June 24th, 2010


World Cup Day 14

Apologies - I failed to crosspost the poll to world_cup_2010 yesterday and instead posted it here twice. This would explain why there were only 40 responses rather than the usual 60 or 70.

This poll is closed.

Who will win the Slovakia-Italy match?

It will be a draw

Who will win the Paraguay-New Zealand match?

New Zealand
It will be a draw

Who will win the Denmark-Japan match?

It will be a draw

Who will win the Cameroon-Netherlands match?

The Netherlands
It will be a draw

Current FIFA rankings: Netherlands 4th, Italy 5th, Cameroon 19th, Paraguay 31st, Slovakia 34th, Denmark 36th, Japan 45th, New Zealand 78th

Once again only one person got all four of today's matches, and on this occasion it was chefted - congratulations! especially on forecasting the Australia win which was very much a minority opinion.

Good week for women in politics

Someone pointed out in a locked entry that the same day that Julia Gillard slightly unexpectedly became prime minister of Australia, Iveta Radičová has been asked to form the next government of Slovakia. This is two days after Mari Kiviniemi took up her position as prime minister of Finland.

Oddly enough this isn't the first time that two women have become prime ministers in different countries simultaneously: it was 17 years ago tomorrow, 25 June 1993, that Tansu Çiller and Kim Campbell became the first women prime ministers of Turkey and Canada. (And strictly speaking Radičová doesn't formally take up office until she gets parliamentary approval.)

The three point rule

Back when I were a lad, you got only two points for winning a game in a group match, and one for a draw. From 1994 onwards, that was changed to three points for a win, and one for a draw, the intention being to give incentives to teams to try and score goals.

It occurred to me to wonder how much difference this rule has actually made in practice. There are not all that many mathematical permutations possible for how the group mathematics might end up for a group of four teams who each play a match against each of the other three. (3W, 2W.1D, 2W.1L, 1W.2D, 1W.1D.1L, 1W.2L, 3D, 2D.1L, 1D.2L, 3L and that's it.

The only three cases where I can see the three point rule making a difference are
  1. a team with two wins and a loss now beats a team with one win and two draws on points, rather than potentially lose to them on goal difference;
  2. a team that has a modest win, a big loss and a draw will now beat a team with three draws on points, rather than lose to them on goal difference; and
  3. (least likely) a team that has one big win and two closer losses
    1. will now beat a team with two draws and a loss on points, and
    2. could beat a team with three draws on goal difference rather than lose to them on points. (Impossible, as pointed out by tortoise in comments.)
But did that situation ever arise before 1994? And since 1994, has there ever been a situation where the old two point system would have led to a different outcome?

The answer is yes, once or twice. I count 81 four-team groups in World Cup tournaments from 1930 to 2006, of which precisely one pre-1990 group would have had a different ranking with three points for a win (and none as far as I can tell that would have been ranked differently since 1994 had there been only two points for a win):
Group 3, Sweden 1958, as it happened:
Group 3, 1958, as it might have been
Hungary had beaten Mexico 4-0, but lost 2-1 to Sweden; Wales drew 1-1 with Mexico and 0-0 with Sweden. In fact the tie in points was decided by a play-off between Wales and Hungary, which Wales won 2-1 (having drawn 1-1 with Hungary in the original group match). Under the three-point rule, Hungary (who were runners-up in the previous final) would have faced Brazil instead of Wales but would probably still have lost (as Wales did, 1-0).

However, even this case is marginal. In the rules that applied later, Hungary would have gone ahead of Wales due to having a better goal average (as used in 1962 and 1966) or goal difference (as used since 1970), even if two points rather than three were earned for a victory.

There have been seven uses of a three-team group in World Cup tournaments (three in 1930 and four in 1982), and while the new scoring means that a team which wins one game and loses another now beats a team with two draws, it's not actually possible to have those results in a group of three teams where each plays the other two once.

There has been one other occasion when the new system would have made a difference. In 1986, the four best-performing third-placed teams from all six of the first round groups got through to the second round. 
The 1986 third-place teams as they were scored:
B Belgium 3 1 1 1 5 5 0 3
F Poland 3 1 1 1 1 3 -2 3
A Bulgaria 3 0 2 1 2 4 -2 2
E Uruguay 3 0 2 1 2 7 -5 2
DNorthern Ireland301226-41
The 1986 third-placed teams as they might have been scored:
B Belgium 3 1 1 1 5 5 0 4
F Poland 3 1 1 1 1 3 -2 4
C Hungary 3 1 0 2 2 9 -7 3
A Bulgaria 3 0 2 1 2 4 -2 2
DNorthern Ireland301226-41
Once again, Hungary would have benefited from the three-point system, this time to the disadvantage of Uruguay (who were beaten 1-0 by Argentina in their next match anyway).

Variations on this scheme were used also in 1990 and 1994 but, while the different point allocation would have changed the rankings slightly, it wouldn't have made a difference to which teams went through.

Fans will complain with justification that the three point rule hasn't made much appreciable difference to the number of goals scored per match. It is a bit surprising, however, to find that it would have made so little difference to the results of past tournaments.

Hugo novelettes

Here are my votes for the Best Novelette category, in reverse order.

6) "Eros, Philia, Agape" by Rachel Swirsky is, unfortunately, a story about a sexy anthropomorphic robot who decides to find his soul - told from the point of view of his lover, which is original, but I still hate stories about cute robots.

5) I had formatting difficulties with Peter Watts' "The Island", and while the author deservedly gets my sympathy for his recent difficulties with the US legal system, I didn't get much out of his story; at first I did not understand what was going on, and then when I worked out that it was about a mother and her estranged son trying to avoid a collision with an intelligent Dyson sphere, I found I didn't really care, and didn't understand the ending either. (I had similar problems with his Hugo-nominated novel, Blindsight; I was obviously feeling more forgiving when I read it.)

4) "One Of Our Bastards is Missing", by Paul Cornell, concerns an attempt to kidnap a British princess from her own wedding, in a world plagued by folds in space with other dimensions easily accessible. I was a bit puzzled by some of the details (what's the relevance of the interplanetary picture painted at the start? are Prussia and Sweden Catholic countries in this timeline? perhaps explained elsewhere) but quite enjoyed the pacing.

3) "Overtime", by Charles Stross, is another in his series of stories about the Laundry, the secret but very bureaucratic British government agency dealing with the occult. It is a Christmas story for everyone who is annoyed by the recurrence of cloyingly sentimental tales by Connie Willis on the Hugo ballot: Santa Claus as eldritch horror, combined with the ghost of future office politics. Quite a long set-up but a very satisfactory payoff. (One amusing misprint - a reference to the "stationary cupboard" made me wonder about the mobile ones... Also SHAPE is not in Brussels.)

2) "Sinner, Baker, Fabulist, Priest; Red Mask, Black Mask, Gentleman, Beast" by Eugie Foster - previously reviewed here. (Won the Nebula.)

1) "It Takes Two", by Nicola Griffith: it took me about halfway through this story about a Californian businesswoman who has an unexpectedly wild experience at a strip club in Atlanta to work out what the sfnal element actually was. But then I felt the story paid off immensely - a really tangled tale of what happens when you let people mess with your brain, and whether or not you can trust your own emotions. Held my attention all the way.

Previous Hugo roundups: Best Novel, Best Novella, Best Graphic Story

Format irritation

I generally read e-books on my Blackberry, converting them from PDF, HTML or word processor format with Mobipocket's free converter. As mentioned previously, this sometimes proves problematic with PDFs. I hit another such problem reading Peter Watts' story, "The Island", which got chopped about quite seriously by the process. One example - I encountered this jumble of words:
A red
The chimp has forgotten to care dwarf glowers dimly at the center of the Tank. named it DHF428, for reasons I've long since about.
Which it turns out originally read:
A red
dwarf glowers dimly at the center of the Tank. The chimp has
named it DHF428, for reasons I've long since forgotten to care
I have no idea if this is due to the PDF taking up the text from the original wordprocessor incorrectly, or if it is Mobipocket choking on the conversion (which it manages OK nine times out of ten) to treat as sequential the last three words of the next three lines. It does show the wisdom of making such texts available in a variety of formats - kudos to Charlie Stross for actually providing "Palimpsest" in the .prc format that my gadget can read.

Hugo short stories

Finally, rounding up my reviews of the Hugo written fiction nominees, here is my rating of the candidates for Best Short Story, as before in reverse order of preference.

5) "Bridesicle", by Will McIntosh, is a very icky story indeed where cryogenically preserved young women are periodically woken up from death by well-off but sexually frustrated men looking for dates. If (and it's a big if) you can get past the ick factor, it's an interesting idea, but Roger Zelazny did it better at least twice, and the execution squicked me out so badly that I rate it lower than the Mike Resnick story.

4) "Bride of Frankenstein", by Mike Resnick, is not as crass and embarrassing as some of his other recent nominees but that is not saying much. Here we have the viewpoint of Baroness Frankenstein, irritated with her husband for frittering away her money on experiments in the basement. That's the joke. Funny, eh?

3) "The Moment", by Laurence Schoen, seems to be a story commemorating the 40th anniversary of Apollo 11 in the style of Olaf Stapledon (or the odder end of Arthur C. Clarke's writings). Well meant, but in a piece this short it is quite difficult to do justice to the rise and fall of several distinct civiliations. And I did not see the point of the Marx Brothers reference.

2) "Non-Zero Probabilities" by N.K. Jemisin is an engaging tale about a New York where luck has become much more malleable and prone to human intervention. I found it charming but a bit insubstantial.

1) "Spar", by Kij Johnson, is a short story of intense sexual frenzy between a woman and an alien marooned on a small spaceship. A mild ick factor but nothing like as bad as "Bridesicle", and a much more original and better executed idea, which slightly faute de mieux gets my top vote. (And won the Nebula earlier this year.)

Previous Hugo roundups: Best Novel, Best Novella, Best Novelette, Best Graphic Story