Saturday, October 8, 2011

Lennie Jo

So, Lennie Jo, you made your debut on FaceBook today. You weren’t on a first name basis with the Internet, so I did it for you and it worked out pretty well, don’t you think? Not technically a profile photo, but it serves the purpose. I looked through our yearbooks and picked the one that spoke to me.  And did you see the amazing response from your classmates? We adored you.

Lennie Jo Van Meter Roberts
1952 - 2011
I remember riding my bike down your street in eighth grade and running into you and Susan Rogers. You both smiled and said, “Hey!” in that little two-syllable singsong way. I didn’t know whether it was cooler that you both said “hey!” when everyone else just said “hi!” or that you were both kind enough to say anything at all.

It was my first year in Elizabethtown and not everyone was as accepting of a new kid, though in fairness, most were. I remember walking past one of the girls in our class that year (I was delivering handbills, I think) and she looked right at me and said, “Is your name Dirk Cotton?” 

I felt flattered. I smiled and said, “Yes. . .”, thinking she was going to say, “Well, hi! I’m. . .”

Instead, she just kept walking down the street, her question having been answered and having no need for any additional information, I suppose. Weird, huh? But you weren't like that.

It was great having you for a friend in high school and college. I thought we kept in touch pretty well after I graduated and moved to the east coast, but I wish I’d tried harder. I guess we all end up wishing we had tried harder.

Remember the Neil Diamond concert in Louisville? We double-dated with Kenny Hatfield and Carol Eubank. I suppose Carol is one of the things we had in common, a shared best friend. 

Anyway, we pulled into the rest stop on I-65 to use the restrooms on the way home. Carol somehow got her scooter skirt wet and Kenny and I could hear the two of you laughing maniacally through the concrete block wall. We were trying to figure out how a ladies room on the interstate could be that funny. (What exactly is a scooter skirt?)

We laughed a lot in Mr. Speck’s calculus class senior year, too. Granted, we did it more quietly. I sat sideways in my chair so I could whisper to you and Marta sitting behind me. Mr. Speck would tolerate it for a while and then call on me to explain what he had just said. I would, and I’d get it correct, so he would just keep lecturing. I guess he figured that as long as we were making good grades, somehow kept up with the lecture, and weren’t too distracting he’d leave us alone.

But you always gave me a perplexed look afterward and asked, “How do you do that?” 

Didn’t we start doing that sophomore year in Miss Winney’s plane geometry class? I guess that’s a second thing we had in common. We were both good students and ended up sitting together in the hardest classes. Lucky for me.

I had a blast taking you to the prom and on the Belle of Louisville trip senior year. Though neither of us were dating anyone seriously and we hung out together a lot, I remember that I was still pretty nervous about inviting you. I wasn’t sure you’d say yes. I felt especially presumptuous inviting you to both. The prom was just a few weeks after the Belle trip and I was thinking what are the odds that she'll say yes twice? But you did and I thought I had won the lottery.

Your mother took that picture of us in your dining room before the prom with me in my burgundy tux. I keep that photo around in case my kids ever ask for proof that I was a dork in high school. (So far, they haven't needed much convincing.)

Did I teach you to drive my SS 396, or did you already know how to drive a 4-speed manual transmission? I can’t remember, but I do remember that you drove it well. I didn’t let many people drive my car, you know. (I let Huz drive it once, but only because I was playing basketball and he promised to bring me a hamburger.)

But there was that night freshman year at UK when you were driving us back to campus with Steve and Carol in the backseat. You turned the wrong way onto a one-way street and the cops saw it and pulled us over. You had left your drivers license at the dorm, so the cop wrote you a ticket. He explained that if you brought your license to court, the charges would be dropped, but you were really upset. 

I felt awful about that and Carol and I drove you to court a few days later. They dropped the charges, of course, but I still felt like it was ultimately me who made you cry that night by asking you to drive my car.

While I’m apologizing for car stuff, I should mention the afternoon that you, Marta, Carol and I were out carousing after school. We were horsing around and I accelerated very quickly. I never exceeded the speed limit, but I did reach it in a wink (that Chevelle could turn ‘em over pretty good) and it scared you.

The next day, you were very upset with me until math class, where I apologized profusely during Mr. Speck’s explanation of the second fundamental theorem of calculus and I swore I'd never do it again. 

I thought you had overreacted, but you looked me in the eyes and told me that you were certain I was doing at least 90 mph. It was more like 55 or 60 mph, but I could see that you were truly frightened. That’s the kind of teenager you were, the kind I like to think my daughter is today, one who makes good decisions and insists that the kids around her do likewise. 

Oh, and I suppose I should apologize for the time we were driving back to Elizabethtown after watching the Panthers play in the state baseball tournament in Lexington. We passed you slowly on the Bluegrass Parkway and my friend, Terry, mooned you and Carol from the backseat. I swear I didn’t know he was going to do it and I know you were appalled. I was appalled, too. I don’t know why I laughed about it then. . . or why I’m still laughing so hard about it tonight.  

Maybe you could appreciate it more if you had witnessed the pure athleticism with which Terry, a big guy, contorted himself in that tight back seat to maneuver his butt-cheeks onto that little window. (The slightly-naughty part of you wants to laugh; I know it does.)

The thing I remember most about you, though, is that you were always laughing. We’d hang out with all our friends in Lexington, Carol, Steve, Huz, Stuart Davis, Julie and Trudy and the rest and cruise around listening to The Four Seasons Gold Vault of Hits on my 8-track. Good times, huh?

Speaking of laughing, remember me on the unicycle? Your little sister could ride to the grocery and bring back a loaf of bread under her arm on that thing as easily as I could ride a bicycle, but why did you think I could ride it? We were leaving for a date one night when you insisted that I try it. I fell off time and time again and you just sat there on your front steps laughing you ass off and you kept begging me to try it just one more time.

You had a bit of a naughty streak, too, as I recall. You may have come across as a goodie-two-shoes sometimes, but I remember you, Carol and Pat Eubank sneaking out of the dorm at night, running through the side door and waking everyone up when the alarm went off. Then you’d hide in that little sitting area with the benches until the watchman looked out the door and, seeing no one, closed it and went back to his station. 

The last time I remember seeing you at UK, I was sitting in an open third-floor window of Pence Hall (the architecture building) listening to a reel-to-reel tape of the Beatles’ White Album on headphones. (Dear Prudence would have suited the moment ideally.)  I looked down at the parking lot behind the Chemistry-Physics building and you and your boyfriend, whose name I can never remember, came strolling across on your way to class. You looked up at me and waved. I whistled (I whistle quite loudly; everyone on campus looked up at me to my surprise and embarrassment) and he put his arm around you and smiled, in a “she’s mine” kind of gesture.

I was proud to have you as a friend, too. I thought that if someone as amazing as you would be my friend, I couldn’t possibly be the dorky loser I supposed myself to be.

Today, Carol Brown asked me to write something nice about you, as if writing when your heart is broken is something that you can just sit down and do. Earlier today I wasn’t sure when or even if I would be able to do that. I cried when I thought about you, but as the day wore on and I thought more about our friendship, I could only remember you smiling, so I started to smile, too. Turns out it’s hard to cry about someone who always laughed and always made you laugh. 

So, I went to bed tonight but I couldn’t sleep. I found myself staring at a dark ceiling and talking to you. Finally I gave up and came down here to the office to write this, and here I sit at 3 a.m. in my boxers and a button-down collar oxford shirt I picked up off the floor and with my rapidly-thinning hair standing straight up atop my head. 

(I know it’s not a pretty image, but I thought it might make you laugh—I don’t have a unicycle.)

You won’t be forgotten. As Larry Walker so aptly put it this afternoon, “Lennie Jo was, and is, an important part of us.” In many ways, you were the best part of us, smart, caring, friendly and fun. A little bit shy, but inexplicably poised and self-confident at the same time. And kind. More than anything, you were kind.

Speaking of kind, thanks for taking the time to have lunch with me this summer at Back Home. It couldn’t have been easy for you, but it meant an awful lot to me.

Lennie Jo, you will live on in my memories of the happiest days of high school and college. Always there, always smiling, always a friend.

Maybe I can sleep now.

Good night.

Friday, February 18, 2011

A Basketball Jones and a Binomial Distribution

85.6% of all people make up their own statistics

I have a basketball jones— an addiction to hoops.  I’ve had it since I was ten.

I got it from dribbling a basketball in the dirt and shooting at a rim with no net. 

I still have it. I’m Tyrone Shoelaces with an AARP card.

I also have a statistics jones. I’ve seen mental health professionals about it. They couldn't explain why someone would be interested in statistics and, completely flummoxed, they finally suggested I just keep it a secret and learn to live with it.

A lot of people are fascinated with numbers apparently, and not just people who grasp them. Take the FaceBook conversation back in January about the excitement over the date 1/11/11.

Someone noted that if you take your age and add it to the year you were born and disregard the first two digits, no matter what your age, it always adds up to 11.

Several people immediately commented, “Wow! That’s cool!”.

“Hold on,” I objected. “You’re amazed that in 2011 you can add your age to the year you were born and it totals 2011? Are you going to be excited again next year when they add up to 2012?”

The most perplexing comment, however, came from a guy who insisted, “It doesn’t work for my age. I get 10.”

Maybe he was born in the wrong year.

Ever notice how, around the end of February, a lot of college basketball fans wish they had paid more attention in statistics class?

Ken Pomeroy, a well-known basketball statistician, maintains an enormous amount of statistical information on NCAA Division I basketball teams at He projects winners for every game, and overall conference records for every team based on cumulative probabilities.

The Kentucky Sports Report tweeted yesterday that UK has an 80% to 90% chance of winning each of its next six conference games, based on Pomeroy’s projections. I’m sure that to most Kentucky Wildcat fans, that means their team should handily win their next six games. But, how likely is that, really?

If a team plays six games with a 90% chance of winning each individual game, the probability of winning all six of those games is nowhere near 90%. You may recall that the outcomes are binomially distributed, if you happened to stay awake in statistics class (no easy task, I admit), and the probability of winning all six games is 0.96, or only about 53%.

If your team has an 80% chance of winning each of 6 individual games, the probability of winning all six is 0.86, or only about 26%.

So, a Wildcat fan hears 80% to 90% chance of winning each of the next six games and thinks, “We’ll win ‘em all”, while a statistician looks at the same data and says, “you have about a 40% chance of winning them all.”

I would bet that Wildcat fans are disappointed more often than statisticians, but I don't have any statistics to prove that. 

If these probabilities seem low, think about another binomial distribution, tossing a fair coin.  There is a 50% chance that you will toss heads (or tails) on each individual coin toss, but the probability of tossing heads (or tails) six times in a row is a mere one in 64, or about 1.5%.  These are the odds that a team faces with a 50% probability of winning each game.

The nature of cumulative probabilities is such that even small probabilities of losing individual games "accumulate" to actual losses over a lot of games.

What constitutes a "lot" of games? Not as many as you might think.

Check out the chart below.  It shows the probability of winning all games (running the table) with 1 to 6 games remaining, when the probability of winning each individual game is 90% (blue), 80% (red), or 60% (yellow).

Long winning streaks are statistically challenging. And if a long winning streak with an 80% chance of winning each game is challenging (26%), it looks darned near impossible as the individual game winning probability tends toward 50%.

A team with six games remaining and an 80% chance of winning each game, as I have said, has only a 26% chance of winning all six. But with the same odds and only three games remaining, that team still has only a 51% probability of winning all three. So, the probability of winning all remaining games that a team is expected to win increases significantly as the season draws to a close, but probably not as fast as you think.

So, what am I saying? That you should’ve stayed awake in statistics class if you wanted to enjoy college basketball?

Nah, I have to look up that stuff every time I use it, too, or use an online calculator once I figure out the correct distribution. I’m just trying to point out how difficult it is to win several games in a row, no matter how likely you are to win each individual game.

There are so few perfect seasons in college basketball, even in years with a dominant team, because there are so many games.  It isn't like football. Play enough games and the small probabilities catch up with you. Ohio State won 24 straight games before losing on Saturday.

That has some serious implications for the NCAA tournament, too, and the recently discussed expansion of the field.

I don’t believe most fans understand how difficult it is to win a 6-game national championship tournament.

The NCAA championship will be won this year by the only team that puts together a 6-game winning streak. Until 1950, the national championship field consisted of just 8 teams, so the champion had to win 3 games in a row. Back in the day, when UCLA won championship after championship, there were only 22 to 32 teams in the NCAA tournament. Each team had to win five games. The champion now has to win six games in a row with a field of 64, ignoring the play-in game.

A strongly favored team, one with a 90% chance of winning each individual game, had a 73% chance of winning a 1940’s tournament with three consecutive wins but only a 59% chance of winning 5 in a row in the 70’s. The same team’s chances of going on a 6-game win streak drop to 53%. Expand the tournament to seven games and it will drop to 48%.

That’s my biggest beef with the talk of expanding the field, but I’m a UK fan and we’re often favored. Had I attended a college that has never won a championship, I’d support the expansion. It expands the field and the probability that the strongest team won’t win.

Your preference would depend on whether you want the NCAA tournament winner to be considered the best team in the country, as most people seem to consider it now, or you want a tournament that lots of teams might win. Larger fields favor the latter.

Before the Vandy game, UK was projected to win all seven of its remaining conference games, but statisticians knew they probably wouldn’t. And they didn’t. They lost their next game in a close one to Vandy.

And that’s what makes basketball fun. No matter what your chances of winning, you still have to play the game. And you can lose a game that you have a 95% probability of winning.

And once in a blue moon, and maybe even once ever, a 6-seed like Jim Valvano’s 1983 NC State team can toss heads six times in a row and win a national championship.

PS Writing a column that includes lots of statistics is challenging, too, but I'm 92% certain that I calculated them correctly.

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