Friday, March 22, 2013

The Economics of 50/50 Draws

"Boy," you might be saying, "this blog has sure posted a lot this month!" You're right! In fact, March so far has had at least twice as many page views as any other month in the existence of this blog. Figuring that this is about as successful as this is ever going to get, I figured I'll just keep posting while the going is hot.

Recently I attended a fair number of arena curling games. People who attend arena curling games often enjoy things like expensive beer, ridiculously addictive popcorn, curling (sometimes), and the 50/50 draw.

A fun way to think about casino games and lotteries (if you're me) is based on their expected return (ok, it's actually not fun at all).

Take Roulette, for instance. If you pick a solid colour in Roulette you have an 18/38 chance of winning, where winning would double your money. Doubling your money isn't quite good enough to break even, though, because 18/38 is slightly less than half. As a result, for every dollar you spend on Roulette, you'd expect to lose 5.26 cents. This is the house edge for Roulette, and what ensures that the casino always comes out on top.

Other common casino games have house edges like 1.41% (pass line in craps), 1.06% (banker bet in Baccarat), and 0.43% (perfect play in Blackjack without counting cards). Slot machines will often run house edges ranging from 7%-15%.

Lotteries are a little bit different. Lotto 6/49, for instance, runs a house edge of about 30%, Keno gambling is approximately 30%-40% depending on the rules, and I suspect that sports betting using SportSelect can get as high as 30%-50%.

Now that we have a reference point, we can compare 50/50 lotteries to these other games. In a basic 50/50 game, everyone could buy $5 tickets, and one person would win 50% of all the money paid into the lottery. Buying one ticket would give you a 1/n chance of winning, and you would win an amount of money equivalent to n/2 time the price per ticket, at a cost of entry of that same price per ticket. As a result, your expected loss per ticket purchased is 50%. This is way worse than pretty much anything else.

Things get a little bit more complicated though. Many arenas nowadays offer the option of paying $5 for 1 ticket, $10 for 3 tickets, or $20 for 10 tickets. Apart from the obvious differences in price per ticket (making $20 for 10 seem a substantially better deal already), how do these different options translate into house edges?

Fortunately I made another set obscure and hard-to-read ternary plots for ya! Check it out:

Due to me not thinking before colouring, the axes are a bit backwards. Along the bottom is the fraction of sales for the $5/1 combo, along the right hand side is the fraction of sales for the $10/3 combo, and along the left hand side is the fraction of sales for the $20/10 combo. If you've never read one of these, check out this cool website on how to do so.

In general, the house edge depends on what everyone else buys, which makes sense. It's interesting just how large this effect is, though. Buying a single ticket for $5 ranges from a house edge of 50% (if everyone else does too) to 80% (if everyone else buys the best combo).

Buying three tickets for $10 ranges from a house edge of 25%-70%, and buying ten tickets for $20 ranges from a house edge of 50% to a player edge of 25%. The player edge, of course, only occurs if you are one of a very tiny number of people buying the $20/10 combo.

Though I can't find any sources for the actual distribution at sporting events, if we had an even split in sales then we'd be looking at a house edge ranging from 40%-75%, depending on which package is purchased. This is by far the worst set of house odds out of any of the games previously mentioned.

50/50 draws are maybe justified in the sense that the money primarily goes to charities, but as an investment (or even just a source of gambling for fun) they're really probably one of the worst things you can do.

See ya!

Thursday, March 21, 2013

Winter Weather

Oh hi! Didn't see you there.

It is now spring! And despite the massive continuous blizzard that appears to be going on outside, we're supposed to be getting warmer. Any day now...

You may have seen my analyses of Summer and Fall for Edmonton weather. Hopefully ever since then you've been on the edge of your seat awaiting the results for winter.

Wait no longer! The winner for winter is: The Weather Network. (three times in a row!)

Scores for winter (out of 100):
Noteworthy about these scores is that Environment Canada climbed from 5th place to 3rd place for the winter, and that everyone's scores (apart from Environment Canada's) continued to decrease from the fall. This is all shown in this graph:

Weather or not (PUN!) temperatures and precipitation are actually tougher to forecast in winter is a question better asked of the actual meteorologists. My suspicion is that at least part of the continued decrease in scores is that trace levels of snow are harder to measure as precipitation than rain, but that's mostly just a guess.

Some fun facts!

Best high temperature prediction: Weather Channel 1-day prediction: 71.84%
Best low temperature prediction: Weather Network 1-day prediction: 68.64%
Best precipitation prediction: Weather Network 1-day prediction: 76.67

Worst high temperature prediction: 6-day prediction: 36.30%
Worst low temperature prediction: 5-day prediction: 37.64%
Worst precipitation prediction: Environment Canada 6-day prediction: 54.70

Some graphs!

Again, CTV scores are only directly compared to the others for four days. I still find it cool that there is as strong of a downward trend as there is - on average, a forecast for a week in the future is 15% less accurate than a forecast for tomorrow.

For those of you who are still reading and like graphs, you can check out the breakdown of where the previous graph comes from:

Have a good spring!

Wednesday, March 13, 2013

Keep your hands off of my science

Science is great.

Say you want to see which medicine is the most effective at curing the flu. A good test would be to grab a group of sick people and give half of them treatment A and half of them treatment B, and see how they do.

There may be a couple problems with this, though. Maybe when picking the groups you do a bad job and get sicker people in one group than the other, or there's a noticeable age divide. A good way of countering the possibility of bias here is to have truly random group division. If you had a large enough group of people and tossed a coin on each to divide them into two groups, you could expect a reasonably fair trial.

What if the patients taking the medicine have heard rumors about treatment A or B, though? Maybe A seems more serious and they stress out about how ill they are, or they've heard that B is newly-developed and not proven? Fortunately, this is easily countered by doing a blind trial - don't tell any of the patients what medicine they're getting, and then compare the results.

But what if the doctors administering the medicine similarly have heard rumors about either treatment? Maybe they'd pay more attention to the patients with the perceived weaker treatment, or interpret the results to fit their expectations. Countering this has led to one of the pinnacles of scientific testing: the double-blind trial: neither the doctors nor the patients know who is getting what treatment. Only after all the testing is complete and the results are analyzed can the conclusions be actually drawn.

This pursuit of eliminating bias to get fair and true scientific results is one of the best features of science. The problem is that it doesn't stop there.

There is quite simply never enough funding for science. There are virtually unlimited questions about our world (about even just our own bodies) that have yet to be formulated, let alone answered, and there is only ever a limited amount of funding to cover all of the research to be done. Scientists clamor over each other trying to get the funding, which often comes either from government research centers or from corporations.

Now, I have nothing wrong with the idea of corporations investing money in research. I have a problem with how that can (sometimes deliberately) skew the results. While it may sound a bit like a conspiracy, study after study has shown that scientists know who pays the bills, and this has a significant impact on their results. These effects may not always be deliberate, but just like a patient may receive clues from a doctor on how well they think a treatment will work, a researcher may be aware that if they say a product is bad they won't get future funding from that company.

With that all said, I am extremely (bold, italics, and underlined) frustrated with the Government of Alberta's proposal to focus funding away from "curiosity-driven research" and align research funding to coincide with the province's "economic diversification agenda."

Presumably the government wants to make sure it's getting good value for its research dollar, but since when has curiosity-driven research been of low value? Newton and Galileo made great leaps in the name of curiosity, and the most sophisticated piece of technology outside of our world is called Curiosity. Some of the best things we know of like penicillin were only discovered by accident, and vaccinations were only discovered out of pure 'willing-to-sacrifice-little-kids' curiosity.

The only way to eliminate this last major obstacle of bias in science is to make the funding itself blinded. If a company anonymously sponsored scientists in another country to perform research on a drug that also remained anonymous to them, the rest of the research was double-blinded, and the results were made public, we would truly have the highest standard of scientific study. This is the exact opposite of the direction in which the government wants to take research.

At its worst, we could have a government who picks and chooses which cancers are important to study. Or which forms of mining should be improved. Or has an undue influence on the results of climate research. This is bad for innovation, creativity, and the production of true and objective science, and should be fiercely opposed.

Monday, March 11, 2013

Running for the SU?

Now that we're between the Students' Union executive elections and the Council elections, I'd like to take a second to clarify a bit a point I may not have successfully made during my post on the presidential platforms.

In very general terms, the portfolios of the SU Vice Presidents can be spectrumized (scientific term) like this:

On the left hand side we have portfolios that deal with issues external to the university, and on the right hand side we have portfolios that deal more with the running of the SU. The President would be expected to assist with and coordinate all of these, and balance their time accordingly.

An alternative way of looking at the internal/external label is, to quote Pirates of the Caribbean, "What a [duly elected executive] can do, and what a [successful student politician] can't do."

Before anyone gets upset at me, let me clarify - electoral promises that are made on the external side of things are still important. Being the elected representative for 30,000 undergraduate students is not insignificant. Sitting on the board of governors commands a fair amount of respect, and working with other student unions across the country on coordinated lobbying efforts is the most effective way to get the opinions of students heard.

The problem is that, at some (perhaps hyperbolically-simple) level, externally-oriented electoral promises are promises to bring things up and talk about them in meetings. Both candidates for president in the last election promised to research things or start dialogues. And though the SU's research team is phenomenal, and their arguments could be solid, fundamentally anything the SU brings up externally is subject to someone higher up just saying no.

On the other hand, as an executive of an organization, in control of the $10,000,000 budget, it is relatively straightforward to perform internal changes to the SU. Though it's not a great idea to have massive swings in the internal workings of the SU year after year, it is something that an exec would have the definitive say over, and as campaign promises they are much more tangible.

I mention all this also because a fun time is soon to be upon us: SU councillor elections. Yay! While exciting, it's important to keep in mind, once again, what you can do and what you can't do as a councillor when you're developing a platform.

If you're running for council to get the SU to use its considerable lobbying power for a pet project of yours, chances are it won't happen. At best you may be a member of the policy committee, which debates and votes on policy suggestions to council, where they're debated and voted on before being brought up in meetings with officials. On the other hand, if you want to have input on how the SU handles its advocacy, then an externally-oriented platform is legitimate.

More realistically, running for council can be a great opportunity instead to work on the internal portions of the SU. Maybe you hate/love APIRG and other dedicated fees students pay? Maybe you want an influence on the businesses the SU runs, like RATT and Dewey's? Maybe you want to help your Faculty Association regain its FAMF, get generally more involved, and overhaul the electoral system [LAME]?

I strongly encourage anyone even vaguely interested in running to run. The point of all of this is that there are plenty of actual important things you can run on, and a campaign based on external pet projects is likely to result in disappointment for all involved.

Good luck! And remember to get your nomination packages in before 5:00 on Tuesday...

Friday, March 8, 2013

SU Results Analysis 2013

This was a triumph. I'm making a note here: huge success.

Well, sort of. With only two races to check, having my model get 2/2 races correct could have been just chance. Let's take a look.

Yesterday my prediction was for Petros to beat Saadiq by a margin of 39.6%-35.1%, and William  to beat Kevin by a margin of 47.9%-35.5%. In reality, Petros won by a margin of 41.9%-38.8% and William beat Kevin by a margin of 53.0%-36.5%. On average, there was a 3.0% difference between what I predicted and what happened.

[Note: I realize of course that it's possible for someone to edit a blogger post. To cover my bases, I uploaded a screenshot of the post at 5:00 pm yesterday, and you can check the date the photo was uploaded.]

Part of the reason for the differences in the race for President was that I considered Anthony Goertz as a legitimate candidate. This was pretty much just a judgement call. My model typically lumps joke candidates and None of the Above into the same category which often works reasonably well. If I had put Goertz in that category, the race for President would have been predicted to be 43.9%-38.8% - only an average of 1.4% difference from the actual results.

To see how this compares with the results from before, take a look at this graph:

Comparing this to the previous iteration of this graph, it looks like the data points fit quite nicely. How cool is that?


At the request of some people, I've added this little excel web app. It will let you pitch any of the candidates of this election against each other in a fierce battle. You can have all eight competing if you really want!

Two points:
1) Please insert their name exactly as it was on the ballot. For instance, use "Josh Le" instead of "Joshua".
2) This used the budget values that they used for their actual election, so it may be a teensy bit unfair to pitch a candidate from an uncontested race against one that was contested.

Back to the original post:

Another thing I tried this year was to project the voter turnout before the election was finished. This graph shows the actual voter turnout and my projection of the actual voter turnout for each hour throughout the election:

In general there are two points in the graph where the projection significantly changes, and these take place between around 10:00-13:00 on each day. A cooler way of showing it is this:

Compared to previous years, this year had a much stronger showing on the second day relative to the first day, which is pretty cool. This could maybe be a sign of campaigning on voting days taking more of an effect.

The method itself of using the previous  trends to project voter turnout may not have been super accurate (my mid-day Wednesday projection was off by 1.4%), but it's possible that it may get better as it becomes more refined.

Anyway the end there got kinda rambly - sorry about that. Look at me still walking when there's science to do!

Thursday, March 7, 2013

SU Model Results

This is a post that is going to have some numbers. Because of all the numbers, I'm going to have a disclaimer, and like all good disclaimers it will start in the form of a story.

Once upon a time, a washed-up old SU hack came up with an idea. He wanted to see if maybe there was a correlation between numerical inputs and voting results in elections.

So he made a machine. The machine ate numbers, and spat out numbers. 

And he saw all that he had made, and it was very good.

Well, maybe not. Using three years of election data to calibrate the formula is good for validating it. Having a model that takes old data and correctly predicts what happens in past elections is lovely, and the fact that it is as accurate as it is looks really good on paper. However, it is likely prone to over-fitting - small things that make the model accurate in older years may have been coincidences, or are not important in future years.

So with all that, let me say that I have no reason to believe these numbers are going to be particularly accurate. This is truly just me taking a formula that worked for previous elections, and using similar inputs to try to come up with numbers.

Note: One of the inputs is the budget summaries, available here.

Petros:  39.6% First-round votes
Saadiq: 35.1% First-round votes

Probability of Petros Kusmu winning: 70.2%

VP Student Life
Kevin:  35.5%
William: 47.9%

Probability of William Lau winning: 97.8%

Good luck...

Wednesday, March 6, 2013

A Message to Science Students

If you're a science student and you voted No on Sci5, you've made a huge mistake.

Hear me out for a second. This is completely irrelevant to any of the proposals that Sci5 put forward. I don't care why you voted no - in fact the merits of Sci5 are completely irrelevant to your error.

Bylaw 8200 of the Students' Union governs the process for levying a fee on students. Specifically, in order for a FAMF like Sci5 to be implemented, it needs to pass two criteria during voting:

  • A majority vote in a general election agrees with the fee, and
  • At least 15% of the faculty voted (section 18).
 Let's assume that the voter turnout for science this year is going to be similar to last year's total SU turnout (21.6%). This satisfies the second point listed above, and then as long as more than half (about 10.8% of science students) vote yes, the referendum passes.

However, if the students who were opposed to Sci5 just didn't vote in the first place, the referendum would have failed unless there was an overwhelming majority in favor. In fact, in a situation like this, voting the way you want could hurt your cause, which violates one of the most basic criteria of voting systems.

Normally this wouldn't be a terrifically large issue. For instance, last year's Science FAMF referendum got a turnout of 30.6% - at that point more than 15% of students could have voted yes, and every vote against would have been necessary to defeat it. It also wouldn't be much of an issue if you didn't know what the turnout of the election was going to be. The SU, though, regularly updates students on voter turnout, which is almost asking for the system to be gamed.

Basically, if I was an organizing an anti-Sci5 campaign, the best strategy to tell possible voters would be to not vote, and wait. Wait until the Science turnout hits over 15%. Maybe it won't, and you'll have won. If it ever does, then I'd get out as much of the vote as possible to try to tip the scales.

You'll note that I waited until after the Science vote hit 15%, just because I do actually abhor voting systems that allow rigging like this (not that I'd be particularly likely to influence anything, of course). I've proposed solutions to this back when I was a councillor, and I truly hope this gets fixed in the future.

Vote Turnout Projection [Update Thu 08:00]

Current turnout projection: 20.0%

Here are two new graphs, updated as of this morning. If you compare the first one with the previous set of graphs, you can see that it generally followed the predicted trend in shape, but was just slightly lower than anticipated.

Original Post:

After last year's election, I mentioned that when you look at the trends in voting behaviour between various elections, they're almost always the same. In fact, if you overlaid them (and corrected for length of election and total number of voters), they were very nearly identical.

What's really cool about this is that if you know the turnout at any given time, you can try to project the total voter turnout by the end of the election (assuming that the pattern holds this year).

So I did that.

Check it out. I have two graphs. The first one shows the total turnout so far (solid line) and the project turnout based on the curve from previous elections (dashed line).

And the second one compares turnout to projected turnout.
What's really cool about the second one is that the projected value hasn't deviated by more than a couple percent hour-to-hour for the last couple of hours. This suggests that the trend from the last couple of years has been followed pretty closely for a while now, although the beginning of the day was slower than anticipated.

Stay tuned for updates!

Tuesday, March 5, 2013

SU Elections: President 2013

Hey there!

As someone who hasn't been a U of A undergrad for a while, there's really no reason you should actually be interested in what I have to say about the SU race for president. And yet here you are. 

Some of what I have to say here will be repeated in The Gateway's election dissection, but since I did that I've had more time to go over the platforms. And here is what I think:

Anthony Goertz
I fundamentally do not understand what Anthony is trying to do here. In a letter to The Gateway, he mentioned that he is not taking the campaign seriously, and that he is instead running because "the system is allowing [him] to make posters" he doesn't have to pay for. What? I guess he's protesting the fact that any ol' student can run for an election and print posters (the horror....) by wasting students' money printing posters (that haven't been plastered all over campus as far as I can tell).

Saadiq Sumar
I've known Saadiq for about two years now, though I'd known of him for a bit longer than that. He took up the glorious position of Engineering Students' Councillor after I graduated (tiny size 7.5 shoes to fill, there), and after a year of that became the VP Student Life for 2012-2013. Before that his bio says he was involved extensively with Lister.

His website is honestly a bit rough. I know that shouldn't be a focal point, but it contains two pages - one of which is a platform that is long enough that the major points aren't on the first screen you see. His platform itself is organized under three categories:

Protecting Students
His first point here is "accessible and affordable education" which is such a cliche it's not even worth really mentioning. If his best approach to this is showing members of the board the plight of the student, I wouldn't be surprised at all if he doesn't get any further than any predecessor. He also mentions reducing rent increases, which he then admits is something he's already doing. It's also something he has to do under policy. Fighting the mandatory meal plan seems like a good idea, but it's hard to support a mandatory PAW center fee and a mandatory U-Pass, and oppose something else that's mandatory when the reasons for its mandatoriness (ok, maybe that's not a real word) are fundamentally the same.

And lastly, as a member of an executive that has a) liberally used extensive in camera debates on motions that are supposed to protect students, and b) proposed bylaw changes that restricted advocacy efforts of non-Council elected student representatives, I have to question where this sudden urge for student representative empowerment comes from.

Health Initiatives
Here's some more tangible promises. For instance, expanding the campus health week. That's a good idea. I can get behind that. Programming options during reading week is also completely reasonable. Increasing the number of pet therapy days is potentially just a pretty flashy promise, but it's not without its merits (But llamas? Really?), and can probably be fairly easily achieved. Finally renewing the health and dental plan seems is great too.

Though none of these are perhaps revolutionary, they're all solid ideas, they are likely to have some tangible benefits, and it's likely that they can all be accomplished through a term.

I sort of don't understand his first point, which is about the SUB food court waste audit. The bins in the food court are absolutely beautifully labeled as it is, so I imagine there would be a large sense of diminishing returns in actively having volunteers out there educating people. Otherwise, sifting through the trash sounds like a rotten idea (pun). If there's money to be saved then I suppose it's not a bad idea, but simply auditing something just to get a report doesn't seem like the most efficient way to increase sustainability.

The other two points, gender neutral washrooms and a sexual minority and gender diversity service, seem like things that are so perfectly suited to the planned SUB basement renovation that I wonder why they're not already part of the renovation plans. Seriously - why propose demolishing and reconstructing existing washrooms when you could have incorporated them into the renovations you've been a part of planning for the last year? This is literally the perfect opportunity to arrange for the most accessible washrooms the world has ever seen, and without the constraints of existing walls you could easily arrange them in a format that everybody is comfortable with. While we're at it, if you want to add a new service, toss that in the mix for reno plans too.

Horse With a Gun
Horse With a Gun is the funniest joke campaign since Soundwave.

Petros Kusmu
This is now the fourth year I've known Petros. Our friendship could have a Bachelor's degree by now, if only it had applied itself and not skipped all those Sociology classes. In the time I've known him he's done three tours of Students' Council, and most recently this year was the VP External for the SU.

If I was a bit harsh on Saadiq's website, then I have to tear Petros's to bits. It's a facebook page. It's not only just a facebook page, but it's a facebook page with last year's platform still on it. It's a facebook page where, whenever he updates a status or responds to a comment, his platform sinks lower and lower down the page and becomes harder and harder to find.

Once you finally find his platform, it's in the form of a gigantic pdf. It is also broadly organized under three general categories:

Ensuring Stability
Right off the bat Petros mentions that he wants to work with the SU General Manager. Thank goodness - it would be really awkward otherwise. Joking aside, he wants to have open and constant communication with stakeholders during the SUB renovation project. Fascinatingly enough, he mentions that the renovations are a good time for gender neutral washrooms and a sexual minority center. This leads me to the inescapable conclusion that this is likely to happen anyway and isn't really much of a promise for either candidate...

Then he mentions continuing to assist advocacy efforts of residence students. And then he mentions continuing to advocate against MNIFs. I guess not deviating from current advocacy efforts is lovely, but making a campaign promise out of continuing to do the same is really not all that clever. Really this should be assumed until he proposes something new - otherwise any candidate could just list their job description as a platform and have a massive one.

Exploring New Ideas
Petros wants to conduct a feasibility study on creating a service that would assist students in entrepreneurial pursuits. Feasibility studies unfortunately sound like a bit of a cop-out - you write a report, and regardless of if anything comes of it you can still count it as a victory. Also, doesn't the U of A already do something like this?

Similarly, "re-evaluating ways to better support student groups" falls under a similar category of possible cop-out, and continuing to have CASA advocate for anything is, by definition, not a new idea.

Ignoring the language of 'beginning a dialogue', exploring the idea of block courses is at least a new and tangible promise. It could be interesting to see where this goes - having taken a one-week course over the summer at the U of A before (oh wait, that sometimes already happens?), I can see the value in offering new education options to students. This would need to be a long-term project, but it will be cool to see if anything comes out of it. Also, it's something different between Petros and Saadiq, which is nice to see.

Improving the Culture within the Students' Union
"Seeking feedback from past and current Councillors on ways to improve Students' Council." Though Petros has admittedly made attempts while a councillor to change Students' Council (two particular student/councillor groups come to mind, for instance), it seems a bit weird that after 5 years he's still promising to fix council.

Expanding SUBtv and Infolink to Augustana and Campus Saint-Jean is a decent idea though. I'd be really interested in seeing where that goes.

Fundamentally my major problem with Petros's platform, though, is that the majority of his promises involve starting a consultation on something or continuing to act in a way the SU already does. While these are likely the best way of going about anything as SU president, the language comes across as so watered-down that it's tough to tell how much is actually new and creative.

What do I think will happen? I had that model thing from before, but it's still waiting for a few election campaign parameters (the most important being spending patterns in the campaign budget). I'll come back at you with a prediction when those get released!

Also, sorry if this comes across as mostly cynical. I have a great deal of respect for both significant candidates (and a healthy respect for Horse), and was honestly hoping for more creative and original platforms. They both have a few concrete promises in there, though, so I hope this was at least moderately helpful. Also, 1,562 words? Sorry about that.