Tuesday, January 30, 2007

Movie Review: "An Inconvenient Truth"

An Inconvenient Truth is a bit of an odd movie to review. It's barely even a movie, even by documentary standards. 90% of the movie is Al Gore on a stage doing a presentation to an audience. The other 10% is miscellaneous scenes of Gore looking pensive in cars, on planes, on farms, etc. Surprisingly, the presentation was excellent, while the non-presentation scenes hurt the movie. I give it 3 and a half stars overall.

As everyone knows, the movie is about global warming. Since I already believe that global warming is "real", I wasn't sure that the movie would be all that interesting to me, since it is preachin' to the choir, as it were. But there's something interesting and valuable in seeing all the scientific evidence laid out in one sitting, and Gore has done an excellent job in creating an engaging way of telling the story. So engaging, in fact, that I started getting annoyed when they cut away from the presentation to do the little side pieces. It's not that the side pieces were poorly done (other than being a little melodramatic), they just weren't as compelling as the presentation itself and, in my opinion, they were also unnecessary.

I would definitiely recommend "An Inconvenient Truth", though I wouldn't call it a great movie.

Sunday, January 28, 2007

My take on the healthiest B10 basketball programs

"Health" takes into account a lot of factors, but the way I am defining it it basically boils down to "probability of success for the program over the next decade". Here's my opinion:

1. Ohio State - The Buckeyes have a lot of things going for them right now. They have a well-respected coach who is unlikely to leave over the next decade. They have a wonderful freshmen class and another solid class coming in next season. They have state-of-the-art facilities. They have "buzz". They appear to have a really good chance of making Final Fours in the near future, which should mean even more success afterwards. On the negative side is an apathetic fanbase combined with ridiculously high expectations.

2. Michigan State - The main reason I don't have MSU above OSU on this list is that I would be a little surprised if Tom Izzo is still the coach for MSU 10 years from now. He's young enough to do it, but I get the impression that he's looking around for new challenges. I also feel that MSU has struggled just a bit over the last few seasons, and it's been awhile since they headed into the NCAA tournament as a legitimate FF threat. But Izzo is one of the best coaches in the B10, MSU has been solid for a long time now, they have great facilities, and a enviable recruiting base.

3. Wisconsin - I struggled to decide whether to put Indiana or Wisconsin here. I finally settled on Wisconsin because Bo Ryan is, I think, one of the top 5 active coaches in college basketball and is apparently committed to UW for the long haul. They also have a new arena and they are finally starting to lose the Bennett stigma for playing boring basketball. On the downside, they have a veteren-led team this season so they'll need to replace a lot of players over the next couple seasons, and because it's Wisconsin, it would only take a couple mediocre seasons for them to slip back into obscurity.

4. Indiana - We're all familiar with the positives and negatives here. On the positive side is a quality coach who is expected to be at IU for the next decade, a rabid fanbase, lots of tradition which makes it easier for Indiana to get "back" into the national conversation, and fairly exciting short-term prospects for the next season or two. On the downside is lack of recent success, outdated facilities, out-of-whack expectations, and general program turmoil.

5. Illinois - I think there's a bigger gap between #4 and #5 than there is between #1 and #4. Illinois appears to have some significant issues, though they also have some strong positives. On the positive side is a lot of recent success and a recruiting base that most programs would walk over broken glass to have. They also have a solid coach who probably won't leave Illinois (by choice). On the downside is a surprising downturn in recruiting and out-of-whack fan expectations that I'm guessing will lead to a coaching change over the next 5 seasons -- which means rebuilding. They are the first program on this list that has any coaching issues (other than the vague possibility that Izzo might be getting bored). Also, they don't have the best facilities and like Indiana they are not blessed with a lucrative football program to generate income.

6. Purdue - It was a tough call putting Purdue ahead of Michigan, because Michigan is in some sense the "sleeping giant" of the B10. However, Purdue actually has a few key advantages over Michigan. First, obviously, is slightly more stability in the coaching position. While it's way too early to know whether Painter will be successful, he appears to be fairly solid and has already shown his prowess as a recruiter and they have a wonderful recruiting class coming in that should immediately help the program get back to at least "healthy" status. They also have a strong fanbase and a good recruiting base. On the downside, obviously, is they have by far the ugliest team colors in the B10, West Lafayette is enough to give people nightmares, a complete lack of recent success, sub-par facilities, and a head coach with all of 2 seasons of experience.

7. Michigan - It's embarrassing that Michigan is so low on this list, because they have so much going for them. They have a TON of money, they have a great recruiting base, they have great name recognition (in spite of recent problems), and Ann Arbor is a great college town. But all that is pretty much for naught, because of their coaching issues (either Amaker will get fired, which creates instability, or he'll keep his job, which is worse) and because of their apathetic fanbase. The best thing that can be said about the coaching situation is that the inevitable coaching opening will be fairly attractive, so they have a decent chance of landing a quality coach (history of poor choices notwithstanding).

8. Iowa - I believe Iowa is in a very difficult position. Fans are turning away from the team and attendence at home games is way down. Alford has been unable to produce quality teams at Iowa and has a long term contract, so he'll probably be there for awhile. When he eventually gets fired (I'm guessing it'll be 2-4 seasons from now), it's doubtful that Iowa will be a particularly hot coaching vacancy. The don't have great facilities or a noteworthy recruiting base, and they've historically had trouble being a top tier B10 team. It's hard to picture how they get from where they are now to a point where they are consistently a threat to win the B10.

9. Minnesota - Minnesota is obviously in trouble. They have an interim coach, an ancient arena, lack of recent success, frigid winters, a poor recruiting base, and an athletic director that does not fill one with confidence. On the bright side, um, is.... give me a second... I got it! On the bright side, they aren't Penn State.

10. Penn State - I think there's an excellent chance that DeChellis will be out of a job at the end of this season. Penn State actually headed into this season with a reasonable expectation of "taking the next step" and finishing in the upper-division of the B10 and making the NCAA tournament. Now they're 1-6 in the B10 and tied for last place. And unlike Michigan and Minnesota, Penn State is not an attractive coaching position, so there's no guarantee that changing coaches will lead to better results. Penn State is also the only B10 program where opposing fans are often louder on PSU's home court than the home fans are. That's very bad. The only positive for PSU is that they don't need basketball to generate any money for the school.

11. Northwestern - In some sense, there's no reason for NW to be last here. They have a solid coach who is a perfect fit for NW and will probably be there awhile, and that counts for a lot. But simply put - NW has never made it to the NCAA tournament, and there's no reason to believe that they are only a season or two away from doing it. Until they make it to the tournament for the FIRST TIME, I'm not going to move them out of last place on this list.

Friday, January 26, 2007

Movie Review: "The Black Dahlia"

I admit that the only reason I watched "The Black Dahlia" was because I didn't realize beforehand that it was directed by Brian De Palma. De Palma is one of my least favorite directors. He and Oliver Stone are the foremost examples of "over-directors", in my mind. Their movies generally drive me crazy because they seem to have this ego-driven need to spend the entire film showcasing their directing "talents", and thereby constantly inserting themselves into the movie... and taking the moviegoer out of the movie. Yeah, you're smart. You know all about camera angles and flashbacks and mood lighting. I get it. But I just want to watch the movie.

Interestingly, both Stone and De Palma have made movies that I've really enjoyed (like JFK and The Untouchables) , so I guess their style doesn't always prevent me from liking their movies... but those seem to be the exceptions to the rule.

Side note: The quintessential example of a director who doesn't "over-direct", in my opinion, is Steven Spielberg. He directed a string of unbelievably great movies and basically never got within sniffing distance of an Oscar... until he decided to film a movie in black & white (how daring!!) and bingo, he nabs Best Director for Schindler's List.

Anyway, back to The Black Dahlia. I give it 2 out of 5 stars. If I had to use one word to describe the movie, it would be "annoying". It lacked any sort of flow, and several times I thought the movie was about to end (thankfully), only to see yet another "twist" tacked on that I needed to watch. The only reason I gave it 2 stars (as opposed to fewer) was that the cast was very strong. I can stand to watch Scarlett Johansson and Hilary Swank even when they are in bad movies (and both have had their share). And I'm slowly coming around to Josh Hartnett, who I thought was wonderful in Lucky Number Slevin - though I admit it will take me awhile to forgive him for Hollywood Homicide.

So I suggest passing on The Black Dahlia. On the other hand, I hear the book is pretty good.

Thursday, January 25, 2007

Is simplicity a valid goal?

(this is something I posted on my work blog, and thought I'd post it here as well for giggles)

There's been an interesting discussion happening within the online user experience community recently on the virtues of simplicity (or lack thereof). Legendary Don Norman kicked off the debate in an essay titled "Simplicity Is Highly Overrated". Excerpt:

Why is this? Why do we deliberately build things that confuse the people who use them?

Answer: Because the people want the features. Because simplicity is a myth whose time has past, if it ever existed.

Make it simple and people won’t buy. Given a choice, they will take the item that does more. Features win over simplicity, even when people realize that it is accompanied by more complexity. You do it too, I bet. Haven’t you ever compared two products side by side, comparing the features of each, preferring the one that did more? Why shame on you, you are behaving, well, behaving like a normal person.

Basically, Norman's argument is that people say they want simplicity, but when it comes time to make a purchase decision, they go for features.

Joel Spolsky followed up on Norman's essay with some thoughts on his own experiences, specifically that people often confuse simplicity with aesthetics. Excerpt:

Devotees of simplicity will bring up 37signals and the Apple iPod as anecdotal proof that Simple Sells. I would argue that in both these cases, success is a result of a combination of things: building an audience, evangelism, clean and spare design, emotional appeal, aesthetics, fast response time, direct and instant user feedback, program models which correspond to the user model resulting in high usability, and putting the user in control, all of which are features of one sort, in the sense that they are benefits that customers like and pay for, but none of which can really be described as “simplicity.” For example, the iPod has the feature of being beautiful, which the Creative Zen Ultra Nomad Jukebox doesn't have, so I'll take an iPod, please. In the case of the iPod, the way beauty is provided happens to be through a clean and simple design, but it doesn't have to be. The Hummer is aesthetically appealing precisely because it's ugly and complicated.

Not surprisingly, not everyone thinks simplicity is overrated. On Scott Berkun's blog, he provides a defense of simplicity. Excerpt:

It’s easy to confuse success with quality, and both articles discount our secret inability to make satisfying choices. We are attracted to things with more features, that cost less, or come in larger quantities, despite our inner suspicions that we’re likely to complain about those purchases soon after. We date people, eat food, take jobs and buy products for superficial, misguided reasons all the time. We’re easily seduced, and every marketer knows we always have been and always will be.

But we shouldn’t confuse the success of feature-laden crap as a signal for the irrelevance of simplicity any more than the success of Rocky IV and Burger King signaled the irrelevance of good film-making or fine dining. It just means there are gaps between what we need, what we want, and why we buy, and that the masses are by definition less discriminating than the niches of people with refined tastes for a particular thing.
Berkun is basically arguing that there is still a place for simplicity, even if most folks don't give enough thought into their purchases to look for it. He also concludes by saying, "Simple design doesn’t mean brain death: it means being being as simple as necessary to achieve a great experience for a group of people, but no simpler."

When it comes to enterprise software, I think this discussion is even more relevant. Those of us in user experience often here the calls to deliver "simplicity", whether we're working on a small troubleshooting utility or highly available, performance-tuned, enterprise-capable application serving capability. "Make it simple!" we're told. This has long been one of my pet peeves, and the articles above touch on my beliefs, but don't quite capture them. Ironically, in his defense of simplicity, Berkun comes closest to capturing why I think "Make it simple!" is a mistaken goal. I think that saying "...as simple as necessary... but no simpler," is another way of saying "simplicity is NOT the goal."

Let me use an extreme example to make my point. Let's say we could create an application server product tomorrow that is so simple that all it requires is an on/off switch (I believe this can be done through the use of pixie dust). We release it and everyone raves about how simple it is. Until someone tries to use it and asks, "Uh, it was really easy to turn on, but I need a way to actually deploy my application." Well, okay, so we add a button for installing an application. That's not too bad, just one more little button. Still simple... and then someone says, "Great, I have my application running. Now I have an update to the application. What do I do?" Well, we could add another button for updating an existing application, but why bother? The product would be much simpler if we just have the user create a new server and install the new version of their application on it -- then we don't need to add another button!

Obviously, that would be a terrible decision. Why? Because creating a simple product is not the goal. The goal is to create a product that allows users to achieve their goals... and sometimes those goals are complex. Especially when it comes to enterprise software. If a customer has a goal of trying to maintain the value of their legacy systems by creating external services on top of the old systems that can communicate with newer systems, an on/off switch is not what they are looking for.

Obviously, unnecessary complexity is a problem, and IBM needs to do a better job of eliminating unnecessary complexity. But not because simple = good and complex = bad. We need to reduce unnecessary complexity because it interferes with a user's ability to achieve their goals. Simplicity, in and of itself, is not particularly relevant.

Side note: Of course, the challenge for the user experience engineer is that a feature that adds unnecessary complexity for one user is absolutely critical for another, so providing the features necessary to allow users to achieve their goals while also eliminating unnecessary complexity sometimes makes me feel like a circus contortionist. But that's a topic for another day.

Wednesday, January 24, 2007

Indiana at Illinois

1. I was one of those "glass half empty" guys who really expected us to lose this game, and so I wasn't at all surprised by the outcome. This game just had "loss" written all over it. At some point Indiana's hot shooting was going to cool off (YIKES), B10 road games are always tough, you know Illinois really wanted this game, no team (Sampson-coached teams included) can play a whole season without some off-nights, AND this team is not the kind of team that can have off-nights and still expect to win. My response to this loss is basically a shrug.

2. I think Bruce Weber is a good coach. He's not a great recruiter, obviously, but he's a good coach. However, now that Mike Davis is gone, I think he clearly now holds the league title for "more annoying sideline demeanor". He's just embarrassing out there. It's almost uncomfortable watching him... it's like watching Star Search when some awful singer is belting out a tune, and they are obviously the only one that doesn't realize how bad they are. In the grand scheme of things, this isn't important, but someone needs to sit Weber down and show him some game tape and have a frank conversation with him about representing Illinois.

3. Part of the reason it is difficult to win on the road in the B10 is that home teams get the calls. Indiana gets the calls in Bloomington. Our opponents get the calls when we're on the road. It's something that the team simply has to deal with if they want to win on the road. It's part of being a mentally tough team. In particular, I think DJ needs to get better at shrugging off the bad calls. I think after he got called for a foul on that block in the first half, the officiating got in his head a little bit. It's just college basketball. Complaining about officiating on the road is like complaining about the sun rising in the east.

4. That said, I would very much like to see the home team vs road team discrepancy when Illinois plays in Bloomington match the 20 to 9 personal foul and 20 to 6 free throw discrepancy that we saw last night.

5. We continue to struggle to find 3 "bigs" that we can count on. We have one big we can count on. We need three. I think Stemler has to be one of those 3. C'mon Lance, we need you.

6. Does anyone know when Ratliff is expected to get his cast off?

7. Indiana scored 18 points in 7 1/2 minutes. Then we scored 19 points in the next 32 minutes. Wow. We shot 8-32 FGs (25%) during that stretch.

8. I'm very happy that our next two games are at home.

Tuesday, January 16, 2007


Big Ten Wonk has now posted tempo-free stats for B10 conference games only. Here's the links:

efficiency margin

Wonk makes the point that even though the stats are tempo-free, with so few games to consider they are basically meaningless. But I'm a firm believer that bad stats are better than no stats, so...

Some notable stats from an Indiana standpoint:

  • Indiana is FIRST in the B10 in points-per-possession and EIGHTH in opponent points-per-possession. In other words, so far we're winning B10 games because of offense, not defense.
  • However, our 3pt FG % defense is incredible (2nd in B10 at 23.4%). This is balanced by being 10th in the B10 in 2 pt FG% defense (52.9% -- dang!).
  • Likewise, our rebounding has been surprisingly mediocre - 8th in defensive rebounding percentage and 4th in offensive rebounding percentage.
  • After our initial struggles holding onto the ball, it's nice to see us at 2nd in the B10 with a 16.6 turnover %. Last season we were 9th in the B10 at 22%, and Ohio State was best in the B10 at 16.8%, to put 16.6% in context.
  • Indiana is FIRST in the B10 in efficiency margin (which is our points-per-possession minus opponent PPP) at +0.21. Last year we were 7th at -0.03 and OSU again led the B10 at +0.14.
  • Indiana is also FIRST in the B10 in "effective possessions".

Thursday, January 11, 2007

I noticed something interesting in Pomeroy's predictions (warning: geeky)

First for a slightly geeky intro to the topic:

If you have slightly weighted a coin so that it lands on heads 60% of the time and tails 40% of the time, and you have to predict how many heads you will get if you toss the coin 10 times, what will you say? Obviously, the best guess is 6. However, if I ask you to predict which side the coin will land on each toss, you'll predict heads every time. So even though heads is "favored" on each individual toss, the aggregate prediction should not be 10, it should be 6.

When it comes to basketball (and other sports), people mess up this principle all the time. They look at a schedule and think, "Hmmm... we'll be favored in 12 games and underdogs in 4 games, so I predict we'll finish 12-4." But if a team is a slight favorite in 12 games, it makes no sense to predict that they'll win all 12.

Ken Pomeroy's site has a great feature where he uses his stats to give a percentage chance of victory for each team in each game, and then also provides an overall prediction for how many games a team will win. And he does the overall prediction the smart way - not just adding up the individual predictions, but looking at the percentage chance of victory in aggregate.

I just looked at it and he predicts that Indiana will end up with a 13-3 B10 record (after the Purdue game is factored in). That seems like a pretty reasonable prediction, perhaps a little more optimistic than me, but reasonable.

But here's what interesting: I then looked at the remaining B10 games and our percentage chance of victory in our remaining games. According to Pomeroy, Indiana is favored to win ALL of our remaining B10 games. EVERY one of them. According to the predictions, our toughest remaining B10 games are at Illinois (64% chance of winning), at MSU (58% chance of winning), and home against Wisconsin (61% chance of winning).

Pretty cool.

Tuesday, January 09, 2007


We are trying to use the Blogzeffer again and have been confused. I'd like to hit whoever designed it. I wish we were signed in automatically like before. Has this always been a Google site? Didn't take us old foggies into account. Anyway, enough complaining, let's see it this posts.