Monday, February 27, 2012

"Moneyball" didn't win any Oscars

And NO, I didn't expect it to.  The Hollywood community loves its history—real or made up.  So there it was—a silent movie in black and white about absolutely nothing except the traditions of show biz.  It was even called the Artist.  This was a movie designed to win awards and last night, it won a fistful of them—even if it is a movie that no one but film students will actually pay money to see.

On the other hand, my favorite entrant of the night was Moneyball.  I loved Moneyball: The Art of Winning an Unfair Game and read it when the book first came out in 2003.  I like author Michael Lewis for his ability to make complex topics entertainingly clear.  And Moneyball is about statistical analysis—complex enough?  Considering the topic, it is amazing that such a book could ever be made into a movie.  Moneyball is out in Blu-ray and in the extras, there is Lewis expressing amazement that his book on novel uses for applied statistics got the film treatment.  That the movie got made was miraculous.  That it got nominated for some Oscars was even more miraculous.  But could it beat something like Artist in that crowd?  Not a chance.

Statistics was easily my favorite subject in college.  Because I took the University of Minnesota's stats sequence, I was able to play around with an IBM 360 for a lab fee of $8 a quarter.  Nice, big, expensive, toy!  The UM thought itself a world leader in using stats in the social sciences.  The Psychology department had invented an evaluation scheme in 1939 called the Minnesota Multiphasic Personality Inventory that they were amazingly proud of—in part because they had performed its regression analysis with slide rules.  Needless to say, these folks were VERY excited about offloading their scut math onto a computer—an excitement that was still in the air when I showed up in 1972.  (Regression analysis is now built into Excel so there is a whole generation of students who cannot imagine what we were so excited about.)

I took four quarters of statistics and I went through four distinct stages in my appreciation of the subject.
  • Stage One: Holy ****, do you see what you can do with these tools?
  • Stage Two: Did you know that stats can be easily manipulated to fool people?
  • Stage Three: What can I do to protect myself from the statistical con artists?
  • Stage Four: Assume you really want to know something and you are generating these stats for your own purposes, how do you ask the right questions to get the best answers?
I found Stage Four so interesting, I have been returning to this question ever since.  Since high powered statistical analysis now ships with every Microsoft Office, there are no competitive edges to be had with the toolset.  The ONLY advantage comes from asking better questions.  Moneyball is a portrayal about the search for good statistical questions because the guys generating the information dearly want to be right.

Moneyball is about something!

And yet, while statistical analysis applied to baseball was the subject of the book, it was superseded by the humanist elements necessary to turn this fascinating subject into a visual telling.  Ya gotta have pictures to make a movie and there aren't many pictures in regression analysis.  The screenwriters are to be congratulated.

To make the film, they chose the theme of the struggle to bring change.  In old baseball, scouts would actually evaluate talent with criteria such as how good looking the player's girlfriend was.  An ugly girlfriend meant he lacked self-confidence, apparently.  Even badly done statistical analysis is better than THAT!  So here was Billy Beane, the GM of Oakland Athletics, with the problem that he had to compete with teams that had three times his resources.  So he tries a better form of player evaluation through a better understanding of stats and everyone cries bloody murder.  The scouts hated it because it made them look bad.  The manager hated it because his new players didn't match the picture in his head of what a player should look like, the players resisted learning new methods of playing the game, and the sportswriters went ballistic because it meant they would have to learn new cliches.

Now you have conflict.  Now you have pictures.  Now you can make a movie.  The whole project is utterly brilliant.  One of the themes of this blog is my outrage at the malicious destruction of the economic progress made through a century of Progressive activism.  I am amazed at how easy it is to ruin millions of man-years of work.  This movie is about those same sort of reactionary forces that in this case caused a 25-year lag between the development in the applications of statistical analysis as applied to baseball and their actual trials in the real world.

I found Moneyball interesting mostly because I am puzzled over why EVERYONE doesn't want progress.  C'mon folks—isn't it OBVIOUS that statistical analysis is better than judging a baseball player on his girlfriend's looks?  Isn't it obvious that the people of the nation will prosper if they don't have to ship so much money out of their local economy and overseas to pay their fuel bills?  Isn't it obvious that any meaningful solution to Peak Oil will only come with engineers and construction workers performing at Peak Efficiency with Peak Resources?  Huh?

One of the main messages of Moneyball is that the VAST majority of people don't want change even if that change means living a better life.  I'm not sure that the scriptwriters are absolutely right about this, but they DO have a point.  Even better, they made their point with pictures.

This movie is a phenomenal accomplishment whose importance will be remembered long after The Academy's joke best movie is long forgotten.  Apparently, these bizarre choices are a tradition on Oscar night.  So I really expected "my" movie to be shut out.  To say that I do not share the taste of the Motion Picture Academy is perhaps the biggest understatement I can manage.

Anyway, Moneyball is out on Blu-ray and has some excellent extras.  The book is available in paperback and on Kindle.

And Moneyball was easily the best movie of the year—perhaps the last ten years.

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