Crunching the numbers still a judgment call

Last Monday, Nate Silver re-launched his website, fivethirtyeight.com, writing a lengthy manifesto to accompany the new-look site, which features an equally lengthy list of new writers.

Crunching the numbers still a judgment call

That’s big news in certain circles: Silver is the king of data journalism, the ultimate number-cruncher, and his manifesto, meandering though it was, reflected that in its withering disdain for opinion-based journalism.

Those opinion-based journalists haven’t been slow to hit back — one landed a fair, if somewhat personal, blow when asking how Silver positions himself as a maverick outsider when he moved from the New York Times to ESPN — but the general point of retaliation about Silver and his website is a simple one: even data- or statistic-based journalism comes coloured by opinion, surely.

Why is this here instead of elsewhere within the paper? Because for one thing, sport is central to Silver’s website.

He made his name in American media by predicting election results based on masses of polling numbers, but in his book The Signal And The Noise — an excellent read, by the way — he points to an interest in baseball as starting him on his way, creating spreadsheets of baseball stats at his first job instead of, you know, actually working.

The new-look 538 will reflect its founder’s interest in sport: the top story on the site while this column was being written was about the importance of spring training for professional baseball teams and came, as expected, with a densely coloured infographic outlining the correlation between a player’s spring-training displays and his regular season form.

Do stay awake.

On a serious note, though, there’s a growing sense that this is the future — not just for sports journalism, but for general analysis of sports. Holding your stats and figures to your bosom, whether you’re in the press box or in the pub, you can’t be contradicted: that’s the logic.

But as we said above, even the creation of statistical categories is a judgement call, ultimately, and judgement calls are, by definition, subjective.

There’s a great episode of Deadwood — they’re all great episodes — titled: A Lie Agreed Upon. Hard to imagine Al Swearengen pointing the way when it comes to sports statistics, maybe, but the truth comes in all shapes and sizes.

Key to winning? Try to sleep on it

Recently, yours truly had an interesting chat with Dr Liam Hennessy, the man who’s trained elite teams in GAA, soccer and rugby, including the Ireland team in the last-named discipline, and who now heads Setanta College.

Hennessy stressed the importance of sleep as a contributing factor to physical fitness, mentioning the sleep diaries now customarily kept by top sports people in various codes to keep track of the extent and quality of their sleep.

With that in mind, I thought I’d talk to a specialist in the area, and asked Liam to recommend somebody who’d take the debate on further. He recommended Pat Byrne, pictured above, of Fatigue Science, a company based in Canada. They work with many organisations for which fatigue is an ongoing challenge — companies in mining and the US military, among others. Some of their clients are in sport as well, though: among those are teams in the NBA, NHL, MLS and NFL. When you consider that some of those teams play games 3,000 miles away from the players’ home beds, you see the significance of a good night’s sleep.

“It’s recognised sleep is probably the most important factor not only in preparation but in terms of recovery,” Byrne told me. “It’s not a subjective thing, there are strong objective studies which prove you can improve your reaction time and performance through improving your sleep.

“It’s a question of planning, and being able to have good objective metrics with which to make good decisions. We’ve been doing this for six years in north America with the NFL, the NHL, the NBA.

“Once teams’ individual players see how their sleep patterns directly affect reaction times, they can make much better decisions about lifestyle and travel issues, for instance.” That’s a taster of a lengthier interview to crop up in these pages soon.

Events deserving of public support

A couple of events you might want to take note of.

There is a fundraising event for a colleague of ours in the Evening Echo, Deirdre O’Reilly, which will take place on Easter Sunday (April 20) at 8pm in Cork City Hall — a concert featuring Cara O’Sullivan, the Barrack Street Band, St Finbarr’s Pipe Band and many more.

Deirdre has raised hundreds of thousands herself over the years for deserving causes, and this is an event that deserves your wholehearted support: tickets are available from the Irish Examiner/Evening Echo premises on Oliver Plunkett Street.

The good folks in Sport for Business also have a charity event this week — on Wednesday night in Croke Park they host a sports business networking evening to benefit UNICEF — see http://sportforbusiness.com/save-the-date-march-26th/ for ticket details.

Finally, yours truly is in the capital this weekend for The Back Page, a festival of talk about sport. I’ll be running my mouth off on Friday and Saturday but you should still come along: it’ll be great crack.

I promise an unexpurgated version of my travails the day I was locked into the toilet in Semple Stadium. Details at http://onthebackpage.com/

Getting ahead of the game

Those close to me are fond of saying I’ve an unerring talent for finding what’s hip and current... just as it’s about to descend into irrelevance. (Jumping the shark, I believe, is the cool way of saying this, or it was until the moment I discovered that. See?)

I was recently informed my discovery of the day, the TED talks, were now regarded as passe. If you were unaware of these brief lectures, many of which are available on Netflix and elsewhere, they range across disciplines and subjects: yours truly has found a lot of them hugely engrossing, even if we’re behind the curve in discovering same.

I recently came across a preamble to a TED talks session scheduled last week, with sports and sports science a major part of a series of lectures. One of the buzzwords was augmented reality and how it operates, and will operate in sport: Google glass, smart training, etc.

My eye was also drawn to references to certain European countries already using biopsies taken from athletes to determine the suitability of training programmes, and this was described in a this-is-the-leading-edge kind of way, the path to future success. Strange, because I recently met a GAA player who referred in passing to a teammate who has undergone a very similar procedure.

Maybe this once I got there just before the shark took off.

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