)  And so when they look at the thousandths of a second, the timer sees that neither in fact ran a full seven hundredths of a second beyond eleven seconds, but he is able to judge that Felix ran eight thousandths (0.008) of a second beyond 11.06 rather conclusively for a time of 11.068.  In the case of Tarmoh, the timer cannot tell with nearly the same level of certainty when this runner crosses the line, but interpolates a time of seven hundredths of a second (0.007) beyond 11.06, for a total time of 11.067 seconds.  From this point, it was eventually ruled that the two had run a dead-heat and were given the same time, which started this supposed "embarrassment" for the USATF.

Remaining on this supposed lack of procedure point, I will remind you that they already had exhausted four tiebreakers: the seconds, the tenths of a second, the hundredths of a second, and the thousandths of a second.  I'm not sure how useful it would have been to allow a human being to judge the time to the ten thousandths of a second since it is clear that judging the finish to the thousandths of a second can be guesswork, so let's throw that idea out as a possible tiebreaker.  Now given that we are not going to let humans judge to the thousandths of a second, what other tiebreakers could we possibly use?  I mean other than the two possibilities that USATF provided (runoff and coin toss).  The only sort of other somewhat reasonable choice I can imagine is looking at the two runners' reaction times and finding in favor of the runner with the slower reaction time since she had in fact run the distance faster.  (This would have incidentally given the victory to the Felix.)  But this option is problematic since the start is an important part of the race and I don't believe that an athlete should be penalized for legally reacting to the gun quickly.  So, I'm sitting here thinking and wondering what other procedures other than the ones that USATF provided and other than the positively absurd (like a tether-ball game) could have been used to break this tie that would have been fair to both athletes?  The truth is that there are not any.  Any reasonable person who isn't looking for a reason to criticize the USATF could have predicted once a dead-heat was declared that this tie would be broken by either a runoff or a coin toss (or one of the runners just surrendering the chance at the spot).

Surprisingly perhaps, I have a bigger problem with Layden's seeming complaint about another issue.  This is the overrule of the photo official's original timing call.  In the articles, Layden points out that the photo finish judge, Roger Jennings, has over twenty years of experience, that he has used this process of interpolation to get an athlete's finishing time before, that he had only been overruled one other time before in those twenty years, and that Jennings attests that he would have designated Tarmoh the winner in this situation 100 times out of 100.  The clear suggestion that Layden is making is that Jennings should not have been overruled in the first place.  But let's keep a few things in mind, Tarmoh's time was an interpolation, Jennings admits that the interpolations are always subjective, and at the pace the two runners were moving in the race, if they were separated by one thousandth of a second, they would only be separated by at most about nine millimeters.  And when you are looking at a photographic representation of the finish on a computer, which would generally show a smaller version of the outcome, this nine-millimeter distance would be further compressed.  If one were to blow up this photo to a larger size, you would lose resolution and thereby the ability to accurately assess boundaries in the photo.  It seems crazy to me that Layden is depending so heavily on the accuracy of one guy's interpolations and the fact that they had only been overruled one other time in twenty years.  An interpolation is a guess, pure and simple.  I don't care if Roger Jennings would have called the race for Tarmoh 100 times out of 100, if he was using faulty assumptions when making his guess, then he could have been wrong 100 times out of 100.  Let me give an example of this.  If I told you that there was a certain function that had points (x, y) located at (-2, 8), (-1, 5), (1, 5), and (2, 8), and asked you to interpolate a point at x = 0, what point would you select?  Well, there is a chance that you could select the point (0, 4) because then all five points would satisfy the equation y = x^2 + 4.  But then I would tell you that you were wrong because the point at x = 0 is actually (0, 7) because then the five points would satisfy the equation y = 0.75x^4 - 2.75x^2 + 7.  Again, every interpolation is a guess based on whatever assumptions the person who is doing the interpolation is using.  But it is completely possible for the person to use the wrong assumptions and therefore produce a wrong interpolation.  That there was no actual video evidence showing Tarmoh crossing the finish line ahead of Felix, given how close the race was, I see absolutely zero problems with overruling Jennings's guess, even though he maintains that he would have gone with his guess 100 times out of 100 (especially, I imagine, if he used the exact same procedure and assumptions 100 times out of 100).

And finally, as for the last point, I just chuckle.  I'm sure it would have been absolutely fantastic and worthwhile if the USATF President and/or CEO had 'taken charge of the situation.'  Because it would have changed so much if one or the other or both came out and said, "We still don't have a firm decision, but it's likely to be settled by either a runoff or a coin toss, you know, because we don't think it's appropriate to settle this with a tether-ball match."  The bottom line is that a resolution was achieved in the allotted time window that was necessary for the United States to finalize its track and field team for the Olympics.  If the USATF President and CEO were more focused on making sure the meet was running smoothly and were not overly focused on a single damned spot in a single damned event, then I would take that rather than having them have to come out and tell people what they should have logically known was going to happen in the first place.  Lastly (for real this time), it seems completely laughable that Layden seems to want to hold USATF at least partially responsible for Tarmoh deciding to pull out of the race.  Really?  This is somehow USATF's fault?

Monday, June 25, 2012

Nostalgia...Or Wishful Thinking

As anyone who follows tennis closely knows, The Championships, Wimbledon got started this morning (or rather it was yesterday morning local time) and some of the big names have already been in action.  These names include Maria Sharapova, the number one ranked female player in the world who just recently completed the career Grand Slam when she won the French Open earlier this month.  Also in action was five-time champion Venus Williams, who it appeared might still be feeling the effects of an autoimmune disease with which she was recently diagnosed as she went down somewhat meekly in straight sets.  And on the men's side, defending champion and world number one Novak Djokovic advanced in straight sets, while six-time champion Roger Federer likewise advanced in straight sets.

But prior to the matches starting up, I went over to ESPN.com's tennis page because before each of the major tournaments, the ESPN tennis experts will give their predictions about what will happen in the tournament.  So I found the predictions here, and stunned does not begin to describe my reaction to the lunacy of the picks in one of the categories.  I am of course speaking of the Men's Winner category.  If you take the tally of the eleven experts, you will see that two of them picked Djokovic, four picked Federer, and five picked world number two and two-time champion Rafael Nadal.  In theory this would not appear to be such a big deal since Djokovic, Nadal, and Federer are ranked first, second, and third in the world, respectively, and have combined to win the last nine Wimbledon titles.  But in having a breakdown in picks of Djokovic-Nadal-Federer of 2-5-4, these experts have demonstrated that they have abandoned rationality in making these picks.

Before going any further, I will say that these three players are indeed the only three that anyone should even consider picking to win this tournament.  The three have, after all, won twenty-eight of the last twenty-nine major titles, with the only one not to go to these three being the 2009 US Open title that went to Juan Martin del Potro.  (By the way, the breakdown over the last twenty-nine completed majors is Federer-12, Nadal-11, Djokovic-5, and del Potro-1.)  However, it is an absolutely absurd that only two people selected Djokovic to win, and even more absurd that more people picked Federer to win than Djokovic.  In the interest of full disclosure, of the three players, Nadal is my favorite and Djokovic is second.  I respect the way that both of them are playing right now and I would not be upset if either one won the tournament.  If you are asking me to make a pick, though, I pick Djokovic.  Despite the fact that Nadal has defeated Djokovic in their last three clay court encounters, I think that Djokovic has demonstrated over the last seventeen or eighteen months that he is still the best player in the world.  But I would say that Nadal has showed that he is a close number two.  These two players have met for the last four major championships, something that has never previously been done in men's tennis (as far as I know).  There is absolutely no rational explanation for this many people selecting Federer to win.

It's possible that a number of the experts considered that Federer has won Wimbledon more times than he has any of the other majors and I believe that he has stated that it is favorite tournament as reasoning for selecting him.  But these are absolutely shoddy substitutes for doing true analysis.  If you go to Federer's Wikipedia page, you can see a compilation of his performances at the major tournaments.  Since the start of 2010, Wimbledon is the only one of the major tournaments in which Federer has failed to advance past the quarterfinals (admittedly it is a small sample size, but during the last two times Federer has played Wimbledon he has not demonstrated that he is this king of grass-court tennis that he once was).  By going out in the quarterfinals of the last two Wimbledons, he did not even get a chance to face Djokovic or Nadal.  Since the start of 2010, Federer is 5-7 against Djokovic and 3-5 against Nadal.  But in major tournaments, he is 1-4 against Djokovic and 0-2 against Nadal.  Considering that Federer is seeded number three, and Djokovic and Nadal have each reached the final of the last four majors, odds are that Federer would have to beat both of them to win the championship.  And in the last two and half years, he has fared poorly against both in majors.  Yet, four out of eleven of these experts somehow think that despite what has occurred in recent match play, Federer will get the job done.  Again, it is entirely possible for Federer to win this tournament, but by whatever analysis this many experts came to the conclusion that Federer would win should be heavily scrutinized.  Methinks they are suffering from a bout of nostalgia, or wishful thinking.

Friday, June 22, 2012

American Triple Crown Racing

The other morning I was alerted to the fact that after decades of debate, Secretariat has been officially given a time of 1:53.0 for his 1973 Preakness Stakes victory, which now elevates him to the position of record holder for this stakes race.  For thirty-nine years Secretariat’s official time for the race had stood at 1:54.4, but there were some irregularities with the timing in the race and many believed that the horse certainly ran faster than this official time.  I will not go deeply into the details concerning the previous time or the change, but this is big news even almost four decades later because it means that the great racehorse now officially holds the record in each of the American Triple Crown horse races.

But when I saw that this change had been made, it made me think about this year’s Triple Crown races and how we were potentially robbed of a chance for a Triple Crown winner when I’ll Have Another, the horse that had come from behind to win the first two legs of the Crown, came down with an injury the day before the Belmont Stakes.  I thought that the winning time by Union Rags of 2:30.42 was slow and believed that if I’ll Have Another had been in the race, he likely would have won it.  Obviously it is impossible to determine what would have happened.

Then I started to wonder about the degree of decline of Thoroughbred racing in the country, or, more specifically, the fact that the horses themselves do not appear to be of the same quality that existed in decades past.  So I decided to look at the winning data for all of the Triple Crown races going back to 1926 when all of the race courses were for the first time collectively set at their current distances and I found the results very much interesting.

Starting in 1926, the Kentucky Derby, the Preakness Stakes, and the Belmont Stakes have each be run eighty-seven times at distances of 1.25 miles, 1.1875 miles, and 1.5 miles, respectively.  The average times for the three races over that period of time are 2:03.03 for the Kentucky Derby, 1:56.62 for the Preakness, and 2:29.24 for the Belmont.  But what really stunned me was that the standard deviations for the three race winners followed the opposite pattern than expected.  The three standard deviations were 2.04 seconds for the Kentucky Derby, 2.24 seconds for the Preakness, and 1.78 seconds for the Belmont.  I would never have guessed that the longest race would have the smallest absolute standard deviation while the shortest race would have the largest absolute standard deviation.  It is interesting to note that as a result of these standard deviation figures, Secretariat’s Belmont performance of 2:24 lies nearly three standard deviations outside the mean whereas both his Kentucky Derby and Preakness performances are well within two standard deviations.  This serves to illustrate just how impressive Secretariat was in New York that June Saturday afternoon in 1973.

However, as interested as I was in seeing the degree to which Secretariat outperformed other American three-year old Thoroughbreds in these important races over the last nine decades, I was more interested in the trends in performances that might exist.  So for each of the three races I calculated the average winning speed during that particular decade.  (Starting with the 1920s, I averaged the winning speeds for 1926-1929, then averaged the winning speeds from 1930-1939, 1940-1949, and so on until averaging the winning speeds for 2010-2012.)  Table 1 below shows the average winning speeds per decade for each race in miles per hour.


Figure 1 below goes on to put these data in graphical form.


The first thing that I notice when I look at these data is that while it is apparent from the first three years of this decade that three-year old Thoroughbreds are in decline in America, it is a small sample size.  And if you look at the data from last decade, you can make the case that that decade was may have been the third best racing decade, at least as it applies to three-year olds in the Triple Crown races.  But one thing that should not go unnoticed is that relatively speaking, the 1920s, 1930s, and 1940s were atrocious decades.  There is no other way to put it if you look at the winning times of these races.  Though the horses in the first three years of this decade have slowed very much in the Belmont Stakes, they still have performed amazingly better than the horses through the 1940s in the Kentucky Derby and the Preakness.  What I find particularly interesting about this is that the two decades, the 1930s and 1940s, saw no less than seven horses win the Triple Crown.  (Gallant Fox in 1930, Omaha in 1935, War Admiral in 1937, Whirlaway in 1941, Count Fleet in 1943, Assault in 1946, and Citation in 1948.)  There are a few ways to look at this information.  It could be that horse breeding and training just had not yet reached their pinnacle yet, and these horses were still pretty good horses for their times, despite what the actual winning times in the Triple Crown races indicated.  It could be that these horses (the Triple Crown winners) were truly great horses, but just did not have a whole lot of competition.  Or it could be that those “great” Triple Crown champions of seventy to eighty years ago were so-so horses and the class of horses they competed against was far inferior to the horses that we see today.

For several years I have been in awe as I read about the accomplishments of legendary racehorses of the past and in many cases, watched decades-old video of important races.  Watching those videos is the only way I could appreciate horses such as Secretariat, Seattle Slew, and Affirmed, the last three Triple Crown winners.  But watching these races on video is also how I came to learn about non-Triple Crown winners such as Dr. Fager and Spectacular Bid.  Though I can proudly say that I was alive when Affirmed won the last Triple Crown in 1978, my first vivid memory of a horse race was the famed duel between Sunday Silence and Easy Goer in the 1989 Preakness.  And then during the 1990s and into the 2000s I made it a point to watch the Triple Crown races annually, hoping that at long last the long drought of an American Triple Crown winner would end, just as it took twenty-five long years for Secretariat to finally accomplish the feat following Citation in 1948.  But the years have come and gone, and there still is no Triple Crown winner after thirty-four years.  Of course there have been close calls.  I remember how agonizingly close Silver Charm and Real Quiet came to winning the Crown in 1997 and 1998, respectively, and I remember that of all the horses that one can say ‘should have’ won the Crown, Point Given was the best of the lot (at least that I saw race, I was too young to see Spectacular Bid race).  But one of the things that I’ve heard discussed is that there has been a decline in the quality of Thoroughbred racehorses.

It’s true that if one just looks at the last three years’ (2010-2012) Triple Crown race results and those average finishing times persist throughout the rest of the decade, it can be concluded that the quality of the Thoroughbred racehorses is in decline, particularly in the Belmont, which disturbingly in the last three years has seen a regression of winning times to their slowest consistent levels since the 1920s.  However, as already mentioned, this is a limited sample set and it is entirely possible to see a rebound in winning times over the next seven years.  But if one ignores for a moment these last three years and compares the 2000s to previous decades, if one uses average winning times of the Triple Crown races as a proxy for Thoroughbred horse quality, then 2000s is no worse than the fourth best of the eight full and two partial decades sampled, behind the 1980s, 1990s, and 1970s.  And it can be easily argued that 2000s was no worse or perhaps even better than the fabled 1970s, which saw three legendary horses win the Triple Crown.
Table 2 below would seem to support the idea that the 2000s can be considered a superior decade to the 1970s.  In Table 2, I have ranked each of the last eighty-seven years based on the cumulative finish times for the three Triple Crown races during that year.  Since the races have all maintained their individual lengths over that time period, this is a useful way to compare the individual years.


Clearly 1973 ranks as number one since, as mentioned before, the change in Secretariat’s official Preakness Stakes time means that he now possesses the fastest time in each of the three races.  But while the 1970s also possesses the fourth best year (1978, the Affirmed/Alydar Triple Crown year), ten of the best fifteen years occurred in the 1980s, 1990s, and 2000s.  This is a large part of the reason that the 1980s, 1990s, and 2000s, on average, demonstrated the best winning performances by decade over the last eighty-seven years.  Additionally, those three decades also possess better ‘worst years’ than do the other decades (43 in 1986, 53 in 1993, and 50 in 2000).  (I should note, though, that if a one year shift is done such that each decade starts with the year ending in numeral one, 1971, for example, some changes will take place.  When this is done, the 1970s will become the second best decade, the 2000s will drop to third by average, and the 1990s will drop to fourth.  Incidentally, the 1980s will become even better by eliminating a number 29 and accepting number 5.  No other changes in order will occur when this is done.)

One thing that should become abundantly clear by looking at these data is that the performances that the likes of Triple Crown winners Gallant Fox (1930), Assault (1946), and Citation (1948) registered on their way to immortality were not very impressive.  Each of these horses in winning the Triple Crown ran cumulatively among the ten worst times over the last eighty-seven years.  Again, factors such as industry-wide training knowledge and track conditions could have influenced these relatively slow times, but I think that it is improper not to consider these slow times when comparing those supposedly great horses to the horses of today that are said to be in decline.  It is a fact that the cumulative winning times over the last two years of the winning horses in the Triple Crown races are superior to all the Triple Crown winners in the data set except the three from the 1970s (Secretariat, Seattle Slew, and Affirmed).  So those great horses of yesteryear (your Citations, Assaults, and Gallant Foxes) may have truly demonstrated incredible performances, but you cannot objectively say that these performances occurred in the Triple Crown races, nor can you demonstrate that they had to defeat truly great horses to accomplish the Triple Crown sweeps.