Argument

Pyongyang Express

Why is North Korea so pissed off about the upcoming Seth Rogen and James Franco comedy caper?

Over the past 25 years of nuclear diplomacy, the United States has tried military exercises, economic sanctions, and political isolation to pressure the North Korean leadership to behave more responsibly. But today, the Obama administration is stuck in the same place as its predecessors: stalemated negotiation, a trail of broken promises by Pyongyang, and a burgeoning nuclear weapons and missile program. Just since February, North Korea has fired eight missiles, 85 short-range rockets, and 560 artillery shells in waters around the peninsula. Pyongyang will very likely soon conduct a fourth nuclear test. So how can the United States influence this reclusive and reckless leadership?

Hollywood may have found the answer in actors Seth Rogen and James Franco -- the duo has struck a nerve with the forthcoming film The Interview. The premise of the movie is outlandish: Playing a pair of celebrity journalists, Rogen and Franco land an interview with North Korean leader Kim Jong Un. The CIA then recruits them to assassinate Kim. (It's unclear if they succeed.)

In poor taste, maybe; recipe for some laughs, yes; akin to an act of war? Apparently also yes. Someone in North Korea's leadership is clearly unhappy that a fictional version of their leader -- played by Veep's Randall Park -- is the target of a fictional assassination plot. The Korean Central News Agency (KCNA), North Korea's main news agency, announced that "making and releasing a movie on a plot to hurt our top-level leadership is the most blatant act of terrorism and war and will absolutely not be tolerated." A statement from an unnamed Foreign Ministry spokesman also published in KCNA thundered: "A preview of a film on insulting and assassinating the supreme leadership of the DPRK is floating in broad daylight.... If the U.S. administration connives at and patronizes the screening of the film, it will invite a strong and merciless countermeasure."

The Kim family has a clear penchant for Western entertainment. Kim Jong Un has overseen pirated Walt Disney productions, built amusement parks and ski resorts, and hosted Dennis Rodman and retired NBA players. His father and predecessor, Kim Jong Il, was a film buff with a rumored collection of thousands of Western film titles, including Gone with the Wind (from which high-level North Korean officials could quote entire passages).

But The Interview clearly rankles. Why is Kim seemingly more bothered by that film than by four U.N. Security Council resolutions or the U.N. Commission of Inquiry's detailing of North Korea as the world's worst human rights violator? The regime is purging and executing family members, shuffling party leaders, and unceremoniously decommissioning top generals to cement the young leader's bona fides as the absolute top dog. A movie that depicts Kim as the object of an assassination plot -- by the CIA, no less -- might edge too close to the regime's deepest fears. Moreover, the official explanation for the surprising execution of No. 2 man Jang Song Thaek in December 2013 included charges that Jang was colluding with outside enemies. And given North Koreans' thirst to learn more about the West and to break free of the regime's iron grip on information, bootlegged copies of the film might seep into the country on DVDs or thumb drives. Perhaps the regime fears that would give people the idea that Kim could in fact be assassinated, and encourage them to rise up?

Clearly, the leadership feels personally threatened by this film, unlike other similar movies that preceded it. Pyongyang seemed OK with 2004's Team America: World Police, the first mainstream film to mock the previous leader, Kim Jong Il. Written by South Park creators Trey Parker and Matt Stone, the film portrayed Kim as a crazy, lonely dictator, memorably singing "I'm so Ronery" in broken English. (Kim was later revealed to be an alien cockroach from the planet Gryon.) Unlike with The Interview, Pyongyang never officially responded to the parody of their Dear Leader, perhaps because the movie also crudely ridiculed other world leaders.

A couple of other would-be blockbusters that took aim at North Korea also went unmentioned. Red Dawn (2012), the remake of the 1984 cult classic of the same name, starred Chris Hemsworth as a U.S. Marine who has to fight off an invasion by an occupying North Korean army. Pyongyang remained mum on that movie (perhaps officials liked the opening scenes of a sky full of North Korean paratroopers descending on Seattle), but so did Americans -- it was a flop at the box office. The 2013 Morgan Freeman film Olympus Has Fallen also portrayed an eventuality that Kim's cadres might be more comfortable with than the death of their leader: North Koreans capture the White House, hold the U.S. president hostage, and attempt to turn the United States into a nuclear wasteland by detonating all the nuclear weapons in the country.

Of course, it is highly unlikely that Rogen and Franco's movie will cause war between the United States and North Korea. But could it actually be a way to hurt this opaque and rogue leadership without war? The more Hollywood casts Kim and his cronies as human rights-abusing crackpot dictators, the more threatened and pressured the regime will feel.

Promotional Poster, Columbia Pictures

Midfield General

Why Moneyball Doesn't Work at the World Cup

Forget big data -- measuring performance during this tournament is a losing battle.

Sports analytics -- or moneyball, if you prefer -- is hot right now, and nowhere more so than in football. Something of a latecomer to the gospel of data, the beautiful game is now embracing it with the zeal of the converted. With its fortuitous timing, the World Cup seems like an obvious showcase for the best that football's data experts have to offer. Except it's not.

Football data is big business. Several companies already collect data from on-field events to sell to clubs and, increasingly, fans and media. Opta, Prozone, and Infostrada have been working furiously throughout the World Cup, publishing match data in visually attractive ways to raise their profiles and attract new customers. And there's nothing wrong with that -- these companies have no choice but to take advantage of the tournament's massive global popularity to move product and get wider exposure for their work.

The problem is, as far as statistical analysis goes, the World Cup itself is probably the least friendly event on the football calendar. That's because in sports analytics, most statisticians prefer to work with a large sample of games between teams with generally stable rosters that play each other in a balanced schedule. The bigger and more consistent the sample size, the better chance variations in performance within single games will smooth itself out and allow reliable signals to emerge. That's why a data-rich domestic competition like the English Premier League tends to be the preferred object of analytical study. 

By contrast, the World Cup is a month-long knockout competition. Half of the 32 teams will play a maximum three matches, and only four teams will play the maximum of seven. Their opponents depend on the initial draw and the final places in the group stage. One team could face France and Germany on its way to the final, while another might play Mexico and Greece. With such different opponents, comparing the performance of teams or players would be all but hopeless. And match data from this tournament, no matter how interesting, will almost certainly be skewed by unlikely events -- the kind that can turn a single game but might never repeat themselves in the course of a season. If none of the data is repeatable, it's hard to see how it's descriptive.

So, can analysts at least go back to look at national team performance in qualifying to predict World Cup performance? Not really. For one, national teams play very infrequently, even in a World Cup year. The United States Men's National Team (USMNT), for example, played a total of six matches this year in the lead-up to the tournament -- three fewer than Manchester City played in the month of December.

Moreover, national team rosters change a great deal between international breaks, whether due to injury or experimentation. Eddie Johnson and Landon Donovan were the goalscorers in the USMNT's 2-0 win over Mexico last September that sealed the Americans' World Cup qualification. But neither made the final 23-man roster that went to Brazil. Without the same players on the field, how can you use data from a national team game in November to make claims about how the team will play more than half a year later?

Despite these challenges, most firms have packaged and released World Cup match data, letting fans and journalists take from it whatever they wish. Prozone provides various baubles including individual possession maps; MatchStory offers a team-by-team summary with some basic goal data; Opta gives readers the same data it does for league sides, with some added nuggets here and there for each World Cup team. And Fivethirtyeight has a constantly updated and adjusted World Cup prediction model. Last time around, it managed to explain only 34 percent of the final team rankings -- and that was better than most.

On the one hand, something is better than nothing. A columnist attempting to make a point about team tactics can do no worse than to back it up with some relevant performance data. And several prediction models have beaten the bookies using the same system as chess rankings.

On the other, presenting raw numbers as part of gorgeously packaged interactive infographic, whether tackles or pass completion rates or whatever, gives readers the illusion that the data carry intrinsic meaning.  "Team A tackled more than Team B, therefore Team A is better at defense." "Team X had a lower pass completion rate than Team Y, therefore Team Y is more technically gifted."

Or maybe Team A was defensively lax and therefore forced into more desperate play, and Team X was playing in a more direct but riskier way that entailed fewer successful passes.

This is the kind of equivocation skeptics use to cast doubt on data-driven approaches to sport. It also drives serious sports statisticians crazy. Raw match data is only as useful as what you do with it, whether by running regressions or developing predictive models using a large sample of games. Repeatability and reproducibility is a much harder sell than magical match numbers, but understanding these is what helps transform raw data into knowledge. The World Cup makes that kind of work difficult. Not impossible, just difficult.

That's more a problem for the data analysis firms than it is for fans. Because let's remember what's really important: The very same variation that makes a knockout tournament like the World Cup so difficult to predict is also what makes it so exciting. 

Martin Rose / Getty Images Sport