Monday, August 12, 2013


Another year older, another year in which I had to scramble to renew my licence sticker after the last minute had passed.  It doesn't feel like a priority when I get the notification months before the deadline, which gives ample opportunity for it to be forgotten altogether.  The fact that the deadline is my birthday, which has so far fallen on the same date every year, doesn't seem to help matters.  It wasn't until a phone call with my mother very late on my birthday that I remembered that I had to do it.

Before I could renew my sticker (actually, renew the licence plate, which is signified by a new sticker), I had to get my car tested for emissions.  Having done that, I went to the ServiceOntario to see what hours the nearest locations were open.  There, I saw a message that read like it was tailor made for me,

Left it to the last minute? No problem.
I clicked on the link to read
You can renew a licence plate sticker online...
"Hey Great!" I thought.  Instead of driving with an expired sticker, I could just renew online and wait until it comes in the mail before driving again.  Ah, but there was more!
...from 180 days before the expiry date until 11:59 p.m. on the day the sticker expires. After a sticker expires, you need to renew it in-person at a ServiceOntario centre.
Well, this was the day after it expired, so I was out of luck.

But does this practice even make sense?  Before the expiry date, when you are still legally entitled to drive to the ServiceOntario offices with the existing sticker, you can renew the sticker online.  But once the sticker expires, you are no longer entitled to use the easiest method to renew it without driving your car [1].  You must get there ... somehow.  Without your car.  Unless you want to break the law.

I checked the FAQs, and while they repeat the fact that online renewals are only possible before expiry is repeated, no explanation is given as to why.  Here are some possibilities.
  1. It's part of a secret pilot project to marginally increase the number of people riding bikes.
  2. They're supporting the taxi industry by enacting measures that would increase use rather than cutting cheques to all the taxi drivers.  There's no money left for that because they gave it all to Ontario's craft brewers.
  3. It's punishment for being a slacker or just plain absentminded.  Also, no dessert and you have extra chores for week, and wipe that smirk off your face young man!
  4. Concerns about the productivity levels of ServiceOntario staff.  If you don't take an hour out of your day to go to renew in person, the staff there will have an extra 20 seconds that they won't know what to do with.  Also, the line-up will be maybe 19 people long instead of 20, and they might feel lonely with so few people in there.
Maybe it's something else, but that's all I could come up with.

Oh, there's a quote at the bottom of the FAQs page from the Premier herself,
We are working to bring people together and find common ground - because that’s what we do in Ontario. When we find fair, creative solutions to the challenges we face, we all succeed together.
Hmm.  So maybe this is part of her plan to bring people together.  I didn't find any common ground with anyone, though, but nor was I looking.  I wish I had read that quote sooner, so I would have known the real reason I was there.  I could have said something like "Sucks that we have to wait in line when we could be doing better things with our time, eh?" and the person I said that to would respond "Yep."  Common ground would have been found and our purpose fulfilled!  Because that's what we do is Ontario!

Might I offer a creative solution that, based on the last quote, the premier is keen on?  Unless you can come up with a really good reason why you can't, let people renew online regardless of whether or not their birthday has passed.  And if you have a really good reason why you must cut off the online option once the sticker is expired, do us the courtesy of telling us what it is.  Otherwise, it just looks like an arbitrary exercise of power.

Better yet, instead of sending us multiple reminders in the mail, give us the option of having the stickers sent to us automatically, at least in those years where no emissions test is required.  You're already sending us mail to remind us anyway.  Why not put the thing we need in the envelope instead of a reminder to get the thing?

Even betterrer, could we do the licence plate renewals without the stickers?  It seems like a throwback, and not even a quaint one, to days of yore, before police cars came equipped with laptops into which bored police officers waiting at stoplights could enter licence plates in order to determine whether or not a licence plate is valid (or whether the car was connected to other crimes).

Possibly even betterrerer, could cruisers be equipped some version of the licence plate recognition technology that's used on the 407?  Police officers wouldn't even need to do anything.  They wouldn't need to enter anything into a laptop.  They wouldn't even need to get out of the car.  The driver would simply get a notification in the mail (or maybe through some other newfangled technology, like email), which, maybe, if the the government is feeling nice, could then be paid online.  Maybe.  If you eat your Brussels sprouts and clean your room.

Sunday, August 11, 2013

Parity Pooper

If you listen to the CFL commissioner long enough, the probability of hearing the word "parity" approaches 100%.  As far as the media is concerned, just searching for "CFL parity" in my browser history yields 3 results for articles with those words in the title.  There are probably even more articles whose body contains the word, even though it doesn't appear in the title.  In these contexts, the word means that teams are roughly equal in ability, that any given match could be won by either team (or, rarely, end in a tie), and it's almost always considered a good thing.  Other leagues and the journalists that cover them do it too, though possibly using different terms such as "competitive balance".

This article on parity gives some history to the concept and some explanation to why it might not be all that it has been cracked up to be (although it doesn't mention the CFL at all).  While I was reading it, a couple of other reasons crossed my mind.

First of all, it is hard to know with certainty whether or not parity really exists in a particular season.  Ignoring the possibility of a tie, we can run some simulations to show that even when every team is exactly as good as every other team, there still is a roughly 23% chance that the team with the worst record will have only 5 wins.  It should be emphasized that, despite the dismal record, this does not mean that it's the worst team.  We are assuming that all teams are equally good, so there is no best team and there is no worst team.  It is simply the team that won the fewest games.

Of course, it is possible that a team that wins only 5 out of 18 games is just bad.  But the fact that a team could be exactly as good as every other team yet still have a relatively high probability of finishing the season with the same record makes it hard to tell whether team is bad or just unlucky.

We could run a similar analysis for the other teams.  The numbers would be different, of course, but similar results would hold.  A league with parity would have some teams with poor records even if they are just as good as those with winning records.  So there's reason to be skeptical when the commissioner of your favourite league talks about it.

Secondly, there is a psychological reasons why we might not even want parity.  Surely, if your favourite team posts losing records year after year or hasn't won a championship in more than a decade, parity would be an improvement.  But is it still desirable if your team is the one that won the championship?  Under parity, each team is as good as every other team, so each team has an equal probability of coming away with the win.  Thus, the outcome of the game is essentially just the result of a physically demanding coin toss.  Each victory earned by your team, from the first regular season game, all the way through to the final playoff game, was not due to skill, but to chance.  Your team won the championship not because it was better than other teams but because of a 20 or 21 game lucky streak (well, a luckier streak than all of the other teams).

Thus, parity essentially does away with one of the things that keeps people invested in their team: the belief that it's better than all of the other teams (or the hope that it one day will be) [1].

At best, parity could give consolation to fans of those teams with losing records.  Rather than being forced to admit that their teams are no good, they can simply claim that the teams were the hapless victims of probability.  Then again, parity is often billed as the thing that gets your team wins, not the thing that causes losses, so it's not really much consolation at all.


You might be wondering why I ignored ties in my analysis.  It was because it's not clear how to account for ties.  We would expect more when there is parity, but it's not obvious how frequent they would be.  Some seasons have none at all, and those that do tend to have only one, so we might guess that the probability is at most 1 in 72 (the total number of games played in the regular season -- playoff games cannot end in a tie).   In any case, they seem to be rare events, so ignoring them probably doesn't change the analysis by much.

[1] That being said, I'm sure there are people who could simultaneously believe that there is parity and that their championship winning team is better than the others without seeing the contradiction even after being told.