Category Archives: Science

Vulnerability, Trust and the Marshmallow Test

In God we trust; all others must bring data.

–W. Edwards Deming

The Marshmallow Test is one of the classic experiments in psychology. In 1972, Walter Mischel gave 600 preschoolers a choice of one marshmallow now, or if they could wait, two marshmallows 15 minutes later. When he followed those kids into adulthood, he found that the kids who could wait had much more success in life.

In 2012, researchers at the University of Rochester added a little twist to the famous experiment. They preceded the marshmallow test with a promise about some crayons that was either broken, or kept.

It turns out that almost none of the kids who were given the unreliable offer ended up waiting for the extra marshmallow. Why should they? They already waited for a promised reward that didn’t come. The rational thing to do in an untrustworthy environment is to take any reward that is presented. Fool me once, shame on you; fool me twice, shame on me.

As I wrote in Box 32 of my Forty-two Boxes essay, children are born trusting. They are totally helpless, they have no other choice but to trust. But then through life experiences, they gather data that can change that default setting of trust.

In my last blog entry, I quoted Mister Rogers saying, “One of the first things a child learns in a healthy family is trust.” This modified marshmallow test demonstrates is why trust is so important. Trust allows people to spend energy and resources now for a greater payoff later.

You are told if you do your homework now, in 10 years you’ll get to go to college, and in 15 years, you’ll have a great career. You are told if you work hard at your entry-level job now, and you will eventually get promoted into management later. But if you don’t trust what you are told, if you don’t trust these equations, if the data keeps telling you there’s a glass ceiling you’re unlikely to surpass, you’ll probably go do something else where the data tells you the odds of success are better.

This is why poverty, racism, sexism, and totalitarianism are so destructive. Not only because those things present roadblocks in and of themselves, but because they corrode the trust that a sacrifice now will be worth a payoff later. Both society as a whole and the individuals in it fail to achieve their potential, because people in an untrustworthy environment take fewer long-term risks, and receive correspondingly fewer long-term payoffs. The result is stagnation.

The Long, Long History of Why I Do Not Like the Josh Donaldson Trade

Once upon a time, about a billion years ago, life was simple. Everybody lived in the oceans, and everybody had only one cell each. This was quite a fair and egalitarian way to live. Nobody really had significantly more resources than anyone else. Every individual just floated around, and took whatever it needed and could find, and just let the rest be.

This golden equilibrium was how life did business for a couple billion years. There was no such thing as jealousy or envy, and as a result, everyone lived pretty happy lives.

Then, one day about 800 million years ago, a pair of single-celled organisms merged to become the first multi-cellular organism in the history of the earth.

At first, these multi-celled creatures were just kind of like big blobs of single-celled organisms, and didn’t cause a lot of problems. Everybody was still kind of doing the same job as everyone else, even if they had organized themselves into a limited corporation of sorts. Most other single-celled creatures just figured they were harmless weirdos hanging out together, and ignored them.

They could not have been more wrong. For once the multi-cell genie was out of the bottle, Pandora’s box could not be closed, and the dominos began to fall. This simple change may have seemed innocent at first, but little did the single-cells know that they were the first creatures on earth to fall victim to the innovator’s dilemma. The single-celled creatures were far too invested in the status quo to change, and consequently ignored the multi-cellulars as irrelevant, and did not realize until it was too late that the game had suddenly shifted.

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(26178) 1996 GV2

(26178) 1996 GV2 is an asteroid in the asteroid belt between Mars and Jupiter. It is small, so small that scientists can’t tell how small it is, only how brightly it reflects sunlight.

(26178) 1996 GV2 is small, and also faint.But despite its faintness, (26178) 1996 GV2 has been observed 800 times since it was discovered in 1996.That’s enough observations to calculate that (26178) 1996 GV2 orbits the sun every 4.4 earth years.(26178) 1996 GV2 does not make for a particularly illuminating blog entry.Other blog entries get interesting things when trick-or-treating from old Random Wikipedia.Not this blog entry. This blog entry says, “I got a rock.”Nobody cares about rocks.Unless they slam into the earth and cause mass extinctions or something.Then the rock becomes famous.So this blog entry is to blog entries what (26178) 1996 GV2 is to celestial bodies.It will be ignored and forgotten, just sitting there like a boring rock among countless boring rocks, unless I do something to stand out, to make myself famous.And just as the more people there are, the harder it is for a person to stand out, the more rocks there are, the harder it is for a rock to stand out.Can you imagine what Wikipedia would look like by the time we master interstellar travel?By then, they’ll have catalogged every rock orbiting around every star in this quadrant of the galaxy.Damn near every Random Wikipedia article that comes up will be about one rock or another because there are so many of them.There are a lot of rocks in the galaxy, I’m sure, so there will be lots of rocks in Wikipedia.Maybe one day, though, rocks will get demoted out of Wikipedia, unless it’s a planet.Do you ever feel sad that a planet didn’t form out of the asteroid belt?I feel like we’re missing out on a potentially interesting planet, instead of a bunch of rocks.Although, if there had been a planet there instead of an asteroid belt, we probably wouldn’t have had those chase scenes in Star Wars.OK, I guess the asteroid belt is worth it after all.I wonder, if you sent a rocket ship randomly through the asteroid belt, what are the odds you would actually crash into an asteroid?A lot less than the odds 3CPO gave that’s for sure, our asteroid belt not that dense.It is more spread out.Blah blah blah blah blah blah

And that is why people who are as dumb as rocks turn into trolls when they get online. They think this is their big chance to be a star. Nope, we see you, but you don’t have any brilliant ideas of your own. You’re just a rock. Go disappear into a catalog, like (26178) 1996 GV2.


Today, Random Wikipedia wants us to study urease, which is:

an enzyme that catalyzes the hydrolysis of urea into carbon dioxide and ammonia. The reaction occurs as follows:

(NH2)2CO + H2O → CO2 + 2NH3

I don’t really want to think about how pee breaks down. But I have been thinking about chemistry a lot lately. Mostly because I’ve been auditing an online course called the Fundamentals of Neuroscience.

I’ve been hoping to learn some juicy stuff about how the brain affects human behavior, but so far, the course has consisted entirely of the low-level details about the electrochemical properties of neurons. It’s all about how differences in the ratios of sodium, potassium and chlorine ions inside and outside a cell can lead to the flowing of electric currents via various chemical channels in the cell membrane. It blows my mind that this random soup of ions could arrange itself this complex way so as to send signals around a living body to respond to stimuli. And that this random soup of ions could arrange itself to make neurons, which arrange themselves to create networks of information, which arrange themselves to create human behavior, which arranges itself to create communities and nations — it’s hard to grasp the entire scope of all this.

Of course, we don’t grasp the entire scope of all this. We may know little pieces of it, like understanding exactly how to chemically block a sodium ion channel through a cell membrane in order to block pain signals. But the people who understand that probably don’t understand how drugs that block sodium ion channels get distributed through impoverished communities and create addiction and crime and distrust of poor people among authorities and distrust of authorities among poor people and economic vicious cycles that perpetuate that distrust.

Some people may have useful theories about how the big picture fits together but don’t understand the details. Others understand the details and but don’t see the big picture. The scope is too big for one human brain to comprehend. You have to hope there’s some mechanism through which a network of human brains can gather enough pieces to figure out a functional system instead of a disfunctional one, from low-level literal chemistry to higher-level figurative chemistry.

[insert sudden awkward segue to a very different topic here]

…and speaking of figurative chemistry, it’s amazing how poorly the Oakland A’s have played since trading away Yoenis Cespedes. On the spreadsheet, losing him shouldn’t make much of a difference. But no matter how brilliant Billy Beane is, he doesn’t understand the whole system from ion channel to World Series Champion. Nobody does, or can.

Who knew that how pee breaks down has anything to do with the Oakland A’s? Very few. But pee is part of the process, even if it’s not part of your model. Maybe there is some ununderstood literal or figurative chemistry that Cespedes provided which is affecting the A’s play.

I know that for me, as a fan, the trade has pretty much ended up ruining the season for me, and it would have even if the A’s were playing well. Because Cespedes, for me, provided the identity of the team. He was Us. Cespedes’ value as an entertainer was unmatched on the team. Every time he came to bat, and every time a ball was hit to him, my attention perked up, just in anticipation of what he might do. Even in a dreary game, he provided a reason to keep watching.

That reason is gone now. Jon Lester is a great pitcher, but he’s utterly joyless on the mound. And knowing that he’s a two-month mercenary, gone after the season is over, makes it difficult to create any emotional attachment to him. He’s not My Guy. Cespedes was My Guy.

As a result of trading the heart and soul of the team, I find that I’ve become detached. To me, the 2014 A’s season has now become all about The Destination instead of The Journey. So I find myself not caring whether I watch a game or not, because all that matters is the result. If they win, the trade was worth it. If they don’t, it wasn’t. So wake me up when the playoffs start, if the A’s even get there. In the meantime, I’ll hiding off here to the side, blocking all my sodium ion channels, numbing myself to all the inevitable pain that is soon to come.

John Cocks

John Cocks” (nudge nudge) was a British “marine biologist” (wink wink) and a “botanist” (heh heh), who lived from 1787 to 1861. He “discovered” (if you catch my drift) a kind of red “seaweed” (rrrrrrrowww) called “Stenogramme interrupta“.

Sorry to interrupt, uh, but are you interested in er… (waggles head, leans across) stenogrammes, eh? Know what I mean? Stenogrammes, ‘he asked knowingly’.

Stenogrammes? As in what a secretary writes down?

Oh, ho ho, a secretary, yes! Secretary, could be, could be! Could be writing, yes. Could be drawings. Pictures, or “photographs”. Pho-to-graphs. Snap snap! Eh? Snap snap!

Snap, as in, holiday snaps?

Could be, could be taken on holiday. Random places, could be – yes – swimming costumes. Underwater, Candid photography. Know what I mean, nudge nudge. Eh?

Ah yes, certainly, I understand now. I happen to have a photograph of a stenogramme interrupta right here:


Say no more!

Photo reproduced courtesy of World Register of Marine Species under a Creative Commons BY-NC-ND license.


Once upon a time, there was a man named Mario with a world-class mustache. If you read yesterday’s entry in our Random Wikipedia series, you might think I’m talking about a video game character. But nope.

Once upon a time, there was a man named Mario with a world-class mustache who dedicated his life to cataloging all the different kinds of flying insects in the world. He was a pioneer in the scientific study of dipterous insects.

The man with the world-class mustache was named Mario Bezzi. He was a professor of zoology at the University of Turin. He lived from 1868 to 1927. No information could be found on how long his fantastic mustache lived. But it looked like this:


The Italian Wikipedia describes him as “rigid and inflexible of character, stern first with himself and with a deep sense of duty… unable to accept compromises.” Perhaps, those character traits were a necessary part of his greatness. Perhaps, a man cannot attain such a perfect mustache without being a perfectionist. To such a man, to accept compromise, to accept that good enough is good enough, is a kind of failure.

Sadly, his perfectionism proved his undoing. Shortly after promoted to Director of the Turin Museum of Zoology in early 1927, “believing himself unequal to the task entrusted to him,” Professor Bezzi committed suicide by cyanide. A tragic end.

Today, however, we honor his mustache and his work. Specifically we honor what he did in 1924, when Bezzi cataloged a species of fruit fly found in the southern part of the African continent, called Ypsilomena compacta. Today’s Random Wikipedia entry, Ypsilomena, is the genus to which that species belongs.

No information could be found for the genus to which Mario Bezzi’s mustache belonged. Rest in peace.

Trochaclis attenuata

There is nothing so utterly ordinary in the fossil record of the planet Earth as the shell of a sea snail. They first appeared at the end of the Cambrian era almost 500 million years ago — nearly twice as long ago as the first dinosaur. In terms of number of different species, the Gastropod class to which sea snails belong are the second-most diverse class of animals on the planet behind insects. Unlike insects however, most sea snails make hard, mineralized shells which survive rather well in the fossil record. Therefore, they have left a long, long trail of their long, long existence everywhere around the globe.

Today’s Random Wikipedia Wheel of Fortune sends to examine one of these sea snails, the Trochaclis attenuata. The Trochaclis attenuata lives off the coast of New Zealand.

Here’s a picture of the shell of the Trochaclis attenuata. It looks rather big in this image, but note the scale on the bottom left; if the scale is to be believed, the Trochaclis attenuata isn’t much larger than an ordinary grain of sand.

Trochaclis Attenuata

The species was identified by a New Zealand researcher named Bruce Marshall, who registered the name of this species in 1995.

* * *

Ok, but so what? What is the point of thinking about the Trochaclis Attenuata?

* * *

Try to estimate how many sea snails there are in all the world’s oceans right this very minute. Consider that some of these sea snails are the size of a grain of sand. What’s your guess? 1 million? 10 million? 100 million? 1 billion? 10 billion? 100 billion?

Now imagine that number, whatever it is, multiplied over 500 million years. That’s how many sea snails have lived in the history of the earth.

* * *

Now imagine the latest human scandal that’s buzzing around your news feed right now. Whatever has you all upset and angry, hold that outrage in your mind for just a second.

Now place that outrage right next to your count of sea snails in the history of the earth.

Think about how, of all the sea snails in all the seas in all the history of the world, not one, not a single one, cares about your scandal.

Trilobites dominated the planet for 200 million years or so, then they went extinct. Sea snails lived on.

Then dinosaurs dominated the planet for another 200 million years or so, then they went extinct. Sea snails lived on.

67 million years later, you and your fellow awesome humans and whatever you’re outraged about arrived on the scene. 133 million years from now, who knows what will become of your fellow humans, but your outrage will certainly be extinct.

And the sea snails, the boring, ordinary little sea snails, will live on.

Photo reproduced courtesy of Museum of New Zealand Te Papa Tongarewa under a Creative Commons BY-NC-ND license.

Quantum Moneyball

Just before the beginning of this sentence, this essay could go in an infinite number of directions. But now that the first sentence has been written, the number the infinite directions it could possibly go has been reduced into a much smaller infinity. Who knows what I’ll write next?

It could be anything! Gratitude to their emotions in the water! Or maybe with Zito is blind to park your dastardly actions.

I recently watched a TED Talk by Emily Levine which is like that. It rambles off in a gazillion directions, with little coherency. You could go off now in the direction of watching it. I’m not sure I’d recommend that for you, but I’m glad I did it myself, because it contained one nugget near the end which sent me off in another, more interesting direction.

She rambles this way and that on purpose, not completely polished and slightly unprepared, because she says she likes her talks to remain in a “probability wave” as long as possible. If you’re polished and prepared, you’ve already collapsed your probability wave into single point, and you’ve closed yourself off to new possibilities. She wants to keep open the possibility of “getting on the same wavelength” as her audience.

It’s that idea of “probability waves” that got me intrigued. She’s using ideas from quantum physics to help her understand her art. Using quantum physics as a metaphor sounded interesting, so it sent me scrambling to update myself on quantum physics and probability waves again. And now there’s a very high probability that this essay will devolve into a physics lesson.

* * *

To understand Levine’s metaphor, you need to know about the double slit experiment. This cartoon is the best introduction to it I’ve seen:

That’s kind of freaky. If you’re like me, you still don’t quite get it. I’ll add Professor Brian Greene’s explanation of the double slit experiment on Nova:

* * *

In short:

  • Before observation, a subatomic particle is anywhere in the whole universe.
  • Upon observation, a subatomic particle can no longer be anywhere. It must “collapse” to somewhere specific.
  • Where an “anywhere” ends up collapsing into a “somewhere” is based on probabilities. Some places it can end up turn out to be more likely than others. And these probabilities can interfere with each other, or amplify each other, in the way that one wave can either interfere with another wave, or amplify it.

Ok, if you’re like me, you’re still having trouble understanding the concept of “probability waves.” And when I’m confused, I turn to baseball metaphors.

* * *

Imagine that a baseball player is a subatomic particle. We’re going to pass the player through two slits, and we’ll call these slits “On-base Plus Slugging” and “Plate Appearances”.

Suppose we have a player/subatomic particle named “Kila Ka’aihue”. Let’s say Ka’aihue is projected to hit something like this in 2012:

4% chance his OPS is around .913
8% chance his OPS is around .869
12% chance his OPS is around .837
16% chance his OPS is around .811.
20% chance his OPS is around .786.
16% chance his OPS is around .762
12% chance his OPS is around .738
8% chance his OPS is around .705
4% chance his OPS is around .663

and let’s say he’s projected to get playing time like this:

4% chance he gets around 500 Plate Appearances
8% chance he gets around 450 PA
12% chance he gets around 400 PA
16% chance he gets around 350 PA
20% chance he gets around 300 PA
16% chance he gets around 250 PA
12% chance he gets around 200 PA
8% chance he gets around 150 PA
4% chance he gets around 100 PA

Before the season starts, any combination of these stats are possible. He could hit a .913 OPS and get around 200 PA. Or he could hit .738 and get around 400 PAs. Or any other combination — some are more likely than others, but they can all happen.

Some of these probabilities, however, interfere with each other. If Ka’aihue hits .663, it reduces his odds getting 500 PA, because the A’s will likely give his PAs to somebody else instead. If he hits .913, it reduces his odds of taking a path with only 100 PA, because if he’s playing that well, the A’s will want to give him a lot more than 100 PAs.

Other probabilities amplify each other. If Ka’aihue ends up with a .663 OPS, it increases his odds of ending up with only around 100 PA. If he ends up with a .913 OPS, it increases his odds of ending up with over 500 PA.

* * *

So now, let’s play the 2012 season a million times.

Each time we play, we shoot the Ka’aihue subatomic particle through these two slits, and some particular combination of OPS and PAs ends up on the back wall.

Now, if we chart the one million Ka’aihue outcomes, all the OPSes and PAs, we’ll see something similar to the double slit experiment. We’ll see some areas of high density, and other areas of low density. We’ll get lots of marks where the OPS and PAs are both high, or both low, because that’s where the odds get amplified. We’ll get gaps where one is high and the other is low, because that’s where the odds cancel each other out.

* * *

Now of course, we didn’t play the 2012 season a million times. We only played it once. And in that one, single time, Ka’aihue ended up with .693 OPS in 139 plate appearances — both low. And because of that low outcome, the A’s tried Brandon Moss and Chris Carter at first base, instead.

* * *

You can think of the whole 2012 Oakland A’s season in this way. If Ka’aihue has a low OPS, it amplifies the odds that he’ll also have fewer PAs. If Ka’aihue has fewer PAs, it amplifies the odds of Chris Carter or Brandon Moss or Daric Barton getting more PAs, until one of them starts hitting well. Which is what happened: Moss and Carter ended up in a platoon and hit well.

But if Ka’aihue has a high OPS instead, it amplifies the odds that he’ll get more PAs, and cancels out the odds of Carter and Moss getting a lot of PAs. The whole season takes a completely different path, and probably ends up “collapsing” into a completely different place.

* * *

Baseball is more complicated than just OPS and plate appearances, of course. And in the end, the stat we baseball fans are really interested in measuring on that back wall is team wins.

As the season starts out, there are an infinite number of possible ways the season can play out. Some things are more likely than others, but once we observe the season, all those possibilities collapse into one, single outcome. The 2012 A’s could have ended up with 0 wins or 162, but those are extremely unlikely paths. That would be like a diamond spontaneously jumping out of a locked safety deposit box and into a thief’s pocket. Most likely, the diamond stays in the box. Most likely, the team stays within a “box” between 40 and 120 wins.

Atomic-era general managers will understand all these possible amplifications and cancellations, and construct their teams to maximize the odds that the path their team takes collapses into a championship. The most likely outcome for the A’s was figured by pundits to be around 75 wins. And maybe if you replayed 2012 a million times, it will average to 75 wins. Or maybe, Billy Beane understood how all those waves of statistics amplified and canceled each other out better than anyone else. Maybe, the A’s season collapsing into a single, specific result of 93 wins and an AL West Division title was not quite the miracle we thought it was.

And with that, this essay shall hereby collapse into itself.

* * *

Disclaimer: this metaphor was presented for informational and entertainment purposes only. Baseball players are not actually subatomic particles. Quantum physics are not the most accurate way to describe the behavior of baseball players. Nor are the behavior of baseball players the most accurate way to describe quantum physics. The reader assumes all risk for all unintended uses of this metaphor, including–but not limited to–using Feynman path integral formulations to project future baseball outcomes.

The Intersilosphere

Here’s day 2 of my experiment in learning to become a writer. I’ve got an hour and a half now to write something, and it just doesn’t feel like enough time. I am operating on the assumption that learning to work within these restraints will be good for me. My problem is that my particular brain doesn’t seem to be designed to work within such restraints. It tends to make a million connections between things, and I have a very hard time knowing when to stop making those connections.

So it doesn’t really help that I just finished listening to James Burke’s delightful new speech called “Admiral Shovel and the Toilet Roll.” If you’ve watched Burke’s previous PBS series called “Connections” and “The Day the Universe Changed“, you’ll recognize my problem in Burke. Burke specializes in drawing seemingly endless lines of connections between things. In this particular speech, he manages to draw connections between Mozart’s music and the invention of the helicopter, and the crash of a fleet of ships off the coast of France in the 16th century and the invention of the toilet roll.

But Burke does manage to pull all these seemingly random connections together under a common theme to make a point, which is this: the industrial revolution began with a recipe from Descartes about how to break things down into their component parts to study them. These disciplinary silos are what brought us the incredible detailed knowledge of the world we humans now possess. However, Burke argues, these silos have become so specialized and detailed that most major innovation now comes in “the unexplored no-man’s land between the disciplines.”

If I wanted to follow a conventional path to a writing career, I would probably try to plant myself firmly within one of these disciplinary silos, and grow within it. After all, within these silos live the corporations who have the money to pay you for your skills. For instance, I probably have enough connections and respect within the baseball writing industry to get a foot in the door there. I have the technical skills to immerse myself in baseball statistics. But I resist, because that’s not where I feel like my particular brand of brainpower would be best suited.

I am aiming for that no-man’s land Burke speaks of. I have a lot of interests: from baseball to computer science, from neuroscience to politics, from poetry to business, from religion to aesthetics. In between these things, that’s where the most exciting stuff remains to be discovered.

Notes on Thinking, Fast and Slow: The Slog of Statistics

When your kids first start learning to read, it takes a lot of effort. They have to remember the sounds that each letter makes, they have to combine those sounds together, and then try to figure out what word that combination of sounds actually is. Reading, at first, is slow and almost painful process.

Then one day, you’ll be driving along in your car, and you’ll hear from the car seat in the back, “SPEED LIMIT 55”. “EXIT 25B”. “CARPOOL LANE”. And then your kids have this sudden realization:

“Oh my goodness. I can’t stop reading! I can’t stop reading everything!

* * *

Reading the first two parts of Daniel Kahneman’s Thinking, Fast and Slow flew by for me in a flash. Part III, however, was a bit of a slog. This section covers the various ways humans fail when it comes to statistical thinking. Kahneman notes that ideas like regression to the mean are among the most difficult for human beings to grasp. Kahneman does a pretty good job simplifying the issues, but it still takes some effort to understand.

To be honest, I took a couple of naps while working through that section. The best part, though, is that Kahneman explains why statistics are so tiring to work with.

We have two systems of thought, labeled System 1 and System 2. System 1 is fast, intuitive, effortless and automatic, while System 2 is slow, deliberate, and effortful. System 2 thinking uses up a lot of mental energy. Often, that effort seems not worth the trouble, so System 2 often just lazily accepts the intuitive suggestions from System 1, and moves on.

Unless you have a lot of practice in statistics, statistical thought is entirely a function of System 2. It’s slow. It takes effort and concentration. It requires a lot of mental energy to think in a statistically accurate way. It tires us out. We take naps afterwards.

* * *

When your kids first start reading, it’s a System 2 process. It takes effort and concentration. But with practice, the System 1 gets trained to do it. System 1 is effortless and automatic. You can’t turn it off, ever. Once you learn to read, you can’t ever look at a sign again and NOT read it.

* * *

Most of us don’t encounter statistics enough in our daily lives for it to be transformed from a System 2 process to a System 1 process. For us, statistical thinking will always be a tough slog. But reading books like Kahneman’s can at least give us enough experience to recognize when proper statistical thinking is called for. When the stakes are high, we can understand just enough to say, “my gut feeling is X, but let’s run through the numbers to make sure”, instead of just accepting X.

Notes on Thinking, Fast and Slow: The Hot Hand

Chapter 10 of Daniel Kahneman’s book Thinking Fast and Slow covers familiar ground to anyone who follows sports statistics. The chapter addresses two of the major mistakes humans make when dealing with statistical informtion: ignoring small sample sizes, and seeking out patterns in outcomes that are actually random chance.

At one point, he discusses the “hot hand theory”, where it is shown that basketball players do not actually have streaks where they get hot; the streaks we observe are pretty much what we would statistically expect from a random distribution of shots, given a player’s overall shooting percentage.

That, too, is familiar territory to people who follow sports statistics. But recently, I came across something new (to me, anyway) about this topic. What has been missing from the discussion is an explanation about why the outcomes of human performance is distributed randomly.

Suppose you had a very precise pitching machine. It throws the exact same pitch to the exact same location every single time. And yet, a human batter facing that machine and those pitches would not hit the ball with the exact same result each time. Why not?

You might just chalk it up to, “we’re humans, not robots.” But that’s not really an adequate explanation, is it? Which part of human mechanics introduces the randomness in our performance?

A good explanation for the randomness in our performance can be found in this Ted Talk by Daniel Wolpert. At about five minutes in, he explains that the chemical transmission of nerve signals from our brains to our muscles and back is extremely noisy.

When we use a machine metaphor to describe our bodies, we make assumptions about our systems that aren’t accurate. The signals that our bodies send aren’t nearly as clean as the electronic signals our computers send to its peripheral devices.

Think about someone you know who is hard of hearing. Or about having a conversation in a noisy restaurant. What happens in those conversations? Often you can’t hear every word, so you have to make a guess based on context as to what was actually said. You are forced to fill in the gaps with guesses based on past experience. And sometimes those guesses are wrong.

And because the noise disrupts the signals randomly, our guesses are wrong randomly. If we could somehow replace our nerves with copper wires or fiber optic cables, though, our performance failures would be reduced significantly.

Why a no Chicken?

In a recent episode of Louie, Louis CK tells a joke that he admits he doesn’t know how to finish. It involves a duck who thinks he’s special because he has a green head.

This blog entry — heck, this blog — is like that. I’m not sure where I’m going with it, I don’t know how it will end, I just have a feeling that I’ve got something here that can come together in the end.

* * *

I recently took one of those online narcissistic personality tests. I scored “normal”. But the only reason I even got as high as normal was because I had an over-the-top score in the “superiority” subsection. I’m not vain or power-mad at all, but dammit, facts are facts. I’m special. I have a green head.

* * *

The Louie show fascinates me. If you put me in a focus group where I was holding one of those dials while watching it, I’d probably flatline at the bottom the whole episode. I squirm, I cringe, I feel uncomfortable the whole time I’m watching it, thinking “I hate this I hate this I hate this.” Based on my real-time reactions, the network execs would probably cancel the show. But when you ask me afterwards how I feel about the episode, I usually love it. Love love love it.

Nobel Prize winning behaviorial economist Daniel Kahneman had demonstrated how humans have two distinct kinds of happiness. There’s a happiness that one experiences in the moment, and there’s a second kind of happiness that one feels in remembering things afterwards. The two kinds of happiness don’t necessarily correlate with each other at all.

The standard sitcom focuses like a laser on the experiential kind of happiness. We’ve all watched these shows–30 minutes of set up, punchline, laugh–but the remembrance of it usually leaves us feeling empty. I think Louie’s uniqueness stems from an indifference to the happiness of experience, if not an outright avoidance of it. The show cares more about afterwards, the happiness of memory.

* * *

Steve Jobs recently retired as CEO of Apple Computers. It’s been a helluva career. In the one and only commencement speech he ever gave, Jobs said:

Again, you can’t connect the dots looking forward; you can only connect them looking backwards. So you have to trust that the dots will somehow connect in your future. You have to trust in something — your gut, destiny, life, karma, whatever. This approach has never let me down, and it has made all the difference in my life.

From most accounts, Jobs could be a mean sonofabitch to work for. The experience at the time of creating all those great Apple products was probably miserable thanks to Jobs’ harsh taskmastery, but after seeing the results, the memory of it afterwards was probably amazing.

* * *

So three cheers for Steve Jobs and Louis CK. They inspire me to want to follow in their footsteps, to connect the dots of my life and do amazing things.

But there’s one nagging question I have about this philosophy: what if you only think you have a green head? What if your self-image is deceptive? What if you’re really something other than what you think you are? Why a duck? Why a no chicken?

* * *

There’s a scene in another episode of Louie where Louis CK has lunch with a Hollywood executive. She asks him for his sitcom ideas, and he starts explaining his idea for a show that avoids experiential pleasure. But he can’t explain how it’s special, how it pays off in the end. He’s envisioning a green-headed duck, trusting that the dots will connect and there will be a green-headed duck in the end, but what he’s describing sounds to the executive like a chicken with some sort of deadly disease.

It’s safer and easier, not just for network executives but for human beings in general, to follow the immediate feedback, to trust the constant data streaming in from our current state of happiness, rather than ignore that short-term data and believe that something larger and more rewarding will emerge.

Postponing pleasure now for a bigger payoff later is very risky. If you’re not special, if you can’t make the dots connect, if there’s no big payoff in the end, no pot of gold at the end of the rainbow, no heaven waiting for you after a virtuous life, if you don’t really have a green head, then you’ve got nothing to show for it but misery. No happiness from experience, and no happiness from memory, either.

That’s why shows like Louie don’t get made very often. That’s why companies like Apple are unique rather than ubiquitous.

* * *

Not that there’s anything wrong with that. I’ve worked in the high tech industry from the infancy of the world wide web, and I’ve seen a lot of companies (including some of mine) start out with the Applest of intentions. But then the feedback starts coming in, from customer service and sales, and it’s nearly impossible to say “nope, our customers are wrong and our vision is right.” Because usually the customers are right and your vision is wrong. So you follow the feedback. Be the bird that you are, and you usually have a pretty decent gig.

* * *

Modern electronic writing is primarily a pleasure-of-the-moment activity. Today’s blog entry is forgotten tomorrow. Our tweets are out of mind as soon as they scroll off our feed. We’re reacting in the moment to last night’s game, this morning’s article, tonight’s political speech. Which is fine, that’s what these media are meant to do. They’re chickens. Chickens are great, as long as you’re not expecting a duck.

* * *

Lately, I’ve had offers to write for a number baseball outlets out there. I’ve thought about trying a Craig Calcaterra, to see what I could accomplish I left my old, higher-paying career to commit to writing full time.

But so far, I’ve (mostly) resisted that temptation. My gut tells me, “don’t make that commitment.”

It’s partly because I don’t have all my ducks in a row in my personal life to make that practical right now. I quit writing regularly two years ago because I was juggling too many balls in my life, and I ended up doing a half-assed job on all of them. I hate feeling like I’m not living up to expectations, I hate feeling like I need to work 24/7 in order to avoid feeling like I’m not living up to expectations, so I resist making commitments that would create any expectations. Hence, for now, this blog, where I can do what I like, when I like, how I like with maximum flexibility and minimum commitment.

It’s probably also because I’m narcissistic enough to believe I’m unique. I’m not ready to cooped up and commit to a life as a chicken. I’m not ready to accept that this is how I finish this story. I feel, rightly or wrongly, that I’m my own species, who simply has not yet encountered the right variety of poultry to fall in love with.

Brainyball: The Sequel to Statistics

Our old friend Moneyball will be making a comeback this year, when the film starring Brad Pitt gets released this September. Let me declare seven months ahead of time that I am sick of hearing about how the movie hype is distracting the 2011 A’s during their pennant run. I am also preemptively tired of the rehashing of old arguments, such as how the A’s philosophy failed because the Moneyball generation never won a ring. Finally, I am, in advance, savoring the irony of the A’s winning the 2011 World Series, in the very year that this antique anti-Moneyball argument reaches its crescendo.

I love me a good irony. I took my daughters Monday to see Sally Ride give a speech for the UC Berkeley Physics Department. I looked around the auditorium and noticed that darn near everyone in the room was skinny. Maybe these people burn all their fat off just by thinking so hard about the universe. Whatever the cause, I found myself tickled by this ironic idea: Physicists have very little gravitational pull.

The irony that lies at the core of the Moneyball book is that A’s GM Billy Beane was trying to find a way to weed out players who were essentially just like himself. Beane is a very intelligent guy with an chiseled athletic body whose intelligence got in the way of his performance. You look at him, and you think he was born to be a star athlete. But he never became one. He’d get so worked up about every little failure that his swing and approach got all screwed up. He couldn’t handle the mental part of the game.

So Beane became a scout, then a GM, and tried to come up with a reliable way to weed out players like himself who can’t handle the mental part of the game, and discover the players who can. They tried to accomplish this by using a deeper understanding of statistics.

Which is odd, if you think about it. It isn’t the players’ statistics that are causing players like Beane to fail. It’s their brains. If you really want to be able to recognize players like Beane in advance, shouldn’t you try to do this with a deeper understanding of brains?

* * *

We are living at the very dawn of neuroscience. In the last ten years or so, our understanding of our own brains has exploded, and we’ve still only scratched the surface. Consider this TED talk by Charles Limb:

Limb explains what happens in the brain when jazz musicians improvise. When improvising, jazz musicians shut off a part of the brain called the lateral prefrontal cortex, which is involved in self-monitoring. They literally turn off the inhibitions in their brains, so they aren’t afraid to make mistakes, and are free to be creative.

Now it would be a big leap to say that Billy Beane’s mental failures were caused by an inability to turn off his lateral prefrontal cortex while batting. But it’s not a big leap to think that this sort of understanding of the brain isn’t just possible for musicians, but for athletes, as well.

Someday, perhaps, draft preparations will include brain scans, so teams can see that a Billy Beane’s brain isn’t focusing properly when batting. They’ll know how often you can take a player with Beane’s brain profile, and train him to overcome those brain issues. They’ll discount or increase his value because of this information.

* * *

In Sports Illustrated this past weekend, Joe Posnanski looked into the question of how drafting teams can predict which quarterbacks will succeed in the NFL, and which will fail. In particular, he wonders what set Aaron Rodgers apart from other first round QBs who flopped. He makes a guess:

What you get from these quotes and just about everything Rodgers says — in addition to steady and pleasant boredom — is a sense of someone who thinks about things constantly, even little things that few others think about. He seems to be someone who simply cannot imagine staying the same, simply cannot imagine that he’s already good enough. There are so many potential distractions at the NFL level, some of them off the field (money, fame, fan fickleness …), some on the field (dealing with pain — Rodgers has a history of concussions — standing up to a heavy rush, the inner workings of a team …). And the most successful quarterbacks, bar none, are the ones who deal with those distractions and never believe the hype and continue to hunger for even the slightest improvement.

To which I ask: how does this separate him from Billy Beane the baseball player? Beane thought about things constantly. He obsessed over every failure, trying to fix every mistake. And this sent him into a downward spiral that made him worse and worse, not better.

* * *

Another player who Posnanski’s paragraph applies to is Barry Zito. I’ve written a lot of words defending Barry Zito from his detractors over the years.

I like Zito. If not for the early Cy Young Award and that ridiculous contract, he’d be the kind of underdog people like to root for. Posnanski’s phrase “continue to hunger for even the slightest improvement”: that’s Zito. He’s a smart guy. Curious. He likes to tinker. To experiment. To find a new way to get better. He tries new pitches. He tries new pitch sequences. He tries new release points. And maybe that constant search for improvement has kept him healthy and pitching in the major leagues for a decade with the mediocre-est of fastballs.

But I’d argue that perhaps as often as it’s helped him, that personality trait has gotten him into trouble. Zito has had three pitching coaches in the majors: Rick Peterson, Curt Young, and Dave Righetti. Pitching coaches tend to live by a sort of Hippocratic Oath: if it ain’t broke, dont’ fix it. Zito doesn’t seem to believe in that. Each time there was a transition between coaches, Zito decided to take advantage of his temporary lack of parental supervision to completely change his pitching motion.

In 2004, Zito decided to try a new motion out of the stretch. He’d always wanted to do this, but Rick Peterson wouldn’t let him. When Curt Young came in as the new pitching coach, he didn’t have the relationship with Zito to say no. Zito had a 4.48 ERA for the year, his worst in an Oakland uniform. The next year, he was back to his old delivery, and his usual sub-4.00 ERAs.

In 2007, he signed a huge contract with the Giants, and showed up at spring training with a radically new delivery. Pitching coach Dave Righetti was horrified, and they settled on a compromise semi-radical new delivery. The results were just as bad as the other time he tried to overhaul his delivery: Zito’s worst year in the majors, a 4.53 ERA. (Followed the next year by an even worse 5.15 ERA.) Two years into his Giants tenure, Zito finally tinkered himself back into some decent success, with two consecutive years now of ERAs around 4.10.

* * *

Recently on Fangraphs, Jonah Keri suggested that the Yankees try to trade for Zito.

I don’t think there’s anything particularly wrong the arguments he gives, but it is, like the Moneyball story, missing the psychological element.

Psychology clearly matters in the outcome of sports careers. The question is, understand enough about sports psychology that such data points are useful in evaluating players, or is the information we have so primitive that we should discount such information altogether?

The Yankees are unique in that they also deal with the theory that there are some types of personalities who “can’t handle New York“. This theory may or may not be valid, but I’m willing to consider that it is possible.

I’m not going to come out and say that Barry Zito is another Ed Whitson. But New York media pressure or not, we do have these data points: each time Barry Zito has had a change of scenery, he used the opportunity to make a royal mess of his delivery.

I think if you’re Brian Cashman, and you’re thinking of trading for Barry Zito, you should know these data points. There is a non-zero risk that Barry Zito’s brain is going to get in the way of his performance, because it seems to have happened to him before. And there’s a non-zero risk that the New York media pressure will trigger this effect, because it seems to have happened to other players before. And to the extent you’re willing to believe those risks exist, you have to discount Barry Zito’s value.

* * *

In Billy Beane’s case, the constant striving for improvement was nothing but counterproductive. In Zito’s case, we see some mixed results. So even though it’s a different sport and a different position, I have a hard time believing that the key to Aaron Rodgers’ success is simply a matter of willpower, that same constant striving for improvement.

If I had to guess, a quarterback’s success involves spacial pattern recognition, the ability to quickly recognize types of player movement, to filter out inessential patterns and recognize significant ones, and act on them. Maybe some players filter out too much information, and others not enough. Maybe there are places in the brain that Aaron Rodgers turns on or off in better ways than the quarterbacks who failed. Those places are mostly a mystery to us now.

But they won’t be a mystery forever. A new era is dawning.

Birth of a new age.

Willpower Bias

This past weekend, I pulled out some crates so we could put away our Christmas ornaments.  My two-year-old daughter decided she wanted to pretend she was a Christmas present, and climbed into one of the crates.

“Close the lid,” she said.

I tried, but she didn’t fit.  “I can’t close it,” I said, “you’re too big.”

“Please?” she asked.

“You don’t fit,” I explained.  “Your head sticks out.  I can’t make you fit if you’re too big.”

“Please please PLEEEEEEASE?”

Two-year-olds see the world as entirely a function of their parents’ willpower. Anything that happens, or doesn’t happen, is because mommy and daddy want it that way—even whether or not a particular girl can fit into a particular box.

Of course, we get older and learn that the world is more complex than that, but that bias towards assuming the universe runs on willpower doesn’t completely go away. It’s built into our psychology, because of the very nature of human childhood.

And because it’s part of our psychology, this willpower bias also gets built into the very structures of our societies. Many of our religions believe a larger-scale version of the two-year-old’s assumption: that anything that happens is because God wants it that way. We see it in sports. We thank God if we win a sporting event, then say, “we didn’t want it enough” if we lose. We elect Presidents and Governors hoping for them to be parent-like and fix things through the force of their will. Every election cycle, we make them tell us over and over how they’re going to fix the economy, when in reality, they have very minimal influence on the economy. “Create jobs, please please PLEEEEEEASE?”

And even more insidiously, willpower bias is built into our languages. Consider these two sentences, one of the few examples where you can avoid willpower bias in the English language:

My arm was raised.


My arm rose.

Raise, like many other verbs in the English language, assumes some sort of willpower behind it, causing the action. The implicit full sentence is “My arm was raised by somebody.”

Rise, on the other hand, differs from raise in one key way: it does not assume an agent behind the action. There may have been willpower causing the arm rise, or there may not have been. But by choosing the world rise over the word raise, we are deliberately excluding any information on whether an agent caused the action. In some other languages, you can take any transitive verb and render it agentless with a grammatical marker, but this isn’t possible in English.

If you think, “so what?” then imagine how we’d think of the world if the word “rise” did not exist in English. You could not say, “The sun rises every day”. You’d have to say, “The sun is raised every day.” Which naturally leads you to wonder, by whom? Copernicus? Carl Sagan? Apollo? God?

If we are choosing a philosophy, it would be good if that philosophy possessed the equivalent of that grammatical marker which the English language is missing. We want our philosophy to be able to distinguish between the forces that can and should be influenced by willpower, those which operate independently, and the various shades in between. We want to choose a philosophy that is as effective as possible, and doesn’t leave us crying “Please please PLEEEEEEASE” in vain.

Put on my Linking Cap

I’ve got a blog post that’s about 33% written, and every time I write more, it remains 33% written, because it just keeps growing, and I can’t figure out how to break it up into smaller parts.  So in the meantime, here’s some interesting links that don’t fit into the upcoming monster essay:

Americans are flexible about religious beliefs

Bible literalists are the squeaky wheels of American religion, and so they get a lot of attention.  But a large percentage of Americans personalize their religious beliefs, mixing elements of various philosophies and religions into their own.  Knowing this makes the quest I’m undertaking on this blog seem a little less lonely, if nothing else.

Orchids and Dandelions

Context matters.  Some genes expressed in the brain that may lead to criminal behavior in an abusive environment may also lead to beneficial creative behavior in a rich, loving environment.

Aging Brains

Older brains zoom in on the higher-level main idea, and ignore low-level details.  This has its benefits, but also drawbacks.  Can we train the older brain to pay attention to detail?

Should government take “pursuit of happiness” seriously as one of its primary goals?  Money quote:

Wherever I look, some simple patterns hold: A stable marriage, good health and enough (but not too much) income are good for happiness. Unemployment, divorce and economic instability are terrible for it. On average, happier people are also healthier, with the causal arrows probably pointing in both directions. Finally, age and happiness have a consistent U-shaped relationship, with the turning point in the mid- to late-40s, when happiness begins to increase, as long as health and domestic partnerships stay sound.

Rooting Interests

Can you watch a sporting event dispassionately, without rooting for one side or another at all? I’ve tried, but I can’t do it. To some extent, I always end up picking sides. For me, it’s impossible to remain objective.

The curious thing is that I can’t help it. I don’t decide that I need to pick a team. I don’t go through some conscious, analytic process to choose a side. It just happens. Even if I try not to pick a side, I still pick a side. It’s subconscious, outside my willpower, and fully automatic.

Few of us choose our sports allegiances through some rational process. Does anyone believe that there exists some objectively “correct” team to root for? While one could probably invent some formula to calculate the “optimal” team to support, most of us would consider such a process silly and beside the point. The emotions, the pure irrationality of our fandom, is the whole point of the exercise.

On the other hand, philosophy feels different to us. We suspect that there exists, if not a single “correct” philosophy, a scale in which some philosophies are better than others. While we have no objections to letting our subconscious passions decide our rooting interests in sports, there’s a sense that when it comes to religion, politics or other types of philosophy, this same decision-making process is flawed.

And yet, can there be any doubt that for the vast, vast majority of people, the decision-making process for picking sides in both sports and philosophy is exactly the same? A large majority of us end up choosing the same religion as our parents, and the same political party. If we chose them by a purely objective process, you’d probably see a far weaker correlation between the people around us and the philosophies we choose.

Suppose we did want to choose a philosophy using some objective method. We’d need to avoid taking sides in advance, in order to avoid letting our prejudgments cloud our analysis. But when it came to sports, we found we usually can’t really help who we choose to root for. It just happens, subconsciously, automatically.

So here’s the big question: even if we want to avoid prematurely picking a philosophy to root for, can we? Is it humanly possible at all? We’ll explore that question next time.

And So To Fade Away

To produce a mighty book, you must choose a mighty theme. No great and enduring volume can ever be written on the flea, though many there be that have tried it.

— Herman Melville

This blog entry is my white whale. It has been my nemesis since the genesis of this blog. I have never been able to tame it or capture it. My goal in starting the Catfish Stew blog was not, like so many other baseball blogs, to second-guess The Management, but to express what it feels like to be an Oakland A’s fan. If I have failed as a blogger, it is because I lacked the willpower to bring myself to tell this story, to confront the core pain of my mission. Would Herman Melville have succeeded if he had tried to write his masterpiece without ever once mentioning Ahab’s peg leg, the scar that drives his obsession? If you face the Truth, it hurts you; but if you look away, it punishes you.

Load the harpoons, gentlemen, it is showdown time. Today, my adventure as a baseball blogger ends. I’m going down, and I’m taking Moby Dick with me.

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