Philarious Rex
New Allegiance

As Sammy Sosa once said, “I love baseball. Baseball been very, very good to me.” I first became a Braves fan during the miraculous worst-to-first run in 1991. (I still hate Kent Hrbeck. Also Lonnie Smith, for different reasons.) Who could forget the Sid Slide? Or Otis Nixon robbing Andy Van Slyke before that? Then, of course, there was the dramatic chase-down of the Giants in 1993, the World Series in 1995 and, the pinnacle for me, being in the stands for a World Series game in 1996. Alas, it was Game 4, the infamous Jim Leyritz game. But still, you just knew there was more championship baseball to come from the Braves.

But as “Fourteen Years of Great Regular Season Baseball” dwindled into the mid-aughts, things went awry. At this point, it has been a quillion years since the Braves last won a postseason series. I have spent money, time and sleep thinking that THIS will be the year they finally go all the way back to the Series! Heck, I’ve even held World Series tickets in my hands, only to watch them fall flat on their faces, usually because they completely forget how to hit a baseball once the calendar hits mid-September.

And then, there was today. Today, the Braves announced that they are no longer the Atlanta Braves. They are now the Smyrna/Marietta/Cobb/Suburban Braves. Look, I’m not here to suggest that Turner Field  and it’s surrounding locale are anything other than a tremendous underachievement. How you could fail to extend MARTA to the site back before the 1996 Olympics, I’ll never know. But this is an atrocity. I’ll be happy to tell you why, but that’s for another time. Suffice it to say that two wrongs don’t make a right.

So, I am announcing a shift in allegiance. My leisure has been plenty full of sports to follow. The Gamecocks, of course, are my One True Love in the sports universe. But the Braves have probably been next. Throw in Olympic sports, an on-again-off-again Falcons dalliance (by the way, Dirty Birds, you’re on notice for being next on the chopping block) and the odd NBA game here or there, and there hasn’t been any room. Until now, that is.

By subtracting the Braves from my list of faves, I now have space for another team. But whom to choose? Well, I’ve increasingly grown fond of soccer, at least at the international level. I love the World Cup. I even like the Gold Cup. Real soccer fans would call me “casual,” and that’s fine. But this is about to change.

I am formally announcing my support for the Tottenham Hotspur Football Club. I figure the EPL is a good place to fill the Braves-induced vaccuum. Why, you might ask, would you choose Tottenham (pronounced “TOT-‘num”)? After all, they’re currently mired in 7th place in the league, and it’s not as if they’ve got a closet full of hardware from their glorious achievements since 1882. Aside from the fact that I’m certainly no bandwagoneer, there are three reasons, really:

  1. They’re the Fighting Cocks of the EPL! Seriously, what could be more perfect than that for me? This will be easy.
  2. My friend and fellow marathon stud Reid Davis (AKA The Run Daddy) is a big supporter. Already somebody to hang out with at the pub during early Sunday morning matches. That’s good enough for me.
  3. And, of course, there’s Ted Lasso. ‘Nuf said.

So, Braves, have a nice life! Good luck out there in Homogenize-the-World Mochachino Land. While you’re out there finding ways to lose games in the 15th inning (in soccer, you can tie, which means I can go to bed!) and either missing or bowing out in the first round of the playoffs (no playoffs in soccer!), I’ll be enjoying my new team. Enjoy your nightly traffic jam!

Annual BCS Geekery

Each year at this time, despite having many better and more important things to do, I like to examine the BCS ratings and do a little arithmetic to identify the teams that are the most “overrated” and “underrated” in the country. Basically, this means that I compare teams’ “human” poll rankings with their “computer” poll rankings. If by now, at the end of the season, a team’s ranking is better among humans than among computers, then I designate that team as “overrated.” If a team’s ranking is better among the computers, then that team is “underrated.” My premise here is that the math-based computer algorithms are providing a bias-free measure of what each team has accomplished, while the human polls are always going to be somewhat subjective. (Note: “subjective” doesn’t necessarily mean “bad.”)

There are a few idiosyncrasies to account for with some of the calculations, so if you’d like a more thorough explanation of how I go about doing this - and I can’t for the life of me imagine why you would, but hey, geeks are geeks - it’s all laid out in last year’s post on the same topic.

Here’s the full data set for those of you who still aren’t satisfied: 2012 BCS Numbers

Now, then, who are the most overrated teams this year? (Warning: some of you aren’t going to like this.)

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Boise is this year’s winner of the Lifetime Achievement Award, which is ironic considering how hard it was for them to get respect. Now they have too much, being ranked 15th by the humans but only 34th by the computers. Florida State is, well, Florida State. And, while not appearing on this list, Clemson is actually the 6th most overrated team (humans 13, computers 18). So the ACC is still actually overrated. I didn’t think that was possible.

And now, the most underrated teams…

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What stands out to me here is that the Big XII (with 10 teams) also had several of the most underrated teams last year, so this is a recurring problem for Texas and Oklahoma. The B1G (with 12 teams), however, has slingshotted in the other direction, being mostly overrated last year, but underrated this year. Gamecock fans, take note: the computers say Michigan is better than Clemson, so the Outback Bowl projects to be a really good match-up.

Another note is that there is a group of teams for which the computers have no consensus whatsoever. Kent State and Boise State both have at least one algorithm ranking them in the teens, while another puts them in the 40s. The ranges for Louisville, NIU and Utah State have ranking ranges of 22, 19 and 19, respectively. Perhaps not coincidentally, all these teams are at least somewhat overrated. But if you’re a human voter looking for justification for a higher ranking, you could probably find at least one algorithm to back you up.

Finally, the computers are unanimous in having Notre Dame #1. However, they would suggest that Florida, not Alabama, be the Irish’s opponent in the title game. Last year they would have put Okie State in ahead of the tide, though by a slightly narrower margin.

Rivalry Numbers to Pass the Time

Presented for entertainment purposes only because:

  1. I’ve got Saturday’s game on my mind;
  2. The kids are asleep and we’re off away from Christy and her parents; and
  3. I remembered I have a blog,

here are some facts about South Carolina and Clemson and their respective accomplishments on the football field this year. (Note: they are facts because they are based only on the BCS “computer” rankings, not because they should necessarily be considered valid predictors of the outcome. At least they are free from “eye-test” bias. Also note that I haven’t backed out Ohio State in the rankings, as is done for the official BCS standings. Also also note that only 2 of the formulas include Wofford and Furman, while a 3rd attempts to account for them in groups.)

In no particular order:

  • South Carolina’s average ranking is 11.8; Clemson’s is 16.7.
  • Two of the 6 systems have Clemson ranked higher than South Carolina, both by 1 spot. The other 4 have South Carolina ranked higher. Jeff Sagarin has the Gamecocks ranked 15 spots (!) higher than the Tigers.
  • South Carolina has two wins “better” than any of Clemson’s: Georgia (average ranking of 6.3) and Vanderbilt (34.7).
  • Clemson’s “best” win is over Ball State (38.2); it’s second-best is over Duke (63.7).
  • There are 124 teams in the NCAA’s FBS. South Carolina has only played 5 that are ranked in the top half by the BCS computers. The Gamecocks are 3-2 against those 5.
  • Clemson is 1-1 against teams in the top half of the FBS - they beat Ball State, lost to Florida State (19.8).

Here’s a link to the numbers if you’d like to check my work: BCS Computer Rankings of South Carolina and Clemson Opponents

Where I’ll be this Sunday morning. Read more about it here: Georgia Half Marathon Blog

Where I’ll be this Sunday morning. Read more about it here: Georgia Half Marathon Blog

The latest in my series of blog posts for the Publix Georgia Half Marathon.

Taxation without Obfuscation

I’ve had taxes on the brain lately. For one thing, I just filed my 2011 return. For another, I was at a real estate industry conference earlier in the week, and believe me when I tell you that the industry is in histrionics over the idea that so-called “carried interest” might ever again be taxed at “regular” rates instead of the (lower) capital gains rate. (For an explanation of how this works, here’s an article a co-worker forwarded me. Full disclosure: under our current tax system, I’m actually pretty uncomfortable with this. But the article does explain the rationale.) And, of course, we had the nonsense in the State of the Union Address about Warren Buffet and his secretary, which was rhetorically very misleading but did put the issue of “fairness” in taxation front and center.

A Self-study

In light of all the commotion about the effective tax rates paid by people like Buffet and Mitt Romney, I got curious. What has my effective tax rate been? How do I compare to these “One Percenters?” I’m almost certain that the figures we’ve seen in the news are talking about Federal income taxes, as distinct from payroll taxes and state income and sales taxes. Using that as the standard, I looked at my returns since 2008 because my total income has been relatively consistent since then. Here are some interesting figures about my tax situation:

Folks, this makes no sense. Why should my tax rate have varied so much? Heck, why should it be so low? I can explain it all, of course. The main reason for 2009’s low effective tax rate is the asinine Home Buyer Tax Credit. And for the last couple of years, I’ve taken advantage of a bigger mortgage (which means a higher mortgage interest deduction) and saving more in tax-sheltered accounts like 401(k)s and HSAs. Essentially, I’m learning to game the system. So I understand why the differences exist. But it is absurd that they should exist. More than that, it’s unfair.

I know there are many, many families of four with incomes similar to mine who are not afforded the opportunity to take advantage of the tax breaks that I get. In some markets, getting a down payment together to own a home is a pipe dream. There goes the mortgage deduction. And while most employers offer tax-deferred retirement accounts, not all do. Of those that do, not all are as generous as the 401(k). Regardless, it’s a lot harder to make those contributions to a 401(k) - or, for that matter, to a charity - if you’re paying more in taxes in the first place because you don’t have mortgage interest to deduct. It builds on itself.

A Solution

The more I’ve considered this issue, the more I am drawn to the Fair Tax. It strikes me as simple, efficient and true to it’s “fair” name in the sense that it is mildly progressive without the Robin Hood element. It is well worth the investment of a few minutes to research. One thing I like about it is what it eliminates:

  • Estate Taxes - I consider these to be immoral because the money involved was already taxed when it belonged to the bequeather. Furthermore, it has often led inheritors to sell assets in order to pay the tax (Miami Dolphins fans will know all about this). Where’s the fairness in that? The class-envy crowd doesn’t like the idea of wealthy heirs and heiresses getting “free” windfalls, but my answer to that is that, under the Fair Tax, these people actually will pay taxes - and possibly more taxes - on this money when they spend it.
  • Corporate Income Taxes - There are several good reasons to favor abolishing corporate income taxes. For one thing, there’s another double-taxation issue. Company owners and investors have to pay tax on dividends they receive, so why make the company pay taxes on the same profits first? (This concept is the genesis of Romney’s ill-fated “corporations are people” line.) For another thing (and I know this from first-hand experience), companies manage their “on-paper” profits to minimize their taxes. This creates perverse incentives, not to mention a lot of time and energy that would be better spent running the companies themselves. And that doesn’t even begin to account for the time and energy spent on collections, investigations, enforcement, etc. But there is another reason to eliminate corporate income taxes, and it is a populist one. The minute corporate income taxes are eliminated, the power of K Street is emasculated. This is why I’m perplexed by the political left’s resistance to the Fair Tax. They often point out that a few large, powerful business interests have too much corrupting power and influence over the political process. They’re not wrong. But the reflexive response to “make them pay” is misguided. The largest, most powerful companies are precisely the ones who can afford to carry the burden of dealing with a complex corporate income tax system. It’s the smaller ones who end up suffering disproportionately. Getting rid of the corporate income tax strips  a lot of power from our country’s back-room oligarchy.
  • Capital Gains Taxes - This is the one I am the least passionate about because I do believe that income is income. Under the Fair Tax, which is consumption-based instead of income-based, I agree with killing the capital gains tax. But under an alternative system like a flat tax (itself far superior to the current system), it should still exist. Herman Cain’s 9-9-9 plan is an example of one that would equalize the rate on all personal income, whether from wages or “investments.” The response to criticisms of inequity here would be along similar lines to the elimination of the estate tax. As a country, we don’t want to discourage investment. And while it’s true enough that wealthy people benefit a lot from capital gains, it’s also true that what they do with their money benefits the economy a great deal under a plan like the Fair Tax. They either reinvest it (which means giving it to businesses or governments to help them grow), save it (which means giving it to banks to let them lend) or spend it (which, under the Fair Tax, means they would pay a higher rate than the current capital gains rate anyway). Besides, isn’t it the conspicuous consumption of the wealthy that’s really behind all the class envy of the 99%? Under the Fair Tax, the wealthy will always pay extra for that consumption.
  • Payroll Taxes - I consider the payroll tax to be near-criminal in its regressiveness. For the life of me, I can’t understand why any populist (liberal or conservative) would find the Social Security portion of this tax remotely acceptable. It ought to be the easiest thing in the world to reform. Maybe some people are still living under the “it’s a savings account for your future” fantasy. Whatever. Why should anyone pay less in taxes once their income gets into the six figures? Short answer: they shouldn’t.

There would certainly be a difficult adjustment in our economy if retail prices were to jump by 25% all of a sudden to accommodate a national sales tax. And there would be a significant shakeup in the careers of accountants, corporate lawyers and lobbyists. But I think the benefits would far outweigh these costs. Perhaps the biggest challenge would be teaching a lot of people who have never filed an income tax return that they now should file for a monthly “prebate” (the Fair Tax’s mechanism for exempting a certain base amount of subsistence spending from taxation). In fact, I wonder if a great deal of the resistance on the left isn’t really about people who wouldn’t want to be “found” through the filing process - undocumented resident aliens. I have some ideas about that too, but those are for another post.

This might have a greater chance of success if I’d actually started running again yet…

Why I am Pro-life

Today is the 39th anniversary of the Roe v. Wade decision. It makes me sad. I am sad not only for the tens of millions of the aborted since 1973, but also for the roughly equal number of women who have felt themselves forced into the decision to have an abortion. I ache for them and the physical, mental, emotional and spiritual anguish they must all have experienced. I pray that they find peace. And, yes, forgiveness, of which we all have desperate need. And I am sad for the millions of counselors and practitioners who participate in abortion. How could it be anything other than soul-killing work to look at an ultrasound image while destroying it? I wonder, is it like a video game, where reality is simply set aside?

I am pro-life. I am anti-abortion. I am whatever label you want to put on people who insist that, because abortion results in the willful destruction of human life without due process or justifiable cause, it should almost never be permitted by law. I will attempt to explain below.

A Simple Issue

It’s common to hear how “difficult” and “complex” abortion is. Mostly, that kind of language seems to me to be intentionally distracting from something that is utterly - even devastatingly - simple. Either a fertilized egg is a living human being or it isn’t. I am pro-life (and very strongly so) because of three very simple facts about human reproduction, facts that I have never heard anyone promoting the pro-choice position even attempt to contradict. When a sperm fertilizes an egg, the following set of circumstances exists:

  1. A unique genetic code is formed, one that is distinct from either of the people who donated the cells that formed it and one that will persist unchanged until it ceases to exist, be that an hour or a century later.
  2. An organism exists that is very obviously alive - it grows, it consumes resources, it develops.
  3. This unique, living organism is of the species homo sapiens.

I am not a biologist, but I am also not stupid. This is the very denotation of “human life.” I suppose there are some people who, in the madness of political ideology, can convince themselves that this still doesn’t equate to “individuality” or “personhood.” I also know there are those who would not argue with me over any of this, but nevertheless think abortion is justifiable for reasons ranging from birth defects to genetic disorders to mere “unwantedness.” I find this view abhorrent, but at least it is intellectually honest. And I would thoroughly welcome a debate in the court of American public opinion on these terms.

But I suspect most people who call themselves “pro-choice” just don’t want to think about it this way, falling back instead on terms like “complex” and “difficult.” On this point, it isn’t the pro-lifers who are close-minded. As a Christian, I cannot help but think of the phrase from Romans 1: Their thinking became futile and their foolish hearts were darkened.

What this Means

When I consider the facts I’ve outlined above, I can come to only one conclusion, which is this: Unless aborting an unborn child is the only possible means for preserving another life (presumably this could be the child’s mother or multiple sibling), it is morally indefensible and should be legally prohibited. That position is one that a lot of people consider extreme. So be it.

This post could get impossibly long. Indeed, I kind of hope the discussion does get long. I do not fear debate, nor do I expect to convert anyone. There are many, many ancillary issues associated with abortion. What about contraception, adoption, fathers’ rights, compassion for women with unplanned pregnancies, etc?My main point is that these issues are just that - ancillary. That doesn’t make them unimportant, it just means that they are secondary to preserving and protecting human life in all its forms and at all its stages. I fail to see how having a passion for this makes someone an extremist. I have this passion. That’s why I’m pro-life.

So I’m very honored that the folks at the Publix Georgia Marathon have selected me to write about my injury, recovery and (hopeful) triumph at the half on March 18. My entries will appear a little out of date, but you’ll get the full story here.

Fun with (BCS) Numbers

Working as a consultant means I’m always trying to analyze stuff. Being a huge fan of college football makes me very interested in all things related to the BCS (especially when my beloved Gamecocks are nationally relevant - it was fun seeing that logo on the board behind the talking heads during the admittedly farcical BCS selection show Sunday night). Marry the two, and voila: A nerdalicious blog post!

First, a preamble. In my perfect world, we’d have an 8-team playoff with a selection committee that used something like the BCS standings as one criterion. I’m also an SEC guy, so I’m biased. But given the current system, I believe an LSU-Alabama rematch is the best possible outcome. Here are my reasons:

  1. Alabama has the best single win between the two teams. This is because I think Arkansas is a better team than anyone on Oklahoma State’s schedule. Yet Alabama handled the hogs handily. I will grant, however, that Oklahoma State has beaten a larger number of quality teams than has Alabama.
  2. Alabama has by far the better loss than Oklahoma State. They lost by 3 in overtime to LSU, as opposed to losing to an average Iowa State team. Heck, even Stanford’s loss to Oregon is better than that.
  3. With the exception of that loss, nobody seriously threatened Alabama all season. Penn State needed a garbage-time touchdown and 2-point conversion to come within 2 scores of the Tide, and even that’s a stretch, as the final margin was 16. Nobody else even came that close. Their average margin in their 11 victories was THIRTY! OSU was nearly as dominant, but they almost didn’t make it all the way back against schizophrenic Texas A&M, eking out a 1-point victory, and Kansas State put a scare into them in a 52-45 shootout.
  4. When in doubt, go with defense.

Now, most of my reasoning is subjective. What’s fascinating about the BCS is that it is a combination of subjective (human rankings) and objective (computer, or, more accurately, algorithmic rankings). The end of the regular season is a good time to look at the interaction of these two factors. I think it’s really fun, actually.

Rationale for This Exercise in Nerdiness

The underlying assumption of what I’ve done here is that the computer rankings are an objective, unbiased measure of what a team has accomplished during the 2011 season. The are certainly not a perfect measure. In fact, much better measures are possible. But some factors (such as margin of victory) are considered no-nos by the BCS’ silly rules. Dan Wetzel, author of Death to the BCS, has written a great article that only begins to address this issue here. Nevertheless, I’m going to go with what we’ve got.

Human polls, by contrast, measure both accomplishment and potential. In August, it’s all about potential. By December, it’s probably mostly about accomplishment, but still somewhat about potential. Fundamentally, that’s why we have controversy. One team may have accomplished more, yet another might present a bigger challenge to an opponent. In an infinitely long season, these factors would eventually converge. Even a 12-game season, they do start to converge - there’s relatively difference in the top 10 teams between the humans and the computers, for instance. But they don’t get all the way there, which is why some subjectivity is in order. After the 2004 season, the BCS formula was revised to put more weight on the subjective. Unfortunately, that leaves it even more open to (justifiable) criticism about human biases. Joy.

What I’ve Done

Anyway, I’ve chosen to do some basic analysis of the BCS data, comparing the purely objective computer rankings to the more subjective human polls. (Here’s a link to an explanation of the formula and the sources for the inputs: The Evil BCS) To do that, I did this:

  • Since the official BCS standings only report ordinals for the top 25 teams in each poll or formula, I had to back-fill the missing rankings for any team ranked 26th or lower by digging into each one individually. (Google was my friend here.)
  • Because Southern Cal is on probation, it is not eligible to be ranked in the BCS. Of course, their games are relevant to all the other teams, so the computer rankings include them - the BCS just bumps everyone below the Trojans up one spot. I did the same for the ones outside the top 25.
  • For the human polls, I used the “others receiving votes” notes to fill out the list for those ranked outside the top 25. The problem is, Auburn did not receive any votes in the coaches’ poll. Because 35 other teams did, I assigned them a ranking of 36 for purposes of my analysis.
  • I calculated an average of the ordinal rankings from the 2 human polls, as well as an average of the 6 computer rankings. The BCS tosses out the highest and lowest computer ranking for each team, but I have not done this because I wanted to capture as much objective data as I could.

What I Found

Before I get into some conclusions, here is my data sheet. OK, that’s done. Here we go…

Over- and Underrated Teams

By simply subtracting the “human average” from the “computer average” and sorting in descending order, the humble analyst can determine which teams are perceived more positively by humans than their on-field accomplishment would suggest. In fanspeak, this means the ones that are overrated. One can, of course, also see which teams have accomplished more than they’ve gotten credit for - the underrated.

Here are the five most “overrated” teams in the BCS top 25:

My fellow SEC compatriots will note with a smirk how many of these come from the B1G conference. As it turns out, the conference’s other representatives, Nebraska (20th) and Penn State (22nd) have almost no difference in their human and computer scores. Nor do my South Carolina Gamecocks, who are “overrated” by only half a spot. (Aside: the Gamecocks’ BCS ranking feels about right to me as a fan of my team. I think 9 is a good spot. We might be better than K-State and worse than Wisconsin, but 9 passes this fan’s sniff test.) Another team that’s rated the same by both: LSU at numero uno (duh!). The most obvious of these to me is Virginia Tech, whom I consider to be grossly overrated by the humans. In fact, I’m surprised the difference here is only 4-ish spots.

On the other side of the equation are the most “underrated” teams:

Texas and Auburn had a handful of losses each, but played brutal schedules. Heck, Auburn played 4 of the top 9 and 6 of the top 17! Oklahoma’s story is interesting. To me, they are the biggest underachiever of the season. Even so, the computers have them ranked 7th, on average, so they are still underrated. The astute reader will observe that 4 of these hail from the Big XII. This is the biggest story in the data to me. Fans of the Big XII have a legitimate beef in that every single team from the conference is ranked higher by the computers than by the humans. Put kindly, this means the humans essentially think the conference’s teams have overachieved. Put lest kindly, it means voters are biased against the conference. I can’t imagine why…

Who’s Number 2?

If the question is, “Who deserves to be LSU’s opponent based on what they have accomplished this year?” then the answer, according to the computers used by the BCS, is Oklahoma State. But it’s not as cut-and-dried as some talking heads who say things like “Clearly, Oklahoma State has the better resume” would have you believe. The Cowboys’ average computer rank is 2.3, while the Tide’s is 2.7. What that means is that 2 of the algorithms (Jeff Sagarin’s and Peter Wolfe’s) actually think Alabama has the better resume, while the other 4 say Oklahoma State does.

Besides, that’s not really the question. Or is it? See, one of the problems is that the very question of being “deserving” is a subjective one. Should it be based only on achievement? Potential? Some combination? What about consistency of performance? How about who would be favored on a neutral field? Is offense or defense more important? What about injuries and overcoming them? As far as I know, the guidelines for voters in the human polls don’t really give clear direction on this. I’ve given my reasons for thinking Alabama is the right choice, and I’m sure every voter who put them at number 2 has his or her own reasons.

Phil’s Rankings

I’ll close with something completely worthless: my own ranking of the BCS top 25. Note that there are a few teams not listed that I think are among the best 25 in the country. Southern Cal is a top-10 team, in my opinion, and Notre Dame and Florida State are both somewhere in the 20-25 range. But I wanted to limit this to BCS-ranked teams. Here we go: