Cold War returns

The similarities between Afghanistan and Indiana, USA plus other tales from the arts world

So much for détente. The Cold War (Arts, circa.2007) is back on, complete with all those wonderfully droll references to sub-zero temperatures. Just when the Royal Academy appeared to have gained permission for the From Russia exhibition, British ambassador Tony Brenton was summoned to explain to the foreign ministry why British Council offices in St Petersburg and Yekaterinburg had opened despite a demand to cease their activities from January 1st.

Of course, the rather sour irony of all this is that, back in the land of Shakespeare & Fry, the Arts Council continues its cull. Following on from Equity’s gnashing of teeth last week, the Tangrum Theatre led London in silent protest, whilst the National’s artistic director Nicholas Hytner (despite being head of one of the 75% of organisations to receive increased funding) branded the ACE’s spending review a ‘strategic catastrophe’ and referred to its regional bodies as those ‘unacceptable fiefdoms’.

Middle Eastern Politik

Due to return to the Royal Festival Hall in a weeks, the Israeli pianist and conductor Daniel Barenboim became the first person in the world to possess both Israeli and Palestinian passports after being granted Palestinian citizenship for his efforts promoting cultural exchange between Israel and the Arab world. Presented the passport after a Beethoven recital in Ramallah the pioneer of peace and understanding said: ‘I hope that my new status will be an example of Israeli-Palestinian coexistence’.

Such tolerance and understanding does not appear, however, to be notable attributes of the Afghan state-run Film Council. Wary of the reaction to the rape scene in the film adaptation of Khaled Hosseini’s The Kite Runner, they banned both its import and exhibition. The incredulity felt by many Afghans at what has been perceived as an inflammatory and anti-Islamic act prompted Paramount Pictures to fly the film’s three child actors to a secret location in the United Arab Emirates, scared for their safety. The only other place where the story was also nearly banned due to a clamorous reaction to the rape scene? Indiana, USA.

Let It Be Known, There's Money in Poetry

£15,000 worth to be precise. Sean O'Brien scooped an unprecedented poetry double (and the increased cash prize), after adding the TS Elliot prize for poetry to the Forward gong he collected last year. To say that poetry is the new investment banking might be a bit hasty however; I don't see Tony Blair (proud employee of JP Morgan) penning his own 'Ode to Haditha' on the side just yet.

In music, Radiohead continued to disrupt the industry's economic stability, playing a EMI combusted all on its own and Jarvis Cocker slipped effortlessly on to Radio 4, offering a refreshingly passionate assessment of fanzines.

Elsewhere, in Italy, nude models took heart from the Hollywood pickets and went on strike for better pay and conditions (it's 'a tough, cold job' noted Antonella Migliorini,42) and everybody (apart from our own Ryan Gilbey) gushed, fawned and bowed at the feet of the Coen brothers' No Country for Old Men. One suspects, in many cases before the film was even watched.

OLIVER BURSTON
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How science and statistics are taking over sport

An ongoing challenge for analysts is to disentangle genuine skill from chance events. Some measurements are more useful than others.

In the mid-1990s, statistics undergraduates at Lancaster University were asked to analyse goal-scoring in a hypothetical football match. When Mark Dixon, a researcher in the department, heard about the task, he grew curious. The analysis employed was a bit simplistic, but with a few tweaks it could become a powerful tool. Along with his fellow statistician Stuart Coles, he expanded the methods, and in doing so transformed how researchers – and gamblers – think about football.

The UK has always lagged behind the US when it comes to the mathematical analysis of sport. This is partly because of a lack of publicly available match data, and partly because of the structure of popular sports. A game such as baseball, with its one-on-one contests between pitcher and batter, can be separated into distinct events. Football is far messier, with a jumble of clashes affecting the outcome. It is also relatively low-scoring, in contrast to baseball or basketball – further reducing the number of notable events. Before Dixon and Coles came along, analysts such as Charles Reep had even concluded that “chance dominates the game”, making predictions all but impossible.

Successful prediction is about locating the right degree of abstraction. Strip away too much detail and the analysis becomes unrealistic. Include too many processes and it becomes hard to pin them down without vast amounts of data. The trick is to distil reality into key components: “As simple as possible, but no simpler,” as Einstein put it.

Dixon and Coles did this by focusing on three factors – attacking and defensive ability for each team, plus the fabled “home advantage”. With ever more datasets now available, betting syndicates and sports analytics firms are developing these ideas further, even including individual players in the analysis. This requires access to a great deal of computing power. Betting teams are hiring increasing numbers of science graduates, with statisticians putting together predictive models and computer scientists developing high-speed software.

But it’s not just betters who are turning to statistics. Many of the techniques are also making their way into sports management. Baseball led the way, with quantitative Moneyball tactics taking the Oakland Athletics to the play-offs in 2002 and 2003, but other sports are adopting scientific methods, too. Premier League football teams have gradually built up analytics departments in recent years, and all now employ statisticians. After winning the 2016 Masters, the golfer Danny Willett thanked the new analytics firm 15th Club, an offshoot of the football consultancy 21st Club.

Bringing statistics into sport has many advantages. First, we can test out common folklore. How big, say, is the “home advantage”? According to Ray Stefani, a sports researcher, it depends: rugby union teams, on average, are 25 per cent more likely to win than to lose at home. In NHL ice hockey, this advantage is only 10 per cent. Then there is the notion of “momentum”, often cited by pundits. Can a few good performances give a weaker team the boost it needs to keep winning? From baseball to football, numerous studies suggest it’s unlikely.

Statistical models can also help measure player quality. Teams typically examine past results before buying players, though it is future performances that count. What if a prospective signing had just enjoyed a few lucky games, or been propped up by talented team-mates? An ongoing challenge for analysts is to disentangle genuine skill from chance events. Some measurements are more useful than others. In many sports, scoring goals is subject to a greater degree of randomness than creating shots. When the ice hockey analyst Brian King used this information to identify the players in his local NHL squad who had profited most from sheer luck, he found that these were also the players being awarded new contracts.

Sometimes it’s not clear how a specific skill should be measured. Successful defenders – whether in British or American football – don’t always make a lot of tackles. Instead, they divert attacks by being in the right position. It is difficult to quantify this. When evaluating individual performances, it can be useful to estimate how well a team would have done without a particular player, which can produce surprising results.

The season before Gareth Bale moved from Tottenham Hotspur to Real Madrid for a record £85m in 2013, the sports consultancy Onside Analysis looked at which players were more important to the team: whose absence would cause most disruption? Although Bale was the clear star, it was actually the midfielder Moussa Dembélé who had the greatest impact on results.

As more data is made available, our ability to measure players and their overall performance will improve. Statistical models cannot capture everything. Not only would complete understanding of sport be dull – it would be impossible. Analytics groups know this and often employ experts to keep their models grounded in reality.

There will never be a magic formula that covers all aspects of human behaviour and psychology. However, for the analysts helping teams punch above their weight and the scientific betting syndicates taking on the bookmakers, this is not the aim. Rather, analytics is one more way to get an edge. In sport, as in betting, the best teams don’t get it right every time. But they know how to win more often than their opponents. 

Adam Kucharski is author of The Perfect Bet: How Science and Maths are Taking the Luck Out of Gambling (Profile Books)

This article first appeared in the 28 April 2016 issue of the New Statesman, The new fascism