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Cultural Evolution and Diffusion in Basketball

The Wall Street Journal examines the origins and spread of basketball’s “three-point goggles” – this year’s biggest fad among the players:

As you’ll see in the NCAA tournament this week, players on teams from Duke to Kentucky will celebrate three-point buckets by fitting themselves with pantomimed spectacles, the kind your kindergartener might make while pretending to be a superhero.

To make the gesture, players form the ‘A-OK’ sign over both eyes to form “goggles” with their thumbs and forefingers, and (to denote the change in the score) stick the other three fingers up in the air.

And where did this cultural item begin?

The goggles started earlier this season in Portland as a joke. Patty Mills, a guard for the NBA’s Trail Blazers, liked to tease teammate Rudy Fernandez about his poor eyesight. “I’d always give him a little bit—well, not a little bit, but a lot of grief for not being able to see,” Mills said. In the first half of one particular game, Fernandez struggled from long range. Mills said he told Fernandez at halftime that he needed glasses or contact lenses—something.

After halftime, Fernandez hit a few three-pointers. He turned to Mills on the bench and brought his pointer finger and thumb together in a circle over his eyes, with his three other fingers extended upward. “It was like, ‘I don’t need glasses. I’ve got these three goggles that work perfectly,'” Mills said.

Selling Time in the Nineteenth Century

Remember calling a phone number to get the precise time? While our automatically synchronizing cell phones and laptops have rendered that service unnecessary, providing the exact time used to be a big business, and far earlier than might be expected.

In the late Nineteenth Century, when railroads were beginning to criss-cross the United States, the need for precise time grew. No longer could the time in one town be a bit later than the town to its west. While it made sense when it came to thinking about sunset, it caused chaos for the rail system and its schedules.

Stepping into this anarchy were several time services, including the Harvard Observatory. In fact, from 1872 to 1892, the Harvard Observatory sold time signals throughout New England (and further) by sending precise pulses along telegraph wires. These signals had many uses, from helping to regulate stock exchanges to determining when time balls would drop.

Peter Galison discusses this in a thematic guide for an exhibit of scientific instruments (PDF) at Harvard University, and a much more detailed discussion about this can be found in the book Selling the True Time by Ian Bartky.

Economic Growth of Egypt versus China, over 2,000 Years

Visualizing Economics has an epic graph that plots Egypt’s economic growth as compared to China, over two thousand years. Charted across events that include the Fall of Rome and Napoleon’s Egyptian Campaign, you can see the GDP per capita (adjusted for inflation) for each country change over a timescale that is wonderfully vast. And one doesn’t always dominate the other. Over a long enough timescale, China and Egypt leapfrog each other:

Jared Diamond in the WSJ Sports Section?

I opened the Wall Street Journal this morning to see Jared Diamond’s byline in the sports section! While the article is about mismatched teams, I immediately began having visions of sprawling articles and books about how small differences have allowed certain regions to dominate sports throughout the history of civilization.

Well, it wasn’t that Jared Diamond. Apparently, while fairly uncommon, there is another one. Here’s Sports Jared Diamond’s Twitter feed @jareddiamond. But Sports Jared: feel free to write about the collapse of various sports teams, the linguistic variation among basketball players, and grand theories of how diseases and crops have affected the popularity of soccer throughout the world.

Fake University Takes Application Fees

Ever hear of the University of Redwood? Don’t be concerned if you haven’t. Apparently, it’s a giant scam designed to take application fees from students in Asia. And what about what’s on the site? Redwood’s site content was simply swiped from Reed College. The Wall Street Journal has more:

The website of a fictitious school called the University of Redwood features a faculty directory and photographs of a campus—most of which in fact belong to Reed. Now, officials are struggling to stop the fraud.

“Our lawyers are seeking to shut the faux Redwood site down,” said Kevin Myers, a spokesman for Reed College, which is in Portland.

Officials at Reed suspect the site is part of a scheme to collect application fees from prospective students in Hong Kong and Asia. After collecting a fee, “a shrewd scammer could wait several weeks, then issue a rejection letter, and the student would never know,” said Martin Ringle, chief technology officer at Reed.

The rest is here, where it gets even crazier.

Streaks, from Joltin’ Joe to Mutual Fund Managers

I have an essay on the Harvard Business Review blog entitled Streaks, from Joltin’ Joe to Mutual Fund Managers. It grew out of a presentation I recently gave at a conference at University of Michigan on disentangling skill and luck in a variety of complex systems.

I spoke about using performance streaks to help tease apart skill and luck, specifically in two areas: hitting streaks in baseball and mutual funds that beat the market year after year. Some context to get you started:

Using probability, it is easy to see that if you have a large enough population doing things in a mediocre way for a long enough time, you’ll always get some streaks — think monkeys, typewriters, and Shakespeare. And it’s also readily observable that performance streaks are everywhere: We have Joe DiMaggio’s 56-game hitting streak, Paul the Octopus’s seven-game prediction streak for Germany’s games in the 2010 World Cup, Ken Jenning’s 74-game Jeopardy streak, and Bill Miller’s 15-year streak when his mutual fund beat the S&P 500.

While we’re quick to attribute such success to consummate ability, are the streaks we see in the real world longer than would be expected by mediocre performance combined with some luck? Are these streaks more frequent, longer, and generally more impressive than what probability would have us believe?

The rest is here.

An In-Flight Game for Window Seats

Here’s a fun game to play while you’re on a plane that is beginning its descent: see how early – that is, how many minutes and seconds before the plane lands – that you can see a human being on the ground. And evidence of a human doing something doesn’t count; moving cars are a lot easier to see than an actual person out and about. This game can be played competitively or solo, where you try to beat your best time.

Generally, this can be played around the time the landing gear are lowered, because prior to that the plane is simply too high to see people. But be aware that this is surprisingly hard – I recommend looking in parking lots, or other areas where you an expect to see someone outdoors.

Happy searching!

Neal Stephenson’s Characters in the Real World

Fans of Neal Stephenson’s writings will be pleased to discover a “relative” of his fictional geek dynasty the Waterhouses represented on the faculty of Harvard Medical School in the late Eighteenth and early Nineteenth Centuries. Benjamin Waterhouse, known for his early adoption of the smallpox vaccine – he tested it on his family – was also on the faculty of Brown University. A reproduction of a portrait of Waterhouse can be found outside the entrance to the Center for the History of Medicine at Harvard Medical School.