Sunday, August 24, 2008

Failed Olympic Medal Predictions

Leading up to the Olympics, there was a lot of hype about the work of Colorado College economist Daniel K. N. Johnson and his predictions about the Olympic medal count. For example, he was interviewed on NPR and featured in the Wall Street Journal. Prof. Johnson's method was based on five factors only: GDP per capita, total population, political structure, climate, and home-nation bias, and was touted as "remarkably accurate".

Now the results are in. Here are Johnson's predictions of the top ten medal winners, compared to the actual total these countries won:

CountryJohnson's predictionActual result
USA 103 110
Russia 95 72
China 89 100
Germany 66 41
Japan 37 25
Hungary 31 10
Italy 29 28
Great Britain 28 47
France 27 40
Australia 26 46

Rating a prediction p as good if .75r p ≤ 1.25r, where r is the actual result, I'd say Johnson made 3 good predictions out of his top 10: China, USA, and Italy. And he made some really bad ones, including Hungary, Great Britain, and Australia. Altogether, Johnson's predictions don't deserve a place at the podium.

Monday, August 18, 2008

Extraordinary Sports Events

Watching the Olympics this week reminds me of some of my favorite extraordinary events in sports:

1. Dorando Pietri's Marathon: Pietri, an unknown entrant in the 1908 London marathon, led the field as the race entered the final segment in the stadium, but was so exhausted and confused that he started going the wrong way around the track. Within sight of the finish line, he collapsed multiple times and had to be helped over the line by race officials. Although apparently the winner, he was later disqualified because of the help he received.

2. Emil Zátopek's Marathon: Having already won the 5K and 10K races at the 1952 Olympics in Helsinki, Zátopek decided at the last minute to enter the marathon, despite having never run the race before. He won.

3. Tom Dempsey's 63-yard field goal: Dempsey, born without a right foot and right hand, kicked a 63-yard field goal, the longest in NFL history, to give the New Orleans Saints a 19-17 win over the Detroit Lions. I think this is one of the most exciting moments in professional football.

4. Berkeley-Stanford football game, 1982: I was listening to this game on the radio, and couldn't believe my ears. With 4 seconds left, and Berkeley trailing 20-19 on a last-minute Stanford field goal, Berkeley returned the kick-off 55 yards to win 25-20. What made the return special was the use of 5 laterals and the fact that the Stanford band, believing the game won, went onto the field and created additional chaos, with the trombone player getting flattened at the conclusion. This event is so special that among Cal alumni it is simply known as "The Play". The next week, Berkeley street vendors were selling a t-shirt with a diagram of the play, ending in a music note representing the trombone.

5. Jordan Snipes' 2005 shot: With 0.6 seconds left in overtime and Guilford College trailing Randolph-Macon 89-88, Jordan Snipes rebounded the ball and launched a full-court shot that swished the hoop at the other hand, giving his team a 91-89 victory. Then a news team asked him to re-enact the shot, and he made it again.

6. Bonnie Richardson, a Texas high school student, won the state's team championship -- all by herself. Richardson, the only student from her school, Rochelle High, to compete, won the high jump and 200 meters, placed second in the long jump and and 100 meters, and finished 3rd in the discus, for a total of 42 team points.

7. Cliff Young's Ultramarathon: Young, a 61-year-old sheep farmer, entered the Sydney-to-Melbourne footrace (a distance of 875 kilometers) in 1983. Despite wearing work boots, Young outran the world-class athletes by not sleeping, finishing 9 hours in front of his closest competitor. He then split the $10,000 first prize among 5 other runners and didn't keep a cent for himself.

8. Jennifer Jones' curling shot: I don't know anything at all about curling, despite having lived in Canada since 1990. But this shot by Jennifer Jones in the 2005 Scott Tournament of Hearts is so spectacular, one can enjoy it just for the geometry.

9. Dave Wottle's 800 m Finish: Wottle, known for wearing a golf cap while running, had an unbelievable kick in the 1972 Olympics to come from behind to win the 800 meters.

Wednesday, August 06, 2008

Little League's Not For Atheists

When I was a kid, I desperately wanted to play in Little League baseball. I never did, although exactly why is lost in time. Was it because there was no Little League where I lived, or because I wasn't good enough, or some other reason? I can't remember. But maybe it was all for the best, because the Little League thinks that atheists can't be good baseball players.

Want proof? Look at the Little League Pledge, which is

I trust in God
I love my country
And will respect its laws
I will play fair
And strive to win
But win or lose
I will always do my best

Despite protests, Little League refuses to change or modify its pledge. When criticized, LL hides behind the claim that "it is not, and has never been, required to be recited by any person involved with Little League Baseball or Softball". But you can be damn sure if the Pledge said, "I trust in Allah", they'd be really quick to change it.

I don't understand why belief in magical beings has anything to do with playing baseball, and it's too bad that Little League does.

Update: Jerry K. reminds me about this column by my colleague Josh Benaloh.

Our Moral Intuition Says Abortion is not the Same as Murder

This is an very interesting video that demonstrates how our moral intuition about abortion denies its equivalence to murder. Even the video's committed anti-abortion activists could not bring themselves to say that, were abortion made illegal again, women who abort their fetuses should receive a prison term commensurate with murder. Perhaps more surprisingly, most of these anti-abortion activists seemed to think there should be no penalty at all. The interviewer tries to get them to think more deeply about this contradiction, but without much success.

The lesson is that most people do not regard abortion as equivalent to murder, despite the rhetoric of the anti-abortion movement.

Danish Hospital Hosts Wacko Medical Meeting

From the Copenhagen Post comes this article about how the Copenhagen University Hospital agreed to host the woo-fest called the European Quantum Energy Medicine Conference, to the disgust of Danish medical professionals. One is quoted as saying, "It's an extremely unfortunate signal to send when we're talking about a conference that primarily consists of completely undocumented claims, and products that don't have a shred of evidence supporting their effectiveness".

I wonder why they didn't get Radovan Karadzic to speak.

Hat-tip: Terry Polevoy.

Tuesday, August 05, 2008

I Was Doing It Right All Along

When I was a kid, I used to sneeze and use my shirtsleeve to wipe it off. My teachers and classmates were usually horrified by this practice, but now I learn, to my surprise, that I was right all along. Well, sort of.

My pharmacy was displaying this extremely weird large poster, which is available from

At the same website, you can even watch a movie that teaches you how to cough and sneeze properly. Four stars!