Wednesday, February 26, 2014

What Do the Patterns in Alternate Histories Say About Us?

For the most recent alternate history (a Buddhist Colony in Ptolemy's Alexandria) go here. This post is also cross-posted to my speculative fiction blog.

Added later: information about why the border between post-Mexican-War Mexico ended up where it did, and what an alternate "lesser" Mexico would have been like if the border had ended up even further south - and what the American Civil War might have been like if Sonora, Coahuila, and Chihuahua had been absorbed and admitted as states.

Alternative histories have tended so far to be about events in European (or Western) history, because they're written mostly by European-descended people, and mostly by English-speakers at that.

But that's kind of obvious. So even forgetting the (so far) Western focus of what-if fiction, there are two clear patterns that betray some of our assumptions. And the first obvious pattern is: alternate histories are about violence transpiring differently. How many alternate histories involve policy decisions or inventions happening out of order? It's not usually: what if Newton and Leibniz had not developed calculus, or antibiotics had never been invented (or been invented in pre-Mongol-sack Baghdad)? No, the large majority of what we see are the effects of different outcomes of battles and wars. What if Hitler won, what if the North lost Gettysburg, what if Alexander or Jenghiz had not turned around at India and Austria. And this is depressing; because it means either that history is mostly determined by violence, or (even if it's not true) it means that we at least believe that history is mostly determined by violence.

Yes, there are a few stories about political decisions (what if the Ming had not called back the treasure fleets is a favorite) but it's really mostly about if people had killed and dominated each other in a different way.

You could also argue that what we see commercially is not an accurate reflection of our beliefs about history. It's the same answer for why in speculative fiction, dystopias far outnumber utopias. There's clear conflict and thus they're easier to write.

The test at Sitio Trinidad, 1845, Jornada de Muerte, Nueva Mexico. The test was witnessed by governor Manuel Armijo and president Santa Ana, both of whom lost their vision as a result. (It seems both fission and high speed cameras were developed in nineteenth century Mexico but not dark glasses, go figure.) Despite this setback, the dreaded bomba santabarbara was smuggled in wagons and assembled in Austin and San Antonio and led to the end of the decade-long revuelta tejana and ultimately, the conquest of Alto México (previously the "United States".) Sure it did.

The second pattern, or really observation that students of history can make about this sub-genre: even with battles won or lost differently, it's very hard to find believable changes that affect the outcomes. Sun Tzu was right, the battle usually is won or lost before it begins, and even if the tide on one battlefield had turned, the currents were running one direction or another. For example, so what if Lee won at Gettysburg? A big setback for the Union to be sure, but the Confederacy was screwed from the start in terms of their population and economy. To really get big changes, you have to make major shifts long before the obvious change - the kinds of changes that would have given the South a fighting chance would have had to begin many years before the actual war. Case in point: someone once asked me what might have happened if, in the Mexican War, the Mexican factions had unified against the U.S. as an external threat, and the U.S. lost its first major foreign war and gained no territory. (Or if the U.S. had decided to actually press its 54'40" claim.) A suddenly unified and organized 1840s Mexico is (unfortunately for patriotic Mexicans) only marginally easier to imagine than the first atomic bomb being engineered a hundred years early at Los Alamos by Mexican scientists. Such a story might actually make for some really interesting Latino steampunk fiction, but might as well also include unicorns.

Sunday, February 2, 2014

World Series and Superbowl Ratings: How Much Do Home-Team Markets Influence Them?

This is cross-posted to my outdoor and sports blog MDK10 Outside Next up: how much does winning actually correlate with the franchise making money?.

It's been said that it's a television ratings disaster when the World Series comes down to two teams that are from smaller markets, and/or closer together. That is, the thinking goes that if St. Louis plays Kansas City, it's a Midwest series and people outside MO and KS don't care, and consequently a ratings disaster. Yet somehow this same concern isn't expressed for the Superbowl, which always seems curious.

I'd never seen actual data on this. So, I got data for all Superbowls through 2013, and all World Series from the same period (starting in 1968).

The inputs I looked at (i.e. things that could influence viewership) were as follows: 1) total combined home market size of each team in the championship (i.e. greater metro area)[a][b], 2) driving distance between the two teams, and 3) time zone distance between the two teams. The logic for using home market size is obvious. The idea behind using distance is that the farther apart the two teams, the greater ratings might be because the broader the appeal of the game (i.e. maybe people in L.A. don't care about Seattle, but if Seattle is playing some East Coast team, well that's different, and ratings would be better; vs. if the championship were between San Diego and Los Angeles, maybe people in the Northeast wouldn't care, and ratings would be worse.) I also looked at time zone distance for this same reason.

My outputs were: 1) absolute viewership, and 2) viewership as a percentaqge of national population. Because the average audience can change over time, I also tried looking at each year in comparison to the 11-year moving average that bracketed the year (average calculated from 5 preceding and 5 succeeding years). I then looked at scatter plots of the data.

The answer is that there is no relationship. That is, the television ratings of both the World Series and the NFL are NOT influenced by home market size or distance of the competing markets from each other. So if the A's and the Giants play each other, fine! (Not counting any earthquakes that might be induced thereby.) So it turns out that demography is NOT destiny, at least not in football and baseball ratings. The highest R^2 for a linear trend anywhere in these comparisons was a worthless 0.08; there's no point in showing you some uninformative crappy scatterplots.

Just for grins I also looked at ratings against the Excitement Index calculated for the playoffs since 2001 (were the games snoozefests or edge-of-your-seat games); if there were exciting playoffs, there might be better ratings. Again, no relationship.

It's clear from the graphs below (total viewership over time, then % of US population viewing over time) that even if baseball isn't more sensitive to geography, it has other issues.

[a]In cities which have two teams I ran two versions, one which assumed that everyone in the home market would follow their home team when it's in the championship, and another that assumed only half the sports population would support each team.
[b]It's clear that there are some strange geographic distributions of fans around the country, but for simplicity's sake I just used metro area population to get a number for home market.