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Not everything on the Internet is junk

Randy Essex
This September 1941 photo shows a hayfield in the Roaring Fork Valley. It and thousands of other historical photos can be found a Photogrammar on the Internet.
Marion Post Wolcott / Library of Congress |

Today I want to take you to some of my favorite places on the Internet.

Places that are just fun or stirring, or that answer burning questions like this one: Could it be that Pete Carroll was right to call a pass on second and goal from the 1 with 26 seconds left in the Super Bowl?

The instant judgment from millions of viewers and from several guys who should know certainly was the opposite.

“That was the worst play call I’ve seen in the history of football,” tweeted Emmitt Smith, one of the greatest running backs in, well, the history of football. So he should know.

(For those who aggressively ignore football, office chatter, the Internet, news and popular culture, Carroll is the coach of the Seattle Seahawks. The Seahawks were one yard from taking the lead in the final seconds of the Super Bowl on Feb. 1. Their running back Marshawn Lynch, nicknamed “Beast Mode,” ran 4 yards on a first and goal from the 5 to the 1. Everyone in the stadium and watching on TV thought Lynch would get the ball again, score and the Seahawks would win their second straight Super Bowl. Instead, Carroll called a quick pass that was intercepted, allowing the New England Patriots to win 28-24.)

The call cost the Seahawks $3 million in bonuses, the hometown Seattle Times headlined it the “worst call in Super Bowl history” (not quite as bad as Smith’s assessment) and ripped Carroll’s explanation about the Patriots having brought in their goal-line defense:

“It’s not the right matchup for us to run the football. So on second down, we throw the ball, really to kind of waste that play.”

That does sound weak. But, obviously, if the pass is incomplete or is caught, all is forgiven.

Back to the theme of this column, some of my favorite places on the Internet. They are my favorites because they surprise me, teach me and challenge me.

Fivethirtyeight.com is one of them. This site was founded by Nate Silver, a sports geek and statistician who gained fame in 2008 by accurately forecasting the winner in 49 states in the presidential election — and the winner in all 35 U.S. Senate races that year.

(The site, Fivethirtyeight, is named for the total number of electoral votes in presidential elections. Bonus points to you if you know, without looking it up, why we have that many electors.)

I say “forecast” rather than “pick” or “predict,” because, like a weather forecast, Silver analyzes data to make his projections, to which he assigns probabilities. For elections, he uses polls, and does more than average them. He digs into their methodology and weights them according to quality. What he’s doing is science, not odds-making or political analysis. It’s applied statistics.

After the 2008 election, Time in 2009 named him one of the World’s 100 Most Influential People.

In 2010, the New York Times licensed his blog. In 2012, he published “The Signal and the Noise,” a bestseller about statistics, predictions and why most predictions are junk and most political commentators are full of crap. He also accurately forecast the winner in all 50 states in the presidential election. 2012 was a pretty good year for Silver.

Talk about branding yourself — Silver became bigger than the Times, in a sense. ESPN bought Fivethirtyeight and now Silver runs a data journalism operation dedicated to his two loves: stats and sports.

The poor New York Times was left to create its own data journalism operation, now called the Upshot — less well known on its own than Fivethirtyeight.

About Carroll’s fateful call in the Super Bowl, Fivethirtyeight did what the rest of us didn’t: Analyzed the probabilities of the situation.

The assessment boils down this way: The Seahawks wanted to limit the time left for New England to score (statistically, it would have a 5 to 14 percent chance of winning getting the ball back with 20 seconds left, Fivethirtyeight’s Benjamin Morris wrote).

“Stopping the clock by passing on second down also forces the defense to defend both the pass and run on third down (because the Seahawks still had a timeout),” Morris added.

Before last Sunday, NFL quarterbacks passing from the 1 yard line had thrown 66 touchdowns and no interceptions this season. Runs from the 1 had resulted in 125 touchdowns and 94 failures — 23 of which lost yardage. Statistically, passing from the 1 had a better outcome over the course of the year than running.

After the game, Carroll said, “We were going to run the ball in to win the game, but not on that play. I didn’t want to waste a run play on their goal-line guys.”

OK, so Fivethirtyeight is a cool site.

So is Vox.com, another data-driven site whose mission is to “explain the news.” Another young guy, Ezra Klein, leads it. Like Silver, Klein himself became bigger than a media lion, leaving the Washington Post when the Post declined to finance his concept that became Vox.

For more fun and less thinking, check out @HistoryInPics on Twitter — unexpected and profound photos from the past.

And if you want to lose yourself for hours, visit Photogrammar — http://photogrammar.yale.edu — a compilation of the 170,000 photographs taken around the country from 1935-45 commissioned by the U.S. Farm Security Administration and Office of War Information.

You can’t believe much of what you find on the Internet, but I’ve found that it’s a little like college: If you take the initiative, you can learn incredible stuff.

Randy Essex is editor of the Post Independent.


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